Random Tragedies

Though certain random acts of violence from around the world get more media attention than others, e.g. the many school shootings that blight America or the many bombings in the Middle East, Japan's spate of vicious random attacks remain largely unreported globally, until, that is, video games are involved and websites and blogs jump to the defense of the medium.

Troublingly Japan has a fair amount of random violence. It's not so much the quantity as the viciousness of these attacks that is so shocking. Crime that is reported on Japanese news mostly revolves around foreigners, as that is juicy reporting, but the other type is the freak-out violence. From a young Japanese man who strangled a foreign English teacher and buried her body in a disused bathtub on his balcony, the young teenager who brutally stabbed his sister to the man who grabbed a knife in a department store and stabbed a random baby in a pram, the kinds of crimes are truly shocking but remain unexamined, mostly. My own armchair psychologist's view is that it probably has something to do with the enormous pressures your average Japanese person experiences in daily life, socially and professionally, and the lack of any decent care for stress. All too often people take short "holidays" to mental institutions and, I guess, that is supposed to fix the problem.

Don't get me wrong, I in no way condone or excuse these terrible acts of violence and murder, but I am disappointed there is so little psychological research and introspection being engaged in by the Japanese, or seemingly so anyway. If the extreme readiness to be violent and confrontational on busy trains is anything to go by I wouldn't be surprised if a lot more Japanese are far more highly strung than we may believe. It's a social problem that is simply not being addressed. It's not easy being Japanese I shouldn't wonder.

And then a young man in Ibaraki stabs eight people, killing one of them, is reported to have played Ninja Gaiden on the DS and the Japanese media, following in its Western brethrens' footsteps, happily reports a game related spree of violence. Team Ninja's Yosuke Hayashi steps off a place and is immediately quizzed by the media as to his reaction, as if the link is a foregone conclusion. His reaction was admirably non-committal and made what should be considered the final word in reaction to media reporting on video game "related" violence when he said

"The media should not be the ones answering the questions or defining the reasons why this incident happened."
A sentiment I wholly agree with.

As if my views carry any kind of weight whatsoever I do feel the need to explain to my readers my own view on violent video games. As a Liberal lefty freedom of speech and artistic expression are dear to me, but I am often frustrated by people who fail to understand this also carries with it a certain responsibility. One can't just throw any old material into the public sphere and deny any responsibility when that causes a reaction or other consequences. Then again, I believe video games should be a free and uncensored medium in the same way literature and film and others are and not be blamed specifically if a mentally deranged person uses it as a trigger for his or her violence. Despite Mark Chapman and John W. Hinckley Jr. literature and film have not, despite some groups' claims, been responsible for the moral decline of our society (per se), and continue to thrive as respected forms of art and entertainment. I'm sure video games too will reach this point in time.

Video games should not be singled out by self-aggrandizing shysters and vote-whoring politicians, who so betray their utter ignorance, for censorship and extreme control, in the same way this doesn't happen for literature, films and art. There are systems in place which work as long as ignorant parents get educated and stop buying mature-rated games for their young offspring. That said, I am a little tired of publishers pushing out gore and bloodfests and then complain when the public reacts with distaste (just before they go out and buy the product anyway). When defending freedom of speech one so often is forced to defend terrible products, but that is the nature of the debate, I'm afraid. But personally I find utter gore-fests and extreme, bloody violence a little distasteful. Sure, I sometimes indulge but not exclusively so.

Personally, as a developer and gamer, I am not interested in violent games. Of course I play them, but the marketing blurb that a certain game features an X number of ways to kill people or that the engine supports bodies being blown up in realistic chunks or features realistic blood fountains simply does not excite me in the slightest. I am proud to say that my resume contains mostly non-violent titles. I have been very fortunate to have been able to choose this direction. At a previous company the bad pay was starting to grate but being put to work on a cynically and overly sexist game was the last straw and I handed in my notice to be able to work on more family-friendly titles. Not many developers have this luxury so I know I've been lucky, but I have made concerted efforts in this way.

