Wednesday, October 31, 2012

#45: Gaming Journalism and Journalistic Integrity: The Charge of Corruption

In the past, I have had certain critiques of the machine that fuels game reviews. While many people out there think of game reviews as simple buyer's advice, I called on major game review outlets to do more in the way of critical analysis of the games that they review. That is an opinion that can be up for debate, but it is not the subject of this piece. Recently, a series of events have occurred that shine the spotlight once again on the game review industry. On the 16 October 2012, an interview with industry veteran Geoff Keighly, executive producer of Game Trailers TV and the Spike TV Video Game Awards, was published on the YouTube channel “Shifted2u.” For the duration of the interview, Mr. Keighly was shown sitting with a bag of Doritos and several 2-liter bottles of Mountain Dew to his left, and a display stand of Master Chief, promoting Halo 4 and sponsored by Doritos and Mountain Dew, to his right. A particular image from this interview, one the pictured Keighley in a particularly lifeless state, spread rapidly on the internet.

Later that month, on 24 October 2012, writer Robert Florence published an article (Note: This is a reprinting of the original article, not the copy on Eurogamer's site for reasons that will be detailed shortly.) on, posting the image along with a scathing critique of game reviewers and their relationship with the PR representatives of many large game publishers. In this article, he mentioned that during the Game Media Awards, many notable game journalists were seen taking part in a publicity stunt in which a certain publisher was giving away six Playstation 3 consoles to six lucky game journalists out of all of the ones who tweeted their excitement for their upcoming game, using a particular hash tag. (To avoid giving that particular company further publicity for this stunt, I have elected to avoid mentioning their name directly. If you are curious, you may wish to look this incident up for yourself.) In this write-up, he quoted the twitter responses that some journalists made regarding the backlash they received from these tweets. One quote, from game journalist Lauren Wainwright, in particular reads: Urm… [redacted] were giving away PS3s to journalists at the GMAs. Not sure why that's a bad thing?” Because of the use of said statements in the article, Intent Media, a firm that Ms. Wainwright works for, allegedly threatened to file a lawsuit against Eurogamer claiming libelous use of her words. Due to the resulting pressure, Eurogamer had no choice but to release Mr. Florence from his employment with the company. Furthermore, they had to edit the article, removing the quotes used. The revised version remains on Eurogamer's site for all to see.

The combined weight of these incidents has rekindled charges that the gaming press is corrupt and “bought” by the major publishers of the industry. After looking at all that has happened recently, I can understand why people would say that. It is even easier to see how something like this might happen. Game journalists and PR representatives both have a passion for the games on display and love to talk about games. Furthermore, PR representatives need to find a way to release the information they want to be released to the audience for their products and game journalists want information to release to their audience, which is, of course, the exact same audience publishers wish to give information to. Since these two sides have similar goals, interests, and audiences, it is no surprise that there is something of a symbiosis between them. They rely on each other in order to be successful at their jobs. This, unfortunately, makes it easy to lose sight of one's responsibilities. When game journalists start to think of the people they get press releases and information from as friends, things start to go awry. This can easily cloud their judgment when writing reviews and previews, discussing the games in their queue, and even when contests and special events are run. I do not mean to imply that these relationships between PR and journalists are necessarily bad things. However, they must be kept in check by both parties, else people may (as has already been demonstrated) begin to question the validity of the whole process. Both sides of the relationship need to be vigilant that friendship does not cross into professional responsibilities. Most likely easier said than done, but it is necessary if journalists want to maintain their legitimacy.

Another factor in contributing to this air of corruption is the fact that game journalists are essentially just fans of the games. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does help contribute to all of this nonsense that we are seeing. Very few personalities in gaming journalism actually have training and/or education in Communications or Journalism. Most are just people who began to write about video games, either on small start up sites or just for fun in their spare time, and rose to their positions through meeting people, generating a solid fanbase, and/or sheer tenacity. The one thing they all have in common is a passion and fandom for video games and the medium as a whole. Just as with their relationship with PR, this can cloud their judgment when not kept in check. With the advent of blogging and other means of releasing opinions for the world to see, it is even more important to do so. If people find that a reviewer's fandom is clouding their better judgment and leaving them susceptible to corruption, then their audience can easily move to one of the thousands of other competing outlets and ignore them entirely.

