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The Toy Conundrum

Video games were originally marketed as toys for tots. You have no idea how much trouble that's caused us. It's the #1 reason we're in the state we're in right now, fun-centric and thought-starved. And if you look closely enough, that toy mentality still lingers today. Why else do you think we haven't moved on?

Part 1 - An Example (Or, Sin, Punishment and Wrath)


I don't think the statement I just made would seem very convincing if I didn't have any examples to back it up, so let's start with a few and work our way up to the main idea. For the first, I'll point out that this rant exists in the place of what I thought was going to be a glowing review of a game I'd recently bought. I came in expecting one of my future favorite games of all time, the ultimate shoot-'em-up experience, but what I found was...well, I wasn't quite sure what I found. But boy, did it make me think.

Sin and Punishment: Star Successor for the Wii is a tricky game for me to put into an objective "good" box or "bad" box. I guess it's a solid rail shooter, an exceptional one even, and it offers us one of the most satisfying uses of the Wii Remote to date, a rare instance where it beats using a controller hands-down. But it's also product of its environment, and sorry, but that's bad, yet also weirdly fascinating, because what we have here is a case study of the collective psyche of the entire video game industry over the last half-century. Sound promising? Well, don't get your hopes up.

Now, if I had to judge it solely as a shoot-'em-up, then yeah, it's great. I might even go so far as to say that it's the greatest 3D shoot-'em-up since Starfox 64, and the closest thing we'll get to a Remote-powered Starfox game on the Wii. "Sorry we didn't deliver. Take this instead. It's the next best thing. Love, Nintendo." Love you back for that.

The cool part about this is that it frees up designers to throw the kitchen sink into Star Successor's controls. Although the character and xir aiming reticule move separately, The player no longer has to waste precious brain cells juggling twin sticks and triggers, so they can fill up that space with extra controls for dodging, flying, and multi-lock on targeting, to name a few tricks. The resulting setup is nuanced and full of creative opportunities for the player, in a way that couldn't be achieved on the buttonless Microsoft Kinect, but with no sharper a learning curve than a round of Super Mario Galaxy. A minute to learn, a lifetime to master.


And you still get pinpoint accuracy, without any of that "cursor sensitivity" nonsense to deal with. The pointer in your hand is at your exact command. Just point and click. Presto. You can do it. I know you can.

Another thing this game excels at for a 3D rail shooter is just being 3D. If the Japanese truly are prone to motion sickness, as so I've heard (but am respectfully hesitant to believe until I hear it from them) then developer Treasure has just committed high treason. The camera barrel rolls as you wind through a maze of towering buildings, and a good bit of the action is fought upside down. You fall one way, then turn around, reverse and fall the other until you can't tell which way is up or down, and you fly so fast through a water tunnel that you can't keep up with the curves and momentarily break free. Roller coasters run on rails too, you know, and this one's a spiraling, swerving, lurching Superman of a ride. No...it's a Formula Rossa. Look it up. This game is sick.


...Sort of...

...See, as enthralling as Star Successor can be, its presentation is...enlightening.


And I hesitate to describe it, because I find myself using a verdict I don't like to throw around.

You know what I really hate saying? "Gameplay's good, but the story sucks." I hate saying that because I know it doesn't have to be that way, because it reflects a oil and water view of two elements that are really two sides of the same experience and are meant to reinforce each other, not work in opposition. The very reason why we have what skimpy stories we do have today is because just shooting a swarm of bland grey boxes would feel to pointless to be worth our time.


But what's this? Now zombies have overrun our city? and the only cure for their zombiedom is hidden somewhere in the labyrinth City Hall? So one player has to search for it while the other one defends the doors of the last outpost of humanity? But the zombie virus is already slowly spreading through the crowds of the Hall? And yet it's so early in its cycle that its victims look human, and act almost perfectly human, so no one can be trusted and everyone must be searched and thoroughly interrogated? And even then you can never be 100% sure, so you have to pull the trigger with extreme caution and consideration and balance the risk of killing an innocent person with the risk of having the zombie kill you or spread the plague to others?


Hoo boy, that sounds urgent. Now that is a disaster I can get behind! This is why we use stories the way we do right now. Everything sounds better in context.

So heads up: Star Successor is sort of a wasted opportunity on that front, and I mean "wasted opportunity" literally, because the story isn't really that bad on paper. By the way, I mean "on paper" literally, too. Here's an excerpt from the game's manual:

"Who is the most worthy of being called human?

