Why Don't I Enjoy Japanese Games?

Imagine, if you will, that a powerful genie is standing in front of you. He has just granted you one wish, but it is with a condition! "You may change one thing about the way people see you." What would you wish for? What single facet of your personality do you wish people would see differently? What perceived quiddity would you want changed? Are there any misperceptions that you would like to be rid of?

What do you want people to understand about you?

I think I know what I would change. As a person, I've got plenty of flaws which I'd love to be rid of. I repeat myself too often. I'm overbearing. I frustrate easily. I fixate on my shortcomings. I obsess over my failures. I jump to conclusions about people and their motives too quickly. I have a habit of assuming the worst. I've got so little self-esteem that I self-aggrandize too much. I repeat myself too often.

But the genie isn't here to change what is true about me, he's here to reveal the truth to other people.

He's here to clear up a misunderstanding.

So if I could change one thing about the way people see me, it's this: I want to like everything.

If you'll permit me, I'd like to take this article's intro to explain just why this is, because it directly leads into the reason I'm writing in the first place. The people who know me think I'm a negative person, someone who relishes saying "I don't like this." Many people have even offered their own reasoning for this, from saying that they believe I feed on negativity to proclaiming that I care for attention.

But that's not true.

The truth is that I want to like everything.

Why Don't I Enjoy Japanese Games?

Please consider what that means: I want to like everything.

It's pretty broad, isn't it? Everything. That's… well, everything. The universe, known and unknown. I want to like it all. I want to like everything because I live for the moments when I can discover something new to enjoy. Imagine your favorite work of art—whether that's a literal 'work of art' like a painting or a sculpture, or whether it's something else, like a film, television show, book, play, radio series… or, yes, a video game. How did you feel when you knew it was something special? For me, it's this feeling that's at once electrifying and comforting. I want to get up and run around the room yelling at everyone about how awesome this thing is just as much as I want to sit there and bask in it. I want the feeling to last, to stick around, to never go away.

Because of this, I expose myself to as many unique experiences as I possibly can. I'm rewarded, time and time again, with something new to like, to value, to share. I live for that thrill, and by discovering as many new things as possible, I get to experience it time and time again. Unfortunately, a few experiences leave me cold; some leave me feeling upset, even. I don't like everything, even though I very much want to.

So why do I fixate on the things I don't like, if I want to like everything?

Because I'm bugged by not liking things, my curiosity kicks in, and it starts asking why can't I like this? And me, well, I tend to figure things out by talking to people about them. Couple this with my love of getting people to talk a lot so I can learn about people and why we do the things we do, and you get a pretty potent recipe for me writing a lot about things I don't like.

In other words, my desire for liking things means that I try really hard to figure out what's up when things don't work out right?

If we're being pragmatic, being able to understand my reactions to a thing serve a couple different purposes. First, and foremost, they simply allow me to answer the question anyone always asks whenever I say I don't like something, which is "why?" No one ever asks why you like what you like, but if you don't like something they like, you can be sure you'll be hearing about it. Being able to express your perspective is good for communication. Secondly, I want to create art. Being able to understand why I react to things empowers me to create good works. Finally, it gets neat conversations started that often travel in unexpected ways and lead to topics I've not really explored. I'm writing this article right now because of a six hour Skype call with one of the coolest people I know.

At this point, you may be dozing off, and yeah, sure, I could go back and tighten this up, but the truth is that I'm really enjoying this self-exploration, and I'm hoping that by doing so, I might encourage you to do some of your own, whether that's to think about the genie's proposition or to explore why you like and don't like stuff and how this helps you relate to other people, or something else. This is really interesting for me to write. Plus, it's not like anyone's paying me for this, unless you count my Patreon.

So, with that in mind, let's talk about why I don't like Japanese games, and maybe I can figure out why I don't like them.

Why Don't I Enjoy Japanese Games?

Over on NeoGAF, someone posted a thread asking just why it was that Japanese devs seemed to have diminished in quality over the past generation or so. Another thread asked why we haven't seen the "JFPS," in the way we've seen the JRPG, a unique Japanese take on a pre-existing genre. As I sat here, on my computer, chatting with a friend over Skype about all things games, I started kinda churning over this idea in my head:

I really don't like many Japanese games.

