Why I Don't Enjoy Japanese Games

"Hidey," she said, "I know your secret."

"What?"

"You're trying to rip off Warren Ellis. You write so much like him."

"Uh... who's that?"

I was an otaku at the time. Huge, hardcore otaku. If it was a sienen manga, I had read it, was reading it, or had plans to do so in the near future. I roleplayed on a Naruto board. Actually, I'd had some involvement in around thirty-seven different anime role-play boards--not just Naruto, but Digimon, Bleach, and other franchises as well, not to mention the wholly made-up stuff. I'd seen more anime in a couple years than many could have claimed to have seen in their entire lives.

In all honesty, I was that kind of snobbish, bratty teen who looked down his nose at dubs because that was the thing to do, and who believed that the West was devoid of all creativity, incapable of creating an interesting thing. Probably a strange admission in a thread titled "Why I Don't Enjoy Japanese Games," but... well, it's an important one.

My introduction to Warren Ellis that day--and no, I don't write like him; it was all a ruse to get me into Western comics and broaden my horizons--changed me, but it didn't make me like Japan less.

No, Japanese media did that all by itself.

The first blow was Jyu Oh Sei. While watching it, I started to predict everything. Nothing surprised me. Nothing was interesting. Those fresh ideas that I'd been praising? I could see the cracks in the seams. I didn't want to admit it, of course, because who would want to admit that the thing they'd loved and defended so passionately was falling apart? I don't remember what came after, but I do remember the final blow--the thing that killed my otaku side:

Zaion: I Wish You Were Here.

There are monsters. There's a weak girl. There's a strong guy dressed in red. The strong guy saves the weak girl, because she has some special energy powers that will stop the monsters for good. She's delicate. She's everything I have grown to hate.

And, like that, it was over. I was done with Japanese media. Oh, sure, I've tried to get back into it over the years, and I've occasionally stumbled across true gems, like The Big O and Birdy the Mighty: Decode, but by and large, anime's lost its appeal. I'm too familiar with it. The passion for media simply because it's from Japan is gone. Now? It has to be great.

So... consider me surprised when I discovered that I don't like Japanese games all that much. Devil May Cry 3, Earthbound, and The Ocarina of Time are considered, by all rights, to be absolutely excellent games. I've never beaten them. Oh, sure, I've put hours into them, but I've never felt the need to complete them. Other games come and grab my interest. The Japanese ones don't.

Ask me what my favorite games are, and I won't mention a single Japanse game.

How can that be? There are plenty of great Japanese games. Surely great gameplay is still a good enough reason to play a game? After all, aesthetics are only skin deep. They shouldn't be enough to push any reasonable, open-minded individual away from a game, right?

Right.

So... what gives? What's my problem with Japanese games? The root, I think, lies in the mindset behind them.

Twenty years ago, video gaming changed radically. In fact, I would go so far as to say that March of 1992 was the most important watershed moment in video game history. A bunch of developers--many of whom were from MIT--developed a video game based on Richard Garriott's popular Ultima series, called Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss. I've mentioned this a lot elsewhere, I know, but it really was one of the most crucial moments in video game history.

See, nearly every video game before Ultima was built with the idea that it was, first and foremost, a game. Ultima Underworld changed all that. Yes, it was a game, but it was something more. Paul Neurath and the guys at the company that would go on to become the most influential developer in games history, Looking Glass, had fused the idea of play with the realness of a virtual space.

They had created a new world.

Since then, both Japan and the West have built video games, but there's a very different philosophy behind them. A friend once told me how his first shooter experience baffled him because the game featured no lock-on, an idea he had grown used to while playing Japanese games. The idea of directly aiming was foreign to him. Nearly everyone I know who says they don't like first-person games mentions a desire to see their character--and they tend to have a history playing Japanese games.

I should mention at this point that what I'm about to explain is more true when it comes to 3D games than 2D titles. Keep that in mind.

