From April 2010 to May 2011, I had the opportunity to study manga (Japanese comics) and video game design at Kyoto Seika University, an art school in Japan. In total, I lived, worked, and studied in Japan for about four years, and here I would like to share what I learned about Japanese developers' approach to game design.
It all started in high school when a friend introduced me to anime through Studio Ghibli's Princess Mononoke. The characters and creatures were unlike anything I'd seen before, and soon I was borrowing more. From there I started playing Japanese video games, especially Super Nintendo-era role-playing games.
The first one I happened to play, chosen at random, was the oddly titled Chrono Trigger. Little did I know I was picking up one of the most revered games of all time, and, of course, I loved it. Similar to my response to Ghibli's movies, I was enchanted by the amount of imagination I saw in Japanese RPGs.
Eventually I stumbled upon Paladin's Quest, a lesser-known SNES RPG released in the US in 1993. I almost skipped the game entirely due to its generic name; I don't know how translators settled on it since the game has nothing to do with paladins. In Japan it goes by the exciting and mysterious Lennus: Memory of the Ancient Machine.
Paladin's Quest turned out to be, in my opinion, the most original and memorable game from an era that was already brimming with new ideas. The pastel colors and simple visual style turned off many players, but their novelty, together with the haunting music, alien plant-life, and unusual control scheme, only added to the appeal for me.
"The Magic School," the first area of Paladin's Quest
When I found out that Paladin's Quest had a sequel, Lennus II: The Apostles of the Seals, I was eager to play; however, the game had never been released in English, and with zero knowledge of Japanese, I couldn't even make my way out of the first area.
That's why I enrolled in an "Intensive Japanese" class in college that culminated in a four-week trip to Kyoto Seika University. At the time, Kyoto Seika had just made news for being the first school in Japan to offer a major in manga.
The experiences I had there led me to transfer to Stanford University to major in East Asian Studies and continue studying Japanese. After graduating I moved to Japan to teach English with the Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) Program.
That was when I discovered the blog of Hidenori Shibao, the director of the Lennus series, who also worked on Legend of Legaia, a PlayStation RPG. I commented on his blog, and we ended up exchanging a few emails about the Lennus series and game design in general.
After two years with JET, I wanted to return to what drew me to Japan in the first place: popular culture like video games and anime. I had always loved drawing, and I remembered Kyoto Seika and its manga program from my study abroad trip. That's how I ended up going back in 2010 as a research student in the Story Manga Department. (As a "research student" I took classes like a regular student but didn't get any grades or diploma.)
Although Japanese schools tend to be strict about taking classes outside your department, I was able to attend some lectures in a game design class with Kenichi Nishi, the director of the cult-hit Chibi-Robo! (He was involved in Chrono Trigger as a "field planner," too.) Nishi walked us through development from idea to execution, and students formed groups to create their own games over the course of the semester.
Through all of this, I learned a lot about the Japanese approach to creating popular culture like manga and video games, but I want to focus on two major points: Japanese-style characters and their function in video games, and sekaikan, a term used frequently in reference to video games and other media.
Anyone who's been to Japan can tell you that cute characters appear everywhere: billboards, TV, clothes, trains, food (and not just the packaging, but often the food inside, too) -- anywhere you can imagine.
You can even find them in situations that in America might be considered slightly inappropriate, such as a flyer I saw that proclaimed something along the lines of "Let's reduce the number of suicides!" with a boy and a cute green creature raising their fists in smiling determination.
In Japan, the huge demand for and production of characters constitutes what is essentially a character industry; video game, anime, manga, and merchandise companies work together in close coordination to create spin-offs, crossovers, and various products based around popular characters. This is referred to as "media mix," and through these media mix collaborations, a character from a successful manga series, for example, can end up bringing in far more money than what's genrated by sales of the original manga itself.
The Pokémon Train
Hello Kitty rice balls
At Kyoto Seika, my classmates were very much aware that creating popular characters was a crucial part of the manga-making process, and, as you can imagine, skilled character designers in Japan are highly valued. There are artists like Kosuke Fujishima of the Tales series of RPGs and Metal Gear's Yoji Shinkawa (a Kyoto Seika alumnus whose iconic art is seen to the left), who have achieved great fame and recognition thanks in large part to their work designing characters. Artists such as these have their work featured in exhibitions, and can sell expensive art books of their sketches and designs.
Some people may be familiar with the term kawaii, which is usually rendered in English as "cute." However, I think it is not as simple as just being "cute"; my understanding of kawaii characters is that they are expressive, endearing, and easy-to-read, with large heads and eyes, simple, colorful designs, and exaggerated emotional reactions.
A term less well known outside Japan is sonzaikan, which literally translates to "the feeling that something exists." In terms of characters, it means that they seem real -- not necessarily that they are just like real people with complex personalities, but more that they feel full of life and provoke an emotional response from the viewer.
