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Enjoying Japanese storytelling is not being racist.
by Tom Battey on 08/20/12 06:11:00 pm

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.

 

People say dumb things all the time. On the whole I approve of this. If no one ever said dumb things, then the world would be pretty damn boring. Sometimes, though, people say dumb things that aren't OK. Sometimes, these dumb things smack of ignorance, or border on being offensive. These things I am not OK with.

Recently, Assassin's Creed III developer Alex Hutchinson claimed that the games industry exhibits a 'subtle racism' in favour of Japanese games, specifically in regards to theme and story. Hello there. That's a rather sweeping statement, is it not? Some might say poorly thought out; others might say straight up offensive. As the understandably taken-aback interviewer put itseriously?

Let's dissect.  

First thing; the question that this statement was a response to; namely, how come people seem to be OK with Nintendo continuously iterating on a single theme, but seem to get annoyed when other games (like, say, Assassin's Creed) release yearly iterations without moving the formula on.

The simple answer is that not everyone is OK with Nintendo endlessly re-releasing the same games. There have been many people arguing that Nintendo need to mix things up a bit for years now.

The slightly more complex answer, but still worth raising, is that while Nintendo do seem to be allergic to new ideas, they know how to put a game together. However derivative many of their titles are, they are usually impeccably designed, and as such it becomes difficult to argue against them. We may be getting a bit tired of the Mario formula, but it's damn hard to picture how that formula could be objectively improved (something Nintendo clearly struggle with on a near-constant basis).

The same can't be said of Assassin's Creed. The Assassins Creed games have some noticeable areas that could be improved upon, but the development team have been content to coast on the same engine for three games now. That's not to say that these games aren't good; they are, but it does legitimise the sense of weariness people feel with the formula.

A single example: that climbing engine? Doesn't always work right. Quite possibly they've fixed it for the new game, but if so then Mr. Hutchinson should have said so in the interview, rather than accusing people who don't think the Assassin's Creed engine is beyond improvement of being racist.

However, Hutchinson chose to ignore any issue of mechanics, and made the argument instead one about story. Ignoring the fact that basically zero people play Nintendo games for their writing, it became a debate about theme and writing quality.

A personal note, with regards to the story in Assassin's Creed (he's the one that made it about story...) I maintain that Assassin's Creed was the game that Ubisoft didn't quite have the balls to release as a pure period adventure. So you've got these well written, well researched period stories, with likeable characters and historically correct settings, shackled to this clunking, dreary sci-fi/supernatural Dan-Brown-meets-Minority-Report thing that I'm increasingly convinced the writing team have no clue what to do with. Hardly a paragon of videogame writing.

Anyway.

After claiming that games journalism is inherently racist, Hutchinson went on to say: 'Then Gears of War comes out and apparently it's the worst written narrative in a game ever. I'll take Gears of War over Bayonetta any time.'

Oh dear. Firstly, I'd like to say I totally disagree with the 'Gears Of War has the worst story ever' argument. Gears Of War actually has a pretty good story; it establishes exactly why you need to be shooting all these dudes and then largely stays out of the way while you shoot them. There's just enough intrigue (where did the Locust come from? (spoiler: you never find out)) to keep the pacing up, but on the whole it's unobtrusive, which is exactly what you want from such a straightforward shooting game.

So I agree with Hutchinson on this point. However. He then goes on to slam Bayonetta, a game on my shortlist for Best Game Of All Time. Well.

Firstly: yes, Bayonetta's story is stupid. But being stupid doesn't mean it's bad. Bayonetta is a stupid game, and it's also brilliant. Like the story in Gears Of War, the story in Bayonetta suits the style of the game. It's a game that ends with (spoiler) the player punching God into the freakin' sun; with a finale like that, the story can do whatever the hell it likes and still be out-ridiculous-ed by what you actually do in the game.

It could just be that Hutchinson lacks a sense of humour, or more accurately an appreciation of the ridiculous; his comment -  'It's patronising to say, 'oh those Japanese stories, they don't really mean what they're doing'' - would suggest so.

But I don't think that's actually true. I just think he's culturally biased. He's American, with a clear preference for American stories, that comes from a lack of exposure to media from other cultures.

He calls Japanese stories 'literally gibberish', and goes on to cite Bayonetta as an example. The storyline in Bayonetta is not gibberish. It's crazy, yes, surreal and silly, but if you pay attention, there is actually a logic to it. Just not a logic Mr. Hutchinson apparently understands.

It's a logic that is a lot more familiar to fans of anime and other Japanese games. There are themes in Bayonetta that are prevalent in a lot of Japanese stories. These themes don't necessarily translate well to the 'Western' form of storytelling. To claim that this makes them 'gibberish' is...well, that's racist, isn't it?

