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’s pick is Atlus’ look at life, love, and lust in Catherine, a game which reveals the depth Japanese gaming can present in terms of character development.
No rationale fan of video gaming would attempt to argue that Western developers aren’t good at crafting memorable heroes and heroines—I’m certainly not here to do that. However, there is an interesting divide that has existed between East and West in terms of how those characters are presented to us players, one which has existed for nearly as long as video games have been around.
The first serious video game RPG that I experience was the original Phantasy Star. The sweeping epic about a young girl, a tyrant king, and a galaxy in peril pulled me in from the moment I hit start, and I fell in love not only with the adventures of Alis, Odin, Myau, and Noah, but also with the characters themselves. Even as simple as the concepts put forth in RPGs were in those days, those four characters still had such depth and meaning to me. I cared about Alis, and her struggle to keep the dying wish her brother had placed upon her shoulders. Even without finely-crafted cutscenes, extended amounts of dialog, or detailed backstory, the elements of who she was and what she was going through were woven throughout Phantasy Star in a way few games I had played before had done.
As time moved on, and I found myself becoming more and more enamored with Japanese RPGs, I started to notice an interesting difference between them and the RPGs created in the West. Friends who played titles such as SSI’s “gold box” Dungeons & Dragons releases or the latest chapter of Wizardry had an unexpected (to me) complaint about Japan’s RPG efforts: They had characters. For them, the “role-playing” part of the RPG acronym meant role-playing as knights or clerics or thieves of your own personal creation, not those the game’s developers had dreamed up. An RPG where you couldn’t create an entire party of custom-crafted adventurers? The idea was preposterous!
It’s a trend that still lives on to this day. Think of some of Japan’s recent crop of RPGs, with titles like Final Fantasy XIII-2, Xenoblade, Atelier Totori, Final Fantasy Type-0, Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep, Hyperdimension Neptunia—all of them have pre-determined main characters. Meanwhile, look to the West, where we’ve received releases such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Mass Effect 2, Fallout: New Vegas, and Dragon Age II—where each of those choices either allows for full character customization, or at least gives the player a high level of decision over who the hero is and how they make their way through the story.
This is a situation where both sides of the coin have their own unique offerings and special benefits. Yet as much as the West’s determination to blend storytelling and player preference together has produced some fantastic results, Japan continues to give us projects such as Catherine—a game which shows just how powerful character-driven drama can be.
The fact that Catherine comes from Atlus’ Persona team should come as no surprise. Though the Persona series was always known for offering up diverse casts of characters who broke away from RPG traditions, with Persona 3 the team kicked the idea of character interaction into high gear. While some labelled the game as “an RPG meets a dating sim”, that statement wasn’t totally fair. Yes, there were some elements of romance to be found between the main character and his various female friends—but Persona 3’s true goal was to give the player a chance to explore that building of social connections with a wide array of characters, potential girlfriend or otherwise. So important was the idea of building bonds with the people you’d be meeting over the course of the game’s year-long timespan that that aspect stood as an equal half of Persona 3, right there alongside its dungeon-crawling and demon-killing other self.
Persona 4 felt like the Persona team taking what they had first attempted in Persona 3 and refining the idea for that model; Catherine feels like them taking the core concept and seeing to what extents they could run with it. Again, we’re given something which seems to have two halves to it: A “gameplay” side, and a “social interaction” side. However, while Catherine’s puzzle-solving elements do provide for enjoyment—to the point that the multiplayer version of those block-pushing segments has now even seen itself become popular at gaming tournaments—it could be argued that they’re clearly the weaker and less important portion of the game. Before playing Catherine, the game may come off as some strange new brain teaser with copious amounts of storyline thrown in to pad its length; once you come to meet Vincent, the beautiful blonde temptress Catherine, Vincent’s frustrated but faithful girlfriend Katherine, and the rest of the cast, you quickly come to realize that the reason you keep going isn’t for the next segment of that “gameplay”—it’s for the next cutscene or chance to interact with the world you’re now inhabiting.
