On art and games [Part 3]

Feb 22nd, 2009

With the third part of this series we move away from the more chronological approach, to considering styles, techniques and more overarching concepts.

Games on Tour

While computer and video games have a huge, global market, it is not a homogeneous one. Regions differ in terms of platform popularity and genre preference, as well as far more abstract concepts regarding perception, and the way games are played. The popularity of competitive gaming in South Korea for example is a familiar example, with the proportion of those playing on-line games being over three times that of Europe1 . However these regional differences don’t only influence game popularity and availability, but also in some games game content.

The need to localize games to different markets should be obvious. Language barriers are the most apparent consideration, as games require translation of text in the interface, instructions and within the game environment itself, such as signs. As voiced dialogue becomes more common, this can add the burden of employing regional voice actors, a costly endeavour. There also considerations of differences in standards, such as PAL and NTSC, as well as possible regional legal implications. Given all this, it is understandable that many localisations will also consider issues cultural issues, both with regard to marketing, and general comprehensibility.

One of the most influential effects of regionalised graphics is the consideration of local rules regarding censorship in rating. Some countries have particularly harsh restrictions on game content, with Germany being an oft quoted example, and one which has been previously discussed on this blog. Such rules will often result in the censorship of violence, replacing people with zombies or robots, and turning blood green. In the case of Team Fortress 2, the German edition replaces the gibs (body parts left behinds after a kill) with balloons and other party paraphernalia, a feature included in other versions in the form of ‘party mode.’ In Germany, computer and video games are classed as toys, and are thus forbidden from representing Nazi imagery, such as Swastikas. This has resulted in the modification of a large number of games, thanks to the frequency with which Nazis have been used to present an unambiguously evil, and yet real-world, enemy. In some games, such as the recent Lego Indiana Jones the need for regional differences have been avoided by removing the Nazi references from all versions of the game.

While violence bothers the Germans, sex causes trouble in the US. Unlike violence however, sex is still rare in mainstream titles, and is usually confined to low cut tops and ‘jiggle physics’2. However, Polish developer CD Projekt RED‘s game, The Witcher, featured a number of possible sex scenes, after which the player was ‘rewarded’ with cards showing scantily clad portraits of the women in question.3 However, in US edition, these cards were censored to be more ‘modest.’ Unlike changes in Germany, this change was not a legal requirement, but was likely an attempt to avoid gaining an adults-only (AO) rating, which would drastically restrict the commercial availability of the game.
As well as considerations of censorship and ratings, games also undergo changes due to marketing and other considerations. In many cases these are merely reflected in external factors, such as packaging design, which may reflect regional sensibilities. In other cases though, changes are more fundamental.

The game Megadrive Ristar, by Sonic Team, had several distinct changes between the Western and Japaneese releases. I’ll now discuss some of these changes, as well as identifying some of the other techniques used within the game.


Fig1a. Western (Top), Japanese (Bottom)

If you compare the western and Japanese screen-shots (Figure 1) you will notice a number of subtle differences. For example, compare the eyes of Ristar, the main yellow star like character. In the western screen-shot, Ristar’s expression looks more aggressive than the Japanese equivalent; the western version of the game uses sprites previously reserved for boss battles. A side a effect of this change is a reduction in the number of idle animations in the western versions, and a loss of some of the graphical subtlety. Similarly, a comparison of the flying bird-like enemy also shows that the western version uses more aggressive sprites. This difference is due to the greater marketability of cuteness in the Japanese markets, compared to the appeal of violence in western markets.


Fig 2. Western (Left) Japanese (Right)

Similar modifications have been made to other enemies (Figure 2), such although the changes are not universal and the majority of enemies have a consistent design between the two versions. Conversely however, some enemies have undergone more major changes.

Fig 3. Western (Top), Japanese (Bottom)

The enemy in figure 3 has undergone a distinctive redesign between the two versions. The original flying squirrel design having been replaced by a bat. Bats have less association with ‘cuteness’4 and are more strongly associated with horror. In other cases (Figure 4) the redesign is motivated by other reasons.
Fig 4. Japanese (left), Western (right)

Fig 4. Japanese (left), Western (right)

In this case the Japanese and western boss both function with the same mechanics, but have a distinct appearance. The Japanese boss is in the form of a cat, named Itamor, and acts as a visual pun based on the Japanese term for someone adverse to hot food, nekojita, or cat-tounge. As this visual pun will not work in other languages, in other versions the boss was changed to be an ice monster instead.

The Rest of Ristar

Fig 5. Example Enemy

Fig 5. Example Enemy

It is worth considering the rest of the graphical design in Ristar, a game which had enormous attention to detail. Backgrounds had several levels of parallax scrolling, and environments were richly animated. The game also paid close attention to developing a consistent graphical style. As seen in figure 5, as well as earlier figures, enemies had a simple, rounded style. Furthermore, each enemy was usually restricted to one or two tones, with each colour occupying a large region. With bosses (Figure 6), these colours were used to define progress, as they changes as the enemy was progressively hit. Through this the game achieves a cohesive feeling, and uses graphical feedback to inform the player of their progress. In other games, similar graphical feedback is provided in boss battles, such as through progressively applying damage to the boss sprite or model.

Snake-No hitsSnake - One HitFigure 6. The Boss changes colour as it is hit

Figure 6. The Boss changes colour as it is hit

The backgrounds of Ristar were not solely background illustration. In some parts of the game they provided points of interaction, allowing the player to tear back areas of background to reveal items or enemies. In other sections the player could actually pass into regions of the level which previously appeared to be part of the background.
Fig 7.

Fig 7.

In the screen-shot above (figure 7) you can see a character in the background, just to the right of Ristar. This enemy would regularly throw pieces of fruit into the foreground, which would injure Ristar if they struck him. enemies in the background are inaccessible, and will dominate over a large section of the level, giving a sense of foreboding, over the remainder of the level. This was further exaggerated by dropping the light levels, and forcing the player to hit lamps to increase the available light (Figure 8).
Figure 8

Figure 8

In later sections the background is also used to foreshadow coming enemies, be it on a television monitor, or as a distant overbearing threat.

The control of the background is a popular technique in many games, and has even made the shift into the three dimensional era. In Half-Life 2 and its episodes, Valve used the tall structure of the citadel to provide a point visible over large portions of the game. In the first game this provided an eventual target, and source of oppression, whereas in episode one, the citadel provided a constant reminder of the threat which the player needed to escape from. The background video-screens also performed a similar role, presenting Breen as an overarching figure of oppression, one which exists from the very opening moments of the game. This imagery borrows heavily from Orwell’s 1984, and thus is able to communicate a huge amount of information to any player familiar with the book.

And so…

Part 3 was largely concerned with looking at some of the ways in which game graphics and illustrations vary regionally. In particular, it focused on some of the changes made to the Megadrive Game Ristar. I then used Ristar as a jumping point to consider some of the techniques it employed to create consistency, broadcast information and create atmosphere. It is likely that many of these techniques will be revisited in later entries.

  1. This Gaming Life, Jim Rossingol, 2008, University of Michigan Press, ISBN-10: 0-472-11635-5 []
  2. Jiggle physics is a term used to describe the way in which breasts are made to ‘bounce’ in response to movement. While it could be used to increase realism, it is more commonly exploited for gratification of the straight male (or gay female) gamer. []
  3. Many kilobytes have been spent elsewhere discussing whether these cards are sexist and objectify women, and how this fits in with the larger scope of the game. I shall not be covering this discussion here as I have not yet finished the game itself, and the topic is somewhat irrelevant to this entry. []
  4. Although personally I think they are cute []

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