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Japanese video games and their narrative mechanics: A critical analysis by an outside observer

by Emma Rausch on 02/18/19 01:54:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

In entertainment media, the role of the artistic medium is to engage and intrigue the reader, audience member or player through interactions specific to those mediums.  Like movies and books, video games intrigue their players with intricate narratives that produce immersive experiences. However, the digital medium offers one more experiential layer that no other medium can: feedback. Due to this characteristic, game designers create their content with the player in mind. Specifically in terms of narrative design, stories and the ways they are told and communicated are designed to specifically meet the wants and needs of the country, citizens and cultures they were created for, and are also then tailored to satisfy foreign audiences.

Japanese video games are a prime example of this. In Japan, developers use a wide range of narrative mechanics to communicate story and character thoughts that are both socially and visually understood. Foreign developers wishing to enter their games into the Japanese market must also be aware and knowledgeable of Japan’s specific storytelling mechanics, not only to gain local audience interest, but to also convey the narrative at all.

While games around the globe have similarities, players arguably experience Japanese video game stories differently than other countries’ simply based on the use of certain narrative mechanics. This essay attempts to pinpoint common Japanese narrative mechanics and analyze their development and use in modern Japanese video games.

Comparing Japanese and western narrative mechanics

In terms of this essay, a narrative mechanic is defined as a method of experiencing the game’s story state that is directly influenced by the player’s interaction with the game (Bycer). Similar to western and the majority of games in the market, Japanese developers use text and sound, such as Link’s famous “yaah!” and sometimes voice acting, as two narrative mechanics to verbally tell and slightly show what is going on in a scene. Many games also use animations to show what a character would look like through different parts of the narrative. However, Japanese developers take storytelling a step further. In addition to text, many Japanese games employ visual cues, such as exclamation marks and manga iconography, to express what a character is thinking or experiencing. This provides a more holistic approach to conveying character motivations, emotions and intentions by layering the scene with text, animations, graphic emblems and audio.

Making games for the Japanese market

Other narrative mechanics featured prominently in Japanese video games aren’t just for the sake of telling the story, but for the sake of making it comprehensible to the Japanese player. These mechanics include different speech styles between male and female characters, utilizing English words without translating them, using third-person versus first-person perspective, and the employment of kishotenketsu , a method of storytelling that has no central conflict, but instead has many small problems that the player must solve or fix or get through to advance gameplay (Mandelin and GameTree).

In Japan, due to societal hierarchy cultural normalities, girls and women speak differently than boys and men. In addition to using female versus male forms of words, levels of respect and tone vary between genders as well, with women typically speaking more respectfully to men than men to women. This societal norm, as expected, carried over into Japanese video games as well and is considered a narrative mechanic because it can be used to convey or conceal a character’s true nature. If this narrative mechanic is not carefully accounted for when translating a game into Japanese, it can also lead to misunderstandings and unintended hilarious moments (Mandelin).

Another common trait among Japanese video games is the use of English within the text without translating it. According to Legends of Localization Founder Clyde Mandelin, it’s a common assumption that there shouldn’t be any English left when translating for Japanese audiences. However, “that assumption is wrong,” Mandelin wrote in his blog post for Gamasutra.

“English makes up a significant portion of the Japanese language today, and on top of that, English has been a major part of Japanese video games since the very beginning. Because of this long-lived connection between video games and English, Japanese gamers expect a certain level of English in their games.”

The hero and the heroic

Whereas western games are focused on making the player feel heroic by taking on a “hero” role, Japanese games are focused more making the player feel a part of the world within the story. This focus leads to the use of third-person perspective and kishotenketsu. Possibly stemming from traditional  novels (written in this article as shisosetsu), which are autobiographies and works of fiction told in third person, many Japanese game narratives are designed to have the player watching the main character from behind or over the shoulder. Arguably, these stories are told from third-person perspective not because they are a “God” perspective, but more like an author recounting their story (Fowler, pages 3-6). In regards to video games, the player is assuming the position of the author, thereby also taking over the role as narrator and “hero” of the story as it is recounted.

