Conducted prior to the release of the surreal caveman-themed sandbox Tail of the Sun, this interview with creator Kazutoshi Iida covers the motivations behind his previous game, the “undersea exploration game” Aquanaut’s Holiday, and Iida’s desires to rail against the perceived codification and homogenization by players, developers and even his own employer Artdink on what games could and should be.

Aquanauts vid lecture (2010, offsite)

Kazutoshi Iida – 1996 Developer Interview

originally featured in Game Hihyou magazine

—Your newest game, Tail of the Sun, will soon be released in stores, but insofar as the two are connected, I’d like to ask you once more about Aquanaut’s Holiday if that’s alright.

Iida: I’ll be 27 this year, which puts me just barely at the upper end of the Famicom generation. I think there was something dodgy and suspicious about the games back then. I used to visit the game centers too, but when I think back on games from that era now, they were sloppy, half-backed, anarchic even—but they also had neat ideas, and there was this element of freedom to them, you know? They had this aura of excitement. After this period though, I gradually lost my enthusiasm for games.

I don’t know what it was exactly—maybe it was that video games started trying to be like Hollywood movies, or they started trying too hard to be the next big blockbuster, but I feel like somewhere along the way they lost that dynamism and freedom, that playful absurdity. I’m not into it. Originally games pursued any and all avenues of expression, so it feels unhealthy to me that they’ve now limited themselves to one direction only. Aquanaut’s Holiday began as my attempt to once more create one of those old-school “dubious” games.

—Your words bring to mind Nichibutsu’s Crazy Climber. Games like that. The player character is climbing this building but there’s no reason or meaning behind it.

Iida: When I was a student I took art classes, and what you just said, it’s not dissimilar to the world of surrealism. Suddenly, the hero starts climbing a building. Why is he climbing it? Those who would like to offer an explanation are free to do so. Or not do so, of course. I feel like there’s still a place for games like that today.

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Kazutoshi Iida (1996)

—What artists have you been influenced by?

Iida: There’s an artist called Marcel Du Champ who is like the father of modern art. His influence on the fine art world has been huge. What he did was to invert the relationship between artist and audience: art is not an object that the artist presents to audience; it is the audience that discovers the art within the object. The audience became the subject of the art, in a way. Under his influence, “modern art” today intimates that the audience is more interesting than the artist himself, and I would say that holds true for Aquanauts as well.

—You’ve provided the raw materials only, and it’s up to each user to decide what to do with them.

Iida: I think that the people who find this game interesting are probably interesting people themselves. It’s the freedom of interpretation itself that’s so interesting, I thought, and Aquanauts was my attempt to experiment with that concept.

—How has the response been to Aquanauts?

Iida: In a certain sense, Aquanauts was me taking a shot at the game industry, and it was created out of extreme frustration, so I was very uncertain about how it would be received. But the response has been surprisingly positive—with, of course, some rejection and criticism. Overwhelmingly I heard people tell me how long they’d been waiting for a game like this.

—In total you shipped over 200,000 copies. What was the most vicious criticism you received?

Iida: “This isn’t a game!” (laughs) I guess in the narrow sense of the word game, they’re right. For people who love games in that sense, creating something like Aquanauts might be tantamount to a crime. The hardcore gamer crowd seemed to like it though.

I sometimes wonder if there’s not a gap, or misalignment of intentions, between creators and players. As creators I think it’s all too easy to get swept up in making everything “epic”, but ultimately this results in everything being homogenized and feeling the same. Then players are relegated to navigating what is, in fact, quite a closed-off environment, one in which their only role is to monitor the quality of this or that product.

—All of Artdink’s games have a certain picturesque quality to them that is very impressive. Where did this visually-focused approach to game design come from?

Iida: My art school background is probably the biggest reason. That desire for artistic variation, and interactive imagery. I had an inkling I would do work like that someday, when I was a student, and so it just sort of happened naturally.

—One thing you notice in Aquanauts is the submarine. You never show the machinery or the navigational instruments.

