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March 30, 2017

Are Japanese Games Getting Too Lewd?


I like to imagine that there’s a person out there who reads the title of this post, screams “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” and then dives from the sky like a peregrine falcon to try and hit me with a flying cross chop at 200 miles per hour.  The keyword here is try, for obvious reasons.  I like my bones in working order, you see.

Now then.  Early on in my blogging career (sure, let’s call it that), I tended to use the phrase “improbably buxom” to describe -- well, you can probably guess.  I still use it, because I think it’s worth a chuckle.  But back then I used it a bit more because I went on about stuff like Dead or Alive.  It reached a point where I joked about spearheading a campaign to create Improbably Buxom: The Game, in which you play as a character out to make the women of the world -- you guessed it -- improbably buxom.  Then I found out that that game had already been made, more or less; the details aren’t intimate to me, but I’m willing to bet that it’s hentai.  Does that count in the grand scheme of things?  That’s a question worthy of debate. 

But imagine my surprise when a slew of recent Japanese games do their best to ape my glorious concept.  All with a straight face.  And it just leaves me wondering: are the games from the land of the rising sun becoming too lewd for their own good?


There are a lot of games that you could cite as being “too lewd”, spanning the majority of this decade and a not-insignificant chunk of the last.  But we’ve got to start somewhere, and for relevancy’s sake we’ll start with this.  See, not too long ago there was a game released called Omega Labyrinth -- a roguelike dungeon crawler that had its core cast of schoolgirls (naturally) explore the depths and potentially put their lives on the line to find the Holy Grail.  The twist?  Exploring the dungeon floors and defeating monsters would make the girls absorb Omega Energy, which in turn would temporarily cause what the girls -- leading girl Aina in particular -- sought from the Grail.  Namely, it would give them bigger breasts.

Not having a Vita, I can’t say I played the game to see its quality for myself.  But I do have access to YouTube, so it wasn’t hard to see footage and info for myself.  So on one hand, you’ve got a game that presents dungeons in cubical fashion -- i.e. a string of decorated tiles arranged into sprawling mazes, a la Etrian Odyssey -- populated by characters and monsters alike rendered in compressed, SD/chibi proportions.  On the other hand, once your girl of choice absorbs enough energy, there’s a cut-in that features said girl in fully-proportioned 2D art becoming, uh, more fully-proportioned.


To this day it’s a stylistic choice that confuses me.  Okay, I get it; if you’re on the Vita, then you’re probably not going to make lavish dungeons with top-notch visuals (even though I thought that was something the Vita could handle, but whatever).  But if the entire point of the game is to let players see their girls with bigger breasts, why would you make it so that seeing the girls with bigger breasts is impractical -- if not impossible -- during basic gameplay?  I mean sure, there’s a picture of their chestier forms in a corner of the screen, but that’s a corner of the screen.  Why even build a game around the concept if you don’t plan to use it?

At most, you get those cut-ins that show them growing up (or out), but that only last for a few seconds.  Meanwhile, there are scenes -- rendered in 2D art, because of course it is -- that features the girls falling prey to all sorts of “heinous traps”.  Getting covered in goo, getting tied up -- you know, the kinds of things that someone might find erotic instead of life-threatening.  Again, I haven’t played the game for myself, so I can’t 100% confirm or deny its quality.  But based on what I’ve seen?  I have a hard time believing that it’s worth a second look, let alone an import.

Imagine my surprise, then, when a sequel was announced.


Now we’re getting (by which I mean Japan is getting) Omega Labyrinth Z, which is dropping on both the Vita and the PS4.  You’d think that an appearance on the latter would mean a shift in perspective, style, or graphical quality.  NOPE.  It looks pretty much the same, at least at a glance.  The biggest wrinkle this time around is the one anyone could see coming: the chests will get bigger than ever, all the way up to “Z-Cup”.  I assumed that it’d mean the girls would be dragging chests the size of woolly mammoths across the ground, but apparently it means that their portrait art will show -- wait for it -- slightly bigger breasts, albeit ones that’ll allow them to use Super Arts straight outta Street Fighter.  That’s kind of a waste, if you ask me.

