Introductory thoughts: death, inspiration and game developers

Part I – On notable deaths

The past few years have been pretty traumatic for pop-culture aficionados. Fans and creators alike are living through an unprecedentedly gloomy time, and that’s ignoring the potential shake-ups to Western culture that current geopolitical situations entail. Nor is this situation due to the sorts of unhappiness that accompany shifting industry paradigms or growing gaps between commercial mainstreams and alternative peripheries. No, the cloud that most darkens the contemporary cultural landscape is far more human in form: it is mortality.

Many have chosen to define 2016 as a bit of a phenomenon in regard to celebrity deaths – how could a single year see so many notable musicians, actors and other personalities pass away? Well, the truth of the matter is that these happenings are more a reflection of the changing nature of celebrity during the 20th century than they are of the volume of noteworthy deaths. The fact is that we have reached a point where ‘Beatlemania’ era stars are now well into old age, meaning that those who emerged during the decades in which mass communications really took off are likely to perish with increased frequency. Whereas entertainers from prior periods had to be exceptionally monumental to cause Transatlantic upset through their deaths, now the passing of almost any ‘somebody’ from the 1960s onwards is liable to cause a stir.

Having said that, I don’t mean to downplay the immense impact some of the recently deceased have had on Western art, entertainment, culture and broadcasting. Bobby Womack, Joe Cocker, Richie Benaud, Christopher Lee, Robin Williams, Terry Pratchett, Leonard Nimoy, BB King, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Harper Lee, George Martin, Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood, Prince, Tony Cozier, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, Leonhard Cohen – all exemplars of their trades, all utterly irreplaceable. It seems highly unlikely that, if you have any cultural interests or passions at all, you won’t have been affected by at least one of these deaths. I can only hope that some have been positively moved by the remembrance and celebrations of these peoples’ lives, and possibly even inspired to embark on creative endeavours of their own.

Part II – On an under-acknowledged creator

This brings me on to the personal bit, as I was just so inspired by the relatively recent passing of an immensely creative individual. However, his death did not pervade the UK mainstream media as much as those listed above, nor was he a typical household name. That’s not to say his death wasn’t noted by the papers or the BBC, but – unlike with Bowie or Rickman or Ali – the national press did not inundate us with retrospectives, tributes and reminiscences. And yet, his influence pervaded almost all of our lives for much of the ’00s, and some of the technological trends he helped to bring into the mainstream remain with us today. Indeed, despite being largely unknown to the uninitiated, his death did send massive shock waves through the biggest entertainment subculture in the world. His name was Satoru Iwata, and he was a gamer.

More specifically, Iwata was the President of Nintendo – perhaps the most famous game hardware and software developers in the world – from 2002 until his death in 2015. An exceptionally gifted programmer who already possessed experience as a company president upon starting his tenure as Nintendo’s chief, Iwata was not interested in continuing to just improve hardware technical specifications or merely boosting company profits. Instead, his desire to work in the industry stemmed from his love for games themselves, and – to paraphrase his own words – he wanted to ensure above all that the games Nintendo made were fun for everyone who played them, and that they were played by all manner of people. Play is vital to the health and happiness of upbringings, relationships and lives, and Satoru Iwata knew this more than most. To quote him directly: “On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.”

Over the past few years, I have shared in the loss of some of my biggest musical heroes, one of my favourite authors, and various actors and comedians who have provided my life with countless moments of merriment. Yet it was the death of Iwata that stung me the most, largely because I did not realise until after the event just how much he had influenced my childhood and subsequent development, and how many of my fondest gaming memories he had helped to fashion. Although the wake of Bowie’s passing brought with it the most widespread display of mournfulness I’ve ever witnessed on the Internet, what I observed across Youtube-video comment sections and online gaming forums regarding Iwata seemed in many cases more personally poignant. It was almost as if all these gamers had suddenly lost a favourite uncle, as well as an inspired creator and inimitable leader.

