Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Archive for December 16th, 2010

The Legend of Miyamoto

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For reasons known only to itself, The New Yorker has evidently decided that the best way to write about video games is to assign these stories to writers who emphatically have no gaming experience. This approach, which wouldn’t be tolerated for any other art form, high or low, has already resulted in this notorious article by Nicholson Baker—one of my favorite living writers, but clearly unequipped to say anything interesting about Red Dead Redemption. And now we have Nick Paumgarten’s disappointing profile of Shigeru Miyamoto, which is a huge missed opportunity, in more ways than one.

Miyamoto, the creator of the Mario and Zelda franchises and the greatest video game designer of all time, has often been compared to Walt Disney, an accolade he shares with his fellow genius Hayao Miyazaki. (Miyamoto and Miyazaki also share a deep nostalgia for the forests and villages of rural Japan, an abiding affection that shows up throughout their work.) Miyamoto is an artist, a storyteller, an engineer, and a visionary, and he’s exactly the sort of creative force that the readers of The New Yorker ought to know more about. The fact that Paumgarten scored only a brief interview with Miyamoto, which he pads out to feature length with pages of unenlightening digressions, is only the most disappointing thing about the profile. A single glimpse of one of Miyamoto’s sketches for Zelda would be more interesting than anything on display here.

Still, there are a few moments worth mentioning. Here’s Miyamoto on calibrating the difficulty of a game, and how important it is to incorporate quiet moments alongside every challenge:

A lot of the so-called action games are not made that way…All the time, players are forced to do their utmost. If they are challenged to the limit, is it really fun for them?…[In Miyamoto's own games] you are constantly providing the players with a new challenge, but at the same time providing them with some stages or some occasions where they can simply, repeatedly, do something again and again. And that can be a joy.

This is especially good advice for writers in genres, such as suspense, that place a premium on intensity. A few strategically timed breaks in the action, which give the reader a moment of breathing room, can make the rest of the novel read much more quickly. The key, as Miyamoto knows, is putting yourself in the position of a person approaching a work of art for the first time:

I always remind myself, when it comes to a game I’m developing, that I’m the perfect, skillful player. I can manipulate all this controller stuff. So sometimes I ask the younger game creators to try playing the games they are making by switching their left and right hands. In that way, they can understand how inexperienced the first-timer is.

Similarly, once a writer has internalized the plot of a novel, it can be hard to see it with fresh eyes. One solution is to set the book aside for a month and read it again once the memory of the story has faded. Another approach, which I’ve done a few times, is to read a sequence of chapters in reverse, or at random, which often reveals problems or repetitions that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

Finally, here’s Paumgarten on one of my favorite topics, the importance of constraints as a creative tool:

Mario, [Miyamoto's] most famous creation, owes his appearance to the technological limitations of the first Donkey Kong game. The primitive graphics—there were hardly enough pixels to approximate a human form—compelled Miyamoto to give Mario white gloves and red overalls (so that you could see his arms swing), a big bushy mustache and a red hat (to hide the fact that engineers couldn’t yet do mouths or hair that moved), and a big head (to exaggerate his collisions). Form has always followed functionality. The problem now, if you want to call it one, is the degree of functionality. [Italics mine.]

This is a nice, crucial point. And it applies to more than video games. The limitations that made Mario so distinctive are the same ones that led to the look of Mickey Mouse, among so many other stars of early animation. One problem with the recent availability of beautifully rendered computer graphics is that character design is becoming a lost art. Even the best recent Pixar, Disney, and DreamWorks films have suffered from this: they can render every hair on a character’s head, but can’t make the character itself a memorable one. (Kung Fu Panda may be the last computer-animated movie with really distinctive character designs.)

So are video games art? Paumgarten glances at the subject only briefly, but with all due respect to Roger Ebert, there’s no doubt in my mind that the best video games are indeed art. At least, that’s the only explanation I have for something like Super Mario Galaxy, which is one of the few recent works, in any medium, that has filled me with something like my childhood envy for those who get to spend their lives telling stories. (The J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek is another.) Miyamoto’s great skill, as the article reminds us, is to bring us back to the best moments of our childhood. And while not all art needs to aspire to this, the world definitely needs art that does.

“Do you have a restless urge to write?”

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On Monday, I was browsing the dollar bin at the Housing Works Bookstore—possibly my favorite bookstore in Manhattan, aside, of course, from the Strand—when I found a paperback copy of Couples by John Updike. (It’s Updike’s trashiest novel, and probably his best, or at least the only one I feel the urge to read again every year.) Inside the book was tucked a copy of the following advertisement. Click on the image below for more detail:

And here’s the other side:

Bennett Cerf was one of the most famous publishers of his time—I still have fond memories of his Book of Laughs—but if the Famous Writers School looks like something of a scam, well, it was. Jessica Mitford, whose American Way of Death is one of the great classics of investigative journalism, wrote a savage takedown of the school in the Atlantic Monthly that is still worth reading today. Basically, and I’m simplifying only a little here, the school would employ salesmen to convince housewives to pay $900 for a correspondence course that they could have obtained at a local college for a fraction of the price. None of the writers pictured in the advertisement ever looked at students’ assignments, which were graded by an overworked staff of freelancers. And the school’s entire business model depended on the fact that few students would ever finish the course.

Yet thousands of people still signed up. And I can’t help but be reminded of this story in light of yesterday’s announcement that the Curtis Brown Agency is opening its own writing school, charging students $2,500 apiece for a three-month writing workshop. The big lure: “Stand-out students will be offered representation.” Of course, there’s no telling how many students will be signed by the agency, or to what extent this workshop is intended primarily to generate revenues at a difficult time for publishing. But even if the workshop is everything it promises, it still raises the question of how useful any kind of paid education is for writers. Is the Curtis Brown workshop, or the Famous Writers School, any better or worse than a standard MFA program?

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never taken a formal writing class, despite having gone to a college populated by more than its share of established and aspiring novelists. And my gut instinct is to say that such classes, aside from the professional connections they might (or might not) provide, are probably unnecessary for the majority of writers. What a writer needs, above all else, is readers—a handful of intelligent people who will criticize and praise the writer’s work in appropriate measure. A writer needs to read—the great, good, and indifferent books of all eras, as well as a few of the best books on writing itself. And a writer needs to write—as often as possible, ideally every day. A formal class is primarily useful, it seems to me, in providing a structured setting for these three things, which any sufficiently motivated writer could probably find on his or her own. (Which is why a correspondence course like that of the Famous Writers School, which advertises itself as “a class of one,” is presumably not the best option.)

It might be argued that the same principle applies to any kind of formal education, at least in the humanities: with access to a library, interesting friends, and a lot of personal discipline, a student can receive more or less the same education that he or she would receive as a college undergraduate. (T.S. Eliot, among others, was openly contemptuous of the idea of studying English literature in college, which might be done equally well, or so he argued, in the student’s spare time.) Of course, without the social and professional benefits of an accredited program, it’s going to be hard to find work as, say, a professor of classics. But writing is one of the few professional fields that still welcomes autodidacts—which is one of the things that makes it so interesting, and terrifying.

In the end, every writer, even a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, is essentially self-taught. Which is why I feel that the best way might still be to go it alone. (If you’re serious about being a writer, you’ll eventually find yourself going it alone anyway.)

Quote of the Day

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When you know what you can do, do something else.

—Rudyard Kipling, quoted by Edmund Wilson

Written by nevalalee

December 16, 2010 at 8:06 am

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