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Monster Monpiece: What the hell?
by Christian Nutt on 04/04/14 10:08:00 pm   Editor Blog   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I'm not sure when "moe" grabbed Japanese geek culture by the throat, but it's been somewhere in the neighborhood of a decade, I'd say, just based on my memories of how things progressed in the U.S. as a fan of anime and games that's been deeply involved in the subculture of digging Japanese stuff for a good long while, and with great enthusiasm.

The concept has been around much longer, but at some point, it took on a life of its own; it became an end, rather than a means to an end. I got into a definition of "moe" here but then cut it -- it's not really salient to this piece. What you need to know is this: The rise of "moe" has meant the ascendance of anime, manga, and games with large casts of female characters designed to catch their audiences both by the heart and by the balls.

These casts usually cover a variety of traits (both physical and not) designed to appeal to the geeky target audiences of these works, which (as with most cultural movements) became self-reinforcing as the tactic gained success. There became a set of conventions to follow. By 2014, we've reached a point we're seeing most of the RPGs being made for portable platforms designed to appeal to an audience of geeks who either require -- or at best, turn a blind eye to -- this new status quo.

It's not true that moe is a black-and-white issue, because it's creeped into most Japanese productions. It's also not inherently a bad tool. And one's appreciation for it is obviously subjective. I'm not just okay with Etna, from the Disgaea series -- I like her a lot. And I fall for moe elements of certain characters from certain shows (I love the yandere Yuno from Mirai Nikki, for example, despite being well aware how ridiculous the character is and how her personality is a type designed to push my buttons.) Japanese creators also tend to put in elements that confound Western analyses -- moe stuff usually brushes up against topics you'd consider "deep," and is usually much more likely to pass the Bechdel Test than your average Hollywood movie.  

But we can all agree when things have gone overboard, I think -- and that's where a lot of Japanese game publishers and developers are. They're defining a very specific audience and going after it with guns blazing, because that's one reasonably reliable tactic in a very difficult market.

But that change pisses me off, because as a fan of Japanese RPGs stretching back to the late 1980s, when the genre came to game consoles, I remember what they used to be like. RPGs, as we called them back then -- no need for the J! -- didn't need to pander to anybody to get noticed.

Why am I down on this? Why can't I let these guys have their fun? When a form starts pandering to a specific audience, it loses freedom of creative expression and it also loses its wider potential audience. The more specific the audience it chases, the tighter these constraints get.

Let's take a conspicuous example: The Hyperdimension Neptunia games are not just filled with unpleasant jokes and sexualized, one-dimensional characters, and art that panders to an aesthetic beloved by a narrow target audience -- they're also poorly made, behind the curve creatively and technically.

I'm not sure when I ran into it, but at some point there came a video of Monster Monpiece, a card battling game by Idea Factory, creators of the Neptunia franchise. It simply showed a player rubbing an anime girl on a PlayStation Vita screen. (I can't find the video I first saw, but this one's good enough.)

It's not the first "witch toucher" game (the "genre" is so named because of 2007's Doki Doki Majo Shinpan! for the Nintendo DS) but it pushed me over the edge, I guess. Ever since then, I've been fed up. It's not clear what these mechanics do either for gameplay or for the player's arousal, and they're as gross as they are perplexing.

Yes, I know that MonMon isn't an RPG. I'm kind of fudging the lines here, because of what I personally care about: the JRPG. There's a broader trend here, and it encompasses more than just the JRPG. It seems, however, to have swallowed much of it. 

Monster Monpiece was announced for a U.S. release, but news soon followed that the Western version of the game would have a great deal of its artwork censored to pass the bar set by the Western ratings agencies.

My reaction to this was "why bother, then?" If you can't give the audience the porn, does this game even have a point anymore?

After my initial reaction, the news made me realize that I had a chance to find out more about the story behind these games -- why they're made and who in the West buys them. To that end I interviewed Haru Akenaga, CEO of Idea Factory International, about the Western release of Monster Monpiece.

I'm not sure if I got closer to that answer. You judge.

Why does the game get such different ratings in Europe and the U.S. despite having the same content -- purely cultural reasons?

We submitted the same materials/content to each rating board, and they were evaluated by each rating’s standards and rules. We can only assume the reasons for the difference between ratings. But we do know that we received a 12+ from PEGI because of the miniscule amount of violence portrayed in the game.

To put it bluntly, why does a trading card game require this level of sexualization?

Trading card games (card battle games) are very popular in Japan. Idea Factory wanted to explore this personally unchallenged genre by putting their own twist on it. Idea Factory is great at featuring elements of moe in their games, and their hardcore fans actively seek out and expect moe in their titles. So, Idea Factory combined the card battle game genre with moe elements to create a new title for the genre -- that’s Monster Monpiece. Obviously, the game was developed to target the most niche of markets. It went on to sell over 50,000 copies in Japan, which means Idea Factory’s initial foray into this genre was successful for them.

