I keep forgetting, is that redhead Katarina or Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow?
So I’m playing Overwatch, and I’m staring at the character select screen figuring out which one to learn first. One character comes to mind, D.Va, the Korean pro-gamer/idol-personality turned Eva pilot. After some quality time with the character, and many deaths, I was able to see the “pro-gamer” but nearly none of the idol. I wasn’t convinced of her “aegyo”. Something was missing, and I was determined to find out.
While throwing matches with friends, I thought of another vastly popular “hero game”, Riot’s League of Legends, which will be my case example for most of the examples in this piece before returning to Blizzard’s Overwatch. It’s part of the larger MOBA trend, which along with Dota 2 may as well be another article in and of itself. The MOBA wants to cater to a diverse array of tastes and demographics, so I brought up character designs for Ahri, Sona, Annie, and a few other Champions clearly designed to either “be Japanese” or appeal to someone such as myself who lies in a demographic that enjoys the Japanese geek culture. While the designs weren’t terrible by any stretch of the means, there was the same “offness” that made them distinctly “American” which proceeded among other modern western games cast in its mold. I had to find out, so I took to the net and talked with other artists and enthusiasts for some perspectives.
Now keep in mind in this analysis, none of anything really here is a “bad character design”, indicative of a “bad game mechanics”, or a “problem” at large. There is no problem, merely spins on perspectives and as the adage goes, to each his or her own. True, there are many “cash-grabs” towards different focus demographics, but we’ll be excluding those works for our purposes to analyze more “honest” design that has just as much appeal in China, Japan, and Korea as it does domestically. If anything, understanding what makes certain elements of games, art, and other mediums attractive helps designers and audience alike become more articulate.
When it comes to characters derived from Asian folklore, history, and pop culture designed for mass appeal to an international or foreign audience. Logically, the majority of the international audience doesn’t have as much familiarity with these more intimate aspects of culture beyond the basics. Your go-to for instant familiarity becomes your usual suspects: Naruto-ninja, hokey movie-samurai, foxgirls, idols, and so on. Sometimes though, it feels a little played-out or not as inspired. Now for those of us who have been around the cultural block, seeing another case of cyber ninja or honor-bound samurai warrior doesn’t offend our sensibilities, but it’s not winning best in show either. However, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to retread the popular and well-known, none of anything I’m talking about is in actuality, if you can appeal to both niche and mass simultaneously. Easier said than done, but it is possible if you take proper care. Lux is a stealthy shoutout to Marisa Kirisame the relatively niche Touhou Project shooter series with her witch archetype and penchant for giant lasers of destruction. While Lux still doesn’t have the whole witch bit or magical girl bit down-pat, credit given where credit is due, and people can be in on the joke without making her unapproachable.
Then we have the cast itself which abounds with plenty of attractive women and men. Oh, and giant monsters too! And as a video game where you are a “Hero” or “Champion”, why wouldn’t it? It is a mish-mosh fantasy. So we delve into the “why” behind the attraction, and we turn up with toned bodies, big muscles, big beards, big boobs, and big butts. Hm. Sound familiar? These design choices are very much in the western comic superhero wheelhouse. Culturally speaking, an attractive hero, female for our cases, will lean more towards a powerful sultry sexy archetype. Whether she has her prey all wrapped around her finger as a temptress or if it’s her overpowering force as a warrior who bows everyone around her to her superior might. Cuteness, subjective like much of most everything here, is notably absent; it’s a factor the west in general gets less as opposed to a more buxom sexy appeal and reserves it more for cartoon furry characters or side-characters. Of all the most popular MOBAs on the market right now DotA 2 doesn’t even have a race of playable cute creatures, let alone more cute humanoid heroes.
It traces back to the core idea, your character is a “Champion” or “Hero” (or outright god if you play Smite), a powerful individualistic entity, so every line and action should be dripping with said power. In spite of being a team game, your average MOBA places a big emphasis on making “you” feel like a playmaker, and there’s no time to be a playmaker when you’re a klutzy teen schoolgirl late to class, magic powers or no. So on top of feeling power behind the gameplay, the aesthetic details of the characters you play should make you the player feel as if you’re showing off your power or the confidence behind it. You hear it in the lines:
“No one escapes my aim.”
