Illustrator Ken Taya has a nice day job: He happens to be an environment artist for first-person shooter Halo 3 at American game developer Bungie. Also, he happens to be a bilingual Japanese-American Nisei, for ‘second generation’. What does it mean to work in a game environment with this mixed cultural background? PingMag wanted to know more, especially since Halo 3 is coming out in two weeks…
Written by Verena
The first time Ken introduced himself to us, he wrote: “Having lived in the USA and in Japan, I’ve experienced both acceptance and rejection from both sides. My art comes from my unique understanding and misunderstanding of both cultures, something other Nikkei, Japanese emigrants and their descendants, can relate to as they themselves try to understand their heritage.”
Now we want to know more! Explain a bit, please. First, what do you do exactly?
I used to work at a Japanese game company, Nintendo Software Technology (NST), making 1080° Avalanche, a snowboarding game. While there I helped design the UI, the user interface, and stage select screens… Now with Bungie, I specialise as an environment artist, which means I design 3d environments immersing the player in the game experience.
So, as an environment artist for Halo 3, what makes a good game environment then?
When there is the synergy between game play and visuals, the player becomes absorbed into the environment while getting to experience all the action that takes place.
And how do you get the player immersed best? Is it about a dramatic atmosphere – or what? Please explain for us.
Environment visuals alone cannot immerse anybody. It’s the right combination of game play, music, story, interaction with characters, and allowing the player to feel like they have control of their character.
What would the ideal environment look like?
That will depend on what kind of game you’re wanting to make. I think an ideal environment allows the player to live in his or her character.
And what are your favourite tools in terms of software?
And your own favourite all-time favourite game you used to play?
Family Stadium for the Famicom. And still to this day I sometimes dust off the Famicom and play it for the nostalgia. Why: It’s fun going one on one with your buds, and Family Stadium is competition boiled down to simple fun.
How does coming from two different cultural backgrounds, being Japanese born in the USA, make your perspective on game design different? What do you think?
First regarding this cultural understanding and misunderstanding, I try explore that through my work on Enfu, the name is a derivative of the Japanese ‘monkey’ and ‘style’ in Kanji. Then, I don’t think the process in which I design is that much different than any other artist. I can see, however, aversions to certain design choices each culture makes. For instance, when making colour choices, a Japanese designer alluded to the use of more unsaturated colours as a poor choice and clearly favoured more saturation. When working under non-Japanese designers, that same view was not held.
I think both sides see each others’ design choices in a slightly negative light, so when making personal choices in my design there is an inherent conflict between the two. It’s challenging to embrace these differences and I often have to remind myself that one choice is not better, just different.
Also, in terms of developing: What do you think would be the fundamental difference in how Japanese and American companies view game design?
Well in terms of semantics the actual word designer and the roles associated with this position differ. Here comes an over generalisation: I feel that the Japanese game developers really focus on the feel of the game above everything else – and the US developers, the look.
Interesting about the ‘look’ and ‘feel’… So, how do you feel, ultimately, when it comes to your own approach – more Japanese or American?
My bet is on more American. I feel most ‘American’ when I’m surrounded by Japanese people. I feel only slightly Japanese when I’m in the US. Judge for yourself which you think I embody by observing the design choices I’ve made on my Enfu Serigraphs – I think you may see elements of both.
How come, in America, products might be more appealing if they have a kind of ‘Japanese’ touch?
Anything exotic carries some kind of appeal. I’m not sure this works both ways though. I bet more products sell in Japan which are associated with something Western than products in the US associated with Japan. I mean you will see Brad Pitt endorse Edwin jeans in Japan, but you won’t see Ken Watanabe endorsing fashion in the US… or at least not yet.
Same goes for products that come out on the Japanese market: having something ‘American’ is chic. And why does this seem to collide in terms of games which are supposed to sell internationally?
I recently saw a Mitsubishi commercial in the US which was obviously trying to be very Japanesey. They had all these Taiko drummers beating at drums with Noh like shouts and shakuhachi playing in the background. My reaction as a Japanese-American was: I can’t relate to that whatsoever… and bought a Prius. Apart from that, I’m no marketing expert, just an artist, so I don’t know why it’s so hard for American games to make it in Japan.
Do the main differences, if they are fundamental at all, lie in the different cultural backgrounds, the societies – or what else?
First, I don’t think there are fundamental differences in the way both cultures see games in general. We’ve grown up with many types that are very universal whether its tag, Kick the can, Poker, board games, etc.
Though I have only had the experience of working in the States, I’ve worked at many Japanese owned companies: I do feel that attitude of management differs greatly between the two cultures, however. When working under Japanese management, I was much more spoon fed and there seemed to be a lot of hand holding. Under American supervision I was given much more freedom to make my own mistakes and learn from them. This difference can be interpreted in the following common terms I often hear regarding both styles: “The Japanese style is too anal, and the American style is too loose.” Its hard to capture the nuances attached to certain words, but both are fairly negative, showing which each culture values.
Poster in airbrushed emotions: Halo 3. © Bungie
Also, I feel the process within Japanese companies as well as decision making is all very top down and little dialogue regarding process is shared vertically, whereas in American companies many if not all voices are considered and opinions solicited, and dissent is more widely acceptable and heard from the bottom ranks. I feel that if the design process is too regimented it crushes creativity. If the work environment feels a bit sterile, the management feels rigid, and the air is tense that is the exact opposite environment I would want as an artist to allow myself to be creative.