For many videogame hobbyists, our relationship to Shigeru Miyamoto is twofold: On one hand, we know him as the creator of some of the most loved properties in videogames. On the other hand, we know him as the person Nintendo Co., Ltd. can reliably trot out to boost their properties across the board. When we see him on stage or in a video, we know he is going to be a little silly. We know he will be talking about wonderment and the value of play. We know he will be like the strange game-design grandfather you never knew you had, a Dumbledore who will never die and whose genius comes from a realm in his head beyond our knowledge.
In other words, most of us know Shigeru Miyamoto as both a designer as well as a mascot for Nintendo’s corporate sensibilities.
Jennifer DeWinter’s Shigeru Miyamoto, the first entry in Bloomsbury’s Influential Video Game Designers book series, goes beyond game culture’s general understanding of Shigeru Miyamoto—his relationship to his own work, even to the videogame industry at large. This comprehensive look at Miyamoto takes into account his biography, analysis of his game-design style, and his position in the industry. Summing up such a massive career is an unbelievable act of compression, and what is there is incredibly well-researched and well-synthesized to the point that it feels like its own tidy Miyamoto-like object.
The core of the book is about Miyamoto’s objects, or—as he prefers—products. DeWinter gives us a very clear story about how Miyamoto understands his characters in relation to their products, and what I took from this is, he doesn’t really care much at all about them. For Miyamoto, these are merely moving parts that can ultimately be designed to generate a certain kind of engagement in the player.
This is made even more explicit during an analysis of Miyamoto’s theory of ‘direct control’ where “the button jumps, and that’s it.” The designer presented here is one who cares intimately about how experiences are crafted for a player, and he seems very willing to cut everything else down to the bone to make sure that a videogame player has a finite set of intricately designed experiences. DeWinter writes that “Miyamoto has always explained that he doesn’t care about the visuals, or about the franchise, or about the story; he cares about gameplay and he puts his creative focus onto innovating gameplay.”
This is never more apparent than in the discussion of the titles that Miyamoto produced rather than designed directly. DeWinter recounts an anecdote where Twilight Princess scenario writer Aya Kyogoku received “sob-story emails” in which Miyamoto recounted all the things that he wasn’t able to do in the game, forcing changes to mechanics and, ultimately, some story items.
There’s certainly a healthy argument to be had about the strong distinction between gameplay and the aesthetic components of a game, but DeWinter’s commitment to the actual behavior of Miyamoto versus our cultural narratives about him demands that she follow him down the garden path of his particular design philosophy. What we have in the book is a portrait of Miyamoto the engineer: a strong-willed designer who wants to iterate design in order to compel in players behaviors to an exact specification, whether that is through software design like the Zelda series or hardware design like the Wii.
Shigeru Miyamoto is a comprehensive investigation that does its best to bracket the guitar-playing folk hero we all know and love in favor of a strong analysis of how one designer makes games. It is an incredibly well-rounded resource, brimming with anecdotes, interviews, and any document on-hand to provide a clearer understanding of a public-yet-enigmatic figure.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released on May 21. It’s available on Steam.