But in practice, how do designers make these kinds of characters? Ian Condry, a cultural anthropologist and professor at MIT, describes one example in his paper, Anime Creativity: Characters and Premises in the Quest for Cool Japan. There, he interviews m&k, the design team who created the characters for a popular animated show called Dekoboko and Friends.
[T]hey developed the characters by "auditioning" about 60 of them, that is, drawing up a wide range and selecting from them. "We avoided average characters, and aimed instead for those who were in some way unbalanced," he explained... The creators also didn't start with the visual image of the character, but instead thought in terms of a character's distinctive flavor (mochiaji) or special skill (tokugi)... "[T]he personality (kyara) precedes the character itself, evoking the feeling of some kind of existence (sonzaikan) or life force (seimeikan)"... When m&k selected characters from among the many they auditioned, they emphasized the extreme: one character is extremely shy, another extremely speedy, another is an elegant older woman who sings traditional sounding songs, another is so big he can't fit through the door.
In other words, each character is defined by a simple concept, which in turn determines both their behavior and appearance. The result is that, though simplistic, each character feels likable and real.
Dekoboko and Friends
In his game design blog "What Games Are," Tadhg Kelly explains characters' role and function in video games, and his description seems to me to be especially true in relation to Japanese character.
First, it helps to understand his view on the role of story in video games. In his post On Player Characters and Self Expression, Kelly explains what he calls "storysense":
"Storysense" is an approach to narrative which relies on the creation of an interesting world, a discoverable set of threads and bits of story, a minimalist approach to goal direction, but dispenses with dramatic plot and character development. It treats story as a backing track to the play of the game, and so the player can participate or not as he likes. There is no time given over to extrinsically rewarding the player for being in-character, and the only rewards are literal -- just as the game is. There is no elaborate characterization, no attempt to insert unnecessary meaning, and no emoting at the player to try and make him or her feel.
That's why, he explains in Character Establishment, characters in games don't need traditional development through a story:
Establishing character is not the same thing as character development. Character development in a dramatic arc is a long and complex process, but in a game it's completely at odds with what a world needs to achieve. The art of establishing characters is conveying an impression of who they are in totality, because they are just a part of a portrait.
A game character needs to be established with a light touch, so that it's the player's choice to like or loathe at their own pace. Take that away, or foist exposition on the player, and intended feelings of sympathy quickly turn to antipathy or boredom.
As he sums it up in his post on Character Development, "the world is what develops and characters are (for the most part) just resources within it."
Japanese characters, with their impression of being real (sonzaikan), and simple but engaging personalities (like the Dekoboko characters), seem well-suited for this kind of role. More so than physically and emotionally realistic characters, simplified and stylized kawaii characters help bring the gameworld to life for the "art brain" without distracting the "play brain."
Given characters' importance in terms of gameplay and companies' success, it should come as no surprise that great care is taken in handling famous characters. I was personally surprised, however, to discover that there is an entire company, called Warpstar, devoted to managing Kirby. Warpstar collaborated with HAL Laboratory, for example, in the making of Kirby's Epic Yarn for the Wii, and in that case, designers spent an incredible three months perfecting Kirby's appearance.
This careful attention to characters can also be seen in interviews with the team who made Zelda: Skyward Sword. The designers discuss working to make even the enemies kawaii, to give them "a touch of humanity" that makes you like them even as you defeat them.
Another term I frequently heard in Japan in relation to games and other media was sekaikan, which roughly translates to "worldview." When it comes to understanding Japanese game development, I think this term is crucial.
I first encountered sekaikan on Hidenori Shibao's blog in a post about the development of Paladin's Quest, where he explains that his goal was to make the world the main character of the game. In order to do this, he tried to make everything feel novel and new -- from the battle menus, which can be navigated solely with the directional pad, to the otherworldly character designs and concept art. He approached all elements of the game, he says, with the goal of creating a good sekaikan.
I discovered that other developers and gamers in Japan often used the term in similar ways. But, I wondered, what does sekaikan really mean? Through interviews, research, and my personal experience, I would break it down into two parts:
Having a "good sekaikan," then, means that the game feels real in the first sense as a result of being well-done in the second sense. Often this means that the player wants to re-visit the world, whether through replaying the game, playing other games in the series, or through other media.
Given its frequent use in Japan, there is surprisingly little discussion of sekaikan in the English-speaking world. I found only a few mentions of it on the internet, here and here.
In Anime Creativity, however, Ian Condry touches on sekaikan and its role in the creation of anime, which sheds some light on its importance in video games.
He describes what it was like to sit in on discussions among the production team of an anime series called Zenmai Zamurai. What he noticed was that, rather than thinking about the anime in terms of the story -- which is the focus for many fans and reviewers -- the developers used a "premise + worldview + characters" model. As Condry explains:
More central than the story itself in organizing the collaborative production of anime was... the design of characters, the establishment of dramatic premises that link the characters, and the properties that define the world in which the characters interact. This combination of characters (kyarakutaa), premises (settei), and world-settings (sekaikan) generally came prior to the writing of the story.
