When discussing eastern vs. western game development it is easy to get into an argument about whether JRPGs are on the decline and if so why or why we see so many generic FPS games coming from the west and comparing quality titles but what stands out to me and in that regard Japan has us westerners beat hands down.
I would like to discuss in this the risks the Japanese take in terms of the art style they use, the topics they choose to cover in their games, and the difficulty they set their games in and a few different games that illustrate one or more of these.
I would like to start with the most recent game that inspired all of this, Catherine. Because it is still a very new title I will do my best to avoid plot spoilers but you have been duly warned. The topic this game covers is what sets it apart and the way it covers it is unlike anything seen in video games thus far and it risked becoming a lightning rod public outcry when the sexual aspects of it got thrust into the marketing spotlight. This is a game that discusses relationships and what it means to become a responsible adult. This is a game that has more in common with a chick flick than an action movie s far as its story goes which I have yet to see a western developer attempt. It shows us a strong relationship, breaks it apart then leaves it up to the player to mend it in whatever way they feel is best whereas in western games the relationship is often something tacked on.
Another game that I feel that takes a risky topic is Valkyria Chronicles. This is a bit more subtle than Catherine in terms of the topic but it is the closest gaming has come to discussing the holocaust and concentration camps. The game sets up very early a strong prejudice against all the people with dark hair (known in game as Darcsens). The game creates a prejudice that is very similar to the anti-Semitic attitudes of 1930s and 1940s Europe (accusations of deicide, that they are untrustworthy, and that they are dangerous). They also show work camps that were not unlike the concentration camps and very nationalistic enemy generals. Western games have had many opportunities to discuss this in the many WW2 games that were produced in the years before Modern Warfare but focused exclusively on the war.
Mega Man 9 is a game I want to discuss for both the choice of art style and for the difficulty of the game as both were risks in their own right. The risk that was taken in the art style is a return to the NES style graphics that the first six games were made in. This was a risk because the game was made by Capcom as opposed to an indie developer that used that style out of necessity. Iíve seen excellent games made recently with NES style graphics but never from a company as large as Capcom. If that game was not as good as it was then the graphics would remind people of the older better games and make the art feel like a cash-in as opposed to a brilliant idea. Up to this point no North American developer has taken that risk.
The difficulty of Mega Man 9 is another risk as it was a return to the difficulty of the original games. I know there are people here that can cruise through all the Mega Man games but most people I know would say the NES ones are very difficult particularly in the final stages. This couldíve made the game feel frustrating and inaccessible but because the controls were done well and the power ups balanced any deaths are the responsibility of the player as opposed to the game which makes the game difficult and fun at the same time.
A game I feel takes just as much of a risk with difficulty but in the completely opposite way is Kirbyís Epic Yarn. This is a game that is as hard as you want it to be. This game could be maddeningly hard or a walk through the park depending on how you want to play the game. The risk with such a difficulty is that it was very possible that many gamers would take the quick and easy path and die and get hit however many times it takes for them to get to the end with any number of beads and secrets found. The challenge came from trying to get the best score and all the hidden items in each level but the player is in no way penalized for not doing that. Iím not sure why this has not been done by any western developers other than a need to appeal more directly to core gamers by not appearing to be too easy on the surface.
To end this I would like to preemptively discuss probably the biggest counter argument to this whole post, Bioware. They do push the envelope with what they discuss in games and the hidden meaning they put into many of the decisions and the questions they ask the player and take risks in that regard but there arenít enough developers like them in the west so thatís why I say Japan has this risk thing down better than western developers