As regular readers will know, my time with USgamer as a regular staffer is, regrettably, shortly coming to an end. As such, I thought it would be an ideal time to wrap up my weekly thoughts on Japanese games with a summative look at why, these days, I tend to play them in preference to anything else.
Ponder with me a moment, dear reader: what are the most common complaints about "modern games," as amorphous a concept as that might be?
When people complain about modern games and their increasingly identikit nature, what they're usually actually complaining about is the Western triple-A field. And, for sure, that's a massive market, with a astronomical amounts of money moving through it on a yearly basis. It's also by far the most visible part of the games industry as a whole, thanks to a combination of factors: high-profile PR and marketing events; extensive (some might say disproportionately so) coverage from the games press; and, of course, the sheer number of people who are buying and playing these games. As such, it's easy to see how and why people get frustrated with "videogames" in 2014.
But, as many of you reading this know, the situation is far from that simple. Over the past few years, the games business as a whole has been broadening considerably, much like other forms of popular media, and the big-budget triple-A sector is far from the only place to have great experiences. The growth of the indie market in particular has been astonishing to see, leading some to ponder whether or not there's a bubble waiting to burst.
Japan, meanwhile, has been quietly ticking away in the background, relegated to almost irrelevance as far as the more mainstream parts of the industry are concerned. Once a dominant force in interactive entertainment -- a huge proportion of games in the 8-, 16- and 32-bit console eras in particular were Japanese in origin -- the Japanese games industry is now regarded as niche interest at best; a bizarre, irrelevant curiosity at worst.
And you know what? That's really sad. Because, for me -- one of those people who often feels frustrated at the excesses of triple-A and the soulless feeling of some big-budget games put together by huge teams -- Japanese titles provide everything I want from interactive entertainment. Perhaps more notably, they address a significant number of criticisms that people have about modern, Western, triple-A games, and yet this aspect in particular is something that regularly goes unexplored.
Let's firstly ponder the question of gender for a moment. Western games regularly come under fire for their lack of female protagonists -- or, more accurately, the strong emphasis on white, stubbly, 20-30 year old male protagonists with a gun. When women are involved in Western games, even as protagonists, their depiction is often criticized for still putting men in positions of power -- for their character being defined by the abuses and indignities they suffered at the hands of men. The "Strong Female Protagonist" trope, then, beloved of Joss Whedon fans, is starting to be seen as something of a negative thing, because for many critics, in order for this trope to exist, it implies that something bad has happened to the female character in question in order for them to gain that "strength" -- and that bad thing, more often than not, is the work of a man.
There's one thing missing from articles like the Leigh Alexander piece I linked to above, though: any consideration of Japanese games whatsoever. Now, I'll grant to you that a significant number of Japanese titles are designed with a certain amount of "male gaze" in mind (and thus may not immediately appear at first glance to be the best place to look for good depictions of female characters), but to never look past this fact -- as many people, even professional critics, sadly don't -- is to miss out on the depiction of some of the most interesting, well-realized female characters in all of the business. Crucially, these are, in many cases, female characters who are not defined in any way by their past interactions with men and, instead, are people in their own right who come to grow and change over the course of their personal stories told in their games.
Take the recently released Atelier Rorona Plus, for example. Here's a game that features a female protagonist that grows and changes over the course of her adventures. Beginning as a somewhat shy, awkward young girl, her repeated successes and growing skill level -- assuming you, the player, do your job properly in directing her -- help forge her into a much more confident young woman. She's still recognizably the somewhat ditzy character we're introduced to early in the game, but alongside that personality trait is a quiet confidence in her own abilities, and the fact that the people around her start to truly believe in and respect her, too. Pretty admirable stuff, I'd say.
And the Atelier series -- historically something of a trailblazer in its use of female protagonists for most of its installments since its inception in the PS1 era -- is far from the only example of recent Japanese games involving strong female leads. One of my favorite Japanese series, Compile Heart's Hyperdimension Neptunia, features an all-female cast and strong yuri undertones; Tamsoft's Senran Kagura Burst features an all-female cast explored in great depth through lengthy visual novel sequences; Nippon Ichi's The Witch and the Hundred Knight involves an unusual, tragically flawed and genuinely intriguing protagonist; even the much-maligned-but-actually-not-all-that-bad Time and Eternity features a pair of female leads who are distinct from one another, and who both have their own unique way of not taking any crap from the male lead, depicted as something of a bumbling idiot who doesn't quite know when to stop talking, even when his foot becomes wedged firmly in his mouth.
And all this isn't even touching on the even more niche markets of Japanese doujin games and visual novels, both of which also have a good track record of involving female protagonists in many cases. But let's not get hung up too much on the question of gender, because this is just one of many different criticisms that are regularly levelled at "videogames" as a whole, and which Japanese games often do a surprising amount to address. Let us instead turn our attention to the matter of aesthetics: specifically, the stereotypical triple-A focus on drab colours such as browns, greens and dark blues.
