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Characters and Worldbuilding: Analyzing the Strength of Japanese Games

May 31, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next
 

From April 2010 to May 2011, I had the opportunity to study manga (Japanese comics) and video game design at one of Japan's leading art schools, Kyoto Seika University. In total, I lived, worked, and studied in Japan for about four years. Here, I would like to share what I learned there about game design.

It all started in high school when a friend introduced me to anime (Japanese animation) through Studio Ghibli's Princess Mononoke. The characters and creatures were unlike anything I'd seen before, and soon I was borrowing more. From there I started playing Japanese video games, especially Super Nintendo-era role-playing games (RPGs).

The first one I played, chosen at random, was the curiously titled Chrono Trigger.  Little did I know I was picking up one of the most revered games of all time, and, of course, I was hooked. Similar to my interest in Studio Ghibli's animated movies, I was enchanted by the level of imagination that I saw in Japanese RPGs.

An Overlooked Treasure

Eventually I stumbled upon Paladin's Quest, one of the lesser-known Super Nintendo RPGs, released in the US in 1993. I almost skipped the game entirely, however, due to its generic name. I don't know how the translators settled on Paladin's Quest, since the game has nothing to do with paladins; in Japan, it goes by the exciting and mysterious Lennus: Memory of the Ancient Machine.

Paladin's Quest turned out to be, in my opinion, the most original and memorable game in an era that was already brimming with innovation. The pastel color scheme and simple visual style turned off many players, but their novelty only added to the appeal for me; the haunting music, alien plant-life, and unusual control scheme came together to create a unique and very engaging experience.

"The Magic School," first area of Paladin's Quest

For the Love of the Game

When I found out that Paladin's Quest had a sequel, Lennus II: The Apostles of the Seals, I was eager to play; however, the game had never been released in English, and with zero knowledge of Japanese, I couldn't even make my way out of the first area.

That's why, in freshman year of college, I enrolled in an "Intensive Japanese" class that culminated in a four-week trip to Kyoto Seika University. At the time, Kyoto Seika had just made news for being the first school in Japan to offer a major in manga.

I had a great time there, which led me to transfer to Stanford University to major in East Asian Studies and continue studying Japanese. As soon as I graduated, I moved to Japan to teach English with the Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) Program.

That was when I discovered the blog of Hidenori Shibao, the director of the Lennus series, who also worked on Legend of Legaia, a PlayStation RPG. After double-checking my grammar with a Japanese friend, I sent him a message, and we ended up exchanging a number of emails about the Lennus games and game design in general.

Back To Kyoto Seika

After two years with JET, I wanted to return to what drew me to Japan in the first place: popular culture like video games and anime. I had always loved drawing, and I remembered Kyoto Seika and its manga program from my study abroad trip. That's how I ended up going back in 2010 as a research student in the Story Manga Department. (As a "research student" I took classes like a regular student, but without any grades or diploma upon completion.)

Although Japanese schools tend to be strict about taking classes outside your department, I was able to attend some lectures in a game design class with Kenichi Nishi, the director of the cult-hit Chibi-Robo! (He was, coincidentally, a designer on Chrono Trigger.) Nishi walked us through development from idea to execution, and students formed groups to create their own games over the course of the semester.

Through all of this, I learned a lot about the Japanese approach to creating popular culture like manga and video games, and here I would like to share what I learned, focusing on two points: Japanese-style characters and their function in video games, and sekaikan, a term used frequently in reference to video games and other media.


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Comments


Michael Pianta
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Great article. I've always preferred Japanese games for some reason, and sure enough I find that I really agree with what's written here. I've always felt that games were primarily about exploring a world. That said I do see that focus in a lot of Western games as well - but it's handled differently. Perhaps the most interesting thing then is the idea that you can present a small portion of the world, and if you have this quality of Sekaikan then the player will sort of infer the rest. An interesting idea, and one that I think has a lot of bearing on game development because you can never actually show everything (even if you had the computing power you wouldn't have the time).

