Japanese developers are very rooted in tradition, which can be a little quizzical to us in the west. Nowhere can this be seen more plain than in RPGs. Western developers like Bethesda and Bioware change the landscape by introducing action elements and allowing players to drastically change the outcome of a story. On the other hand, the bleeding edge eastern developers like Level 5, Mistwalker, and Nautilus seem forever tied to the Dragon Quest tenets of design: menu-driven action, dialogue options that rarely make a difference, and traditional leveling and advancement mechanics.
As a result, people have marginalized the impact of eastern developers on the advancement of video games in recent years. It’s easy to understand why, even the most cutting edge and experimental games from eastern development houses are still inexorably tied to traditional design. Take Persona 4 for instance; for all its experimentation, it’s very much an eastern RPG. The hero is silent, the role-playing and combat gameplay are segregated, and most actions are driven via menu input. That being said, it does boast one of the greatest (and most ignored) features with which Japanese developers absolutely excel: universal art theme.
As it turns out, those TV screens aren’t just for show.
Persona 4 is all about television, and not in the sense that you’ll be staring at one the whole time you play. The game’s protagonists enter a bizarre Little Monsters-esque underworld via TV screens to rescue people trapped there. More than just a plot point, Atlus has taken the theme of television and infused it into every part of the game. The most obvious influences come in the UI; while in the television alterna-reality, the screen has a halo of scanlines to replicate an old CRT display, and all menus and speech bubbles even have a “reflection” to make it seem as though everything’s overlayed on a glass screen. The icon to advance dialogue in any text window looks reminiscent of a channel knob on a TV, and after a battle characters have a spot light shining down on them like a hokey game show.
The game also uses several static overlays to simulate poor reception on old antenna-based televisions. Antennas even play a role in the story of the game, as does fog and rain which relate to the look and sound of television static respectively. These elements, in concert with several other visual and thematic elements, create a universal theme that ties the whole game together and gives Persona 4 a strong artistic identity.
Several other eastern games have shown similar consideration in presentation. Odin Sphere (also published by Atlus; developed by VanillaWare) emulated a stage play, with stage curtains and classical overture introducing each chapter. Cut scenes and gameplay take place on a 2D plane with all the characters angled to face the screen as stage actors face an audience. Background art is flattened onto one plane and scrolls by at different depths to emulate set pieces painted on wood or paper. The game’s characters even engage in subtly melodramatic monologues to relate their inner turmoil in grand stage fashion.
All this needs now is a guy in a scarf scoffing at the acting.
In some non-Atlus examples, Killer7’s entire UI and presentation was just as disconnected and creepy as the game itself. Everything about the UI and menus exuded wrongness, from the anachronistic 8-bit beeps to the ominous discolored moon in the loading screen. Menus composed of jagged lines and clashing colors embraced a shattered glass motif. Just viewing the game made the player feel as disjointed and demented as the actual characters in the game.
Grasshopper Manufacture – opting for the bizarre over the functional since 1998.
Beatmania IIDX, a Japanese rhythm game just passing its sixteenth entry, has to rely on UI and presentation to distinguish one edition from another. For example, here is the introduction and interface for Beatmania IIDX 12: Happy Sky –
And here is the interface for Beatmania IIDX 14: Gold –
While both games are functionally the exact same thing (with different songs and negligible tweaks), they maintain different identities because of their themes and presentation.
For some reason, more consideration is given to universal art theme in eastern games than western. The high profile western fall releases — Fallout 3, Gears 2, Resistance 2 — all have minimal text-based vertical menus. Perhaps this is because eastern developers feel more restricted by tradition. Eastern gamers feel comfortable with certain gameplay mechanics, so developers must rely on art style and presentation rather than fundamentally different gameplay for individuality. It can be tempting to say that time has passed eastern developers by, but perhaps the factors limiting their contribution to gameplay innovation has allowed them to silently make great strides in terms of theme and presentation. As such, let’s not discount them just yet.