Shadows of the Damned: A new way for Japan?

Within ten minutes of beginning Shadows of the Damned, you've been subjected to a litany of dick jokes, seen a woman burst at the seams (literally), and have been introduced to a protagonist who's chosen middle name is "Fucking." Before bringing in the late title card, the main character and his gun/sidekick have a quick discussion about this trip into the underworld is going to be "our own road movie," setting the scene for what follows.

It's really easy to discredit Shadows of the Damned as potty humor, old gameplay mechanics, and JAPAN. I know, because for a while this summer, I did. However, after playing Grasshopper's latest, I'm convinced that not only is this bound to be a cult classic of a video game, but could be a model for the Japanese developer community going forward.

In the opening credits sequence for Shadows of the Damned, there are two things that immediately grabbed my attention. First was the list of high-profile names involved with the game as part of Grasshopper Manufacture: Goichi Suda (better known as Suda51), Shinji Mikami (of Resident Evil fame) and Akira Yamaoka (composer for the Silent Hill series). Ever since the game was announced, that heavyweight lineup has been on board, so it was not surprising, but it's still reinvigorating to see when you begin your journey.

Shadows of the Damned may not be a masterpiece but it’s certainly a damned fun game. Partnered with satisfying shooting and responsive controls, Grasshopper has crafted a crazy-cool grindhouse-horror world, and the writing (hat tip to 8-4) is sensational. It’s often juvenile but somehow never demeaning to your sensibilities — Duke Nukem could take notes. Even shooting giant demons in the eye with your Big Boner (technical term!) never feels too crass. Importantly, the dialogue is smart and witty as much as it is juvenile. As for the game itself, all the shooting and control mechanics, enemies, weak points and bosses come together in all the right ways. Garcia Fucking Hotspur takes you along on a road movie to hell, and while I’m not quite finished yet, I’ve enjoyed the ride so far.

The other piece in the introduction to the game was a bit surprising: Unreal Technology. Shadows of the Damned runs on Unreal Engine 3, which makes it both like many other contemporary games and completely different from many of its peers.

Let me explain that a little bit more. Though middleware game engines have entered common use in American and European game development, that has been far from the case in Japan. Lower priority is placed on software in general in this country — and on the value of creating software. Japan has a tradition of crafting quality goods, and the art of making things is celebrated. However, the business landscape of technology has changed — computers as devices now have razor-thin profit margins (unless you're Apple), while software and support is where money can be made. This isn’t just a problem facing the game industry, either; it’s been mentioned in The Economist recently as a cultural shift facing Japan’s tech industry. Samurai don’t code software; they make things you can hold and use.

Think about some of the AAA games that have come out recently. The percentage of big-budget games using middleware game engines is much higher in the West than in Japan, and I think that has hurt Japanese developers this generation. Take a look at the Wikipedia list of Unreal Engine 3 games: everything from 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand and licensed junk to Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, the Mass Effect series, the Gears of War series, and more. The games listed there from Japanese publishers were all developed outside of Japan, with two exceptions: Square Enix's The Last Remnant (which was an RPG aimed at Western audiences) and upcoming Capcom action game Asura's Wrath (also aimed at the West).

While you could create a game engine from scratch for an 8-, 16-, or even 32-bit game, it’s not possible to do that with a contemporary AAA game. It might be possible in some instances, but it’s not practical for many other console developers, and it hurts productivity, profitability and creativity. I'm convinced it's holding back talented developers and wasting their time, and Shadows of the Damned is evidence.

It is in this light that I think Shadows of the Damned should set an example for the Japanese industry. Not because of what it is — a third-person shooter with M-rated dick and poop jokes — but by using a middleware game engine. It allows creative people to not worry about making both the canvas and decide on the painting and instead lets them focus on drawing a masterpiece. That both Square Enix and Konami’s Kojima Productions are creating flexible game engines for their studios is a good sign, even if it is a baby step and may be too little, too late. There is still a great deal of creativity in Japan — it just needs the chance to be seen.