Parasocial Nintendo Complex: 10 Years of Game Dev

A Decade of Game Development

I was reviewing my journals from 10 years ago, and found it amusing when I saw "I'm going to work on games today!" in June of 2011. So it looks like I've been doing this for 10 years...

I started making games (well, messed around with making stuff move on a screen) in order to entertain myself during a fairly quiet summer as a computer science research intern (I wrote Hadoop code to crawl GameFAQs message boards, and made a tiny server farm.)

Normally, a June comes and goes, but as I'm nearing the end of Sephonie's development it's given me some time to reflect. Certainly, the annual events of E3 - showing the annual bombastic, misplaced priorities of the game industry - also motivate this reflection.

There's no rulebook when it comes to continuing a career as an independent game developer, outside of practical concerns like money. So "how do you develop?" is something I've been wondering a little. Rather than ramble abstractly, I've chosen to overfixate on a very interesting interview that I encourage any game developer (or player curious to really understand game development) to read.

Mother 64's cancellation

I tweeted about this 2000 interview a few weeks ago, , between late Nintendo President Iwata, Shigeru Miyamoto, and Shigesato Itoi (Ad copywriter/creator of Mother series).

What is unique about this interview is a few things. First, the people: these three men are celebrities within gaming culture - commonly considered geniuses, etc. What's more interesting is that this interview was given at a miserable time for all three: right after the cancellation of Mother 64's 6-year long development hell. Even amongst three people who have had more privileged and lucky careers than most, 6 years is a really long time to work on anything and have nothing to show for it. Even if Mother 3 did come out years later, 2000 was probably still emotionally rough. I haven't had a similar experience, but it does remind me of my time making Even the Ocean.

Even the Ocean

(For context, Even the Ocean (ETO) is a 2D story-driven platformer Marina and I made from 2013-2016. It's on PC and all consoles.)

On occasion I browse my old photos from when I was living in the USA. While it depends on my mood, I always get this dark, heavy feeling as I look at my photos of Chicago and the suburbs from early on in ETO's dev. For me nothing particularly bad happened, but it's mostly that I always feel like the development of ETO was so inefficient - dead ends, poor tools, redone work. The postgame is literally an old draft and a half of the entire game, sleeping under the 'true' game.

That dark feeling, I think, is the ghost of how ETO's development could have gone on, and potentially never have even finished! I know such things happen to indies and AAA studios all the time, but in my childhood mind (although I know it to not be true now), Miyamoto/Itoi/Iwata have always been these godlike figures, bestowing on me (from across the globe) this blessing of 'games', creating an alternate reality to the athletics and academics-focused, white-ifying, Fox News suburban STEM-scape I grew up in.

Sure, I'm mixed on most of their games now, and Nintendo itself doesn't even really like or promote our games (which, ironically, if anything - pay more respect (than the average game) to their body of work by ways of building on and expanding on it) - but I can't deny that with no Nintendo, there would be no Melos...

To see a massive failure discussed by them felt slightly devastating (mostly to a past me), but also because at the heart of the practice of game development is this darkness, these series of traps that tempt us developers into making expensive and costly decisions, not just in money or time, but our health and the collective cultural health of gaming!

Killing Idols

Miyamoto's opinion here is not groundbreaking or new to me, but I am surprised to be seeing these words come from his mouth. Maybe more people than I think have their hearts in the right place within the game industry, but of course are shackled by responsibility (to a corporate board, feeding a large team, etc...)

In particular:

"[People, especially those raised on video games] want to focus on perfecting the details so much that the details are the only parts of the picture that are being created."

When you start to release games frequently (whether it be long games every few years or short ones every few months), I feel safe assuming that one starts to see the way in which game projects tend to fail. Nowadays, almost all new developers, myself included, get into the field due to a love for the medium. But when you're raised playing videogames, unless you develop a mindset that frames your favorite games as, well, human and imperfect works - you never develop the criticism necessary to think beyond them as the ideal.

I think this is a huge issue in the games industry, where original/critical design thinking isn't really encouraged or passed down as much as being able to work in a large team, churn out levels, and put out a product.

"I want to make a love letter to Link's Awakening..." when you believe something like that, you end up replicating the 'surface' of a game - its final design choices, copied without much thought for why those decisions were made in the first place. It's why I see many Zelda-likes with block puzzles, with tedious inventory management, etc...

Finding your own path as a designer is a matter of respecting and being critical of any given game. It's interesting to try and see the humans behind a given game. As an obvious example, Miyamoto's a guy who likes fun, has a very particular view towards level design, and isn't too concerned about story in his games (at least in 1999).

Every designer has their own style, and being an original designer is about contemplating all of the media and experiences (not just games) you've been through and then using that to figure out what feels important for you to design. Thinking about this from the ground up (rather than from "I Love Zelda"-down) allows you to be more realistic with yourself about what you're capable of.

