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.)
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:
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.