The Japanese Style (Part 2)

Part 1

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Let us say that most Japanese games, more often than not, ask for us to have the mind of a child in these things. After all, they still retain the title “game”, right? Perhaps I err on the side of structured play through continual mastery of a key concept. After all, I imagine that’s very much the same thing that motivates the Christian process of sanctification. If I merely finish a game without any challenge, said instance feels empty and lacks engagement. Does learning something well take a great deal of repetition? Why, yes it does! Than why should video games be any different?

Ok, this is pretty funny.

Ok, this is pretty funny.

It isn’t my intent or thought to totally preclude video games from that interactive, experiential mode that suddenly became all the rage. Rather, I think those aren’t really teaching me anything. They waste my time. They give me a story or a tale ripped out of any other medium, save that ridiculous over-use of “interactivity” as a crutch for bad storytelling, or narratives that copy what happens in movies already. Maybe there’s only a few real kinds of stories in the world, but video games haven’t magically crossed some divide by virtue of one defining characteristic. Interactivity doesn’t do all the work for you; the player earns their participation in that world the developer creates.

If I sound like a “hardcore gamer”, that’s not the message I want to communicate. Rather, games exist as a unique interactive medium, and taking the unique elements OUT for what ALREADY works isn’t going to help them reach cultural cognizance. The Japanese understand this, and keep making games that play like games. The West does not; we continue to churn out games that start out with literary intentions – but it’s plain and obvious to see that those people haven’t read any literature (seriously, just go read Moby Dick and come back. Heck, go read any literature and come back. Not The Hunger Games).

So then, why do you play games, Zach?

For fun. Wow, what a genuine concept, guys! Remember when you played games, as games exist by definition for people to have fun? Let me show you an example of what I mean. I did not have fun talking about The Mirror Lied. I don’t have any idea what it means or what it’s about. It’s almost the same as some pretentious modernist artwork – post-ironic ironicism pervades everything now. Video games became modernist, all of a sudden, yet at the same time using the same tools and tricks of their ancestors to make “art” – or what they think is art. Because my childhood hobby, for whatever reason, cannot simply remain a fun excursion. No, I must justify this hobby to the outside world. As of now, modern culture does not see them as “art”, and even I hesitate to place such a label so soon after their inception.

Seriously, games criticism reeks of a large lack of what I call “enjoyment” anymore. Remember the ye olde tyme reverent video game magazine like EGM? Every game that came out at any time deserved praise for something or another. Game standards came solely from how much enjoyment the game provided and how the mechanics worked. Everything became so serious all of a sudden. And, more often than not, the critical reception of a game suffers as a result if it’s derivative, well-designed, or even a conglomeration of already great elements. You just want to say sometimes “dude, games remain fun, even bad games.” It’s like choosing between rump roast and filet mignon – one’s certainly of a higher pedigree, but would I be unsatisfied with either? No, not really. Instead, the game must have meaning. It must relate to the modern world and its fractured psyche, and tell me something meaningful about myself.

We forced video games to grow up, and it’s a damned shame if there ever was one.

For all my seriousness, then, video games aren’t serious business. It’s not the games themselves that enrich my life, but the challenges and the skills that come from them. Hence why I tend to prefer Japanese games over the others. It’s a pleasant monotony that I partake in repeatedly. I want to get better at fighting games – practice, then! When we’ve come to a point where a game commentating on objectivism gets top scores for story alone (disagree with me on Bioshock!), then we have a problem. Still, there’s more things to worry about than this, yet we live in the care of a loving God.

25 “For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? 27 And who of you by being worried can add a singlehour to his life?28 And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin,29 yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes thegrass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith! 31 Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ 32 For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

34 “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

I’d rather play a fun game than a serious game, then. And why not? You’d think an adult would like to have more fun. We worry constantly about plenty of things in daily life, and you’d think they would want to relax. No, they tell you – when  they get home from work, they’d rather their interactive games have a pretension of MEANING and SERIOUSLY THOUGHTFUL CONVERSATIONS ON THE MORE PRESSING PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES OF OUR TIME! I don’t understand this; perhaps I never will. First world problems, to be sure.

To wit: I write a lot of serious material on this website. I think a great deal about effective game design and how games work. But I don’t take a moral stand on whether or not you agree. I criticize games based on their status as good game/not good game. If there’s a story, it deserve criticism as an effective story if it’s the main focus; otherwise, who cares? Anyone can interpret everything into anything, so looking for subtext, frankly, strikes me as a pointless venture. What I do is find theological themes, Christian messages, and constructs into video games. They helped shaped me and who I am, and Japanese video games had the greatest influence on me. They probably made me a better person and see the world in a different light. The Christian narrative, so called, remains the standard by which all great stories should be criticized and understood, not only because it is a fun, imaginitive, and miraculously impossible story, but also because it is a true one. Why should we not judge it, then, on that basis? Everything else will be shown up by its depth and greatness, but why shouldn’t it?

Furthermore, my theology affects how I view game design. Games reflect real life in their challenges, not their narrative. Games mean something to people because they overcame said challenge, or liked a character enough to endure those challenges, or even love a game’s mechanics to death. The moment you play for an ambiguous experience, the fun dies; the game maker has their license to make a game without any good design, without forethought, and without challenge. They give you junk food, and you willingly accept it as if it were some other high class food metaphor I can’t imagine at the moment (or one that I’ve already used before; just scroll back a little). It’s an issue solely because interactivity doesn’t define the game – challenge does. Just like real games in real life!

Thus, I like Japanese games, I will continue to like them. Even when people unjustly bash their design, I will defend them because they not only hold a special place for me, but they truly define and establish what video games are and how they can improve. And it’s a good thing. What I fear is the constant outsourcing of these company and their skills; the demand has died for games in the same vein and niche companies must pick up the torch. That’s such a shame! There’s some truly great new Japanese games that have come out in recent years, but a prejudice has developed that will not go away.

Don’t stay mired in the muck; rise above and be joyful, because video games are just as fun as you remember them. If only you’d take a look and see! The delightful monotony of mechanical mastery far exceeds any story a game can tell me. It makes me a part of the experience. It truly uses interactivity to make me an active participant. It forces me to focus, make myself into an engine of self-motivation and mastery. There’s not many things in the world that can do that!

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.