And after all this chin-stroking, outrage and moral high ground inhabiting I must humbly return to Yosuke Hayashi's words that it's not up to the media who should realise, as we should, they are no longer the "voice of the people" and should not take the position of moral guardians and purveyors of outrage to suit their own political agendas. These random attacks are human tragedies and should be examined as such, and not be political platforms for the lowest form of human being to use as soapboxes.

There are too many unanswered and unexamined questions but one thing is for sure: the only thing violence in video games can consistently and demonstrably be blamed for is the preening hot air of the indignant ignoramus.

Bless you!

Spring has arrived, even though it's still a little psychotic. For every warm, sunny day we have several with cold winds and enormous downpour. Nevertheless, the cherry blossoms are blooming, dotting the city with little bright pockets of pink again for the next couple of weeks and it heralds the annual season of people asking me if I'm okay with pollen or how my hay fever is.

The thing is, I have no hay fever and that, apparently, sets me apart from 25 out of every 10 Tokyo residents who, around this time of year, go through a period of massive mucus generation and sore eyes. I'm not quite sure what it is, possibly a lifetime in a smoggy major city, or if it's that the Japanese are genetically more indisposed towards it, but all of them show surprise when I tell them I'm perfectly fine and that, in fact, I recon in Europe hay fever sufferers are the exception rather than the rule. I have no idea if this is true but I know I am only acquainted with a handful of sufferers back home as opposed to being surrounded by the bastards in Japan.

The word used here is the wonderfully, if accidentally, onomatopoeic "kahunshou". You'll learn this word easily once you live here, as you will be asked about it all through March, April and May. It still surprises me that blowing your nose is a taboo in Japan. A quick, loud blow into a handkerchief, though briefly disrupting and not really disgusting, is considered rude, while incessant, wet sniffing can last all day and is hugely nauseating but acceptable. My workdays are spent in an environment that sounds as if it's inhabited by dozens of people desperately trying to suck those last few drops off the bottom of a thick milkshake.

Time will tell if prolonged exposure to the Tokyo biosphere will harm my olfactory passages enough to become a sniffer too. I hope not. It's almost impossible to blow your nose and keep your ears closed to drown out the sound of soppy nasal inhaling at the same time. Needless to say, during the springtime I usually avoid bringing lunchboxes to work to eat at my desk. Even on an empty stomach it's difficult to suppress the gag reflexes.

The state of indie in Japan (Jindie?)

Apologies for the recent dip in output. Life has a tendency to crop up on you sometimes, and the little time I have been able to devote to writing was done so in response to a request for an opinion piece for Gamasutra regarding the state of amateur and indie game development in Japan.

[Nikkei reporter Shin Kiyoshi] points out that the burgeoning amateur and indie development scene is helping push the creativity and competitive edge of the U.S. market to an extent that pushes Japan's own industry even further behind the curve. And Kiyoshi is certainly not the only one to have noticed this; more and more Japanese pundits and developers are, sometimes with only basic grumbling acceptance, noticing the growing gap between the two cultures.

And though there is some amateur game development in Japan, it is almost negligible: it certainly isn't allowed to encroach upon the established industry thinking that once made Japan a great nation of video gaming but is increasingly turning it towards mediocrity and obsolescence, save for a single digit number of exceptions.

Read the full article here on Gamasutra or here on GameSetWatch.

Games what I have played too much

I wonder how many gamers out there are like me, when sometimes a challenge is fine, as long as it's not too taxing, but often just going through the motions is enough. I like spending time in my own brain, as someone who likes splatter horror, and I often lose myself in thought while grinding through match-three casual games on the PC, or replay simple games I could finish with my eyes closed. Often doing this is much more relaxing and fun than that sweaty, brain-aching I get from challenging new games. There are a handful of games I have played and finished over and over and over and I still sometimes get the urge to pick them up and replay them for the umpteenth time, not only because they games are great, but mostly because I know what to do and there isn't a single challenge left in the product; I'm just going through the motions enjoying it immensely. I sometimes feel developers and publishers go the wrong way trying to produce challenges rather than experiences and though I understand the market is very wide and diverse and that there are people out there who enjoy throwing their controllers at the wall in frustration, I simply want more games I can play without dying, getting stuck or having to think too much.