I am not a gaming journalist: All I am is a lowly blogger, in a sea of lowly bloggers, with a passion for the industry. I will not make the claim that the gaming press as a whole is corrupt. I follow many of them on Twitter and have even had very interesting conversations with a few of them. However, what we have all seen in recent times is indicative of a problem. There are indeed some people in the gaming press that do not understand the need to stay on the high and narrow and not fall victim to many of the tactics that PR use to spread information. Clearly, some do not realize how much value can be lost to unprofessional conduct and behavior. Regardless of whether or not there is actual corruption in the gaming press (and, let us be honest, there definitely are very sketchy, at best, news outlets in the industry), there is, at the very least an appearance of corruption, which is a very big issue in and of itself. If even a select few make the press look disingenuous and corrupt, then that has severe negative repercussions on the whole industry and how people think of it. It is vital that the press clean up their act and begin to look more like professional journalists. This does not mean that they need to stop being silly, making jokes, or enjoying their jobs, but it does mean that they need to maintain a level of transparency with their readers/viewers. As one Escapist Magazine News Team Staff Member, Jonathan Grey Carter, said, “Taking your job seriously does not equal taking yourself seriously.” With regards to gaming journalists themselves, he added that “You are not an important person, you write about toys for a living. Perspective always helps.” While I like to think of games as slightly higher on the totem pole than “toys,” the point is still valid. Journalists can maintain transparency and a sense of integrity while still being passionate gamers that care for the industry. All it takes is a little bit of thinking before taking part in certain contests or giveaways and an acknowledgment of mistakes when they happen. This is not a call to get rid of the advertising money that major publishers spend on the gaming press. Let us be honest, the press is a business and the money needs to come from somewhere. It is simply a word of caution. To the gaming press, please be a little more careful and understand that when we raise issues with things you do, it is because we want you to do better and we believe that you can. Like many of you do to the games themselves, we criticize because we care.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

#44: Standing By Your Work: Why Video Game Development Takes Guts

It cannot be disputed that gaming has grown to become a legitimate form of expression and speech. Over the years, it has acquired a legitimacy previously in dispute and constantly vied for by developers and publishers. Now that the Supreme Court of the United States has rendered its ruling on the matter and sided with us, the gamers, this is no longer a matter up for debate. Despite the fact that we have reached this point, it seems that developers can still be susceptible to the pressures and influences of the media and major news outlets. It is not the norm for developers, but it does happen often enough and gamers can get caught in the crossfire when it does. This week's article is dedicated to these instances and what is wrong with them. Instead of my usual format where I make a sweeping general statement and then support it with facts, I will do things in reverse. I will outline three different cases and then tie them together with my point in the end. Now, without further ado:

The first case will be talking about was somewhat controversial when it was announced: Six Days in Fallujah. Many of you many have heard of this game, developed by Atomic Games, a company that specializes in war games like the Close Combat and World At War series. The story behind the creation of this game is a very interesting one. One of the many divisions of Atomic Games was contracted to create a set of training tools of the Marine Corp of the United States. In order to do this, Marines from the Third Battalion, First Marines were assigned to them. In the midst of development, these Marines were deployed to the Battle of Fallujah. After returning to continue development, the Marines themselves requested that the developers make a game about their experiences during this conflict. From that request was born the desire to make a realistic and true-to-form tale of what the soldiers go through, based on actual testimony and experiences from returning US Marines, Military Officials, and other experts of combat in the modern age. While actual gameplay footage of Six Days of Fallujah, at least the footage I found, reveals very little about the game itself, Atomic describes it almost as survival horror game. Players were to assume the role of a company of soldiers in the Battle of Fallujah, going through the mission in a way that actual soldiers would go about it. This would entail constantly being on edge and being unable to predict what could come at the player next. The player would have gone up against tactics used by enemy insurgents and combatants in real world conflicts. It was to depict the physical and psychological toll that war takes on the people involved, similar in a sense to the more recent Spec Ops: The Line, although with an even stronger grounding in reality. This game was originally going to be published by Konami. However, on April 27, 2009, they backed down from the project when faced with pressure from media in the US. The outcry came mostly from the parents of soldiers who lost their lives in the conflict speaking out against it for fear that they would not treat the subject with respect. Because of all of this, the developer was left to fend for itself. Though the game has long since been finished, Atomic has yet to find someone willing to publish it. To this day, they have been reduced to a minimal crew of few people and are still trying to find someone to help them bring the game to the public.

