Japanimosity

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I've been playing computer and video games for ages, but I never owned a console other than the XBox. So in all that time, I managed to bypass most of the Japanese game phenomenon. And make no mistake, games produced in Japan are an entirely different animal from their American counterparts. U.S. games go directly for the gameplay and the Hollywood visuals. As befits a culture that put a name to a previously unknown fifth taste (umami), Japanese games careen madly in directions you never thought existed. They appeal to a sensibility that is completely alien to me. The demo for Beautiful Katamari, with its incongruous dream-wizard and rainbow text, was like being led by a small child's hand into a mysterious village whose society was based on some fundamental principle or value beyond my ken.

One thing, however, is abundantly clear-- the Japanese have far more patience than I do. When I pick up a game, I want to play. Judging from two Japanese titles I've played recently-- Zack and Wiki: The Legend of Barbados' Treasure on the Wii and Blue Dragon on the 360-- the Japanese like to be told a story. A very long, slow-moving story. Skipping the story and moving on to the game would apparently be an insult to the artists who crafted the story, and is therefore not allowed. This is the best I can figure, because both games feature an interminable and mandatory introductory sequence. Both attempt to break them up a bit with fleeting tastes of interactivity, as if holding a glistening slice of cake in front of your mouth and then, Lucy to your Charlie Brown, tauntingly yanking it away in the moment you attempt to bite.

Both games are fun once you actually reach the gameplay, if you haven't lost interest before getting there. Zack and Wiki takes a full 15 minutes to bring you to the main gameplay screen. Want to show the game to a friend? If you start from the beginning, you'll have to sit through that 15 minutes all over again. No skip for you! Blue Dragon's intro is more cinematic and pretty, and also more interactive, but yegads can those kids talk! It's like the Japanese enjoy lines and lines of meaningless dialogue. Blue Dragon is an RPG, so at least it has an excuse-- the story is part of the point. But Big Brain Academy? When I finish a game, do I really need to endure screen after screen of pre-canned platitudes before getting to my score? Are the Japanese so starved for positive reinforcement that they need to get it from an algorithm?

I'm led to believe that this talky, cutesy-for-no-reason, we-interrupt-your-game-to-bring-you-a-few-screens-of-gobbledygook school of game design is quintessentially Japanese, and I'm at a loss to understand how an entire civilization's taste can be so different from mine. Ok, I can understand the cute. I've watched enough Star Blazers and Battle of the Planets in my day to be down with the doe-eyed, all-the-adults-look-like-they're-twelve aesthetic, and cute probably skews broader than gritty and real. And in the end, that's art direction. But the rest just feels like bad game design to me. It's a wedge between the player and the gameplay. Is this, like vegemite, something you have to grow up with to appreciate? Or do the Japanese just have a longer attention span than we do, and less desire for instant gratification?

1 Comment

Well, just look at how the USA and the rest of the world treat football (aka soccer). We're a nation of spoiled brats that demand instant gratification (and sometimes even THAT takes too long).

Personally, so far, I've enjoyed the narrative aspect of Japanese games (although the last time I created a new character on Animal Crossing, I started to develop a small twitch in my cheek).

Not all of 'em do that, though... what about the Naruto games? (Disclaimer: I haven't played them, just watched countless teens do so.) And the Oendan games (on DS) are pretty quick with their storytelling (Elite Beat Agents). Phoenix Wright does have a lot of plot, but that's the point of the game... you HAVE to pay attention (another DS game, sort of a cross between Oendan and Encyclopedia Brown).

We just got the Zack & Wiki game, and so far it seemed pretty good... that felt too slow for you, hmm? What did you think of the first Prince of Persia game? That seemed to have about the same ratio of storytelling-to-gameplay (I might be misremembering, though... it was a while back). Lots of storytelling in the Myst games, too.

But yes, in general, I think you are probably a great example of a Typical American Game Player, and you've nailed the reason why plot-driven games don't do so well here.

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