Friday, December 11, 2009

Instead of Writing a Research Paper, I Made A Game

This semester, I took a General Education class on Modern Japanese Literature. One of the cornerstones of the course was writing a lengthy research paper about one of the topics discussed in class. Happy to push my luck, I proposed to the professor that I build a game instead of writing a paper. I figured that creating a simple game to satisfy the assignment would only take a few days to make, and it would give me an excuse to work with Antonio Cade, a fellow classmate taking the course, and an excellent artist.

Our professor was intrigued with the idea, but only let us go ahead with it the project if we still wrote a 5-page paper to turn in with the game. Not too bad. That makes about 2.5 pages for each of us, and I could easily fill that space with discourse about the game design process. In fact, that's exactly what I did.

The game is pretty open-ended. You play as Godzilla, and can walk anywhere on the map. Beware that everything you walk into crumbles beneath your mighty feet. There are two ways to "win" the game. Either violently destroy all the buildings, or disappear into the ocean, never to be seen again. The point of the game is to reveal what the players think Godzilla should think and do. In actuality, understanding what Godzilla is about is a pretty sophisticated topic. The paper portion of the assignment discusses those issues in depth.

Antonio ended up writing the more "researchy" portion of the paper, while I wrote about the game design and vision. Frankly, writing about the game design process was one of the most fun things I have ever done in a writing course. The paper occupies the rest of this blog post. See if you can find where I stopped writing and Antonio began. ;)


Greg Lieberman
Antonio Cade
ARLT 100g

Designing the Game “You Are Godzilla”