Those that I do… well, I like them despite their Japanese traits, not because of them. And it's not like this is some cultural thing, because here I am, just having completed a list of a hundred or so different anime series that people should watch, knee-deep in working on a list of manga that everyone should read, and with a pile of international films nearby that includes such film greats as Miike and Kurosawa. Not only that, but my job is focused on helping students from other countries learn English, and Japan's one of the countries I'm considering if financial aid allows me to do foreign exchange stuff.

I like Japan. I like Japan's creative output. The only place that gives me pause for thought, it seems, are Japan's games. So what is it about the games and the games alone that I find so unappealing?

Sure, I think Pikmin's great. I'm in love with Binary Domain. Dragon's Dogma was one of the best things that ever happened to me and I am going to write soooo muccch about it in the future. And now I've listed every Japanese game I like. Yes. That's three games. Of course I've played more. I've been charmed and amused by plenty of Nintendo games, for instance, though these love affairs are often over within less than forty-eight hours. There are plenty of games I haven't played as well (but the same is true of Western games, so I'm not sure that says anything). But… on the whole? Japanese games and I don't get along.

Why?

Why Don't I Enjoy Japanese Games?

I wrote an article about 2D games and why I didn't like them. I think there's something to it—though, let's be honest, it was very stream-of-consciousnessy and one of the few articles I wrote where I hadn't spent a lot of time thinking about the subject I was writing about. Actually, that's why it had the structure it did. As I sit here rereading it, I still think it's right, in a way: I need to be my characters in my games. Just chatting with a friend on Steam that's related this, I've ended up planning a big new essay about Skyrim, Dishonored, and Adam Jensen. But more on that later.

Did you ever notice how, as the sixth console generation moved onward, Japanese-developed games sank to the background in our attentions, and Western-developed games to the front?

I've always maintained that this is in part/solely because the best developers in the universe were PC developers, and most of them had begun migrating to consoles. The PC as a platform allows more creativity, because, at the end of the day, it's easier to compress a big idea than expand a small one. If you go back through a history of video games, nearly all of the "big ideas" that dominate gaming, from genres (RPG, FPS, Adventure, etc) to modes of play (online multiplayer) all stem from the PC.

I have a slightly different belief now.

You know what else diminished in popularity during the sixth generation?

2D games.

And what grew in popularity?

3D games.

"But, Doc!" you may be protesting, "Japanese developers make 3D games too!" And you'd be right. They do! Which is why I'm not saying that Japanese games were 2D games and Western games were 3D games. I'm saying something… well, just a bit different. Switching gears a moment, let's talk about JRPGs, and not the whole "they're not actually RPGs!" thing. Instead, let's talk about where they're at their most popular. A common complaint about them has been that they're not really that well-represented on consoles, to which the common defense is that the great ones are all on mobile devices.

Why Don't I Enjoy Japanese Games?

I've talked about Film Crit Hulk's idea of tangibles before, right? Basically, people attribute their response to a thing to the most obvious element of a thing. We often attribute the flaws or successes of, for instance, a movie, to a particular scene, character, or actor, more because they stuck out to us than because they were actually responsible for our reaction.

So when someone's talking about consoles, JRPGs, and mobile devices, they claim a lot of things, but I think there's another reason they do well on mobile devices.

Okay. Look. I'm no Jason Schreier, but I've paid my dues. I've played a number of JRPGs, seen video on dozens more. I'm definitely no Jason Schreier, because if I was, I'd also enjoy them. But I have noticed that the JRPGs that do well tend to be 2D, or played from a 2D perspective. The ones that are 3D… well, they aren't. I think JRPGs do well on mobile because that's where they're still primarily 2D games, where on consoles, they've tried to keep up with Western fidelity, it's just not working out well for Japan, the why of which is the point of this article.

Switching gears abruptly now, let's talk about FPSes and Japan.

You might be aware that the first-person perspective isn't exactly the most common thing in Japan. In fact, despite being the best-selling genre this side of the MOBA, Japan seems to almost completely disregard the first-person perspective. I keep saying perspective, because I do want to mention King's Field, a series of games developed by From Software—y'know, the guys who make Armored Core and Dark Souls. The King's Field games aren't first-person shooters, but they use the perspective, and they're well-worth discussing in-depth. I regret that I don't have much to say about them, on account of only having learned about them a year or two ago.

