Emotional Design

I think the generally held opinion is that Japanese games have a more interesting visual style than those in the West, where they suffer from uninspired realism. This is of course not true, as there are plenty of Western games with their own distinctive style, say Team Fortress 2, Alien Hominid, Geometry Wars, and many others, but the initial gut reaction of many is that the Japanese have a knack. And it’s certainly something I believe myself. When it comes to interesting, inspired or downright crazy art styles the Japanese certainly seem to have a talent, which is probably, amongst other things, why Japanese games are still, to this day, much loved by Western audiences.

The Western industry thrives on buzzwords and the most recent one is “emotion”. Ridiculous speeches and opinion pieces by punters and industry insiders talk about how video games need to be infused with "more emotion", how they need to engage the player on a whole new level, to make them, Lord forbid, cry. The reason this trend is so prolific at the moment is possibly because a lot of titles focus mainly on technology, especially in these “next-gen” days. If a game plays a lot like a tech demo it’s probably because it is one, because developers know good technology can be licensed out for extra income. There are certain tricks of technology that everybody wants to show off, hence the sudden focus on realistic water, real-time occlusion shadowing and a massive increase in on-screen polygons and physics. Art teams have a wealth of possibilities and are often made to use each and every one of them because technology drives the industry.

But does it drive the market? I guess it does, to an extent. For certain titles the more real the graphics, AI and physics the better, obviously. A racing simulator with cartoony graphics won’t be as successful as one which looks hyper-real, nor would a flight simulator. First-Person perspective games are all about putting the player in the middle of the action, so suspending disbelief with realism seems natural. Sales and marketing will push he realism angle, because they believe it’s important. Programmers dictate what is possible and managers will want to milk that to the fullest, whether it is all appropriate or not. And don’t get me wrong, this trend has brought us some astounding games, both in gameplay and visual splendor. It’s a Good Thing™ generally.

In Japan, however, the industry is behind technically. And whether it is because of this or due to some cultural bent, visual design is approached rather differently here. In meetings and design sessions the focus is not on beauty and realism, in the technical sense of the word, but much more about the feelings it should evoke in the player.

Words like “kimochii”, “ureshii”, “kawaii” are often bandied about in these meetings. And though they are easy to translate their true meaning in these contexts is less so. Imagine a beer commercial, of which Japan has many. A guy picks up a dripping wet, cold pint of golden wonder, takes a few deep, audible gulps, wipes is mouth and goes “AHHHH”. That is often the feeling Japanese developers want to invoke. A kind of satisfied pleasure, a calming or soothing of the spirit, an elation. Imagine the player on his sofa, playing the game with a joyous grin or a satisfied smile. And this is not to say the Japanese are more “spiritual”, whatever that means, because they’re not really, but it does show a slight difference in approaches when it comes to design, and visual design in particular.

Sometimes visual design is luckily limited by the technical boundaries Japanese programmers can’t seem to master yet. With a more limited palette the artist can be forced to be more creative and investigate alternative styles to get the most out of the engine. A hyper-realistic Legend of Zelda game could, I suppose, be pretty cool, but the hardware on which it’s made simply can’t handle that right now. The Wind Waker’s scenes on the boat, as Link travelled on open seas, were immensely powerful in a way it couldn’t have been had they pushed the engine to beyond its capacity by rendering realistic water and skies. The Loco Roco game on PSP would in no way be better if they had managed to include real-time occlusion shading and nicely rendered 3D blobs with fluffy shaders. With a limited palette, either by necessity or choice, the artist is, paradoxically, more free to excel. In the West the artists have a set of shaders the publisher wants used, to show of how gorgeous the tech is, which is why we see so much glare, bloom, shiny metal surfaces and why so many, though not all, games that use the Unreal Engine suffer from that similar rusty look. More often than not, less is more. And great art direction will, at least critically, always triumph over well-crafted realism.

In the West the approach can often leave the intended player out of the loop. I’ve seen pretty cool characters changed, under publisher pressure, to more mediocre, bland ones. Visual design is often more along the lines of “make it more realistic” than anything else. And I reiterate, this is not always the case, obviously, but it feels as if the majority of high profile titles work on this principle. I think the West can learn a lot from the Japanese approach, where much is dictated not by the player experience, but by the player’s emotional reaction, however superficial, when confronted with the game. We don’t need to make players cry with heavy-handed emotionally charged scenes, nor do we need to push the envelope with deep moral questions; a simple courtesy nod towards what the player feels on a minute by minute basis should suffice to elevate the current gen into something deeply special for a lot of people.