I’ll get back to this game in a minute, because it’s going to serve as an example.  But for now?  It’s worth noting that Omega Labyrinth Z didn’t bust out in a vacuum.  In pretty much the same week, there was teasing -- and eventual confirmation -- about a sequel to Genkai Tokki: Seven Pirates, a game which was built around the ability to alter the size and shape of every girl’s chest.  And in pretty much the same week again, the DLC for Senran Kagura: Peach Beach Splash was announced.  I’m pretty sure I don’t need to go into detail about what that entails.


That’s a fair number of fanservice-laden games all discussed within a small timeframe.  And they aren’t the only ones of their kind; there’s Gun Gun Pixies, which features tiny alien girls infiltrating the dorms of college students (all female, of course) to learn how to deal with communication/marriage issues on the home planet…via a game built around you not being seen by those college students.  SmartNeptunia games have come and gone -- and will come, and will go -- some of which feature cutaways of the girls taking clothing damage. 

Konami’s getting into the spirit of things with Bomber Girls, which reimagines Bomberman and crew as girls with destructible clothing.  Dead or Alive still exists, with its new workhorses Marie Rose and Honkers Honoka charging into other games -- from a brand new Musou-style game to Senran Kagura, which I’m convinced is trying to create the Boob Singularity that will end the universe.


You don’t need to read this post to know that there’s a crapload of fanservice/ecchi/lewd content coming out from Japan these days.  Nor do you need it to know that there’s a lot of it worming into games across the board.  Case in point: I remember getting super-hyped by Nier: Automata just by playing its demo, and licking my lips at the prospect of playing the full game.  But during my run through said demo, I happened to notice something interesting: you could make leading android lady 2B fight unarmed if you wanted to, presumably as a prelude to having her fight with gauntlets.  So while testing out the unarmed/gauntlet moveset, I did her heavy attack in midair, which had her dive-bomb the ground to plunge her fists into the earth…and expose her legs, her panties, and copious amounts of her ass in one fell swoop.

In the time since, it’s become no secret that 2B has inspired a lot of, uh, adoration.  It doesn’t take much effort to find fan art of her that exposes her optimized gluteal unit, and/or the bits of fabric that she’s got tucked away under her black garb.  Notably, it’s fan art that franchise mastermind Yoko Taro has vouched for; he’s on record of effectively saying “gimme some o’ that.”  It’s a cheeky -- if not refreshing -- response, but it does make me wonder: why did 2B need to lend herself to that adoration in the first place, especially if she’s a robot?  I’m guessing there’s an in-universe reason for it, but it makes me wonder: in terms of the context and meta-context, is that something that exists to serve the character or story?  Or is it something to serve the fans?  Dare I say it, using an untested yet revolutionary technique known as “fanservice”?


Taken in negative or cynical terms, the use of lewdness in games -- the element that a lot of Japanese games/developers seem to be banking on -- is detrimental.  I want to take a minute to stress that this isn’t a problem every Japanese game faces, and the armada of recent releases has proven that they aren’t sullying the medium with cheap pandering.  With that said, the stuff that is willing to crib on lewdness can come off as cheap pandering.  “Hey, look!  Boobs!  Butts!  Blushing girls!  Adult situations!  This is a game that you’ll love, so give us money!”

It’s not as if those games don’t have a right to exist, because -- as entries into an audiovisual medium -- they’re still art.  But because of that, they also have to be judged accordingly.  The quality of the actual game is important, irrespective of how much fanservice they include; that’s why I’m willing to instinctually give Nier: Automata a pass, but not so kind towards Omega Labyrinth.  When that art has nothing going for it besides some racy images or an eyebrow-raising concept, then it risks being de-categorized as art and re-categorized as a mere product -- something to be consumed and disposed of like a bag of chips. 