Even thinking about it just a little bit, it's easy to find this in action. Look at GTA 3 versus, say, Shenmue. They were released at almost the same time, and they are trying to be very different games, so that explains a lot of their design differences, but one thing they have in common is that they are both trying to evoke a living city. GTA does it with breadth - the entire city is before you and all the streets and all the places they lead to. But GTA sacrifices detail - none of the NPCs have any personality or life and you can't enter any buildings. Shenmue, on the other hand, presents only a few streets but rendered with painstaking detail. The player then should understand that there is a whole city just as intricate as this, even though you don't get to go there.

I like that myself but I'm not sure if it plays as well to a general audience in the West. Does understanding or enjoying that style require a particular mode of thought?

Zack Wood
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Good question. I know that the Japanese approach is a lot easier for me to enjoy, personally. I think it requires imagination and a willingness to go along with the game and let it take you on a journey.

I think that trying to recreate the real world in all its wide open complexity is a ludicrous and impossible goal, so for me a game like GTA or Skyrim is destined to fall short. The imagination is far more powerful than any computer processor, so a game that successfully makes me imagine a world is always going to be more fun.

Zack Wood
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Also, if you're interested in sekaikan, you might enjoy the blog I just started, at gamemakeworld.wordpress.com. It's about the ways games create worlds and the types of worlds they create. Each post focuses on a different game, but I've only covered Paladin's Quest and Borderlands so far.

Jon Robison
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Zack, thanks for the article, I thought it was great. I've been consuming a lot more Japanese media in the last year than the sum of ever before, appreciating a lot of what you mentioned above. The article was great enough that I went to your blog (you mention here), which quickly brought me to your borderlands post including the thauma definition whatgamesare.com/thauma.html, which was also a springboard to a lot of great definitions etc. Thanks for taking the time to jot your thoughts down!

Zack Wood
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Well, I don't think this article or the blog would exist if it weren't for What Games Are, so I'm happy to direct as many people there as possible!

Allan Munyika
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@ Zack. I remember reading in an interview on the EDGE magazine website inwhich Shigeru Miyamoto was asked about his game design philosophy and he answered that when he and his team were in the process of conceiving a game design idea, they focused on coming up with experiences which they wanted the player to have while playing the game. rather than characters, story etc. This seems very interesting to me, especially at a time when I'm reading more and more game design articles advocating for game designers to break away from the tendency to design their games around elements of story telling borrowed from other forms of media like films, comics etc and instead design games around the what sets them apart from other froms of media i.e. interactivity and the gameplay. What do you think about that approach?

Zack Wood
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Well, focusing on what you want the player to experience makes a lot of sense to me. I think making a game = creating an experience/world. Stories aren't an essential part of games so it seems amiss to build everything around the story. But I've only made one game so far, so I'm no expert!

Gene L
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Much of what you describe with respect to developing sekaikan is quite common in other American media. Film and TV writers, for example, employ these sorts of techniques all the time; sitcoms especially are extremely reliant on character and character relationship because a focus on narrative alone limits the value of the product, effectively capping a show's lifespan.

I think, generally speaking, game developers ought to look to other forms of popular media instead of trying to reinvent the wheel. I haven't encountered many programs that require that sort of engagement or comparison.

Zack Wood
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Some people seem to think that the point of games is to create as realistic and complex simulations of reality as possible, but you're right, they shouldn't ignore lessons about what makes stories, worlds, and characters interesting that other media have shown. (Although I do think games are their own special medium, and that part of the problem is applying rules/expectations from other media like movies to games)

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Zack Wood
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There's definitely a bit of that, since I love new things and Japanese culture in particular.

BUT, there is just objectively more imagination and consideration of the world-that-is-created in Japan. When was the last time you heard someone talking about how a game did such a great job of creating an interesting world? I've heard a few people say stuff like that in America, but it is commonplace in Japan to a degree that's not comparable to America, with a far greater awareness that the game/manga/whatever is creating a its own little world.

In America what's valued is being similar to reality (able to be rationally explained in detail), and usually when people compliment a game's world they mean that it feels realistic.

In Japan when people compliment the "sekaikan," they don't mean that it feels just like the real world, they mean that it feels like its own little interesting world, engaging on its own terms and separate from the real world.

That's my understanding of it at least. And I love the visual style, too!