However, the Japanese hero does not have the same in-game experiences commonly encountered as an American hero. While American games focus nearly entirely on the hero and the struggles and obstacles he faces to “win” in the end, Japanese storylines are focused on the player feeling a part of the world rather than an individual within that world, almost episodically providing small situations for the player to prove their heroism (Schneider and GameTree). Tied to the traditional narrative mechanic of kishotenketsu, many Japanese games establish narrative in four parts: setting the scene, elaborating the scene and flushing out characters and relationships, player experiences a climax or unforeseen event that may cause the player to reconsider how they’re using a game mechanic, and resolving the climax based on how the characters interact with the setting (GameTree). While there may be a central plot or conflict, it is not the main focus for drama in many popular games, such as the “Mario” franchise or “Dark Souls.” Being in and experiencing moments in the world is more important than a grand finale ending.

Learning from the experienced

In addition to pulling inspiration from kishotenketsu and shishosetsu, Japanese video games also use narrative mechanics commonly found in two other traditional storytelling mediums: manga and kabuki theater. While there is no documentation drawing specific conclusion that these mediums all share narrative mechanics, there are factors that possibly account for these connections.

The first is that Japan’s entertainment industry boosted video games to popularity status in the 1970s. In the beginning, video games weren’t outright telling stories. Instead, video games provided experiences, such as fight space invaders or playing ping pong. It wasn’t until games started telling stories that designers had to consider developing in-depth narrative and story, and where better to learn about narrative structure than manga, a comic-book-like storytelling medium that was growing in popularity. Manga provided readers with visual language that corresponded with a character’s actions. Eventually, mangakas started using graphic emblems, such as flowery atmospheres and iconographies, to exemplify a character’s emotions and intentions, according to Neil Cohn, author of “Japanese Visual Language: The Structure of Manga” (pages 187-197). This provided readers with non-verbal narrative signals, or visual effects, of a character feeling angry or in love or evil. Mangakas also have a tendency to transform their characters, even if temporarily, to exhibit a character’s strong emotions in being evil or thinking harmful thoughts toward another character.

Similar narrative mechanics are also seen in traditional kabuki theater. The use of kumadori , or character makeup, depicts the type of personality a character will have, such as blue showing a character’s subdued nature or red showing a hot-tempered personality (“Kabuki”). Kabuki theater also uses mie , roughly meaning physics, to draw audience attention to a specific scene through exaggerated poses on stage. In manga and video games, this would be the equivalent of a zoom shot or close-up panel that would draw the viewer’s attention automatically to where they should be looking in the scene.

Closing thoughts

Japanese video games use a variety of visual and conceptual narrative mechanics to deliver immersive, unique experiences to their audience members. While there is little research into how these specific video game narrative mechanics developed, they arguably stemmed from the Japanese culture itself and the traditional media that was enjoyed there long before technology arrived.

In a nutshell, these mechanics include:

  • Holistic storytelling through the use of sound, text and visual effects
  • Implementing cultural influences including speech styles and the use of English
  • Making the player feel apart of the fantasy world rather than make them feel like an individual or the hero 

Japanese developers provide holistic narratives through use of visual cues and episodic in-game moments to make the player feel a part of the virtual world, not an individual who aims to change or upset it. These narrative mechanics were arguably established long before video games arrived in traditional storytelling platforms, like books and theater, and deserve further analysis yet, if not for the purpose of study then at least for documenting the history and development of Japanese storytelling.


References

Bycer, Josh. “Extreme Storytelling: The Use of Narrative Mechanics.” Gamasutra, 11 June 2012, https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JoshBycer/20120611/172156/Extreme_Storytelling_The_Use_of_Narrative_Mechanics.php. Accessed 30 Jan 2019.

Cohn, Neil. “Japanese Visual Language: The Structure of Manga.” Manga: An Anthology of Global and Cultural Perspectives, Toni Johnson-Wood, 2010, pages 187-197.

Fowler, Edward. The Rhetoric of Confession, University of California Press, 1988, pages 3-6.

“Kabuki.” Youtube, 27 Jan 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlTQUzPZU8Y. Accessed 30 Jan 2019.

“Kishotenketsu vs. Western storytelling in videogames. What is the difference?” GameTree, 8 Nov 2016, https://gametree.me/blog/kishotenketsu-computer-games/. Accessed 30 Jan 2019.

Mandelin, Clyde. “Common problems when translating games into Japanese.” Gamasutra, 22 Oct 2018, www.gamasutra.com/view/news/328996/Common_problems_when_translating_games_into_Japanese.php. Accessed 30 Jan 2019.

Schneider, Martin. “What is the difference between American storytelling and Japanese storytelling in video games?” Quora, 27 Aug 2017, https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-difference-between-American-storytelling-and-Japanese-storytelling-in-video-games. Access 30 Jan 2019.


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