Monday, May 08, 2006

Game Design

Singing geese and ducks, dancing bears, Mt. Fuji, the pill-head king and queen, and the royal rainbow... it can only be, you guessed it! Katamari Damaci!

Years ago, I read a Wired article by William Gibson talking about Japanese culture, their use of text messaging on cell phones as a part of everyday life (this was back in 2001, mind you), and their mainstream adoption of, lets say, "alternative lifestyles." It was one of those points where I felt my mind warping, as my sense of “normal” was stretched. Or, another way of looking at it, I had the sense (prior to having heard the phrase): “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” While reading, I had the sense that Japan, and Tokyo in particular, contained an unusually dense concentration of the future.

The first point I felt the cultural immersion epiphany was while watching a Japanese Anime video titled, very roughly, "People of the Forest." Although I understood only a word or two, this helped emphasize the sheer bizarreness of the multiple clans of good/bad guys, mystic/invisible forest ghost/people, and the epic storytelling that could only have come from Japan.

Katamari Damaci, a game for the PS2, should yield a similar feeling for anyone who experiences it. From the music that could have been hummed late one night by one of the developers, to the Beatles / Montey Python-esque animation, to the sheer insanity of the game's high-concept (rolling a ball to pick up objects until the ball becomes of sufficiently large size) this is a game that could only have come from Japan.

In the April 17, 2006 Forbes, Digital Rules article, Rich Karlgaard states: "The ideal society would be an 'ecology of creation,' giving each person his best shot at finding his talents and making a living from them. It just so happens the U.S. does this better than any other society ever has before."

Although I'm in agreement with the spirit of his statement, and in broad ways it may be generally true, in terms of creative endeavors involving technology, I'd suggest that Japanese society has the lead.

If I were to point at commercialization of products like the Sony Walkman, VCRs, DVD players, or cell-phones, naysayers would merely point out that the Japanese are very good at actualizing other's ideas; that is, taking existing concepts and iteratively refining them in the form of consumer products.

There's a tangent available here about the nature of the creative process, and a variety of questions regarding what differentiates truly creative ideas from derivative works.

But, the point is this: through a combination of Japanese culture or language, or both, Japanese designers are able to look at the world in unique ways. This is especially evident in the console game market, where many Japanese games never could have seen the light of day if their designers attempted to produce them within U.S. companies. They’re simply too bizarre, too nonsensical… they break the mold, and do things no one had imagined before.

You could use this as evidence against U.S. game companies, arguing that they’re too obsessed with financial gain to allow true art to flourish. But, there are alternative venues within the U.S. for truly creative designers. So, I would have to argue that it must be something else.

When it comes to games, Japanese designers are willing to do things that are bizarre, and seem nonsensical. But, they recognize that games aren’t necessarily supposed to be real – they’re supposed to be fun. Whereas many U.S. game designers will sacrifice fun for the sake of realism, many Japanese game designers (and their publishers) will gladly sacrifice realism for the sake of fun.

And when that happens, we get games like Gran Turismo 4, Mario 64, the Zelda and Final Fantasy series, Pokemon Puzzle League… and Katamari Damaci.

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