One of the biggest challenges I encounter in regards to writing about games is determining the weight that should be given to the words of game developers and how to incorporate them into what I write. I certainly believe it’s important to research their thoughts – after all video games are like any other art form and can express ideas and concepts that reflect the people who worked on them. Being aware of these thoughts can guide your own understanding and allow you to appreciate them in a different light. Interviews and quotes also add an objective element to an analysis in the sense that it’s hard to get more official of a view of a work than from the words of someone who participated in its creation. However, problems can spawn from relying on words alone, and so the question arises: how exactly should they be used?
Recently Masahiro Sakurai, the director of the Super Smash Bros. series, appeared on Harada’s Bar, a YouTube show hosted by Katsuhiro Harada, the current general manager of Bandai Namco and an instrumental figure in the Tekken series. During their conversation, Harada brought up that things they say and do as prominent people in the game industry tend to be overanalyzed and given undue importance by the world at large. What they say becomes immortalized as memes or held up as unshakeable fact despite the fact that they may have been said casually or without much thought. It’s something I’ve often thought about while writing articles lately – for some games there is a ton of information present both inside and outside the game so I feel confident in the perspective I’m gaining, but for others there’s very little information so any attempt at adding historical context or perspective from the creators is essentially like putting scraps on a pedestal.
It seems like no matter how much or how little information there is though, it all runs the risk of taking on a life of its own. Sakurai may in fact be one of the most heavily scrutinized individuals in the game industry today. He owes that scrutiny largely to the Super Smash Bros. series, whose marketing cycle has resulted in a small speculation industry on places like YouTube. Is Sakurai’s shirt a hint that the next Smash Ultimate character will also have a shirt? Ridiculous stuff like that pops up all of the time, and it’s gotten to the point that during the program Sakurai states that he has avoided associating much with other video games in public appearances to hinder the speculation machine.
But for Sakurai, things are also a little weirder than people going crazy for a video game they’re excited about – it extends to comments he’s made about his own life. Over the years, Sakurai has made passing mention of times he’s had to work hard or encountered health issues, but these off-hand comments from his weekly column in Famitsu and other places have been picked up by various outlets and morphed into how he gets characterized as a human being. It’s very common now to see any kind of article about Smash Bros. or Sakurai himself littered by bizarre comments about how he “really needs to take a break” or “he should finish Smash Bros. so he can rest.” I don’t claim to know Sakurai personally or how he feels, but to me it’s like complaining to a friend that you had a bad day at work and broke your leg, and now whenever your friend sees you all they talk about is how you must hate your terrible job and should quit before you hurt your leg again…for like a decade.
My guess is that Sakurai, like most people with a job, is a human being who has ups and downs with his health and how he feels about what he is doing every day. Maybe he hates what he does and Nintendo works him to the bone, but I feel it’s more likely that he overall enjoys his job and simply expresses his occasional negative experiences that are then selectively reported to a global audience. People often overlook this fact, but Sakurai works for Nintendo on Smash Bros. as a freelancer – he is not beholden to them or to continuing his work on Smash Bros. if he doesn’t want to. Sakurai could certainly get work elsewhere if he so chose, or simply retire if he has no interest in making games. At the end of the day, it’s really no one’s business but his own.
I don’t know for sure if comments like that actually bother the man. I view them as a warning sign regardless. It makes sense if you only have a little bit of knowledge of someone that it would shape how you see them, I just don’t think anyone realistically would like for that to happen to them at the scale it does for Sakurai. We should recognize that words from a creator may have limited value and not represent the entire truth of a situation. Relying too hard on any one anecdote runs the risk of turning relevant information into misinformation.
Another risk of misinformation lies in the language barrier between people like Sakurai and the rest of the world. I can only read and speak English, which poses a huge problem when it comes to discussing and understanding the video game industry. The Japanese market has been astronomically important to developing the video game world from a hardware and software perspective. Since I’m not Japanese, I do not have access to the most direct sources of information about that market or the ability to understand it. Instead, I find myself at the mercy of those who graciously provide and translate that information to others. The reality is that even for American game developers and companies, it can be difficult to comprehensively research a game. For a westerner seeking information about a Japanese game, you’re dealing with a niche within a niche, where only what someone else finds interesting gets a spotlight.
That’s also just talking access to research material – the nature of translation itself adds yet another layer of issues. How much can a translation truly be trusted? Sometimes fan translations convey things faithfully, but others may contain mistakes or interpret things in a biased manner. Whenever I read interviews with Japanese developers from western publications, especially really old ones, I always wonder if the words they printed are an accurate representation of what the developer was trying to say. Even the Harada’s Bar program suffers from this issue and needs to occasionally provide corrections to their English subtitles.
