Essay Proposal: What is it about Japanese survival horror that distinguishes it from its Western counterpart and why are they so successful?

With Japan being home to many horror films and stories as well as popular video games, it was almost a given that they would be just as successful in producing what is now commonly known as ‘survival horror games’; a combination of their expertise. Their treatment of fear fused with gameplay is interesting in that there is a certain quality to it that is so unique that it can be instantly distinguished from a Western produced horror game and ultimately, it is this unique ‘style’ that I wish to establish in order to show how their approach to survival horror has influenced games of the same genre on a worldwide scale and how survival horror games have altogether evolved drastically over the recent years.

This is not however, to say that the Japanese approach is necessarily better, but simply that there is something in its treatment that has allowed it to gain the level of attention that it has today, not just with the local Japanese audience, but having gradually expanded to the global audience as well. It has caught my attention that two of the most popular horror games in the North American game industry; Silent Hill and Resident Evil are both, whilst taken from European horror, produced by Japanese game companies, and there are so many implications of Japanese horror included in the designing of these games that this merging of North American and Japanese horror has taken survival horror games to a whole new level.

Throughout my research essay, I will be using a variety of survival horror games originated from both the West and East as examples and discuss them in terms of visual graphics, music and sound, storyline, and gameplay. I have also chosen to look into Rei: Shisei no Koe (or Fatal Frame III) in more depth as a more traditionally designed Japanese survival horror and to analyze it in comparison to a Western-based horror game; Dead Space, as they will provide more specific examples as to what each survival horror has to offer as well as what they each may lack. To do so, I am going to spend a day each playing each of the games so to gain enough play experience for a decent understanding of them. This will aid me in my close reading of the games so that  the horror elements can be compared with each other through personal experience.

Japanese survival horrors significantly differ from their Western counterparts as they tend to focus more on psychological horror developed through the atmospheric and storytelling side of the game, whereas Western horror games tend to emphasize on throwing in graphical violence, gore and the occasional shock factor. This is the general difference between the two horror cultures that I wish to delve through and be able to demonstrate what it is about Japanese horror that is so succinct that it has captured the attention of North American gamers.

In order to understand why this gap between the Western and Eastern horror games exist, it is important to bear in mind that cultural differences play a huge role in the way in which these games have been designed as they must cater primarily to their respective target audiences. As such, I will look at not only the games themselves, but to trace back to the source materials that survival horror takes from (e.g. horror films and stories) and to see how much the Japanese differ to those of the Western culture. Eimi Ozawa from the University of Tokyo has written an article called the ‘U.S. Adaptations of Japanese Horror Films‘ where she thoroughly discusses in one of the sections, the differences in portrayal of Samara/Sadako from The Ring. This relates heavily to the discussion of Japanese and Western survival horror games as the two movie adaptations too, fall under the same genre but due to receiving very typical treatment of either Japanese horror or Western horror, they become different and distinguishable from one another. This method of study does have its limitations however, as it does not directly look into games and compare them, but only something of a similar nature, so the similarities and differences may only be applied to games to a certain extent. To ensure that the more game-specific aspects of cultural distinction are covered, I will also be looking at the article “The Anthropology of Fear: Learning About Japan Through Horror Games” written by Chris Pruett which will cover the intents and historical references of Japanese horror directly through the study of horror games.

Regardless of how successful their designing of horror games may be, it is also necessary to take note of the reception of the games in both Japan and North America. Silent Hill’s third installation (and onwards) is a very interesting example for this as it is designed by a Japanese company with the inclusion of psychological horror, but hasn’t been as well received locally as it should be in contrast to its big success in North America. This is largely due to the fact that Silent Hill’s gameplay doesn’t just stop at puzzle-solving and exploration, but also includes direct combat, which is not typical of or favored by the Japanese audience. So despite the fact that it is home to so many survival horror games that we would consider ‘successful’ in North America, these games are actually not as well-received in their local city and it is this cultural controversy between what the Japanese audience demands for and what the North American audience demands for that survival horror games can allow for so many new, innovative ideas and development to this date.

Fiona Lee

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