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Gregory Foster
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I don't think Mr. Wood is so much disputing the creativity and "sekaikan" of other Western media (television, literature, etc.) as he is simply saying that the things that make worlds such as even those you've listed so engaging and pleasurable are not, for the most part, carried over into the game industry.

(I do, however, agree with what you said about a general ignorance of foreign fiction elitists about some of the West's own very compelling characters and worlds. Though whether Mr. Wood falls into that category one cannot judge here.)

It seems to me that in the creation of games there is a sort of conviction on the part of Western writers/designers that the realer a game is (physically) with respect to our world, then the realer the emotions it can convey to players. This is, in my opinion, not only a false point of view but a constricting one.

Games, like written literature and animated works, have the special opportunity to reach into areas of the unreal that media like live-action cinema and television cannot breach, and to shape and pull from the unreal a whole new set of meaningful experiences and emotions. WHY ON EARTH would we ever want to bar ourselves from that? Of course there are plenty of games whose success depends on their verisimilitude, but very rarely are those the kinds of games that want to take advantage of a deep, engaging gameworld anyway.

Of course I always hesitate to write stuff like this because there are plenty of developers out there who do make awesome, creative, compelling worlds. But for the most part I agree with Mr. Wood in that there is something fundamentally different in the way characters and worlds are designed in Western video games.

I think what you (Mr. Wood) say about game worlds being "more than meets the eye" is of vital importance. Too often I feel in Western games the the creative boundaries of the game world I'm in are one and the same as its physical (i.e. programming) boundaries. That is to say, it feels like there is nothing beyond the one narrow circumstantial world that I progress through as the protagonist(s). I want game worlds that extend in time and space infinitely away from my character, where I can imagine other whole other histories and futures (of characters, places, even philosophies) being played out.

As a recently graduated creative writer myself hoping to make it into the industry, I have high (and incredibly unrealistic, but whatever) hopes that I can bring some of this passion about the creative world to video games. I will definitely stay tuned to this new blog, Mr. Wood. Thanks for the great article (which I've already shared with a bunch of friends to articulate some of my own feelings on the subject).

Zack Wood
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I think Matthew Shafer-Skelton touched on a great point: I, and the sweeping majority of the American public, have never heard of a single one of the worlds he mentioned (actually I do know and love Xanth, but you get my point).

In Japan, imagined new worlds and characters are more a part of mainstream popular culture. That doesn't mean that creators in Japan have more or better imagination, they just have more freedom and opportunity to use their imagination in comics, animation, video games, and character design. Honestly I envy that, and I have heard other creators voice similar feelings.

I do think that things are changing in America, but in general, the more "like reality" and "able to be explained in real-life terms" something is, the better it is considered. I believe that this is limiting to American creators across the board, as Gregory Foster touched on. (I agree that science fiction is one bright point of imagination in America, but it is just not comparable to the mainstream acceptance of imaginative manga, animation, and video games in Japan. Western "Fantasy" is for the most part far from fantastical, sadly.)

On his other point, of course unfamiliar or "exotic" things are more stimulating to the imagination (that's true for everyone), and I do have a personal preference for things made in Japan- but regardless of my personal biases, there are also real differences at work, which I tried to highlight in the article.

Zack Wood
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Also, thank you for mentioning those worlds- I am always looking for new, imaginative worlds regardless of what country or culture they come from, so I will definitely be checking those out! (And on second thought, the Xanth I know is a fantasy land shaped like Florida, so if yours is a solar system, that must actually be a different work than the one I'm thinking of. Exciting!)

Zack Wood
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And thanks for sharing the article and checking out the blog! I'm looking forward to posting about more games.

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Zack Wood
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I can't believe I didn't recognize Rokanan! The Hain series by Ursula K. Le Guin contains some of my favorite stories and books that I've ever read (especially Left Hand of Darkness). Thanks for explaining all the others! Obviously she has incredible imagination and created some awesome worlds.

James Coote
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I know certainly for some novel writers, they will create vast internally consistent worlds, of which only a fraction of that creation ends up in the story. It definitely helps that sense of a deeper world, that goes beyond just what we see, to come naturally to both author and audience

I think where that diverges from games is with the characters, who in western linear story telling, very much have lives before the story starts and beyond it's end. Like the world, that is what gives them their depth, but it also makes them belong to the world, rather than the world belong to them. (i.e. they can't easily step out of it and into other media).