A game like this, with a very niche, very vocal audience -- what kind of impact does making these changes really have on the acceptance of a game like this with its target audience? 

I was expecting to receive some level of criticism regarding the censorship from fans, but in fact, I have received more than what I had expected. I truly understand that the more niche of a title it is, the closer the localized release needs to be to the original. After informing fans about the censorship, their feedback made me understand even more how important it is to keep the game’s original content as-is.

Regarding Monster Monpiece, “censoring must be done” was what we first concluded when we considered releasing this title to Western markets. That said, we had two options available to us:

  • Not release Monster Monpiece in Western markets if we have to censor the game, because that (censorship) would disappoint fans.
  • We release Monster Monpiece as a censored version, and inform fans about the censorship clearly and unambiguously.

We chose to go with option 2. Monster Monpiece’s appealing points are not only the Monster Girls, but also the fun and silly game system. We believed that we could deliver this title to fans, barring a few images from the game. However, since we announced the censorship, we have received feedback from fans expressing their disappointment, anger, and frustration. We are sincerely listening their voices.   

I find it interesting you haven't commissioned new versions of the artwork for the West. Is it simply a cost issue, in that it wouldn't be possible relative to the sales you expect to generate?

A few dozen illustrators worked on the card images, which made it unrealistic to have them draw new images, both in terms of scheduling and cost.

Tell me about the audience who buys these games in the West. What are they looking for from your games?

I think the audience for these games love both Japanese pop and subcultures. We have established Idea Factory International to understand what these fans expect and want, and we would like to be able to provide titles that they can truly enjoy. To start, we would like to bring Idea Factory titles enjoyed by Japanese fans to western markets in forms that are as close as possible to the original release.  

The trend toward sexualized characters in JRPGs seems to be getting increasingly extreme of late. Why is this becoming a more prominent part of the genre? 

Developers always try to exceed the users’ expectations and evaluations regarding certain elements of a game when creating a new title. This is especially true if the new title being worked on is a sequel. I believe this is not only about genre or game elements. Whether it is about sexualized characters or violence, if these depictions and expressions are viewed as excessive, it will be regulated at some point. Developers need to voluntarily draw the line for where to limit some elements of expression that fans are already enjoying in the game. Then they should try to level up other elements of that game to make it even more appealing to fans.

Some would say that the sexualization is at the core of this game's appeal. If that's the case, why pursue a Western release if you have to censor it? 

We received lots of requests from fans for this title. And we wanted to release it for those fans who requested it. We had to censor some images, but we kept all the game systems and features intact, which we believe are the most important elements of this, and any, game.

On the other hand: Why don't you shy away from this kind of content altogether and avoid these situations at the outset?

We simply wanted to answer fans’ requests to release Monster Monpiece. As our first title, we wanted to release something that was actively being demanded by fans. Also, Monster Monpiece had not been licensed out to any third party publishers at the time.

Games like these will mostly be played by a small audience but become incredibly notorious with a much larger audience who only becomes aware of them via reports of their more questionable content but won't actually buy them. How do you consider this issue? 

As you mentioned, Monster Monpiece is a very niche title. And it is not the kind of game that a wide audience would be interested in playing, even if they did know about it. I regret that Monster Monpiece has created a lot of trouble. We believe that we have the responsibility to inform fans regarding any censorship prior to a title’s release. Even though there are many fans who are disappointed and dissatisfied with the information and have decided not to purchase the game, we do not believe that censorship will increase sales. I believe that it would have been a betrayal to those who considered purchasing the title if we failed to disclose the censorship, or quietly release the title without a word.

Thank you very much for your time, and for the opportunity to talk about Monster Monpiece.

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Theresa Catalano
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I agree with you in once sense: this particular "genre" of game that is based around rubbing female characters doesn't seem like much fun. I personally don't get the appeal.

But on the other, I disagree with you in two areas: 1. There are still plenty of really good Japanese games coming out that have much more to offer than sex. (Or don't even offer sex!) Take Dangan Ronpa for example... yes, I realize that's not an "RPG," but you "fudged the lines" first. That just came out for the Vita, features almost no sexualization of it's characters and has an amazing story! And apparently Steins Gate is getting a US release soon, I've heard amazing things about that as well.

And 2. There's an anti-sex tone to your article that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It's one thing for you to not be interested, personally... everyone has their own personal preferences. But the whole conservative tone of your article just seems a little judgemental, and I dislike that you seem to be using the word "sexuality" as if it's an inherently negative thing. There shouldn't be anything shameful about wanting to find sexual gratification in a game (even if it comes in a form as weird as this.) I'm getting tired of the growing conservative culture of shame that seems to be arising in our gaming industry, it's unhealthy and just plain wrong.