See, the Japanese philosophy is to treat games like, well, games. In a Japanese game, to perform an action, you learn a behavior, like you would in any game. Where Japanese games differ from Western ones, however, is that these actions are mostly actions of play. They're abstract actions, much the same way that a move in chess is an abstract action of a pawn murdering another pawn. When you're playing chess, you're generally thinking about playing chess--you're thinking differently than if you were commanding an actual war game with real soldiers, terrain, and units.

In a Western game, the idea is to remove as much abstraction as possible and let the character in the game function as an avatar for the player. If you choose X, then Y occurs. In general, the Western approach to 3D games is to treat them as universes to be molded and shaped by the player.

This philosophy is everywhere. Look at the Western approach to the role-playing game (players role-play, becoming active participants in the world of the game) as opposed to the Japanese approach (players use mechanics from role-playing games, but do not actually role-play). In other words, the Japanese industry's approach to game design has predominantly been about the rules and engagement of play, while the Western focus has been on putting the player in the game experience.

People have been wondering just why it is, this generation, Japanese games are on the decline. I believe I have an answer for that:

As games become more visually realistic, players expect them to be more realistic. Imagine watching a dramatic movie with a live cast and having a character who acted like Peter Griffin. He'd feel totally out of place next to, say, Peter O'Toole's Lawrence of Arabia, presumably because he'd call him "Larry" all the time. It'd kill the mood, and he just wouldn't fit right in. In a cartoon, he's more acceptable.

I believe that 3D games create a certain expectation within most players, which is that they should be able to act seamlessly and logically with the world around them. In a real-time, 3D game, aiming at a character like you've got your own gun, or moving over to a guy to hit him with your sword makes a lot more sense than locking onto the guy to engage him.

Obviously, not all 3D games are like this--strategy games, in particular--but 3D games that take place from first or third-person perspective with camera angles like a film's do conjure up certain expectations within the players.

Earlier, I said that Japanese games are on the decline--let me rephrase that: AAA Japanese games are on the decline. The guys at Platinum know it. Inafune knows it. Itagaki knows it. Capcom knows it. Konami knows it. Few are denying it--Japan's dominance is fading almost everywhere.

What is Japan's strength right now?

Handheld games.

Tell anyone there haven't been many quality JRPGs this generation, and they'll launch into a rightfully-deserved tirade about how you're ignoring handhelds, and they'd be right. Japan is still doing a really fantastic job with consoles. If you want some of the best current-gen Japanese games, pick up a 3DS and a bunch of DS/3DS titles. Those games tend to be 2D, tend to be removed from the camera or first-person perspective of 3D games, and tend to be a bit more "gamey" than the immersive western games.

Gone are the expectations that the player must directly influence a world, because the abstraction is back and laid on thick.

In fact, I'd go so far as to argue that this is why the Vita and PSP have both done so poorly: their fully 3D games are better suited to being on monitors and televisions, where their worlds can be appreciated, and players can treat them like real experiences or films. The DS and 3DS's success is in a big part because those games are often 2D, or very gamified.

When games approach real life, people want to be closer to their games. Abstracted mechanics have less of a place. People need things to be as close to neural stimulation as possible. This is why shooters are so popular--when playing a shooter, everything's about instinct. The people who have the biggest trouble playing shooters, in my experience, are the people who have the hardest time letting go of playing games like games, or, in other words, people who have a background in Japanese games rather than Western ones. The people who have the easiest time playing shooters are those who can easily remap their brains to the point where "walk" and pressing the "w" key are the exact same thing, or where moving a mouse is just like turning their heads. They're the ones who "get" shooters--and, by and large, as the market expands, we're going to see fewer people who were trained to play games the Japanese way and more people who will find it very easy to adapt to Western controls.

This is all well and good, but I said I'd talk about why I don't enjoy Japanese games. As you've probably guessed, I value immersion.

Some time ago, I was a bright, happy, everybody-loves-him kinda guy. I got along so well with people that they were always picking me to be their leader or team captain or what have you. I was great.

Then I got sick.

Pray that you never understand what it's like to lose yourself, because I cannot convey how frightening an experience it is. On my very first solo flight, my door popped open on takeoff (the most dangerous part of any flight) and scared the living daylights out of me. That was nothing compared to the complete and total unpersoning that happened to me as a result of my sickness.

