The Relevance of Nationality and Culture in Video Game Development

Like many gamers these days, I have quite an extensive backlog of video games. The amount of games I have installed on my gaming computer but not beaten is discouraging. And that is not even taking into account the tons of games I have never even bothered installing yet. For this reason, I tend to be more and more selective in deciding which games I purchase. As such, I only bought a handful of titles during last summer’s Steam sales; games that I knew I would enjoy. Beside this now a days gaming PC is new era you should have a Gaming PC with good radiator fans, liquid cooling, GPU, gaming motherboard. Of course, there were still plenty of cases where I pondered for a long time over whether I should by a certain game or not. The air combat title Wings of Prey also fell into this category. The promotional footage featured on the game’s Steam page made it seem good, but my minimal experience with flight games in general made me unsure whether I would enjoy the experience to the fullest extent. I eventually resolved the matter in a way that many would perceive as dubious, if not absurd. I looked up who the developer was (Gaijin Entertainment), and when I found out they were based in Russia, that convinced me to buy the game. I have enjoyed a lot of Eastern European games this generation, many of which stood out due to their uncompromising ambition and depth at the cost of polish and production value – a philosophy I can fully get behind. So why pass up on this reputable Russian effort?

After having decided my purchase based on the geographical location of the developer, it made me consider the relevance of nationality in the video game industry. I know very well that video game development is an international process that could not take place if it were confined to the borders of a single country. For any serious developer, the target audience is an international one by definition, and the presence of foreign publishers, foreign investors, foreign technology, foreign employees and foreign inspiration makes it more or less impossible to come up with the game that isn’t the result of a large melting pot of international cooperation. But, at the same time, it is hard to deny that some regions tend to have a specific developing culture, occasionally making for very characteristic and distinctive titles that you feel could not have been produced somewhere else.

It is not without reason that I used Wings of Prey and its Russian developer as an example, because apart from maybe Japan, Eastern-Europe currently has, in my view, the most distinctive video game design culture in the industry. From the moment I played my first Eastern-European game, the fantastic S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (Ukraine), I noticed there was something very peculiar about this title. It is difficult to point out one specific aspect that evoked this sensation, but in the starting area alone, there were many details that grabbed my attention because they dissonated with what I was used to from my experience with Japanese and American games. So many things stood out in my first play through: the dreary, yet original aesthetic of the art direction; the unforgiving realism, and, most importantly, the way in which the atmosphere was presented. The player was not immersed through witty dialogue and/or fancy scripted events in the background, but through a deep connection between the player and the game world.

Subsequent experiences with games from the same region all confirmed that these peculiarities did not end up showing themselves in a Ukrainian game by pure chance. For instance, Metro 2033 (Ukraine) had an atmosphere that may have differed from Shadow of Chernobyl, but relied on similar mechanics: the player’s main relationship in the game was with the environment, instead of an NPC of some sort. ArmA 2 (Czech Republic) displayed a similar, yet even more extreme desire for realism. And like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., it took pride in its overambition, making for a totally unrefined but uncannily deep and expansive video game that knows no equal. Yet another fine is example of the peculiarity of the distinct character of Eastern European game development is Cryostasis (Ukraine), an atmospherically rich first person shooter/horror blend that is known for both a notorious lack of optimization and an engrossing plot that far exceeds the current standards of video game storytelling. There are a lot more examples of games that are unmistakably Eastern European in their design and presentation, and while, naturally, not every game developed by companies situated in Eastern Europe will distinguish itself as such, the simple fact that you can often tell without prior knowledge that a game is from that part of the world, is enough to confirm the hypothesis that a distinct Eastern-European video game tradition exists. And that it is the much-needed antithesis of the polished, cinematic style that prevails mainly in American blockbusters.

An interesting question is whether the existence of a game design culture in a specific region has any cultural implications, or is rather the result of socio-economic factors. A lot can be said for the latter, as the production of a so-called AAA (read: big budget) game requires resources, connections and general know-how that almost none of the developers in Eastern Europe possess (yet). While the days of the Cold War are long behind us and the Iron Curtain was lifted over decades ago, Eastern Europe is still the less wealthy half of the continent, so it is not a far stretch to conclude that, on the whole, companies from that region are less likely to rely on the same amount of financial resources as their Western European counterparts. This means they have to be more creative in offering worthwhile gaming experiences without the need for whizz-bang cinematic presentation. And diving into an obscure niche can be an effective way of attracting gamers without having to delve into the same audience as the oversaturated AAA market. Another important factor is the current state of the video games market in Eastern Europe. Particularly in Russia, piracy is still very prevalent (much more so than in the West), so developers with a share in the PC gaming market are often forced to develop low-budget titles to be able to offer their products at a fee that will not price them out of the market.

However, it is too easy to attribute the huge differences in game design choices between Eastern Europe and, for example, North America to a mere lack of money on behalf of the former. It should come as no surprise to anyone that people from different cultures set different priorities, so why should video games be an exception? To put it more simply, it is no coincidence that Michael Bay’s films are produced in America, and not in, say, Spain. Similarly, the recent decline of the share of Japanese video game industry in the global market can be partially blamed on the fact that Western gamers tend to look for different things in video games than their Japanese counterparts. And if these cultural differences manifest themselves in the video game audiences, this implies that the developers themselves also owe part of their philosophy to their cultural background. The art direction of the aforementioned games ArmA 2 and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. clearly draws inspiration from local architecture and nature, making for a distinct aesthetic that may, in its turn, influence the atmosphere and even the very structure of the game in question. In other words, the fact that many Eastern European video games tend to evoke a rather somber vibe may have more to do with the region’s turbulent history than we realise.

As stated previously, video game development is by its very definition an international process that cannot be reduced to an isolated, monocultural territory. It is not without reason that I talk of an Eastern European video game culture instead of distinct Ukrainian, Russian, Czech or Belarusian cultures. And even on a continental scale, you still cannot ignore the fact that many of these games were supervised by Western-European or American publishers, and that these games may employ technology and ideas that were conceived at the other side of the globe. On the other hand, it is also difficult to deny that games from a specific region often share certain traits that distinguish them from titles from other parts of the world. Whether these differences are grounded culturally or the mere result of socio-economic factors cannot be said with absolute certainty, but this does not prevent us from making – and I stress this – very general and vague outlines of game design cultures based on geography. These models would by no means be obligatory – who would claim that Dark Souls is a typically Japanese game? – but you could certainly identify various trends and tendencies. With this in mind, being convinced to buy a game because it is from Russia may not be as ridiculous as it sounds at first. In any case, Wings of Prey turned out the ambitious and rich game I expected it to be, and I just may have Mother Russia to thank for that.

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