Saturday, 2 May 2015

Wired: "There will never be another Kojima"

Yesterday Wired published an opinion piece on the state of the Japanese videogames industry, or as it used to be known, the video games industry. Primarily it's a reaction to the impending departure of Kojima Hideo, father of the beloved, decades-running Metal Gear series, from his patrons at Konami. The divorce has been in progress for a while so it's not new news, but the editorial is about Kojima's stepping down possibly signalling the end of an era in which Japanese video games were dominated by uninhibited auteurs whose vision dictated every new product. It's also wrong.

Ok, not completely. The cowboy era of video games has been over for a long time now, because it was the 1980s. Back then we weren't even sure of what a video game was, so experimentation wasn't just encouraged, it was unavoidable. The gradual transformation into a business model of high-budget, low-risk repeats, with a slew of barely distinguishable annual releases (looking at you, Call of Duty and Battlefield), has been thoroughly discussed, and in light of similar developments in other art forms, shouldn't have taken us so off guard. The parallels with, say, the film industry are pretty clear; you could make a case for both Citizen Kane and Ocarina of Time being titles that codified significant innovations that we now regard simply as fundamentals of the craft, with each occupying, on the macro scale, a similar spot in the timeline of the industry's maturation. So it follows that video games might echo film's trends towards the lowest common denominator.

This shift, of course, is precisely what has led to many big-name developers feeling creatively stifled. Most gamers' thinking seems to be that creativity is simply incompatible with corporations who care about nothing but the bottom line (as though corporations should be focussed on making charitable donations to struggling artists instead). To some extent maybe this is true, because business is about selling a lot of product, not birthing a high-quality product. Do you think the producers of Furious 7 are hanging their heads in shame because they made the horrifying mistake of greenlighting a movie in which Vin Diesel drives a supercar through a penthouse window, blasts through the sky and crashes into an adjacent building? No, they're congratulating themselves on an awesome job, because Furious 7 made 147 million dollars on opening weekend.

On the other hand, I don't think it has to be this way, either. I think a business is much stronger when its employees are proud to be a part of it, and when management truly believes in the company's mission and the product or service it offers. Plus, if we're trying to move as many units as possible, it makes sense to develop a high-quality product (especially with a video game; unlike quality parts in a machine, which cost more to manufacture, an engaging story or interesting art direction need not affect retail price).

Trouble is – every single time a developer tries something new, gamers ignore it. Every single goddamn time. People complain about how samey games are nowadays, and then when something different comes out they're not interested because it's too different. This is what has led to the current state of the industry, and it's really no surprise that many of its pioneers are striking out on their own. The editorial says, “Capcom's powerhouse producers Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil) and Keiji Inafune (Mega Man) are long gone. Tomonobu Itagaki (Ninja Gaiden) is no longer with Koei Tecmo.Castlevania chief Koji Igarashi left Konami last year.”

The article wants to point to this as a sign that the age of the Japanese auteur is over – but uh, no it's not. If anything this demonstrates that the age of the Japanese auteur refuses to die. When the creative types find themselves in an environment no longer conducive to what they want to do, instead of rolling over and churning out soulless remixes of last year's work just to cash a paycheque, they're changing the game...so to speak. One guy not mentioned is Sonic co-creator Naka Yuuji, who left Sega to form a studio called Prope. Its first game was a Wii title controlled solely by placing the Wii remote on a table and tapping it. The second one was about playing catch with strangers. These projects would never have seen the light of day at a big company, but by breaking off, Naka was able to dispense with the business management that had come to dominate his day-to-day, and get back to actually making games – and making the games he wanted to make.

We're walked through the recent director shuffle for Final Fantasy XV, which “previously was the domain of Square Enix's last remaining Big Name Director, Tetsuya Nomura. But after years of development hell, he quit (or was asked to quit) the project and replaced by upstart director Hajime Tabata.” It goes on to describe the tentative, almost crowdsourced development path he took, asking fans to review the demo and responding to their feedback.

