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Friday
Aug172012

Assassin’s Creed, Multiculturalism, and How to Talk About Things 

Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed games have historically opened with a title card that reads, “This game was developed by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs.”

The disclaimer was probably deemed necessary because the games have tended to deal with historical settings in which Christians, Muslims, and Jews interacted with each other in complex, sometimes hostile ways– conflicts that have continued, in one form or another, to this day. And though the series’ overarching story– which includes a kind of memory-based time travel, abundant conspiracy theories, and technology of seemingly alien origin– has little to do with real history, the games always struck me as more or less respectfully aware of the multicultural and multinational scope of their narratives. Even the nature of Ubisoft’s development practices suggested it: Assassin’s Creed Revelations, for example, was developed by studios in France, Sweden, Quebec, Singapore and Hungary.

This is why it was all the more surprising and dismaying when the creative director of the forthcoming Assassin’s Creed III, Alex Hutchinson, answered a question about the annualization of his franchise in the following way:

…I think there’s a subtle racism in the business, especially on the journalists’ side, where Japanese developers are forgiven for doing what they do. I think it’s condescending to do this.

Seriously?

Yeah. Just think about how many Japanese games are released where their stories are literally gibberish. Literally gibberish. There’s no way you could write it with a straight face, and the journalists say ‘oh it is brilliant’.

Then Gears of War comes out and apparently it’s the worst written narrative in a game ever. I’ll take Gears of War over Bayonetta any time.

It’s patronising to say, “oh those Japanese stories, they don’t really mean what they’re doing”.

You feel there isn’t a fair universal standard?

I just think the simple question should be; is the story any good?

These questions and answers indicate that Hutchinson feels that there exists a global universal standard for good storytelling, poseable in the form of “a simple question” that applies to all cultural products. He also implies that Japanese developers are not particularly good at achieving that standard, and that game journalists exhibit a “subtle racism” for not evaluating the Japanese games’ stories under the same rubric that they would evaluate the story of a Western game.

I would argue that it is not the games press in aggregate that is advancing the racist notion here, but Hutchinson himself: that it is indeed racist, and somewhat tragically imperialistic, to assume that one’s Western tradition (Hutchinson possesses a master’s degree in “English / Writing”, according to his LinkedIn profile) can universally answer the question he poses: “Is the story any good?” His answer appears to exhibit ignorance of the existence of non-Western storytelling– a tradition of literature that emphasizes very different qualities than the kind one might be exposed to in, say, a Los Angeles screenwriting workshop.

To talk in this manner is to express not only ignorance, however. It also expresses contempt for one of the pillars of the Assassin’s Creed series itself. An important reason I appreciated and enjoyed the first four installments (I, II, Brotherhood and Revelations) of the series as much as I did was the fact that each game was reasonably successful in evoking a culture different my own. The ability to do this is, in fact, one of the series’ great strengths, and one that distinguishes it from its peers. Why, then, would a person in a leadership position on an Assassin’s Creed game reveal such shallow thinking about the products of cultures other than his own?

Hutchinson does not have a credit on any of the previous Assassin’s Creed games; his most recent credit is having been the creative director of Army of Two: The 40th Day (which, ironically, Game Informer criticized for “lacking a cohesive story”), so perhaps the wording of his comment is simply the result of inexperience in matters outside of his own intellectual sphere. Or perhaps he is actually familiar with those traditions, but simply doesn’t personally like them. There is of course nothing wrong with failing to connect with certain kinds of stories, or even admitting you feel those types of stories amount to “gibberish”. Such matters are the province of opinion.

If that’s the case– if he was trying to express a preference of opinion– then I certainly understand what Hutchinson actually wanted to say in the interview, even though I would respectfully disagree. To help him out, I will try to capture what he said, but in a better, less problematic way:

“Sometimes I think the press gives Japanese games a free pass on story,” said the ghost of a more thoughtful, more well-spoken Hutchinson. “Game journalists almost expect the stories of Japanese games to make little sense, praising them regardless of their adherence to what I understand the Western tradition, and particularly the Hollywood tradition, defines to be ‘a good story’. Personally, however, I prefer just those kinds of stories– the kind that often get derided as being too simple or too stupid, like the one in Gears of War– to the stories in games like Bayonetta, which I am unable to really understand as a story.”

 

Reader Comments (8)

I think you're right that he may be discounting other cultures' forms of storytelling, but I also think he might be right about Western games journalism giving Japanese games a pass on story sometimes. Just like we have good stories and bad stories in Western games, so too are there good stories and bad stories in Japanese games.

We're much quicker to forgive those bad stories if they come from a Japanese developer, and I think it's precisely because people think - as you do - that maybe they're way better if you understand Japanese culture better. While that's inevitably true for some games, there's also probably a lot of games that have crap storytelling regardless of what culture you are, and we choose to ignore it from Japanese games for fear of misunderstanding it.

It's not necessarily a bad thing to give games from other cultures the benefit of the doubt, but there's no denying the end result is Western journalism looking at Japanese games through the proverbial rose-coloured glasses.

August 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMitchell Bowman

This is a great example of modern "soft" racism, i.e. profound bias with no inherent malevolent intent that one's culture is superior to another's.

Japan has track records of very deep, very thoughtful and detailed stories, and the Genji Monogatari is often cited at the world's first novel according to the modern definition of the term, while dating from the early 11th century, of maybe again the Tale of the Bamboo cutter, allegedly one of the first non-mythos science-fiction (it's about a girl from the moon being raised on earth before returning with her extraterrestrial parents) and dated from the 10th century.
What makes a good story is definitely subject to one's cultural bias, received from childhood onward, and being subconsciously hammered into one's mind-eye.
I, for one, am not of an anglo-saxon culture nor of japanese culture, and find that some of the western-biased stories often do not simply click into place with me, while I've experienced profound epiphanies in japanese works.

