I recently had the incredibly privilege of visiting Japan, a place I’ve been wanting to visit since Big Bird went to Japan in his 1989 Sesame Street special. Besides bringing back an amazing roll of Yokai Watch toilet paper, I also returned with a renewed appreciation for the “Japanese-ness” of some games. Walking around parts of Tokyo felt strangely familiar, in large part due to numerous anime and video games that make their way to the West.
In Tokyo, I had a special appreciation for the little cultural quirks that I might have seen before in something like, say, the Persona series. There is a sort of pleasurable recognition in seeing high school students in big club groups, for example. I even enjoyed the way that power lines in some residential areas seemed familiar. Visiting Japan was a confirmation that the experiences that I’ve had in games have — at least to some extent — created a real sense of place within a culturally defined space.
How many other video games create this sense of cultural presence within a non-familiar environment? Gone Home is a great example of a game that creates a cultural space. Samantha’s bedroom feels like a mid-1990s punk-inspired teen’s Pacific Northwest bedroom (I know. I was in many bedrooms just like it.). That’s a space that I’m familiar with. And if you grew up in the US, it’s not exactly an alien cultural experience. What does a distinctly South African game look like? For that matter, what does a deeply Southern game look like? These are both environments that don’t fit into American cultural normativity in a way that even Gone Home does.
Now, of course, there are some. Grim Fandango is often cited as a distinctly Latin-inspired game (one that I sadly haven’t played). Likewise, I suspect that Papo y Yo feels culturally genuine to a lot of latino and latina players — and to Brazilians in particular. These are games whose core aesthetics and narratives draw heavily on a distinct cultural heritage. Even something like Valiant Hearts, which is set in a familiar World War I setting, feels culturally unique, in no small part thanks to Paul Tumelair’s excellent art design.
Still, I would love to see more cultural works in games, even Western ones, but from the perspective of unique sub-cultures. Is anyone else interested in an Appalachian-inspired RPG? I would also love to see more characters and events inspired by other cultures beyond the use of culture as set dressing. In this regard, fantastical settings do a better job than even some of the games listed above.
As you might expect, Bioware shines here because of the work that they’ve put into Mass Effect and Dragon Age. The Krogans on Tuchanka and the royals in Orlais feel like inhabitants of unique and realistic cultures. As each game’s protagonist, you are a cultural outsider. Navigating these cultures is a fundamental part of the story and make for some of the most compelling content in both series.
The world is a wonderfully diverse place. With so many opportunities to create ties to other worlds, games are uniquely positioned to invite us into different cultures. If I ever get a chance to visit Chile, Iceland, Kenya, or any of the other places on my list, I would love to feel that sense of comfortable familiarity that game experiences can provide.