  • The alien life-form with an insatiable curiosity about humans.
  • The young fighter struggling to define his own humanity.
  • The fighters who wish to end the oppression of humans on Earth-5"

Who is the most worthy of being called human?

Who cares? They never really go too far into it in the context of the game.

But it's an interesting premise, isn't it? Three characters, each laying a claim to humanity. Each of them almost perfectly human...yet each of them not quite. Then again, there are plenty of games with interesting premises, and plenty of those that have been hampered by a limited understanding of how to, or an outright refusal to, carry them past the opening blurb and occasional cinematic into the game itself.


At this point you may think I'm coming down a little hard on poor Star Successor. It's only a rail shooter after all. What should I expect, Citizen Kane? It's not supposed to win Oscars. I know. It's not like I hate it. I've actually had plenty of fun with it. However...

A) The cutscenes really do merit a 21-page essay. They're just that bad. They're the only shot the game has at developing its actually pretty interesting themes and characters, and they're a travesty.


But here's an odd note: most of the problems with the game's presentation (which, I'm afraid, sometimes reach their slimy tentacles into the in-game action) are chronic symptoms that have afflicted a handsome catalogue of less-then-immaculately presented Japanese games going as far back as Sonic Adventure in 1998.


Clunky robot animations, the kind that start and stop abruptly, especially when it comes to walking. Ear-bleedingly hammy voice acting that repeats ad infinitum (alt. phrasing: ad naseum), hack script writing that bites off more ideologically than it chew, and a complete non-understanding of the way the human(oid) mouth moves while talking. Uncanny Valley run rampant.

I'm not done yet. Lazy modeling and texturing, too, and don't start with your "It's the Wii, duh!" because there have absolutely been better-looking games on the system, from MadWorld to Tatsunoko vs. Capcom to, begrudgingly, Metroid: Other M. I'm tempted to say they just didn't care this time, because it certainly wouldn't be first, and the reason I'm feeling conflicted about this game at the moment is because they probably didn't.


This is what I hate about the myth of the story-game divide. When you buy into the idea that gameplay and storytelling work in opposition with each other, you actually begin to feel justified in shooting one of them down. You feel like you have a stance from which to defend your neglect. But you don't, and the result is quite literally sin and punishment.

Whatever happened to cohesive experiences? Whatever happened to the "games as experiences" we were promised out of Japan in the mid 1980s, when the Great Industry Crash had finally blown over and people had just begun to believe in video games again? Mind you, it wasn't always like this.


Part 2-Wherein I Actually Use the Phrase "Toy Conundrum"

Once again, disclaimers. I know most of you probably want me to approach Star Successor on its own terms. I understand. If you're a shoot-'em-up fan just looking for a few hours of action, who wants to know if Sin and Punishment: Star Successor is worth your money, by all means, go for it. In fact, go read paragraphs 4-7 again and tell me if you're not convinced. I'm just gonna warn you that you might wanna skip over the cutscenes, 'cause they're not that great.


And while the game isn't that bad in a vacuum, outside of any larger context, it reminds of a vast majority of games, and a general gaming landscape, that positively can be lot better than it is now, and this game, as admittedly fun as it is, feels so much like a product of that culture that it serves as the most perfect example ever. So I have to rip it apart. It's for the best. I'll probably put in another session once I'm done writing this. You can be critical of something and still like it. As proof, I will now criticize Japan.

Not long ago, DocSeuss, another game blogger who writes here from time to time, and someone whom I deeply respect and admire (which must totally creep him out, considering that we've only really talked once) talked about how he doesn't enjoy Japanese games, and while I may not share that feeling, I'm beginning to think I can see how he reached it. Star Successor hits, I'd bargain, every one of those "do not want" notes on his list, particularly an exalting of gameplay for its own sake and a failure to see the game as more than just an abstract set of rules. But to take this conversation in a whole other direction, I'll hypothesize (read: HYPOTHESIZE) that the Japanese fixation on gameyness is indicative of a much larger, much more insidious, and much, much more widespread problem, something that affects modern game development as a whole, around the world. I call it the "Toy Conundrum."


What is the "Toy Conundrum?" Well, think of it this way: As a medium struggling to reach the lofty peak of high art, we're a bit behind schedule. I know we're young, but in comparison, movies like Metropolis had things like pacing, basic storytelling theme down as early as 1927. This was a silent film, people. And film, at the time, was roughly (very roughly) as old as we in gaming are now, if not younger.