Our next case was much luckier than Atomic, but it is still a very telling one. We are going to talk about the reemergence of the Medal of Honor series, now published by EA and developed by Danger Close Games. Before the days of Call of Duty's dominance, in the time of World War 2 shooters, Medal of Honor was one of the top dogs in the FPS genre. When it was going to be reawakened in 2010, people were naturally curious about the subject. However, one design decision in particular caused controversy. In the game's multiplayer mode, instead of making one side a generic, nameless terrorist organization, the game was going to mirror real life warfare by making them the Taliban. The problem arose from the fact that this meant that many players would inevitably play as the Taliban's forces against representations of soldiers from the United States and its allies. Faced with pressure from different groups, and with US military officials banning the sale of the game on their bases, Danger Close and EA folded, changing the name of the terrorist group in the game to the OpFor (Opposing Forces). Though the game did reasonably well, it was far from one of the top sellers. With the exception of the controversy surrounding it, there was nothing noteworthy about it and it quickly faded into obscurity until the sequel emerged.

This last case study differs greatly from the first two. Not only is this one not, strictly speaking, a war game, but it also did very well in many aspects. Nonetheless, it will follow the themes laid out in this article and needs to be discussed. One of my favorite games to discuss and criticize, this one will be an old hat to returning readers of my series: Mass Effect 3, published by EA and developed by Bioware. Now, given the circumstances behind the last two cases, I think all of you can guess what I will be discussing here. When Mass Effect 3 was released to the public earlier this year, it was highly praised for the most part. People were enjoying the final chapter of the franchise. Then, all of us reached the ending of the game. This caused people to... react... negatively. Rather than defend their work with logical, well thought out arguments, Bioware initially decided to hide behind the veil of something as obscure and meaningless as “artistic integrity.” Later on, they recanted their previous statements and released the Extended Cut version of the ending. This was not a change to the ending, but rather a revision of it. While this revision is generally a good one, combined with the response from Bioware to the response of the original ending, it called the developer's practices into question. After the issues people had with Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2, along with the Day 1, On-Disc DLC of Mass Effect 3, Bioware was on thin ice. The way they handled the ending of the franchise proper was not helping to smooth this over.

So what do these all have in common and what is this building up to? Well, it is pretty simple. While cases like these three are fairly rare, they do and will probably continue to happen, meaning they need to be called out now so that developers and publishers can learn from them. All of these games had controversy surrounding them and the developer and/or the publisher was responsible for mismanaging the controversy and doing for harm to the product and brand than they needed to. In the case of Six Days of Fallujah, Konami failed to address the naysayers and instead opted to sever ties with Atomic. They could have easily decided to stand by the game and addressed the critiques of the project. Going in, Konami had to have known that this kind of reaction was possible, they are not stupid. It would have been necessary to make a plan to address this. Since the developers seemed to have known what they were doing, it would have been easy. Spec Ops: The Line later proved that games can and should address the subject of war from an pessimistic and cynical point of view as opposed to the military bravado expressed in games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. They did not support the statement this game would have made and decided to abandon it, washing their hands of the whole affair.