Here are three titles I have misspent my youth and adulthood on. Occasionally I dig them up again or, as is more often the case, I buy the title yet again when it's ported to a new format. I know the ins and outs, the nooks and crannies, the secrets, the shortcuts. And yet, every time I play them I am still having a whale of a time.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
The reason Nintendo keeps on porting and rereleasing old games is because of idiots like me, sorry. Every time you see yet another version of certain classic games and think to yourself "no way am I going to pay for that game AGAIN", I will already have done so. I have bought LttP about as many times as I've played it (not quite) and never regretted it. It is, by far, the best Zelda ever created and if you disagree you are wrong, it's that simple.
So much time have I invested in this incredible world, its shortcuts, its links to the dark world, where all the teleports lead, where all the heart pieces are that any time I replay it it feels a little like a homecoming. Starting from my...um, Link's uncle's little cottage suspiciously located in the middle of the map, in the rain, to the sequence breaking secret items that are hidden, to the dwarf blacksmiths, the bottles...the everything. I know it by heart and replaying my quest is like sightseeing through my youth.
When the GBA version was released with an extra move and dungeon I browbeated a colleague into playing the Four Swords quests with me just to unlock them. They added too little to the game, but secretly I was happy with that; the original still stands, as is.

Played on:
SNES, GBA, Wii, PC (ahem)
Times finished: Pfff...quite a few. A dozen orso, at least, if not more. Probably more.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
This game out-Metroids Metroid, and though the subsequent GBA and DS releases were also little gems of pure excellence in their own rights, and have received their fair share of my attention and time, none of these, nor any of the precedents (sorry retro-fans) can match this game for pure, bloody minded, amazing topness and bad voice acting.
I had bought the special, limited edition of this title at first but then, stupidly, in a fit of ignorance, got rid of it when I moved to Japan. I then managed to score a Chinese original copy of the game, via a benevolent industry acquaintance, which I still cherish to this day. In fact, the first thing I did when I bought my too-big, shiny new high definition television was plug in my PSOne to play this game. And it was wonderful. Who needs crisp, sharp graphics when you can have great old graphics but bigger? What is a man? A miserable pile of secrets! Ahhh....
When the XBLA version was released it turned out to be the first game, and eventually one of only two, for which I got all achievements, within a very short period of time. I knew the map layout, the location of the relics, the weaknesses of the bosses, which items to equip to make the challenging parts easy as piss and where all the secret rooms were. And I still enjoyed this game more than many others, simply because I could play it without learning its ins and outs.

Played on: PSOne, XBLA - considering purchasing a PSP just for the chance of playing it again
Times finished: Again, I didn't keep track, but at least 10 orso times, not counting the Richter and Axearmor playthroughs.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance
I know there are other and earlier tactics games out there worthy of praise, and I have indeed played a few of them. I was on the brink of buying Disgaia 3 for the PS3 until I heard a US version was planned. But something about FFTA hits all my sweet spots. The sprite-tastic graphics, the jobs, the everything, but mostly the graphics, yeah. I like 'em 2D and FFTA is just the sweetest, juiciest fruit right after Metal Slug in terms of pixelly awesomenicity.
Playing through it the first time it slowly dawned on me how I wasn't quite 100% efficient in the jobs and skills learning curve, and though I was on the brink of beating the final boss, after a good 40 hours of time investment, without hesitation I deleted my save and started again. Since then I have finished it several times, with each go trying out different team structures, job skills and characters. One thing I have never done was finish all the quests, as the grinding skills and job system was for me always far more interesting than the quests or even battles themselves. Just writing about it now makes me want to start a new game, if it wasn't for that tedious, unskippable tutorial intro.
After I purchased the game it didn't leave my GBA slot until I bought the GBA Player for the Gamecube, after which it didn't leave that slot for a good long while. I bought a special classic-style controller just for this game and have poured more hours into it than studying Japanese, consuming alcohol or living life.
I fear, with childish excitement, the release of the localised version of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2.

Played on: GBA and the Gamecube's GBA Player
Times finished: Not that many, maybe 5, but in overall number of hours wasted, incalculable.

