Are western studios afraid of out-of-the-box thinking when designing games? Today we're going to look at some reasons that make studios choose realistic scenarios.
Why do you think most games have a grounded realistic approach? Death Stranding, for example, introduced crazy decisions both in terms of gameplay and story, while most western games choose a more realistic approach even when they’re telling sci-fi or fantasy stories.
God of War is about an angry god fighting against Æsir, but it still feels grounded. There are portals, huge titans, and other extraordinary things, but it still feels so relatable. Don't get us wrong, we're huge fans of this game, but don't you see a pattern? Is it about being relatable or the team’s background culture? Are studios afraid of unfamiliar out-of-the-box ideas that might scare players? What’s your take?
We've contacted several artists to discuss this topic and learn about what makes Hellblade unique, talk about the importance of Dysco Elysium and find out why Japan is the only place to design Silent Hill.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
Inka Sipola: Culture is a big factor for sure. If you look at all the media and art produced in Japan, for example, it’s vastly different and often even “weird” for westerners. It’s heavily based on cartoonish art and anime, which by itself breaks the realism. And for the Japanese people, it’s part of the normal everyday life. Of course, it then translates to games as well.
However now that the technology has advanced so far and we are able to get super close to photorealism, it’s this new shiny thing that sells. Before it was basically that developers had to come up with creative and stylized solutions to make a game, and it then gave the projects even more creative freedom since they didn’t even look real. Now I feel like the developers have to match the realistic, grounded art style with story and gameplay mechanics as well.
The developers also don’t want to risk their funding and are possibly pressured into toning down creative ideas by producers. The biggest positive surprises in games have been smaller studios doing something original and different from the masses. As games started becoming easier and more casual friendly, Dark Souls with its western style with a Japanese twist came out with its ruthlessness and is being called “the best game ever made” by many. And take Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice for example as well. It’s a unique piece of art, developed by Ninja Theory, who at least at the time called themselves “independent AAA”. Funding the project themselves with a small budget, they were able to do what they wanted without big companies pushing towards a mainstream game that would be guaranteed to sell.
Life is Strange
Nicolas Morel: Like in the cinema Industry, big studios always tend not to take any risks. The realistic approach is what most people know, they are comfortable with it and they are used to it. And it is an almost guaranteed success. But it just became so boring as they now all look the same.
Japanese titles (among others) have a more pronounced creative direction with a strong personality. But it will divide more, some people will love it, some will hate it. They create discussions. This makes them interesting, but also riskier for the investments side, which obviously afraid investors.
But this is not a new problem. Big studios have always focused their attention on the money and rentability aspect. This is what Hollywood is based on. Our society is mainly based on profit, not creativity. Some directors/small studios still focus all their attention on the creative process. But they are a minority. And this is why we really must support them. Otherwise, the creative part will slowly die leaving us only with big blockbusters.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not against blockbusters, they are the reason I have a job. But I just wish the clients gave more freedom to be creative instead of just redoing what already worked in the past just because they don’t want to take any risk.
But this will happen only if we support these people and go see these movies and buy these games!
Angel Fernandes: Difficult question. I think it also depends on the type/size of the studio. I feel that the smallest studios, or “indies” studios, are the ones that venture the most to create original things. Many of these studios are not half as resourceful as the more well-known AAA studios, however, they still create amazing and unique experiences. Have you played Disco Elysium? Such a wonderful game!
The God of War example is very true. I think that franchises that already have a long history, such as GOW, Assassins Creed, COD, etc ... have baggage that they bring with them from the first day, they are already mature ideas, and that everyone has known for years, and studios know that they still work very well in the market. Is it also about staying loyal to your customers? Can franchises die? No idea…
Felipe Alves Afonso: Generically speaking I think that the background of the westerns culture has a lot of ties when it comes to kicking the bucket and experimenting with some crazy and different new ideas. Maybe because of the apprehension of the community reception or even to aim things that already work and people are comfy with. But fortunately, you see a growing wave of studios and indie companies especially, breaking this mindset and exploring new concept ideas because people are getting bored of the same approach every time about gameplay, art, story, etc.
As an artist I'm an adept of experimentation and facing the unknown is healthy sometimes, I think this constant transmutation that comes through new perspectives is what keeps things interesting and alive.
Paxton Klotz: I think that western audiences like their violence. Western media in general tends to be more on the side of realistic gritty, even for ideas that may be better served from taking a more fantastical approach. I think non-western games seem to trust their players with more conceptual ideas, as can be seen in Death Stranding, or Ghostwire Tokyo. As far as art style specifically goes, in the western market, there seems to be an expectation for AAA games to look as realistic as possible.
I believe it was with the newest Assassins Creed reveal but like half of the comments under it were complaining that there is no excuse to not have 60 fps or complaining about the resolution or the game itself or the textures. It feels like the approach to making games in the west is that a game has to be wildly popular to be worth making where it seems there is a larger market for non-AAA games in other markets.
I just watched the PS5 reveal, and I’m excited about how many stylized games there were. But the reluctance to produce anything beyond the tried and trusted formula, in the western market, I think has left a huge space to be filled by indie game studios who are less afraid to try for ideas and concepts that are out of the box. I feel like I’ve been more excited about new indie games than I have been for AAA games recently, I think there’s more potential for new ideas because they aren’t as stuck in the mindset of gritty realism that most AAA studios seem to be.
Rodion Vlasov: I don’t think that this is about fear of doing something unusual. We are different in terms of environment, culture, background, lifestyle, life values, and many other things. Things you saw in childhood from your window have impact too.
I love both approaches: sometimes you need a realistic way, sometimes you need crazy and unusual stuff.
Silent Hill is a good example. I think this is the best horror I have ever seen and also I think that Japan is the only thing to create such a scary thing. Other horrors are mostly based on silence, silence...and then something scares you.
Vincent Moubeche: To a selling point, it seems easier to sell a realistic game I would say. For marketing, you don’t have to work a lot on the target since it can be for all players.
Stylized or unrealistic games are harder to sell to everybody. If someone doesn’t like the art direction, they may not like the game.
I remember when Zelda The Wind Waker released, it made lots of people angry. If Nintendo had released a realistic Zelda at the time, everybody would have been happy but they took the risk and made TWW using cel-shading.
Lots of people have the idea that stylized games are from indie companies. I don’t know if it is like that everywhere but in France and Quebec, I heard that idea a lot. So maybe it is a factor in the making of a game.
What helps Japanese studios find a different angle in your opinion? Why are we stuck repeating the same thing over and over again? What's your take? Share your thoughts in the comments!