In the case of Medal of Honor, gamers stood up for EA and Danger Close. We as a whole felt that it was okay for them to make the move to have the Taliban as part of the multiplayer mode. When they decided to cave into the pressure and change the Taliban to the OpFor, they lost any support that they had. Once they no longer stood behind their product and their decisions, gamers could no longer do so either. They had felt betrayed that they had stood up for EA and were then left in the dust. This brought negative attention and spite to the Medal of Honor brand that it could never truly recover from, even if the game itself was not as mediocre as it was. The US Military still refused to stock the game in stores on their bases well after the developers made the change, meaning that it was for naught. All that Medal of Honor left it its wake was bitterness, and its okay sales reflected that.

As for Mass Effect 3, like I said, Bioware initially did their best to respond to the criticisms and stand behind the ending they created. However, instead of using logical and sound arguments to support the ending like the themes it was supposed to represent, the obvious lack of resources and time, etc., they chose to use “artistic integrity,” a useless phrase that has no meaning. Then, they released the Extended Cut as a way to “clarify” the ending, changing a few scenes and ret-conning the destruction of the Mass Relays. Neither one of these reactions was good and both brought the wrong kind of press to Bioware's doors. By hiding behind “integrity,” Bioware opened itself to many criticisms and made itself look pretty weak all things considered. And then when they released the Extended Cut, they sent out another subtle message to their fans. By changing the ending, they show, perhaps unknowingly, that they did not fully endorse the product they were sending out initially. If this was indeed the case, then it should have never been released in the state it was in. Just like with the case of Medal of Honor, if Bioware cannot support the game they release, then how can they expect fans to do the same. One of two reactions could have helped to mitigate the damage. Bioware could have fervently and forcefully stood behind their ending. While, as a detractor of the ending, I would not have liked that reaction, I would have understood it, accepted it, and finally moved on after awhile had they supported it enough. The other possible reaction was to simply admit that they made a mistake. Telling the public that they took a risk and it did not pan out is not the most pleasant thing to do, but it would have reduced tensions. Gamers knew something was wrong with Mass Effect 3, they are not stupid. Saying that would lay many fears to rest, since the imagination can often times can be worse than the real thing.

The underlying moral behind all of these issues is that people involved were not willing to stand behind the work they did and caved in to pressure. In all of these cases, doing so led to a generally weaker position for each of these projects and negatively impacted them in some way. Let us all be honest here, making games is not a science: It is very much a creative endeavor. As such, it important to have courage when developing games. In much plainer language, if developers and publishers do not have the guts to stand behind what they make, then they have no business being in this industry and need to remove themselves before they grow bankrupt. Making safe bets and following the leader will not work here. It takes ambition, creativity, passion, and guts. Bowing to pressure is the biggest indicator that companies do not belong in the industry. This is something I feel strongly about, and I would hope you all do too.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

#43: Complexity is the Enemy: Why Video Games Benefit From Simplicity

It is no secret that video games have been in a constant state of evolution. Unlike books, movies, and music, our medium is still very much a young one. We are constantly pushing the limits of what interactivity with media can do. As gaming continues to push and grow, it has begun to demonstrate a very clear trend in recent years. Rather than strive complex, intricate systems that require a lot of patience and skill to master, most games have opted for simpler, easier to pick up and play systems. Many people lament this change. They feel that games are being “dumbed down” and think of it as a worsening of the medium as a whole. I disagree with this assessment. I believe that simplification is a good thing for our industry. In this week's post, I will explain my reasoning.

