Phil Fish is Probably Not Racist
(This is another edition of </RANT>, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
Yesterday, reviews for FEZ went live across the Internet, my own Destructoid review among them. Critical acclaim has been practically universal, and with good reason. FEZ is a brilliant little game, full of ingenious level design, tastefully appropriated ideas, and a sense of character and charm that makes me smile every time I think about it. Unfortunately, however, discussion concerning FEZ has been dominated not by the qualities of the game, but the qualities of its creator, one Phil Fish.
After years of quietly plugging away on his game (it was announced in 2007, after all), Fish put his foot in it by telling a Japanese developer at GDC, “All your games just suck now.” The shortcomings of the Japanese game development scene are nothing new, but Fish’s harsh tone and the fact he potentially embarrassed a peer during a conference panel had Fish marked from the start. In dealing with the resulting abuse, he was less than courteous, but that’s neither here nor there. The prevailing question that seems to come up, and overwhelmed the comment thread in my review among several others, was whether or not Fish should be considered “racist” for what he said. To which I say, don’t be silly. Perhaps behind closed doors, he IS some sort of terrible fascist sympathizer, though it’s doubtful. As far as what he actually said? No, that’s not racist.
What Fish said about Japanese games was, as far as I’m concerned, wrong. As in, factually incorrect, and potentially ignorant. He claims to dislike all modern Japanese games, whereas I think there have been examples of fantastic ones in recent times. Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls stand out as particular highlights, while I can’t say enough good things about Xenoblade Chronicles, which recently released in North America. He couldn’t possibly have played every game in Japan to determined their quality. There are many great Japanese games still being made, and we could waste a whole column talking about those, but that’s not the point. Regardless of whether he’s right or wrong, Fish isn’t racist for saying what he said. For a start, he echoed what many Japanese developers themselves have said about their country’s recent efforts. He simply stated it in a less diplomatic way. Second, there’s no denying that the East/West divide is a product of our own culture, and if Fish is racist for singling out Japanese games, then we’re all racist.
After all, how many of you reading this have used the term, “JRPG” (Japanese Role-Playing Game) before? How many of you have noted “Japanese influences” in certain games? I’m sure some of you have even gone to Japan and noticed just how different their entertainment is compared to ours. The sense of humor, the pop culture references, the social sensibilities, they’re all very different, and those differences are impossible to keep out of the videogames. We’ve always distinguished between Japanese and Western games, and you can break those two wide categories down even further. It’s not hard to at least guess at a game’s home country by simply playing it.
It’s a fact that Japanese games have their own unique flavor and personality, influenced by their culture and history. It’s the same for British games. Titles like Dungeon Keeper and Worms could only have come from Britain, where a sense of dark humor is ingrained into the national identity. You can fairly easily recognize games from Eastern Europe, games such as S.T.A.L.K.E.R and Cryostasis, with their focus on isolation, desolation and survival presented in slightly rough packages that make the best of their budgets. Likewise, American games focus on action and high production values, aping the Hollywood blockbusters that so much of the culture revolves around. There are anomalies of course, and plenty of developers who act outside of the norm, but the core stable of high profile games aren’t difficult to pinpoint by region.
Japanese games, like games from all regions, have their own dominant style, and it’s a style that Fish hates. He didn’t remark on Asians as a race, and he didn’t criticize Japan as a country. His biggest crime was presenting his opinion as a total, all-encompassing, unquestioned fact. That was silly and, as I’ve said, incorrect.
Personally, I’ve come to prefer Western RPGs over Japanese ones of late. I used to adore Japanese role-playing games, but they’ve come to rely on some really awful character tropes and misguided attempts to renovate the genre’s established gameplay, especially the drek trotted about by tri-Ace. If it wasn’t for Xenoblade, I fear my love of console JRPGs would have completely died along with the part of my soul that Infinite Undiscovery murdered. I don’t think I’m prejudiced for that, I’ve just come to prefer the gameplay style popularized by one region over another. Perhaps later, the scales will shift back in favor of JRPGs, who knows? There are plenty of gamers who hate titles like Skyrim and will take Final Fantasy any day of the week. Doesn’t make them “race traitors” or anything silly like that.
As far as Fish goes, he might be an asshole. I don’t know the guy, though I’ve spoken to some who have met him and they say he’s a perfectly nice chap, albeit one who could do with more of an internal censor. If people wish not to buy the game because they don’t like the maker, that’s within their right to do so, of course. All I know about him is that he makes a damn fine game, and that he’s probably not racist.