Gaming journalist Chris Kohler talks with PGC about his recently released book on Japan's influence in the video game industry.
Win your own copy of Power-Up during our Big Contest on Tuesday, 16 November 2004 at halftime!
As an experienced independent journalist fluent in Japanese, Chris Kohler has contributed his work to Nintendo Official Magazine UK, Wired News, Shonen Jump, Kyoto Journal and other gaming news outlets--both print and online. Chris recently took time out of his busy schedule to discuss his first book, Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life.
PGC: What is the overall theme or issue that Power-Up explores, and how do you feel it differs from other books on the gaming industry?
Chris Kohler: You wouldn't guess it from the title, but Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life is about Japanese video games. It's actually the first English-language book to zero in on the Japanese games industry, and because of that I think it touches on things that other books about video games have ignored.
It's not so much an overarching look at the Japanese games industry or Japanese game design as it is a very long thesis paper; a collection of different chapters dedicated to proving one idea: that Japanese games, having introduced myriad "cinematic" elements into video games, changed the medium forever, and for everyone.
PGC: While Power-Up is not a novel, it shares a "storytelling" structure similar to many the games it analyzes. Could you elaborate on the book's overall structure, and your reasoning behind it?
CK: Since Power-Up grew out of a shorter, academic paper and a subsequent year in Japan, I ended up adding new chapters to existing ones. As such, the book became like a collection of short stories. In the end, I tried to choose the best structure for each chapter individually, which is why you have Chapter 6, A Tale of Two Gaijin, being very similar to something out of Game Over, whereas Chapter 7 is like something out of a travel guide.
I really wanted to try my hand at writing many different types of things, and I figured that it was my book so nobody could stop me. This is not to say that Power-Up is some kind of random pastiche. I was careful with the pacing, and made sure that every different chapter contained vital information that was connected to the thesis.
PGC: Was it difficult to weave anecdotes and analysis into cohesive chapters about Miyamoto and Sakaguchi's games?
CK: That's an excellent observation. If you read those chapters, you'll notice that an integral part of how I went about supporting my arguments was to go scene-by-scene in those early games and show exactly how the designers created narrative, story, character, and other cinematic elements. I felt this was really important because I didn't just want to say "Hey kids, Donkey Kong introduced narrative to the medium of the video game" and then not actually say what narrative was, or how it did it. You shouldn't be taking my word for it, it's my responsibility to prove it.
Problem is, I didn't want the book to come to a total, ponderous halt right after it started, with the reader analyzing black-and-white screenshots for pages on end. So these were weaved into the larger narrative, the story of Miyamoto's tenure at Nintendo, the birth of Final Fantasy.
PGC: Chapter 7, Adventures in Akihabara, dedicates many pages to a gaijin's guide to the electronics HQ of Japan. What compelled you to include what is largely a (fascinating) tangent to the rest of your book?
CK: Whoops, I guess I jumped the gun a little. You're right; in a book filled with tangents, Chapter 7 is the most tangential of them all. I'd always planned to include a chapter on Akihabara, but by the time I was ready to write this I'd shopped for games all over Japan for a good couple of years, and felt like I had some wisdom to pass on to the growing legions of gamers who go abroad with the intent of stocking up on rare (or "rare") collectibles.
Also my memory is total shit, and so if I go back to Japan two years from now I'll need that chapter with me.
PGC: Your personal interviews in Power-Up span over two years. Are there any in particular you wish you could have followed up on closer to the book's completion?
CK: Another good question. I had a very brief interview with Gail Tilden way back in 2002, which was actually about Kirby -- the TV show was just premiering in the US. So of course I hijacked her time and talked about the NES and Pokémon. Sadly, we couldn't spend too much time on that. In the rush to pull the rest of the book together after I got back from Japan, I never followed up with NOA and asked for a lengthier interview. Maybe if we do a revised edition one day. I bet she's got great stories to tell.
PGC: Your book discusses the significance of video game music in Japan, and contrasts it with cookie-cutter Hollywood film soundtracks. Where do you think recent trends in North American game soundtracks fit in (such as popular artists recording original songs for EA sports titles)?
CK: Popular artists recording original songs for EA games is pretty close to what's been going on in Japan for a while, so that's another example of how the Japanese industry is a good predictor of things that will eventually happen in America. Of course, in Japan you mostly have their female vocal superstars recording love ballads for RPGs. I doubt BioWare is going to be calling up Celine Dion anytime soon.
PGC: Do you feel that Western game developers have advanced the cinematic techniques employed by Japanese developers? Will their combined efforts bring respect to games as an art form in the foreseeable future?
CK: It used to be that if a game was from Japan there was a better chance that it was going to be excellent. This is no longer the case -- a lot of it is because Western designers woke up somewhere along the line, but also it's pretty clear that Japan's game industry is in a crunch right now. Budgets and teams are shrinking because the money's just not there, not as much as it used to be. And the games suffer for that, across the board.
But Japan is still doing things that Western designers won't, or can't. When you start seeing American game designers publish something like Feel The Magic XY/XX, call me. To me, Feel The Magic is far more meaningful for the future of the medium of the video game than, say, Halo 2, even if Feel The Magic only sells 1/100th of the copies and gets lower review scores.
PGC: Do you have any plans to write more books about games?
CK: Do you have any plans to buy them?
Buy (multiple copies of) Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life this holiday season, for yourself or for a loved one! If I start getting royalty checks, you can bet that will encourage me to think very hard about writing more. Cheers.