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if i didn't grow up with it, it didn't exist - c is for cookie, but that is insufficient
January 2010
Fri, Dec. 31st, 2004 02:53 pm
if i didn't grow up with it, it didn't exist

I'm tired of people mentioning Dragon Quest without mentioning Ultima or Wizardry.

I have just finished reading Chris Kohler's book "Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life." In it, he makes the claim that, "Prior to Donkey Kong, there were zero video games with [the beginning/middle/end] narrative structure." Donkey Kong was released, according to the Killer List of Videogames, in 1981. The fact that he can spend pages analyzing and praising Donkey Kong's primitive narrative without once mentioning the fact that there was an entire genre called interactive fiction invented nearly ten years earlier in 1972 damn near infuriates me. Hell, you had the first RPG and first graphic adventure come out the year before. Don't tell me Shigeru Miyamoto invented the videogame narrative, because that's just bullshit. Undoubtedly, he was the first to bring it to the arcades, but not to the whole damned medium.

And don't tell me that Nintendo was wary about releasing Dragon Quest to the US because they didn't think American kids could handle it, without mentioning that Dragon Quest was essentially a watered-down version of Ultima, a game written by a then-20-year-old American.

Because of the way the history of videogames has developed, every amateur videogame historian looks almost exclusively at their niche. Look past your nostalgia, people. Emulation has made it possible to have the entire history of all videogames in your goddamned living room. It's time we started sifting through it. The closest thing this medium has to a textbook, "The Ultimate History of Videogames", appears to leave out computer games almost entirely.

Back to the book. Kohler produces pretty compelling evidence that the Japanese school of videogames -- one focussed on visual design, and cohesive experience -- produces compelling videogames. This is his basic thesis, I think -- the book was originally called "The Cinematic Japanese Videogame" -- and so on that level, he succeeds. But as the book goes on, he begins to give the Japanese credit for inventing pretty much any positive aspect of any videogame that he has ever enjoyed. The book examines Japanese videogames almost entirely in a vacuum, even though many of the raw ideas used in them are basically American ideas, distilled and re-imagined through manga glasses, and handed back to us. It's difficult to deny that North American games influenced the development of Japanese ones -- three years after Ultima 4 introduced the idea of asking questions and gauging the player's character, Dragon Quest III up and did the exact same thing.

I'm not belittling the accomplishments of Japanese game designers -- they took these scattered ideas and turned them into fantastic things, whereas North American game designers have tended to take these scattered ideas and turn them into muddled and confused games. I'm just saying, if you're going to write a book about what makes Japanese games so uniquely great, then give credit where credit is due. Miyamoto came up with many wonderous ideas that took decades to have the life squished out of them; you don't need to make it out like he was the only one who ever thought a videogame might have a narrative. He did more interesting things than that.

Anyway, Chris Kohler, I guess my point is that I'm not ashamed to own your book, but I would have liked it better if you'd have thought through your conclusions a bit more instead of including that chapter on Akihabara and spending eight pages detailing a non-comprehensive list of Final Fantasy soundtracks.

Current Mood: banjo
Current Music: Brian Wilson [SMiLE]


Fri, Dec. 31st, 2004 11:07 pm (UTC)

err.. dragon quest.

Sat, Jan. 1st, 2005 04:25 pm (UTC)

You're not even trying to sound like an armchair videogame historian. You didn't even namedrop Yuji Horii!

ReplyThread Parent
Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh
Sun, Jan. 2nd, 2005 03:34 am (UTC)

It's Kohler. I mean.

There's also the question about what narrative means in the context of a videogame, also. I mean. Miyamoto himself was inspired by Pac-Man, which has a very constrained narrative structure in comparison to Western games at the time. Iwata, in turn, was inspired by Galaxian, which was an advanced version of Space Invaders, which again was focused and limited in comparison to the American shooters at the time.

It's hard not to argue that what the Japanese did, in general, was take American ideas and hone them, to make the narrative the focal point (whereas the narrative was just... there, previously, in an inobvious sense). It's not just Miyamoto, though.

And, as you say, this is just the console/arcade scene.

Sun, Jan. 2nd, 2005 04:34 am (UTC)

Well, he manages to do a pretty thorough job of not arguing that. Though he really doesn't argue the history of it at all, until he starts babbling in his conclusory chapter.

Reading his various arguments where he almost kind of gets it brought a lot of things into pretty sharp focus for me, which I'd previously just not given much thought to. So, I'm kind of inadvertantly better for having read it.