Andreas Ahlborn
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Let me start by saying that I am very naive when it comes to Anime. I had to google "moe" first to understand what you are even talking about.

I won´t argue on the topic if the "road to softporn" JRPG has chosen as a niche market is a bad move, but I can understand that rubbing mobiles/handhelds has a certain value for 14 year olds who are heavy kleenex-investors.

What I don`t get it that in a rational sense you even agree with the reasons behind the pornification:

"They're defining a very specific audience and going after it with guns blazing, because that's one reasonably reliable tactic in a very difficult market."

and some sentences later:

"When a form starts pandering to a specific audience, it loses freedom of creative expression and it also loses its wider potential audience. The more specific the audience it chases, the tighter these constraints get."

So what you are basically saying is: you don`t want that some developer who has learned that "sex sells" is apllying this formula to your most beloved genre because of some "artistic" constraints that might produce?

Welcome to neoliberal capitalism.

Like Theresa above I am also tired of these anti-sex articles, must be a special american thing, but some of us europeans find the "gunporn" (bulletsorm) and the "carporn"(GTA) our industry submits to more and more, a lot more up for discussion.

Albith Delgado
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I would say the article is being critical of sex rather than being anti-sex. Which is good, this is a community where we engage in constructive criticism of games, is it not?

Sex in games and manga/anime is just another tool in a creator's toolbox. And to be clear, the use of sex in many games today is not normal to many people. It has held me back from purchasing Deception 4 ,for example.

Maybe I'm showing my age, but there have been positive female role models in games/anime that don't have to be sexualized like in the Neptunia series. Battle Angel Alita and FF6 had strong female characters that didn't need it.

Creators should uphold some form of moral code, and if a game is pushing sex (or violence) too much, it makes me wonder if the underlying game systems are good.

and Andreas, I agree that violence in games should also be looked at and discussed.

Steven Yu
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I disagree with the presumption that there is a moral code within the context of developing a game. There are many ways reasons why anyone would develop any particular game and the genesis for many of these ideas tend to stem from a basic desire to achieve a particular goal or agenda. However, when someone invokes the very idea of morality in an entertainment medium, you then open that medium up to judgment. Who is right? Who is wrong? Religion, laws, policies, societal and cultural norms will all be at the table. How do you determine where to draw that line?

It is a false argument that many in the industry commonly make and one that I wish could be opened up to honest debate in a very public forum without the intervention of a PR team or corporate lawyers.

GDI Doujins
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You have to understand that in eastern cultures, in general, the women don't seem to age much physically -- average would probably be maintaining a 5'2" height, A-B cup, thin, etc. Thus what is considered sexy in the east is the neonatal look representing youth and beauty. Translate that to the west-- where a 15 year-old looks like a 24-year old-- and you get borderline pedophilia.

Most western people bemoaning the moe trend have a problem with the artstyle. On the other hand I have more of a problem with the mental age portrayal of the characters.

I think it suffices to say that the writer, myself, and others, belong to that generation of anime fans introduced when anime was dark, brooding, and starring adult characters (Ninja Scroll and Ghost in the Shell in my case). This trend to bright and colorful is the bigger disconnect -- not that we had a problem with the Japanese portrayal of sexuality of yesteryear. I remember quite well the shows of the same generation as Battle Angel had their fair share of shower scenes, fanservice, pandering, etc. -- they were not as disturbing because of the 80s and 90s fully-proportioned adult designs (except for the faces).

Steven Stadnicki
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I think the contention in your first paragraph would hold much more weight if the characters in these games didn't have their ages explicitly listed. It's true that different cultures have different notions of what a mature woman looks like, but it's hard to argue that 15 isn't 15.

Amy Roberts
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"Women don't seem to age much physically" according to some outsiders, whose eyes are normalized to the aging markers of other populations and are often warped by racial stereotypes. Visual markers of aging can differ between populations, but they still exist. Moe has a lot of cultural factors driving it, but no, it's not because women in Japan don't age. This is kind of similar to the myth that anime characters are "drawn white", when they aren't.

Amy Roberts
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There are a few places I think this conversation is missing the bigger picture.

First, the phrase "sex sells" is misleading. Sex isn't what's being sold in most of these games, it's women. Specifically, sexualized images of women. If sex itself was the selling point, the imagery wouldn't consist solely of women intended to sexually arouse men. There's nothing wrong with media geared toward straight men, but let's be accurate in how we describe it. Otherwise we'll completely miss the target due to unchecked bias.

Secondly, there is nothing wrong with sexuality in games, in general. One could argue, however, that the way sex is viewed culturally (in both Japan and the US), the differences in how appropriate sexuality is policed among genders, as well as how sexual media is regimented economically, are all detrimental to the quality of sexual depictions in games. Because sexuality is censored and sexual media is assumed to be a "male thing", we get shallow titillation in mainstream games, and hollow explicit sex in niche games. Diversity in representation is lacking, integration with other forms of expression is lacking, a true respect of the social value of sex is lacking. This all negatively impacts quality, for games with sexual content, and I'd argue, even indirectly for games without sexual content.

