Designer Lenses

A Review of Jennifer deWinter’s Shigeru Miyamoto

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Chris is a Ph.D Candidate at the University of Waterloo researching gamification until he figures out how to make money doing just middle-state publication. He’s also beaten the original Super Mario Bros. Twice.  bio-twitter

“Beware of Heroes.”

Frank Herbert offers these words as an overarching thesis for his novel Dune, which chronicles the exploits of Paul Atreides as he rises, unwittingly, to his destiny as an intergalactic messiah, fuelled by prophecies of genocide he can foresee, but can no longer forestall.

These are words to live by.

In that spirit, I am deeply skeptical of the video game designer as auteur;as hero.  This is not to say that I doubt that artistry or genius manifests in certain talented and hardworking individuals within the industry; hell, I follow Hideo Kojima on Twitter, too.  Rather, I am skeptical of the way in which we lionize these individuals and put all of our hopes and expectations for what games can be upon their mortal, fallible shoulders.  I am even more skeptical of the way that everyone else working under these individuals gets swept under the rug in spite of their own irreplaceable contributions to the virtual experiences we cherish.  Hero worship in the games industry widens the disconnect between the people that run the studios and the people who keep them running, and thus contributes to the perpetuation of inchoate, privileged screed like this, horror stories like this, and the propping up of disreputable characters like this.

That and if I read one more fucking paper where BioShock is cited with “Ken Levine” as the author of the game, I’m going to take my ball and go home.  Or maybe I’ll start putting my name on the articles I edit for FPS, contributors be damned.  A Hideo Kojima game.  A Chris Lawrence commentary.  Has a nice ring to it.

So you could say I went in with more than my fair share of cynicism when I sat down to begin Jennifer deWinter’s Shigeru Miyamoto, the first in a series called Influential Video Game Designers.  The testimonies on the back cover worried me a bit, as they seem to focus more on the individual than his work, and one of the endorsements even posits that Miyamoto is “rather unknown to the public.”  I haven’t got the data to refute this claim outright, but Miyamoto’s about as close to household name as this industry’s got.  As games stretch towards cultural ubiquity (Bogost 154), Miyamoto’s alleged obscurity becomes steadily more challenging to defend.

Still, don’t judge a book by it’s cover, right?  I expected solid research, to learn cool new things, and an excellent critical take on some of Nintendo’s most famous games.  I did not expect to come away with a convincing answer for why this book needed to be written in the first place.  There are countless brilliant and creative women and men in the industry whose achievements would fill thicker books than the trim volume resting in my hands.  But Miyamoto?  The guy everyone (allegedly) already knows?  I worried that this book, like so many books, articles, interviews, and editorials before it, existed to keep the legend going, to further enshrine Miyamoto as the God Emperor of the Republic of Video Games.

But this is not a book about Shigeru Miyamoto.  This is something so much more interesting.

I knew I was wrong  from the introduction, where series editors deWinter and Carly A. Kocurek explain how they “aim to contribute to the study of and discourse surrounding game design by focusing on human agents,” (xi).  The designers, then, are merely the lenses through which deWinter and Kocurek focus squarely upon theories of design.  The rest of the book fulfils this statement of purpose faithfully.  

Only the first chapter is especially biographical.  From the beginning deWinter acknowledges that this is an origin story that has been told many times before (4), and as such, she keeps it brief.  Instead, this chapter serves mostly to situate Miyamoto’s philosophies of design and play in relation to his cultural, technological, professional, and experiential influences (8).  This chapter also takes the time to point out some interesting cultural context that informs Nintendo’s game design: the verb play in Japanese has no age-oriented bias as it does in the west.  As deWinter observes, “while in the United States, play among adults tends to be used only when speaking of sports, Japanese people will use play for a range of activities that English typically sidesteps with ‘go see,’ ‘hang out,’ or ‘go have fun,’” (13).  This goes a long way to contextualizing Nintendo’s long-running efforts to target wider age demographics than its western-based competitors.

Crucially, deWinter openly criticizes the auteur image of Miyamoto as misrepresentative of what he actually does.  She writes, “The mythology around Miyamoto tends to emphasize, rather, his artistic nature: he plays banjo and guitar; he likes manga and wants to become a manga artist; he is a long-haired free spirit,” (17).  Instead, she emphasizes his credentials in industrial design, signaling early on that this is a book about a process rather than a person.

There’s a short transcript of Miyamoto’s 1999 GDC Keynote at the other end of the book, but the meat of this volume is a careful look at the games that defined my childhood (and my adulthood, but we’ll get to those).  Outside of these bookends, deWinter largely steps away from Miyamoto’s perspective to focus on the evolution of the games he helped create, with special emphasis on Nintendo’s two most famous IPs: Mario and Zelda.

Chapter 2, “Spatial Narratives” distinguishes the design goals of these series by comparing the first games of each on the NES.  deWinter categorizes the discrete levels of Super Mario Bros. as playgrounds which emphasize verticality–jumping–for both navigation and discovery within an overall linear narrative (39).  On the other hand The Legend of Zelda, whose protagonist is conspicuously incapable of jumping, is structured around discovery and free exploration within a larger and more open environment where the narrative revolves not around going forward but rather figuring out where to go, and how to get there (41).  This was when I fully realized that my initial wariness of the volume was entirely unjustified.

