Game design: East vs West and narratives

One of the most interesting parts of the game industry is the unique approaches that Eastern developers have when compared to Western developers, and the effect that has on the narrative style of a game.

When designing a game, a western developer is going to get an idea, go find his middleware, and build his idea in middleware and ship it.  When developing that game, progress will appear nonexistent until it reaches one of its seemingly random bursts until suddenly it resembles a finished product.  The game will almost always ship before finished and that won’t matter because its primary selling points will usually be its technical specs anyway.

In the same situation, an Eastern developer is going to get an idea, and then just start coding.  They will likely use little to no middleware, and they will make slow, steady, demonstrable progress, allowing you to watch the product assemble almost like a lego project.   The game will meet deadline with an overtime crunch that makes an early 19th century industrial factory look humane and its primary selling point will be the game itself.

From an end user perspective, however, the distinction will tend to be somewhat different.  Lacking any way to know about the development side of things beyond what shows in the game itself, they will merely look at what can be seen.  From an end user perspective, traditionally most Eastern games tend to be narrative driven, where most western games tend to be specs and feature driven.

As basically a niche gamer that prefers cRPGs and turn based strategy in general, my experience with games is different from what a puzzle gamer or an action gamer’s experience will be.   The most “mainstream” game I play is World of Warcraft, which is a bit of an aberration merely by being an online game with bad specs and socially driven narrative that changes based on how many “friends” you have/abuse.   I look at the average first person shooter and to a fault the overwhelming majority are engine specs and engine features with no narrative.

I should qualify something here.  When I say “narrative”, I don’t necessarily mean story or plot, but more the concept of the plot’s pretense and how well the game obeys that concept.  A good narrative will echo through the fans that play it, and should be something that someone who doesn’t play the game learns from exposure to fans.

Consider, what was Unreal Tournament‘s narrative?   To my perception, Unreal Tournament is a tech demo to showcase the Unreal Engine middleware.  Sure, it’s a game, but could you describe the game’s concept to me, without using the term deathmatch?

Narrative can also be communicated through distinct visuals.  Especially distinct visual narratives survive even parody.  Virtually anyone would recognize a Super Mario Brothers parody because the original game has such a distinct visual narrative.  Would you recognize a parody of the Unreal tournament characters if you saw them?

Halo stands out in a sea of generic FPS games by having a rather distinct setting inspired by a mix of 1980s anime and classical science fiction.  As a result, you recognize parodies of master chief. Would you recognize a parody of say, the Crysis super soldier?  Would you mistake a parody of the Crysis super soldiers for a parody of master chief?  If you saw a parody of the main character of Gears of War, would you recognize it as a parody of gears of war, or would you think you were looking at a parody of Cabal from X-men?

Essentially, narrative is important, but it’s nebulous and it doesn’t matter quite what it is as long as it’s distinctive.

On this point, I think the Japanese have traditionally had an edge over Western devs, but this advantage is quickly fading as the Japanese see Western triple A titles plow through the entire world.  The Japanese have become distracted by the sales figures western AAA games push, and are feeling pressured to compete.  We’re seeing a rise in design by metrics games coming out of Japan and traditionally strong franchises are crumbling left and right as the eastern publishers and developers  both worry about the sales power of AAA titles in general.

Interestingly, at the same time as the East began to lose it’s narrative to the pursuit of Triple A gaming, the Indie game began to move into the mainstream perception in the west.   Many popular Indie games have exceedingly strong narratives that aren’t just successful, they’re evocative to the point non-gamers can understand them.  Plants Vs Zombies was so successful it moved Popcap out of the indie spectrum altogether.  Angry Birds‘ narrative is so distinct that you can buy plushies of the birds.  Minecraft creepers are so iconic that I actually saw a creeper themed hoodie for sale and you will occasionally see Creeper-ko CGs go by on Pixiv’s recent list.

