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Local Heroes

Do European developers see their home countries as too parochial to be included in games?

Visitors to London's Leicester Square underground station have recently been treated to a view of the capital that isn't in the usual tourist brochures. An artist's impressions of local hard men with names like Kane and Zahkarov, the leaders of different London crime gangs, line the escalators, staring down on the tourists and exchange students. It's hardly the impression of the town Mayor Ken Livingstone wants to project to visitors.

Reality is barely relevant, though. This merry bunch are advertising PSP title Gangs of London, and represent a parallel London seen through the twisted lens of games industry branding and marketing.

This is the capital of Great Britain in a form considered accessible and appealing to worldwide gamers, a city trapped in a never-ending director's cut of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrells. You may have visited it already, in middling Grand Theft Auto knock-off The Getaway and its sequel - now Sony wants you to go back again, handheld style.

It's not exactly the most flattering or representative view of the place, but then London (and by extension the UK) is lucky to get even this mockney caricature into mainstream games, considering most of the world barely gets portrayed in games at all. Instead, contemporary-set games lean towards safely recognisable US settings where possible - New York, Miami, LA or fictionalised variants like Gotham, Liberty or Raccoon.

Where games go farther afield, they travel wearing American shoes and identities. The Broken Sword series has Parisian settings and a French sidekick, but the lead character is a typical American abroad. US agent Leon Kennedy went to an odd, generic and dated Europe in Resident Evil 4, and all he got for his tourism was a bunch of rowdy mutant peasants. Even when in the ancient Middle East, a US spin is beneficial: the British voiced lead in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time was replaced by a grungier, US-accented prince for The Warrior Within, resulting in higher sales.

The contemporary Middle East and Africa suffer even worse: chances are if you're in a distant desert in a contemporary game, it's on behalf of the US military or secret service and the locals are at best a nuisance and at worst a threat to your mission.

There's an inescapable logic to the drive to ground games in US settings and archetypes. Nearly a century of US domination of film and television output has ensured that wherever there are cinemas or TV aerials, audiences will have an engrained basic familiarity with American locations, culture and language.

Developers can be comfortable knowing that potential consumers from Athens to Zeebrugge will not be left reeling in culture shock and incomprehension by references to dollars, a Californian cityscape or a hip-hop soundtrack. They're guaranteed to have been acclimatised already through movies and music.

Needless to say this familiarity does not work the other way around. The media industries of other nations have been considerably less productive and pervasive in their output, and have had far greater difficulty cracking the American market. For non-anglophone media the language barrier is a big part of the problem. While non-English speakers are used to seeing dubbed media as a matter of course, lip sync is terribly out of fashion in the English speaking world for live action movies.

Is it any wonder, then, that developers in the rest of the world presume that while gamers worldwide will find a US themed game comfortably familiar, those same gamers will have considerably more difficulty coping with a game that's set in Lille with a Czech protagonist?

In some ways, locally themed games have been the victim of the industry's success, a global market requiring greater homogeneity, and increasing production costs making global appeal not just a financial benefit, but an outright necessity to recoup costs. Long gone are the days where a game as oddly British as Skool Daze could be successful in a domestic market, or even the 16-bit era where Infogrammes and Ubisoft produced French oddities notably different from competitors abroad.

Now, only in South East Asia are markets large enough to produce games with no global appeal: numerous Japanese anime tie-ins, cartoon dating games and hardcore RPGs get nowhere near a western release, and why should they? They're products with a distinctly local appeal, and sometimes even the most distinctly Japanese games find great success in the USA and Europe.

Is this a Eurocentric problem, one which says more about the tastes and insecurities of European developers and gamers than it does about those in Asia and America? Videogames by their very nature tend to be dominated by an interest in high technology and a forward-looking view of the world. The USA and Japan are countries which have a strong sense of their position in a technology-dominated world, the sheer metallic skyscrapers of Tokyo or New York making a clear statement that these are cities with one foot already in the future.

Is old Europe just too damn old to be a setting for the tech-obsessed world of videogames? Do European gamers and developers see their home countries as too small, too parochial to be included in games compared to the fantastical cityscapes of the USA or Far East? Would European characters actually be a turn-off, too close to home to be interesting compared to simplistic Hollywood identification figures? Are we embarrassed of ourselves in a way that American or Japanese gamers aren't?

Perhaps, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth trying, if games are to provide a diversity of themes and experiences beyond an endlessly repetitive concrete strip of American gangland. Online charity game Darfur is Dying has demonstrated that compelling, disturbing game experiences can be found in distant corners of our own world. As it stands, it remains an oddity that so many places in the real world, now, are considered more alien to gamers than Azeroth or Morrowind.

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