Boiling Point

A conflict between the East and the West has been bubbling since the dawn of video game culture. And the debate has reached its boiling point. A recent controversy surrounding Nier, a game developed by Square Enix, brought this volatile conflict to my attention. The game has two distinct protagonists; one that’s masculine and one that’s feminine. The West was given the masculine hero. Some saw this as an odd exclusivist attitude on the developer’s part. We asked: why is the more feminine Nier being withheld? Developer Yosuke Saito said in an interview, “At Square Enix Los Angeles studio we had a discussion, it was said having a fragile young character was not possible. So, I started preparing a macho protagonist for North America.” This is where the controversy begins. Is the West unable to accept a fragile protagonist?

The most recent “fragile” protagonist I can think of is Harry Mason from Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. Climax Group’s take on the game’s protagonist has him stripped of his weaponry, defenseless and generally ill-equipped to face the horrors of Silent Hill. Silent Hill is a Japanese series. Climax Group is a Western developer. The game itself becomes cultural paradox. Shattered Memories is a remake of the original Silent Hill, a game deeply rooted in psychological themes. It was released in North America first then in Japan a few months later. It excelled in the West generally being well received by audiences. It showed the West’s willingness to accept “fragile” characters whose minds are prone to shattering. So why then is the West expectations perceived to be the opposite of his character? Why do we require masculine protagonists?

Shank’s Shank, Mafia II’s Vito Scaletta and Gear of War’s Marcus Fenix are but a few “macho” Western protagonists of recent history. They are all buff, they are all tough and when confronted by adversity they deal with it through a hail of bullets or blades. This is not to say that the West is unable to create protagonists with more depth than, “tap X to kill.” And this is not to say that characters like Shank, Vito and Marcus go without character development. It’s more a problem with embedded cultural memes declaring these characters “macho.” And it’s a matter of cultural relativism when the East perceives these “macho” types as our virtual heroes. This is where the pot really begins to boil.

Let’s take this conflict to its most fundamental level. Are there any truly Western video games? Yes, Halo: Reach. An easy answer, but what makes it so entirely Western? Is it the game’s production? Is it Master Chief? Or is it themes present within the game?
Kingdom Hearts’ Sora, a spiky-haired indomitable type who fights alongside Disney characters goes against this culturally defined stereotype. The series utilizes culturally identifiable Disney characters to bridge the gap between the East and the West. Without the involvement of Western icons like Mickey Mouse, I doubt Kingdom Hearts would have succeeded overseas. It is the series’ hybridism that allows it to succeed in the West while retaining its Eastern origins. On the whole, Nier feels like an experiment. It feels like Square Enix’s attempt at creating a contemporary Western protagonist within an Eastern experience, yet something still feels lost in translation.

I spoke with Justin Potts, Project Manager at Active Gaming Media, a localization company in Japan. “I don’t really think it’s a matter of, ‘Westerners are ___________, and they all like ___________,’” said Potts. “Instead just a matter of not really taking that other audience into account much at all, and not really being able to, which I think a lot of developers recognize.” What, then, is the essential difference between the masculine Nier and the feminine Nier? Why even describe the two using these qualifications of male and female? Why does the East prescribe to the idea that Western protagonists must be testosterone filled maniacs? “I don’t think, however, that a lot of issues related to game design are one’s of ‘perception’ of foreign audiences,” said Potts. “Instead, just a matter of not really being concerned with other audiences.  This goes for most developers in most countries.  Just like any form of art, it’s created with a certain vision in mind, and when you think about people enjoying your creation, those who are likely to get the most out of it are ones with points of reference for processing its audio/visual/contextual representations.”

At a recent Square Enix conference at CEDEC 2010, representatives explained that “believability” of video gaming in the West – i.e. the creation of realistic characters and scenarios – hinged upon the toughness of their protagonists. In other words, when confronted by adversity a hero should be able to overcome it. They used Fallout 3’s silent protagonist as an example. He or she readily injects drugs into his system in order to enhance his abilities in a violent dystopian future. They argued that this grittiness was believable and his strength created a more believable video game environment.
“Game media, however,” said Pots “and both Western and Japanese media are guilty, and certainly do a fine job of telling us what ‘Japanese think’ about the Western audience and vice-versa.  I think that’s something that we have to get over first before we can really get down to examining these things in useful, meaningful ways that might lend to the creation of better games.”

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The cross-cultural themes present in video games like play, entertainment and story are universal. The conflict is more a question of whether or not the average Western audience can accept the culturally defined choices of the game developer. Game play is never inherently cultural; however, aesthetics and storytelling are far more influenced by the developer. “If you go back and look at box art, character art, advertisements and concept art for old Japanese games, most of them share a common anime/manga aesthetic, whereas what was presented to Western audiences was really all over the place,” said Potts.  “For example, Japanese gamers (and non-gamers) knew what a Dragon Ball game was about and were familiar with the stories and characters.  Western audiences got Dragon Power. We lacked a cohesive network of the shared cultural art form to associate with games being developed at the time.”

There’s a smallish city in Japan called Kobe, which is located in a prefecture famous for livestock and their marbled beef. One of the city’s attractions is a district filled with former diplomatic residences. My brother and I once visited the site and it felt like stepping into a microcosm within the country. There is a point to this story so hang in there. We went to a small restaurant where the featured dish was grilled chicken sautéed in Canadian maple syrup. Now, I’ve experience quite a lot of strange things in Japan. It’s an entirely different culture than our own, but the chicken was delicious if a little rubbery, so I have no complaints; however, this cross-culturalism can be interpreted in two ways. Is the maple syrup chicken a sign that the Japanese are open to Western culture? Are they making an earnest attempt to appeal to us? Or is the Maple Syrup chicken seen as nothing more than an attraction designed to catch the attention of passing foreigners.

Culture overwhelms video games. How often do we think of video games as cultural artifacts? Here’s a question, can you name a Canadian video game? I can think of a few. Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction was developed right here in Canada. Ubisoft Montréal handled it and they did a decent job. However, Ubisoft is a French Developer; Splinter Cell follows an America spy and the game takes place mostly in the United States. Maybe the themes are less Canadian than its production yet the general perception of the series has it thus removed from its Canadian upbringing. These cultural perceptions permeate game culture right down to its core. The Nier controversy is a sign that Japanese developers are taking Western audiences into consideration when developing their games. It’s an experience heavily influenced by Western ideas of aesthetics and story; however, and on the same level, it’s an extremely Eastern game that utilizes their own cultural memes within its story telling. It’s paradoxical.

East and West, masculine and feminine, objectivism and relativism; these conflicts exist in opposition of one another. These conflicts often result in a kind of hybridism, a middle ground where everyone is content. Video games are no different in this respect. Are video games culturally relativistic experiences? Are video games culturally defined experiences? They are both. This controversy has been bubbling since the beginning of video game culture. This most recent controversy has resulted in an interesting dialogue of the East versus the West rather than the East and the West. It’s a conflict that could easily boil over creating a mess for all the players to clean up, or if it’s caught at the right moment it could result in some great al dente pasta … with a side of Kobe’s maple syrup chicken.