book review

Power Up, a review

In Power Up Chris Kohler sets out to discover why Japanese video games have very popular in the United States for a long time. From the start he attributes this success to the introduction of narrative and cinematic elements. American games from the seventies featured blocky and often abstract game elements, a stark contrast to the character driven titles with which Japanese companies conquered the United States in the early eighties. According to Kohler Donkey Kong is the first game that incorporates a full narrative, complete with beginning, middle and end.

Kohler, who holds an academic degree in Japanese, takes us through an interesting tour through Japan and its game industry to uncover the strengths of Japanese game design. This tour contains the early history (chapter 2), a detailed discussion of Nintendo's games of the eighties and early nineties (chapter 3), role-playing games (chapter 4) and music games (chapter 5). It even goes as far as containing a shopping guide to Akihabara, Tokyo's game district (chapter 7). The book is build up from many interviews with Japanese game designers and a few Westerners working in Japan. Most notably Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto's quotes and philosophy return throughout the book. Power Up is an informed piece of work that details a stark contrast in Japanes and Western design philosophy.

This contrast is most prominent in the "tale of two gaijin" Dylan Cuthbert and Giles Goddard (chapter 6). Both men came from the British and technological innovative company Argonaut, which succeeded in creating a 3D games on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and Game Boy. Their technical expertise won them a stay in Japan where they teamed up with Nintendo's top designers to create a few games. In Japan many game designers have a background in arts and industrial design and brought something to the technically advanced games created by Agronaut: fun. Cuthbert ad Goddard end up embracing the Japanese design philosophy and its focus on gameplay and control.

This difference in design philosophy can be explained by difference in the cultural reception of early games in Japan and the United States. In the latter games appealed to a select group of (mostly) young males, it took a long time before it acquired the cultural recognition it has now, whereas in Japan games tied in to shikaku sedai the 'visual generation' that prized manga and anime. Japan has a culture in which visual and fantastic cultural artefacts are part of the mainstream and taken seriously. The distinct anime style which is considered 'cute' in the West has none of these degenerative connotations in Japan. This is why Miyamoto, who initially wanted to design toys, was hired by Nintendo to design the casing of game consoles and later moved on to designing games, with no actual programming experience. Atari would not have hired a designer like Miyamoto.

Kohler makes it evident that early Japanese games introduced cutscenes, full story development and fleshed out and human(like) characters. Japanese games drew elements directly from cinematic practice, and started using title rolls for credits and integrate the title with the first few sequences of play. In a number of detailed analyses Kohler shows how a number of these game construct their stories and used cinematic elements such as credit rolls and title screens that are integrated in the first few sequences of play. However, Kohler's narrative analyses would not withstand the scrutiny of even the mildest ludologist. Narrative theory is reduced to the ancient structure of beginning middle and end combined with some rudimentary knowledge of film theory. This is applied to a few scenes that open and close the games, and little attention is paid to the rather lengthy part that connects them: the actual gameplay.

This omission becomes even more painful when a lot of the Japanese designers interviewed by Kohler actually downplay the role of the narrative in favour of the role of gameplay or control. This quality of games is not sought in technology or story but in the interface, in the activity of the player which should be fun and interesting. As Miyamoto himself is quoted saying: "The first and most important part of creating a game should be creating the interface. A good game has to be fun to play." (p. 273). In the tenth and concluding chapter Kohler acknowledges this importance of control, but his simple equation that control and story are one and the same (p. 273) is to easy. It is an interesting proposition, for sure, but nowhere in Power Up is this idea pursued. Even in those places where it should have been.

Kohler hails the game ICO as an important step in the development of games that tell stories (p. 256). In this game the player controls a thirteen year old boy who guides an apparently blind sixteen year old girl through a castle filled with weird machinery. Their story which is very much about the relationship between the boy and the girl is told mainly by the way they boy directs the girl through the labyrinth. It is a game where control over a different body is used as an in-game metaphor, tying the gameplay directly to its dramatic development. This set up does more to "reach a comparable level of emotional involvement, by emphasizing the things that only video games can deliver" (p. 256) than any cinematic or narrative elements that are described by Kohler.

All in all, Power Up is an interesting and fairly easy read. It provides the reader with an invaluable insight in Japanese games and culture. For this Kohler should receive all praise. But it falls short in the analyses of the narrative elements, focussing to much on primitive theories of narratives and doing little to show how these are (or might be) integrated to a quintessential aspect of Japanese games: gameplay or control or flow.

Chris Kohler (2005) Power Up, How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life. Indianapolis, Brady Games