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The (possible) Source of Classical & Western Game Design

As I was thinking about Classical game design the other day, I came upon a realization. After I had watched the new Hulk movie with all of the B.E.S. members, as is our custom, we conducted a rousing and thorough discussion of the movie. Without getting into the details, the new Hulk movie was disappointing for us. Like so many super hero movies that seem to have caught the attention of main stream America, the screenplays writers have no idea how to write "action".

All in all, action in a film is very similar to mechanics in a video game. And when writing a super hero film (or any action film) connecting the action to the core themes/characters/and ideas of a story is essential for creating a cohesive product. The first Hulk movie (which is to this day my favorite super hero movie) is an outstanding example of linking action/super abilities with the characters. In this case, Banner had a problem with his anger and himself (as a character). Using the Hulk as the symbol for power and anger, as well as employing a set of poignant visual metaphors, the Hulk/Banner grows (literally/metaphorically) as a character. At the climax, Hulk/Banner embraces himself and gives up his power/anger to overcome the deep seeded oppressive force of his father, who was the source of Banner's trauma from childhood.

Respecting the action/form/function of the characters that are in a story means taking the care to harness and bring together the action with the characters and their purpose. So, in the climax of a film we can understand that the main character isn't simply fighting in a boxing match. He's fighting for his family. Speed Racer isn't racing for the corrupted businesses within the racing circuit but for the thrill of the race. And Neo isn't sacrificing his life against an unbeatable enemy, but he's fighting because of how others believe in him and for the freedom of mankind.

Thinking about the mechanics of action in film reminded me of anime and Asian film. In the free wheeling fun spirit of most animes, the character's unique abilities are fused with their purpose, back story, and themes of the show. And what may be even more clever is, anime finds ways to shape characters/plot through interactions contained completely within their unique actions. Obstacles characters must overcome are represented by concrete forms that take on actions, functions, and even personas that interact with the main character in a very specific and personalized way.

Though I'm no expert on Japanese culture and history by any means, I do wonder if the pattern of a deep, respectful connection between people and actions that pervades the Japanese from their zeal in hobbies, their anime and film, to their game design stems from the way of the samurai.

Think about it this way, being a samurai was more than a hobby, job, or even career. The way of the samurai was a way of life that demanded a warrior to discipline their mind, body, and spirit. To live in such a way was much deeper than swinging a sword at one's enemies.

To see through the eyes of a samurai, to know what life is like for them is only possible (I can imagine) from following the way of the samurai and becoming one. For how can anyone know what it is truly like to train every day, to sharpen one's resolve, and to use a sword as a weapon to kill people. Perhaps the only way to know the relationship between person and action and how they can be one in the same is to take part in that action. This idea is reflective of the core of Classical game design and how video games can become art forms.

On the other hand and the other side of the world, we have America. We all know (or should be familiar) with the basic history. We were once oppressed and controlled by the motherland, so we fought for our freedom and independence. Once we got it, our culture glorified and grasped on to a few themes and ideas: Romanticizing nature, the American Dream, and freedom of all kinds are just a few of them.

Perhaps these ideas that are embedded in our culture are the source of Western game design. The lure of nature might have translated into the trend of making open world games. Perhaps Western game designers want to create a world that's open for the player to explore and conquer like the Americans did way back when. Perhaps the American Dream developed into how players can go from rags to riches by accumulating in game wealth, properties, and items. Even if the value is nothing more than points that can't be used for anything (achievement points), the attraction to get as many as possible no matter how difficult the challenges are or how bad the game may be (Avatar) is very real. Perhaps both of these ideas are about creating a sense of freedom for the player: freedom to change the controls, freedom to move the camera around, freedom to choose who to interact with and how a story unfolds. The more options, the more freedom even if the options don't have a substantial effect on the gameplay.

These were just a few ideas I had the other day. I haven't done any real research, nor do I plan on doing so. But do keep an eye out for where the games we play come from.

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Reader Comments (9)

To a point I see where you are coming from. That different cultures produce different ideas, beliefs, and in one general term "products". And yea I can definitely see where our American culture would emphasize on freedom to do what you want in games from changing avatar, to taking missions that would further the "career" of or characters. More and more though I see that there is a trend for open ended freedom within a structured environment in games. In the west and the east, I think slowly the ideas like training like the "samurai" and having the idea of "freedom" in how we go about approaching objectives is starting to be a major hit point for game developers. Yes, I do see that there may have been differences in the past, but I think as the gaming industry matures, the conglomeration of ideas will slowly help incorporate the best of both ideas together into a new breed of games.

