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onsdag den 4. januar 2017

MariFan & Ultimoom

Video Game Occidentalism & Orientalism

Make a delicious cup of coffee and read a bit about what I like about

Pretty much everything I play is from Japan, for two reasons: aesthetics and structure. You know how people hate Skyward Sword for being extremely hand-hold-y? Or how some cringe at the prolonged lewd moments in Metal Gear Solid 3? Okay, how about how Final Fantasy XII is both a real-time and a turn-based game, with a complex combat system that slowly expands into its own living thing by the time you reach the mid to late bosses and marks? Or how Gravity Daze/Rush has a super-hero-sorta heroine in a mystical swimsuit, living in a steam-punk kinda world, without any of these visuals clashing?

Okay, all subjective, sure but the two bad and two good cases are, as far as I see it, dependent on each other. Maybe a design cataclysm happened around the early to mid eighties, where Euro-Maraca went towards Ultima and later Doom (Ultimoom), and Japan moved towards Super Mario and Final Fantasy (MariFan). At least as far as structure and game-mechanics. I get the appeal of both ways, and naturally, it isn’t a cut and dried case (although I do struggle to think of a Japanese game I would mistake for a non-Japanese game).

What I’m moving towards, is that the idea of what a game is or is supposed to be, diverted, and it might be hard for the other side to see the good in the opposite, sometimes. The Ultimoom worldview, is filled with the love of the newest technology, algorithms for procedural generation, online multiplayer, world-shattering demanding graphics and a strive for giving players freedom to breath in these digital worlds. The MariFan world exaggerates style, confines movement to grids, scores everything (’Hey, A-, maybe try harder next time!’), and in some cases, is a bit humble about how complex the technology behind the curtains actually is.

Maybe everything I’ve written so far is kind of acceptable to everyone. You can like both, you can like one, sometimes the other a bit, but the description fits. I do have to get a bit polemic, because I mostly like the MariFan way, and seeing stuff like the creator of the many participants in Indie Game the Move: Life After, shred modern Japanese games, made me want to stand up for that small, massively populated island-nation’s recent efforts.

Story of Our Lives

I love engaging in complex plots. Game of Thrones? Fuck yeah. Baldur’s Gate 2? My African-American-brother-but-with-a-slightly-derogatory-term. Final Fantasy 7? My body is ready. Assassin’s Creed? Eh...

Story is an interesting point in this, because it easily brings several of my ideas to the front: First of all, it’s all a bit silly. You are moving lumps of pixels around with your mouse or analog-stick while very corny dialog is thrown at you, yet you are supposed to be engaged and feel moved by the story. It often works, but when it doesn’t, when the same NPC keeps saying the same line over and over again or when my love interest professes her feelings yet looks at me with dead, polygonal eyes, I laugh at the game. But in Metal Gear Solid 3 I can listen to the corny dialog and cringy voice-acting, while the game allows me to go first-person and look at butts. It’s in it: It’s completely silly. In Grand Theft Auto, I can do everything and go everywhere. Except that door. We didn’t design the inside so it’s locked. Yes we know you have a bazooka, it doesn’t work on doors. But in Japan, the grid is obvious, oftentimes I’m literally locked to it. The designer says ẗhis world is fake, so here is a system to play with. The borders are clearly demarcated, so it shouldn’t break any immersion when you can’t move beyond them. Especially because we never tried to make you think this world was real.

This is also a consequence of how evolving technology changed needs. When you read a book you fill in the games, and many people argue that the realness of the written world in unparalleled, compared to what the movie-version might present. This worked in old games as well: Zelda 1 is ugly and simple as sin, but in what the designers can’t express, my imagination can fill the gap. When graphics become more sophisticated, that doesn’t work, and blemishes become serious problems. Shigeru Miyamoto observes this problem in a 1998 interview (http://shmuplations.com/miyamotodesign/), noting the problems that evolving technology can result in, for graphics. The solution is an exaggerated style. Ocarina of Time might not be strictly speaking beautiful today, but it especially Majora’s Mask, are perfect representations of what the Nintendo 64 could produce. Visually, these games are designed to acknowledge how Nintendo 64 games were supposed to look, not strive for a moving goalpost of realism. The Playstation 1 equivalent, by the way, is probably Final Fantasy IX.

I want to write more about this, but I’ll sum up this opinion piece for now: I call Japanese game design the MariFan worldview, as opposed to the Euro-American, which I call Ultimoom. MariFan acknowledge the often obvious silliness in the video game construct and the games are thus designed around a more systematic design approach, with recognized, clear borders and stylized visuals. MariFan is not better or worse than Ultimoom, but judging MariFan-games by the standards of Ultimoom, denies you of the joys that MariFan is meant to give you.

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