Losing that Japanese Touch
Leigh Alexander recently published an interesting article in Gamasutra about sequelization and the rebooting of franchises in the current console generation. She compares and contrasts Bioshock Infinite with Ninja Theory's Devil May Cry remake/prequel DmC and the way that fan reaction to the two has been very different: despite many differences to Bioshock, fans have largely embraced Bioshock Infinite, while despite having a number of similarities with Devil May Cry, fans haven't reacted well to DmC. Alexander concludes, and I agree with her, that the difference has to do with a shift in aesthetics and a feeling that while Bioshock Infinite is true to its series' tone and texture, DmC does not.
What's interesting about the article, though, is her exploration of the Westernization of Japanese franchises and whether or not this has come at the expense of a unique Japanese design aesthetic:
Despite its hyper-stylized absurdity, Devil May Cry continued to hold on to its undertone of subtle grace; Devil May Cry 4 was indisputably beautiful, with luminous, lacy stained glass, glittering bronze patinas and degenerating stone monoliths. Although Dante's base of demon-hunting operations, with which the franchise shares its title, has always been housed in the same sort of sulfur-tinged neo-urban wasteland depicted in Ninja Theory's trailer, the game was about looking elegant, not looking "gritty," a term frequently used as a defining descriptor of what's considered the Western aesthetic.
Look what's happened to the Resident Evil franchise. It continues to delight fans, but it no longer scares them the way it once did. Obscure puzzles in a haunted mansion once made players fear the unseen; now, in Resident Evil 5, Chris Redfield and his newly-upsized biceps are mowing down fast-moving herds of zombies in an action shooter that clings to its third-person perspective as if to a last bastion of its old definition.
Fans love the new Resident Evil and the fourth installment's stellar numbers attest to a new audience for the much more accessible game (that the fifth installment's numbers are less impressive is likely attributable to poor co-op AI and not to a tonal change). But just as many old-school fans feel a loss as that series' tone has shifted. Eastern horror prizes the slow build, the unknown and the unaddressed, which for many holds more intriguing narrative prospects than the Western format, which prefers to exhilarate with in-your-face adrenaline challenges.
Of course, neither Resident Evil nor Devil May Cry are reputed for their spectacular storytelling, to say the least. So while Ninja Theory's trailer does lack Devil May Cry's eerie grace, what it's most notably missing is that intangible, hard-to-pin Japanese tone, which companies like Capcom appear eager to divest themselves of their hurry to attain global audiences.
The more interesting question is this: For Japanese developers, does Western appeal mean sacrificing their unique and long-standing creative identity?
This is a trend I've noticed myself, and it makes me sad. One thing I've always treasured about gaming is its international feeling; in particular, I've enjoyed the weirdness of the Japanese approach to gaming and have actively sought out games that had that aesthetic. Very Western franchises like Halo, StarCraft, Gears of War, and Call of Duty don't hold the same appeal for me as Japanese franchises like Devil May Cry, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Metal Gear Solid (and my beloved Mario games, but I don't think they're in any danger of yielding their aesthetics to the global taste as they're far too busy defining it).
While there are exceptions, I'm less interested in game franchises as they lose that Japanese je ne sais quoi I love so much. What American game company would have an enemy whose most fearsome weapon is a finger gun, as with Ocelot in Metal Gear Solid 4? A final boss who wears a dead peacock around his shoulders, as the Lumen Sage does in Bayonetta? Or this example, from the aforementioned Gamasutra article:
In Devil May Cry 4, a lothario Dante destroys a large gate structure by reciting a suggestive poem and assaulting it with weaponized roses flung into a heart shape.
I have no doubt that a Western designer would have created more badass bosses and a hero who kicked that gate down while muttering a witty quip through clenched teeth.
So, it's a question worth asking: "For Japanese developers, does Western appeal mean sacrificing their unique and long-standing creative identity?" Are we in danger of losing the thing that makes Japanese games so special? And are Japanese game companies making that bid to Westernize engaged in a futile attempt to break into ground already well-covered by Western companies?