Iida: The submarine was basically just an expedient, something that was needed for the game to be presentable as a commercial product. So it could have been anything. That’s why I intentionally downplayed any realistic “submarine” aspect of the gameplay. Likewise the sounds it makes are not “natural” but more like the sounds of a musical instrument being performed. I’d go so far as to say that the choice of setting itself—the ocean—could just as easily have been swapped out for a different setting, like a huge fish tank, or outer space even. So what was the concept behind Aquanauts then, you ask? It was simply to have fun within that 3D environment, and enjoy the act of freely exploring it. That would be enough to be fun, I thought.

—The joy of creating a world, and then moving around within it and exploring it… I think that’s a common theme with Artdink’s other titles, too.

Iida: I agree, and it’s why I think there’s a lineage for this game going back to Artdink’s previous works. But I would say that Aquanauts’ unique contribution is to extract the element of free-form exploration and build a game wholly around that.

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Two of Artdink’s more prominent early successes: the railway management simulator A-Train and the historical grand strategy game Atlas, both of which were emblematic of Artdink’s traditional systems-heavy, player-driven output.

—In both the A-Train and Atlas games, there’s a huge amount of underlying data that forms the deep bedrock of the game world. Was there a similar motivation at work in Aquanauts—a desire to create a kind of “ocean simulation”, so to speak?

Iida: No, not really. (laughs) I did want to accurately simulate the ocean environment itself, of course. So I did a lot of different research, and visited people at aquariums and asked them about how fish schooled, things like that. “I have no idea, actually…” —I heard that a lot. (laughs) I read some difficult books too, but it was a lot of theoretical information that ultimately left me confused. (laughs) At the aquariums I stood there staring at the fish, trying to discern how they schooled, but realized it was, in fact, extremely complex. I thought it would be impossible to truly replicate accurately, even if we gathered a lot of data from nature itself.

—There was no way to boil it all down.

Iida: I also thought that this isn’t really what it means for a game to feel “realistic.” In the end, the process I took was to look at the reality, then close my eyes and draw my own mental representation of that thing. (laughs) It’s the inspiration, the felt image, that I’m re-creating.

—And for people who find that inadequate, you’d probably want them to go play a different game anyway.

Iida: I think that’s right. It’s like, I apologize, but… (laughs)

—Were there any opposing opinions from the development staff?

Iida: One example I can remember, was the way the submarine comes to a stop—at first it would stop immediately on a dime, but the staff thought it might look more visually realistic if it had a little inertia and didn’t stop completely all of a sudden. One of our programmers, however, thought that idea didn’t make sense from a physics perspective. They said as the speed gradually falls the submarine should then come to a complete stop. I ended up listening to the programmer.

Later I was playing Kileak: The Blood, and seeing how the player character moved there made me feel I might have made a mistake. When your character rotates, the inertia makes you overshoot by just a bit. From a purely visual standpoint, I think it looks better like that to have the camera pan a little bit and maintain that slight inertia, but in an interactive game, there’s nothing more annoying than seeing the same animation or display performed over and over again, every time. So in the end I’m glad we didn’t do that in Aquanauts. (laughs)

Kileak: The Blood (released in North America as Kileak: The DNA Imperative), an early PlayStation title developed by Genki that was burdened with unwieldy, inertia-laden controls. (source)

—Those kinds of discussions end up having a big influence on how the game comes out.

Iida: They do. While I may be the one moving everything forward, I strongly emphasize the role of teamwork in the development. The clash of opinions, and even criticism of Artdink as a company—from those conflicts, I believe a better, stronger game will emerge.

—Are we to expect a similar challenge, or “anarchy”, from your newest game Tail of the Sun?

Iida: Oh, it’s a crazy one. (laughs)

—You’ve mentioned the key words of “wild”, “pure”, and “simple life” before.

Iida: Yeah. The design concept was “a game about games.”

—A meta game?

Iida: Yeah. It’s about games, I guess. What are games, really?

