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What The Hell Is Wrong With Japanese Games?

Categorisation in games happens on all levels from the micro to the macro, the thematic to the structural. We see it in singleplayer games (Resistance versus Combine, Marines versus Strogg),in multiplayer games (Red versus Blue) and we even see it in the distinction between the two game types.

Every time we talk about how we love RPGs but hate MMOs, we're strengthening the walls of the boxes we put things into.

Now, this isn't something exclusive to the games industry – it's a much more generic rule which governs all human interaction and the strict boundaries we want to put on our own limited imaginations. Something is always A or B or occasionally a mixture of the two - rarely, even in this industry of innovation, do we see something that can be really classified as X. Maybe we as a species just love labels, but that's not the point I'm slowly beleaguering my way towards.

"Why is it you can sometimes tell that a game was developed in Russia, France or America – and what does that mean for gamers?"

Instead, the idea I'm endeavouring to introduce is about how we categorise games geographically. I'm talking about cultural differences and the effect they can have on a game. What is the difference between an 'ordinary' RPG and a JRPG and why is it that Japanese RPGs are so influential that they've formed their very own acronym?

Why is it you can sometimes tell that a game was developed in Russia, France or America – and what does that mean for gamers?

Broaching a topic like this in such a small space means I'm immediately limited to discussing things in extremes, but to get anywhere on this issue requires more than just looking at individual games anyway. Trust me, I spent multiple drafts comparing individual titles and there's only so much to be gathered from comparing Chrono Trigger to Baldur's Gate. We need to zoom out a bit from just putting Final Fantasy in a room with Planescape: Torment and look at fundamental differences in the genres.

"Western audiences can accept magic-wielding Dungeoneers it seems, but lose faith when the majority of NPCs carry swords bigger than a schoolbus."

Scanning over the usual top RPGs of the western world indicates to me that developers and audiences favour a game where at least some form of cinematic realism is forever in the foreground. Western audiences can accept magic-wielding Dungeoneers it seems, but lose faith when NPCs carry swords bigger than a schoolbus. That 'I-swear-I'm-not-compensating-for-anything-honest' look may work for Sephiroth, but not for Minsc.

The opposite seems to be more or less true with Japanese games, where it's fine to have players fighting epic sword battles while crashing motorbikes into each other – that's far above just cinematic realism and well into pure cinema. The mainstays of Japanese games are the rarities of western development.

Here's a more specific example. At the start of Crisis Core: Final Fantasy, the main character is dropped on top of a train and ordered to neutralise enemy forces by making some fairly odd quips and charging towards machine gun-toting stormtroopers with a sword. An impossibly athletic jump here, a bullet chopped in half by a sword of eyebrow-raising proportions there and ten seconds later he's standing in the open, talking on the phone as enemies only a few feet away continually avoid hitting him.

Somehow, if that scene were in a western game I think it would go down differently - I suspect a western hero would change his sword for a gun and spend most of his time rolling from cover to cover.

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Joe Martin

Now, we can dissect this issue as deeply as we want and look at how these cultural differences can affect the entire plotline, presentation and mechanics, but I don't think we need to.

Most people know the basics: Japanese RPGs have spiky-haired teenagers in the spotlight who go on epic quests at the slightest provocation (like in every Pokemon game ever). Western RPGs prefer gruff, stubbled anti-heroes with dark histories (Baldur's Gate, Mass Effect).

Now, before we get confused, we have to admit that we can probably trace a lot of these differences back to the history of the countries in question. Keeping things as shallow as possible, we know that Japan is a country where the Samurai and Ninja are still prominent parts of the culture. The intricate and fascinating history of Japan could be a reason why Japanese games still have sword-wielding heroes even in sci-fi settings. America's cultural equivalent however is the Wild West, where gunplay and antiheroes are favoured over all else.

You see the connection that we could be drawing here?

"Why is it that Japan is known for it's RPGs and Rogue-likes, while in America Grand Theft Auto is the hottest commodity of any given year?"

Stepping away from just comparisons and cultural history for a minute, you've got to wonder what games must secretly be saying about the worlds we live in. Why is it that Japan is known for it's RPGs and Rogue-likes, while in America Grand Theft Auto is the hottest commodity of any given year?

Why is it that when I try to think of a German game, my mind immediately jumps to the idea of second-rate adventure games? In the meantime, Canada conjures images of third-person platformers about running up walls and Korea leaves me thinking of MMOs.

Answering some of these smaller questions is easy – Germany has a very strict censorship board which frankly spoils a lot of violent games and as a side-effect pushes the family-friendly adventure game genre further forward. The view of Canada is influenced by specific games like Prince of Persia and Assassin's Creed.

Some questions aren't as easily or tastefully resolved though; why do Koreans love Starcraft and free-to-play MMOs enough to die at the keyboard? Why are the Japanese such gluttons for gameplay punishment that they still have a thriving market of Rogue-likes and random-encounter filled RPGs?

I honestly have no idea, though I do know it's a very real cultural stereotype which hugely affects how games communities interact. It's maybe worth bearing that in mind next time you're browsing the shelves at your local Gamestation and questioning what games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Postal 2 say about the culture we live in. It’s easy to poke fun at the Japanese eroge community, but not so easy to turn that attitude around on ourselves.