...And yet we still to call in Yahtzee Croshaw whenever we get a game with at least a basic conversation between at least two visible characters, let alone a full-blown story. What gives?


Here's what: in case you have been paying attention to the industry in the last...well, in case you just haven't been paying attention to the industry, today's modern game studios aren't interested in things like drama, pathos, characterization or any of the other so-called "highbrow" topics that would add up to basic summer tentpole entertainment in any other medium (that is, highbrow topics that aren't really highbrow.) They are solely, single-mindedly, almost neurotically obsessed with some nebulous, highly-subjective concept of "fun," and it is heavily tied to the fact that games were marketed early in their history as children's toys. That's where the "toy" in "Toy Conundrum" comes from. Can you guess where the "conundrum" comes from?

That's right. Everywhere else.

This stifles us so much it isn't even funny. It happens in mainstream games no matter where you turn, and it manifests in different ways. It's the philosophy of "games as toys," of games as strictly toys, to function only as conduits for a very specific type of entertainment. Anything that doesn't fit this chokingly narrow definition is considered undesirable or even dangerous, and in the worst cases stripped of its gamehood. You know the deal. And as a result, we get less of them. So yeah, it's a conundrum too.


And we can't seem to shake it off either, hence our falling behind schedule. It is the single greatest obstacle between us and our untapped potential. The only difference between us and movies like Metropolis and Birth of a Nation (1913, everyone,) is intent. The people who made those movies knew what they wanted out of their craft from the very beginning, and it was all uphill from there as they experimented with different ways to get there. We don't seem to know what we want, and when we do, it's less than inspiring.

What do we want? Don't we wan't anything bigger than this? Where's our spirit?

The only way out of this mess is to let go of our past and recognize what we are and what we have the potential to become. The only option is a wide-scale shift in the way developers see what they're making and what they intend to accomplish. It isn't enough to have one or two games buck this trend. We need the whole system to change from the inside out. Which will be slow and difficult, naturally.


But at least we know what the problem is. And as we speak, it is making very bad things happen. Let me show you.

Part 3-Japanese Games as an Example of the Toy Conundrum Gone Out of Control

The Toy Conundrum is hurting Japan something awful. To get back to that subject, what I think we may be forgetting is that we, the West (Unless you are reading this elsewhere in the world, in which case, pardon me) started in more or less the same place as they did: games for the sake of games. I mean, if memory serves me correctly, we practically invented that idea with our Pong and our Atari Football and our Spacewar. We used to be parallel to each other. While we were making Pitfall they were making Donkey Kong Jr. While we had basic text adventures like Zork and Colossal Cave Adventure, they had visual novels like The Portopia Serial Murder Case, Shin Onigashima and Snatcher. While we had Battlezone, They had Cosmo Genesis and its dazzling, dizzying 3D starfield. (I swear this one looks like the precursor to Samus' helmet in Metroid Prime.)

But the strange thing is, we eventually left the phase we started in, at least in part, in small part, while Japan just...stayed there. To make things weirder still, in 1986 we had games coming out of there like the original Dragon Quest, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Kid Icarus, all of which were as non-linear as they come and unorthodox in their design and their designer's aspirations. One wanted players to identify with their avatar as it grew with them. One wanted a "miniature garden that [players] can put inside their drawer." (Love that quote.) It was part of a growing league of games that showed that Japan was willing to experiment, to try and push ahead, and we were ultimately better off for it.


Kid Icarus, Level 1-4

The only problem is that after that, they did more than just stand still. They regressed. As time went by, many of these then-radical games became more linear, hyperfocused and action-based, including most of the most of the ones I mentioned above (well, all of them, eventually...) Ever since I noticed this, I've been racking my brain trying to figure out why.


Cut to today, and ex-Capcom dev Keiji Inafune has pretty much summed up the problem: Japanese game development has stagnated.


This makes Sin and Punishment: Star Successor incredibly relevant again. I said earlier that the game's presentation was sorely lacking, but a lot of the issues I mentioned would have been forgivable on the Dreamcast, PlayStation, Sega Saturn or N64, back when it was hardly expected to accomplish anything else. They are so not Sixth Generation. Starfox 64 and even the original Sin and Punishment don't seem as bad in comparison, even though they aren't much different. But come the Wii, they should be better along by now.

