Shigesato Itoi

an unlikely start

I remember being at a cafe and thinking, wouldn’t it be great to hear a song I had created playing over the radio? That was the motivation for me to write a song with my own lyrics. Something similar happened with me and video games.

Originally, I was obsessed with Dragon Quest. When I saw the names of all the staff in the credits, I thought I’d like to see my name in there too. I didn’t know how you go about making a game, but I started taking notes with all the things I’d do and the stories I’d tell in my game. What company would make this game, I wondered? It was something I would want to play myself.

At that time, I visited Nintendo on other business. The day before I had gathered up all my ideas for the game I had written (it was MOTHER, by the way) and brought them with me. In my fanciful thinking then, I thought Nintendo was like some cool club where everyone made games, and wouldn’t it be great to work with them! I was like some kid used to playing sandlot baseball deciding to try out for the Giants.

I was probably only given the chance because they knew my name from elsewhere. When I talked about my ideas, the sales and staff were like, “Oh, how interesting! I see!” But Miyamoto in development! He was the coldest. In a rather oblique way, he told me “What you’ve got here is something. It looks like there’s several new ideas here too, but as it is now, it won’t amount to a game.”

I heard what I wanted to hear: “Oh, Itoi! This is wonderful!” but later, on the Shinkansen home, I started to think “is that really what he meant…?” and I felt like crying. (laughs) I didn’t understand what Miyamoto was trying to say: making a game is an ordeal from start to finish, not just in the beginning.

I’m not sure what happened internally at Nintendo, but later I was introduced to a development team and the Mother project began. You could say I was very lucky. Though if I think back now on how difficult it all was, I don’t know whether to say I was lucky, or unlucky… (laughs)

challenging players’ ideas with MOTHER

I worked on Mother as producer, and gathered various staff members to the project, including Minami Shinbou who did enemy designs and Suzuki Keiichi who did the music. I felt that I could do two roles: Itoi the producer and Itoi the wordsmith, aka copywriter. Itoi the producer would come over to Itoi the copywriter’s desk and make requests. So in a sense I worked two jobs. (laughs)

In MOTHER there’s a character called Flying Man. They’re helpful and will join your party. But if he dies during a fight, he’ll be buried and gone forever. You think “Nooo!”, right? Its that feeling that I like to create. (laughs)

I think doing a straight conversion of a movie to game is boring. I want to let the player experience things he can only experience in the medium of video games. Take a situation in a game where you have to answer yes or not to a choice… I want to make a game where a player doubts himself, “Should I really choose Yes? Am I a monster…?” How will you live your life? I think games can penetrate the heart of that question–despite being games.

Today’s hardware can easily display kanji. However, for Mother 2 (Earthbound), I did not use kanji. Its something of a personal insight I’ve had with RPGs, but the words in RPGs are meant to be words you hear with your ears. Sound is perceived through the ears. I want the player to read the dialogue aloud; having kanji that one reads with their eyes is discordant with that idea. Being language that you hear with your ears means it can sometimes be hard to understand, but that’s part of the experience I think.

I think basing your game on advances in new hardware is a poorly conceived idea. To draw an analogy with movies, there are still many people today who make films in the older black and white style. When I look at various games that have just meaninglessly added scaling and sprite rotation and so on, I just end up thinking “what are they doing… this is silly.” (laughs)

a personality suited for game design

If you want to make games, I think its important to develop a spirit of service towards others. For example, imagine 4 people gathered together and a silence has descended on the group. One of them will be the first to open his mouth and break the awkward silence. That is the kind of person who I think could have a talent for making games.

I think restless children or timid children are well-suited for making games. Those who are strong-willed don’t understand the feelings of others, and so they cannot be of service to others. I think children with complexes or handicaps would be good, because those kids want others to understand them. I suffered from asthma when I was a kid. Being an asthmatic would also suffice. (laughs) You wouldn’t be able to play like normal kids. You’d have to develop your own self and interests. In doing so, you’d gain the experience of having changed yourself. The children who possess that energy, where rather than seeing themselves as pathetic, instead defiantly say “I don’t want to see myself that way!”… those kids are well-suited for making games.

I think only about 10% of the things you learn in school will help you in the future. Things like Math and English should only be learned for the times they’re needed. More than those things, I think a person should learn how to get home if they become lost. How do you handle the train fare? Which train do you ride? Developing the logic to deal with those problems by yourself is important.

Your teachers do not know the answers to life. No one knows the answers to life. And yet, an answer is demanded.

Its not about what you learn, its about learning how to learn!