How You Got Videogames Wrong #4: "Your Games Just Suck"

Pissing you off in installments, the monthly series “How You Got Videogames Wrong” delves beyond appearances into the slimy interior of The God’s Truth (about videogames).  This month we’ll be looking how ideas change, and how we should be careful with them. 


Yeah we all heard: Phil Fish opened his big mouth at GDC this week and looked like a giant douche. I can’t get upset really. I’ve been a douche before, and still am from time to time, regrettably. These moments dot the landscape behind us; become the mile-markers of our transformation into non-douches. One day, with luck, we will be able to look back at the unfortunate wake of our development and say, “Geez Louise…I said that? I got here from there?” So don’t worry, friend…I ain’t mad at cha.

I, for one, can’t even say that I completely disagree: Most Japanese games do suck. But that’s because most of everything sucks…Books. Movies. Games. Suckage knows not such boundaries as “nation.” Even then I realize that Phil Fish’s words were clutching within their douche-tendrils a reasonable, even realistic assessment: Japanese games have several major hurdles to overcome in order to remain relevant. Tru dat.

Ah but here’s what worries me…Most people, and when I say most people I mean gaming culture at large, they won’t realize that anything at all was encrypted within the statement “Your games all suck.” No, for them, the meaning will be much, much simpler. And the damage much greater.

* * *

Here’s where I’m going with this: In 1953’s “Language and Thought,” American philosopher Susanne Langer once wrote, “The difference between a sign and a symbol is, in brief, that a sign causes us to think or act in face of the thing signified, whereas a symbol causes us to think about the thing symbolized…Animals think, but they think of and at things; men think primarily about things.” The distinction between signs and symbols is crucial to my feelings about Fish’s statement. You see, symbols are what we do when we’re “all grown up.” In terms of thought, symbols are our big boy britches. I like my big boy britches…They allow me to speak of concepts, to see beyond the rudimentary, to comprehend that a stop sign doesn’t just mean “stop”–it also symbolizes a fundamental system of society, of rules, of authority.

The symbolic allows us to think abstractly. In Fish’s case, it allows that his game-to-fame, Fez (a game that is, I’m just sayin’, conceptually the child of a Zolofted Super Mario Bros. and an underachieving Echochrome), be understood by people not possessing the particular “psychosis” of the author himself. And that’s good and nice and all that. But: Now there’s a problem: because when it comes to abstract games, the Japanese take the cake. From anime eyes, to mushroom powers…hell, even tentacle porn–especially tentacle porn–the Japanese have us Western developers beat all up and down the street and back again. And the street is a singing banana.

Because–and let’s be honest here, Fish–what do we have in the majority of Western games? Pure signage. For your average gamer, the gooderness of a game is dependent on its “believability”–taken often to mean, unfortunately, “actualness.” A Galil isn’t a Galil no matter how faithfully it abstracts Galil-ness. Oh no. For Western gamers, a Galil is only a Galil when it achieves the basic sensory qualities of a Galil. It must look, feel, aim, reload like one.

“What’s the problem with that?” you ask. Nothing, I guess. Signs are crucial–without them we would have nothing upon which to build symbols. But I can’t accept a world in which signs are all we have. And it seems to me that the West–again, broadly–is moving in that direction. Just think about the way that your average gamer refers to the “artistic” capacity of a game–the oft-sought “game that will make me cry.” Yeah. Crying. Real complex…Because art is the mental equivalent of getting punched in the nuts. Hell, even the distinction “Art Games” is signified as fuck—do you know what the Japanese call their artistic games? Fucking games.

“So why,” you prod further, “are we plummeting into the Concrete like, well, concrete?” I’ll give you one guess, and whatever you say I’ll pretend I heard “Capitalism.” But that’s a discussion for another time.

Besides, I know you want me to get to the point. Here ya go: Western gaming culture’s complete dismissal of another culture’s artistic structure on the grounds that JRPGs are (generally) crap fails to recognize that our culture is otherwise slipping into a loving death-embrace with the cognitively simpler mode of expression–pure, animal-like signification–over the inherent complexity of abstraction.

How did I get there? Well…

* * *

Sometime around the mid-2000s I started hearing it: “JRPGs suck!” The origin of the statement is simple: The Xbox had allowed American PC developers to get a foothold in the console world, and a few of them, namely Bioware and Bethesda, “redefined” in the average gamer’s mind “how the West do.” Now I’ll be the first to say it: If I had to choose, I’d take a Western RPG any time of day. JRPGs are just, well, old hat; a moment dotting the landscape behind me; leaving me sighing to myself, and saying, “I used to play that. I got here from there.”