(You knew that one was coming, right?)

And really, what’s the end goal here?  What’s the thought process?  “We’re going to succeed if we make our games more lewd”?  On what grounds?  I would’ve guessed that the reason stuff like Senran Kagura gained clout was because it managed to have a striking style, something that set it apart from its peers.  That something may have been engorged sacks of adipose tissue, but it still counts as something.  Nowadays?  When everyone tries to be lewd, no one is lewd. 

Who gives a damn about clothing damage when it’s in every game, including Bomberman?  Why get revved up by the power to make boobs bigger when that’s been a feature of gaming since nearly the dawn of create-a-character modes?  What kind of return of investment are you expecting when your only selling point is “cute girls”, which at this stage has very nearly become a currency Japan has got completely locked down?

But let me go back to my original question.  Are Japanese games getting too lewd?  My answer to that is no…because my problem is that they aren’t getting lewd enough.


USGamer’s Jeremy Parish talked about this when vanilla Omega Labyrinth made the rounds.  The medium’s been around for well over 30 years -- or more, depending on where you start counting -- yet in terms of actual maturity, it’s still lacking here in 2017.  Even if the lewdness in a lot of Japanese games isn’t something you’d be in a rush to show off to Mom and Dad, it doesn’t change the fact that in a lot of cases, it’s relatively tame.  I won’t soon forget how Ar Tonelico Qoga made its battle system revolve around lavishly stripping down teenage girls, but even if that’s my go-to example, it’s pretty tame in the long run.  Where’s the impact?  Where’s the pizazz?  The short answer is that there is none, and it lessens the potency of something that should be inherently potent.

Obviously, there’s a limit to how far you can go in a video game.  Get too lewd, and you’ll take on ratings that hamper sales -- and even if you don’t reach that point, you might still run afoul of critics, readers, bloggers, and internet personalities with an axe to grind.  You either need to be delicate in your practices, or you need to be audacious enough to push something so striking that it’s nightmarishly worthy of respect.  In the former’s case, it means that you don’t have to resort to lewdness to garner attention or merit; like I’ve said before, Senran Kagura didn’t have to prioritize “life” and “hometown”, even if it found a style that helped it become a staying franchise.  In the latter’s case?  You need to have the skill to back it up -- or the willingness to take a lewd concept as far as it’ll go before someone breaks.  Presumably, more than just a couple of bra straps.


So let’s go back to Omega Labyrinth (vanilla or Z, take your pick) and use it as an example.  On the surface, it’s a pretty audacious game: explore a dungeon in the hopes of seeing girls’ chests swell up with magical energy.  Despite that, the visual constraints slash the effect down to a quarter of its potential potency.  Yeah, I get it -- finite resources, time, and developer ability (D3 Publisher had a hand in the game, and is a company famed for its budget productions), but in an ideal world, they would be able to get much more out of the premise.

To its credit, the game already has a benefit behind swelling up those sweater puppies: each boost in cup size boosts a character’s stats, along with a major buff for reaching the maximum.  Fair enough.  But imagine if the game had a more appropriate perspective -- if, for example, it ditched the SD style for a roguelike exploration that’s not too dissimilar from Persona 4 Golden (maybe with character models/a camera like God Eater).  It’s within the realm of possibility for a Vita game.  But more importantly, you want to maximize the impact those larger breasts would have on the gameplay, and not just be something the player can slobber over.


How do you do it?  There are tons of options.  Genkai Tokki had a subsystem where the dimensions of your characters’ breasts changed their parameters -- stats like power, speed, defense, and the like.  A revamped Omega Labyrinth could offer the same, but with some twists that impact the exploration of dungeons instead of the numbers that pop out of monsters’ heads.  Granted there would also be some stat manipulation in play; larger breasts = a boost in raw power and physical defense, while smaller breasts = better speed and critical chances.  And throw in the T.O.P. system from Garou: Mark of the Wolves; give each girl an “ideal” bust size, i.e. however big (or small) they actually want to be.  If the player maintains that zone, then they’ll have a character that enters an enhanced physical and mental state -- one where, yes, they’d be confident enough to strike raunchy poses or do indecent acts (even though no one’s watching, but that never stopped Bayonetta).