There's nothing inherently wrong with choosing to adopt a dark atmosphere, of course, but when game after game comes out with a grizzly-voiced protagonist who says "fuck" a lot, a limited "realistic" color pallette and the inevitable sequence in which you have the opportunity to either peep in on or participate in a sex scene, I find it a little exhausting, and it's not surprising that some people are becoming jaded. Take the recent Thief reboot, for example; the original Thief games are some of the most beloved titles in the PC gaming canon, but the new reboot suffered from its desire to be accessible to newcomers -- although there were a lot of nice little interface and gameplay tweaks to please longstanding Thief fans, the overall atmosphere of the thing just felt... off. It felt overly generic; it didn't feel Thief, in other words. It became, for a while, a symbol of how triple-A was fundamentally misunderstanding the appeal elements of classic franchises.
Now contrast the grimdark aesthetic of many modern Western games with the colorful nature of many Japanese titles. And I'm not just talking about the moe end of the spectrum here -- though that particular style's smooth, candy-colored lines are perhaps the most striking contrast to the West's obsession with bleak photorealism. No, I'm also talking about things like Nintendo's games -- vibrant, primary-colored titles that exude joy and energy from every pore -- and even titles like Monolithsoft's Xenoblade Chronicles and Square Enix's MMO Final Fantasy XIV, which adopt a distinctly Western-style game structure with their open-world nature, but which aren't afraid to feature colorful environments that feel rich with life. These games are the absolute antithesis to the increasingly generic appearance of modern shooters and open-world games; they're worlds that it is a pleasure to be a part of, and ones that you miss when you're not in them. Or at least, I do.
(Aside: This isn't to say Japan can't do grimdark, mind you, as From Software's Souls series will happily attest. The difference between Dark Souls' take on a dark aesthetic and many modern Western interpretations is that From Software is happy to be understated about what's going on, with much of the Souls games' plots being left up to the player's own interpretation. Contrast with the increasingly angsty, self-consciously edgy nature of a lot of modern Western games -- Watch Dogs being the most recent example -- and the difference in approach becomes apparent.)
The same is true of gameplay, too. While many Western games are criticized for adopting the same old game mechanics -- multiplayer shooters with XP-driven progression to encourage player retention; open-world games with so many things to do in them the main story becomes almost irrelevant; modular games designed to extract as much money from you as possible through DLC or microtransactions -- an awful lot of modern Japanese games offer new twists on established formulae.
Take the games I've previously mentioned in this piece as just a few examples: Atelier Rorona is a much more "personal" take on the RPG genre, focusing on one character's life in a small town rather than epic, world-spanning adventures; the Neptunia games all feature a non-linear metagame structure whereby through completing quests and fulfilling various other conditions you can manipulate the "shares" each of the main characters has in the world -- and consequently their power level; The Witch and the Hundred Knight provides an interesting spin on the loot-whoring action RPG with its strong focus on using the right weapons for the right situations; Time and Eternity had a strange but oddly enjoyable Punch-Out!!-style combat system; the Souls series is an RPG with minimalist storytelling and a combat system in which your own skill as a player rather than your stats determines how successful you'll be. All have just enough in the way of recognizable aspects to make them identifiable as -- well, all as RPGs in this case -- but different enough from the norm to feel fresh and original.
All of these things combined, then? That's why I love Japanese games. It's not that I particularly hate Western games -- nor am I attempting to suggest that they're all the same, since there are plenty of creative Western titles out there alongside the more risk-averse examples -- but the things that I find myself disliking about them more and more as days go on are the things that are specifically addressed in the Japanese games I've played over the last few years. In the case of Atelier Rorona Plus, which I reviewed this week, I found one thought continually entering my head time and time again while I played: "This is the exact opposite of everything that annoys me about modern games."
If you're one of those people who has found yourself increasingly disillusioned by modern games and you've never yet taken a step into the wide and wonderful world of Japanese games, I'd recommend you do so -- if only for a brief look. You might just find yourself not wanting to come back. I know I certainly don't.
And that, dear friends, brings my time penning this column to a close. I'd like to thank regular readers for their support of my Japanese gaming coverage here on USgamer. It's a relatively small niche of the industry compared to other aspects, sure, but it's one that goes overlooked, under-represented and sometimes even mis-represented by many outlets in the games press as a whole. I felt it important to provide some interesting food for thought for those interested in Japanese games in general -- or those who were perhaps just interested or curious on the subject -- and I hope I've done that over the course of at least a few installments in this column.
While this is the end of my time writing JPgamer -- and shortly the end of my time here at USgamer as a staffer -- this isn't the end of me writing about Japanese games. There may be occasional contributions from me here on USgamer, and in the meantime you can read my enthusings about Japanese games as part of my side project, which I'll be updating more regularly from next month onwards.
Thanks again for your support, and for the last time, sayounara!