Saturday, January 3, 2009

Persona 4 and the westernization of Japanese game design, or lack thereof

After all the glowing reviews, the praise, the decent (though I'd hoped for more!) sales, the fanboyery and joyful time sinkery, much ado has been made of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4. What could I possibly have to say about it that hasn't already been said? As it turns out, quite a lot.

In a year of AAA holiday releases, Persona 4 stands out, not just because of its high quality and enormous Metacritic rating, but because it is, ostensibly, a B game. Gasp, what? It's possible for a game to be great and not be AAA? Not a Final Fantasy or a Fable II or a Fallout 3 (drop a few more F's and we'll be on HBO) yet still compelling enough to get absurdly high scores? Despite how we enjoy calling games like Infinite Undiscovery and The Last Remnant "B-games", the fact of the matter is that they are not "B-games" at all. They were designed as high-budget, AAA titles, their goal being worldwide sales, but when they went wrong, at least in the US and Europe, we decided they weren't so triple-A after all. But let's not confuse excellence with budget or marketing clout. Let's not diminish lower-budget games by misconstruing development cost as playability. It's entirely possible for a game to cost plenty of time and money and come out disappointingly; it's also possible for a comparatively quick, cheap game to become one of the most laudable RPG releases of an entire year, and on a previous-generation system.

Of course, we already knew from the heading that I was talking about Persona 4, right?, and, to an extent, its predecessor, Persona 3. Here, we see games produced on a fairly low budget, at least compared to something staggering like Gears of War 2, or even upcoming Resident Evil 5; as for the length of time in development, it's not a fraction of Final Fantasy XIII. And there are no pretensions of making a big, multi-regional blockbuster. Persona 4 was designed with the Japanese market in mind, not much of a thought given to what Westerners may or may not care for; perhaps Persona 3's relative success made them feel secure in ignoring the American sensibilities that are so popular to keep under consideration elsewhere (Capcom and Square Enix, for two), but I get the impression more that it wasn't much of a consideration at all. The localization was probably a given from the get go, certainly, but what I'm saying is that its appeal to the Western gaming population was not part of the design. It was not trumpeted about beforehand, I doubt they had meetings discussing techniques, and no Western game engine was used (poorly or not) in the process.

Persona 4, in fact, should be even more bewildering to a Western audience than Persona 3, probably; it takes place in a rural Japanese setting, not the fascinating, Tokyoic megalopolis of the previous title. Would foreign gamers have the same nostalgic sense for Inaba that Japanese gamers should? Would those who enjoyed the big, technological, Japanese city want to move into a small one? Further, more of the original Japanese language is retained this time in the English version. We're deluged with plenty of "-chan", "-san", "-kun" and "sensei", so much so that when we do, for whatever reason, see a "mister" thrown in there, it feels jarring.

Yet, somehow, Persona 4 garners such universal praise, far from the shores of Japan, that any score below a 9 seems almost shocking.

My point, if I've been too obtuse to make it clear, is that the current trend of thinking, where Japanese game development has fallen hopelessly behind and needs to westernize, is erroneous, and I'm using Persona 4, from among a few others which I could have chosen, as what I think is a shining example. While The Last Remnant came to us unfocused (and others would argue unfinished), trying to appeal to a worldwide audience, Persona 4 simply did its thing, never straining too hard to become more than a niche production. While the former had a huge budget and an enormous team of developers, artists and fancy localizers, the latter was staffed by a core group of talented individuals.
If we look at the Japanese games that have made a splash in the West, they've never been trying to impress anyone but their own little public. I have a hard time imagining something like Super Mario Bros. was ever pondered from the perspective of "How can we wow foreign territories?", yet it, and so many other Japanese games, totally revolutionized what we'd eventually come to expect from console entertainment. There were no board meetings during the pre-development of Pokemon to decide how best to craft it to appeal to the West. Tamagotchi wasn't created with the United States in mind. Katamari Damacy is too inherently, bizarrely Japanese to have ever come from anywhere else, actually most Japanese successes have that in common, yet all of these and more were phenomenons internationally to differing degrees and groups.

And thus the gigantic, triple-A release fell depressingly flat (The Last Remnant was frankly the game I was most looking forward to in 2008), achieving few, if any, of its international goals, and the plucky little B-game more than exceeded anyone's expectations. Yet, we still have people saying how they hope Persona 5 will appear on PS3 rather than PS2 (they'll probably get their wish, as I don't think we'll see another installment even enter development for at least a few years), never realizing that the platform Persona 4 released upon was a huge part of its success, allowing it to dodge the crippling development costs of the current generation, a problem more responsible for Japanese game design's apparent lackluster than anything inherently outdated in concept.
Still, it's an odd state of affairs when exceptional products like The World Ends with You (certainly not designed with anyone but a Japanese audience in mind) and No More Heroes sell well outside of Japan and flop in their native country, making it obvious this is a console generation unlike any other. But maybe this just lends more credence to the notion that, in order for Japan to recapture the honor of the position it once held, maybe even emerge again as the savior of the industry (though in a different capacity than it did in the late '80s), it certainly doesn't need to Westernize its game creation methods to sell in the West (though what it needs to do to sell in Japan, I can't say). They need only keep doing what they've always done, and I feel confident that we'll push through the current Japanese glut of mobile and "casual" games and enter a new era, if not now than when, finally, development costs are lower and fantastic B-games again get the attention they deserve, this time on current-generation systems. Hopefully, Sony is to be believed when they say the PS3 has at least a 10-year lifecycle, and hopefully Microsoft isn't just posturing when they say they're committed to the 360 for " day longer than Sony supports the PS3".

Not everything has to be a multi-million dollar, multi-national endeavor to succeed; in fact, such aspirations can lead to utter downfall.

Comments? Suggestions? Please feel free. And does anyone know how I can do a cut/break after the first paragraph (like Kotaku and others do) so folks aren't bombarded with the full post until they click "more"?


  1. Hey, if you need help, feel free to email me!

  2. new persona 4 trailer available;

  3. I'm sorry, but I feel your point is at least somewhat invalidated by the very picture you posted in this entry. Persona 4 isn't westernized. Take a look at that picture of chie and tell me, if you saw this character and didn't know who she was, would you be more likely to guess she was from Japan or the USA/UK?

    I would argue that MOST of the characters in persona 4 look more white than they do Japanese. Persona 4 has betrayed their heritage the same way so man animes do; by giving their beloved characters white skin, round eyes, lightly colored hair, and sometimes even bright blue eyes (teddy looks like he was straight out of a hitler youth camp)

    1. Hey, thanks for the reply! Probably the first genuine comment this blog has ever gotten or will get. :)

      I can't remember exactly what I was writing about in the article. I think I was using Persona as an example of a generally non-western design that proved Japanese games still held validity.

      Maybe that was your point, though. Maybe you were saying to me, "No, it is westernized."

      I agree that anime itself is "westernized" in the sense that it is inhabited by a Japanese fascination with non-Japanese people. And yes, Persona 4 is an anime-styled game, but I think the game design itself is quite squarely a Japanese game design.

      It's impossible to deny the back and forth that goes on between cultures, but I think my point was just that Japanese gaming was not (and is not) dead.

      Thanks again!