  1. I've read in more than one place that the Japanese come from a cultural background where stylized art had as much or more emphasis than the written word, which explains the mainstream popularity of manga there (whereas Western cultures still see "comic books" as media for children and nerds). I guess it follows that they'd make games (e.g. Otogi, Katamari) that would have intentionally-unrealistic style. I never thought about how they'd be intended to evoke something, though.

    Outside of Japan, the only place I've consistently seen unconventional (or at least non-realistic) art style is online. Flash games, indy games, odd little things you virally distribute to friends after reading about them on a webcomic or gamer blog.

  2. Another reason why we should stop pursuing photorealism is that we're coming closer and closer to the Uncanny Valley.

    The "Heavy Rain" by Quantic Dream might be an indication where the next generation of games might go and I for one, find those talking corpses quite disturbing.

  3. @anonymous
    I thought the Heavy Rain just sucked design-wise.
    Unrefined motion capturing, arthritic hands and an unsympathic actress in a boring "love story gone wrong" setting. This are points that could be avoided and aren't limited by the technology available.

    Personally, I'm still waiting for good cellshading. Gradients in textures, lines drawn on the textures that should be rendered instead, lightmaps with a too low highlight threshold and inadequate animation are all things that I often see in cellshaded games. They don't really look as if they were drawn.
    Most developers even try to cheat by using retouched cell-shaded assets for PR just so that the actual difference isn't as huge.

    Also, I absolutely derailed again.

  4. I have seen some Heavy Rain footage and thought the art looked extremely good.

    The gameplay though, was basically the same as Dragon's Lair published as a laserdisc game in the early 1980s.

  5. I talked about the tech demo from E3 2006.
    There isn't any newer footage from what I know.

  6. I am an insider and may have seen stuff not available to the general public. Or it could be difference of opinion.

  7. It's quite hard too recognize whether an anonymous comment comes from an insider.
    I really hoped they'd put some more work into it.

  8. Yes, it is. I do not wish to reveal my inside identity as it would be compromising.

  9. Heh, what a strange tangent! :)

    Just because we've reached the uncanny valley is no reason to stop progress, if we are ever to break through it. And realism definitely has a place in video games, my points being, maybe not always, everywhere, all the time.

    And for what it's worth, I think Heavy Rain looks stunning. I'm very interested to see the final product!

  10. here's first anonymous again

    @jc barnet:

    I don't think we will cross the uncanny valley, at least not in the near future. Humans are just too damn good at analyzing facial expressions. If somethings off, subconsciously we notice it immediately.

    Sure, the Heavy Rain demo was technically impressive, but that actress was creepy as hell. JC, are you sure you didn't just watch a blurry youtube clip of it?

    Go to gametrailers.com and watch it in full screen HD quality and take a good look at her face... if that isn't creepy and "wrong", then I don't know what is.

    But then again, to each his own...
    I just think that future is more something like the TF2 "meet the heavy guy" clip.

    There's a reason why the first Final Fantasy movie, Polar Express and lately Beowulf had less than stellar success, while Pixar on the other hand is printing money.

    My $0.02

  11. Some companies, like Capcom have certainly got the technology to do what even a number of Western developers wish they could.

    They've got the real gamut as far as realism and style goes. I mean, come on, from Phoenix Wright to Dead Rising/Lost Planet to Okami, they've done just about everything.

    When your target is realistic, thankfully, everyone has familiarity with reality(I at least hope so.) Look outside if you're wondering how something is supposed to lock.

    For something offbeat like Wind Waker, Okami, No More Heroes, every little last object has to be contorted to the game world's reality. Some people just can't imagine that.

    It doesn't feel too terribly hard to get players to suspend their disbeliefs in the name of fun, but then having just one thing off can get the player to re-suspend it.

    Also, it seems like sparking players' imaginations is a goal considered by Japanese developers. Talking to a friend of mine who's almost been in the industry as I have been alive, he's bumped into very few Americans who even considered the possibility.

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