July 9, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjrhee

@ jrhee

Well put. There have been many cases where the two styles of game design have begun to merge incorporating elements from each other.

Just look at how far series like Metal Gear and Resident Evil have come.

July 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKirbyKid

I would like to assert that a common source of inspiration for Western thought is individualism. The thought of taking on a host of enemies on their terms with nothing but a knife and a pistol to start out with. I a common line in western thought is, "I'm not gonna take this!"

It is audacious and it is being a rebel and it appeals to western thought. It screams hey I'm going do what i want whether it is shoot some random guy on the street in GTA or stick it to the man aka bowser.(not that mario is a western game, rather liked by westerners very much)

Maybe perhaps even the Bob Dylan's and war protest songs have instilled in Westerners the idea that rebelling is cool, and standing up to the other side even if you stand alone is a romantic thought. George Washington did the same. I can see that kind of attitude running through the first person shooters that dominate western games and also rpg's, Defeating the enemy against all odds.

July 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterWriter_OfSorts

I have an alternate theory that Western Game Design evolved out of role playing roles of characters, specifically characters that would be fun to play.

I think this comes partially from Western role playing tradition, but more importantly from a naive interpretation of what makes a game fun to play.

I would be interested in writing a full article about that, if you like.

July 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBryan

@ writer_ofsorts

Individualism? Sounds like "Rugged Individualism," which is definitely one of the ideas/themes that emerged from the fledgling America. This idea is connected with the American dream. If every American is free to "get ahead" in life and make it "big" then that is a kind of competition. So, seeking this better life in a way means taking on everyone else and winning.

Good call. You comment is right on the mark.

@ Bryan

If you write it, I'll post it. I can always use some help generating content for the blog.

An idea to consider...

How role playing might exist in the everyday lives of Americans. "Keeping up with the Joneses" so to speak. Many people buy things they can't afford to look good to others. Many max out credit cards and go deep into depth to live the American dream/life.

Very interesting comments...


July 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKirbyKid

I can see the Japanese element of training mind, body, and soul together an element present in several games. Like the Zelda the Ocarina of Time, you train to handle you sword on fighting reflexes, then there is the soulful element of learning the music and on top of it you do have to solve complex problems and train you mind. Those three are done simultaneously. The breakdown of the mechanics are fighting, problem solving and harmonizing with the game world. That seems very Eastern to me.

However, I disagree with Writer_ofsorts. I think that American just want to be on top. It doesn't matter how hard or easy the game is or what the game play is, the player just wants to look over the gamescape and say this is my domain! I have conquered and subdued all the challenges. I don't think it has to do with rising against authority or rebelling because that wears off fast once you've already broken the rules repeatedly as in GTA...the killing random people looses its edgyness and excitement after the hundredth time. I'm not saying that it isn't a reason for having the game, but rather the main part that keeps people playing is the struggle for power. The top dog attitude. Americans want to be the's about power, about pride, and being the best.

July 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLightcatcher15

@ Lightcather15

It's not really necessary to disagree because i think you were trying to say the same thing as me. Individualism, or as kirbykid put it, 'rugged' individualism can also be seen as a power struggle or 'becoming top dog'. as you put it. Rebelling is just pushing up against the current authority and order. If you rebel hard enough then you become the top dog.

July 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterWriter_OfSorts

I think that your samurai example can be summarised in that with Japanese games there needs to be a reason behind the violence and hence this often is expressed through the main character and his relevant context, backstory etc.

Another example (of culture affecting design), is how females are handled in Japanese games which can be related to Japanese mind set of females. Things like 'panty peeks', younger female leads and all of that culture which is quite open about these things and loose on child pornography transcends into games (and other mediums, ie. anime and hentai).

While Japanese culture does not interest me (infact there are numerous facets which I dislike) I think that this makes a good example of your point. Culture affects everything, including game design.

I hope that I've understood you correctly.

July 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Primed

@ daniel primed

True. Not even gaming can escape being affected by culture.

The ways that the Japanese culture shapes game content is the other half of things.

Though my article only considers the preferences and attitudes toward the more mechanical design aspects, the story/content elements are still a factor.

July 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKirbyKid

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