Lost Futures of Miyamoto (The Ghost of Ys I)
A brief review of Ys I and VI
The other day, I played the Steam remaster of Nihon Falcom's action light-RPG, Ys I (1987), after playing through Ys 6 (2003) while researching well-scoped, minimal-control and difficulty-accessible action games. Ys 6's design is a little sloppy yet tightly-scoped game. There are two other Ys games with a similar system I'm looking forward to playing (Origins and Oath). It's a length I desperately wish Falcom would return to (they now mainly make 50+ hour installments in the Trails and Ys series) .
The remaster of Ys 1's design was not changed much from the '80s (thankfully!) The twist of Ys 1 is it's an action RPG without an attack button: its "bump system" means that the angle you run into enemies determines whether or not you get hurt. While the level design doesn't reach particularly great heights (often the most interesting thing is dealing with the tension of being at low health and trying to avoid the erratic enemy movements), boss fight design feels tightly woven to the core moveset, and I appreciate that from a formal standpoint. I'll play Ys 2 soon, which has the same.
Okay, now, here's an exercise: try to guess (1) when this quote was written, (2) who it was written by, (3) their role on the game, and (4) what game. Once you have a guess, read the answer.
Recent RPGs have been very difficult, and it takes a lot of willpower to finish them. So eventually we came to have our doubts: was this really “fun”? With GAME, therefore, we set out to create the opposite kind of game, something that would be accessible, easy to play, and not geared toward hardcore RPG maniacs.
It's from this 1987 interview, which has revealing quotes from Ys 1 director Masaya Hashimoto (b. 1961), who would go on to found Quintet (Terranigma, Illusion of Gaia, etc)). Hashimoto would leave Falcom in the late '80s, probably due to Falcom's desire to scale and extend into mixed media, which necessarily puts the desires of game designers below that of the desire for profit. (Ys 3, according to a YouTube review, apparently sucked, and Hashimoto left Falcom after its release.)
Reading this 1987 interview conjured feelings of existential dread, like those from a dream in which I time traveled to the past, to silently find I was not born, a childhood home without my presence.
The Cycle of Complexity and Simplification
The point of that weird dream parallel is that reading this interview - nearly 34(!) years after the fact, is somewhat terrifying, as a designer. Has time passed? If we average out every game, what, exactly has changed in the past 34 years?
The excerpt sounds parallel to an answer I might give in an interview about why we did this or that. "Simplifying X, questioning Y, etc".
Is game history a push and pull of needless complexity and and subsequent simplification, an endless cycle? Who were the past Melos Han-Tanis?
Profit motive pushes game companies to produce sequels which build on the previous, usually the most common way is to add more junk to what was a solid first game. Then, future designers go "wait! That was bad!" and strip back, resulting in spinoffs, different installments. Designers leave or enter the industry, and consume these installments, simplifying them through new IPs. It repeats.
Ys I still holds up. Sure, it's got some 1980s jank to it, but it has an identity and is memorable. Its 3-4 hour scope reminds me of indie flash games from the 2000s which humbly explore a few design conceits in a brief, refreshing manner. It's a scope I'd like to work at but continuously fail (somehow we end up in the 6+ hour range - like our upcoming game "S" - congrats - you found the secret press release in the blog post! It'll probably be like 5-7 hours but who knows.)
This cycle of complexity/simplification feels particularly personal in one way. While making Even the Ocean (2016) in 2013-2016, Marina and I thought ourselves quite clever for including a variety of accessibility options, probably in response to how Anodyne 1 had no options and how indie games at that point were not including many options. We received a little bit of attention for it, but stuff like level skip has always existed - be it password systems, or story skips like in 1995 Sierra adventure game Torin's Passage, or the option to restart fights with weaker monsters in 2004's Trails in the Sky.
Even the Ocean's approach to difficulty was innovative, but only in a local time context, because at that point, people had forgotten about that kind of design. It was innovative, because games design culture cannot remember things.