Part III – On inspiration, personal significance, and cultural immortality

At a time when the world seems increasingly divided, nations grow more exclusionary, and the state of things in general feels pretty dour, thinking about Iwata’s sentiments and philosophy makes me feel a little bit better about humanity. After all, playing games together with others is one of the best ways to build relationships between new acquaintances; if some among us can take up Iwata’s aim to see more people than ever playing together – as was his mission with the DS and Wii consoles – then perhaps we can help make the world a slightly more happy and tolerant place than it currently is. This thought is what has inspired me to finally start turning a life-long dream into a real life endeavour, and come the New Year I will be embarking on my own adventures and explorations within game design.

Fittingly, as I write this, another one of Nintendo’s luminaries is celebrating his 64th birthday. Without doubt the single most famous game designer in history, Shigeru Miyamoto is to my generation what Walt Disney was to children in the mid-20th Century. Strangely enough, a perverse rumour telling of his untimely death in a car crash has been periodically circulated on the Web for the past few years. When I first saw this rumour, it failed to trick me partly due to my sheer disbelief at the statement – how could Miyamoto be dead? Such a claim is as ridiculous as saying David Attenborough is gone, or Stephen Fry, or J. K. Rowling, or… Bowie…

Certain deaths shock us to extreme extents because of how we (to varying degrees) construct our inner worlds around our idols and icons; we often draw from their images and attitudes to form integral ideas about our own identities. Thus, though many have jested about reality crumbling in the wake of Bowie’s demise, in some sense this is arguably true. As such, when Miyamoto truly does pass, my initial skepticism will give way to utter disbelief, and for a while I foresee myself and many others entering a depression brought about not by the loss of a pillar but a foundation stone. For me, the very essence of the gaming world will be fundamentally altered.

The thing is though, David Bowie is (still) happening now: everyday someone discovers for the first time the aural ecstasy of Hunky Dory (1971), Ziggy Stardust (1972) or Low (1977); for years to come, developing minds will continue to be awed by his chameleonic genius and androgynous allure. And though for various reasons it is harder to play ‘old’ games than it is to listen to recorded music from any point in the last century, Iwata’s presence will continue to be felt by new and old gamers for a considerable time to come, due to his vision and influence. For instance, in just a few days time Super Smash Bros. Melee (2001) – a game which Iwata helped weather a storm of development issues in order to make a successful release – will celebrate its 15th birthday. This title has spawned one of the single most passionate subcultures or ‘scenes’ in the gaming world, and the impact it and its successors are having on the rapidly burgeoning field of ‘eSports’ is only growing. In relative terms this is just a small example of Iwata’s legacy, with his pioneering of motion controls and touch-based gaming having a much broader influence – more on that another time.

Concluding comments and the author’s intent

With the idea of the artist’s work being an extension of their own life in mind, let me reconsider what will be felt when Miyomoto really does run out of 1-ups. A slump, surely, and a loss that’ll forever affect the majority of gamers who grew up in the 1980s and ’90s. But just as thousands have spent the past year delving deeper than they ever did before into Bowie’s oeuvre, so too do we have the richest body of gaming treasures to help cheer us up when Shigeru shuffles off, filled with quirkiness and character and pure design brilliance. As with all such life events, our emotions will (hopefully) ‘hit start to continue’, and – as previously intimated – some may be inspired to pursue similar paths, whether to emulate, build on or pay homage to the artist’s life and work.

Through this blog, I intend to keep an account of my attempts at doing just such (though I hope Miyamoto sticks around for a while longer!). From examinations of trends and elements within game design, through observations on gaming culture and its relationship with contemporary life, to a record of my own journey to make a game: this will be an outlet for the intellectual expression of a passion that I have for too long denied proper attention. I do not particularly mind who reads it, and indeed I would hope that it might generate some interest in gaming amongst those who currently have little. In future pieces, I will examine in more detail the lives and impact of Iwata, Miyamoto and many others, but for now I’ll leave off with a thought (tangentially) inspired by another influence of mine from a very different field. Indeed, it is the thought that provided this blog with its name: if we be ‘merely players’, perhaps we should learn to value play a bit more, and thus play better and nicer with one another.




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