But here’s the thing: Phrases tend to stick, even when the ideas themselves have evolved beyond the phrase. But the evolution of ideas isn’t necessary for there to be a problem: a phrase can sometimes supplant the ideas themselves and become the whole of the argument in people’s minds, despite the fact that the phrase itself only represents a wildly truncated, even if remotely accurate, idea. Take, for instance, “Opinions are like assholes—everybody’s got ‘em,” which I harped on a while back. Or how about “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Both statements have taken hold in culture, and have had their roots penetrate deeper than the discussions themselves, to the extent that when the average person begins a discussion on the subject of opinions or teaching, their mind-Google only fires back the phrase itself, which they take to mean the whole argument.

And what happens when the idea itself becomes nebulous? It begins to warp…to change into another idea entirely. And this is why I decided I just had to write up an entire column on Fish’s statement…on an event that’s been covered plenty already: Because I believe his comment to be an offshoot of that basic idea, “JRPGs suck!” twisted into something else, warped nearly beyond recognition. I believe Fish–in that he seems to be a capable and intelligent dood–is proof that our comments can take hold and (I’d only use the word if it seemed appropriate, and it does) infect our thinking.

And why do I give a damn? Because I worry that, in our nationalistic oversimplification, we will lose something.



  1. Andrew McDonald

    I read the article, but I still don’t know what you said. There are so many thoughts thrown in there with seemingly little connection that I really don’t know what you are trying to say. Are you saying that American games are becoming simple?

    All I got from it is that American games are going the way of Japanese games; stuck in a repetitive pattern, attempting to occasionally break out, but never really getting past what makes it the same as everything else.

    Yeah, I really don’t know what your main point was.

  2. Andrew,

    I can respect that. Anyway, though it may have come too little too late, this was my point: “Besides, I know you want me to get to the point. Here ya go: Western gaming culture’s complete dismissal of another culture’s artistic structure on the grounds that JRPGs are, generally, crap fails to recognize that our culture is otherwise slipping into a loving death-embrace with the cognitively simpler mode of expression–pure, animal-like signification–over the inherent complexity of abstraction.”

    Which is to say, I think people have oversimplified the problem with Japanese games, to the extent that the average gamer thinks the problem is “they just suck…just cuz.” My issue with that is that Japanese games embrace abstraction, while western games are moving in the opposite direction–the exception being, of course, indie games–and that this will result in a gaming culture that embraces mere signification over symbolic meaning. Which is pretty much the direction our movies have already gone.

    I’m sorry if I dropped the ball coherence-wise. Came in too fast, too shaky on that one 🙂

  3. riverfr0zen

    In an otherwise easily readable article, I only found one stumbling point: “…artistic structure on the grounds that JRPGs are, generally, crap fails to recognize that our culture is otherwise slipping into a loving death-embrace…”

    I know, I hate commas too, and as I get older, I find myself not knowing when or where they should be inserted. Most of the time, it’s fine, and I’d just continue reading fluently. Here, however, I got a little Confusion: are you saying crap is sentient? Nope? There you go. Misplaced comas.

    • Thank you for the heads up! 🙂

    • Jack Frost

      Misplaced comas, indeed

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  5. I wonder about this battle — actual or not — between the pursuit of the realism (overall) in Western RPGs and that of Japanese RPGs from time to time.

    A trend I have noticed, although I am not alone in commenting on it, is that Western RPGs are about the individual — the savior of the galaxy/universe/planet/nation/lunch singular — more than JRPGs. I’ve always thought that the abstraction that you mentioned is, in part, cultural identity as tied more to group than self. Because symbols stand for groups stand for people, the translation is a constant process. They can stack ideas because it’s normal to be positioned as part of a nested identity.

    Instead of making something easier, you expect some struggle to reach frequency and then mastery. In other words, it takes time to build up your skills, your business or even your team. It’s more a matter of investing in people (sometimes literally in the game) to get to the point in taking on more challenges in JRPGs. Western RPGs (and some Western games) want realism because it’s empowering for the moment. Instead of climbing the mountain to fight the dragon, the monster will come to you.

    It’s the training to that critical moment that we get with JRPGs (i.e. the grind). We almost always feel like we have the power just inches away in Western games. Instead of that powerful and then spent roller-coaster, maybe we, both as a Western culture and in many games, need to learn the patience to take the long road. It’s not always just about the ending.

    • Dan,

      Fantastic points. I hadn’t considered the Western RPG’s focus on the individual, but you’re right–over here we’re always “in a world where”…”one man must fight”…and that one man is of course me. Whereas in JRPGs our role is more like a team treasurer…”You get the sword because you’re good with swords”…”and you, you get to keep healing people.”