Question: What makes the first-person perspective unique?

Why Don't I Enjoy Japanese Games?

Answer: It's the only genre of video game that can't be 2D.

We've had 2D stealth games (Metal Gear), 2D sandbox games (Grand Theft Auto), 2D action games (Castlevania), 2D shooters (Contra). If you can think it, it can be done in two dimensions. Except for the first-person shooter. Why? Because it's the only perspective that works the way human sight does: that is, it sees things in three dimensions. The point of the perspective is that you can look around, walk forwards and backwards, even up and down. It is inherently 3D. And I can't think of a single other genre that this can be said of.

At this point, you may think I've dug my hole even deeper, that I'm still saying something bad about Japanese games and 2D games, but rest assured, I'm not. I think Japanese developers have avoided the first-person perspective because they're not interested. Right now, someone reading this article is mock gasping. "Oh boy!" they're saying with all the sarcasm they can muster, "what a shocking revelation!"

But, uh, let's dial that down a bit. Let's move past the kneejerk "FPSes are a dumb genre" that drives a lot of those kind of comments. Let's approach this thinking all genres merit equal respect. Why might an entire design culture seem to just… completely avoid a genre?

My answer may not be the sole reason. It may not be anything more than speculation. But it does lead down some interesting trains of thought, and I suspect it may be the case. So, with that in mind, why I think Japan doesn't care to make the FPS, and what does this have to do with why I don't care about Japanese games?

I think Japanese designers think about games differently than Western designers.

I think that what this means is that when we get to 2D and 3D games, we find that Japanese designers have an edge when it comes to 2D games—which is one of the major reasons why they dominated during the 2D era—and when it comes to 3D games, Western designers have the edge. And I think this ultimately comes down to the way we approach video games.

There's an inherent danger that comes along with discussing differences. I am the kind of person who likes them. Imagine differences as colors. The way the world feels to me is like… people think everything should be 'equal,' like some single grey tone. Me, I love differences, so I start slapping up a ton of different colors, admiring how they contrast and accentuate each other. I think we should celebrate differences. I think they're ultimately good things. So if anything I say comes across like an overly-broad value judgment of an ideology, please understand that it's a hiccup in our communication, not a damning indictment of something you or someone you know cares about.

Also, please understand that I'm speaking in generalizations, to get at big, broad concepts, and that the use of generalizations is a rhetorical device that helps me save your time by not acknowledging every exception to the claim.

I think Japanese designers treat games as if they are just games.

Why Don't I Enjoy Japanese Games?

You may find this silly. "Games? Of course. That's what the label says on the medium!" And you'd be right. And so would the people who named this medium we call video games. Because back in the day, when the medium was named, what we had were games. They were simple 2D experiences like Pong, Dig Dug, and Space War! They were literally games displayed on video.

And then… things started changing. We started developing interactive fiction, virtual art installations, and, perhaps grandest of all, new realities.

Okay, so the realities weren't so grand. The medium isn't exactly a holodeck. It's just that… well, we call things "games" that might not best be described as such. Some things are games, but they're something else more than games, the way a hot fudge sundae's more of an ice cream dish than a chocolate dessert. Calling them "games" isn't entirely adequate. Because some aren't. They're amazing, wonderful, and beautiful, but they're not games, they're art.*

Because of a couple comments indicating a failure of reading comprehension, I've added this paragraph in. I'm talking about games from all sorts of countries here; don't make the mistake that I'm excluding Japanese games. Shadow of the Colossus is art, for instance. Rez and Child of Eden are explorations of synesthesia. I'd argue that having a story is enough to qualify something as art (not good or bad art, but art). In this section, we're talking about the evolution of the and how "games" isn't really an adequate descriptor.

Video gaming is two things simultaneously. It is both a kind of way to play games, in the way that you would chess or checkers, and it's a kind of storytelling (among other things) medium. The lines blur, but somewhere along the way, you've got something that's using gameplay to tell stories, and other times, you've got something that's just gameplay with stories bolted on, if it has stories at all.