The primary reason simplifying games is a good thing is that it leads to a bigger audience for them. Before you moan about all the “f***ing casuals” or “'hardcore' Call of Duty players,” please take a moment to listen to my point. Bigger audiences allow developers to do more, since their sales are likely to be much higher. A degree of risk can be taken and further innovation can be made if sales of other projects can be virtually guaranteed. As much as we complain about the dullness of yearly release schedules for games like Call of Duty (and let's be honest, the yearly release does negatively impact Call of Duty games), the profits on these games could be used to fund other projects that are more risky and may not be as well received. (They are not, usually, because of the way AAA companies work, but they could be.) Look at Valve for an good example of the positives of guaranteed profits. The near monopoly Valve has over PC gaming thanks to Steam virtually assures them that they will make profits no matter what they do with their money. Because of this, they are able to take (Valve) time to plan out, tweak, play-test, and re-tweak all of the parts of their games to ensure that they are of high quality. While people do bemoan the how simple modern games have become, they do help to attract these revenue streams that allow for more risky projects to be developed to advance the medium and cater to other tastes.

The other benefit of this extended audience, due to simplified systems, is that it brings in a more diverse and interesting set of viewpoints into the industry. This may seem something unimportant, but it is crucial to the advancement of the industry. Most people who have knowledge of the industry are aware that it is pretty much dominated by 20-30 something white men. While this should not be unexpected, it is detrimental to the industry. There is only so many ways 20-30 something white men can look upon a subject or topic. If we can bring in more demographics and people, each with their own perspectives, viewpoints, and biases, then we can broaden both the types of games that get released and their themes and topics. In any sort of entertainment industry, injecting new people and experiences will be a good thing. It helps to avoid stagnation and keeps things fresh and exciting for people. Different demographics are inherently going to have these new viewpoints due to the fact that they live different lives. Having a higher audience increases the number of people interested in games, which leads to more folks wanting to make a career out of it. This influx will invariably lead to more diverse people simply due to the law of averages. With that, we could see some much needed diversity in video games.

The second advantage to making systems simple and discarding complication is the way that it reduces tedium in game mechanics. This is something most people are at least aware of, even if they do not exactly know it, but it needs to be said anyway: Just because something is complex does not make it deep. On the other hand, just because something is simple to pick up and play does not make it make it shallow. Depth comes from the degree to which one can learn and master the systems at play. Though not, strictly speaking, a video game, Chess is the ultimate example of this. The game itself is simple to understand. There are only a limited number of rules one must need to know. However, everyone knows that chess is a game of intricacies and depth. There are hundreds of thousands of possible permutations of the game board and equally as many tactics to experiment with. While anyone can play to moderate success, someone who is an expert of the game will easily defeat a novice or intermediate player. We have seen video games with similarly simple, yet deep mechanics. Final Fantasy V is a good example with its job class system that has many different combinations. Another demonstration of this would be the recently released Dishonored. The game has a fairly limited tool-set that the player can use. However, the level design and game systems encourage experimentation and combination of these tools to efficiently and skillfully get passed a number of different situations. Like the other games in that fit this description, it falls into the category of “easy to learn, hard to master, ” which is something I whole-heartedly encourage. If developers keep mechanics simple, it forces them to use them in more creative and unique ways, rather than bloat their games with unnecessary filler.

While I support this trend of keeping games simple, I must confess that we must be careful with it. There is such a thing as over-simplification. Some games do benefit from a slight amount of complexity. It depends on the game in question. Other times, the mechanics are so simple and the level design is so mediocre that it makes for a generally bad experience. It is necessary to balance simple systems that any player can use with depth that allows others to go into the system and try to fully master it. Depth is what is most important, not complexity. Developers need to make deep experiences in order to attract people. We do not need excess complexity in games anymore. That is a thing of the past.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

#42: What is Needed to Evoke the Feeling of Horror?

Out of all the genres of video games, few a more fascinating than the survival horror genre. It is one of the few existing genres that has the express purpose of eliciting a specific emotion. Because of this, the genre has tougher standards and is more of an evolved and practiced science than others. There are tricks and tactics developers can ascribe to that are tested and true. With the release of Resident Evil 6, which was very poorly received by the gaming press and public, the subject of horror has once again become relevant. This week, I want to talk more about the genre. I will discuss what is, in my humble opinion, the best way to invoke horror and why you will rarely see new horror games outside of the indie scene.

