The Japanese gaming industry has taken a bit of a beating lately in the press, with many eager to write off its efforts in exchange for heaping praise upon the growing power of Western game development. Yes, it’s true—in some ways, what was once little more than a hobby that many in Japan worked long and hard to foster has now become a gargantuan beast of multi-million dollar entertainment that the country isn’t always prepared to tame.
And yet, reports of the death of Japanese videogaming have been greatly exaggerated. In so many ways, Japanese developers are still paving roads into territories their counterparts in the West still dare to tread. Japanese games are still alive, and as fresh as ever—it’s just that many times their softer-spoken voices are being drowned out by the screams of space marines, the roar of high-caliber weapons, and the symphony of Hollywood-style explosions coming from the titles that now dominate the shelves of your local retailer.
So, all this week, I’ll be giving examples of the ways in which Japanese game developers are still crafting some of the best experiences around, told each day through a different Japanese-produced title that’s either hit our shores recently, or which will be doing so in the near future.
Today I take a look at the latest chapter of Gust’s Atelier franchise—Atelier Totori—and how it’s an example of Japanese developers building games around seemingly everyday ideas that expand the concepts of traditional gameplay.
I still remember the first encounter I had with the Atelier series. It was my first serious experience as a staff member of a major video game publication, and at the time part of my daily duties was finding interesting information to be posted on our website. Being that we had more of an import gaming-focused slant, every week we’d sit down and go through the latest Japanese game-related magazines scouring for interesting tidbits of information.
It was in one of those magazines that I came across a new PlayStation project titled Atelier Marie ~The Alchemist of Salburg~. Right from the very start, something about the game intrigued me. A new RPG based around alchemy? What would it be like? How would it work? Why make a game focusing on such a seemingly normal concept, instead of, say, saving the world or defeating all of the evil in the land?
It wasn’t that I was surprised to see alchemy—one of Japan’s beloved terms for what is basically item creation—in a Japanese RPG. That concept of item creation has long been a close companion to the genre, and over the years, the complexity and diversity some titles have offered in this regard has been quite impressive. With Atelier Marie, however, it was the focus of the game, not a simple side project players could invest time in whenever they felt like it.
Yet it’s that focus that stared with Atelier Marie and continues on to this day in the franchise’s latest chapter—Atelier Totori—that has caused the series to stand out as much as it has over the years. It’s also one of the ways in which Japanese game developers continue to push genre boundaries and endure their releases with fans around the world.
As somebody new to the series, it would be easy for you to look at Atelier Totori and expect it to be a typical Japanese RPG. It certainly has all of the required elements: Cute characters, bright colors, unusual creatures, and traditional turn-based combat. Play Totori, and you’ll start to realize that the game allows itself and its character to be something many games don’t have the courage to be: average. Not in quality of gameplay or ambitions, but in who we’re presented and what they’re expected to be.
The game’s leading lady Totori Helmold isn’t born with a foretold destiny, or in the middle of a war-torn land, or with the expectation that she’s supposed to run off and protect her world from utter destruction. Instead, she’s a young girl whose biggest concern is her dream to follow in her mother’s footsteps of adventuring and to become a skilled alchemist. While Totori features standards like exploration and battles, it is Totori’s studies in alchemy that are the real core of the game. Fighting, killing, conquering—these aren’t the traits that we’re told are what makes a person great. Creation, imagination, dedication to studies and one’s craft—those are the things that make us better as we progress through the game.
“I think just killing monsters and bad guys in games is definitely fun and nothing is wrong with those things—I personally enjoy that kind of game too,” NIS America’s PR Manager Nao Zook told me when I asked her about Totori’s focus on creation instead of destruction. “The Atelier series, however, does emphasize emotions, humanity, self-growth, and the development of relationships with family, friends, and teammates. This engages the players and helps them connect with the characters.”
It’s a very Japanese philosophy for game creation: Start with an idea that may be simple in concept or scope, but then build around that idea a fleshed-out world of characters and story elements. Western developers have long created games based on similar examples, but their approach has often been very different. Maxis’ Sim City put all of its effort into giving players the chance to design and run a virtual metropolis; Quintet’s Actraiser also provided a similar opportunity, but one wrapped in an action-adventure based around the gods.
Where games like Atelier Totori—and the entire Atelier series—shine is in understanding how to use core concepts like alchemy, but weave them into those story elements in a way that keep gameplay compelling the entire way through. In fact, another chapter of the Atelier series—Atelier Annie on the Nintendo DS—so slanted the focus to item creation and quest completion that the few occasional battles that popped up almost didn’t need to be included. And, in my mind, it was this element of Annie that made it one of my favorite Atelier chapters.
Games that challenge us to re-think what a game really is, and what we should expect from gameplay as a whole, aren’t just important in terms of providing us with new experiences. They’re also vital in expanding and enriching what videogames have to offer the market as a whole—which, in turn, allows more people who typically wouldn’t find videogames appealing to potentially come across something that they’ll discover is meaningful to them.
“Players will find a more relaxing plot [in Atelier Totori] that focuses more on the characters and item creation rather than trying to thwart some incarnation of doomsday,” Zook continued. “Whether it appeals to a broader audience of players would depend on the players’ style preference. However, if players who are looking for something different go into a game like Atelier Totori with an open mind, and are ready to experience something truly different, I believe they will find a whole new, wonderful gaming experience waiting for them.”
Another example of this diversity of gameplay concepts is Marvelous Interactive’s Harvest Moon series. At the time that the original Harvest Moon was released for the Super Nintendo, the concept of mixing real-world jobs or activities with Japan’s love for the RPG genre was nothing new. (I remember years before getting a kick out of World Court Tennis on the Turbografx-16, with its bonus tennis-centric RPG mode.) Still, the entire concept sounded quite odd. A role-playing game based around farming? Would you be fighting off rabbit and crows instead of slimes and dragons, and would the spoils of victory be seeds instead of gold? Of course, the game itself was never quite as fantastical as I enjoyed imagining it might be before release. What Harvest Moon was, however, was an amazingly engrossing experience that took an unusual concept—running a farm—and skillfully managed to build a game around it.
And yet, creating games like Harvest Moon or Atelier Totori around these everyday concepts isn’t easy. Though Zynga hooked the world on its Harvest Moon-inspired Farmville, it doesn’t take long to see the vast difference between the two games. Farmville—either due to developer intention or a lack of understanding in regards to what made Harvest Moon so enjoyable—is a game about addiction, not about excitement. One doesn’t play Farmville because the experience itself is enriching, but because the game’s idea of “fun” is in providing just enough imagined accomplishment to make the player want to reach the next level of options.