The Japanese approach to video games is largely systems-driven. That is, they're about the rules and stuff. X does Y, player does X, etc. It's a very literal interpretation of the way things are. The entire experience of the game is thought of like one.

Take, for instance, the fighting game. Instead of being "I am fighting Ken with my fists and feet," it's "I am playing against the person sitting next to me by mastering button combos and stuff." Talk about fighting games for a while. Listen to the discussions. They're not about how "I punched Rainbow Mika as hard as I could," they're about how "I beat the player who was using Chun-Li." Devil May Cry is a series of games from a genre called the Character Action game. They focus heavily on player mastery of control inputs. The Final Fantasy games feature gameplay focused on parties and turns and beating the enemies that pop up. On and on and on I could go.

Japanese games are, first and foremost, about the act of playing the game.

Again, speaking in general terms here.

Now, you may go "so what? What does this have to do with 2D vs 3D games?" Quite a lot, actually. Because they're approaching games as 'systems a player must interact with,' Japanese games are at their best in the 2D space. Board games, a global cultural pastime and massively important element of human society, are almost entirely two dimensional. When most people think "game," they tend to think either of a sport or a board game, such as Chess or Go.

But the funny thing about humans is that we think differently when we associated with a 3D space. We start instinctively treating it like it's real.

Why Don't I Enjoy Japanese Games?

Now, it's important not to confuse the word 'real' with 'realistic.' Something 'realistic' is something that seems like you might encounter it in real life. Something 'real' is something that's managing to keep up the suspension of disbelief. You could play a 'real' fantasy game. You could play a 'real' game about green skinned Martians. You could play a 'real' game about a war waged by Gandhi against George Washington. In its own way, Antichamber is 'real,' because it presents a universe that is consistent in its desire to unteach its audience.

When we play 3D games, we expect them to have rules and logic, not of games, but of some sort of reality. We generally expect gravity to work like gravity. We assume that a 3D representation of a person will act like one. We treat these 3D worlds, in many ways, as if they are real worlds and should behave as such. When thinking in the context of 3D worlds, it's often not about our button presses, but about the things we are doing in these worlds. The first person shooter, which attempts to make us the playable character is, of course, the closest to this we can get. In 3D games, our characters so often become an extension of our will.

When we play a deathmatch, we are shooting each other. It is not about our characters or the combos we can pull off (shock combo excepted), it's about us and what we can do.

In other words, there's a deal of abstraction removed in the transition 2D to 3D games. Two dimensional games are very abstract. Chess is an abstraction of war. The least-abstract version of war would be you, there, in first person, waging that war. It's one idea, but there are different ways to communicate it, and when all is said and done, 2D games tend to lean more abstract than 3D games.

The more 3D a game is, the more realistic we tend to treat it.

Western games are often simulation-driven for a reason. You may not think that a game like, say, Half-Life 2 or Grand Theft Auto V feature simulations, but Half-Life 2 is simulating real-world physics while Rockstar's latest entry simulates traffic. Western video games are simulations, as much that of fantasy as of the real world. 3D lends itself well to simulating realities. It doesn't lend itself quite as well to abstract play.

When I see, for instance, a car in a game, my initial instinct is to walk over to it and see if I can drive it. It's always fun to watch how people who predate or didn't have much interest in games growing up experience games for the first time. When they're playing 3D games, they have so many expectations and understandings of how the universe works that are built upon their real-world experiences.

It's 3D, so it's real.

It's 2D, so it's a game.

Why Don't I Enjoy Japanese Games?

We could suggest a lot of reasons for why Japanese developers seem to prefer more abstract, gamified concepts. Maybe Japanese culture's very literal about keeping to the definitions of words. Maybe businessmen are incredibly reluctant to change their ways. Maybe Japanese culture is just better at appreciating abstraction. And then there are all the things we could say about the West and its development culture—they're too simple to appreciate abstraction, they're so empathetic that they can enter new realities that aren't their own, whatever.

It seems to boil down to one simple thing: abstract, gamified concepts work best in 2D spaces. 3D design tends to work best as a means of conveying a virtual reality. Japanese developers prefer abstract, gamified concepts.