But again, it’s about impacting the exploration of dungeons.  Imagine if there were certain areas -- narrow crevasses or low holes in the wall -- that Aina and crew would only be able to get through if they had modest proportions at most.  That would be a chance to let them slip into areas of a dungeon that an improbably buxom explorer couldn’t; plus, it would give the camera a chance to zoom and enhance on one of the girls as they tried to maneuver through a tight space…with all the M for Mature moans and squirms you’d crave.


On the opposite end of the spectrum, there would be cracks in the dungeons that wouldn’t be accessible by a lightweight spelunker.  That’s where a heavyweight comes in.  Stand on a fractured floor with a large chest and you’ll be able to drop right through it (or bounce until it can’t handle it anymore).  Or, alternatively, rush at a suspicious-looking wall and it’ll burst right open, exposing a new path.  It would require some manipulation of the game’s core gimmick -- where progression = growth, and to hell with everything else -- but again, it’s workable.

And it would change everything, from basic mobility to character psyche.  In terms of the former?  Make the gains steadily (or perhaps exponentially) more extreme; go for the biggest cup size imaginable, and you’ll become an absolute juggernaut -- insanely powerful and able to tank most hits, but at the cost of every last bit of your speed and dexterity, which would make you an easy target for a dungeon’s traps.  Stay at the smallest cup size -- or alternatively, dump your magic energy when you’ve stocked it -- to become a high-speed heroine, albeit one that’s no better at taking hits than the average housefly.  (Granted it’s not like breasts in real life are nerve-free shock absorbers, but whatever.)

In terms of the latter, though?  Imagine a psyche meter not unlike Eternal Darkness or Darkest Dungeon.  Depending on your status and performance in a dungeon, your heroine of choice will feel better or worse about their chances of success, and just feel in general.  Fall for too many traps?  Psyche down, with all of the consequences that follow.  Strutting through a dungeon while looking top-tier?  You’ll be sitting pretty.  Also, remember: Aina’s motivation revolves around petty, vain reasons (“I want a huge rack!”), so it’s only natural for her mental state to solidify or waver depending on how she feels about her appearance.  It’s prideful as shit, but this is a teenage girl we’re talking about.  Expect nothing less.


Adding more variables to the game could make for both a more effective product and a titillating title.  Example: it’d be one thing to add in clothing damage, but another thing entirely to make it into a key gameplay aspect.  Imagine if you could find more clothes and such in treasure chests throughout the dungeons.  Easy enough, right?  But remember, these girls are going to have fleshy chests that shrink or grow (usually grow) as they venture forth; coupled with attacks they take from monsters, they’ll need to stay covered in increasingly-impossible situations. 

What do you do to prevent the shame of being seen in your birthday suit?  Easy -- you cannibalize the fabric you have on hand.  Tear it up into pieces and slap it on your body -- using a block-like customization system not too far removed from Mega Man Battle Network 3 -- so you can pretend like you’re decent.  You won’t be, of course, but sometimes showing less skin can have a bigger punch than showing more.  Just ask Samus.


There are countless variables that can be put into play here, any one of which are ripe to be gamed and turned into opportunities for lewdness.  So if you’re going to do it, then do it -- and follow the golden rule of “do it well”.  No half-measures.  No chickening out.  You have to be bold and brazen -- which, ostensibly, these lewd games are -- but you also have to be willing to go to places that no one else is willing to.  I don’t bemoan the existence of a game like Omega Labyrinth or its sequel, but I feel like it’d make a stronger case for itself if it actually had something to say.