This is like saying a Hieronymus Bosch is a bad painting because it does not look like Norman Rockwell, or that Haiku is bad poetry because it isn't a sonnet.

Oftentimes, taking a deep breath and actually taking the time to understand the cultural canvas in a piece of work, be it poetry, novels, or videogames, makes a long way toward understanding beyond mechanical reading.

I'm not even mad at Hutchinson, though, because he's merely a byproduct of the current westernization of the world culture, which in turn is just a sign of Times.
This being said, sometimes thinking before speaking can be of tremendous help.

August 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRay François

He isn't expressing a "racist" attitude, he's accusing journalists of doing so:

"…I think there’s a subtle racism in the business, especially on the journalists’ side, where Japanese developers are forgiven for doing what they do. I think it’s condescending to do this."

He didn't say one is better or worse, he just said that japanese plots can be a bit zany and he doesn't think game critics etc. come down hard enough on it--or judge western games by different standards. He is not making any judgements about whose "culture" is better or worse--this whole "article" is making a mountain out of a molehill. He was accusing journalists of holding western and japanese stories to different standards--those of western culture. He is attempting to point OUT racial bias, not partake in it.

August 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterShauna

I don't think that it's true that the press gives a free pass to japanese games. He doesn't give any evidence, he implies that critics liked Bayonetta over Gears of War (is that even true?). I think that if you actually look at a game by game instance and see what the critics thought, they would generally favor the stories of the western games. And this is understandable, because the writers and the critics are both familiar with each others' culture, not because western stories and eastern stories are inherently different.

In Hutchinson's defense though, I will say this, I have seen critics give them a pass. Spirited Away has a 97% on rotten tomatoes, and was called a masterpiece by almost every critic. I'm not saying the movie wasn't good (I thought it was) but I wouldn't call it a masterpiece. (okay, art is subjective, right) but the critics barely mention the japanese mythical creatures and all the references to japanese folklore. The whole time I was watching it I was wondering "would these creatures seem as bizarre to a japanese person?". Apparently the answer is no, and there were creatures, symbols, folktale references that a Japanese audience would have gotten, that no movie critic that praised it made mention of. I wouldn't call this racism though. I don't know what it is.

August 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTimmy O'Toole

HULK WANTS BLOOD,


THE IDEA THAT HULK IS RACIST TOWARDS VIDEOGAMES WHEN IT'S ULTIMATELY A GAME COMPANIES FAULT FOR RELEASING A SHITTY PRODUCT IS JUST FUCKING OFFENSIVE...


GOOD LUCK GAINING HULK'S FAVOR IN THE FUTURE ALEX, ESPECIALLY WHEN UBISOFT HAS OWNED I.P.'S LIKE "LUNAR" AND DID NOTHING OF VALUE WITH THEM....

August 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHULKGAMECRIT

I think the real reason for the disclaimer is that Islam is invoked by the games and Ubisoft are (rightly) scared of being called racists or being targeted for violence.

A good illustration of the differences between Japanese and North American story telling and mythology can be observed by watching Honogurai mizu no soko kara (2002) and its Hollywood remake Dark Water (2005). Personally, I think the original is a far more interesting and moving film, but clearly there are many people that wouldn't see it that way, hence the westernised adaptation.

I guess the guy is simply extrapolating from the real trend of Japanese games being more rooted in the arcade style while western "AAA" games are trying to be 'epic Hollywood cinematic experiences'.

August 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMartin

The way Hutchinson said what he said is not politically correct and there would be more listening to him if he said it in a less aggressive way but what he says is still true. The standard argument against what he said is that he is supposed to not be able to understand the different qualities of non-western storytelling but that is extrapolating. Nobody asked him if and which japanese stories he likes. I bet there are lots.

I also like japanese and asian stories for different reasons than the western ones and I am willing to forgive things that western storytellers get done "better". I like Ghost in the Shell, Takeshi Kitano movies, Takeshi Miike movies, I like the storytelling in Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Ace Attorney and Katamari Damacy. I think Dragonball (the comics, not the animated series) has great and sometimes subtly thoughtful storytelling. But if someone dislikes the storytelling in Bayonetta or Metal Gear Solid, it doesn't have anything to do with culture differences, it's just that their dialogue is insulting to the viewer. While playing these games I got angry about what they assumed the intelligence of the player might be. There are things that I and other people are not culturally equipped to understand but Bayonetta is not it. Bayonetta is just bad.

September 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPi

Martin, don't take a firm stance on a film's story or strength based on if it gets remade or not. Hollywood doesn't know what works and what doesn't. It's why a film like TRANSFORMERS continues to bank while BATTLESHIP sinks. It's why the RESIDENT EVIL series continues into perpetuity while a film like JOHN CARTER is considered a colossal failure. Even with all the money these films cost, they essentially are throwing things at the wall and seeing if it sticks. It's just, more and more often, their gambles are on potential tent-pole franchise films instead of small-scale, intelligent narratives with small financial wins versus potential losses.

In other words, them remaking a film into the junk known as DARK WATER says nothing about what the original was or how it was received. These films, like Old Boy or Let The Right One In, are often critical darlings that never made a ton of money. Hollywood sees a property rich for exploitation in the Western world by shooting a remake in English because the cinema fans here can't be bothered by subtitles. Name me a single film that has this kind of treatment that wasn't either critically panned or made less money than the original. I'm not saying there is one that doesn't exist, but I'd love to analyze it from the perspective of it being seen as a commercial and critical success.

October 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBill Graham
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