If true, this would explain why Japanese games declined in popularity as 3D games grew in sales, but Japan still completely owns the mobile space, where 2D games reign supreme.

I find myself wondering if the fighting game could ever have evolved in the West, or if the Immersive Simulation might have been as powerful as it was had the Japanese brought it into existence. Possibly—there are, after all, outliers, as I mentioned above. People out there are all making unique and interesting games that defy any cultural barriers. But… again, in generalized terms, it seems as though Japanese gaming just lends itself better to 2D, while Western gaming lends itself better to 3D.

Go back and look at most of your 3D JRPGs—by which, I should mention, I'm referring to games like XIII-2, not games that were isometric with 3D elements. Have they really utilized 3D space all that well? Do they treat virtual environments like they're actual virtual environments? Look at game maps. Look at the way the worlds are populated, and the unreal AI that drives so many Japanese games.** Do you really feel like arguing that any JRPG released this past generation were particularly great games in comparison to, say the aforementioned Final Fantasy XIII games? I'm mentioning the biggest-selling JRPG of the last generation, and sure, you're more than welcome to bring up games like Lost Odyssey (I've heard both "one of the best games of last gen" and "a horrible JRPG," so I dunno who to believe on that front) or whatever else…

I've often cited the story of how the JRPG's birth is something of an accident, a misunderstanding based on cultural differences. A neat accident, because it gave us something new and that's always awesome, but an accident nonetheless. Horii, as a fan of games like Wizardry and Ultima, created Dragon Quest, but the evolution of the JRPG didn't follow the evolution of the RPG. Where Wizardry and Ultima got more and more sim-like as the tech got better, Ultima fathering the first-person genre called the Immersive Sim, the JRPGs stayed focused more on the abstraction. It was about the party management, the skills, the abilities. All that jazz. The RPGs rid themselves of the abstraction, and the JRPG embraced it.

I'm not so sure it was a misunderstanding or an accident, now. I mean, sure, maybe it was, but maybe it was simply the result of priorities? Horii and those that followed embraced the abstraction, making games that weren't role-playing games*** because they were focused on the abstract mechanics that accompanied the games, rather than how those mechanics were technologically limited ways of trying to allow role-playing.

They embraced a technological limitation and turned it into a genre.

That's brilliant!

So. Why don't I enjoy Japanese games?

Why Don't I Enjoy Japanese Games?

I grew up with simulators, games that are, in every definition of the idea, about simulating realities. That's what I value. I think when most people see 3D games, they don't expect games to play like The Last Remnant; they expect them to play like Grand Theft Auto or Skyrim. They expect to treat the games like they're real that they can do real things in. In fact, I think Grand Theft Auto III's huge success was precisely because it was a game built around the idea that "you can do all these things!" That's certainly how all my friends tried to sell it to me.

Something in our brains just says that when we see 3D, we expect real places we can perform actions in. Overlaying deeply abstract systems over a 3D environment just doesn't gel nearly as well. Sure, you might say that XCOM: Enemy Within was a 3D game, and yes, its visuals were 3D, but it was projected in a 2D way. Upcoming turn-based RPGs like Torment: Tides of Numenera are highly-abstract games… but, again, the experience is 2D, even if the actual art assets are 3D.

And again, I must stress, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Abstract approach to thought is a valuable skill. I just find that my own personal enjoyment? Well, it comes less from abstract games and more from virtual realities. I'd personally prefer to jack into the matrix and inhabit the worlds I want to explore, treating them as if they were real, than I would to look at a screen and play this game.

I think that abstract gaming is great for 2D stuff, but you start running into a kind of cognitive dissonance when 3D enters the scene.

I think Japan's lack of dominance this generation has largely been as a result of failing to embrace 3D on 3D terms and continuing to make more abstract games. That's not to say things aren't changing, of course! While From Software's always been an outlier—creating the first-person King's Field, focusing heavily on simulation-oriented games, building the Souls games with a particular design to the 3D world space—others, I think, are starting to follow suit. Things are starting to change overall.

