Some games are harder to pitch than others. Theoretically, when you arrive on the steps of a publisher's office with an idea in mind you may have an inkling of what kind of formulas are likely to be accepted. Tokyo Jungle isn't one of them.
Below you'll see the character you initially play as in Tokyo Jungle. It's a Pomeranian. You play as this Pomeranian. In a post-apocalyptic Tokyo. For real.
But perhaps the most surprising aspect of director, Yohei Kataoka's game is that it's actually good!
Pomeranians + Apocalyptic Tokyo = Awesome
In terms of both importing and exporting, getting a game to cross the waters surrounding Japan can be pretty difficult. The West only receives a mere handful of games that this country produces, and the reasons why are as varied as the products themselves! They generally have a certain quirky nature that a lot of us tend to get a kick out of, but their success is almost impossible to predict.
Tokyo Jungle is a perfect example of the complicated life a modern Japanese game can expect to have. Though the reception it garnered is actually pretty peculiar, and indicative of something far more interesting. First off, let me show you what you can expect if you pick up Tokyo Jungle!
Allow me to confirm what you just saw. Yes, the graphics are that outdated. Yes, you did see a pitbull in a flowing robe. Yes, that was a pack of baby chicks sauntering down the street. Indeed, you also saw two pandas smacking the crap out of each other. And yes, you saw a dog mount another dog, ready to get down.
This all happens in Tokyo Jungle. You can play as every animal you've seen and more, and it's surprising how quickly you'll become almost desensitized by its complete insanity. However, it seems that not every continent was quite prepared for Yohei Kataoka's RPG in 2012.
Why The "Negative" Feedback?
“Europe loved it, and we got a lot of great feedback from that audience, but [in] America… that simply wasn’t the case. We received a lot of negative feedback for the game.” - Yohei Kataoka talking with Siliconera
In terms of big gaming publications, the reviews were actually rather mixed in America. But then you'll still find statements like, "[Tokyo Jungle has] disgraceful graphics, annoying music, an overdose of repetition, and too many smaller glitches to count." Kataoka felt that the reception from America was overwhelmingly negative for a reason:
“It takes time to make an unfamiliar audience understand something like ukiyo-e, right? So it might take something like traveling around an abandoned Tokyo as a Pomeranian a little bit of time to sink in, too. At least, that’s how we saw it.”
Makes sense! But is America unfamiliar with such things?
Kataoka references ukiyo-e, an example of which you can check out below. It's an interesting reference point, one that kind of taps into the cultural differences that permeate the societies of Japan and America. He talks about a sense of 'unfamiliarity' in an interview with Siliconera, an unfamiliarity which causes Western audiences to look at certain effects in Tokyo Jungle, and indeed Japanese art in general, as 'crazy' or 'surreal'.
Are Japanese Games Too Crazy For A Modern American Audience?
In most cases though, that's not exactly the intention of the artists. They aren't out to alienate a part of the world with their designs; they're simply drawing from their own cultural background and traditions. Kataoka even states that he wants "viewers to learn something about Japan" by playing Tokyo Jungle. What the hell does he mean by that?
As you saw in the trailer above, the game allows you to sneak up on unsuspecting enemies and launch a devastating attack when their back is turned. You can then eat your fallen foe, thus ensuring your animal survives - unless you're a herbivore.
In Tokyo Jungle, your character will be under the constant threat of hunger. It can be pretty damn easy to die in this game by not taking care of yourself - almost too easy I would argue. So you'll spend a great portion of the game sneaking up on enemies and sinking your teeth into their flesh. Lovely.
But Kataoka references the visual effects that these attacks are brought to life with. He says that defeating all of these enemies in the game causes a sort of chain reaction and that each of these effects describes an aspect of Japanese culture, "and that’s what [he hopes to get] through to the game’s audience.”
Therefore, if we say that American audiences weren't as accepting to the game as Europeans, does this indicate, in the words of Kataoka, that the American gaming community is a more "unfamiliar" audience when it comes to Japanese culture? Personally, I think there's another reason behind its reception.
America Has Grown Up, Moved Out, And Bought Its Own Place
In recent years we've seen American game developers make some pretty harsh comments about the quality of Japanese games. Remember; back in the 80s and 90s if you ventured to an arcade or bought a gaming console, you bought and played Japanese products! Have we since become so divided that a game like Tokyo Jungle can't be enjoyed by a lot American gamers? Well, Japan's most famous gaming site gave us some insight into this.
In this post here from 2013 (it's in Japanese, translated below by Kotaku), Famitsu breaks down the reasons why Western developers feel that Japanese games have found it increasingly difficult to connect with an international audience. Here are a few of them:
- There's a cultural gap between America and Japan that manifests itself in almost every aspect of game design
- Japanese games are not easy to get into for most gamers
- Japanese games feature far too much talking, and their stories lack emotional empathy
- Westerners don't like body types in Japanese games, they prefer "Roman Style Bodies"
- Westerners prefer movie-like performances whereas the Japanese prefer theatrical ones
- Japanese games are stuck in the past and have lost their technical edge
Harsh, or true?
Richard Eisenbeis, writing for Kotaku in 2012, stated that, "Tokyo Jungle is perhaps the most original game to come out of Japan in recent years with its unique concept, entertaining tongue-in-cheek writing, and competent controls." But remember, Kotaku focus heavily on Asian games and appreciate their contribution to the art form in general.
So has the general American audience gone so far beyond Japan's current stage of game development that we can no longer connect with them like we used to?
Here are some pertinent questions that I think provide good launch pads for this discussion: Does the unusual reception of Tokyo Jungle in America allude to a form of cultural misunderstanding? Does this indicate that the states of Europe have more in common with that of Japan? Or is it simply down to a matter of preference and what we've recently been interacting with in terms of Western Video Games?
Tokyo Jungle Shows That Japanese Games Are Still Worth Your Time
Japanese society in general is constantly in a struggle between the past and future - we've seen this in Princess Mononoke for example! There's the pressure of older generations and a more traditional style of living; this is constantly at war with the modernization and globalization of Japan. Modern Japan is happy to forego the expectations of the past and incorporate influences from the West into its culture. However, Japan rarely imports American games and older Japanese game developers have actually snarled at American titles like Bioshock:
One designer at a high-profile JRPG maker told us of the time he brought Bioshock into the office. While the younger members of the company were impressed, a high-ranking and well known producer played the game for thirty seconds, declared, "This game feels cheap," dropped the controller on the desk and walk[ed] away without another word. - 1UP
Tokyo Jungle is but a small example in the history of this art form, but it shows how games have evolved. It demonstrates how Japan, the country that basically raised a generation with its entertainment systems and shows, has lost its impact on American audiences, while limiting the West's influence on their own culture. But that need not be the case. You can still enjoy Tokyo Jungle - right now.
Playing games like this opens your eyes to the alternative cultures of the world. You'll experience some moments that will undoubtedly feel strange, but it's great to plunge out of your comfort zone. Tokyo Jungle is a cheap little game to pick up on the Playstation store, and I seriously urge you to give it a try!