Originally published by Next Generation.
An idea is healthy only so long as people question it. All too often, what an idea seems to communicate – especially years and iterations down the line – was not its original intention. Context shifts; nuance is lost. To hear adherents espouse an idea, measureless years and Spackle later, is to understand less about the idea itself than about the people who profess it, and the cultural context in which they do so.
In 1985, an obscure Japanese illustrator slotted together a bunch of ideas that made sense to him that morning, and inadvertently steered the whole videogame industry out of the darkest pit in its history. Since that man’s ideas also seemed to solve everyone else’s problems, they became lasting, universal truths that it was eventually ridiculous – even heresy – to question.
So for twenty years, skilled artisans kept building on this foundation, not really curious what it meant; that it worked was enough. They were simply exercising their proven craft, in a successful industry. Result: even as technology allowed those designers to express more and more complex ideas, those ideas became no more eloquent. The resulting videogames became more and more entrenched in their gestures, and eventually spoke to few aside from the faithful – and not even them so well. Nobody new was playing, and the existing audience was finding better uses for its time. A term was coined: “gamer drift”. Continue reading “The New Generation – Part One: Design”
Originally published by Next Generation, under the title “FEATURE: A Short History of Touch”.
A few years ago, Nintendo launched the DS with a vaguely unsettling catch phrase: “Touching is Good”. Their PR team sent disembodied plastic hands to everyone on their mailing list, in the process creeping out Penny Arcade. As creepy and forward as the campaign was, it had a point. Touching historically has been good, for the game industry.
On a whole, videogames are an awfully lonely set of affairs. They paint an alluring well, then give the player rocks to throw, to see what ripples. From Spacewar! to Pong, you’re always shooting or batting or throwing some kind of projectile, to prod the environment. Even in some of the most exploration-heavy games, like Metroid, the only way to progress is to shoot every surface in sight, with multiple weapons. Little wonder art games like Rez are based on the shooter template: it’s about as basic a videogame as you can get. See things, shoot things, you win. If things touch you, you lose. Except for food or possessions, generally you can only touch by proxy; toss coins into the well; ping things, to see how they respond. To see if they break. Continue reading “Touch Generations”
In 1985, Shigeru Miyamoto came to down with a truckload of tropes, and they were so wonderful, they did such a great job at filling the creative vacuum of the time, that it took two decades for people to notice the limits to their application. Now, step by step, we’re kind of getting back our perspective. Under Satoru Iwata’s oversight, Nintendo – so long, so much to blame for the entrenchment – has painted a huge “EXIT?” sign in the air, with a wave and a sketch. Valve has suggested new ways to design and distribute software. Microsoft and Nintendo have tinkered with how videogames might fit into our busy, important lives. Blog culture is helping aging gamers to explore their need for games to enrich their lives, rather than just wile them away. And perhaps most importantly, the breach between the Japanese and Western schools of design is finally, rapidly closing.
Time was, Nintendo was a company was a game. Then Mario was a commodity was a template was a cult.
The guy who dragged Japan’s oldest hanafuda manufacturer into videogame design was a quiet, oddball toy inventor named Gunpei Yokoi. Thanks to Yokoi, Nintendo had already been making “inventive and strange” toys and arcade amusements; in the late ’70s, videogames were just the next logical step. He rounded up a posse, agreed to babysit a slacker friend of his boss’s family, and built from the ground up Nintendo’s first design studio: R&D#1.
Before long, the kid — an art school graduate named Miyamoto — set the editorial tone of bold colors, bolder concepts, and boldest character design. Then he graduated again to set up his own internal studio, and over the next five years completed and refined the two or three ideas he would ever have as a game designer.
It’s been said that each of us only has one tune to play; all we ever do is change the way we play it. It’s also been said that Donkey Kong and Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s tune originates in his personal hobbies, filtered through a love of Japanese and Western fairy tales. The Legend of Zelda has its roots in the fields and caves behind Miyamoto’s childhood home. Pikmin comes from Miyamoto’s garden. And Donkey Kong 3 is based on the premise that it is fun to spray DDT up a gorilla’s asshole. While being attacked by bees.