Vision traps

Outside of that, developers also face issues from other mediums. In particular, the 'vision traps' that so poison us, often from film, manga, anime, and other visually-oriented mediums.

When thinking along visions, you do things like - imagining a dramatic scene, like your character dramatically falling through the air at the end of an emotional climax... you start working on the game from a visual standpoint, without much consideration for, well, the fact the game will have to... be a game, not a trailer shot from an anime movie. Sure, you might fool a few jury members that your game is important if it has $10,000,000 art, but if it's just a box-pushing puzzle platformer... I'll still know...

It's not wrong to have visual inspirations or little fantasies of emotions. But it's not a great place to start or commit to, and to build on these ideas alone can be dangerous in terms of the scale of work, or even your self-evaluation throughout the project.

Of course a game can't be emotional in the exact same way a Ghibli film is - they're totally different mediums (and Ghibli films are made by massive teams of workers.)

I think these traps exist due to the challenges developers face in the social media environment of 2021. A constant pressure to commercialize our work, being conditioned to value social media response as a marker of the game's value. If we think "a game's value" is "how many RTs it gets", then naturally we might start to think that to be a valuable developer, we need to be inspired by visually-focused works...

And this fantasy does become reality. Even now, in the Steam Next Fest, I see many popular demos of indie games that look flashy and beautiful - but when I play them - feel formulaic, dry, stiff, clearly a beautiful coat of paint over an unsure core.

Our GIF culture is to blame, too. We have literal lectures about the GIFfability of a game being important, its virality, sharability. One developer can amass tens of thousands of followers without releasing a single game! I can't think of any other medium, except bullshit software startups, where someone can be considered a veteran developer and even give lectures by virtue of literally just putting out a few GIFs. I think any outsider would call this 'dire'.

That is to say...

When I think about "what do I do after my first 10 years in games", I think about more than 'just release games'... I'd like to keep writing these essays, not out of cynicism, but because I think we can make games in more interesting and healthy ways, and the above two traps are ones I often see. I know that a lot of developers read my writing, so I'd like to bear that fact responsibly. This post isn't a callout or a criticism, but it's more to point to how the forces of gaming culture we grow up in cause us to fall into these patterns of creation. And you can go on making these games and sell copies/sustain a career, but...

At the end of the day I think game creation is magical, whether someone be moving words, sprites, or 3D models on a screen. And I'd like to hope for a kind of game development that speaks to our individual humanities more.

Mother 64 (again)

Perhaps Mother 64 failed because the developers were high on the dreams of replicating Mother 2. Perhaps it was due to Itoi or Miyamoto only part-timing on the project. Maybe Itoi was too much of a writer in the end. The transition to 3D was too hard, the N64, too weak.

Iwata says they should have rethought it being in 3D. But he also says that there's a "really strange common sense" saying it takes large scale and a huge team to make a good game - which he mentioned in the context of putting out Pokemon Gold, with its minimal animation, and how that was beloved.

To be sure, even though Iwata says this, I am not saying that Iwata was "indie" or anything - I still think his sense of scale is distorted from working at HAL and Nintendo, and it's not like their SNES games weren't visuals-focused to a fault. And moreover he didn't do much to change the industry's path, in the end, no matter how much of a nice president he may have been.

But he is right: at the cusp of 3D's prevalence, Iwata was sensing that maybe it was weird that the industry seems so focused on these big, graphically expensive experiences, when historically at that point they hadn't been too important (outside of maybe making it easier to create a 3D game with fewer difficult technical restrictions.)

Miyamoto goes on to say it takes 'maybe three people' to make a game that catches people off-guard. I don't know if he meant 'totally make' or just 'design the framework' for a game, but I get the sense from these men in their 40s that they're realizing that the path Nintendo (and many other companies were going down) was impossible to turn back from. Game development, something you could do with a few friends, had twisted into some kind of silicon-consuming beast, hellbent on creating money by acting as a safety valve for the stress and malaise of computerized societies.

How do you make games?

Well, I guess I've still been avoiding my original question. How should I continue to make games? Generally speaking, I don't know how much good any guidelines will do. I think I'd like to re-use more of my existing work, I'm a little tired of coding a big old new system or two for each game. I think Sephonie's movement engine is quite fun, I'd like to use that in a few more games. But who knows, maybe my recent minor obsession with CRPGs will snowball into an Anodyne CRPG (lol) (....or?)

I expect as I get older I'll have to keep making changes to accommodate my body getting harder to work for as long, so adjustments will need to be made. Maybe there will be less game making...

In conclusion, I guess in the end I'm not that concerned how to make games in the next 10 years.

