Sunday, July 06, 2008

Creatively bankrupt Japanese game industry?

Hear! Hear!
While the video game industry seems to be particularly well efficient at catching up with the worst aspects of the stagnating Hollywood industry which is now littered with uninspired prequels, sequels, adaptations, remakes and other doodads, we could notice, earlier this year, the distant cries of some people who voiced their concerns about Japan’s video game industry getting rather dry on the imaginative front.

Which genres are we talking about? Oh yes, you could say a lot about the JRPGs, which for many of them, are actually extremely bland and meaningless, but still represent games which lots of people can play while openly falling into a drone–like state of mind.
Of course, it’s not like the great western world is devoid of such horrors. :)
After all, the Diablo series is in its essence a JRPG series without the J, but Random Levels instead. You’ve got the same mindless hacking, whacking, slashing and looting which Bizzard is fairly at ease to provide in spades in its games, past, present and future ones all accounted.

Yes, you could say that the Japanese market is saturated with mindless, crazy and almost non-games where you collect fishes, drive trains and push beetles, whatever.
Or you could say that what we get outside of Japan is what has been deemed to be good enough to be shipped overseas.

But claim that Japan is creatively bankrupt?
That’s only going to get you cited in the newspaper, at best.
While I kinda agreed with Miyazaki's rant regarding Japanese animation, voiced years ago, the picture is quite different as far as games are concerned.

You just have to compare the best of what you got from Japan and the best you got from nearly the rest of the world, to see that whoever made such a claim had an immense bias to further some agenda or whatever.
Ah, oops. It was Hideo Kojima. A paradox at hand!
Japan has always been very isolated anyway, using their own tech, their own tools. You don’t have major Japanese studios selling their next-gen engines to other studios, do you? But they’re not in that business, and we couldn’t call that creativity in the proper sense. Not in the game sense anyway.

It would be a red herring in light of what was initially postulated, which addressed the creativity within games.

If again, we look at the big titles, say the best sales worldwide, in September 2007, what could we see?
Your run of the mill sports games, racing games, FPS, RPG, plus the staples of shovelware ought to be found on the DS and the Wii, aside from a plethora (what?) of games from Nintendo.
Arguably, while you can’t spot truly creative Japanese games in that list, you can’t find any creative game from other countries or continents either.

Now, I don’t know what the kind of games you play is, but I have to say that most of those I found diverging from the usual paths of design did come from Japan. Many crazy ones came from there. The ones that make me dream more than anything else came from there.
Let’s try to pull a very small list, quickly.

Rez, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Mojib Ribbon, Okami, Phoenix Wright, Metal Gear Solid (yes, with a very singular gameplay seen in no other game thus far), Panzer Dragoon, Devil May Cry, Elebits, Katamari Damacy, Fatal Frame, LocoRoco, Patapon, Echochrome, Lumines, Killer 7 and No More Heroes, putting a good spin on used genres (but I'm not saying only Japan does it).
The likes of Guitar Hero and Rock Band are nothing more than variants of games you already found in game centres years ago in Japan (though more of them are closing now, how sad).

Besides, if your standards of novelty include the expansion of the video game market into new areas, then how could one ignore the Wii & DS Blitzkrieg exactly?
Finally, if you consider the more hardcore scenes (which still sell a lot), or the nerdier and underground stuff, the doujin scene is well alive, and old genres like shmups and beat’em ups are well supported.

Besides, as a whole, I have a lot of respect for the way Japanese treat video games. They always were ahead of the rest of the planet in how they incorporated the video gaming elements into their everyday culture. Just think about how long you actually had to wait to be able to go listen to bands playing original sound tracks live. Check out the poetry that flows through Ico.

The Japanese industry does have ups and downs, but let’s get real for a moment, the reality is not that bleak picture some are quick to paint. Those annoying alarmist claims need to be put to rest.

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