Xenoblade looks significantly better than any other JRPG of this generation. Sure, at the end of the day, it's not a great game when compared to the games it cribs its mechanics from, but it's well-liked because it's finally giving a point to its 3D experiences. Dragon's Dogma is one of my favorite video games, in large part because of the living, breathing nature of Gran Soren's world. I'm looking forward to X. Dead Rising is a series that is built entirely around the concept of the game world as a real space that must be navigated in real-time—it's one of my favorite games as a result of this. And they're not the only ones. Japanese games are changing.

And honestly, a little part of me is sad about that. I think the only way to dominate the AAA and PC gaming space is going to be to make 3D games that aren't ultra-abstract. But… I worry that if these developers and publishers go after the money, they might lose something valuable. Sure, it's not something I personally care to play all that often, but we'd be worse off without abstract games than with.

I'm glad to know that Japan dominates the mobile space. There are some great games there. One day, I'd like to be able to afford a 3DS XL so I can check out games like Fire Emblem, maybe pick up a PSP again so I can grab Tactics Ogre. Sure, they're unlikely to ever grab me as strongly as something like STALKER, but still.

I like trying new things. Maybe now that I understand how Japanese games generally work, I can approach them from a new angle, and my initial response will be "wow, this is really good!"

It's always fun to find something new to fall in love with.

Why Don't I Enjoy Japanese Games?

As usual, you can hit me up on Twitter, check out my Tumblr, read my reviews on Steam, and comment on my stuff using the DocTalk tag on Kotaku. I've set up a Patreon account, so, y'know, if there's a game you really want me to write about, you could always consider a donation. I hope to be writing at least four substantial articles a month, every month, for the rest of the year. I'll also be working on an indie game—if you've got skills other than 'writing,' and you'd like to help, we will be selling it, and those who help will get paid once we do. Maybe sooner if we can get some funding. Yes, I'm also using this as my new boilerplate 'end of article' thing.

* This isn't a 'video games are art' discussion. "Games" as created by humans (tag, chess, poker) is a distinct concept from art, the same way that "Tools" are not art, or "Meals" are not art. Video games, as illustrated in the article, are somewhat troublesome, because at the time of the their creation, the name was appropriate, and it isn't now. Games encompass a lot of things. Some of these things are art, some of these things are merely digital games.

The "are video games art" discussion is really asking "are video games legitimate?" There's a lot of hullaballoo because video games were seen as toys for children and distraction for outcasts. Academia and society at large wasn't taking them seriously. Someone could announce their attention to be a film director, but say "I want to be a game director," and people will ask when you're getting a serious job.

So the real games-as-art discussion isn't "are they?" because we already have an answer: "some are, and the medium can produce art." What we should really be discussing is whether or not games are high art (they aren't) or low art (they are) and how they can become high art. Instead of demanding legitimacy because "games are art!" we should be asking how games can be accepted as such.

** When contrasted with games like Halo, FEAR, Ultima VII, The Elder Scrolls games, STALKER, The Witcher, etc. Dragon's Dogma comes to mind as a rare exception to the rule. Yasumi Matsuno, of the Ogre Battle games, counts Ultima Online as one of the three best video games of all time.

*** "Role-play" is a concept that's historically associated with the idea of an actor defining their role, rather than playing a part. "Role-playing games" are about the players creating their characters and making choices and dealing with the consequences of their choices. JRPGs use the mechanics of RPGs, but with them, Final Fantasy's Cloud Strife is Cloud Strife, when all is said and done. It's not the character you defined, it's a character who does things and you do all the gameplay bits. Neither approach is good or bad, but one is role-playing, and the other is merely using its mechanics.

ARTICLE TL;DR: So, what was the train of thought that lead to this conclusion? "Why don't I like Japanese games? What do I like in games? I like games that let me inhabit new worlds. The opposite of that, then, is that I devalue the abstract experiences. Let's watch a bunch of Japanese game video and reflect on the games I've played. Huh. They all seem really abstract; simulation ideas are the exception rather than the rule. Seems to be the result of cultural design methodology; distinct lack of interest aside from a few devs (FROM, Capcom) re: games-as-virtual-realities. Noted correlation between Japan's popularity and 2D/2D-takes-on-3D popularity (isometric, fixed cameras, etc) and its decline as 3D and PC-like simulation elements started emerging in mainstream gaming. Thought this was neat and decided to share to see if other people feel similarly or can offer more credible POVs.