As for the stylization of moe, I think it is as much a creative dead-end as the grimdark machismo of most Western triple-A games. In both cases companies are responding to perceived market demand. (Or more accurately, betting on something with a proven sales record regardless of what the market actually wants. What the market "wants" is a nebulous, ever-changing thing and is always imperfect knowledge.)

Theresa Catalano
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I think you're a little off base, Amy. Sexual imagery in games is often geared towards straight men, but not always. There is content out there with sexual imagery geared towards women (or gay men) as well. For example, Yaoi amd Otome visual novels. Or Bioware games.

Granted, a lot of it is for straight males. But I'd argue that the main reason why there is a lack of diversity is a lack of demand. There's just more demand for sexual content from straight males, that's always traditionally been true. For whatever reason, women just aren't as interested in porn. However, the market doesn't care about being sexist, in only cares about making money... if there were more demand, someone would recognize an opportunity to make money. And in fact, that's already starting to happen... just look at the popularity of Bioware games, the increase in popularity of visual novels, and other things of that nature.

The market for sexuality for non straight males is definitely a niche market. We shouldn't pretend like this niche market doesn't exist... nor should we pretend like it'll ever be able to compete with the mainstream market of sex for straight males.

Christian Nutt
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Yaoi is geared to and created by straight women.

Bara, on the other hand, is made for men by men.

That aside, there's a big distinction between "porn" and "content that involves sexuality."

Amy Roberts
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I never said it was "always" geared toward straight men. The games covered in this article, specifically, are geared toward straight men, which is what I was talking about.

"I'd argue that the main reason why there is a lack of diversity is a lack of demand."

The reason there is a lack of demand is because women are trained to believe that sexual content isn't made for them. I've worked with people in porn and there is definitely demand for sexual content that targets women, just as there is demand for content that targets men but isn't as violent or demeaning toward women. However, most companies are run by men and don't know how to reach out, and women have been alienated from a lot of forms of entertainment as consumers and as producers.

There's a bridge to gap, but it isn't simply "lack of demand". It is definitely not the case that sexuality targeted toward people other than straight men is "niche". There are other factors at play, which is what I hinted at when I talked about "what the market wants" being imperfect knowledge. Like other areas where women aren't present, it is because they are actively weeded out.

Theresa Catalano
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@Christian Nutt

Yes, there's a big difference: porn means the primary focus is sexuality. But still, for the purposes of our conversation that difference isn't important. There's nothing wrong with sexuality in a game regardless of whether it's the primary focus or not. I think it's unhealthy when we perpetuate the idea that sex is "dirty" and shameful... "sex" shouldn't have a negative connotation.

@Amy Roberts

I think you're partly right but it's not *just* that society trains women to be that way. I think there are also biological differences in play... men and women tend to view sex differently, have different needs. On average, men tend to be more visually aroused and have larger sex drives.

Considering all that, it's really obvious why there's a lack of demand for sexuality for women. It's a niche market, not an insignificant one but it just can't compete with what straight men consume. It has nothing to do with women being "weeded" out. The market is ruled by greed, not sexism. If there's money in something they will try to take it.

Tony Yotes
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I can't believe how much controversy this game is causing in 2014. It's simple logic.
A niche audience loves masturbating to softporn anime. A game comes out appealing to them. It gets censored when localized. Fans get upset. The episode should end there, where just a few fans in a niche get upset.
Why are there so many people saying this shouldn't exist? It's a non-issue. If a game came out and it's not for you, ignore it.

Adam Heb
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@Christian Nutt

My question to you is have you actually played this game, or any of the 'sexualized' games you have mentioned?

I ask because you dont mention much about the game itself when it comes to Monster Monpice. The rubbing part of the game you talk about only takes up about 5% of the entire gameplay in the 40 hour game. Its also completely avoidable. It seems like your stigma for this game comes from the information that is has been censored for western audiences, therefor it must be overly sexualized. Which then leads me to ask, have you seen the images that have been removed? Yes I agree that they are indeed sexy, however they are also quite tame.

The core gameplay to this game is the card battles. It simply accents this by adding hot images for the cards themselves. I always hate when someone sees 3 images from a game, and then begins to pan the entire game for it as if they know whats its all about. Yes the game has some nice on the eyes artwork for it, but thats not what the game is about, nor is it the main focus of the game.

This game is not porn. If you have a poster of Madonna on your wall, does that make it porn if she is attractive? Anyone that considers this game to be porn, needs to have their own sexuality checked or lighten up. If you want a card game that IS porn, look up a game called Boob Wars.