From April 2010 to May 2011, I had the opportunity to study manga (Japanese comics) and video game design at one of Japan's leading art schools, Kyoto Seika University. In total, I lived, worked, and studied in Japan for about four years. Here, I would like to share what I learned there about game design.
It all started in high school when a friend introduced me to anime (Japanese animation) 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 (RPGs).
The first one I played, chosen at random, was the curiously titled Chrono Trigger. Little did I know I was picking up one of the most revered games of all time, and, of course, I was hooked. Similar to my interest in Studio Ghibli's animated movies, I was enchanted by the level of imagination that I saw in Japanese RPGs.
Eventually I stumbled upon Paladin's Quest, one of the lesser-known Super Nintendo RPGs, released in the US in 1993. I almost skipped the game entirely, however, due to its generic name. I don't know how the translators settled on Paladin's Quest, 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 in an era that was already brimming with innovation. The pastel color scheme and simple visual style turned off many players, but their novelty only added to the appeal for me; the haunting music, alien plant-life, and unusual control scheme came together to create a unique and very engaging experience.
"The Magic School," 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, in freshman year of college, I enrolled in an "Intensive Japanese" class 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.
I had a great time there, which led me to transfer to Stanford University to major in East Asian Studies and continue studying Japanese. As soon as I graduated, 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. After double-checking my grammar with a Japanese friend, I sent him a message, and we ended up exchanging a number of emails about the Lennus games 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 without any grades or diploma upon completion.)
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, coincidentally, a designer on Chrono Trigger.) 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, and here I would like to share what I learned, focusing on two points: Japanese-style characters and their function in video games, and sekaikan, a term used frequently in reference to video games and other media.