Lots of things get lost in translation when moving across the Pacific. We’ve seen everything from bizarre Japanese dance music videos featuring Crash Bandicoot to a Hanna-Barbera animated Godzilla series. But here in the gaming world, it’s practically expected for boxes (and sometimes games themselves) to change drastically as they cross the ocean. Iconic properties get re-interpreted and, most of the time, it’s not for the better. But when it comes to box art, Japan has us beat: they’re simply better at providing a clear message that’s aesthetically pleasing than most companies in the West. America, take notice now.
Box art is the sort of unsung hero of game marketing. We, as visual and logic-based beings, tend to judge books by their covers. What we see is usually a large contributor to our decisions, especially our purchasing decisions. We try to evaluate our games (or consoles) based on mechanical merit and convince ourselves that looks really don’t matter, but that’s denying a primal mentality that we’ve used since before we had thumbs. We judge with our eyes and the marketers know that (sometimes better than we do). That’s why box art is such a fascinating thing — because it’s a way to see what marketers think we want, and it gives us an idea of how we judge movies and games subliminally. From the marketing perspective, box art should grab the customer’s eye, as they’re far more likely to shell out cash for a game that looks appealing.
But the part of the equation that is often forgotten by many marketers is that the box art should also represent the product itself. It needs to provide an indication of what the player will actually be getting. If you see a game that capitalizes on an open-world environment, wouldn’t a vast, scenic view of the world be a draw? Shouldn’t that be portrayed on the box to get people to buy? Because really, if someone is looking for sandbox game, they’ll want to know that the game is focused on that, not some bald guy growling while holding a bloody shotgun. Box art shouldn’t just be what you want to see; it should be what you want to play.
Japanese box art is so fantastic because it manages to do both. Most Japanese box art tends to be more artistic, but it gets both crucial elements accomplished: it makes the game look appealing, but it also shows what the game is. It details the game’s content in an artistic and interesting way. American box art is almost always a half-baked job, simply looking cool and slick, but never offering a look at what parts of the game are appealing enough to be advertised on the box itself.
When it comes to the “Japanese vs. American box art” argument, ICO is usually the first game to come up. The American box art features an ugly CG hero doing the Dreamworks face, while an ethereal woman stares vacantly over his shoulder and a poorly Photoshopped windmill sits in the background. It makes the game look absolutely generic and underwhelming, like a licensed shovelware game. But it’s not just unappealing on an artistic level; it misrepresents the game itself. The NA box art explains the game as “hero saves that lady and there’s a windmill, I guess.” But in comparison to the bleak, Dali-esque world portrayed on the Japanese box art, it’s even more awful. See how Ico and Yorda are small dots on an empty wasteland area? The shadows that creep along the ground from the intricate architecture of the world? The soft lighting and thick contrast? That is ICO. That is an accurate representation of the game itself. Ico and Yorda are but small parts of a harsh but beautiful landscape. The world itself is just as important as those who inhabit it, but the North American box art shoves it into the corner and prays you like vikings with sticks.
But ICO is a rather easy target, so let’s think of something a bit more contemporary: Dark Souls. Dark Souls became famous for its punishing environments and bloodthirsty enemies. It has some of the most hazardous and uninviting worlds on modern consoles, so it’s designed to be unsettling and generate anxiety. So why does the American box art have a confident soldier walking into a cloud of souls with open arms? Why is the light so inviting? Why does he want to enter Dark Souls? It’s a colossal miscommunication of what Dark Souls is. Sure, it could represent game’s networking abilities (the ability to interact with other “souls” online), but that’s not the core of the game itself.
The Japanese box art is nowhere near as busy, simply depicting a soldier sitting by a bonfire. The flames wafting in the wind, shadows kept at bay: that is Dark Souls. The bonfire is your sanctuary in the terrifying dark, your only reprieve from the constant barrage of danger. This scene makes you appreciate what Dark Souls almost never provides: a chance to rest. Everything beyond that flickering light wants you dead. It’s distressing, unsettling and frightening, but you sit at the bonfire, saving your energy to prepare for whatever hell lies ahead. The Japanese box art of Dark Souls portrays the looming unknown. Rather than inviting you in, it dares you. That is Dark Souls. That is what you will be playing when you buy it.
While these might be considered unfair examples because they were Japanese-developed games, there’s also an American game worth noting: inFAMOUS on PS3. The original inFAMOUS was an open-world superhero action game set in sprawling Empire City. You played as Cole, a parkour expert who was “blessed” with superpowers that turned his body into a power-surging weapon. The American box art showed a grizzly Cole crackling with electrical energy. His expression is ambiguous (which is absolutely weird, considering that the game focuses on your own moral decisions) and the only sign of the city is a wrecked car in the background. inFAMOUS’ North American box art does nothing to tell us how the game plays. Who is this guy? What is he doing? Why should any of us spend money to find out?
The Japanese box art for inFAMOUS is on another level. Firstly, look at the scene itself, specifically the viewpoint. You see Cole staring out over a sprawling city, artfully conveying that he has free reign of it. Immediately, you know it’s a sandbox title. Next, look at how the city is shown: half of it is clean and safe, the other ablaze with turmoil (and also fire). This shows the morality system at work, as you can choose to either protect the city or destroy it. Lastly, look at Cole himself. With his left hand caught in a subtle blue aura, he hangs from a skyscraper, while his right hand pulses with destructive red electricity. This conveys that climbing and parkour are your primary methods of movement, while electricity is the core of your offense. The Japanese inFAMOUS box shows us everything game is about, all while offering a picturesque perspective.
What these three examples show is that Japan has always been about setting a mood with their box art. They’re able to capture the essence of a game and make it marketable, while being unafraid to experiment with design and perspective. It makes their marketing attempts to feel much less artificial and forced, and some of these images could rival proper works of art. While I won’t say that Japan’s record is totally clean (they did give us this terrible Uncharted 2: Among Thieves box art), they’ve always been more adventurous in their designs.
America could learn a thing or two from Japan: break free of the generic, action-oriented mindset and actually market the game that’s in the box.