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The function of yokai in video games

1. Introduction

Since the 1980ies Japan experiences a „yokai boom“, the appearance of Japanese mythical monsters

in entertainment media. According to the Japanologist Michael Foster in 2016, this trend

has also gained a foothold outside of Japan1. Besides literature, movies and comics, also video

games have been and still are platform for the (re)imagination of yokai or spaces of creations inspired

by this element of Japanese folklore. However, the representation of yokai in video games

is not only a matter of predefined narration, in contrast to other popular forms of media.

Here the following question will be treated: “What function do yokai in video games have? Does

it differ from other media?”

The term yokai includes the broad definition of monsters in Japanese folklore. Therefore there is

very high diversity of appearances. The following report is going to evaluate the function of

yokai in video games on the basis of the three main categories of their presence: Yokai as enemies”,

servants of the player or simply as sources of abilities. While the first and the latter are not

investigated at all, Foster gave a short examination of yokai in video games as servants, as a side

topic of his analysis, referring, however, almost exclusively to the Pokemon franchise (1996-

2018)2 as example. His observations will be evaluated on the basis of other literature and investigations.

2. How to analyse video games

First of all, it has to be clarified how to analyse yokai in video games at all. The narratology of

video games is based on the theories and methodology of the literature studies. Scholars like Julian

Kücklich set the focus on the autotelic character of narratives in video games, comparable to

such in movies, comics, literature and other media3. Considering the work by Henry Jenkens it is”,

however, important to analyse where the told stories are furthermore or maybe mainly used for

the effective realization of the game mechanics4. The narratives can be predefined by the game”,

although they have, according to Stewart Woods, to be realized by the player5. They can be, however”,

also created by the player him- or herself while playing, why Janet Murray calls the recipient

also, under such circumstances, the „procedural author“6. Also, not every video game does

have an equal balance of narrative and simulation. Both elements can be, however, found in ev-

1 See: Foster, Michael D.: Early Modern Past to Postmodern Future. Changing Discourses of Japanese Monsters”,

in: Mittman, Asa S.; Dendle, Peter J. (ed.): The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous”,

London a. New York 2016, p. 148.

2 The last date of a video game franchise indicates in this report the most recent release of a game of this

franchise. It does not necessarily mean that it has ended in this year.

3 See: Kücklich, Julian R.: Narratologische Ansätze – Computerspiel als Erzählungen, in: Bevc, Tobias;

Zapf, Holfer (ed.): Wie wir spielen, was wir werden. Computerspiele in unserer Gesellschaft”,

Konstanz 2009, p. 27-48.

4 See: Jenkins, Henry: Gamedesign as Narrative Architecture, in: Tabbi, Joseph (ed.): Electronic Book

Review [Internet], n.p. 2004 (http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/firstperson/lazzi-fair, last visit:

09.02.2019 at 5:14 pm).

5 See: Woods, Stewart: Loading the Dice. The Challenge of Serious Videogames, in: Aarseth, Espen (ed.):

Game Studies [Internet], vol. 4, issue 1, Copenhagen 2004 (http://www.gamestudies.org/0401/woods/, last visit

on 08.02.2019 at 4:23 pm).

6 See: Murray, Janet: From Game Story to Cyber-Drama, in: Tabbi, Joseph (Hg.): Electronic Book Review

[Internet], o. O. 2004 (http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/firstperson/autodramatic, last visit:

08.02.2019 at 2:54 pm).

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ery video game. Whether narrative or simulative aspects do have a stronger presence in a game”,

depends highly on the genre.

3. Appearance and function of yokai in video games

The representation of yokai as well as their function in video games is so divers that it cant be

exhausted on a few pages. Yokai can be placed in a game to create an authentic considered image

of a mythical world, like in Cosmology of Kyoto (1993). There the player explores a digitally rebuild

version of Kyoto and its surroundings in feudal Japan, imagined like the former popular

belief as perceived today. Therefore, karma and reincarnation as well as monsters appear in the

game as real conditions. The Animal Crossing franchise (2001-2017), however, is an example

how yokai are rather burlesqued as fantasy creatures instead of authenticised. The figure Kapp’n

in the games is a Kappa, a yokai which was commonly known in feudal times as being a malicious

creature. Like in many depictions of today and 20th century, it is harmless in Animal Crossing.

