My take: It's sad to think of Kojima leaving Metal Gear and Konami, but I agree with the contingent that says Konami hasn't been "Konami" in many years. Despite the ubiquity of the brand during the NES / SNES and PS1-2 eras, they have absolutely not adjusted well to the realities of current gen. Up Up Down Down is just Down Down Down. I (guiltily) loved Lords of Shadow 1, but it was a love I was called to justify when the time came. LoS 2? Justifying that one smacked way more of straw grasping. What else is there to speak of?
The great franchises have laid down and turned into oil at this point. No Contra, no Silent Hill worth mentioning since Shattered Memories. No recognizable Castlevania to speak of really for the entire last generation. Metal Gear (debatably) should have ended 2 games ago. For my money, no David Hayter, no deal. I love Kojima and will 100% support him wherever he ends up, but this breakup is for the best. Let it go Snake. Let it go. Be free.
I've wondered (as I play Monster Hunter on my 3DS portable system) why it is that so many Japanese publishers struggle with big-budget console gaming in 2015? With triple-A it seems down to a few things:
- Japanese companies (it appears to me) are insular enough that they have had extreme difficulty adjusting to the realities of a globalized production environment. Ever heard the audiologs from the Swedish guys at Grin who were trying to make a Final Fantasy game with Square? It was basically a no-go for various cultural/linguistic reasons. I just don't believe the Japanese are great at taking development 'outside of the house' as it were. Think about how Assassin's Creed has 6 studios operating simultaneously around the world in probably 6 different languages to produce its assets. Now imagine the Japanese trying to do that.
- Next: Hardware. Obiously. Everybody in Japan has a phone, half of them have either a PSP or DS, but when 8 people live in your house and it's the size of a Brooklyn apartment the market demand for big-screen gaming on a 72-inch dedicated console is few and far between. This leads to a negative feedback loop where nobody buys X so nobody develops X, etc.
I also believe that there is an Economy of Scale "audience ceiling" to a lot of what Japan is doing. A generation ago when the world was all playing singleplayer in parallel there was a natural synchronicity between east and west, the ceiling was the same for both parties. Thematically, same swords -- production wise, same sprites, naturalize it and you're good. A pixel JRPG is a JRPG. Single player is a curated vaccuum in which the director has total control, you can tailor it to your audience and it'll be great. No personalities of the actual humans playing your game ever enter into the equation, it's all completely authorial top-down, like a movie.
Enter the Internet, which as far as I can tell is a gaming seachange that the Japanese STILL haven't really got a good handle on. They just do not comprehend multiplayer in any context besides "it's rude" so that rules out most things the West cares about outside of weird experiments like the Souls Series or Monster Hunter in which you can SEE people but not post a picture of a dick or make a racist threat. Adding "real people in your game" to the mix brings in a cultural disconnect factor in which the marked differences between Western player and Japanese player are much plainer to see.
- Lastly: The things that DO succeed tend to succeed in a big budget way often double down on existing Japaneseness which doesn't necessarily play well outside of the home turf. Yakuza is a great example. Fantastic game, totally a Triple-A success for any metric that actually matters... but so niche and specific to Japan's cultural sensibilities when it hits Western shores that its audience is by necessity only Japanese people and Japanophiles.
Now, the elephant in the room:
Take that cultural disconnect and multiply it a hundredfold for Neptunia or whatever passes for most Japanese development these days. I would in broad terms frame myself as someone who is "positive" towards Japanese Weirdness, which makes me a very illustrative case study audience-wise. I personally love Japan's macro-level culture and artistic sensibilities. I know what a Samurai and Ninja are... so, level 1 Japan Awareness, I guess. I also know what Yokai are, what a Nakama is, I can reference Japanese mythology and I know who Oda Nobunaga is, so, level 2 Japanese Awareness... and I even know what Chuunibyo, NEET, Susano-O, BOSS Coffee and Hikikomori are and I watch (good) anime regularly -- so... level 3 Japan-o-knowledge? which would put me in the 95th percentile of gamers likely predisposed to love Japan. And yet, AND YET...
...I just can't get behind what so many J-studios are doing these days, at least when it comes to what is being visibly greenlit and naturalized over here (which I 100% accept may not be "the completepicture").