—If you remove all the grammar, structure, and method from games as they’ve existed up to now, you could return to a zero state and create something new. Is that why Tail of the Sun is set in prehistoric times?

Iida: Yes, yes, exactly. That’s an apt description of Tail of the Sun’s gameplay. It’s like, what is the essence of a video game? When I asked myself what is fun about video games, for me personally, it’s the fact that pressing a button makes something happen. That’s really what it’s all about, you know, what lies at the heart of it all, I thought. So I wanted to create a game that explored just that idea. The enjoyment of Super Mario doesn’t come from the quest to save Princess Peach. It comes from jumping around, an action which is purely fun in and of itself. Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto was highly cognizant of that fact when he created it.

—Super Mario 64 is a perfect example of that.

Iida: That’s why, when we were making Tail of the Sun, I was saying, “Let’s make the anti-Mario game.” When I saw Mario 64 at Nintendo Space World, I was taken aback. What they were pursuing there—the enjoyment of exploring a 3D, interactive space—was exactly what we were aiming for, and we used the same methods. Yet for a “hollywood star” like Mario, it’s impossible to imagine a game without a happy end. Happy ends… that’s what makes movies fun, right? I felt then that I really wanted to make a Mario game without a happy ending.

—The “anti-Mario”, indeed.

Iida: If you make the action elements of your game too strong, it will turn into an action game. That’s why I think it’s fine to convey an approximate level of quality and accuracy to actions like jumping and running. They don’t need to be perfect. And to that end, for Tail of the Sun, we would sometimes employ a counter-intuitive approach to the game design. The ostensible player character, the prehistoric man, will sometimes just fall asleep on his own in the middle of the game. You might be running around and jumping and feeling good, then suddenly he just takes a snooze there. By creating an intermittent rhythm like that, I think it makes the parts where you are running around freely more pleasant and enjoyable, strangely enough.

—I can see it’s another shot across the bow, just like Aquanaut’s Holiday was.

Iida: Nowadays you have people saying things like, if something isn’t “fun”, then it’s not a game. I’m suspicious of that line of thinking. I think it threatens to stuff all games into a set mold. When I think about it objectively now, and look back at games like Crazy Climber and Frogger and ask myself if they were actually fun, I think the truth is they weren’t all that fun. It’s kind of an exaggeration, but you could say I wanted to create an “un-fun game”. (laughs) I think the possibilities of games is wider than that. All is permitted; nothing is forbidden. No doubt, a typical game studio would see what I’m doing as very strange, and there has been some awkwardness on that point over the last several years. As you can probably tell I’ve got a lot of affection for indies and independent artists. I hope I’ve paved the way for more creators like that on the Playstation.

—You did mention that you feel a danger in this trend in games towards big studios and blockbuster titles.

Iida: It’s not only that, though. I think it’s boring, and unhealthy. It will ultimately lead gaming into a state of autotexmia, and I suspect the industry will stagnate and decline much as the Japanese movie industry has. Having seen what happened to film in Japan, wouldn’t it be tragic to see the game industry fall into the same rut? So you can see how my attitude towards companies like Nintendo is a mixture of love and hate. (laughs)

—When you consider the existence of the companies that have now pioneered and built up these huge markets, is the march towards “mass appeal” in gaming inevitable…?

Iida: Yeah, I know. Speaking as a fellow creator, I can only bow my head in admiration towards Nintendo’s creativity and intelligence. The design of their controllers is amazing too, as are the things President Yamauchi says. And I know it’s not just the suits that are driving all this, it’s the developers themselves who want to move in that direction too. It’s wonderful that the company listens to them in that regard. So that’s why I think Nintendo’s great. (laughs) But there’s something a little fascist about it all, too.

The sleeping player-character from Kazutoshi Iida’s “anti-Mario” game, Tail of the Sun. Incidentally, the North American version of the game allows the player to manually, but not consistently, wake up the player-character whenever they decide to take a nap. (source)