This sounds like he's listening to his audience, but really it's a hesitance to take decisive action. I submit that this lack of a strong voice is something that has plagued the franchise for years, and it's a big part of why recent entries have been poorly received. Ok, yes, Final Fantasy fans are implacable hipsters who believe that the only “true” Final Fantasies are the ones they happened to play as a kid, but you kind of have to admit that the recent games are kind of a homogenized mess. They're so wrapped up in trying to recapture the spark of the old days that they verge on ripping themselves off. Ironically, Final Fantasy XIII seems to have been so polarizing because it did have a strong voice, owing to Toriyama's puppy love of protagnist Lightning. You could love it or hate it, but other recent Final Fantasies have tried to cater to the old fans and created only bland, sanitized imitations of the real deal. The editorial is absolutely correct in the claim that Final Fantasy is throwing away its top-down approach, I'm just not sure that's indicative of a trend. The only way for the franchise to survive, creatively, is to start taking a stronger stance again, even if some people won't like it.

But it's not just all that, though. The main thrust of the article is patently ridiculous. “It may not be a stretch,” it says, “to say that there will never be another Kojima, no one creator who holds such sway over a massive big-budget gaming enterprise. It's too expensive, too risky a business to be left up to the creative whims of a single auteur.” What? No. It is definitely too much of a stretch to say that, and for one very, very big reason. I'll get to him in a minute, but before I explain why the Japanese auteur is not financially dead, I'll give you an example of why he isn't spiritually dead, either.

That example is Suda51, not only one of my favourite creators of all time, but possibly the most auteur auteur, ever. His breakout hit, kil – well actually breakout isn't such a great word for it, because it was a commercial disaster. But the game that first brought him significant attention was killer7, in which you play as a disabled old man who physically transforms into his seven alternate personalities, all of whom are assassins. You get a new weapon from an angel, witness a lethal game of Mahjong, and fight a mutated cult leader whose weak point is his afro.

That was in 2005, and he's still making games. Actually, if you ask me his fame has worked against him – I couldn't possibly explain killer7 adequately, and if you're interested then you should play it blind anyway, but I'm trying to make it clear here that it was just an absolute peyote safari through the anime halls of government. Anyway, killer7 was known for being both weird and difficult to understand, and while he hasn't yet made something as complex, Suda51 has carried on with the weird. If you take a look back at his older projects, even the ones over which he had free reign, you can see that they were much more restrained. You could see this as him coming into his own and slowly overcoming a latent fear of breaking boundaries, but I'm not so sure.

I have a feeling that it may be a response to an expectation for weirdness, and that he couldn't make something more normal again even if he wanted to, because it would compromise his Suda signature. I'm still loving his work, I just fear he's accidentally typecast himself. Which is exactly the opposite that a creator known for breaking boundaries should be. John Grisham writes legal thrillers, and then one time he wrote a novel about a guy who goes to Italy to play American football. That's the kind of move I'd love to see from Suda51 – peculiar has become the norm for him. I'm not saying that he now needs to do a “normal” game just for balance, but it would be awesome to see him do something truly unexpected once again. Either way, even for the more standardish Suda titles, you can still hear his voice in every detail. The instant I boot up a new Suda game, I know it's a Suda game, and I feel as if we are having a conversation, as if, somehow, I have the slightest idea of what's on his mind or what he's like outside of interviews. That is an auteur.

So as to the claim that nobody can entrust the success of a product line to one single person?

The piece concludes: “To the extent [that third-party publishers] produce massive blockbusters at all, expect them to be designed by committee, crafted to alienate as few people as possible. If you want to be an auteur, you can do it on your own dime.” In other words, Nintendou and Sony can take creative risks that a company like Capcom just can't afford. The editorial mentions Nintendou's new relationship type deal with Tecmo Koei, but neglects to point out that it does, in fact, have at its creative helm the undeniably greatest video game creator to ever create video games. It's Miyamoto Shigeru, the father of Mario, Zelda, a dozen other series, and arguably the entire video games industry, because he was integral to the success of the NES and the NES saved gaming when everybody else had abandoned the “fad.”

Even if you've never played one of his games (unlikely), you've played one that's been influenced by them. That's because every game owes something to the progress he made, singlehandedly, back in the 80s. This is a man who built the fortune of a massive international company on the back of a plumber saving a princess from an ape. He took his childhood memories of exploring the woods behind his house and turned it into an epic quest to explore a mystical land and vanquish evil. He was gardening one day and thought, “Know what would be great, is a game where the whole thing takes place in a garden, except you're a crash-landed astronaut, and you grow an army of aliens who help you get things done.”


Sorry. Miyamoto has shown no sign of leaving Nintendou, and Nintendou is still going strong. As long as that's the case, I'd say the age of the Japanese video game auteur is in no danger.

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