by Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne
Over the years, game design has calcified. If I were to pick a turning point, I might point at the SNES — a system of broadly appealing games that delivered exactly what people expected of a videogame, challenged few perceptions, and established the status quo for 2D console-style game design. Since then it’s been hard to get past the old standards — the prettied-up enhancements of Super Mario 3, The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid that added little new in terms of expression or design language, yet that refined the hell out of some proven favorites.
You could say that the SNES was the epitome of Miyamoto-styled design (even in games by other developers), and you’d have a reason for saying that. Namely, it was the Miyamoto Box: Nintendo’s reward to Miyamoto for the broad appeal of his NES catalog. Meanwhile Miyamoto’s opposing force, in Gunpei Yokoi, was rewarded for his invention of the Game Boy by having his studio removed from mainstream console development to support his brainchild. The message was clear: Miyamoto’s way was the successful one, so he would be in charge of everything important from here on.
The thing is, Miyamoto is just one voice. He had a few brilliant ideas in the mid-1980s, all born out of a particular context and in response to particular problems. And then by the turn of the ’90s he was pretty much dry. All that was left was to codify his ideas, turn them into a near law of proper design — regardless of context — and then sit back to admire his work, while new generations carefully followed his example as if manufacturing chairs or earthenware pots. A videogame was a videogame, much as a chair was a chair. It was a thing, an object, with particular qualities and laws.
Thing is, videogames aren’t things; they’re ideas.