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The signature touch

BearHarlow- In Hollywood's golden age, movie studios were run by moguls who left their marks on the films they produced. Studio films bore identifiable signatures, and moviegoers in the '30s understood that a picture released by Paramount was unlikely to resemble a picture released by Universal. As depression-era documents of American culture, Warner Bros. gritty, cynical depictions of life on the streets occurred worlds away from MGM's lavish escapist fare. Jack Warner had Stanwyck and Cagney; Louis B. Mayer had Garbo and Gable.

I've found myself reflecting, surprisingly, on the Hollywood studio era as I've played a couple of sleek new games this week: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor and Knights in the Nightmare, both released by Atlus, a developer and publisher I've grown to admire in recent years for its commitment to producing smart polished JRPGs that extend and blur the margins of the genre while holding steadfast to its core elements.

Atlus is the Republic Pictures of the game industry: a small player specializing in quality genre fare on a modest budget. If you've played an Atlus game, chances are you've come to recognize the Atlus signature: tough, stylish, anime-inspired RPGs with slick presentations, clever interfaces, and careful attention to detail.

Games like the Persona series, Etrian Odyssey and its sequel, and the two games I'm currently playing convey a kind of charming anachronism: simultaneously old-school (often brutally so) and edgy new. Even a fatally flawed game like Baroque (developed by frequent Atlus partner Sting) bears the familiar Atlus signature: a rougelike refitted in slick real-time 3D visuals with a fabulous musical score.

Happily, Atlus isn't alone. While the industry landscape continues to change, certain game studios still communicate definably unique identities to their audiences. A Blizzard game is different from a Bioware game is different from a Bethesda game, even though all three specialize in computer/console RPGs. Studios like Grasshopper Manufacture and Q-Games evoke their own specific sets of images and ideas; while others who once had that power (Treasure and Rare, for example) seem in recent years to have lost it.

All this has me wondering how a game studio conveys and sustains an identity. How is it that we recognize its signature? No Hollywood studio today, with the possible exception of Pixar, can claim the kind of brand awareness that developers like Rockstar and Kojima Productions enjoy.

Is it a sense of vision? A recognizable style? A design aesthetic? What makes us loyal to certain developers in the way our grandparents and great-grandparents were loyal to Chrysler and Frigidaire? Will consolidation ultimately take game developers down the same road as the Hollywood studios, and if so should we care? Will the name "Atlus" even mean anything in 10 years? Will Rockstar? What does "Activision" mean today?

Okay. That's a lot of questions. Maybe I'd better stop there and invite you to jump in with some answers, if you've got them. I'm not finished with Atlus, however. I'll be back with a post about why I think you should play Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor, even if it is a godawful title for a video game.