As early as 2009, Keiji Inafune, then head of R&D at games company Capcom saw the writing on the wall. “Japan is over. We’re done. Our game industry is finished,” he warned. And the 2014 BAFTA Games Awards might just have proved him right.
The headline winner on the night was US title The Last of Us, which won best game, best story and a host of other awards, but a number of other big successes were British made. Grand Theft Auto V took best multi-player game while [Tearaway](https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CC0QFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Ftearaway.mediamolecule.com%2F&ei=fa4hU6SILOrR7Ab774CoDQ&usg=AFQjCNF0utX3ioSTjxyzamsSm9_1xeTRNw&bvm=bv.62922401,d.ZGU, a game which gets players to navigate a world made entirely of paper, was named best family title. And across the nominees and awards, the rise of a quintessentially British flavour is evident.
The current trend for games with a quirky edge, satirical humour and offbeat story lines is in contrast to the old days in which Japanese games ruled the roost. Something is changing and it raises the question of the relationship between games and national identity.
Global games, national quirks
It has been suggested that there are particular national styles of game. The British are renowned for their humour, Scandinavian games for gore and French games, according to journalist David Crookes, for a “wide stylistic range and emotion”.
Japanese games, on the other hand, are known for artistic graphical style and a heavily stylised form of the portrayal of violence, as can be seen in No More Heroes, Mad World or Devil May Cry. It seems that gamers have become a little tired of these values and are on the hunt for something different.
Tearaway and Grand Theft Auto V both offer outstanding gameplay and have been celebrated for their technical prowess but also celebrate what may be seen as quintessentially British whimsy and humour. Next to its controversial story lines, Grand Theft Auto is perhaps best known for its satirical edge as evidenced in the in-game radio stations, billboard advertising and its outrageous portrayal of American capitalism.
This is not necessarily a new feature of British gaming. Classic retro games such as Manic Miner and the quirky humour within the Lego Star Wars series are other examples, as are some Rare games and LittleBigPlanet (from the makers of Tearaway), which is narrated in thoroughly British fashion by Stephen Fry.
But the success of games like these in the 2014 BAFTAs suggest it is in playing to such national characteristics that videogames can succeed both critically, commercially and artistically.
Play like a Brit
The shift is not just about artistic style either. The type of gameplay that was popular while Japan ruled the roost is on the way out too.
Japanese games are known for their promotion of story lines that centre on a culture of collection, such as that seen in the hugely successful Pokemon series, or for letting players simply enjoy play rather than having specific objective or goal, like in the Animal Crossing series.
These different mechanisms of play are indeed seen by many as a distinctive art form but while the traits that made Japanese games so popular remain, there has not been much innovation. It’s a characteristic frequently seen in the broader Japanese political economy – iteration and improvement are more prevalent than radical innovation.
The rise of British games in recent years not only suggests that there is a bright future ahead for nationally distinctive innovative teams but also speaks to a bigger political picture. Defining games as nationally distinctive is, in part, a political act. In doing so, we make games part of our national heritage and might start to look at them as we would look on the work of our national artists. It’s all part of the growing place of gaming in our cultural and economic identity.