Sitting here watching the dev hack continue into its second night, something occurs to me. The teams are in the middle of some barebones development, wrestling with the most fundamental elements of games creation – control, input, response, feel – and all that goes with it.
There’s no time for making sure everything works perfectly or there’s a story. The important thing is to have produced something that is fun to play in a simple, almost primal level.
And then I have a drink, and I get to thinking about the wider world of games, and how we all wrestle with this.
Then the Chinese food arrives, and my by-now-ritual realisation that I don’t have any chopsticks on me sparks some peculiar part of my brain, and I realise what I want to rant about.
There is a country in this wonderful world of ours that is responsible for consistently demonstrating how games making is done. Most of the professionals in the industry grew up playing the masterworks that came from this comparatively small island nation. And yet in recent times they’ve been neglected, attacked (from within and externally) and I think it’s high time someone stood up for them.
Japanese games are better than your games. There, I said it. And it all comes down to cutlery. Well, chopsticks actually.
Bear with me here…
Chopsticks are all about finesse. They require delicate movements and fine control to get the most from them. Handling them wrong can lead to mess and frustration, but they are perfectly suited to the job at hand – getting solid food from the bowl and into your slathering sustenance-slot.
It’s just up to the user how much time they spend mastering them, and how much they get back from them.
They’re ancient, and unchanged significantly from their original form, built of natural, unprepossessing materials that serve to enhance the experience of their use.
They’re the most simple and effective form that could be sensibly applied to achieve their function, but they have a remarkably complex and nuanced level of utilisation in the hands of a master.
The most wonderful thing about chopsticks is that they’re not just a tool. Texture is communicated through their form; soft noodles, crunchy tempura batter and crisp pak choi all make their presence literally felt through the slender wooden staves perched between your fingers as you eat.
They require confidence, dexterity, and dedication to master, and there’s nothing else quite like them. This is all remarkably close to the kind of thing one would write about the best qualities of great Japanese games.
The games that are born in Japan are complex, often archaic, and take a while to get used to from a Western point of view.
They are deceptively simple – plain even – and regularly built using what seem to be the kinds of gameplay blocks that a lot of modern Western designers would dismiss as fusty and old fashioned.
Japanese games are wonderful to play. Their moment-to-moment interactions are astonishingly responsive and tactile to experience – the attention to detail lavished on a simple walk animation or jump sequence gives pause for thought. One only need to observe the effect the particles have on the feet of Raiden in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance to see some incredible mastery of video game design.
The Japanese fundamentally understand how to make the simple act of moving a character around the screen sharp and responsive, and even when this responsiveness clashes with the animation or collision systems they stick to their guns and follow through.
They understand that the connection a player has with a character or avatar in a game is the single most important part of the experience, and they will sacrifice a lot to maintain this. This is where I see the connection with chopsticks (got here eventually); the act of playing (eating) is not just about the action and response (taste and smell), but the feel as well.
We are connected to a physical world and any tools we create are extensions of our form. As such they must communicate in as efficient and vivid a manner as possible; the material and form of the chopstick achieves that perfectly, as does the way the Japanese design their video game interfaces and supporting systems.
They may seem old fashioned and archaic, but they are honed to perfection and achieve their purpose in a way that may seem simple but which reveals depth and nuance over time.
It’s to be commended, and sadly we Westerners often underestimate this aspect of our craft.
Now then. Western cutlery is aggressive. Stabby, cutty, and efficient to the point of bland functionality. It’s about getting stuff into your mouth, without regard to the form, or the sensory delight to be had from closer connection to the culinary world you’re engaging in.
Forks, knives and spoons are made from metal, plastic, and anything man made. Anything artificial will suffice, because after all cutlery is simply a range of tools to be used to aid their users in the act of consumption. And it’s this obsession with consumption – rather than experience – that leads us to make inferior tools.
Western games are full of character and take place in believable worlds, but they are more often than not rendered in a manner which prioritises fidelity over imagination. Accuracy over nuance. Physicality over tactility.
Just comparing the movement and shooting in something as chunky, clunky and brash as Gears of War to something as classy, sexy and vibrant as Vanquish shows a disparity of intent (if not class of implementation) that perfectly highlights the difference in culture.
Japanese developers obsess over the economy of movement, of input and the sharpness, or (for want of a better word) smack of response and player feedback. Texture, tactility and feedback.
Western developers concentrate on building believable characters, accurate shadowing and skintones, and cool ways to kill bad guys. Character, world and aesthetic.
Japanese creators concentrate on the things that make games fun to control, and Western developers focus their efforts on the dressing.
I know which I prefer, and which I thoroughly believe to be more important in this interactive medium of ours.
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