I could feel my very intelligence rotting. People stopped liking me. Every day was marked with chronic agony. I became paranoid. I couldn't even think about smiling. To this day, when I laugh, the only thing that comes out is a small choking sound; can you imagine something so bad that it destroys your ability to laugh like a human being?I've recovered enough to be functional, but I'm not the bright, happy guy everybody loved that I used to be.

It could have been worse. Everything they told me made it sound like it certainly should have. I remember more than one doctor telling me something along the lines of "you know, you shouldn't have made it out of bed today, much less made it in to this appointment; most patients would have given up by now

Can you guess where this is going?

Games let me be someone else when life was so horrible I couldn't stand to face it. Fallout 3 let me explore a new world. Crysis let me fight aliens. Tropico let me become Presidente of my own little country. When I needed to find my way into another world--another state of consciousness, games gave me that. The virtual realities provided by video games gave me something I needed.

Japanese games were distractions. Western games let me be someone else.

But there was one that outdid them all--one that introduced me to the reality of immersion.

I rave about how STALKER is the greatest game of all time, and I firmly believe it is. It is the most advanced, intelligent game I have ever played. Nothing has got such an engrossing soundscape, or crafts such believable environments. It is the closest thing to a true other world that I've ever been to. If a comment I read the other day is accurate, the game was actually scaled back because the AI was so smart that it could beat the game without player intervention.

STALKER is the most depressing game I have ever played.

It saved my life.

I wanted to give up, you see. Oh god, you have no idea how much I wanted to give up. If you haven't been there, you will never be capable of understanding it. That's not an insult to your empathic abilities, that's nearly a decade worth of trying to survive while even close friends and family try to tell you they understand, then ask why you don't put more effort into things. I understand that those who haven't been there can't.

How does a game as depressing as STALKER wind up being such a powerful experience that it has changed the way I think? It gave me a survivor mentality.

Every day, I go through the kind of intense physical agony that makes Hugh Laurie's House look like a pathetic whiner. Every day, waking up feels like clawing to the surface while you're drowning (and I would know, because I drowned once). Every day, I plaster a smile on my face, and try to remember that I've got to perform basic functions like eating.

STALKER's the game that made me realize that every day is a little easier. Every day is a day closer to the day I laugh again.

Games, you see, can be beaten. They're short. They're understandable. Perform X, win Y. Easy-peasy. STALKER's tough. It's really tough. If you think the pattern-memorization of Dark Souls is tough, think about a game so smart they had to lobotimize it to give the player a fighting chance, and even then, most people don't get very far. Think about a game where the entire world is conscious and much of it wants a piece of the player.

STALKER?

STALKER's the game that wants you to say "fuck you, this day is mine!"

It is the only game that has fundamentally altered me as a human being. Sure, I've been emotionally influenced. Sure, there are games that have given me memories I'll never forget... but there's no game as powerful as the one that changed me as a human being.

I still hurt. The likelihood that I will ever experience a day without pain again is slim, and there's almost no chance that I'll ever be the guy I was before all this. Some days are worse others, though, and on those days, I need to escape again. On those few good days I have, though... I do remember some fragments of the guy I was--the explorer, the adventurer, the risk-taker--and I know that while I might be trapped in this pathetic shell, I can still be that guy again.

Either way, games give me what I'm looking for.

Why don't I enjoy Japanese games? The answer is simple: they provide experiences that I'm not really looking for. What I want out of games is immersion, and I'm too tired by the storytelling to be excited by it anymore. What Japanese games provide is something different. Every time I've wondered why people don't enjoy what I enjoy, the answer is simple: my experience in life isn't like anyone else's, and the same is true of everyone else. We're all different. What we like--what we need--is something unique to us as individuals.

I don't enjoy Japanese games, and I know that some people will never enjoy STALKER as much as I do. There's no reason to get upset or offended by it--our likes and dislikes reflect who we are. People are different. People are awesome.

That's a beautiful thing.