Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for January 9th, 2014

Withered hardware, lateral thinking

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Super Mario Galaxy 2

If the word “Nintendo” is all but synonymous with video games—as in “I’m buying my grandson that new Nintendo from Sony for Christmas”—it owes this largely to the efforts of two men: Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi. Although he was less famous than Miyamoto, Yokoi was responsible for developing a number of hugely important innovations, including the Game Boy, the ubiquitous controller cross pad, and the game Metroid, but his most lasting legacy was a philosophy he called Kareta Gijutsu no Suihei Shikō, or “Lateral thinking with withered technology.” It focuses on finding radical new applications for mature technologies, rather than on inventing new hardware on the cutting edge, and it emphasizes gameplay over processing power. And as Lukas Mathis pointed out in a recent blog post, you can track Nintendo’s fortunes surprisingly well based to the extent to which it has followed this approach: consoles like the Gamecube or the Wii U represented a doomed attempt to compete on specs, while the Game Boy or the Wii triumphed as inspired transformations of creaky components.

The disadvantages of this philosophy are obvious—it means that you’ll always lag behind your competitors on graphics or computational speed—but its advantages are equally compelling. It opens up the use of cheap, readily available components, which allows you to compete, crucially, on price. As you force yourself to focus on the essentials, you start to discover which qualities really matter to the majority of consumers: playability, accessibility, convenience, and such mundane but essential factors as battery life, which allowed the Game Boy to remain dominant over more advanced competitors like Game Gear or Lynx. Best of all, by handing you a set of stark technological constraints, it obliges you to think more creatively about ways of delivering a satisfying gaming experience. Watching the evolution of Nintendo from Donkey Kong to Super Mario Bros. 3 is like witnessing the growth, flowering, and maturation of an entire art form, all squeezed from the same generation of hardware. Ingenuity and beauty win the day, and it’s unlikely that these games would have emerged in so elegant a form if they had been able to rely on more expensive technology.

Gunpei Yokoi

You notice this in other media as well. Movies are often compelling in proportion to the constraints they need to confront: when anything is possible, as in a film like The Avengers, even the miraculous starts to seem a little boring. Some of the most memorable visual effects in movie history—I’m thinking of works like Jean Cocteau’s Orphée or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which generate an entire fantasy world out of a handful of simple tricks—are the result of limited resources coupled with limitless resourcefulness. Even a work as amply funded as the original Lord of the Rings trilogy had no choice but to mine wit and beauty out of old-fashioned techniques. At the high end, you have the invention of new technology like the Massive software package, which allows entire armies of artificially intelligent soldiers to be generated on the fly; at the low end, you have shots making use of miniatures, forced perspective, or Billy Boyd shuffling around on his knees. That fusion of digital magic, polyurethane, and real leather and steel is a large part of what makes the trilogy so appealing, and it’s a model that other works could stand to follow.

For writers, the situation is a little different: we’re all operating with the same set of tools, and a novel or short story isn’t limited by budgetary concerns. Yet the struggle to do more with less, or to achieve effects of great complexity from the simplest components, is central to the art of storytelling. If there’s one parameter that more writers could stand to scrutinize, it’s length: I’m constantly asking myself if the story I’m trying to tell could be told in fewer words or scenes, and no matter how many times I cut a manuscript, whenever I go back for the next round, I always find places where the text could be tightened. These are constraints that you need to enforce for yourself, rather than having them imposed from the outside, but it’s necessary to treat them as if they were as inexorable as disk space or processing power. Constraints, on their own, don’t guarantee a good result: Nintendo has certainly released plenty of forgettable games on every console. But if I had to choose between having just slightly too little or a bit too much of a crucial resource, whether it’s time, money, or hardware, I know which one I’d prefer.

Written by nevalalee

January 9, 2014 at 9:27 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

January 9, 2014 at 7:30 am

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