      As well, “Because symbols stand for groups stand for people, the translation is a constant process. They can stack ideas because it’s normal to be positioned as part of a nested identity”? Hmm. I’ll have to think about that.

  6. This is a good article. One of those articles I wish had been written by me, but wasn’t, because it was written by you.

    I’ve given quite a bit of thought to the cultural differences between Japanese and Western games, and lament the ‘fall’ of Japanese games primarily because I enjoy games that use colour palettes outside of ‘concrete’ and ‘soil’.

    What I find quite frustrating is that Japanese studios are getting increasingly caught up in trying to ape Western games in order to appeal outside of their perceived range of suckage – and the result is games like Binary Domain, a slightly worse version of Gears of War, lacking in any of the symbolism that makes classic Japanese games special.

    I LIKE Japanese games. I like them precisely because they’re usually so different from anything that could be produced in the West. But if I’ve got a choice of playing a cover shooter made by Epic or one made by the guys who make Yakuza (which is about as a far removed from cover shooting as you can get), I’m going Gears of War every time. These studios are not doing themselves any favours.

    • Exactly, Tom. Like the Beach Boys said, “Stay true to your school.” Let’s keep our failures honest.

  7. Daniel

    The thing about JRPG compared to WRPG, is that they’re not even the same genre really. They both happen to tell a story, but so does an FPS game. A WRPG places the player into the role of a largely faceless person that they name after themselves and then have act according to how the player wants to act. JRPGs are stories that unfold for you without much of the player being inserted into the game. The characters already have names, they already have personalities, and mostly you just customize the fighting style you want them to use during combats, and that’s it. So of course they suck if that’s not what you wanted to buy! Bioshock sucks if you hate FPS games.

    We’re not dismissing the culture, if the Japanese developers/producers put out a game in the style of a WRPG, where you build a character and their personality as you play and you shape the game’s story (within limits) to be what you think it should be, then I’m sure people would buy that.

    • Daniel,

      I have had this discussion before, and it’s an interesting one. (And I will say up front that I haven’t been a fan of JRPGs since the moment I’ve had a viable alternative, which is to say, since the Xbox.) The discussion begins very much like what you’ve laid out here: JRPGs are not in any way the table-top RPGs from which they descended, due to, in part, the inability for the player to create a character…and furthermore that WRPGs *are* for precisely that very reason.

      However (and this is in no way to excuse JRPGs for not evolving), I do believe that JRPGs *did* let us create characters, but according to a different set of principles–CPU/RAM/disk space constraints. Table-top RPGs didn’t have to deal with any of that, for obvious reasons, and thus we could literally create a character…one that we had given a name, personality, etc. But videogame RPGs (West and Japanese alike…Ultima, for instance) had to somehow convey character creation despite the fact that constraints didn’t allow players to actually do that.

      So we get stats. Lots and lots of stats. Which was of course the basics of table-top RPGs. And the more we personalized those stats to suit our playstyle, the more personalized the characters became. When I played them, my characters would be a “badass” or a “sissy but necessary healer,” and so on. In this way, Ultima and Final Fantasy 1 were pretty much the same (or rather FF1 and Ultima V). Are we to say that the Ultima games were not RPGs, even though they and the early FFs were very similar? Of course not, due to the time they were released. Okay, what if Origin released a new “retro style” Ultima? Would we say it wasn’t an RPG? No.

      So here’s the deal: most JRPGs are unevolved RPGs. Think of them as “retro-oriented” and we no longer have any reason to call them “not RPGs” anymore, in that they embrace the gameplay aesthetic of a retro style with modern stylings…the way we might say Bioware’s MDK 2 *approached* a retro style with “modern” stylings.

      Ah. But JRPGs *did* evolve, didn’t they…They dropped much of the stat-personalization and trampled into the territory of (it seems from most complaints) “telling you what your name is.” Boo hoo. We can’t just use whatever lame-ass name pops into our skulls. Or is the problem the predetermined story? You’re telling me that Betrayal at Krondor, Morrowind, and Mass Effect don’t have predetermined stories? Of course they do, or so close to predetermined that an interactive comic book can sum up the variations (as was the case with the PS3 release of ME2).

      No, here’s where they (truly) differ: One allows the player to insert his or her own mundane explanation over (usually) mundane events (“I paid the shopkeeper and then stole the money back…EYE’M A THEEF! WOO WHOO! A FLEETING SENSE OF AGENCY IS MINE!”) while the other attempts to curtail the mundane insertions with an authored explanation…And honestly, as bad as JRPG writing is…it’s still better than what the average player would insert themselves.

