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Gaming Days and Anime Dreams


Animation -- as soon as it piqués your curiosity, your suddenly perplexed by the myriad of ways in which it exists everywhere. Street signs, station information, tv, gaming, web. It's a quirk of everyday life that a medium treated so poorly by the critics can nonetheless exist in every corner of life. These animation niches reveal rich traditions and cultures in their own right. If you're interested in animation, and the development of the medium, it's become part of the profession to keep up with these productive pockets of activity.

We've always been inspired by what's happening in Japan 

Alongside manga and anime, videogames play a major role in the media output of Japan, and these three form the core of what Douglas McRay has termed the country's "gross national cool" -- the cultural and commerical spell Japanese popular media seem to have cast over so many audiences the world over. Japanese developers have played a major role in the design and implementation of games from their inception in the 1960s through to the present day. The 'console wars' period of games design, from the late 1980s through the the turn of the millenium, was dominated by the creative output and technological innovation of the Japanese. As anime fandom developed, so to did a newly burgeoning culture of videogames, in which the Japaneseness was not hidden or neutralised but rather extolled as a commercial virtue.

The development of contemporary videogames from the PlayStation (1995) onward corresponds to changes and developments in the worlds of manga and anime media. A new generation of artists and designers working across these three platforms seemed to collectively express and understanding of the growing convergence of these media. Kojima Hideo's Metal Gear Solid (1998) for PlayStation, Anno Hideaki's anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996) and Shirow Masamune's manga Ghost in the Shell (1991) each share an intense preoccupation with themes of identity and technology, and in particular identity through technology. To understand the Japanese videogame, we should therefore take time to understand the developments taking place in manga and anime, and vice versa, games to anime and manga. Shirow's heroine is like a cat with nine lives, able to find new bodies and return from defeat, but she is also like the game character, continuing after game over, switching out broken parts and opting for upgrades, hacking in to find strategic advantages on the chess board of combat.  

It is reasonable to suggest that the contemporary videogame relies heavly on the early influence of manga and anime. Through the huge impact of feature films like Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira (1988), games designers were able to imagine new configurations of player and world. We can see the mark of North American cinema on videogames because Western audiences are so literate in its conventions, and with a new literacy in anime and manga a new history emerges, of games made in the wake of anime classics. The cyberpunk and fantasy themes of many manga and anime were substantially developed by videogames, since the principles of interactivity and multipath and counterfactual narratives so central to cyberpunk were integral to the gaming apparatus. So in certain instances, games explore territory where anime and manga fear to tread. Recent beat-'em-up versions of classic Shonen narratives Dragon Ball Z and Naruto actually add a dimension that exceeds the original manga and anime versions. While most adaptations take for granted a degree of loss of brand integrity, these recent fighting games seem to understand the referent texts at a very fundamental level, providing action that allows players to get directly hands on with the characters of the series, understanding their movement, special attacks and fighting style with a new level of fidelity.    

There are many correspondences between serial manga, television anime and roleplaying videogames. Each in their own way take a considerable amount of time to develop their characters and narrative, with a typical roleplay genre videogame taking in excess of 60 hours to complete effectively. In the Japanese home of the 1990s, the games console (invariably a Super Famicom or SEGA Genesis) would sit comfortably alongside shelves of manga and VHS anime. Across these media would be a spread of common characters, franchises and genres, and fandom for one type of media would naturally elicit interest in the other. Increasingly, to fully appreciate manga and anime, one would have to by extension take an active interest in the world of videogames. Nowadays we take for granted the convergence of these various media types, and many franchises like the dotHack world actively rely on all three media types to propugate their storylines. The ensemble cast of the contemporary roleplay game mirrors that of film and comic book; like in the internationally successful Final Fantasy games, these characters follow archetypal patterns laid out in the genre terms of anime and manga -- the magical girl, the stubborn boy, the quiet hero, the decadent prince -- these games can be seen as the incorporation of interaction into anime, which might seem conceptually simplistic, until you consider the stellar success and widespread influence of the franchise. Videogames need storytellers, and the horizontal movement of creative talent from the manga and anime industries into games is closely guarded in Japanese development culture. The myth of a perfectly interactive anime is too seductive to ignore, and the ambition to create it drives the practice of a great many studios.   

Reciprocally, videogames have substantially influenced manga and anime storylines and characterisation. With the generation of directors and artists for whom games have become a core reference point, there have been natural shifts in the attitude and values of the characters they create. Characters are increasingly defined not by the impact of their actions within the plot, but rather by the qualities of who (or what) they are, physically or otherwise. This emphasis on affordances (which constantly asks, 'what is the character capable of doing') reflects the gameworld mechanics of using 'object a' on 'object b', trial and error, and physical properties. General cultural shifts that have come out of the changing world of gaming and the Internet have similarly been figured into Japanese popular media more generally. In narratives like Serial Experiments Lain (1998), Denno Coil (2008) and Real Drive (2008), the playworld of the virtual is set up as the status quo; the influence of games design is represented as so ubiquitous and totalising that it isn't questioned. Moreoften than not, anime and manga set out a play world for characters to interact within, and into this space the viewer can project their imagination. Even the more morose plots are set against a backdrop of serious play, as in the narrative of Clamp’s X series (1992; 1996; 2000) where characters fight in deadly arenas that float invisibly above the everyday city. Through to the bitter end, Kaneda's grudge battle against Tetsuo is framed as play, and in this it is indebted to the capability of games, as much as Akira is itself an inspiration to games designers.