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 yet 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 From Software’s newest release Dark Souls—and the way in which the game shows Japan’s long-standing tradition for insane depth in gameplay.
Sony Computer Entertainment—the original publisher of Demon’s Souls in Japan—decided to pass on the game for release in North America. The latest from Kings Field creators From Software, Demon’s Souls was brutally difficult, outrageously complex, and at times completely obscure. Because of this, Sony’s American division figured it would be too hard of a sell to a consumer base not used to such games.
Atlus USA, however, decided to take a chance on the game—and it went on to be one of the company’s best-selling releases ever. (Meanwhile, Sony Computer Entertainment VP of international software Yeonkyung Kim would later state that the company had made a mistake in passing on the publishing of Demon’s Souls outside of Japan.)
While much was made about how challenging Demon’s Souls was, it wasn’t the difficulty that caused it to go on to become a breakout success on our shores. It was the deep, finely-tuned gameplay that set it apart from so many other games—and the same is true for From Software’s like-minded follow-up title Dark Souls.
Some have been eager to proclaim a war being waged between the Namco Bandai-published Dark Souls and the latest chapter of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. While it’s a fun discussion to have—the two games are, after all, adventures in fantasy settings with custom-crafted characters—the pair couldn’t be more different in spirit. Skyrim is the product of the Western world’s current style of game creation: Big, epic productions that offer gameplay that just needs to be good enough to engross the player in the world’s cinematic elements, extensively-voiced characters, and sprawling landscapes.
Meanwhile, Dark Souls and its older sibling Demon’s Souls couldn’t be more Japanese. At first glance, they look decidedly Western; dig deeper, however, and they both show a classic level of obsession over gameplay elements that Japan has long been known for. Games such as Skyrim love to bog the player down in numbers and notations. Gaining an experience level is about increase a few select numbers in a couple particular columns; a new sword is about adding +3 to one stat and +1 to another.
Sure, Dark Souls has some of that: You can raise your level, you can find a new weapon, you can boost your stats here and there. The catch is, those are all extra components there to assist the player if they so choose to make use of them. The beauty of an adventure like Dark Souls—and the very Japanese gaming concepts that it is crafted from—is that the real key to improving your skill at the game isn’t in the programming, but the players themselves. The game can’t make you get better—you must want to do so for yourself. In taking that challenge, we find that the true roadblocks aren’t artificial difficulty or imposed limits crafted by the developers, but our own failings and frustrations. Should we want to be better at the game, we can—and that choice is something at the core of many of Japan’s greatest releases. Shortly after Dark Souls’ release in Japan, one dedicated player posted a video of himself besting the game’s first boss utilizing no weapons or armor. A difficult talk, but one that is absolutely doable—and in fact, it’s theoretically possible the full extent of the game could be completely in such a fashion. Difficult? Absolutely—but not impossible.
Dark Souls also employs another important gaming concept: Death. You can die in plenty of games, right? While true, it’s somewhat amazing when you really pay attention to the games you play, and look at how many these days don’t actually feature death as a legitimate threat like it used to be. Many of this generation’s big titles will be happy to serve you up a “Game Over” if you make a stupid mistake, but even then death often means just a re-start at a recent checkpoint or an automatic second chance at now doing things right. Older gamers want to use their precious free time to see more of a game—not struggle to beat it—while younger gamers just aren’t used to the high levels of difficulty that previously existed as the norm. In contrast, both developers and consumers in Japan still seem to have an appreciation for the idea of having to practice something until you get it right. Dark Souls understands how to give players real reward—that feeling of accomplishment when an enemy or challenge was beaten not out of sheer luck or a chance happening, but because the player has truly improved at the task to the point where they can now conquer it.
Even beyond those core gameplay concepts, Demon’s Souls existed as the antithesis of games such as Skyrim and their grandiose aspirations. Stages were small, compact, focused, where every step was carefully designed and every element existed as a part of the landscape for a reason. The journey wasn’t about traveling wide open plains or towering mountains—it was about the journey of the player themselves. Combat was refined to a level of immense depth, where skill and mastery over attacks were of far more importance than any weapon statistics or experience levels. Players were expected to figure out the game’s many cryptic systems and requirements—even if it meant alienating the more casual consumers who would have no concept of where to begin in figuring them out. With its move to a more open-world feel, one might think that Dark Souls has moved away from those core tenants of Demon’s Souls, and gained a focus more Western in style. And yet, it hasn’t. That Japanese dedication to design is still evident in every nook and cranny of the game’s world—there’s just more of it now to explore.
Games are about the experience—but what exactly creating that “experience” entails is a debate that East and West continue to wage via their games. Platinum Games’ Bayonetta is another fine example of the love Japanese developers show for that intense depth of gameplay. Some of its elements do feel more Western inspired—not surprising given its designer Hideki Kamiya’s appreciation for mixing elements from various cultures—but its unashamed complexity in maneuvers and combat options for its titular character were a trademark of its country of origin (or those games that look to emulate that slice of Japanese gaming). Bayonetta’s stages and settings could really be anything at the end of the day; in fact, the entire journey could even be reworked using a completely different concept. Bayonetta—much like Dark Souls—is the player’s adventure through bettering themselves, not seeing a storyline to its earth-shattering climax.
Of course, this complexity and depth of gameplay isn’t owned by Japan—but it’s one of the ways in which the Japanese development community still shines. Here in the West, we want bigger, louder, and more fantastical. We want our epic adventures across vast worlds that rival the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Meanwhile, Japanese gamers also long for large—but large in gameplay design and depth, not dramatic wonderment.