Joseph Goebbels said that if you tell a lie often enough, it becomes the truth. I don’t say this to make some comparison to the Nazis, but because it often occurs outside the realm of propaganda. There are times when bad reporting and a lack of research can cause a false belief to become a truism in the eyes of society. As a general example, I am reminded of the various reports on the epidemic of sexual “rainbow parties” among teenagers, which were based on a handful of incidents which in no way suggested that such an event is a common occurrence anywhere. Sometimes this happens due to someone wanting to push an agenda, and other times it may simply be the result of people believing something that they want to be true. Whatever the case may be, these incidents can cause quite a bit of trouble.
We may be seeing one of these incidents taking form in the games industry. Namely, the almost universally accepted notion that Japanese game developers are struggling to keep up with the quality of western output. In this case, I believe the idea came about due to a certain amount of truth. There was a period of about a year in which the vast majority of the new games I played were from US and European teams, while most of the Japanese games I played came from Atlus. Since then, however, the trend has changed. I’m playing very few western games, and there are not many future releases which have caught my eye. Meanwhile, some of the most interesting and thought provoking games I’ve gone through in the last six months are from the east. While my own experiences aren’t enough to make any sort of definitive claim, it does make me wonder if the claims of western superiority are continuing based on merit, or because it is simply gaining momentum based on the number of times people parrot it in game blogs and interviews.
Let’s take a look at a few examples. Demon’s Souls is easily my favorite game of the last year. At times both traditional and innovative, Demon’s Souls works by combining ideas and rules from a variety of different flavors of RPGs, but never clings to any one in particular. It uses what it needs, and ignores everything it doesn’t. There’s never an instance in Demon’s Souls where you ask yourself “why do I have to do this,” and the answer is “because that’s just how things work.” Even the online component takes this approach, by allowing for seamless cooperative and PvP play that never gets in the way of the single player quest. In one fell swoop, it makes Final Fantasy, Oblivion, and World of Warcraft look plain silly.
Another great game is Monster Hunter Tri for Wii. Monster Hunter may not be a new franchise, and Tri isn’t the first time we’ve seen it in the west, but it is the first time that many of us have been exposed to it, and its newbie friendly approach makes it easy to see why it became a smash hit on its home turf. Like Demon’s Souls, Monster Hunter doesn’t look very special on the surface. It would be easy to assume that it it’s a lazy mixture of Pokemon and World of Warcraft. Monster Hunter does indeed combine the “gotta catch ’em all” attitude of Pokemon with the online component that makes WoW so addictive, but it plays in a way that is like neither. Individual quests can be long and involved, and many involve non-combat activities. Said activities often include gathering resources for crafting, but sometimes they’re necessary in order to complete other quests. If you need to catch a fish, for example, you might not be able to just buy the right bait at the store. Additionally, certain resource farming can be automated through a literal farm that generates low level items for you while you move on to more important tasks. Monster Hunter is also dynamic in a way that allows a single hunting ground to behave differently depending on what quest you are on. Unlike Pokemon, finding a certain beast isn’t a matter of running around in a certain patch of grass for ten minutes, and unlike WoW, a quest to “kill 5 monsters” can take upwards of half an hour. Again like Demon’s Souls, it takes familiar concepts, and changes both the rules and the pacing to make something that genuinely feels akin to being a hunter. It also removes the treadmill effect that drives people to tend to their WoW characters constantly. There are options for solo and online play, and you can use them as you see fit. There’s never a feeling that you’re somehow “behind” the rest of the community.
And that’s just two games. I haven’t said anything about Bayonetta, which is an imperfect but clever evolution of the concepts found in Devil May Cry. Then there’s Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, which upgrades the series’ old school concepts for a modern portable system. Super Street Fighter 4 continues to infuse life into the fighting game genre, and Deadly Premonition charms and amazes.
I don’t bring these examples up because I think they’re merely the best Japan has to offer. I believe that quite a few of them are among the best games out period. And I understand why they haven’t done a thing to buck the notion that the west is where it’s at. It’s the same argument that, sadly, I continue to find myself harping upon: game blogs read like tabloid, but gamers regard their word as if they were the New York Times. It isn’t journalism in the traditional sense, reporting the story no matter what the truth says. Nor is it entirely enthusiast journalism, in which the small and obscure wonders of the hobby are covered with glee. It is instead more like entertainment news and celebrity gossip. Game publications exist to support and cheerlead for the industry they cover. They don’t cover what gamers are interested in, but rather determine what it is they believe we should get excited for. There’s also an element of self promotion, sometimes at the expense of others, which is only exacerbated by the narcissistic nature of Internet culture.