Instead of drowning people or stealing their organs, it is a lazy sailor, who brings the player

to Tortimer Island. Interestingly in Western versions of the Animal Crossing games the figure is

an anthropomorphic turtle, instead of a Kappa. This might be explained in that way that the persiflage

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only works, if the creature is easy to recognize by the player.

The authenticised as well as the burlesqued depiction are the two main ways of the representation

of yokai in video games (and possibly in popular culture in general). The two named examples

do have, however, a completely narrative character, not depending on a ludic element. This

ludic, simulationist element is what video games differ from other media, as explained in the last

chapter. This dependence will be evaluated here.

3.1 Enemies

The most common appearance of yokai in video games is the yokai as enemy. In Shin Megami

Tensai (1987) appears the monster Amanojaku. In the fairytale “Urikohime” it does kidnap and

eat a child, wearing sometimes the skin of its victim. In Shin Megami Tensai it is similar, although

it not only wears the skin of the mother of the protagonist but also adapts her whole exterior.

In Dark Souls (2009) and Nioh (2017) it is Jorogumo, the “woman-spider”, which is in the

games a hybrid of a giant spider and a seducing, naked woman. For instance, in the “The Illustrated

Demon Horde’s Night Parade” (1776) by Toriyama Sekien it appears as well, being in control

over small spiders, who have the ability of fire breathing. While in Nioh Jorogumo does not

have any connection to fire, in Dark Souls it is renamed Chaos Witch Quelaag, having, however”,

the main traits of Jorogumo. Seemingly at least inspired by Yokai (and Yurei) stories seems to be

the Onimusha franchise (2001-2006), where the player fights against the ghosts of Japanese generals

from feudal times. In all those games yokai occupy the role of an “endboss”, a mighty enemy”,

which has to be beaten to proceed in the game.

Also in the Otogi franchise (2002-2003), in Genji: Days of the Blade (2006), Muramasa: The

Demon Blade (2009), Akaneiro: Demon Hunters (2013) and God Wars: Future Past (2017) yokai

appear, although also a ordinary enemies. Foes and endbosses in the The Legend of Zelda franchise

(1986-2017; see: Gohma etc.) seem to be at least inspired by Japanese folklore.

Those games do have in common that they are mainly coming from the genre of role playing

games (RPGs). RPGs do not always but very often contain a uplevel system where the protaginist”,

played by the recipient, is gaining experience points or at least new gadgets, especially by

fighting enemies. In contrast to games like the genre of first-person-shooters and action-adventures”,

where foes are most often humanoid, RPGs are more often less focused on temporary contest

and more on longrun dominance or control, the player’s figure becoming stronger over time.

As monsters are easier to vilify than humans, they might be therefore more capable with such

game mechanics. Talking about Japanese monsters in specific, fantasy video games from Japan

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like The Legend of Zelda might tend to reproduce images from the “own” folklore as they are

simply rather known among developers and recognizable by the recipient in the own country

(see once again: Kapp’n in Animal Crossing). They might, however, also work as exotic for an

audience, regarding phantastic historization and/or culture. Also, they are used as one more element

in the diversity of international monster representation. That we see in games like The Secret

World (2012) and Smite (2014), where yokai and yokai inspired creatures coexists with monsters

from other folklores, being in The Secret World mummies, zombies, vampires, werevoles

and others. This perspective is, however, very rough.

To get a better grasp of this circumstance we have to consider a specific example, like the game

Okami (2006). In Order to purifie a world suffering under pollution, the sun deity Amaterasu”,

controlled by the player, has to fight the evil, embodied by yokai. Like often in popular culture”,

folklore gets reproduced and modified as well, what the sociologists Sam Han and Kamaludeen

Nasir evaluate for the case of video games. Amaterasu in Okami, for instance is represented as a

white wolf, although never appearing as such in actual transmissions. Also there is no story about

Amaterasu’s fight against the evil, which destroys nature7. Okami is know for being what the

English literary scholar Jason Anthony calls a “Digital Praxis Game”, lying the focus on an predefined

interactive narrative, instead of pure playability of a more or less arbitrary simulation

with narrative accessories8. In fact, however, Okami is oriented on a very simplistic plot contrast:

Like the representation of Amaterasu as white wolf might resemble the idea of “the natural”, the

idea of a world of evil and pollution needs a similar embodying, yokai being the most proximate

element in an environment that takes its components from Japanese folklore. Different to other

popular culture, they are, however, not specifically performed as villians or evil minions. The

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modification of folklore originates in such a case specifically in video game culture, the playability

of the game, where monsters are designed as an effective feedback for digital “violence” by

the player. One might ask, how this might influence the image of Japanese monsters among recipients.