One of the first factors that horror developers must keep in mind is the concept of atmosphere. The tone and layout of the environment is a very key factor in this. Horror relies on the player feeling like the environment is out to get them. They need to feel weak and oppressed and the world needs to reflect that. To invoke this feeling of helplessness, a developer can do many things. One of the easiest things they can do is limit the resources a player has access to. By giving players limited resources, developers force them to use those resources as efficiently as possible. When confronted by a group of monsters, the player would need to decide whether it would be more beneficial to engage them, take the risk and try to run past them, or retreat hoping to find more resources and/or find an alternate path. Making a player decide this on the spot creates suspense and tension, creating an oppressive atmosphere conducive to the feeling of horror. Another strategy for building a scary atmosphere is to use unsettling set pieces to creep out the player. Now, when I say set pieces, I am NOT referring to the explosion-filled, Micheal Bay- like linear levels in a Call of Duty game. Instead, I am referring to the self-contained stories told via the environment similar to those common in Bethesda games. Using the environment to tell small stories regarding the people in an area is a powerful narrative tool, especially in a horror game. When it comes to scaring the player, their own mind is the most effective tool a developer can use against them. Knowing this crucial piece of information, a designer can implant details into a room and maybe include a note or audio file or two to draw a scene in the player's head. While the designer will be able to create the general idea, the actual image will be generated by the player's mind, which means that it will be custom tailored to frighten them. This further creates an unsettling and frightening atmosphere for the game.

Keeping with the idea of using making the player draft up details in their head, horror is often best achieved by showing as little as possible. Obfuscation is a very valid method for supporting the idea of horror in a video game. Many of the most successful horror games have worked well because they embraced their technical limitations and kept many details obscure. The most well-known example of this would be Silent Hill 2. Due to the limitations of the original Playstation system, Silent Hill 2 was not able to draw all the details of an area on screen at one time. In order to compensate, they blanketed the area just outside their draw limit with a dense fog that kept it out of view. This, combined with the unsettling atmosphere, had the beneficial side-effect of letting the players use their imaginations when traveling through the titular Silent Hill and added to the tension of what was going on in the game. The other way a designer can force the player to use their imagination is through keeping a minimalist mindset when designing the game. We humans are used to living in densely populated areas for the most part. Thus, we feel naturally freaked out when we see areas devoid of life. When a designer deliberately places few, spaced out lifeforms (friend OR foe) in an area, it invokes the Uncanny Valley effect. Seeing a familiar urban setting without the familiar urban population is close to what we are used to, but not quite close enough that we feel comfortable. This also calls forth a feeling of isolation. One man/woman, alone against overwhelming odds with barely any ability to fight back is inherently terrifying. A good example of this is in the free indie title, Slender. Though like any horror game, its effectiveness depends on the person playing, the developer of Slender was highly proficient at using few details in order to terrify the player. Trapped in a small, enclosed, wooded area with exactly one for, the Slenderman, players have no way to fight back and no one to support them. This is about as bare-bones as a horror game can be and, when it works, it works to great effect. When my friends and I played the game, one of them had to leave the room and go take a walk outside after playing in order to calm himself down. Another jumped the moment I moved the chair a few inches. This limited, but precise use of details and obfuscation was highly effective, yet it is also the reason AAA developers have such a hard time capturing the essence of horror. Games like Dead Space and the newer Resident Evil games are funded with multimillion dollar budgets and top of the line technology. Because there are few limits, they make highly detailed models for all of their monsters. With foes that well-rendered, it is far more tempting to throw them all into the limelight and force players to look at them than it is to keep them in the dark and let the players keep their imaginations and sense of tension active. This makes it hard for them to truly frighten the player beyond mere jump scares.

