One of the things video games are particularly good at as an entire medium is allowing you to immerse yourself in… things. Exactly what you’re able to immerse yourself in depends entirely on the game — in Microsoft Flight Simulator you can immerse yourself in a realistic depiction of what it is like to fly a real aircraft, for example, while in Xenoblade Chronicles you can immerse yourself in a well-realized fantasy world.
One interesting possibility that this immersiveness allows for is the ability to “live” in another culture. For Westerners, it’s particularly intriguing to be able to immerse oneself into Japanese culture, for example, which is in many ways rather alien to the societal norms we see in America and Europe. Of course, said societal norms vary even between America and Europe, but not quite so drastically as the divergence in culture between “East” and “West.”
A number of games over the years have allowed Westerners to explore what it’s like to spend some time in Japan. Sega’s Yakuza series is an excellent example, as is its spiritual predecessor Shenmue — both of these games allow you to live the life as a (relatively) normal Japanese person, complete with the less salubrious side of society. In Yakuza particularly, the fact that it’s possible to do things such as going to “hostess bars” really helps to drive it home that, for Westerners, anyway, the player is most definitely not in Kansas any more. This might not have necessarily been the original intention when the series was first created in Japan, but it’s certainly one of many particularly compelling reasons for Westerners to play the localized versions of the Yakuza series.
Visual novels, being a predominantly Japanese medium, are, as you might expect, a particularly ripe ground for those who would like to know more about Japanese culture. Almost every Japanese-developed game I’ve covered in this column sees the player engaging with both traditional and contemporary Japanese culture to varying degrees — School Days takes a look at how teenage romance works in a Japanese context as well as what goes on in an everyday Japanese school; My Girlfriend is the President explores how Japan’s political system differs from that of the United States (also there’s a girl who turns into a spaceship); even Aselia the Eternal, despite being primarily set in a fantasy world, features plenty of traditional Japanese imagery and tradition, particularly with regard to religion and spirituality. Aselia the Eternal is actually a doubly-interesting case, as not only does it allow non-Japanese players to immerse themselves in traditional and contemporary Japanese culture for part of its narrative, it then provides the same sort of “cultural immersion” experience for all players regardless of geographical origin once the protagonist Yuuto finds himself in the fantasy land of Phantasmagoria. As we discussed last week, a big part of what makes Aselia the Eternal so interesting as an interactive story is the depth in which Phantasmagoria’s culture and societal norms are explored and presented to the player.
In fact, so powerful is the ability to immerse oneself in another culture through the visual novel medium that there are a number of games out there specifically designed to allow Western players to learn more about How Things Are Done In Japan.
Take Overdrive’s Go! Go! Nippon! My First Trip to Japan, for example (pictured below) — this is a title in which the player character flies to Japan for a vacation and spends his time hanging around with a pair of cute girls and sightseeing real-life locations. The game is presented bilingually, with both English and Japanese text on screen, making it possible to use it as a language-learning aid as well as a virtual tourist guide.
Or how about Libido’s dating sim Casual Romance Club (NSFW link), a game specifically marketed as being for English speakers with an interest in Japan? This title not only allows its players to choose between its original Japanese voice track and English voiceovers delivered by the Japanese cast, it also provides the option for bilingual text presentation and comes with a reference sheet of Japanese terminology used throughout the game — including some of the seedier stuff you probably wouldn’t find in your average guidebook.
(Both of the above titles are On The List for future coverage in this very column, if you were wondering.)
In many ways, it’s quite odd that we don’t seem to see much of this sort of thing going back in the other direction. Play an American-developed game, for example, and it’s sometimes quite difficult to determine what is recognizably “American” about it. There are exceptions, of course — LucasArts’ original Sam and Max Hit The Road adventure game ably parodied various aspects of Americana and the Grand Theft Auto series — which, let’s not forget, was actually born in Scotland — is also frequently held up as a similarly sharp-eyed work of satire on Western consumerism and glorification of the less desirable ends of society. But there’s an important distinction: these titles lampoon and ridicule the cultures they hail from rather than present them with pride; the Japanese titles we discussed earlier present their traditions and cultural norms respectfully and subtly rather than deliberately trying to exaggerate aspects for comic effect or draw attention to them.
There are plenty of Western-developed titles that demonstrate an interest in and respect for Japanese culture, though. 4 Leaf Studios’ Katawa Shoujo is an excellent example, as is Red Panda Games’ recent release The Host Holic. In the latter case, rather than attempting to do a convincing impression of a Japanese-developed visual novel as Katawa Shoujo does, the game instead embraces the theme of cultural differences between East and West, casting the player in the role of an American woman who has moved to Japan to teach English. It’s an interesting twist.
This sense of “cultural immersion” is one of my absolute favorite things about the medium from a personal perspective. Since I started playing a lot of visual novels, I have developed a strong interest in many different aspects of Japanese culture — food, spirituality, the way people interact and even the language — and this has inspired me to seek out and acquire more knowledge outside the games themselves. These games provide me with a powerful sense of growing to understand a culture other than my own, and by extension are helping to teach tolerance and respect for other ways of life.
Your mileage may, as ever, vary, but how many other games can you say similar things about? And, more to the point, why don’t we see this powerful use of games as a medium being leveraged in a way that will help us to understand even more of the many and varied cultures of the world more often?
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a cultural festival to prepare for. Where did I put my kimono…?
READ.ME is Games Are Evil’s weekly delve into the world of visual novels, a genre of interactive entertainment primarily developed in Japan which has carved out a small but dedicated niche in the West. Follow this column’s author Pete Davison on Twitter here.