We need to start holding Japanese RPGs to higher standards

We need to start holding Japanese RPGs to higher standards

A warrior in armor looks on in dismay.

Screenshot: Square Enix / Kotaku

I had a hell of a weekend. After I published my article on Final Fantasy After producer Naoki Yoshida’s misguided comments about the overwhelming whiteness of the upcoming game, fans have completely lost their minds. Of course, I saw the usual insults and small insults. But those aren’t the comments that stuck out to me. What bothered me was the (seemingly) well-meaning people telling me that Japanese creators couldn’t understand racial differences. Or that we shouldn’t expect East Asian developers to be empathetic about the representation of blacks and browns. I rolled my eyes so much that I ended up writing a blog about it.

When I write about wanting Japanese games to be less socially embarrassing, there’s almost always a backlash. I am accused of projecting Western ideas onto an Asian country. But Japanese pop culture has already engaged in themes of real racism. One of the main characters of the manga Bleach (2001) is a Mexican-Japanese boy who was bullied for being “different”. The action-RPG protagonist Yakuza 3 (2009) realizes that one of his adopted children is racist towards another child to be half black, and he teaches her not to judge people based on skin color. Race is an important theme for any artist who wishes to depict the full range of human experiences, whether American or Japanese.

And even the developers of FFXVI are extremely sensitive to racial and cultural differences outside of Japan. For example, developers have deliberately chosen to only use European dubbers for their English dubbing. They also opted for these actors to use very chic British accents, which does not a very small percentage of the UK population actually have. A massive publisher like Square Enix is ​​quite capable of using non-Japanese talent to improve cultural accuracy. He simply chose not to spend resources on making some of their characters a race other than “White European”. So I’m once again asking you weirdo nerds not to pretend that Square Enix is ​​an indie developer in some guy’s basement. This is a multinational corporation that wants to sell copies of the game to a gaming audience that includes black and brown people.

And I wasn’t just criticizing a newcomer to Japanese game development. Naoki Yoshida is the lead creative producer for one of the most famous video game franchises of all time. It’s his job to follow popular media and cultural trends. Racial diversity is definitely one of them. Hollywood is slowly discovering that fairer casting leads to better box office performance. (The New York Times says that Hollywood loses $10 billion a year dragging our feet on diversity.) If we are trying to measure the artistic achievement of a prestige game, then inclusivity should be assessed as seriously as we might consider “technical” elements such as graphics, cinematography or the responsiveness of the controls. It’s insulting to keep Asian blockbusters on a completely different level. Plus, it’s incredibly embarrassing to be told that Asian creators can’t develop a media culture about racism. Yoshida himself said in a Change of fan interview that he experienced racism in America and Europe, which is more than I can say about white creative leads who run projects featuring non-white characters.

The backlash to demands for inclusivity is interesting when it comes from JRPG fans. I read a strong defensive tone – that JRPGs are fine as they are, and don’t need to be held to western standards. As someone who grew up playing them, I understand where the feeling is coming from. Just ten years ago, a Canadian indie developer felt emboldened enough to publicly tell a Japanese developer at a conference “[Japanese games] just zero. The crowd laughed. “I’m sorry, you just need to adjust to your time.” The developer to whom the comment was addressed had been a programmer for Final Fantasy XIII. A month later, My box published a blog who defended JRPGs against the oft-repeated claims that the genre was too “stale” or “archaic”.

In the face of unfair criticism of JRPGs, it can be tempting to reflexively defend the genre. I’ve certainly been guilty of that in the past. But this is no longer necessary. Genshin Impact is the most played open-world game in the world. Square Enix is editing both new JRPGs and remakes of old titles for the Western market. 77 percent of personas 5 sales came from abroad. As JRPGs reach record sales figures, the instinct to champion these games feels even more dated to me. Genshin Impact will survive the Criticisms how he represents the peoples of Southwest Asia. FFXVI will sell millions of copies, regardless of the quality of the representation at launch.

But I don’t really think the arguments that we just can’t expect Japanese developers to understand race and racism are necessarily bona fide. The “Japan is just different” excuse seems to extend to all other forms of oppression as well. Whenever someone criticizes the portrayal of women or gay people in Japanese media (hello, Character fandom), I see aggressive rebuttals of how Japan doesn’t understand feminism or LGBTQ rights. If the vibes are off, I check the profile only to find that the commenter is American. How predictable.

Here’s why: white conservatives are terrified that they are losing their grip on the popular media. They seek their own utopia, a place that excludes women and minorities. For some whites, Japan is seen as a eternally immutable, conformist and traditional society where marginalized people know their place. Of course, countries don’t work like that. But fellow gamers want to Japan must be a safe space from all that SJW nonsense. Regardless of what’s good for JRPGs as a genre or what actually makes good business sense.

I am thrilled that East Asian games can finally be recognized by the West for their artistry and innovation. But I also want the American public to be able to seriously reckon with their weaknesses as well. Will Japanese creative leaders make mistakes when it comes to racial inclusion? Absolutely. This is part of the role of any administrator, regardless of nationality. But we should expect them to make the attempt. Expecting these games to have good representation is not ignorance, it’s a sign that we are finally taking Japanese games seriously.

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