* * *

Of course these games listed are fantastic masterpieces in their own right, so they deserve replays, but simply the fact I know them inside out makes them more fun for me. I don't have to think anymore, I can just do. And more than other, newer games, this is the kind of relaxation I have come to expect from my hobby. Long replays, instant deaths, boss battles that require luck and finding the one weak spot...I've done that. I don't need to go through that again. It's not that much fun, actually. At least with LttP I know exactly where to hit the bosses, in SotN I know exactly where to go first to get that poison gas cloud relic and in FFTA I know what skills and items my main character needs for that series of battles where he's on his own. Arguably they are more fun now than they were the first time. I don't know, maybe I'm just odd and lazy, but I don't find challenging games fun anymore.

This is why I think the PC casual niche has had such a marked effect on the market. Most of these games are very easy and are usually boiled down to simply repeating a single action over and over. It's something which is often lacking in console titles, where publishers and developers heap challenge upon challenge and obtuse puzzle onto badly designed racing sections. There is a market out there for the lazy gamer, he who doesn't want to think much or get his hands sweaty. It's called relaxation.

Watashi wa DJ, dawg!

I recently bought Burnout Paradise for the PS3, hoping that like so many others it would see my system settings were set to English and so ignore the localisation and play in God’s own language. No such luck, sadly, but at least I now know my Japanese is good enough to follow all audio instructions and menu screens, including the strangely morose and authoritative woman who introduces Paradise City. The game is a hoot, of course, and this is coming from someone who hates racing games. I just spent a lazy Sunday afternoon marveling at the crashes, finding signs to smash and zooming around the city, ignoring all those tiresome races and activities. But there is one snag…

I often hear about how localised versions of Japanese games are turned to Z-grade quality pulp by bad American voice acting. Believe me, it works the other way round too. As if DJ Atomica wasn’t enough of an annoying, odious intrusion to begin with, wait till you meet DeeDuyai Atomica, his Japanese twin brother. He follows in the proud tradition of a certain type of Japanese radio or television DJ, often an American-born Japanese or one of mixed parentage. They speak in fast Japanese but like to throw in Englishisms to sound cool. DeeDuyai Atomica too has his banter and likes to throw in the occasional “CHECKIDOUD” or “LESGO”. It is as incongruous as white middle-class kids calling each other “niggah”. It’s face-smashingly annoying.

Even though the game’s soundtrack is mediocre at best, at least they didn’t change it for the Japanese market. The only thing worse than modern rock beat combos is the Japanese version of the same, a bunch of cool hip youngsters trying very hard to be urban and “street” but singing in Japanese. I may be a bit of a Victor Meldrew in my old age, but inferior copies of inferior music is much worse than inferior originals. I’m sorry otaku, however much you enjoy ironically silly Japanese music, the joy will soon fade away once it’s the only thing you hear around you all day. If it wasn’t for foreign Japanophiles Ayumi Hamazaki would have disappeared into obscurity, where she belongs…but that’s besides the point.

The DJ and BGM have been turned down, the SFX up and I am enjoying the game as it is supposed to be enjoyed: badly! Boy, those crashes are something else…

An apple a day

If you live in Japan you must get yourself some health insurance. If you have health insurance you must get a yearly medical check-up. This works really well, if you ask me. I think in total I've been on all of two orso random medical examinations in my life before Japan, but since the move I've had about half a dozen of varying intensities.

The system is pretty rote, like a medical conveyor-belt. You get your forms and rules. No eating after such o'clock, no fags or booze so many hours before, no nothing, etc. Fill in your forms; "have you got any of these diseases?" or "how much do you drink?" You'll either get a vial to collect your morning urine in or even a paper net and vial-secured comb for fecal matter, though the former is often collected au naturelle at the clinic itself and the latter is usually only for the plus alpha checks.

