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October 26, 2004

Power+Up attempts to identify cultural practices

Kohler, Chris. Power+Up. Brady Games, Pearson Education. Indiana. 2005. isbn 0744004241.

This book is a passionate claim for the importance of Japanese cultural influence on the console game industry. It also argues that said Japanese influence has lead to an increasing cinematic quality in console video games.

Both arguments presented by the book are self-evident for anyone who has spent any time (and money) playing video games. It's strength lies in the moments when it identifies the specific cultural mores that inform the particular voice of Shigeru Miyamoto and Hironobu Sakaguchi.

The former argument is important to document, and this volume makes a good first effort. Kohler points out specific cultural dynamics that informed the creation of such economic and critical successes as the Mario and Zelda, as well as the Final Fantasy series of games. Shikaku sedai, the “visual generation” has no notion that manga, the popular comic-book art form of Japan, has any generational or thematic limits. Any subject and any audience can be addressed by and through abstracted and symbolic comics. Mukokuseki is a method of acheiving that abstraction in manga. It is the aesthetic of removing cultural and ethnic markers from the drawings of characters. Kohler doesn't trace the rise of this aesthetic, it would be interesting for someone to do so. Without this particular thread we are left to wonder “why?”. Kawaisa is the quality of cuteness to which Japanese consumers are drawn. Kohler argues that these large cultural tropes informed Miyamoto‘s aesthetics. Kohler focuses his attention on the strong influence of Nintendo and Miyamoto. His argument would be stronger if it ranged a bit broader. This leaves an opportunity for others to extend the work.

The second large argument in the work lays out a history of video games such that the cinematic qualities are privileged. Taking cues from film criticism, Kohler creates a narrative that establishes cinematic narrative elements as evolving and emerging as technology and game designers increase in sophistication. This is an understandable approach as game criticism attempts to find its own language. It is also problematic in that it tends to position games as imperfect films. To his credit, Kohler, in later chapters, acknowledges the element of “control” that differentiates video games from filmic conventions. There is a kind of circular irony in these passages of text that seems to have escaped Kohler. He describes the powerful influence of Star Wars on the Japanese game industry, in particular on the first two iterations of the Final Fantasy series, complete with characters in FF1 and FF2 named for characters in Star Wars. George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, was admitedly influenced by Japanese film maker Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress, a story about a samurai rescuing a princess from an evil empire. The story is told from the point of view of two bumbling peasants who fall under the protection of the samurai.

Posted by SWEAT at October 26, 2004 12:00 AM