The reason so little effort is put into solving these problems is that Star Successor, and so many others, isn't treated as more than the sum of its parts, even if those parts add up to a fairly straightforward action scene, but as a high-tech toy with blinking lights.


Now here's where things start to get iffy. In making the following hypothesis, I'm only feeding a subconscious urge to make sense of what's going on around me. I don't feel it's my place to try and solve Japan's problems or tell them what I think they should do. It feels too imperialistic to try. Besides, they have their own people handling the problem, and aside from the ever-present power to vote with my wallet, I think it'd be polite of me to mind my own business. For what it's worth, I trust them.

Anyway, this might be a bit of a shot in the dark, but I think this whole stagnation problem may have to do with the prominence of arcade culture in Japan, something that has all but died here. To take it a step further, games on consoles tend to be influenced by the platforms around them. It's a back-and-forth that happens all the time in tech spaces. It's why the Windows 8 interface looks like a tablet and the old NES was intentionally (yes, intentionally) designed to look like a VCR. And although Western consoles have always been inspired by PC games, those kinds of games eventually fell out of favor in Japan and never quite caught on since. But arcades did. They're still going strong today.


Think about that: where we have PCs, Japan has arcades. Just let that one sink in for a moment. Better yet, it's like if Cinema chose Vines as its chief influence instead of Theater. Now let that one sink in.


...And now, scream.

Part 3.5: And Just What's Wrong with Arcades?

Nothing! Nothing at all!

Honestly, I don't have any issues with video arcades. I'm actually fairly impressed with Japan for being able to keep them alive. But arcades have one major flaw that, for all their fun and inventiveness, make them a lousy pretty model for consoles: Arcades can't save. (And the ones that can are negligible.)


You play arcade games in one session, without saves available, and this puts a serious constraint on designers, not just because they now have to make their game short enough to finish in one sitting (which is actually a much-needed trait in console games right now,) but also because it has been established that the shorter a game is, the more difficult it is to implement complex mechanics or a large-scale world or the like.


Saving matters. Three of the four games I mentioned earlier from 1986 were designed to take advantage of the fact that, at the time, the console they ran on, the Famicom Disk System, was the only console that could do that, period, end of story. Developers went bananas over this (the fourth game, Dragon Quest, was made by a previously PC-only developer, so make of that what you will) and the console's eventual failure (which, funny thing, didn't have anything to do with the system itself) would be the tipping point in a slowly accelerating downward spiral of regression that continues today. I'm sure it wasn't motivating in the least.

Meanwhile, arcades boomed, and if you think about it, many of the famously Japanese game genres that rose to prominence in the '80s and '90s, like fighting games, beat-'em-ups, shoot-'em-ups (up to and including "bullet hell" games,) rhythm games and more were grown in arcades, and are still hot there now. Games like Street Fighter IV are released on cabinets as well as on consoles, and people line up in droves to play them.


Street Fighter 2 hit arcades in 1991, rocketing the fighting game to fame.

As games in arcades grew in influence, console games took their toll. Take Shining Force for instance, a revered Strategy-RPG from Sega, which first appeared in 1992, when disc-based media (this time, CDs) was still romanticized as an exotic new format, and Sega was busy making its own disc-reading peripheral, the Sega CD, where Shining Force would immediately get a sequel. Take a look at the first game in action:

Fast forward a few more years to 2009, and Shining Force is on it's way out. What was once a top-selling franchise complete with its own serialized manga, is in need of saving, fast. in an effort to keep the franchise alive, a new Shining Force was made, Shining Force Cross, this time for arcades. Um, just look:

And that's not even the latest one. My, how times have changed.

Part 3.5.5: But This Has Nothing to Do with Presentation, Right?


Another interesting way arcades have left their mark on Japanese console games is with graphics and sound. Once upon a time, arcades were in a league all their own, well ahead of their housebound counterparts in terms visual and aural presentation. If most of your gaming experience at the time came from long in front of a TV screen on your NES, SNES, or Sega Genesis, arcades would have seemed mysteriously ahead of their time. It's always cool to show folks some dingy old arcade game that was rocking 3D graphics and voices or whatever in 1983 and hear them go "They could do that back then?" To which I would respond "Nah, they could do that before then!" Wow.

Compare the main theme from Bubble Bobble on the NES...

...to its counterpart in arcades. You can hear the difference, can't you? And what a difference!