It raises interesting questions about the purpose of storytelling. Hutchinson dismisses a silly story that he can't fully understand as 'gibberish', and therefore 'bad writing.' The inference is that 'good writing' must therefore be a) serious and b) completely understandable (and preferably American).

This a load of donkeyplop. It does a disservice to interpretive and surrealist writing by claiming that if you don't understand every aspect of a story, it's a bad story. Comprehension is not the ultimate goal of storytelling. Stories can be enjoyable without making complete binary sense. Many stories are more engaging for their impenetrability.

So we circle gently back around to the conclusion that Mr. Hutchinson's comment is dumb. It's uninformed and it's ignorant. It's also predjudiced.

I don't think Mr. Hutchinson is actually racist. I just think he's a little bitter at people not lapping up three near-identical Assassin's Creed games when Nintendo apparently get away with the same all the time, and used this opportunity to voice, in a really obnoxious way, that he doesn't like Japanese writing.

That's fine. He's completely entitled to dislike Japanese writing, just like I'm entitled to be horrible about the crap Desmond bits in Assassin's Creed. What's not fine is claiming that anyone who doesn't share his dislike for this style of writing is racist. That's just...

...well, it's just really dumb.


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Comments


Ian Richard
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I do hold many silly Japanese games do a lower standard than I do many American games, but it racism. It's a difference in the tone of the games they tend to create.

Most of the "gibberish japanese" games are the same way all through the game. Even as early as trailers, I learn to accept that it will be full of melodrama, silly jokes, or poor acting. By the time I play through the game, I know what to expect. My brain is adjusted to their storytelling... nothing feels out of place or wrong.

Most American games on the other hand are played serious. They build up these "Epic" stories, "realistic" characters, and a High Standard. Again, my brain adjusts to their form of storytelling... it's thinking logically and based on the realism. Suddenly... that one unrealistic plot twist or poorly voiced character breaks my immersion. Suddenly... the story didn't flow well.

It's kindof like those ultra-realistic CG people who look creepy as hell. When something is close to realism, your brain expects 100% real. Little details will be much of damaging when your brain is thinking with real world logic.

Tom Battey
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It's a matter of intent. If you set out to make a ridiculous comedy plot, and deliberately over-camp the script, then good on you. This doesn't make that story WORSE than one which is serious and realistic, providing the thing is well written.

The point where Bayonetta's story fell down was near the end, when it suddenly decided to try and justify all the silliness that had been going on in a long, fairly dry monologue. It just didn't fit the tone of the game, and was the only part of that game's script that I feel missed the mark. In a game like that, you don't NEED to try to tie everything together, and it ended up worse for the effort.

In short, choose your tone, and stick to it, unless you're going to try and subvert expectations in the way of Spec Ops: The Line, in which case you need to be pretty good at what you're doing.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Personally, I find most Western plots sillier than Japanese. No offense.. but I read Japanese games as less self serious, more tongue in cheek. To me Bayonetta, Vanquish, Metal Gear, and even Kingdom Hearts have this quality, that often present extremely ridiculous components with some slight mature winks and topics. I particularly remember a game called Shadow hearts, that has probably some of the most ridiculous storytelling in games, but part of that makes the characters endearing in itself: they are not just really serious and cool, -but they are funny and they have silly conflicts, and they become closer friends..

On the other side, I often find stories from the west, like Assassins Creed, or Modern Warfare, Skyrim, or Mass effect, too self servicing "Adult". But they take themselves too seriously and come out falling flat on their faces. There is no space for ridicule, no lightheartedness, all has to feel REALLY COOL! And your character is COMPLETELY BADASS!! And everything is completely Bad-ass... So much that it appears to be a juvenile fantasy for pre-adolescent boys.

In that sense, games like Fallout, Team fortress, or Portal, as well as other indie games often succeed much more when laying out a relatable interesting story. since they present a bigger range of emotion.

Sorry, the storyline for Assasin's Creed is no better than a Dan Brown novel, and that's not a compliment. I feel more than "racism"this appreciation is called a more adult, more open point of view.

Tom Battey
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I'm with you on that (and the first two Shadow Hearts games are fantastic). I prefer my games with a dash of humour, of self-awareness - I just find it difficult to buy these incredibly po-faced SERIOUS games, usually because what you do in the game in neither serious nor realistic.

A case in point, Assassins Creed - and I really don't mean to bully Assassin's Creed here, I do like the games - in which you play an assassin with around 16 swords strapped openly to his ornate body armour, but who becomes invisible when he stands in the middle of a group of monks because...well, because he's magic, presumably. The game is set in a world where a small pile of hay absorbs the velocity of the most ridiculous fall with nary a sprained ankle on the part of the jumper, and still the game insists I take it VERY, VERY seriously.

But it's a matter of opinion. Some people are going to prefer silly games, some people are going to prefer serious games. That's fine. It's not fine to call a group of people who prefer one over the other (and I'm not sure that's even true in this particular case) racist.


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