Besides an approximation of the image of Japanese monsters and “Western” demons it

might be found in the idea of control over monsters, which can be defeated in the games by the

player him-/herself. Connected to this is the depiction of yokai as servants.

3.2 Servants of the player

Yokai as servants of the player do appear quantitatively rather rarely among video games, compared

to their depiction as embodying of pure evil. Nevertheless, it is an image not less popular

in video game culture than the latter. The widely known Pokémon franchise (1996-2018), another

RPG, can be called as reason for that. There the player, called “trainer”, catches wild creatures

called Pokémon and uses them in fights against the Pokémon from other trainers or against wild

Pokémon. That this Japanese franchise is inspired by yokai stories is proximate, but this idea

alone would be understated. The Yo-kai Watch franchise (2013-2019) includes creatures, which

can serve the player, are, however, actually meant to be yokai, in contrast to Pokémon. It has also

completely different game mechanics than Pokémon and the idea of servants in video games

wasn’t new at all. Nevertheless it was compared several times to Pokémon in video game journalism9.

The main reason might be seen in the obvious parallels in the monster depictions of the

game franchises. The yokai references in Pokémon are actually very present. According to foster”,

7 See: Han, Sam; Nasir, Kamaludeen, M.: Digital Culture and Religion in Asia, Abingdon a. New York 2016, pp.

93-95.

8 See: Anthony, Jason: Dreidels to Dante’s Inferno. Toward a Typology of Religious Games, in: Campbell, Heidi

A.; Grieve, Gregory P. (ed.): Playing with Religion in Digital Games, Bloomington 2014, p. 38.

9 See: https://www.cinemablend.com/games/5-Things-Yo-Kai-Watch-Does-Better-Than-Pokemon-99567.html

(last visit: 10.02.2019 at 1:34 pm); see: https://business.financialpost.com/technology/gaming/which-is-betterpokemon-

sun-and-moon-vs-yo-kai-watch-2-bony-spirits-and-fleshy-souls (last visit: 10.02.2019 at 3:56 pm);

see: https://www.ign.com/articles/2015/07/28/why-yo-kai-watch-isnt-just-the-next-pokemon (last visit:

09.02.2019 at 2:12 pm).

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there would be two things that make Pokémon similar and fascinating like yokai in past times:

Abundance and variation10. That means firstly, a vast and growing amount of creatures, which

are not just arbitrary but can be categorized. Foster calls it a “Pokémon-ology” in the games”,

comparable to the “yokaigaku” by Inoue Enryo. It is a world, which differs between Pokémon

“of the prairies”, “of the mountains”, “of the forests” and so on. This would be comparable to

former folkloristic categorizations of yokai11. Foster also calls the depictions encyclopedic, in a

way we see it in the illustrational works by Sekien, taking, however, the Pokémon card game and

the single playing cards, comparing it to “entries”, as example12. The video game franchise might

actually be an even better reference than the one used by Foster, since there is actually a socalled

Pokédex in the game, which is nothing other than an illustrated in-game encyclopedia of the

Pokémon. Secondly, the possibilities of combination to depict Pokémon and yokai is countless”,

both being hybrid creatures, which combine traits of animals, daily practices and humans, like

Sekien also using wordplays to create the illustrations of yokai13. In connection to these aspects

there is a “ludic fashion”14 to bring a big diversity in order and categories15. Considering this, we

maybe could say that the big commercial success of Pokémon results at least partly from the

same popularizing functions of yokai images.