Arcades brought us our FMVs, our scrolling, vector graphics, 4-player games, voice samples, digitized sprites, the characters that first began to look human. You name it. And consoles were struggling to catch up.

The Sega Genesis advertised the truest "arcade experience" you could find, complete with lifetime supply of at least decent if not identical ports (although every now and then you come across a game whose port was in some ways better than the original, like Genesis version of Altered Beast, which was the only version to use parallax scrolling,) And the Neo Geo justified its $650 price tag (which was, remember, actually considered abnormal back then) by assuring us that the hardware inside was, in fact, the exact same hardware they used in their world-class arcade machines.


Arcades were the ideal to which consoles aspired.

Fun Fact: Did you know that when anime director Hideaki Anno, creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion, saw Virtua Fighter for the first time, it seemed so advanced the was a little worried as to how anime was going to compete with it? It seems laughable in hindsight, but remember: it was 1993. This was the most high-tech thing out there. Consoles fired back with StarFox and Super Mario 64, both of which got recognition for being technically ambitious. You know, back when Mario used to do those kinds of things.

It ain't no contest, Anno-san.


And then...they overtook them, starting in 2D during the early '90s with increasingly flawless ports (See that Street Fighter 2 screenshot up there? Guess what! It's really taken from the SNES. Gotcha!) before eventually outclassing them in 3D around the turn of the millennium. Arcades responded by by pushing forward quirky control schemes and abandoning its hopes of catching up completely. Consoles responded to the lack of competition by entering a state of early 2000s stasis. And 10 years later, I find Sin and Punishment: Star Successor and increasingly doubt that it wasn't originally released for the Dreamcast (NOTE: I now know that it was specifically developed for the Wii. Also, I love the Dreamcast. No hard feelings.)

And on top of all of those bad influences, the big thing with arcade cabinets, especially the ones in Japan, is that they tend to get lumped in with crane games, shooting galleries, whack-a-moles, and other carnival-style attractions. Just another one of the toys, just about recognized as their own entity, but not much more. This toy mentality spreads to the games they make, emphasizing novelty and Panchiko-level reflex-fun over virtually any other, deeper kind of appeal.

Okay, so I'd actually really want to play this if I could, but my point still stands.


Whack-a-Mole does not require the willing suspension of disbelief. Its purpose is to entertain on only the level of the rules themselves. And if you think about it, arcade-style games like Mario Kart Arcade GP and Marvel vs. Capcom 3 can get away with their broken-record voice acting and slightly rigid animations because you don't for a moment treat these like they're the real things, or at least you're not expected to. But whenever a game does come around that does take itself seriously (and everything about Star Successor's presentation and story screams "We take ourselves very seriously,") These otherwise harmless hiccups become jarring, and maybe a little bit disappointing.

We take ourselves very seriously. So serious.

And all of this, right down to the gameplay-and-story segregation, happened because consoles followed arcades around like lemmings, through their prime and straight over the edge. (Another fun fact: Did you know that the idea that Lemmings followed each other off cliffs was completely staged by Disney in their 1958 documentary White Wilderness? Did you know that that film received an Academy Award?...Oh, on second thought, let's call this one a "Disheartening Fact.")


Maybe we need a PC gaming boom in Japan to turn things around. But again, let's not be colonists. They've got people working on the problem, and we'll just have to trust them to figure it out. This is all only a theory, anyway.

But in case you were going to ask: No, it's not much fun being a spectator. I'm going to have to deal with that.



The point of all this is that this toy mentality hurts. The reason Japan's movies, literature, and everything else aren't in the same state is that their directors and writers know exactly what they want to do with their work, and their game developers want to do something else entirely, just like ours.


It hurts us, too. It hurts everybody. It's the reason we prioritize fun over everything. It's not just a major obstacle to our artistic maturation; it is the obstacle. It's been burned into our minds over nearly five decades, and it's going to take a lot of time and effort to unlearn, no matter how hard we work at it.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to intent. We have interaction. We have the power to immerse our audience in the worlds we create, to let them see life through another person's eyes, to give them choices that will drive them to reflect upon themselves, and to make all of this feel vividly, frighteningly real. The question is, what do we do with it?


Well, what would YOU do?

No, seriously, what would you do? If you infinite resources, what kind of game would you make? I know it's just wishful thinking, but to me it's a chance to get into the minds of my readers and find out what they value. We can all learn something from this. So, sound off in the comments!

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