The split between computer and console/arcade games really bugs me, though. It's not just Kohler, obviously. Someone needs to sit down with a great big pile of emulators and start sifting. I would love to map out game design trends on various platforms and watch the influences bounce around. A real history of electronic gaming.

I mean, doesn't anyone else want to see what the Japanese were doing with the MSX while the Americans were pushing their C64s and the Europeans their beloved Speccy? Just as the console market was crashing?

ReplyThread Parent
Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh
Sun, Jan. 2nd, 2005 12:52 pm (UTC)

That would be nice. The problem is now (and I'm a part of it), those few who study this field tend to specialize heavily, according to their interests. In Kohler's case, it's Nintendo and... well, Nintendo. I'm a shotgun of a lot of unconnected stuff; mostly Japanese, some American -- basically whatever's hit me in the right way.

Although it should be possible for one person to digest the full breadth in some way, it's hard. There's just so much to study and dwell on, even in the narrow corners we find.

Probably the best solution is to rally together a dozen experts on different elements of the puzzle, then find some way to edit their stories into a coherent and well-balanced whole.

I think once something like that is just out there, for the digestion, it'll be a lot easier to keep track of the connections. If in doubt, just look it up and maybe expand on or reframe what's written for whatever specific you're thinking about.

ReplyThread Parent
Fri, May. 15th, 2009 12:21 am (UTC)

Just to revive this ancient thing (apm was making trouble linking to this.)

Its been a while since I've read "Power Up", but thinking about your counterexamples to Donkey Kong...

I think there's some kind of argument to be made, not about computer games vs arcade and console, but in terms of games where physics and/or motion and/or timing matter, and those that don't. I don't mean to push this so far as to define Text Adventures and Turn-based tile-y games as non-games but... I guess I'm inclined to give Kohler a pass based on that, at least on this point.

(I'm aware of this because when I think about what I care about in games, and what I don't, and especially in the games I end up making, I care about 50 times more about what seperates DK from DK jr than what separates Ulitma 3 from Ultima 4. If what makes a game great was done by an artist or writer, I'm less interested than when it was something new by a coder...

What was an less focused/less limited American shooter that predates Space Invaders?

ReplyThread Parent
Fri, May. 15th, 2009 06:51 pm (UTC)

I mostly just made up the phrase "Richard Garriott denialist" and had to justify it somehow.

I'm not trying to claim that Donkey Kong wasn't innovative -- absolutely it was! -- but to claim that there were ZERO videogames that had NARRATIVE before 1981 is just ignorant. I reject the notion that it doesn't count as "videogame narrative" if it's not realtime -- the reason I used the counterexamples that I did is because their narratives are much more advanced than Donkey Kong's.

If you want a counterexample that's a realtime action game, let's say 1979's Superman, by Atari. Beginning: Bridge is blown up! Turn into SUPERMAN! Middle: Fly around arresting bad guys and rebuilding bridge. End: The day is saved! Turn back to Clark Kent and file your story.

I mean, this was a half hour of poking around on Mobygames. The man just never looked at anything done by an American in his research.

I'd say Spacewar! was a less focused / less limited American shooter, and it predates everything.

ReplyThread Parent
Fri, May. 15th, 2009 06:54 pm (UTC)

Yeah, you're pretty much right, and I'm not sure why I was even pseudo-defending him... it was an interesting claim for its boldness, even as was full of holes. Though DK might've been introducing... I dunno, cut scenes?

ReplyThread Parent
Fri, May. 15th, 2009 08:55 pm (UTC)


DK's narrative innovation was this: Pre-Donkey Kong, arcade games were "the game gets harder forever until you lose" affairs. Donkey Kong was still that way, mechanically -- but narratively, you "won" the game every three levels. You defeated the monkey and got the girl. It's a nice little idea.

It was also a very nice touch that the cut-scenes actually functioned as instruction -- the monkey climbs up the level, girl yells help, the player gains control. Obviously your goal is to climb up the level and get the girl. It's a subtle addition that adds a lot. Contrast with Superman, where you don't even know what the hell is going on unless you've read the manual.

ReplyThread Parent
Fri, May. 15th, 2009 09:18 pm (UTC)

yeah, even as i hit post i started wondering which came first, DK or Pac-Man.

actually in the context of what you just said, that HOW HIGH CAN YOU GET? (*narf*) intermezzo is kind of weird.

Both Pac-Man and DK were so great in terms of A/V! Pac-Man's look I thought lasted super well, and the foot steps FX of DK... just so brilliant.

ReplyThread Parent