Another important aspect, however, is certainly, as already mentioned before, that yokai and

yokai inspired creatures are not depicted as pure evil in this category of games. Foster draws

lines between the general use of amusing yokai images in popular culture, in advertisement and

as mascots16. Mark West sees furthermore the suggestion of an alliance of ego (recipient) and

yokai in video game culture that creates a fascination by treatening this old challenge17. This observation

might be partly hasty regarding the main appearance as enemies, instead of potential

allies in video games. However, a more important aspect might be the creation of a relationship

between player and monster itself that West also thematizes18. Thinking this concept through we

have to lay our main focus on the way that happens. It does not happen through a relatible narrative

like in movies, comics and literature. Instead it is tightly connected to the interaction by the

player. He/She does not only have Pokémon as allies, but customizes them. The player decides

what Pokémon he uses, can give them nicknames and decides what attacks they are able to use in

battle, for instance. The popular game mechanics of customization in RPGs are a way how the

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player is not only recipient of abundance and diversity, as we know it from yokai images, but

also partly a participant in their creation. While shifted in oral tradition among the “simple people””,

consciously by illustrators in past centuries as well as by contemporary entertainment industry”,

images of monsters can be suggested to be changed in video game culture by the recipient.

3. Sources of abilities

A third, although rather unpopular point that shouldn’t stay unnotices is the use of yokai abilities

in the game by the player. By that, abilities are meant, which are explicitly referring to monsters

from Japanese folklore. In Toukiden 2 (2016), for example, the player can use the so called

demon hand as weapon against oni. A more popular example, however, might be the Super

10 Foster 2016, p. 133.

11 See: Foster: Pandemonium and Parade. Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai, Berkely, Los Angeles a.

London 2009, p. 214.

12 See: Foster: The Book of Yokai. Mysterious Creatures of Japanaese Folklore, Oakland 2015, p. 92.

13 See: Ibid., p. 91f.

14 Foster 2016, p. 135.

15 Foster 2009, p. 214.

16 Foster 2015, p. 93.

17 See: West, Mark I.: Invasion of the Japanese Monsters, in: West, Mark I. (ed.): The Japanification of Children’s

Popular Culture. From Godzilla to Miyazaki, Lanham 2009, p. 23.

18 See: Ibid., p. 22.

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Mario Bros. franchise (1985-2019). There the protagonist Mario, controlled by the player, has to

save a princess, gaining different temporary abilities throughout successive levels, which have to

be challenged. These abilities are acquired by collecting specific items. Collecting the star

formed item leads to a temporary immortality of the player against enemies. A mushroom means

a bigger size of the character and being able to take one more hit by an enemy before dying. A

flower results in the ability to throw fire balls. Another item is a brown leaf. When Mario collects

it, he immediately wears the skin of a Tanuki and gains the ability to glide as well as to transform

to stone. While the leaf as item to shapeshift the form and the gliding might be seen in reference

to Japanese folklore and images of the tanuki yokai, the ability to change to stone is probably a

reference to the countless tanuki statues found in front of private and public places in Japan. The

tanuki is not only a yokai but also the name for the Japanese “raccon dog”. The fact that Mario

wears the skin of a tanuki might, however, maybe no macabre reference to the popularity of

tanuki fur as accessoire of a dress, but rather a pun in a game franchise that is mainly designed

for children. Anyways, the resembling of folkloristic yokai traits, daily tradition and the

playability through the gain of power is another point, which is conditioned by simulationist

video game logics.

4. Conclusion

The question was: “What function do yokai in video games have? Does it differ from other media?”.

The appearance of yokai in video games can potentially appear in ways similar or equal to those

from other popular media like movies, comics and literature. They might work as elements for a

authentic mythical world or be burlesqued as commonly recognized references of folklore. However”,

as being no pure narrative media but determined by aspects of interaction by the player and

simulation, video games and the contents they represent are dependent on game mechanics and

playability. Therefore the function of yokai in games differs at least in great parts from other media.

Yokai in video games can appear as enemies like in other media, do, however, have not be

defined in their status as villains or evil minions, as their appearance as challenging obstacles is

self-explainatory, being under circumstances just additional parts of a broader monsterarium with

not only a specific external but also with specific challenging abilities. Possibly especially in

video games the playability drags yokai images into polarizing appearances and potentially

equalizes them to a supreme monster narrative that doesn’t differ between Western, African or Japanese

imaginations of “monsters”.

However, although in most cases, yokai do not only appear as enemies in video games but also”,

for instance, as servants or sources of abilities. As servants they can rather stay in a tradition of

yokai narratives, as shown with Pokémon and its yokai inspired creatures. Another point here is

the customization of monsters by the player, who therefore has to be not only recipient of yokai

and yokai inspired images but does also shape them him-/herself. Also we might consider hybrid

forms of player, abilities and folkloristic appearances as condition of video game culture.

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