And on that note?  There is an alternate option worth keeping in mind.  It’s not one you can or should expect on a regular basis, but know this: they can do their part to legitimize the lewdness.  That’s what Parish was getting at in his piece, and (as you can guess) that’s the approach I’d prefer instead of “more boobs, less clothes”.  Fanservice for fanservice’s sake is one thing; fanservice that actually has a point is something else entirely -- and something much stronger.


One point of interest in Omega Labyrinth Z is that it’s got a new heroine to its name, Rio.  Apparently, she wanted to use the Holy Grail featured in the last game to shrink her chest -- stated to be a G-cup, because of course that’s a vital detail -- instead of boost it like Aina.  But because the Grail ended up getting destroyed in the last game, Rio’s out of luck…and bears a grudge against Aina for recklessly crushing her dream.  It’s an interesting juxtaposition, at least on a surface level.  Both girls will go on a new quest to change their appearances, albeit in different directions.  If the Grail only grants one wish, then whose desire will take priority? 

Will it be Rio, who’s probably got to worry about back pain and wardrobe constraints?  Will it be Aina, who’s likely been convinced by society that she’s not a woman unless she’s got a decent-sized chest?  Whose pain and desires are more prominent?  Will the winner hurriedly use and abuse the Grail for her own ends?  Will the loser be able to graciously accept her lot in life (assuming that plastic surgery isn’t an option)?  Will either of them learn to accept their bodies, with or without the power of magic behind them?


It’s more than possible -- and more than welcome -- to tell a salient, impactful story framed around lewdness.  I mean, remember Catherine?  The key thrust of that entire game was about a waffling bar frequenter who got roped into an affair with the sultry young lady of his dreams.  I won’t say that game was the absolute bastion of what the medium could do, but hell, it was a start.  And it was a start back in 2011.  What have we gotten since then?  What’s tried to push the envelope, even if -- especially if -- it used lewdness as a jumping off point?  Bayonetta?  The Witcher 3?  Mass EffectKatawa Shoujo?  That’s not the most impressive or accurate list; among them, only one is Japanese in origin.

You know what, though?  I’ll go ahead and add one to the pile: Senran Kagura.  Yep.  THAT Senran Kagura.

I’m no expert on the franchise, so I can’t vouch for 100% of its quality.  But I have seen and red that there’s more to it than “life and hometown”.  On one hand, you’ve got an honest attempt to tell a story about ninja girls and the grim circumstances of the way of the shinobi.  Pop over to the DLC, however, and you get even more -- young women who have to deal with the realities of their fingers and the society that judges them…along with the extremes they’ll go to for the sake of finding some semblance of happiness.  It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s a lot more potent than what you’d expect from a fanservice game.

Granted, it helps that -- to my knowledge -- each successive entry improves on the gameplay, so that it’s more than just a breast simulator on the fritz.  But I’m sure nobody out there cares about the gameplay in a game, right?


Lewdness in games -- Japanese or otherwise -- isn’t a deal-breaking issue.  Not on its own.  It can be if it’s used unwisely or ineffectively, make no mistake about that; you have to be aware of a lot more factors than just what color of underwear you want your girls to be wearing.  But there are ways to use lewdness effectively, just as you can use any other element.  Eyebrow-raising as it may be, it’s still nothing more than a tool.  It’s not a tool that’ll work for everyone by default, but it’s something that can add to a game instead of detract from it.

You can go lewd.  You can go extreme.  You can go smart.  You can go anywhere.  But the only requirement -- the one simple reason why some games soar and others sink -- is that you have to go somewhere.  Explore those endless possibilities, and you’ll come one step closer to success.  Mess it up, and you won’t have any support to keep you nice and perky.  That’s my stance, and I’m sticking with it.

Also?  Shit, I think I actually came up with the GDD for Improbably Buxom: The Game.  Somebody cut me a check.  Nintendo, are you listening?  I’ve got an idea you can put on your brand new Switch…

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