These are the reasons why something like Strange Journey will never see heavy coverage; it just isn’t big enough of a sales force or a media event. Monster Hunter only gets coverage because it is too big in Japan for anyone to ignore it entirely, but you can tell that it is often covered more out of an obligation than anything. You can point to a number of articles and posts about Demon’s Souls, and I will point to the same number of article and posts that exist mainly so the writer can pat themselves on the back for beating such a “hard” game. It is why, outside of Destructoid, you aren’t going to see anyone claiming that Deadly Premonition is a better game than Heavy Rain. No one who has invested so much time and energy into covering a multi-million dollar project is going to turn around and say it failed, and no one is going to turn down an interview with David Cage even though everything that comes out of his mouth is bullshit. If it seems that games journalism is taking an angle on a game that is completely contrary to everything you see in the game itself, that’s because they already established the tone of conversation before that game came out, and no one will be pleased if they turn around and destroy all that work (not even gamers, who are already invested in the titles that they were told to be excited for). All of these games can do good things for the industry, but as far as real coverage is concerned, they’re practically invisible. Imagine if all the words spent writing about Bayonetta the character were spent discussing how her game addresses Hideki Kamiya’s very specific brand of action games. Meanwhile, we have AAA games like Resident Evil 5, wherein Japanese developers try and fail at replicating western design philosophy, which are thrown into the spotlight and add more fuel to the “Japan is struggling” fire. We are looking at the industry’s output with blinders on.
Those blinders also happen to work in reverse. At the peak of my western game heavy phase, Modern Warfare 1 made sweeping improvements to FPS storytelling and multiplayer. At the start of my current, Japanese game heavy phase, Modern Warfare 2 came out and screwed up everything its predecessor achieved. Splinter Cell Conviction was reformulated into a game that lives and dies by a handful of stupid new gimmicks, and was presented to us not as something different from it’s predecessors, but better as well. I’m also curious to see whether the upcoming Gears of War 3 will spawn a trendy interest in bearded characters, after Conviction was slammed for trying to give Sam Fisher some serious facial hair. What’s the difference? It doesn’t matter, since by then, everyone will have forgotten about Splinter Cell.
Over the last few years, western developers finally got comfortable working with hi definition consoles. They managed to find ways to take old concepts and breathe new life into them. They weren’t reinventing the wheel, but they were making it ride much more smoothly. For some reason, they eventually decided to stop doing this. It seems that every high profile game is a matter of finding some new gimmick or throwaway concept and using it to convince people that they have created something that lasts, or that it makes the experience different from what it was before. If I were to use a football analogy, it is like a team that won a championship by focusing on fundamentals, only to miss the playoffs the next year because they tried to cram the Wildcat formation into a system that wasn’t compatible with it. At the same time, I see many Japanese teams finding themselves where their western counterparts were a few years ago, making better games by improving on fundamentals and throwing out crusty old concepts that were being propped up only by tradition.
Unfortunately, whereas much of the old progress in western games were found in the biggest releases, the best eastern content is being found on smaller releases and portable consoles, making buzz nigh impossible to generate. Meanwhile, the big budget powerhouses continue to limp along and ape the new western gimmicks, in turn giving everyone the wrong impression about what is really going on. I consider a game like Final Fantasy 13 to be a tragedy. Here is a high profile company admitting that they have no idea what the fuck they are doing, and in their attempt to reconfigure themselves, they are led astray by a desperate desire to compete with cRPGs. Someone at Bioware says that FF13 is “not an RPG”, and everyone points and laughs and nods their head. But I find it a bit hypocritical for someone to poke fun at a game that’s at least trying to figure its shit out, while his own company has recycled the same game formula since Neverwinter Nights.
The truth of gaming today is that there is a ton of great games, a ton of crap, and everyone is suffering from the same weaknesses. The press can push whatever ideas they please, but it doesn’t take more than a visit to Amazon to see that they’re out of their mind.