Disappointingly, the Japanese mainstream seems to be losing their sense of narrative more and more in pursuit of the bottom line.  You would think that such a strong indie/doujin scene- capable of birthing a Touhou/rule ⑨ themed reskin of almost every game ever- would be more influential on the mainstream’s sense of priorities in the same way the west’s indie scene has shaped our own mainstream gaming.

A good narrative also doesn’t have to be something positive, either.  Consider Grand Theft Auto, easily one of the most disagreeable titles in gaming history.  The series began life as a pac-man clone, replacing pellets with cars, and evolved into something iconic when it made it’s narrative into a controversy.

The traditional narrative strength of Japanese games came from the anime and manga industry inspired art style they used as a vessel.  At a time in the 80s when games were defined by either literal stick figures, blocky cars, or generic D&D inspired fantasy art, the Japanese offered us named chibi protagonists with distinctive appearances.   (Looking back on this early gaming era, trying to think of distinct protagonists in western games, I came to the realization that the west made heavy use of “create a character” and “Faceless protagonist” systems during this period, and still does to this day.)

Even as gaming continued into the 90’s, western game narratives suffered.  Several games with relatively strong narratives and Visual narratives, such as Commander Keen, Duke Nukem, Hugo, Turrican, the Lemmings, and the entire Point and Click adventure genre died out and became a forgotten relic of pre-online deathmatch gameplay of the then new 3D era.

During 3D gaming’s early days, on both sides, the art was reasonably distinctive because photo-realism was impossible.  Star Fox achieved a rather distinct look adapted from primitive 3D games that came before it (Battlezone, Arctic Fox, Starglider 2, Carrier Command) that it built on as a style.  The more realistic the games became, the core style remained the same.   Myst attempted to be as realistic as possible and fell into the uncanny valley due to the deficiencies of the era.  Final Fantasy 7 took the old point and click adventure graphics style, slapped on FF controls, upgraded the backdrops to pre-rendered graphics and the look was so distinct for its era that most people you ask would say the game originated the style.

Now that technology has improved and almost anything can be photo-realistic, you get unusual games where photo-realism robs the game of an identity.  Contrast the last five WW2 games developed by different western studios against the distinctive look of Valkyria Chronicles and you might think you were looking at 5 screenshots of the same Madden WW2 game compared to an ink and watercolor painting of WW2.

At the same time, there are western devs really starting to get the importance of a good narrative.  A number of the Indie games I mentioned earlier tend to have a very distinct visual narrative in addition to an excellent gameplay model based on the narrative.  Even Blizzard uses a SAI painter art style for their non-cutscene 3D textures.  The gap in distinctiveness between east and west is narrower than ever before.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years with the gaming market as we approach an era where for the first time since the early 90’s we will have 5 game consoles in the market at once, 3 western, and 2 eastern: Steam-box, Ouya, X-Box 720, Wii U, PS4.

It’s shaping up to be an interesting next 5 years.  I’m looking forward to making my own games and playing what everyone else makes.

2 Comments »

  1. daft27 Said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 10:39 am

    In this discussion, I think you should throw in a bit about the audience of each game and the existing gaming environment at the time in general. While I agree with you that Unreal Tournament was mainly a tech demo, UT was distinctly different from its main competitors in many ways. This differentiation was enough to make it viable and successful as a product in the late 1990s gaming environment, where options were much more limited.

  2. Norren Said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 11:58 am

    That is a good point, and I’ll make my next blog on target audiences and try to delve a little deeper into where target audience and narrative intersect. Not only do the FPS games of the late 90’s deserve a good look-see on that, but also the American games of the 80’s also do, as well. As I mentioned, a fair number featured “blank insert yourself here” characters, of which target audience had a great impact. By the same token, there were also successful eastern games of the same genre using the same mechanics, but with the exception of maybe Wizardry and DraQue, they came a little later.

    As to this post, I was attempting to focus on just the visual and story concepts of games, and found myself comparing FPS games from the mid 00’s to the tech demos of the late 90’s, and I didn’t mean to single out UT or discount target audience, it just ended up that way by the time I reached my fatigue point on writing and editing.

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