Do I love Japanese games? I'm loving the hell out of Stein's Gate, I love La-Mulana, Saya, Phoenix Wright and Trails in the Sky. Nobody does twitch action like Platinum. I respect both the JRPG and the visual novel as a form -- but there is a certain types of "mature" game -- universal themes, relatable characters, nuanced and subtle writing worth the time to a wide, global audience -- that seems to be the exception to the rule more often than not these days.
If there was a strong presence of Japanese games like Ico and Silent Hill today we would not be having this conversation. Sadly, what I appear to be seeing in their stead is lazy stock tropes (which have always been a problem for Japan) and hardcore Otaku-bait material that crosses the line from universally endorseable to outright exclusionary.
I can throw a stick around and easily hit a dozen real "mature" in the lowwer-case M sense Japanese media products that exist OUTSIDE of the videogame space -- Mushi-Shi / Welcome to the NHK and Seven Souls in the Skull Castle spring immediately to mind. Movies? Sure, One Missed Call is bangin', Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service and Drops of God class up the Manga joint simply by existing. Japanese fiction and Noir are still killing it. Japan is producing worthwhile, quality stuff.
But you'd be forgiven for thinking that very little of this is making its way into Video Games. As I said Xillia was one of the ultra-rare games that I straight-up quit on last year as was (now that I think about it) Atelier Rorona. To be fair, Lynette was playing those primarily but I think the proof is in the playing. If there'd been a strong desire on my part to seriously dig deep into it, I would have made the time.
It seems to me like Japan is not making it easy to advocate for them these days. On the Western Indie space over here I can go from Papers Please to Firewatch to The Long Dark to Castle in Darkness to the Banner Saga to Hand of Fate and Dungeon of the Endless, This War of Mine, Ether One, Shovel Knight etc. etc. and on and on and on. In other words, my Steam playlist from 2014. All worthwhile fare -- intelligent, subtle, complex, objectively defensible on artistic grounds and interesting conversation fodder at dinner parties.
I invite and encourage Japan to step up to this bar - to produce whatever the J-version of This War of Mine or Papers Please is. Salaryman: The RPG. They have the soul for it, no question.
But the point is that by and large I am not seeing this happening -- and I cannot, just CAN NOT go in front of my parents or coworkers or business clients with something like a Catgirl H-Game or Hatsune Miku Project Diva X. Phoenix Wright vs Layton is understandible in a sort of Studio Ghibli way, as is Fire Emblem in a sort of D&D-meets-chess way, but even these games back me into territory where I'm going to have to to explain myself. Rationalizing why it is important that I marry my little action figures to one another puts me on my back heels before the conversation begins. Compare and contrast: I have no problem explaining the graphic novel series I am currently reading where characters stop time by having orgasms and then rob banks.
That said, fear of being "outed" is not what is actually taking the bloom of Japanese games. The same could be said for Grand Theft Auto. Let me rephrase:
More important than social castigation is simply my own declining interest level in what I would term the Gaming Ghetto. As an adult entering my middle age I just find that I have a difficult time caring about bog standard boilerplate time flllers in the same way I used to. I like (good) anime such as Silver Spoon but I dislike Dragonball Z if that makes sense. I like (good) movies but I dislike The Amazing Spider-man 2. I like The Last of Us, I dislike Killing Floor.
I would rather spend my time watching or reading something that delivers a sense of geniune takeaway. A good quantity of J-Stuff smacks more of sawdust than novelty these days. No, I am not going to play Legend of Dragon Sword Heroes Ultimate Neo any more than I am going to play Card Battler Match Three. I think what let me down about Xilia is that it was more of the same shit I'd seen before a thousand times and unlike Tales in the Sky it didn't grab my attention with compelling content. It's worth mentioning that Tales is from 2005 or something - 10 years old.
Lynette says that RPGs are like meeting new friends, and that an RPG will either "click" or not immediately. Those that click get their hooks in deep and carry you through to the end. Those that do not you'll lose interest in quickly. I think it's fair to say that most of what sells in Japan is designed towards servicing needs which I am not currently burning with a need to service. As Lynette (also) says "you are not struggling with issues of identity, belonging, "finding yourself" etc. etc. or other problems that JRPGs service. Nor are you looking for "comfort food" gaming these days." What AM I concerned with? Judging by my playlist an objective observer would say "challenge" - either mechanical, intellectual, thematic, etc. I don't want to be reassured or rocked to sleep, I want things that upset and provoke.