That I think is why it'd be so jarring to have Bilbo Baggins tell you to get checked for testicular cancer or somesuch, yet you can successfully spin off a minor character from the original story and set them on their own adventure in the same world

Zack Wood
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I think having a detailed, rationally planned out world is not uncommon in the West.

But what I was trying to describe is an approach that focuses on tying together all elements of a game to create an atmosphere. A logical, detailed explanation isn't necessary for that at all. I'm not sure there IS an explanation for half the things in Paladin's Quest.

What it requires is vision, design sense, and intuition. That's why I think we need more creative visionaries in the game industry, not just highly rational programmer types (no offense to programmers).

Kati Hendry
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Zack, thanks so much for boiling down your experiences in Japan!

In the last couple weeks I've started seriously falling down the rabbit hole of programming and now video game design - I'm a complete and utter noob at both with a deep background in literature and writing.

I took a lot of notes from your article that will help me wrap my head around certain types of players and how to creative a narrative that's organically true to gameplay :) I love your explanation of the uncanny & recognizable, "real" characters in games, plus the "more than meets the eye" that can be subtly built out in a world. Exciting to see all of this so embedded in Japanese culture!

You're the 1st article I've read on Gamasutra, so thanks so much again.

I guess I'll ask a question to keep the ball rolling: Does Japan have a game development stance regarding a player's 'meta-journey'? Apologies as I probably don't know the right terminology...By Player's Meta-Journey, I mean the full experience or arc a player can experience from playing a game, during a single session or the whole game through?

Zack Wood
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I'm not sure exactly what you mean- besides thinking about sekaikan and the world that the player will experience? I'm not really sure. And I haven't worked for/with a Japanese development team before, so I haven't seen the process in action.

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Zack Wood
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Yea, the approach certainly has a dark side, too. Overall, though, it just feels more "right" to me and in tune with the kind of worlds and characters that I like to see. I don't know why, considering I'm born and raised in America, but to each his own, I guess. Thanks for reading!

Brian Tsukerman
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An amazing article that really resonated with me. While I like games of all stripes, it was JRPG's that originally hooked me, and now I know the terms for describing the qualities that attracted me to them.

I'm so envious of your exchange with Hidenori Shibao! Legend of Legaia was one of the more memorable Playstation RPG's I've played, but I never thought to check if he made games on SNES. Now I definitely need to find myself copies of the Lennus games, as Legend of Legaia's combination of spirit collection and a unique combat system set it apart from other JRPG's of that generation.

And now to check out that blog of yours.

Zack Wood
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Well, Lennus and Legaia are pretty different- but they both let you navigate battle commands with the arrow keys alone, which I love and wish other games would utilize! It's so nice not to have to mash all these buttons with your right thumb during battle, and instead just flick around your left thumb.

I actually found Legaia by searching for other games made by Shibao! Those are the only series he's ever been involved with, apparently.

And really glad to hear how the article resonated with you! Let me know what you think of the blog.

Zack Wood
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Woops, I accidentally commented again and can't delete it. But thank you everyone for reading, and glad to hear the positive response. Very heartening and makes me want to write more!

John Szczepaniak
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A fantastic article. One of the best I've read online recently. It strongly resonates with a lot of my thoughts. For example the Panzer Dragoon series, which has a strong sense of sekaikan, in terms of world, environment, indigenous fauna, language and so on. All of these elements are why I've been enamoured with the series for so many years, and it's good to have a word to describe that sense of being.

Nice to see you cover Hidenori Shibao and his work, since I've been speaking with him recently for a project I'm working on. He's been involved with some fascinating things over the years (did he mention his Super Monkey Daibouken guide?). This Gama entry, in addition to the other detailing Paladin's Quest, has encouraged me to track down and play through both Lennus games. Previously I'd played "the FEAR", on which Hidenori was a scenario writer. The two Lennus RPGs look exquisite though.

Thank you for the write up - it's been most informative!

Zack Wood
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Thanks! Your Kickstarter project about Japanese game developers sounds awesome, too- good luck!

