Wednesday, August 6, 2014

On the Differences Between Japanese and Western RPGs

Gamers have often held the view that Japanese and Western--e.g. American--role-playing games tend to differ significantly in style. (Indeed, the Wikipedia article on role-playing video games devotes a significant amount of space to the subject.)

Setting aside the aesthetic differences (character design and the like), the conventional view seems to hold that Japanese games emphasize story and character and accessible gameplay, while American games stress more complex gaming. Accordingly Japanese games will give us well-defined characters pursuing linear quests, while American games will gives us minutely customizable characters free to roam sandbox worlds at will. The Japanese game is more likely to offer turn-based play than its American counterpart. And so on.

One can, of course, push the generalization too far. These are, after all, tendencies. Exceptions have always existed, and the line has long since been blurred by the cross-fertilization and outright imitation of past decades. Still, the generalization has some value, obvious in a comparison of, for instance, the Dragon Quest (aka Dragon Warrior) and Elder Scroll franchises, and the responses they have elicited in North America.

Interestingly, few seem to have tried to offer an explanation for the difference. But it has occurred to me that one factor may be the personal backgrounds of the pioneers of Japanese and American gaming. Where the latter just about all seem to have been computer scientists, many of the Japanese pioneers, like Hideo Kojima and Shigeru Miyamoto, came to the industry from fields outside computing, and often from the arts. (Kojima was interesting in writing and film, while Miyamoto had a degree in industrial design.)

It does not seem improbable that this subjected the cultures of these industries to differing influences, with the artists looking to draw players into a compelling story, while the engineers esteem technical intricacy and "features."

Considering the possibility I remember the old story about the first commercially sold video game, 1971's Computer Space, the modest sales of which were attributed to its complexity--co-creator Nolan Bushnell saying that in hindsight that whereas all his engineer friends "loved it," the game was "a little too complicated for the guy with the beer in the bar." Obviously American video gaming has since gone on to popular success, but the engineers still seem to prevail over the artists to a degree not seen across the Pacific--with implications not just for the RPG, but the visual novel genre (much more prominent in Japan than in the West), and the fact that it was Japan's Nintendo, and not an American company, which offered up the user-friendly Wii.

What do you think?

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