How Video Games Pass on Traditional Culture

You’re a king or queen, and the gods offer you a choice: either your country’s name or an aspect of its culture can be passed on forever. Which would you take?

I ask because these are a few songs I know by heart.

There are musicians and professors who would be ecstatic to know I’m familiar with these styles, but I don’t know where they are. These songs come from the Genso Suikoden games on the Sony PlayStation. The music of cities that once were fills the streets of cities that will never be.

Modernization is a scapegoat for the demise of traditional culture. You’ve probably read an article or two about an old master who has devoted his life to his craft but worries it’ll die with him because the young don’t appreciate it. As legitimate as his feelings are, in some ways this is the golden age for the preservation of traditional culture. The arts that have survived until today can now be digitally preserved forever.

Gregorian Chant fans probably wrung their hands when organs were installed in chapels, but I heard chant live in my church here in Taipei last night. If something is unique and beautiful, someone will pass it on or revive it. Even if people don’t understand its origin, it will enrich them. If you were a creator, you wouldn’t mind that, right?

To keep a kid interested in a fantasy world for forty hours, especially when he’s passed through some already, game developers need to cast a wide net. I was taught about Leviathan, Odin, and the Minotaur in high school English class, but I’d already seen them years before in video games. I once spent a summer day when I was ten sitting on the floor reading this cover to cover. Now it’s practically an encyclopedia. I didn’t know I liked opera until I played this. I’ve always wondered where I could get clothes like this:

Secret of Mana Cast

Some American gamers have studied China’s Three Kingdoms Period through Dynasty Warriors. I lead this post with music from Genso Suikoden: the title and concept of that series come from another of the four great classical Chinese novels, Outlaws of the Marsh.

Final Fantasy IV Baron Throne Room
Final Fantasy IX Bahamut v. Alexander

It goes the other direction for the Japanese with mythology and medieval fantasy. Final Fantasy IV was made twenty years ago, Final Fantasy IX ten. (Yes, that castle has wings; it’s alive.) When I was six, I took the Western fantasy trappings in RPGs for granted. When I played them as an English teacher in Japan, I was shocked by how exotic it all must have been to my peers there. Not only the settings but also the language were foreign: scores of English words, like “Fire,” “Potion,” “Monster,” and “Cure,” were transliterated directly from English. Japanese kids have seen a lot more of Europe than they think.

For you music fans, here’s a sound test of ethnic music: city themes for seven games of the early to late ’90s.

Final Fantasy IV: Kingdom of Fabul
Secret of Mana: The Little Sprite
Wild ARMs: Seaside Town
Final Fantasy VII: Cosmo Canyon
Grandia: Prayers of Gumbo
Chrono Cross: Termina: Another
Xenogears: Dazil, Town of Burning Sands

All told, there’s enough material out there for a dissertation or two. I’m grateful for my education from school, but I’m also grateful for my education from Sony and Nintendo, which made the past so much more vivid than textbooks ever could.

Explore posts in the same categories: Art, Japan, Literature, Music, Video Games

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2 Comments on “How Video Games Pass on Traditional Culture”

  1. Brayn Says:

    Excellent article, and I loved the Wild ARMs track you picked at the end.

  2. Jericho Says:

    Really good article. Not many non-gamers appreciate the potential quality of game music. Sometimes I wonder how much of our early love for games was simply because of the greatness of their music.

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