However, despite all of this, it is important to do one last thing when building horror games, and it is something that is critical to the art of fear. For prolonged, enduring play sessions, which many gamers can be prone to at times, being tense and on edge the entire time can be incredible taxing in a mental sense. In order to avoid depleting the player's mental stamina, it is important to give them well planned and spaced-out areas of safety where they can take a breath and relax. This gives them time to rejuvenate themselves, manage their inventory, and plan out their next move without the overbearing weight of an oppressive atmosphere. Generally speaking, these are also places where the designer would offer the player the option to save their game. While allowing players a chance to relax is a good thing, rooms like these, where the player does not have to worry about confrontation, serve a duel purpose: They serve as a contrast from the oppressive atmosphere. If a player experiences nothing but horrors and nightmares, they will slowly build up a tolerance to them. When developers have these periods of rest, they expose the player to a different stimuli and vary the atmosphere a little bit. It serves to remind the player that there is an opposite to being under constant threat, which in turn makes the threat that much more terrifying. Done well, these areas can serve to make the player scared to leave them. The player will know that they are in a safe haven, but leaving will place them in a hostile environment again. This leads to some players procrastinating and waiting as long as possible to exit. While some designers may see this reluctance to move on as a sign of failure, the opposite is true for a horror game. If a player is too scared to leave a safe haven, then the developer knows he/she did their job properly. This contrast between the safety of an area of respite and the danger of the rest of the game is a strong asset that ought not be taken lightly.

Horror is a very fickle beast. It requires immense effort to uphold and maintain throughout an entire experience. Even when it is done well, it is all up to the individual players and their mindsets to be truly effective experiences and will rarely yield similar returns to that of a shooter with an equivalent budget and attention to detail. All of the factors that determine the likelihood of AAA doing it and getting it right work against it. When designing games that are designed to invoke fear, developers need to be extremely careful and use deliberate, well-thought out strategies for keeping players engrossed in the atmosphere of their game. This is easier said than done and is the main reason why many of the well-known titans of the genre, like Dead Space and Resident Evil, have begun to shift from horror to action. Even thought this is the case, fans of the genre should not lament it too much. Humanity will always have a place for horror in its heart and people will always be there to try to satisfy that demand. Given that many old genres like isometric RPGs have been seeing a resurgence of late, it is not implausible that even should the horror genre fade (which is highly unlikely), it too will return in due time.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

#41: The RPG Cultural Divide: East Versus West

It is no secret that there is a huge cultural divide between Western and Eastern styles of video game development. Due to the way each region of the world developed on similar, yet fundamentally different, lines over the centuries, the games developed by each regions cater to wildly different tastes and demographics. The most obvious divide we see is the one between Role Playing Games developed between the two regions of the world. Though both derive from the same RPG systems (like Dungeons and Dragons), they each took those systems in wildly different directions indicative of their cultures. We are all at least somewhat aware of this since we distinguish between Western style and Eastern Style RPGs, but what really separates the two? This week will be dedicated to answering that question.

The first key difference between the two styles of RPGs is that while Japanese RPGs generally tend to emphasize being part of a team, Western RPGs have a higher focus on the individual. We see this manifest in a variety of ways. In Eastern RPGs, like Final Fantasy, the player rarely takes the role of a single protagonist. Instead, they play as a group of people who are working together towards a common goal. While there is often a very clearly designated “lead character,” (Cecil in Final Fantasy IV or Cloud in Final Fantasy VII) they were always just the head of a group and not a significant figure that can do everything by themselves. Even in the later games of the Persona franchise, which borrows many tropes from Western RPGs, the player character is the team leader. Though exhibiting great power in their own right, they have party members and teammates to rely on. Their powers are even a direct result of connecting with others and forging bonds, still indicative of the team aspect of many Eastern RPGs. Compare this to RPGs developed in North America and Europe. In games like The Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect, the player is placed squarely in the center of the action. They are directly responsible for doing things. It is not a small team of individuals completing objectives and advances the plot, but rather one person. Even when the designers give the player squad-mates (like in Mass Effect) or companions (like in Skyrim or Fallout), the protagonist is clearly the driving force, the strongest character in the game, and the one who takes control at key story events. The lead character's individual contribution to the plot is highly valued over the contribution of other characters.

