Our world, their domain
Binary Domain has been a curiosity to me since its original trailer was released. The project gives off an aura of living in a strange world between cultures: Crafted by a Japanese development team, seemingly targeted at the Western market, showing signs of both styles of game creation yet never seeming to totally fit into either.
Today I got my first chance to really go hands-on with the game, and that early impression of Binary Domain still stands. The demo started with a selection of stages—both set in a near-future version of the well-known area of Tokyo called Shibuya—and then we’re suddenly presented with a character roster that is decidedly un-Japanese. All of your favorites are here: the typical muscular white male protagonist; the big black tough guy; the scruffy and no doubt “loose cannon” other white guy; and the token female inclusions (one of the women is even Asian to help broaden the ethnic diversity of the team). It’s tough to know where BD’s creators are going with this cast—are they presented as a play on how generic Western character design can be, or is this truly a case of people in Japan seeing our usual output of games and then thinking that’s what we indeed want? (And, unfortunately, maybe they aren’t mistaken.)
Once things fully kicked off, it was somewhat funny how much of the game I already understood. Hold this button to dash, or tap it near objects to take cover. Pull the trigger while in cover to blind fire, or hold another button to pop out from behind cover and properly shoot. Hold that same button when not behind cover to tighten the view and get more accurate shots off. Directions on the d-pad change my current weapon, and picking up a new one often replaces another weapon of the same type.
I can’t help but ask myself—is that a good or a bad thing? It’s a conversation much bigger than Binary Domain, but the game is an interesting example in the question. Should a game like this be lauded for subscribing to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality? Or is it a sad sign of the times that so many games have fallen into a control comfort zone, giving us almost the exact same options time after time?
While I stood there contemplating the larger meaning of such things, I noticed the Japanese woman standing next to me was making her character walk up a flight of stairs sideways. A second later it dawned on me—she had no real concept of how to walk and use the second analog stick for camera control at the same time. My contemplations of control complacency then turned to wondering how many Japanese players just aren’t used to controlling movement and camera control simultaneously, something I—as a proud American video gamer—mastered long ago.
Had I not known the origins of Binary Domain, my time with it would never have led me to know it came from an Asian developer. The bad in that is that, at least from the small portion I got to experience, that certain something that so many Japanese games have felt like it was missing here. On the other hand, so many times I’ve seen Japanese developers try to emulate a Western title or style and fail miserably at it—a trap I don’t yet see BD falling into. Never (to recollection) did the controls feel out of tune, or did major gameplay elements feel like they were coming from a team who had never played another similar game in their lives. Yes, Binary Domain feels too Western and not Japanese enough, but for games like this, maybe that isn’t always a bad thing.
Binary Domain is still somewhat of an eginma, a title stuck between two worlds where we still don’t know what way it’s going to choose in the end. Gameplay-wise, it felt great, and certainly on the level of the similar third-person shooters out there. On the other hand, I really hope it doesn’t fully lose that certain Japanese je ne sais quoi in its drive to be more accepted by the West.
Binary Domain is coming to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in North America on February 14th, 2012, and Europe on February 17th.