There are two types of examination. The regular and, what I have termed above, the plus alpha. The former is most common but after you reach the tender age of 30 and every so many years thereafter with increasing regularity you'll get the plus alpha treatment. The regular check involves your urine, a finger-full of blood, blood pressure, eyesight and hearing, height and weight, probably a doctor's consultation, if you must, an X-Ray of the chest and one of those things where they check, I don't quite know, your wiring; they put plastic braces on your ankles and wrists and a set of rubber suction cups on your chests and then stare intensely at a monitor until they tell you to get up and move along. For the plus alpha you may receive an echo-scan of the guts, where you get a gelled scanner massage on your belly as if you were pregnant and most odious of all, as the Japanese say in hushed tones, the dreaded "Barium drink". This involves drinking some horribly chalky stomach medicine, followed by a Barium milkshake, a semi-tasteless, milky drink that is thick and heavy. You can pretty much feel it drop to your stomach. You're then put on a revolving table, pretty much like Goldfinger's, and shook around. You'll be asked to turn this way and that as the table does its fairground ride, all the while photos are being taken of the Barium as it sloshes about your body. Once a little robot arm even came out and prodded me just to get the Barium flowing. It's exhausting, time consuming and gives you that heavy feeling for the rest of the day. You'll be given a laxative to ingest should you be unable to pass the Barium naturally, but with the weight of gravity it is usually no real problem.

At these times my Japanese ability really gets a beating. Obviously medical terms are not used in daily conversation and are unlikely to pop up during your study or cigarette breaks. Who knows the Japanese for "blood pressure" for example? Though I suppose, as a game developer, that one would be handy to memorise.

This year the preliminary results on the day, ahead of the full report to be sent a few weeks hence, was not so much positive as unremarkable. As I am a prolific smoker, legendary drinker and consummate hypochondriac I trust these results not one bit. By now some horrible disease must have manifested itself yet of all the check-ups only once did I get a dangerously low score for my lungs. In retrospect it was probably a clinic-wide mandate to lower the score for anyone who ticks the "smoker" box on the initial questionnaire because during the doctor's consultation I mentioned it. He had a listen to my lungs with his ice-cold stethoscope, told me to breathe deeply and simply shook his head saying it was fine. When I first came to Japan and was still carrying around a little too much Western midriff, the weight/height nurse had trouble finding me on the graph. Her final opinion was then that I'd be too heavy if I had been a Japanese person of slightly smaller stature. All she needed to do was prod me in the gut to find out I needed to lose weight, which I did when I removed the daily intake of beer from my diet and replaced it with carbonated water...and wine. I'd still like to lose some, but hell, I'd like a solid gold Rolls Royce too. Never going to happen.

Though I have a slight, possibly racist, distrust of Japanese doctors and I don't quite believe the perennial all-clear reports of my obviously ailing body, it is a good system and should, if it works, be able to pinpoint problems before they get out of hand. That said, having to survive a whole morning without so much a drop of caffeine or a puff of nicotine was the most disastrous Hell I’ve ever been through and I’m very glad I won’t be having to do that again for another year.

The Skeptical Game Developer

I am a skeptic. Or rather, I am an aggressively militant atheist with a rather snobbish outlook on any wishy-washy balderdash that isn’t scientifically sound; on my better days I could make Richard Dawkins sound like a tolerant apologist. As a consequence life in Japan can be quite irritating as they have their fair share of superstitions, religions, an extraordinary number of cults and no end of snake-oil quackery from laxatives marketed as slimming agents to old wise-women on television telling the young anything from how green tea can make you healthy to how soya beans can make you fly, or whatever rot passes for “knowledge from the past” these days.

Video games too, possibly because they have an ancestry in sci-fi fantasy and role-playing, are remarkably pseudoscientific, but because it is entertainment it can and usually is easily forgiven. I am not really a strong proponent of education through gaming, because entertainment is allowed to be nonsensical. It’s escapism, after all, so there is nothing wrong with superheroes and magic users. But still, I sometimes wonder how skeptical thought could be integrated into the game design.

Health Potions
A staple of every RPG is the, usually blue health potion. Wouldn't it be fun if you buy these potions, at a high price, only to find out they do nothing for you? You're in the heat of battle, almost dead, and take your herbal or homeopathic super health potion and..."HP +0" appears For the real medicine you'll need to go to the other shop where they sell antibiotics, bandages and vaccinations. Similarly Phoenix Down resurrection potions do exactly nothing.

