Bayonetta, Final Fantasy, Silent Hill.
One recurring theme these disparate series’ have in common (outside having appeared on Nintendo platforms) is the ultimate power fantasy: killing god. Deicide and the danger of the will to power is prevalent in Japanese video games, dating back to the NES era, though it rarely appears in Western games. Exploring the dynamic between how East and West tackle these ideas reveals fascinating insight to their distinctly different cultural values.
The Japanese have a history of collectivism and pantheism, underpinned by Buddhist, Shinto, and Confucian principles. The concepts of duty, humility, and group achievement have been revered into antiquity, informing nearly every facet of society. Japanese children are taught at a young age that happiness and fulfillment comes from a sense of community, starting with the family and radiating outward. Individuality is defined by inner control and strength in dealing with others, and it isn’t surprising to find these values in every aspect of Japanese life, from business to home, childhood to dotage.
A core tenant of Buddhism is to recognize the truth and origin of suffering, as well as mindfulness of one’s actions in the world. Confucianism in Japan stressed filial piety above all else. Even though there are several ideological differences between these philosophies, together they instilled the concept of wa, or harmony, wherein the health of community triumphs over personal interest. Those who break harmony to further their own ends are mistaken, and need to be brought in line.
The gods of the Shinto pantheon all display very human emotions and drives. The sun goddess Amaterasu, hides from the world in anger after feuding with her brother Susanoo. The Japanese goddess Uzume is credited with the creation of the Kagura dance. The examples are numerous, and the theme is clear: ancient Japan, like many cultures, accepted basic humanity in their gods. These passions and weaknesses brought their gods a little closer to Earth.
The value of communal harmony makes several Japanese game design and storytelling choices more clear. For instance, the idea of the ubermensch with a narcissistic drive to stand among the gods is a natural choice for a villain, especially when pitted against the collective actions of a group of protagonists. In Final Fantasy for the NES, the once-loyal knight Garland tries to ascend through becoming an archdemon. In Final Fantasy II, Emperor Mateus brings both Heaven and Hell to heel. In Final Fantasy VI, Kefka successfully ascends and reshapes the world, only to be struck down anyway. The theme continues with Sephiroth, Ultimecia, Guado, and on. The individualist’s worldview is as flawed as the gods he joins, and collective group effort triumphs over his hubristic will to power.
The theme continues well beyond Final Fantasy. Arc Rise Fantasia, Shin Megami Tensei, Xeno, Tales, and Fire Emblem all often share this common element. Other games, like Chrono Trigger and Earthbound, may avoid pitting the heroes against a god or god aspirant, but still present an extraterrestrial would-be conqueror with godlike powers. That sense of narcissistic personable godhood is replaced with something unknowable, but the collective will of our heroes still prevails.
Even in Japanese games outside the RPG genre, which often feature a single playable character engaged in a duel of wills, the comparatively disadvantaged adventurer defeats the selfish would-be demiurge. Silent Hill protagonist Harry Mason defeats Samael with some mystical liquid and a few bullets. Link fights to restore communities wrecked by the individualist Ganondorf. The irrepressibly flamboyant Bayonetta takes on multiple gods. In all these games, those content with life as it is triumph over those who seek to re-order the world as they see fit.
Furthermore, many Japanese games aren’t afraid to create their own mythologies for these stories, or repurpose existing traditions in ways that make it unrecognizable from its origins. Basically, they aren’t afraid to depict the possibility of deicide as the way of the world.
Western games typically eschew this narrative, and it’s equally reflective of our cultural values. Though the United States specifically was founded on principles of humanism and enlightenment, Judeo-Christian and neoliberal principles are imbedded nearly to the core. We romanticize the Old West and idolize philosophical movements like Objectivism, both of which uphold the will to power as a goal to strive for. Our desire to pursue self-interest runs deep, even if it damages the harmony of our lives and the world at large.
As rugged individualism and freedom of spirit are primal building blocks for our expression, so is a distinctly Abrahamic relationship with the divine. We view God as untouchable, unknowable, and unreachable. His temperament is accepted and kept sacred, even if the storyteller isn’t a believer. We are ants struggling in a farm the builder of which we will never see, much less hope to transcend or stand beside.
Despite these differences, power fantasies in Western games are no less prevalent. The villains are just as decidedly human. Western games often feature Hollywood-style magnificent bastards, evil because their individualism has been either corrupted or comparatively corrupted as opposed to the player’s character. It’s the method of Western villains that are flawed, not their drive, as the heroes are just as driven and often nearly as destructive. The stories are also generally more mundane. Think Grand Theft Auto, Fallout, Tomb Raider, and Call of Duty. There are half-exceptions: the decidedly ungodly aliens from Resistance, Mass Effect, or Gears of War; and characters stopped well short of meta-human ambition like Uncharted. The only real exceptions come in sort-of hermetically sealed genre worlds like the distinctly Lovecraftian Eternal Darkness or the Hellenic God of War. These gods can be opposed and defeated because they aren’t God, they’re artificial.
Deicide is a simple but illuminating path into exploring the differences in the way two cultures approach game development. Neither approach is superior; both have yielded classic experiences and fascinating results, but I believe the difference makes a case for the need of a strong game industry in both sectors, to ensure greater variety of experience for gamers the world over.