Avoiding things I mentioned in this essay, respecting history, creating something to inspire future generations, making something as an expression of humanity being here on Earth, something I know can touch someone at a computer a thousand miles away, those seem good enough. I'm already seeing past players of my games growing into seasoned game developers of their own, which is uniquely rewarding!

Bonus: Kenzaburo Oe and artistic careers

I was going to integrate this into the essay better, but it didn't seem to fit...

I read Kenzaburo Oe's "The Changeling". Brief context is this is a 2000 novel that's in conversation with a 1965 novel of his (The Silent Cry) that I liked. It was just okay as a novel, but there's a meta-twist in that the characters (Kogito and Goro) are stand-ins for Oe and his real-life friend filmmaker, Juzo Itami (Tanpopo, etc).

As it's about a famous novelist and famous filmmaker in late age, occasionally the book talks about being a writer/filmmaker at that age.

"The Changeling" brings up stuff like - the impact of awards and runaway success on psychology as a creator - probably Oe reflecting on his career after winning the Noble Prize for Literature. Kogito (the novelist character) feels as if winning awards can lead to a risk of settling into a comfortable place within a given industry - and that it's only when you're forgotten by the media that one can create great work. I would take that to mean that when the media has its eyes on you - you wonder if you're just being praised because you're already famous, or you feel pressure.

Anyways, that falls in line with my perception that in games, too much celebrity makes it difficult to create freely as expectations go up. So that could be something to think about with regards to pursuing awards or high sales...

Oe also brings up how you can box yourself into a corner with high standards. He mentions "what you want to make" gets boxed in by 'your standards of what makes work good'. You can't just sit around all day with a plot outline or paper design, you've got to go write some dialogue or make some levels.

Isamu Noguchi and Japanese-American-ness

I saw an exhibition of the late Japanese-American Nisei sculptor, Isamu Noguchi. I enjoyed his late-period pieces where he just carved rocks or arranged them - I feel like it showed a real respect/reverence for rocks, and their age. In a way it's a little odd how much we've normalized rocks - perhaps because how they've been used for building materials. Rocks are an extraordinarily odd thing, right? Millions of years ago, and then in many games they're one of the most worthless items you get early in an RPG, or they're something you have infinite of in a stealth game.

...Anyways, what I found interesting was that Noguchi was mixed, growing up in early 1900s USA, with a Japanese father and white mother. It seems like a lot of his work was investigating his Japanese roots, the contradictions of being seen as an enemy in the USA, or being out of place in Japan (his commissioned design for the Hiroshima memorial was rejected potentially because he was American). I think pre-WW2 America must have been fairly difficult to have been in between those two cultures, perhaps even moreso as Japanese Americans were not as Americanized yet.

What's interesting here is that this seems to have pushed him to criticize the standards of Western sculpture, leading to his artworks (some of which were centered around learning about Japanese traditional crafts, then expanding on or building on those techniques, rather than just remaking the same tradition itself, over and over)

I know art tends to be a lot more than just the one artist, and I do get the sense that Noguchi is viewed as a bit of a celebrity artist (one essay in the exhibition catalogue seemed particularly enamored by Noguchi!). Nevertheless, I feel like his position as a multicultural person -he also spoke fluent Japanese and had studios in Japan - that position was probably part of why he spent so much time thinking about what the West wasn't/was doing.

My Nintendo Complex

I'll end this essay on this note. Creatively, I've always felt a weird relationship to Japan. Most of my life I grew up as a huge Nintendo fan (and by proxy, Japan). Over the past decade I still enjoy their games on occasion, but generally don't like what they stand for creatively and I don't often find much inspiration in their games which often feel overly flashy and without much focused design. I consider myself more of a contemporary with Nintendo now, though obviously my work reaches orders of magnitude fewer fans.

Even then, there's still this ingrained search for approval from Nintendo, and maybe Japan... which I am aware is absurd. Nintendo and Japan are obviously nebulous symbols, so seeking approval from a symbol, is, well...

My games owe a lot to the Japanese history of games, but historically our games aren't very popular in Japan. What's popular here (Japan) is much of what's popular in the USA - multiplayer shooters, sandboxes, survival, a select few indie games bubbling to the top. Past the flashy colors, a Bic Camera (Japanese electronics store) game section is about as boring as any given Gamestop. Popular games are always driven by the mental needs of a society, and maybe Japan and the USA aren't too far apart in that regard.

A Japanese publisher once said that "No one will really like Even the Ocean [So let's not bother localizing it]".

And maybe they're right. I've decided that it's mainly a waste of time to try to appeal to this fictional "Japanese player". What am I really accomplishing trying to make my way into the 'accepted Americans club' of western game devs taking Instagram selfies with famous Japanese developers? That's something, but it's not game development. While I can't deny it would be fun to flex such a thing, those kinds of transient moments aren't something worth aspiring towards. So I'd like to drop fixating on these things over the next 10 years.