We (Antonio and Greg) initially had drastically different ideas for how to approach designing a game that answers the question “What is Godzilla Really About?”.
Greg initially wanted to design a narrative-driven game whose theme was to destroy Godzilla before he destroys you.  The player would take the role of a person living in a city that Godzilla had begun to destroy, and encounter several moral choices in the game that ultimately lead to either destroying Godzilla or being destroyed by Godzilla. For example, in one scene Greg imagined the player jumping across building rooftops to run away from Godzilla as the creature mindlessly raged forward. If the player kept running away, Godzilla would eventually destroy the whole city. If the player failed to run away, Godzilla would kill the player and then destroy the city. However, if the player strategically attacked Godzilla, the player would defeat Godzilla and the city would be saved.
Greg’s game design was an interesting approach to exploring the way that humans react to Godzilla’s presence, but the design itself did not attempt any deep introspection into understanding Godzilla. In fact, it did the opposite. Greg defined Godzilla as an aggressive villain in the game that must be destroyed for the common good of mankind. Thus, all of the player’s moral choices in the game were framed within the boundaries of Godzilla as a devastating enemy. Ultimately, this one-sided view of Godzilla led to the rejection of Greg’s game design.
            Antonio proposed an open-ended exploration game where the player controlled Godzilla directly, allowing the player to explore several of Godzilla’s actions and consequences. The player begins the game as Godzilla near the coast of a city. From there, the player could choose to violently attack the city, attack nearby battleships, harmlessly sulk in the ocean, or leave the map entirely. The genius of this game design is that it empowers the player to be the agent of moral choice, and to project the player’s ideas of what Godzilla does into actions in the game. In tackling the question of “What is Godzilla Really About?”, the game reveals the intentions and biases of the player.
Wherever Godzilla walks on the game map, the creature leaves a path of destruction in its wake. In our Godzilla game, Godzilla will destroy buildings as it walks past them, even if it is not shooting fireballs. This was a crucial design choice. As Honda Ishiro once observed, “Monsters are tragic beings. They are not evil by choice; they are born too tall, too strong, too heavy… They do not attack humanity intentionally, but because of their size they cause damage and suffering” (Ryfle, 161).  Ishiro’s comments highlight an interesting ambiguity. Godzilla is not intrinsically a menacing, destructive force bent on destroying human civilization. Rather, it is completely possible that the only reason Godzilla would approach a metropolis is to explore and satisfy its primitive curiosity. The intention itself seems innocent to Godzilla, but a grave problem to the humans it encounters. We saw this curiosity manifest itself in many of the students who play-tested the game. Upon first playing the game and viewing the city, many students curiously walked into the city and began destroying buildings, even if violent destruction was not their intention.
The fact that no part of the game map actively tries to stop Godzilla is meant to follow a common theme present throughout all of the movies, “the profound vulnerability of Japan” (Tsutsui, 91). When a player controls Godzilla, buildings crumble, trees snap, and battleships helplessly sink. The message here echoes that of the movies, “we certainly can’t count on the Japanese government, the United Nations, the scientific community, big business, the professional class, or even the world’s armies to do a very good job of protecting life, limb, and property” (Tsutsui, 91). The world’s utter failure to stop Godzilla further accentuates how out-of-control this “child of the atomic bomb” has become. Here is this huge creature, a product of the reckless hubris of civilization, able to easily stomp all over civilization without resistance. The clear lack of ability to stop Godzilla also expresses the loss of faith in science and government held by Japanese society since American occupation.
The production of Godzilla was taken very seriously, as the film was cultural reminder of Japan’s suffering during the Atomic Age and the dangers of technology. Barely a decade after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the effect of nuclear warfare was still fresh in the memory of Japan’s population. The culture as a whole came to recognize the deadly potential that belies nuclear technology, a strong theme of the Godzilla series. In March 1954, a Japanese fishing vessel, Lucky Dragon No. 5, strayed into a U.S. testing area for hydrogen bombs near Bikini Atoll. One crew member died, another 23 were contaminated from the massive amounts of radiation, and some of the irradiated fish even made its way into the Japanese market. This event serves to show the unexpected and dangerous repercussions of nuclear testing, and its indiscriminance towards the lives of innocents. Godzilla brings these tragic events into public awareness through clear thematic reference, as shown in the opening scene of the 1954 Godzilla film: a fishing vessel is suddenly obliterated by a mysterious energy blast from under the sea. The conscious decision to feature national disasters as plot points shows the director’s intention to openly discuss the impact of these events, and to force the audience to critically analyze their significance in Japanese culture. Japan already suffers from natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and typhoons, and by this time the appearance of nuclear testing has instilled another fear of massive destruction in the heart of its culture.
Godzilla truly is a monstrous creature of destructive nature, but his true intentions and feelings remain a mystery to this day, making his identity as a character quite ambiguous.  Godzilla’s potential for destruction is constantly made evident, whether he is trampling through skyscrapers and terrorizing the populace, or battling fierce monsters of equal or greater size. However, his use of his sheer size and power has shifted throughout the life of the series. Sometimes he is a traditional giant monster, mindlessly bent on decimating anything and everything in his path, as illustrated in our game by the option to destroy a large number of buildings, battleships and trees. At other times he is the defender of Japan, protecting it from hostile creatures like Rodan or Mothra in gigantic battles. He is a symbol of both the potential hope and the destruction brought by technological advancement, although nearly every instance of hostility in the series—the monsters themselves—is created by the side-effects of nuclear testing, most often radiation. His entire series plays on faults of mankind that could possible lead to its destruction: the greed for power, the desire for dominion over nature instead of living in harmony with it, the will to destroy anything we cannot understand or control.
The article "Japan & Godzilla: Reflecting a Nation's Fears, Concerns and Culture” quotes an excellent summary of Godzilla’s identity as the “reverse of every Japanese stereotype. He is huge, in a country where, until recently, people were relatively small. He is clumsy and rude in a country where people tend to be graceful and polite. He is spontaneous in a place that values the impassive, studied response. He is confrontational where conciliation is considered proper behavior. He is, in essence, a nuclear bomb in a country that is emphatically opposed to nuclear weapons" (Easton, 2). Godzilla is Japanese cultural icon representing the many issues of nuclear warfare and its negative,  unpredictable effects on humankind, but as a character he forms a duality with the values and characteristics that make Japanese culture unique. In this respect he is almost an anti-hero to the Japanese people and their values; he is not a character one can remotely relate to, and he often acts in opposition to scientific progress and political authority. He lays waste to industrialized areas with tall buildings and communication towers like a child trampling through a sand castle, and even demolishes the Japanese parliament building. His actions stress the vulnerability of civilization’s building blocks in situations of crisis, yet at the same time he defends it from other his hostile entities. Considering these characteristics as a benefactor and as a destroyer, Godzilla stands as a symbol of restraint against dangerous scientific progress. Technology, while yielding the tools such as medicine and transportation which make human life safer and more convenient, gives birth to indiscriminant, destructive tools such as the atomic bomb. Godzilla is a testament against the creation and use of such technology, as his own destructive nature parallels the destructive potential of man’s own tools.

Work Cited
Ryfle, Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star. Chicago: LPC, 1998.
Tsutsui, William. Godzilla on My Mind. Palgrave McMillan, 2004.
Gunde, Richard. "Godzilla and Postwar Japan." (2005): n. pag. Web. 8 Dec 2009. .
Bunchwacky, . "Japan & Godzilla: Reflecting a Nation's Fears, Concerns and Culture." (2008): n. pag. Web. 10 Dec 2009. .

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