March 28, 2012

Case Closed: Sudeki

The phrase "Don't judge a book by its cover" also applies to the realm of video games. However, savvy marketers and designers know full well that consumers' expectations of, and interest in, a given product relies heavily on its exterior packaging. Research into what's popular with target demographics can be a valuable tool in promotion and advertising, but when that principle is taken too far, the results smack of desperation.

Video game box art, unfortunately, provides us with a bevy of demonstrations in how not to design product packaging. The imagery used on the front covers are carefully considered and composed to grab your attention and get you interested -- but precisely what marketers think will get you interested can be a pretty awkward and downright embarrassing notion, at times. Cover designers have to make assumptions about your age and gender, and what aspects of their game should be emphasized in order to capitalize on your possible buying habits. Naturally, covers vary from region to region, and there are examples of tasteful and attractive art as well as cheap, degrading exploitation. I can understand that companies are eager to play the odds and assume that the gamer in question is a young male -- but you can't target a specific demographic like that too narrowly without turning off other potential buyers.

It's often pretty interesting (and bizarre) to see how these concepts translate across box art for games released in both Japan and western countries. There can be some very different assumptions made about what design and stylistic choices will appeal to each region, and the contrasts range from subtle to drastic. In this premiere edition of Case Closed, we'll be looking at a classic example of these marketing machinations at work.

(Xbox, 2004)

Sudeki is apparently a rather terrible Action RPG, which I've managed to avoid. It's funny that the visual style and title might lead one to believe that this was a Japanese-made game, because it was actually developed in the UK by some company called "Climax." Hopefully, you can tell already which cover I prefer:

Western (Europe and North American) Cover Art

Japanese Cover Art

The Half-Naked, Blue-Haired Heroine

Seen from below, with breasts and hips/crotch area prominent. She's standing in a ridiculous pose that only serves to show off her body, reminiscent of something a stripper might do. She is looking down at the viewer, suggesting a kind of faux-confidence conveyed through sexualized dominance -- almost as if she might step out of the game box and straddle the young man she's lured across the game store with her doe-eyed stare. Girl power...?
She is important in the image because: she is enormous (taking up nearly 1/3 of the image area), and literally glowing.

Angled so that we see much of her from above. Her pose seems slightly more reserved about displaying so much of her body at once -- but don't get me wrong, she's still half-naked and her breasts are still prominent and central to the image. Her legs are significantly thinner. Her eyes are larger, and set in a more childlike face. Hair and headband are flicking about in the wind dramatically, in true anime fashion -- and she is holding a staff of some sort, indicating that she is indeed a character in a fantasy world and not just some throw-away spokesmodel on the front of a box for god-knows-what. In general, this version is subtley more amiable and submissive, closer to the trope of the traditional Japanese "ideal" woman, for better or worse.
She is important in the image because: while she is smaller than the western rendering, the composition of all the design elements bring her forward. Actual and conceptual lines, light, and color all lead the viewer's eye to her.

The Half-Naked Lady in Red

Of course, the breasts are prominent, with a great deal of her body on display in a stiff, straight-on pose. She stands in this generic stance that we are meant to assume is "combat-ready," I guess because she is clenching her fists, but in all honesty she may just as effectively be engaged in ballroom dancing. In any case, she seems very angry about something off-camera somewhere.
Her bladed fist weapons are large, shiny, and outfitted with exaggerated hooks, making them more like a comic-book superheroine's weapon of choice than a tool of finesse and speed.

Seen from the back, looking over her shoulder in a way that is rather vague but still prompts some imagination about what kind of character she is and how she carries herself. Mistrustful? Antisocial? Dismissive? Guarded? The fact that there are unknown possibilities at all, says something, and already begins fostering curiosity. Weapons are less shiny, and sized more appropriately for her.
As with the blue-haired girl, the latter image conveys a character, whereas the former image presents a body.

Red-Haired Swordsman

Second-largest in size, and looking incredibly angry or disgusted. Clearly, he is engaged in combat with some enemy who must be standing outside of his actual field of vision. Who fights like this? How is he prepared to give or receive any sort of attack, given this awkward pose? Why is he holding his sword in one hand, behind himself? What is he going to do, block incoming blows with his empty hand? If he actually swings that sword, he risks chopping the blue-haired girl in two.

Still looks pretty stressed, but in an intent or purposeful way, as if struggling to maintain discipline and composure in the heat of a frantic duel. He's featured less prominently in the composition, and less a symbol of the overpowering aggression that chokes the western cover.

Dude with the Green Glasses

What is that figure, way back there? Is that a person? Who cares, he's probably just some nerd. Besides, there are hot girls to gawk at! Am I right?

Featured just as prominently as the other characters, except of course for the main heroine. The glasses and nerdy gun contraption are a feature, not a flaw.

General Design Decisions

All the colours are obscenely saturated, and the background is a laughable explosion of light and energy. Some sort of interdimensional vortex in the sky appears to be highlighting the main character with a brilliant bolt of lightning, just in case you couldn't find her. Simultaneously, the background is still aglow from a recent nuclear blast.
All the characters are computer-generated 3D models, probably used in some of the game's cutscenes, just so they can show you up-front how "awesome" the graphics are in this game. The problem is, even though they're all clearly supposed to be inhabiting the same physical environment in the scene, their facial expressions and body language make no logical sense. They're all looking in different directions and reacting to radically different events. One looks to be challenging a hated rival to a fight, another is apparently already mid-battle and probably about to be struck in the spine by his out-of-sight opponent -- all while the girl in the middle happily stripteases for some ground-level camera, completely unfazed and oblivious to anything going on around her. Overall, this feels like a cut-and-paste job that was slapped together in all of ten minutes.
Also, hey, did you notice the title of the game? THE TITLE IS SUDEKI, IN CASE YOU DIDN'T NOTICE IT, THERE. WAS IT TOO SMALL FOR YOU?!!!

A 2D, hand-drawn, watercolor-style image crafted specifically for the front cover -- because box art is worth the time and effort, in and of itself. The variety of both bright and subdued colours makes for a balanced composition, and the background contains imagery of characters and locations represented in the game. It's drawn in an anime style, rather than some westerner's misguided imitation of an anime style. Overall, the look is much softer and more inviting. Say what you will about the content, the image composition itself is smartly-organized. Whoever made this knew what they were doing.
Rather than literally putting all the characters into some nonsensical situation together, it is clear that this image is an abstract collage of various faces and scenes.

Do I generally prefer Japanese cover art to western cover art? It tends to work out that way, though there are, of course, exceptions. We'll get to some more examples in later articles, but for now, I feel that Sudeki gives us a broad overview of how Japanese designers tend to view characters, and how to compose an image, in contrast with American or European designers. It's not that the Japanese way is always better -- that's just how it worked out in this example, in my opinion -- but the western versions do seem to lean more toward angry characters, aggressive moods, less elaborate compositions, and that mismatched cut-and-paste look.

As a side note, I recently found out there was a newly-drawn cover for the Japanese print of The Hunger Games:

I don't know what to think about that. Is that good? I mean, it's kind of awesome, but also kind of unnecessary.

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