I haven't played Panzer Dragoon, but I've wanted to ever since I found out that my favorite artist, Moebius AKA Jean Giraud, did the concept art for one of them.

Edmund Ching
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Fascinating article Zack. And good luck on the KS project, John, really hope to see it come through.

Zack Wood
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Edmund thanks for reading!

Christian Kulenkampff
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Nice article! When I read your description of Sekaikan I think of Authenticity.

Zack Wood
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Thanks!

Jeremy Billow
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An amazing read! I only really consider myself a moderately casual consumer of Japanese entertainment, so it was definitely interesting to actually learn about the nuances of concepts like kawaii which I admittedly thought were only really used as a cheap selling gimmick (I totally felt sonzaikan with characters without even knowing its existence though; when I played Kingdom Hearts for the first time as a kid, I nearly lost it at the end when Sora and Kairi got separated yet again. I thought I was letting them down!)

Your article made me think about the relationship between Western RPG fans and their perception of JRPGs. Particularly how common gripes that Westerners have with JRPGS seem to be the exact opposite of what they are trying to achieve. Take for example Kelly's definitions of storysense and character establishment and your proposal that Japanese characters fit this definition well. JRPG critics often satirize those games for what they believe are unnecessarily convoluted plots or characters (I've had a friend try to sit me down and explain Bleach to me once and I was more confused than when I left). I can see how characters like Link or Mario can fill this role since they are inherently simple (and maybe being mute helps with that), but when you get into say, the Final Fantasy or Tales of series, the characters and story feel anything but simple.

Another common criticism of JRPGs would be what I guess you could call the lack of sekaikan. To a Western gamer, the Fallout or Elder Scrolls series seem to have more of "world feel" than a JRPG simply because WRPGs nowadays really emphasize sandbox gameplay whereas JRPGs seem to still focus on linear stories. Sure, I could go anywhere on a world map, but once I complete that area's purpose, it effectively feels dead and used up. Whereas if I went and played Skyrim, I could go to any town and it feel alive with NPCs running around and going about their business (though admittedly I still feel like those NPCs are ass deep in the uncanny value).

So I guess what I'm trying to say is are there nuances that you feel Western gamers are missing that lead to these common criticisms against Japanese games, particularly RPGs? On another slightly related note, out of curiosity, could you explain Asia's cultural preference for games that emphasize a grind? If a WRPG were to come out that still had blatant grinding it would get crucified by reviewers, though that still seems to be business as usual in Japan and Korea and I'm just curious why.

Francois Verret
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While it's true that some Japanese designers could benefit from simplifying their convoluted stories, Bleach is a different case entirely: its story is convoluted because it is a long-running story that must release a new chapter nearly every week.

As far as JRPGs vs. Skyrim go, I feel like the world of Final Fantasy VII or Persona 3 are more alive than Tamriel, even though the latter is much bigger and full of NPCs running around. The province of Skyrim is fun to explore, but you soon recognize the characters' pattern. They have no personality and there is no life to them: they are simply plot devices (it would perhaps be more appropriate to call them quest devices here). In Persona 3, every character feels alive and has a deeper story you can experience if you so choose. It does feel like sekaikan is achieved better in a typical JRPG than it is in Skyrim. Clearly, though, it does not manage to keep their stories simple.

Jeremy Billow
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Admittedly my knowledge of JRPGs is pretty limited outside of Square's works, the Tales of series, and the odd RPG Nintendo chucks out every now and then. I've heard a lot about the Persona series, but I've always been hesitant to play them just because I feel I'd get lost in the plot.

I think you bring up an interesting point though about JRPGs creating sekaikan on screen while WRPGs are more set on world building as a whole (maybe this was motivated by Tolkien's Middle Earth extensive mythos that influenced much of Western sci-fi/fantasy). Take Mass Effect, for example, one of my favorite series of all time due to the amount of depth and thought put into creating a world that seems believable and livable in, though the first two games especially do a horrible job of letting you access that world due to cramped maps and sparse/inactive NPCs. I feel like WRPG developers do a hell of a good job designing a stage, though they can definitely learn more about making their actors come alive.