Familiar franchises these are, but the criticism provided here is robust, productive, and celebrates the evolution of game design itself rather than Miyamoto’s CV.  As deWinter prefaces, “Writing about game designers as single auteurs with a vision is often difficult because game designers usually work closely with others, including producers who have design input, co-directors, teams of designers, and even hardware designers,” (35).  When deWinter pauses momentarily from game design criticism, and turns instead towards Miyamoto’s motivations and design choices, she never portrays him as having worked in a vacuum.  Instead she emphasizes his work as a collaborator, be it with his mentor Gunpei Yokoi (5), his peers Takashi Tezuka and Toshihiko Nakago (35), or his eventual successor as director of the Legend of Zelda series, Eiji Aonuma (95).

Importantly, deWinter doesn’t shy away from instances where Miyamoto misses the mark.  In a section on Wii Music and the Mario Artist series for the Nintendo 64DD, she observes that such games “speak more to the fact that Miyamoto simply provided too much freedom and not enough objectives,” (72), echoing Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s definition of games as “free movement within a more rigid structure” (300).  I’m glad to see that deWinter resists simply cherry picking critical darlings from Nintendo’s back catalogue and takes the time to describe examples where Miyamoto’s design philosophy doesn’t quite come together.

There is a notable influence from Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost’s Platform Studies series of books, as deWinter affords regular consideration to the ever-evolving but always-constrained hardware affordances with which these games go hand-in-hand.  As an example, she relates how Miyamoto was tasked with repurposing a large inventory of unsold arcade cabinets Nintendo had lying around for an unpopular game–Radar Scope.  The existing cabinet’s control scheme and inability to support side-scrolling graphics influenced the design of Donkey Kong, which featured a jumping protagonist and vertical level structure (31).  Likewise, The Legend of Zelda’s development for the Famicom Disk System, which allowed for game progress to be saved, encouraged the development of a longer, more complicated game which could be completed over multiple sessions (42).

This attention toward platform affordances is particularly important when deWinter shifts the discussion toward the Wii.  In “Chapter 4: Revolutionizing Gameplay,” she discusses how Miyamoto’s paired involvement in both hardware and software development at Nintendo leads to uniquely tailored play experiences in first-party Wii games (84).  She uses the relative simplicity of the Wii Remote compared to traditional game controllers to frame how Super Mario Galaxy and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess make use of considerably more complex 3D environments than their 2D progenitors but maintain a level of accessibility that allows them to be approached by a wider demographic than other companies typically target.  This chapter makes a strong case for the designer as a critical lens, as Miyamoto stands among a minority of game developers in the position to influence both hardware and software design choices.

If there’s one section of the book I can live without, it’s the 31-page “Gameography” nestled between the main text and the bibliography.  This is a listing of nearly every game Miyamoto has worked on through his decades-long career, with longer entries for the titles over which he had more direct influence.  This section is handy enough as a quick reference, but I don’t believe that this list will satisfy anybody.  The statistical data is easily found elsewhere on the internet in greater detail (the sales figures, for example, are explicitly credited to vgchartz.com).  Worse still, some of the numbers don’t quite add up: The Legend of Zelda is given at least two separate North American release dates–one in the text proper, another in the gameography.  Miyamoto’s design credits are given handy summaries, but again, more thorough information can easily be found on the web.  These pages would have been better spent examining another one or two of Miyamoto’s titles with the same level of critical scrutiny afforded to Mario and Zelda throughout the book.

Overall, however, there’s something for everybody here.  Aspiring game designers can learn much from deWinter’s close scrutiny of Mario and Zelda’s game worlds, or her interface-focused look at Nintendo’s Wii catalogue.  Nintendo’s unique synthesis of hardware and software design has led to meteoric rises and falls alike (just compare the Wii and Wii U), and deWinter sheds some much-needed light on this process.  Gaming scholars will appreciate her rigorous critical look at the platform-focused design these games, which are all too often left alone as masterpieces beyond the reach of serious inquiry.  Fans will appreciate the history and the context provided by Miyamoto’s design philosophy, which always complements and never overshadows the analysis.   Finally, the descriptive, accessible prose lends itself easily to a variety of classrooms without alienating students of any discipline.  

Though I retain some cynicism about the decision to start this series out with Miyamoto, I can appreciate the virtue of the choice.  Sure, the name will move copies, but there’s more at work here.  With the emphasis on the design over the designer, the collaborator over the auteur, what we ultimately have in deWinter’s book is a quiet demystification of Miyamoto, specifically, and larger-than-life designers in general.  I think that’s fantastic.  All the same, I’m pleased to see that the next two planned books in the series step away from the overwhelming incandescence of someone like Miyamoto to feature a pair of designers I think ought to be talked about more: Jane Jensen (who worked on some of Sierra Online’s most popular point-and-clicks back in the day) and Brenda Laurel (who stands at the crossroads of game design, business, and scholarship and was an early designer of games made specifically for young girls).

As wary as I am of heroes, there’s nothing to beware with this volume.  This isn’t another book about heroes.  It’s an excellent work of games criticism.  It is criticism viewed through designer lenses.

Works Cited

Bogost, Ian. How to Do Things with Videogames. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, Print.

deWinter, Jennifer. Shigeru Miyamoto: Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, The Legend of ZeldaEds. Carly A. Kocurek and Jennifer deWinter. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. Print.

Herbert, Frank. Dune. Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1965. Print.

Montfort, Nick, and Ian Bogost. Racing the Beam: the Atari Video Computer System.

Cambridge; MA: MIT Press, 2009. Print.

Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge; Mass: MIT Press, 2003. Print.