By Meghan Ellis.
Continuing the trend of people telling us all about the untold history of Japanese things, The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers by John Szczepaniak sets out to educate Western readers on the pitfalls and practices of the games industry in Japan. Taking the form of a collection of interviews following a loose chronology of the interviewee’s creations, it attempts to present a “wealth of untold anecdotes” from the people involved in video games. It also claims to be free from the spectre of PR that’s so prevalent in other interviews on the same subject.
Many of the interviews are interesting, insightful, and at times poignant; Szczepaniak started this project when he realised that many gaming giants were beginning to pass away, and he felt it was important to document their experiences and cultural significance before it was too late. There’s a rather nice memorial page to some of the more well-known faces, including Gunpei Yokoi, Nintendo legend and inventor of the D-pad and Gameboy.
However, the quality of the interviews – and indeed their transcription and translation – varies widely. In some cases, far from feeling like a fly on the wall, interviews are presented as though you’re eavesdropping on an intimate conversation to which you haven’t been invited, and you probably shouldn’t even be in the building. It’s doubly frustrating when large swathes of text are omitted or redacted, which happens fairly often.
I couldn’t help thinking that while all this must have been very enjoyable for Szczepaniak, it offers readers merely a tantalising glimpse into parts of the conversation that clearly inspired controversy or at the very least, offended the general sense of Japanese “behind-closed-doors”.
My favourite interview of the book might be with Professor Akinori Nakamura of Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, who’s involved in the Game Archive Project that aims to preserve the chronology and history of early video games. His work involves building a comprehensive library of all the Famicom (the Japanese NES system) games that existed, a project which brought him into close contact with many of the important figures in Nintendo, including then-president Hiroshi Yamauchi. His remarks and offhand comments about the way the industry works are professional, academic, yet also humorous, and his enthusiasm for his project is an infectious read.
For many gaming enthusiasts, the appeal won’t be in the long lists of works printed meticulously beside each interview, or even the prestige of the interviewees themselves. Rather, it stems from these small insights that are told almost like an afterthought: the 20-24 hour days spent working in the office, the tatami mat rooms most software companies build to accommodate unofficially living at work; the unwritten rules of the profession that perpetuated the industry in its formative years. These are the things many people know but not many people talk about – the PR-free information that Szczepaniak promised to glean from his casual, often bar-based discussions.
Interestingly, The Untold History of Japanese Game Designers was born from Kickstarter, offering higher tier backers the chance to become guest editors or even pose a question to their favourite person in video games (although the questions are generally so sensible I suspect they’ve been curated with the heavy hand of an editor).
What the book’s successful backing proves, though, is an interest beyond Japan for the obscurities of video game production in the 1970s, 1980s and beyond, a fact which seems to surprise the majority of the game designers interviewed in the book. It’s clearly a labour of love that appears to have been done largely single-handedly, with the added pressure of backers watching Szczepaniak’s every move, as well as surprising amount of caution from the interviewees themselves. It’s plain to see that this wasn’t an easy undertaking by any means.
Does The Untold History of Japanese Game Designers live up to its promise of providing a “wealth of untold anecdotes”? Perhaps, but as you’ll see from some of the more esoteric or mania-driven interviews, maybe they’ve been left untold for a reason.
The Untold History of Japanese Game Designers is out now from SMG Szczepaniak.