Zack Wood
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Jeremy- Hey, thanks for the reply. Well, sekaikan is just a term or way of thinking about games that is used by Japanese developers. That doesn't mean every Japanese game is well-done in that sense or that every developer was successful with what they were trying to do. I once talked (via email) with Hidenori Shibao about how, basically, the sekaikan in Final Fantasy is muddled and kind of sucks.

For me, the take-home message regarding American games is that "open-world sandbox" is actually not the most effective way to create the sense of a broad world existing. In the end, games are small, limited worlds that will technically never be as complex as reality. In addition, what makes games fun is their rules.

So the sekaikan approach (which I don't think is inherently Japanese, and is something any developer can use to think about games and game development) works WITH the limitations of what games are and what they can do instead of against them.

In my experience, Skyrim felt very exciting at first, with the broad areas and large number of people- it sold me on what it was trying to do (feel like an exciting world of limitless potential and complexity). But the world of Skyrim soon started to feel very dead and mechanical once I realized how pre-programmed and silly the townspeople's responses were (just a larger scale and slightly more complex version of what you describe about area's feeling used up and dead).

The fact is that characters in games are going to behave in a mechanical, rule-based manner, because that's what games are all about. Trying to make characters and worlds complex and "real" as Skyrim does is bound to come off as jarringly dead and fake (to put it bluntly).

Leaving all the character development to your imagination, on the other hand, will never get old. Providing interesting bits of stories and expressive characters that spark your imagination, instead of attempting to literally tell you every detail of their story with dialogue options along the way, creates more interesting, engaging, and believable worlds.

I think a lot of American/Western development is hell bent on details that can be rationally explained to show how "complex and open" games are. Like, "there are 7 endings" and "your character can become good/lawful, good/chaotic, evil/neutral- it's all up to YOU!", etc., as if a logical list of choices in the game somehow creates a broad, complex world. It really only makes a slightly expanded version of the the limited worlds you attribute to Japanese RPGs.

The only way to make a world that actually comes off as broad, expansive, endless, and exciting, is to stimulate the player's imagination and create something he or she can believe in.

Zack Wood
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Hm y'all basically already talked about everything I just wrote in the post- haha.

I agree with Francois that Skyrim characters really come off as nothing more than quest objects. In addition, their long, scripted personalities were actually quite irritating- scarcely a likable character in the entire game, for me! And I assume the reason for this was to make a "realistic" world where not everyone is all good or all bad or likable- what a shame.

Jeremy Billow
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It's definitely interesting how much American gamers would prefer the open world format where they are under the impression they are free to make their own decisions at the cost of having that mass amounts of mechanical feeling content.

I definitely understand what you're getting at with sekaikan though. I was actually thinking about it this morning, and probably one of the best examples that popped into my head was The World Ends With You. Though the actual story itself was entirely linear, the rules put into the game (such as fashion trends, eating food, etc) on top of the sound track and the actual design of the maps made the game feel incredibly alive and full of personality.

Zack Wood
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Re-reading my comments above they sound a bit negative about America games, but I actually enjoyed over 30 hours of Skyrim, so I can't exactly call it boring. It was actually a lot of fun for awhile, but the characters were definitely not the highlight.

There were some great moments, like running through a field at night when the fireflies came out, which totally caught me off guard and blew me away. The quest I was doing required going back and forth through that field at night, which I thought was really well-planned.

David Ngo
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Thanks for the interesting article!

One perspective I'd like to provide is that making world-building or character-building the central part of your game is kind of dangerous. This is something other media have already perfected. Cartoons, anime, movies, manga, books, etc. These are the essential elements of STORY. But not necessarily GAMES.

Game mechanics are the core of all games.

Which is why Japanese games always have great story/characters/worlds, but sometimes lack any interesting gameplay. JRPGs are known for being too "grindy", or for having weird battle mechanics that aren't that fun. Not all Japanese games of course fall into this trap. Dark Souls for instance is a modern example of great world-building and great game mechanics. So is Valkyria Chronicles :)

I think knowing how each culture views the game media informs and makes our game design better. But I think focusing on story/characters/worlds first can sometimes lead to a bad game. Choosing characters/stories/worlds that fit with your game mechanics is often what I do. I come up with something that is mechanically engaging first, then go into the long process of creating a world and the characters that inhabit it.

Just my two cents.
-David


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