This lack of memory is exactly why a game like The Last of Us 2 (2020) can add accessibility options and receive heaps of praise as if it isn't already a thread of design thought. As an aside, the irony of these big games getting accessibility options is that they are catastrophically inaccessible games to begin with: requiring tons of camera movement, reading 3D space, shooting, resource management, etc... in many ways, Ys 1's approach to 'accessibility' is more groundbreaking than pasting an easy mode or auto-aim on top of an over-complicated game. The cycle of "complexity/simplification" is entirely enveloped within a blockbuster AAA game. "Here, we're not going to change anything, not really."
So why does games culture "forget"? There's not much of a practice of historical research and respect amongst game designers. I mean... I say this a lot, but it's true. Designers tend to response to the most recent games, and thus, games are made 'detached' from the past, except for a few 'cornerstones' (often called "retro classics") which have been deemed 'good' enough to be played by most designers. Most games respond to the near-past (5 years or so) but responding to more of the past (30+ years) would be better for designers. And I don't mean like going and playing Chrono Trigger or Earthbound.
This is precisely the reason why Genshin Impact (2020 - a recent game where you fight things in a field, climb rocks, and wait for stamina meters to refill) is the strange mess it is. It copies all the effective gacha addiction designs of the past decade, and then half-asses together a stamina-meter action 7-element RPG combat system with some aping of Breath of the Wild (2017) (itself kind of a sloppy overscoped game, although fun to run around in, sure, I'll give it that.)
But Genshin Impact is just a convenient punching bag, because no one on its team is going to read this. I guess maybe I just want more designers to feel the horror of the historical cycles within games, and work towards avenues of escape.
Two Japanese Designers
What else was happening in the late 1980s?
In 1989, Shigeru Miyamoto (a game designer who works at Nintendo)'s financially successful games Legend of Zelda (an action RPG) and Super Mario Bros (a platformer where you collect coins) gave him a level of popularity.
I found an interesting 1989 interview between him and Yuji Horii (one of the game designers of Dragon Quest (1986, a JRPG where you fight a dragon).
(Photo actually from a 1990 interview with the same people)
What is interesting about hearing Horii and Miyamoto talk, is their youth and candidness. If we get an interview nowadays, it's usually in vague, marketing-safe terms. You can actually see some of their anxieties, doubts, and design conundrums in this interview. Horii is in his mid-30s, Miyamoto his late-30s.
Horii would go on to release, well... more Dragon Quest games. Miyamoto would continue to direct and design a few games in the '90s, but as evidenced by his ludography, was shifted into more of a producer/advisor role. While I won't discount the importance of good minds during the prototyping phase of games, it's not particularly likely he does tons of game production work at this point.
(I don't know what he does today, although I've heard rumors of his well-being being tied to Nintendo's stock price, to the point that Nintendo doesn't let him bike to work.. Miyamoto being used in an ad for the new Nintendo Theme Park would seem to argue for the "Miyamoto as mascot" idea.)
As someone who's almost 30, being shifted from a fairly free designer into a role that seems to be geared towards eternally supporting some game you made in your 30s seems scary. Sure, Miyamoto go to do many things that were probably neat, like release the Wii, but I wonder how much he wanted to just make games.
Maybe that's what Hashimoto felt at Falcom: maybe that's why he got out. A company that wanted to beat the Ys brand until it was dead, rather than... make a good game.
Maybe that's why increasing numbers of AAA Japanese game designers are starting smaller studios. I have to wonder if Horii wished things had gone another way:
(This section runs on a little tangent, feel free to skip)
Horii: I’ve had times where I’ve found that ideas I’ve come up with have already been used in other games. There are even things I’ve been wanting to use in Dragon Quest IV that have already been done. Nothing to do but cut them.
Here he shows a slightly funny concern for originality, which maybe was different back then... but this is funny not just because it's an outdated belief, but also because Dragon Quest is, I think intentionally, a conservative and straightforward series, the game equivalent of a McDonalds hamburger. Decent, filling, predictable.