In Western cinema, we love our drama. Action movies pit hero versus villain, romantic films must always see a couple split up or have a falling out before finally reaching their happy ending, and even comedies can’t help but involve some sort of protagonist or other challenge that must be overcome. In comparison, Japanese films often work on another understanding—that real drama doesn’t come from that sort of clear-cut “win or lose” type of scenario, but simply from how events unfold and what their resolution ends up being.
While Catherine does have that clearer level of drama—Vincent is plagued by horrific nightmares that he must survive, and every night he struggles in an attempt to see them out to the end—so much of the game is simply about how he handles his life outside of those do-or-die scenarios. Who is Vincent as a man? How has he gotten to where he’s now at? How does he handle his relationship to a woman who wants to get married (while he’s not quite ready)? What should he do about this new, younger women who asks for nothing from him but lust-filled romps in the bedroom?
Looking back to Western cinema, there are a few specific examples where Catherine could find itself feeling at home: The films of Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith. For both of those storytellers, the exact details of the the plot and what is unfolding in that regard are often of secondary importance. Instead, what is important are the characters and their interactions with one another. Conversations between people aren’t used simply to connect more “interesting” scenes—they’re the meat of the film, and where we get the most enjoyment from what we’re being presented. Catherine exists on that same kind of level. Much of the game takes place at the Stray Sheep, a local bar / pizza joint. Here, Vincent contemplates how to fix the mess he’s gotten himself into, he talks about his problems with his close-knit group of friends, or he communicates with one (or both) of the game’s leading ladies via player-written text messages. As an experience, Catherine would have fallen flat on its face had these scenes not worked—but they do, because of how expertly developed not only Vincent himself is, but everyone around him are as well.
So well crafted and deeply infused with personality are the characters in Catherine that the team at Atlus could have ripped out the puzzle portions of the game and it would still have been just as enjoyable. In fact—had the game only been about that character drama, and not felt the need to include fast-action segments to justify itself to players, there’s the possibility that it could have been even more enjoyable. As far as Western developers have come in creating protagonists and those who surround them, they still far too often feel like vehicles which exists to carry us from one thrilling moment to the next. Even if Japan’s efforts may, at times, feel silly and sophmoric in terms of the characters we’re presented in games, those developers still often seem to hold a deeper understand of just how much of our experience can be affected—positively or negatively—simply due to the cast we’re paired with.
Corpse Party, on the other hand, is another perfect example of the polar opposite. As a game, Corpse Party is honestly not all that remarkable; its horror often little more than pixelated shades of red brought together to represent a pool of blood or a mutilated body. So why have I been unable to shut up about the game since its release? Because Corpse Party is all about its characters and what happens to them. It’s that perfect contrast of Western horror versus Japanese horror, where the prior revels in the physicality of fear while the latter delves more into the mental and emotional aspects. At the end of the day, the actual events of Corpse Party aren’t important—what matters is what the characters went through while those events played out.
Once aspect of this centralization around characters that I came to really notice was in how games allow their characters to deal with tragedy. While playing, we may encounter a horrific scene, and when we do we look to our digital avatar to see how we should react. So often, their reaction is brief—if it even exists at all. To them, the horror isn’t real—it’s, well, almost like a video game. If our character isn’t scared, then we aren’t either, because the ability for a game to build fear will always be surrounded around how those events will affect our character.
Yet in Corpse Party, something very rare happens—the characters are truly allowed to have emotional reactions to what’s going on around them. At one point early in the game, a character comes across the freshly-deceased corpse of someone who just minutes ago they were having a conversation with. At first, it doesn’t seem real to our character—and then the gravity of the situation hits, and they break down sobbing. No cut away, no fade to black, no implied tears—we witness an actual, heartfelt expression and outpouring of emotion, one which we can’t help but start to be affected by. The rest of Corpse Party plays out in similar fashion, as we come to know and care about these ill-fated teenagers and then are forced to watch as they’re brutally traumatized.
Corpse Party works not because we get to fight against monsters, or solve complex puzzles to outrun ghosts, or any other such concepts. It works because it has an understand of the importance of deep, well-crafted characters, and how—more than almost any other piece of a work of fiction—it’s those characters who will ultimately pull us into (or push us away from) the narrative we’re being presented.