Condry goes on to mention that a similar model could be used for games, and although he doesn't specify what that might be, his research shows the crucial role of sekaikan in the development of popular culture. It is established in the beginning of the process and then informs secondary elements like the story and visuals.
In addition, although Kelly never uses the term sekaikan on "What Games Are," he emphasizes points similar to those that Japanese developers consider when addressing sekaikan. First, he essentially offers a definition of sekaikan in his post titled Numina:
We often infer more from a game experience than is actually on the screen. We have the capacity to use the game as an imaginative springboard, inferring personality traits, characters, behaviors and a sense of a larger game world beyond even what the developer intended. We make cognitive leaps, little observations and associations that contain the quality of empathy, and so it feels like there is more there than meets the eye.
In another post titled "Worldmakers," he goes on to insist that game developers are "worldmakers," and that "the art of game design is all about the place," explaining that:
Creating a world is a complex task that demands not just imagination, but elegance, form and direction... It is not just geography or art style, and it has very little to do with story. It's a balance of dynamic, audio-visual and pace-changing elements all intended to achieve a kind of engagement.
Worldmaking is the act of creating a canvass... Much of my book talks about the art of games as worldmaking because I believe that worlds are where the true art of games lies.
Kelly is the only person I am aware of in the Western world with a theory of games that takes this into account, explaining the fun of games in a way that applies to both Western and Japanese games, FPSs and RPGs, The Sims and Harvest Moon.
Finally, I wanted to share some practical lessons that I learned in Kenichi Nishi's game design class at Kyoto Seika University.
As each student came up with their own idea, he instructed us to assign a theme to our game, such as "getting bigger" or "becoming friends." At first, I thought it was ridiculous to summarize a game in this way, but I soon realized that, as a simple expression of your game's "worldview," it can help provide structure and consistency. He said that in Katamari Damacy, for example, the basic theme is "getting bigger," which is then reflected in the story, visuals, and gameplay.
At the same time, Nishi encouraged us to consider the world in our game from all angles: What is the political system? What is the weather like? What is the source of energy? What types of clothes do people wear? And so on, even if the element in question doesn't have anything to do with gameplay and won't appear in the game.
In this vein, he encouraged us to think carefully about what items we would include in the game's world. In one class, we discussed a student's idea for a game about a cute character that flies through the sky, collecting hearts while avoiding obstacles like eye masks. Nishi questioned her inclusion of eye masks, saying that they changed everything -- eye masks bring in the existence of human beings who wear them at night, adding a whole world of associations to the game.
His point was that each object changes the user's understanding of and response to the game, and so it is dangerous to thoughtlessly include something just because it would make sense in reality or because other games have done the same thing. Each element should fit with the sekaikan in order for the world to feel real and make sense on its own terms.
I've been talking about "Japanese characters" and "the Japanese approach to video game development," but I don't want to imply that these things are fundamentally Japanese and innaccessible to people outside Japan. On the contrary, these terms and approaches might have been developed in Japan, but I think anyone can learn from and use them.
Personally, over the past year and a half I've been working on a game called Monster Garden, and athough I've developed and released games as part of a team in the past, this has been my first chance to manage all aspects of game development (except sound) and to go all in with creating the kind of game and world that I want to make.
Monster Garden's worldview is one of "monster love." I wrote about monster love in more detail here, but basically it's about loving and respecting the unknown instead of trying to control or destroy it (based on the idea that monsters often represent the unknown).
My strategy for triggering monster love is to throw the player into mysterious and intimidating worlds, only to have them realize that there is no way to lose -- how you respond to the game's demands determines which monsters join your party and how your garden grows, but there is no Game Over.
It is a dialogue-heavy game, but at the same time I tried to get across characters personalities in as little text as possible. Instead of being "realistic," each monster offers a reasurringly predictable approach to the game's challenges. My rule of thumb when writing was that if it makes a playtester giggle and grin uncontrollably, then it belongs in the game.
Each of the sixteen playable monsters has one or two defining personality traits, from shy, loving Foofter, to cool and calm Mr. Bobo, to silly and playful Baby. I tried to make their designs and animations weird and varied, detailed but clunky.
Some of the characters from Monster Garden
In terms of both the approach to characters and the use of sekaikan, I see one overarching theme in Japanese game design: simplification and stylization as a means of creating a sense of reality and expansiveness.
The characters, both in terms of personality and appearance, are simplified and exaggerated, expressive and easy-to-understand. Game-worlds are organized around simple concepts, and items in the world are chosen with great care.
The effect, however, is to create the feeling that there is more there than meets the eye. Characters feel endearing and real and gameworlds feel alive, making players want to visit them again and again, whether by replaying the game or in other media.
Thank you for reading, and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. (I recommend also checking out the comments section of the original post, here.)