      The point is: they ARE the same genre…just different sub-genres. Hell, what else do you call a unit (the 1980s videogame RPG, FF1 and Ultima V as our examples) that splits off into different directions? A sub-genre. And I don’t care what sub-genre name you give JRPGs, the same way that I don’t care if you call ME3 an action-RPG, or Puzzle Quest a puzzle-RPG. Because at the end of the day they all have RPG in the title.

      Or perhaps I’m wrong. Let’s keep the discussion going 🙂

      • Tim

        This may be veering slightly off-topic, but I’ve always regarded Mass Effect as much closer to a JRPG structure than to the average WRPG structure.

        It’s linear (in that, even if you’re given choices, you still don’t have a lot of areas to move around in, and you have to do the majority of the game in a fixed order) and it’s much more focused on story, dialogue and character development.

        • I agree, Tim! To me the only major difference between W and J RPGs is who supplied the poor writing–the player, or the developers.

      • Ikkin

        Jumping in here, because I find the JRPG/WRPG divide pretty interesting.

        So, here’s how I see it — it doesn’t particularly matter if JRPGs and WRPGs are part of the same genre at different points of evolution, or if they’re separate subgenres, or whatnot. Defining genre in videogames is something that could be done in a whole bunch of different ways, and the definitions we have tend towards historical relic anyway.

        The important thing is, as they are now, JRPGs and WRPGs don’t provide the same kind of entertainment. They might have evolved from the same place, but nowadays they’re kind of like lapdogs and wolves — superficially similar, but you don’t want to mistake the two when choosing something to play with or you’ll end up getting bitten.

        In spite of their similar origins, the core values of JRPGs and WRPGs have little in common anymore. JRPG developers rather quickly found that mathematical systems of combat, gameplay “gimmicks,” and predefined narrative were more appealing to their audience than the original core value of customizing a character, and ended up moving them in that direction instead. Remember, Final Fantasy IV had preset job classes, preset party composition and no real stat customization, and that was in 1991, so that movement away from character customization in favor of fully plot-defined characters started fairly early.

        Just about the only thing that JRPGs retain from tabletop RPGs nowadays is their mathematically-derived combat system, and even that has fragmented into so many wildly different permutations that it’s nearly unrecognizable. They’re much more heavily focused on their predefined elements than they are on any sense of player agency, so they make a poor substitute for WRPGs (and vice versa), to the point that Gran Turismo would probably satisfy your average Mario Kart fan as much as Final Fantasy VII would satisfy your average Mass Effect fan.

        And, honestly, isn’t the point of a genre to get an idea of whether you’re likely to be satisfied by the games in it based on the games you’ve already played? Why saddle two groups of games that appeal to two completely different types of people with the same label?

  8. Sam

    I don’t mean to be too aggressive but I think this article is missing the forest for the trees because it’s so busy talking about Evergreen biology.

    Fish’s statements weren’t about JRPGs vs Western RPGs, realism versus abstraction, or anything like that. Fish was talking about the same thing that Keiji Inafune’s been saying for 3 years. The person asking the question was noting that many indie games seem to take their inspiration from old Japanese games and was curious what the panel thought about the entire modern Japanese game industry. Said industry (as well as most of their other geek-centric industries) is stuck in a harsh trinity of poor tech, a terrible economy, and a stunning lack of inspiration which I believe is what inspired Fish to call them out like he did.

    Japan’s coding practices are a bad joke (I’ve heard of companies that erase their source code after release) and the Yen is murdering any profits that come in. As a result there are now only two ways to be a successful Japanese game company: explore new tech and get a new audience (see: Nintendo) which is super risky and probably not something most companies will stomach, or appeal to the hardcore niche Japanese gamers even harder than before. Most companies prefer the latter, leaving us with a segment of the global game industry that’s stuck in the past, unable to compete in other markets, and slowly losing its own market.

    • Sam,

      Yes, yes, and yes. And those would be the very comments–eloquent, layered, and intelligent–that are “hiding” within Fish’s words for your average gamer, who instead only hears something like “Jap asked question; We said Jap games suck. Score.”

      But you are right: I didn’t hit the forest, but it wasn’t because I was looking at the trees. In my work I set out only (and sometimes poorly) to write about culture and art. Japanese games, and games in general, are a forest I don’t see because I’m staring hard as I can through it to see something else, in this case abstraction versus the concrete.

      Does it excuse my poor conveyance of that fact? Nope. Not at all 🙂