Even under the best circumstances, sometimes a developer simply won’t paint an accurate picture of what they are working on. Whenever a game developer talks to a game journalist for an interview, the often unstated context is that they are virtually always doing so under the guise of selling their game. Ideally that means the developers just present their project in the best possible light, but in reality that’s not always how things end up. Historically, Peter Molyneux reigns as the all-time champion for misrepresenting his games, often claiming ambitious ideas and mechanics would appear in them with little regard for how they could be implemented into the actual product or if the team was even actively working on those ideas at all. No Man’s Sky serves as a more contemporary case where even shortly before launch director Sean Murray described features and ideas for the game that would neither be in the initial release nor see the light of day until years later. These are extreme examples, but misleading words are uttered to some extent in interviews all of the time.
Misrepresentations probably occur more frequently for smaller aspects of a game than the content of the final product. Minor asides about game development like influences, descriptions of thought process on why certain decisions were made, or the roles of certain people color people’s understandings of a game or series in a way that may not be accurate.
I often think about how people understand the role of someone like Keiji Inafune for the Mega Man series. Inafune wasn’t the “father of Mega Man” as he was popularly described by games media through the 90s and 2000s in the sense that he created the character entirely on his own, but many of those early interviews made it sound like he was the most prominent member of the team. To Inafune’s credit, I don’t see this as a misunderstanding born from malice, as he himself clarified that his mentor Akira Kitamura was the one who initially designed the character all the way back in 2007. I may have a more charitable view of the man than most though – despite not being the most instrumental team member of the original games, he absolutely took on a father-like role for the series that likely kept it chugging along through its highest highs and lowest lows. It’s telling to me that Capcom hasn’t treated the character the same way since Inafune’s departure, even if they are attempting to build the brand up again. When it comes to analyzing the initial games, however, Inafune’s situation provides a good reminder that it’s important to think beyond just what the popular understandings of a game’s creation process may be.
So if there are so many different potential pitfalls when it comes to using the words of creators, how should they be used? How much weight should be given to random comments and should they be taken as truths at all? I dunno.
Ok, actually, I have some thoughts on this subject.
I do think creators’ words should be used if possible, at least depending on what you want to talk about. Right now, my focus has been on capturing a game in a holistic way, as in what I believe the game is like and what it’s trying to convey. I’ve often seen this approach in literary essays or even just forewords for books – the authors of these writings tend to characterize the book through a mini biography of what the actual book’s author was going through at the time. There are other approaches that don’t necessarily need the original author, “death of the author” approaches to works are also very common, but those kinds of writings generally say more about the person writing them than anything about the work. As for what I want to convey, I prefer writing things with a mix of both aspects of those styles.
That being the case, my current approach to game writing leans into the subjective nature of both my writing and what developers themselves say. I use the developers’ words more as a guide for my own interpretation rather than attempting to argue a definitive truth about a game. For example, last year I wrote a review of Deadly Premonition 2 for a website that like most other video game websites, focuses on what I’d call a “consumer review” style. “Consumer reviews” explain what an individual reviewer liked and disliked about a game, ending with a final recommendation and usually a score. That’s what I did, however I also heavily relied on my own interpretation of who the game’s director, Hidetaka Suehiro, is as a person. I formed this interpretation based on playing his prior body of work, reading the things he has said, and even having my own brief interactions with him over social media. You could call it the starting point for the articles I’m writing now – I dropped the “consumer review” angle and emphasize that there are other ways to communicate about and understand games.
Communication in any form involves expressing thoughts and feelings. Unless you’re the person doing the communicating, however, it’s unlikely that you will be able grasp everything the person wants communicate. Earlier I brought up that a language barrier makes it more difficult for people to understand each other, but the truth is that even if people are speaking the same language, misunderstandings happen often. Frankly, it’s hard enough for anyone to 100% understand themselves, so how can we expect someone else to do a better job?
Between the developer’s words, my interpretation of a game guided by those words, and the readers interpreting what I’ve written, there’s multiple layers of understanding and potential misunderstanding going on. No one’s understanding of any individual layer is going to be perfect and both the people being interpreted and those doing the interpreting are always evolving their understanding of themselves and others. For that reason, I don’t claim to be an ultimate authority on anything and I’m always open to changing my analysis approach. Ideally, people should always keep in mind the imperfect nature of communication, both as readers and writers.
I believe that should be the approach people have in general when it comes to using the words of others, whether it’s for a written article or simply writing a tweet. It’s fine to use words as starting points for your own understandings while also keeping in mind that it should be backed up by other things. Some off-hand comment said a decade ago, however, should not be immortalized as some constant truth to be spouted repeatedly whenever the person who said it shows up in a news cycle. It’s important to understand that words alone won’t tell you the full story, and fiercely clinging onto them isn’t healthy for discussing video games or anything else for that matter.