The existential crisis facing the Japanese game industry lurked beneath the surface of this year’s Game Developers Conference with uncomfortable omnipresence, often giving a sense of Japanese designers coming to San Francisco humbly to take notes on what sells in the U.S., only to be scorned and derided for their trouble. Of course, it wasn’t really so dire as all that, but one could certainly be forgiven for walking away with that impression.

So it should come as little surprise that, like many Japanese devs at GDC, Gravity Rush’s Yoshiaki Yamaguchi devoted a fair amount of his panel to the conundrum of appealing to both Japanese and American audiences. Unlike many designers, though, Yamaguchi’s team side-stepped the conventional wisdom that games have to carry a conventional, realistic “American” feel or an anime-inspired “Japanese” feel. Rather than simply falling into either camp, the creators of Gravity Rush have chosen to draw upon a third option: Bande dessinée, or French comics.

“I felt that games these days are starting to look too much the same,” said Yamaguchi. “They either use a realistic style or an anime style…. There’s art that looks real, and art that feels real, and I feel bande dessinées is better suited to the latter.”

Going European certainly isn’t unheard of in non-European games, of course; the Professor Layton series is defined by its warm, Ghibli-esque visual style. Yamaguchi, however, very specifically drew inspiration from French illustrators Jean Giraud (Moebius) and Enki Bilal in order to create a visual style of which it would be (as Yamaguchi says) “difficult to determine the country of origin.”

And Gravity Rush is a truly stunning game. Not only does its gameplay appear novel — applying the gravity-inverting mechanics of games like VVVVVV to an open, three-dimensional world — its style is striking. It combines polygons with cel-shading, painterly effects, and highly saturated unconventional color schemes. It looks like nothing else on the market, even within the Western indie space, and makes a strong case for PlayStation Vita’s merit as a platform.

“We sought to strike a balance between realism and drawing, creating harmony with the CG,” said Yamaguchi. “But of course simply focusing on graphics will not move the audience… it’s like moving different strands of string to weave a tapestry.”

The team’s solution was to create something they call a “living background,” environments that create the “sensation that the character actually exists in that space.

“Games can do something that novels and movies can’t,” Yamaguchi said. “The player can interact with them. The concept is that the world that exists here is not simply a picture, but a living, breathing entity. The environment must convey information to the player; when players do not receive this information, they start to ignore their surroundings. As soon as the player starts to think of the background as a picture, they’ll stop paying attention to it.” Due to the nature of Gravity Rush’s gameplay (which sees players flipping heroine Kat’s personal sense of gravity across a variety of axes, allowing her to traverse any surface above a certain size), the team felt it essential to get Kat to look like she belonged within the world she inhabits. The illustrated-yet-natural style of bande dessinée served as the creators’ waypoint for creating this synthesis. At a time when rhetoric about the origins and nature of games so deeply polarizes the industry, it’s a pleasure to see someone approach their work from a different angle — and to come up with such an intriguing creation in the process.

GDC 2012: What Can the Next Generation Learn from Gaming History?

1UP editor-in-chief Jeremy Parish’s mission at this year’s Game Developers Conference is informed by his enthusiasm for new ideas and affection for the games he grew up playing. Is it possible to march forward while occasionally glancing back? That’s the question he’s investigating this week.

By Jeremy Parish