Occasional other quotes show them formulating their own 'game design rules', which I suppose have almost been codified into law nowadays, although imo (and this goes for myself), 'game design rules' feel like more of a necessary defense mechanism to justify one's own success and decisions (it's just when expressed at the scale of a Dragon Quest or Zelda, fans and players might mistake it as infallible law.) I think they're useful, to a point... but I don't know about letting them guide me for 30 years.
Lost Futures Of Miyamoto And Horii
Hearing the two list off of some random game design ideas actually made me a little sympathetic to them (although I may be projecting: who knows! Maybe they're both totally satisfied!)
Miyamoto: I wanted to do a game that revolved around raising a child. I might be ripping something off by saying this, but your kid would start off not knowing anything and not being able to speak and you’d teach them everything. If you taught them something contradictory, it would cause a disruption and you’d get to see their reaction. They’d keep getting smarter. Just as I was thinking this, though, a game called Puppy Love came out in the States. Horii: A long time ago, before I made Okhotsk, I had the idea for a game where your partner was a robot that gradually gained new memories. You’d raise him RPG-style. I imagined it would be interesting to have a game that was two-sided. If you gave it an order it didn’t understand, it would ask you what you meant, and you’d tell it what you wanted it to do. Then, next time you gave the command, it would do it, growing smarter and smarter. Miyamoto: How about a game where you get to be a mother-in-law who bully’s your son’s young wife? It’d be like in Star of the Giants where the wife wouldn’t submit to you and you’d have to compete with her by trying to throw her out of the house within a certain number of months. Horii: That’s one kind of RPG, alright. You play a certain role. I think it would be neat to have a really tragic RPG as well. Because it isn’t real life, everything you do goes wrong, and you get to marvel at how bad the situation becomes. Miyamoto: It would be fun to see just how far you could go with it. Horii: “My wife walked out on me! Where did she go?! What should I do?” Talk about funny.
While the ideas are perhaps a bit off-color, and have been addressed in various games since then (from life sims to interactive fiction, to comedy personal-life-inspired-games), there's still I feel wistful about in seeing these two now-famous names brainstorming freely, before they had to go on to making franchise games forever, peddling mobile game spinoffs, or advertising their studio's theme park with the occasional slight grimace.
It's amusing to me to imagine Miyamoto going indie and making these random game ideas. It won't happen, but what if it did? The energy the young designers had discussing back and forth, is honestly inspiring, even if I'm not a huge fan of their work, even if they're a little sexist.
They were talking in a moment in which the future was bright: when perhaps the future held strange, baby-raising sims, or mother-in-law sims. Not 10 more Mario games, not another 8 or so Dragon Quests, not with a Mario spaghetti hot dogs at 2021 Japanese 7-11s (this is real and I have no plans to eat one).
The games industry asks us to become uniform, it coerces us to forget, even, or perhaps especially, the most financially successful directors. Capitulate to pressure.
Make the same thing.
Just think about the classics.
Emulation is a crime.
In Ling Ma's novel Severance (2018), the entire world is brought to its knees by a contagious, fungal infection called Shen Fever. Over the course of the book, it's heavily implied that when someone retreats to nostalgia or past comforts is an important factor in someone succumbing to it: once the infection progresses, the infected repeats nostalgic or routine actions over and over until dying: a woman tries on her high school dresses, a housewife cleans dishes, a store clerk folds clothes, a taxi driver drives through out Midtown NYC. The novel's villain, Bob, becomes infected with Shen Fever after returning to his childhood mall, a place he used to escape to when his parents would fight. The world population is implied to especially succumb to the fever after abandoning their jobs and returning to the comforts of their families.
I'm sure we've all been there: looking through fond memories, enraptured in the embrace of the past.
It's a novel that's parts upsetting (there's a very good subplot of the protagonist's Chinese-American immigrant mother's struggles, isolation, and assimilation into Christian Chinese-American culture, which is personally an extremely depressing topic), clever (a few scenes where the Chinese-Am protagonist goes to a bible factory in China to negotiate pricing), and occasionally boring (everyday NYC 20-something millennial life). Of course, there are inevitable eerie parallels with the past year of Corona.