No raid party is complete without a druid, healer or magic user. Sadly the druid just wants to strip down to his socks and sandals and worship the Earth Goddess, the healer is just carrying a bunch of crystals and herbs and the magic user is only very adept at pointing out which one of a deck of cards you've picked. Don't you wish you had recruited that medical professional now or invested experience points in that surgery-class character?

Sham religions
Obviously, in my world-view, “sham religion” is a tautology. The closest gaming has come is probably Ultima 7’s dangerous and destructive Fellowship which appeared to be a social cohesive but was anything but. Sadly it did have a “real” supernatural character behind it with The Guardian, so it’s not quite skeptical enough for me.
Wouldn't it be fun if you were to travel the lands, follow your quests and fight your foes in aide of a supernatural power of Good to vanquish the supernatural power of Evil only to find out these don't exist. Well done on doing a good job, though, and you have indeed achieved a moral victory, but that goddess I told you about...doesn't exist, sorry.

You are part of a secret black-ops style commando unit, lead by a grizzled charismatic ex-army colonel. You infiltrate the government and fight government troops for the safety of all of mankind and freedom. The government is building a super secret weapon that can enslave mankind so it must be stopped. Only, are they? I mean, really? You find out the government is just this bunch of pasty, greedy idiots and the whole theory was just the result of your mentally unstable colonel acting on intuition and bad information rather than proof.

You spend the night in an old mansion and are bombarded from every angle by malicious spirits. Your goal is to survive this Hell House and live to see another day. Except that other day is spent in a mental institution when the locals find you a raving, hallucinating idiot the next morning, waving shotguns at mirrors and cats.

One NPC in the village is a fortune teller. For a small sum of gold she'll enlighten you and show you the correct path. You will meet a handsome stranger and there will be some money issues and maybe a friend in need will ask you for help. For extra gold she'll ask her spirit guide for more insights. Do you know someone whose name begins with an "R", no, maybe it's a "B", or a "W", no? A pet maybe?

Part of your character creation let's you pick a Zodiac sign for your avatar. Except, of course, whichever you choose hasn't the slightest effect on your overall character stats, but it does allow you to speak more easily to women in bars.

Though I don’t seriously expect skeptical thought to be integrated into our products, I do recommend any like-minded people to join their local skeptics’ society, listen to the many informative and entertaining skeptical podcasts and websites and rely a little more on common-sense rationality in their everyday lives. Amen!

DevBlog Matsuri

Bruce Everiss, industry Mark Williams lookalike, over at BruceOnGames saw fit to post an article listing some of his favourite game developer blogs, being kindly / uninformed enough to single mine out for special comment. He makes a good point in saying that if one wants to learn more about the game developer's life of the mind, game review sites and magazines are simply inadequate in the face of the rising tide of actual game developer blogs that are cropping up with increasing regularity.

It's true in my case that the blogs I frequent most often are those written by industry people, usually developers, the occasional indie developer with only one or two actual "journalism" sites. For news there is no better place than the industry-only Chaos Engine forum, and for press releases there is the Magic Box. The good thing about developer blogs is that even if they don't actually write about the development of their own titles, which is often protected under Non-Disclosure Agreements, their insights on games is usually of a much higher standard than even the professional game journalists'.

Here is the list as found on BruceOnGames, spellchecked and with my addendums at the bottom:

Personal favourites not yet listed are:

  • The Grumpy Gamer – legend Ron Gilbert's online scrapbook and thought diary.
  • Make it big in games - Jeff Tunnell and Josh Dallman aiming for the “most insightful and useful blog on the internet” award
  • Reality Panic – IGDA head honcho Jason Della Rocca tells up what he’s up to.
  • The Pickford Bros. blog – Old-skool development heroes doing new-skool cool stuff.
  • Warren Spector’s blog – I’ve never heard of this guy but he has some nice ideas. He should be working in the games industry, if you ask me.

There are many more blogs and sites out there written by actual game developers from all different fields of our industry. I apologise if I’ve left anyone specific off the list, but the average internet user can easily find more of them with a little patience without having to resort to getting all their gaming information from a handful of major game journalist sites.

If you’re a developer with his own spiffy blog but you’re not listed on my blogroll, don’t be shy and drop me a line at japanmanship@gmail.com to inform me of my heinous remiss.