And let's talk about that loliporn "I just read it for the ARTICLES" aspect of Japanese gaming. Again, speaking as a man approaching his 40s, I need a pretty compelling reason to invest emotionally in a game in which my party is going to resemble doe-eyed children and caper around in pinafores and frilly skirts. I love many young adult fiction books -- Sabriel kicks ass and kids falling in love is a golden trope as old as time itself -- but If your game makes me feel skeevy for playing it I'm not going to continue the experience.
I want games that resonate with my current sensibilities and experience and themes that are meaningful to me. Lonesome Doves, Blade Runners, etc. Welcome to the NHK yes, Persona yes. The charming tale of a perky alchemist and her adorable cat familiar in frufru land puddingu where they fight giant rabbits and blush at the sight of boys is just not something that resonates strongly or speaks to me as a viewer (most of the time). Monster hunter has adorable Meownster Hunters and this is great. Space Dandy can stay.
I have no problem with porn, I read Oglaf along with the rest of you -- but most of the time polite company dictates we talk about something else unless specifically invited. I played Saya and it was fascinating... but... I dunno. Saya is the exception. I don't buy the argument that games like Senran Kagura teach us their meaningful stories at the same time that I'm tearing some chick's clothes off and touching witches with my stylus. Alan Moore has no problem admitting that Lost Girls was porn.
What's the difference? I guess it's in the aspiration. There are (few?) J-games that treat sexuality with nuance at the best of times but more often than not it's just spank bank material. I've heard that Hakuoki is a good place for people looking for genuine *romance* in a visual novel as opposed to disembodied dicks. I think Katawa Shoujo was remarkable in that it managed to pull off both dicks AND nuance, which is quite a feat. Broadly I would say that I'm more drawn to games who use sex in service of some kind of higher ideal or purpose - Saya was one of those as was Katawa Shoujo. The point was not the sex itself but the focus on the darkness of the human soul or an exploration of relationships. It's this later bit - the higher aspirational focus, the desire to speak to something greater and more profound using sexuality as a vehicle which elevates the content.
Oglaf is Oglaf. It's fine, it's fun, it's even art. But it also frames sex within the context of empowerment most of the time. It's sex-positive, fun, mature (despite being totally cheeky) and understands consent and whimsy. A lot of J-games come off as more problematic -- I have a pretty dim view of noncon and loli stuff, and I'll never agree with the Japanese when it comes to embarrassment, humiliation, disenfranchisement and disempowerment being sexy..
Wait. This was about Konami, wasn't it?
Right. TLDR: Here's what I'm saying:
I think that most Japanese games exist to service needs which are not currently much in demand here in the west. Japan struggles with its own set of issues brought on by a combination of economic, technological and cultural forces very distinct from ours. Their technology is different, their cultural bugaboos are different, their desires are different.
Japan has struggled to integrate, or perhaps simply diverged, from its once synchronous relationship to the West. What brings them comfort is not what brings us comfort. What they want is not what I want right now.
I had huge hopes for Hideo and Guillermo and I want them to succeed in whatever they're currently doing. There are precious few examples of Japan doing something in the gaming space which is both artistic and appealing to a mature palate, and I think that Hideo could be one of the few auteurs who could pull it off. I hope he lands on his feet.
Japan needs a kick in the ass to shake them out of their Otaku/Cellphone rut. Maybe their indie scene just needs to mature or needs to discover Kickstarter. The artistic chops are out there - all other forms of their media say so. Why has it not bled over more into gaming? I don't know.
Maybe the Souls series is the right metaphor. Before there was voice acting.. when there was only text, silence and gesture ironically, we were closer to speaking the same language.
At the point where we began to hear one another -- as in LITERALLY hear the voices of the other instead of just touching their silent bloodstain -- we began to see how genuinely far apart we are, culturally. Would we have glommed onto Cloud and Sephiroth, Link or Jill Valentine... or, dare I say Solid Snake... if we'd heard them in their raw natural (original) Nihon voice?