But what it does best is how it got me to think about the things that I do that are nostalgic or informed by nostalgia. (A funny question on the Goodreads reviews page reads something like "what would YOU die doing if you were infected?" If I became infected, I'd probably just be playing videogames...)
More seriously, I suppose nostalgia is a very complicated concept, right? Sure, it's bad when I'm playing an uninspired Zelda-like. Or more importantly, on a national level it can be destructive: collective nostalgia for nonexistent pasts, latent, pent-up energy. There is often a darker side to nostalgia, the things hidden beneath or excluded.
(Aside: A recent, personal discovery of mine was that my childhood home was built almost on top of an American WW2 aircraft training site, and later, 1960s missile testing site. Trained bombers were sent forth from the the site, to go on to destroy parts of Japan, which would then create games, which would then be shipped to the site (when it became my neighborhood.) I'd like to explore this topic in a game some day... but anyways...)
On an individual level, nostalgia can be...
Comforting: it helps us cope and keep ourselves mentally stable by reminding us of happier moments. It can also be stifling: Relying or escaping to it too much can keep us from experiencing new things or aspiring to other callings. I think this is generally obvious and agreed upon.
Nostalgia and Pain
It can also be painful. I feel a nostalgia for some parts of the past of gaming. As a young boy I played Sword of Mana (2003) on my Game Boy Advance during a cross-country train trip, and enjoy its mysterious and quiet atmosphere, haunting and tinny music, sometimes more than the scenery outside the train.
The nostalgia I feel for this moment - resurfacing at various points in my life (usually when dusting off or organizing my childhood room on my rare trip back to my hometown) - it's partially rosy memories, but there's also the pain of having to think about the reality that the medium of games finds itself in, 18 years later.
Sword of Mana is a very pretty game: it's kind of a janky action game, not a very memorable story, but has some unique quirks... something about it still speaks to me about the individuality that went into its art style, and how it is preserved on a tiny little cartridge that made its way across the ocean to a midwestern suburb.
What if, in the 18 years since Sword of Mana, the industry respected its creators more, instead of leading to the speculative venture-fund monstrosities of mobile gaming and e-sports? What if Miyamoto didn't have to gain corporate responsibility and be forced to sustain Nintendo? What if consoles were a massive failure and something like Steam appeared 10 years earlier?
Missed opportunities, an immeasurable loss. It's a potential loss that is on the scale of if novels never became something that was possible for one person to create.
Sure, things are better in a lot of ways: good games exist, and cool, important games are being designed. 2021 is infinitely better for releasing games and finding a tiny audience than the console-gated and shareware mailing hellscape of 1991. But it's not an ideal present. There's still the specter of the 1987 Ys interview, taunting us about what has and hasn't changed.
Nostalgia can, of course, be productive. Playing old games teaches me about what's happened before, it lets me better read the flow of games history, designers responding to designers. Nostalgia can be an intoxicating emotion, but it's also an energy we can redirect and utilize for all sorts of ends.
It does feel a little hopeless at times. It's obvious that big, expensive games are 'winning', and it will be that way for a very long time. Existentially, knowing how stakeholders operate and think - it can be exhausting trying to keep up the will to make games... But without me, us, other designers reading this, there literally is no future to the medium of games. I don't know, it just seems like a waste to let it die.
I understand that games serve an important therapeutic role to everyone who plays them, but I also believe that a player can aspire towards trying to balance out how they consume games. It doesn't 100% have to be games as a stress-reduction method, playing games designed to induce addiction and anxiety.
Like the carcass of a long-dead Ohmu from Ghibli's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, we designers and players are living around - or in - the corpses and husks of big games we don't fully understand but worship due to proximity. Towering landmarks in a disorienting primal forest.
But if we walk away from the giants, we can learn about the small and elusive creatures of all sorts sustaining the games ecosystem, leading to new discoveries, ways of thinking, connections, a way out of the cycle.