Some of the views I hold make me seem biased against Western games, but that’s simply not the case. I just happen to value gameplay more than any other aspect of video games, which is coincidentally, the area where the majority of Western AAA games are weakest. After thinking about this for a while, I’ve decided to illustrate the main difference in gameplay between Western and Japanese games.
North America is the cinema capital of the world. Be it in quality, quantity, or the money it draws, nobody beats Hollywood when it comes to movies. With that in mind, it should be obvious as to why Western AAA developers have made their games into interactive movies: It sells really, really well. Games becoming more like movies was one of the biggest factors of how video games rapidly came into mainstream success with the 7th generation of consoles.
Western games value the cinematic flair, and focus on why the player wants their character to do something, then letting the player tell their character what to do. This often manifests itself in repetitive, “low control” combat that has cinematic finishers, where contextual actions are used to pad out the general shallowness. You can beat this bad guy into submission by repeating the same three punches until he’s defeated, or you punch him three times until staggered, then tell your character to finish him, at which point said character will commit a vicious act of cinematic violence, possibly highlighted by slow motion and/or X-ray.
That’s not to say the presence of contextual commands, which I will affectionately refer to as murder buttons for the purpose of this article, automatically means shoddier gameplay. I’d consider Bayonetta 2 and Metal Gear Rising the pinnacle of action games, and they have some of the most over the top murder buttons in all of video games. However, the combat in those games is varied, and impeccably paced, the options are almost limitless. Horizon Zero Dawn or The Last of Us? Not so much.
Japanese games have pursued spectacle as well, just look at Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy. Kojima let his big dumb action sequences get out of hand in MGS4, and the gaming world will never forget how stupid those Raiden cutscenes were, but at least the gameplay had stayed strong throughout the series, unlike Final Fantasy, but that rant is for another time. Both Resident Evil 2 and 4, the most critically acclaimed entries in the Resident Evil series, were inspired by the Hollywood blockbusters, though this was before technology gave developers more freedom in gameplay, and the cinematic framing didn’t overpower the games’ balance.
Japanese games in general tend to focus on gameplay, save for the RPGs, but even those often try to create engaging, original gameplay via systems (See: Persona 5, Xenoblade). The best way I can describe it is that Japanese games emphasize player skill and system mastery. Fighting games, character action games, hunting games, arcade games, shmups, and system heavy JRPGs are the bread and butter of Japan. A requirement to enjoy these games, and a large part of their appeal, is the act of skill acquisition.
Mastery and skill acquisition can take the form of physical execution, knowledge of how a system works, or both. In Bayonetta and other character action games, this comes from learning how to dodge, delay, and taunt offset, string combos together, and position yourself and enemies properly to keep the string going for as long as possible. In Final Fantasy 7, mastery is expressed by creating, then chaining, strong materia to boost stats and perform insanely powerful commands. Fighting games are all about overcoming the execution barrier, getting into the opponent’s head, and cutting them off at every pass to make their lives miserable.
In an oversimplification: Western games focus on players making decisions and letting the characters react contextually in regards to how they follow the player’s command. Japanese games put the “How” on players, who determine how to do something and then make the characters do it. This is why I tend to prefer Japanese and indie games, which focus on gameplay out of necessity, over Western AAA releases. Gameplay is the only essential element to video games, it has nothing to do with a weeb-like sense of regional superiority.
The “How.” Players can perform crazy feats when they master a character action game.
Again, these are blanket generalizations. There will be exceptions. Shooters are almost exclusively a Western genre, and most of them offer skill based challenge. In the same vein, everything Kojima produces wants to be a movie. It doesn’t get much more American than NetherRealm Studios, and they’re making one of the most anticipated fighting games this side of Smash. Koei Tecmo has produced some of the best action games ever made, but they still make mindless musou trash. General tendencies aren’t absolute laws.
Do you agree? Are you furiously typing up a list of Western games that put the emphasis on gameplay over trying to be the next Michael Bay film? Whatever your stances, come at me in the comments section below.
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