Another way in which Eastern and Western RPG design are separate is in the way they allow players to interact with the plot of the game. In an Eastern RPG, developers generally have a very tight reign on the narrative. There is a plot to the game, yet the player has limited ability, if any, to influence it. When they are given agency, it is only with regards to minor details. A good example of this is the blitzball tournament near the beginning of Final Fantasy X. The player is technically able to win the tournament. However, if they do, they will only receive a slight reward for it. Otherwise, the plot advances as the same way regardless of whether the player won or lost, and it is never mentioned again past that point. This is not a criticism of the game, but merely an observation of what JRPG developers expect of their players. On the opposite side of the world, Western RPGs have a very strong focus on player choice and how that choice influences the narrative. Players are given a higher degree of freedom to poke and prod. Developers ask players to look around, gather information, and make decisions that will directly affect the game experience, if not the overall plot of the game. While absolute freedom is impossible, since games are just programs and thus have constraints, they try to loosen the reigns as much as possible. The ability to make choices that affect the events of the plot is best exemplified in some of Obsidian Entertainment's latest works like Fallout: New Vegas and Alpha Protocol. These games force the player to choose between several factions, each with their own views on the events at hand, and pick sides. Another example of choice in games is the Mass Effect series, despite my criticisms. The plot itself will generally remain generally the same, but the player can impact events and change many of the series's key events in significant ways. Choices have consequences and the franchise forces the player to live with them. In essence, Eastern games took a few liberties with the concept of role playing while Western games tried to stay truer to the concept. Both are valid tactics, it all comes down to the designer's preference.

The final point I will make with regards to the difference between Eastern and Western RPGs is the JRPGs tend to be of a generally slower pace than their Western counterparts. Though there are exceptions to the rule (like the Star Ocean franchise), JRPGs are usually turn-based or semi-turn-based. Battles focus on taking in all the relevant information and making good moment to moment decisions into order to win. The speed and flow of battle is intentionally slowed in order to give players time before committing to certain actions. Tactical thinking and good strategy is much more important in these games than speedy inputs or reflexes. The Final Fantasy series is very well-known for this. They pioneered the Active Time Battle system that has become a staple of the franchise and one of the most enduring examples of turn-based gameplay. For a while, the West used turned based systems as well. They worked well for the isometric RPGs of old (and still do). Though even back then, those turn-based games had a faster pace than their Eastern counterparts. Now that we have come to modern gaming, Western-style RPGs have become more action-oriented. Instead of being an outside force directing a group of people in a turn-based fight, games like The Elder Scrolls and Mass Effect have the player actually play as the main character in a three-dimensional space, moving around and engaging enemies directly instead of being some omnipresent overlord directing from over the shoulder. While they are not always as quick and visceral as shooters and action games, Western RPGs were always significantly faster and more direct than their Eastern equivalents: It has just become more pronounced now. It is the player themselves, as the Dovahkin or Commander Shepard, who goes through and defeats hundreds of enemies. However, it is worth noting that this one is even less of a hard and fast rule than my previous two points. It is more of general trend and there are multiple games that deviate from it.

I must once again stress that this is not meant to criticize the style of either region. Like my earlier comparison of Fallout 3 to Fallout: New Vegas, it is more of a compare/contrast between development styles. Depending on the goal of the video game, be it in mechanics, plot, etc., both of them have benefits and drawbacks inherent to their design. Though unlike the Fallout comparison, these two styles could effectively be considered separate genres entirely because they are that different from each other. It is fascinating that two groups can take the exact same inspirations and achieve different, yet equally viable results from them. This speaks to the cultural differences between us all. It is not a bad thing by any means. In fact, I think it is to be celebrated. That is why games are treated as forms of expression and speech. They speak to us and to our sensibilities. All these different people and philosophies brought together by a love of entertaining the masses. Truly, I can think of few things better than that. :)