“Should I make your pulse rise… Or stop?”
“Duck! Hehe! Just kidding! That won’t help!”
The delivery is coarse, serious, manipulative, or insane, never relaxed or whimsical. But it makes sense, since each character only has a few lines to leave an impression on the player, every line should make the player feel stong, bar lines for pain and dying. It’s much more difficult in the western perception for the aforementioned teen schoolgirl (now with magic) to embody these ideals of brash displays of might because in the west, we assign innocence, purity, and naiveté with weakness. Our schoolgirl needs at least an edge to her, make her jaded or crafty, or get her a gym membership. Make her dependent on no one but herself, needing protection from no one. You’ll see this isn’t quite the case in the East.
East Meets West
For a decent comparison, we can put the original English voice work by the Asian dubs side-by-side. In the Japanese League dub, Leona, an archetypal MOBA “knight girl”, is voiced by Ayako Kawasumi, best known for voicing Saber from “Fate/Stay Night”. It’s not the cleanest comparison, since the heroines of a visual novel have a different intent than the heroines of a MOBA, but you know both knights would be wholly out of place in each other’s games, in spite of both being extremely powerful. Saber delivers a certain purity in her character, which needs to be married to raw force as a counterbalance to exist in the west. Leona is completely impenetrable, her strength must be visible at all times, so she is less likely to have a dossier page with her favorite foods right next to her battle stats. The real magic happens once you play Kawasumi’s lines and the Japanese interpretation comes out completely different. Leona goes from a warrior queen under Wendee Lee’s English performance to an upstart knight with a lot to prove. A knight who will still crush her enemies, but after the battle you, as her summoner, will pat her head with a “good job”, much to her embarrassment. Personally, I find the original to be more fitting, but it’s all up to preference really.
The prime example and perhaps “Holy Grail” of the difference between Eastern and Western character ideals is Annie, who I jokingly call at times, a “low-tier loli”. Annie is wholly psychotic but with none of the innocence, so we couldn’t even classify her as a yandere, who would seem “innocently ignorant” of her insanity. She is also as impenetrable as the rest of the cast, with no “fronts” or vulnerabilities, much to the point where you could give her characterization to another “tough character” (maybe Jinx?) and you wouldn’t have thought this to belong to a young girl bar the “eeney meany miney moe” bit. It’s only in the fan art where the fans fashion an innocent side of her more likely aligned with a tsundere and had Annie been Asian-designed, we’d see her murderous fiery scowl be replaced with a pout that’s more bark and less bite.
So we return to our “Asian appeal” characters. From our Ahri and Sona from a game I don’t play to me in my chair playing D.Va from Overwatch. As part of design, these characters trade innocence, purity, and vulnerability for sultriness, confidence, and an all-American cocksure confidence. The D.Va I’m playing actually has some cute flourishes, more than other “heroes” in other MOBA games, but you’d only hear them if you listened to the lines outside of a real game. No, she’s “the genius gamer” with a big gun in front and a “you’re going down [noob]” attitude right behind it. All these ideas feel so incongruous with Japan’s current moe culture. Korea’s pop culture is closer with some sexiness but without the flourished bravado present in even the most “elegant” western characters. Yet it’s that blending of ideas that makes things more interesting to provide different interpretations of existing ideas with a new spin. Is it “authentic waifuism”? Not per se, but what is authentic anyway when those starting assumptions were also born out of the same process of mixing? And you’d be sure the same happens the other way around when Japan gets ideas from western superhero comics or Korea is inspired by elements of American rap.
And while this current crop of “weeaboo inspired” and “Koreaboo inspired” characters may not be your cup of tea, you can always look to the future for something more up your alley. Unlike those dark ages of faux anime made for a quick buck, the artists at the helm these days were inspired by older 90s and early 2000s battle shonen anime, their creations fit the era of Dragon Ball and Naruto much more since that was what struck them (and us) as kids. You can be right as rain as our cultures globalize and the next crop of artists wheel around we’ll get a “more authentic” waifu idol in the future. Who knows? Maybe seeing things we like from a different cultural perspective will lead to something new and fresh? Join me next time when I rush “B”.
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