Having spent five years (half a decade!) of my life on these books, I can honestly say they were a waste of time and a failure. They should have never been written, and whatever value a few academics and a tiny number of readers claim, the cost to myself was too great’The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers volume 3
Crumbs! That’s not exactly the kind of sentiment you expect to see from an author in the introduction to their book is it? In this case, however, such exasperation might be understandable. Born from a kickstarter project in 2013, The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers is the product of an epic undertaking from author John Szczepaniak to live in Japan for three months, interviewing pretty much anyone and everyone who could shed light on the history of the Japanese gaming industry. Aside from the strain of the initial venture, Szczepaniak claims the money he received from the kickstarter didn’t even fully cover the cost of the first book. Rather than supply him with income, he had to rely on both his personal savings and investment from his brother in order to be able to print volumes two and three. Factor in an unedifying spat with those responsible for his interpreters (which ended in unsuccessful court action against Szczepaniak) and his bitterness towards the project becomes somewhat understandable.
But what of his exasperated claims about the books being a waste of time? The very simple answer is no. Regardless of what anyone thinks of the circumstances around the series’ creation, there can be no denying that the amount of material covered by these books is breath taking. For the casual retro fan, there are names and companies that are instantly recognisable, such as the Sega chapter present in volume 3 or volume 1’s interview with Keiji Inafune. Then there’s the names that will be familiar to the more hardcore, like Climax, Falcom and Complile. Finally there’s the stuff that will inevitably be of niche interest only, such as an interview with the head of the organisation trying to preserve Japan’s huge library of tape-based software. Of the criticisms you could make of the project, no one could say that Szczepaniak didn’t talk to the right people.
Perhaps a more valid criticism of the project might be the presentation and style of the interviews. To be fair, The books aren’t – and were never intended or advertised to be – a potted history of Japanese game development. There is no overriding narrative nor are the interviews shaped to backup a particular thesis – but there doesn’t have to be. The project was always all about the interviews, and that’s exactly what you have here. Like the old Ronseal adverts.
With that said, you could argue there are issues with how the interviews are grouped. Some sections (Generally where Szczepaniak was able to interview people together) are grouped together in batches that help to create a general theme, but through most of the books the structure is a lot more haphazard. This is unfortunate when you consider how one interviewees’ testimony can interact with someone elses in much later section of the book (or even in a different volume in the series) but it definitely isn’t a deal breaker by any means. To be fair to Szczepaniak, he generally highlights in each interview’s forward/afterword if it has a connection to another interview in the series.
A more nuanced issue is the interviews themselves. I think there will definitely be people who are upset that Szczepaniak doesn’t push interviewees on some of their more famous games, who will likely be irritated by his fixation with minutiae and drawing office plans.
However, I think such criticisms are misguided. Szczepaniak was acting under a large numbers of limitations. The most obvious one was time: given that he may have only had half a day or less with certain interviewees, it was always going to be difficult to ask everyone everything that anyone could want to know. A few hours would barely be enough time to talk about all the personal details of a twenty year career – let alone all of the extra details an individual might know about their colleague’s games or unreleased titles.
Another limitation is just how guarded interviewees are when discussing corporate events – even those of companies who closed twenty years ago. The law in Japan is different from the US and UK, and I think corporate secrecy would make it impossible for a Japanese author to undertake a similar project with a Japanese Publisher. Consequently, it seems there are certain subjects that his interviewees simply do not feel about to discuss – whether it was with Szczepaniak or a completely different interviewer.
A final important limitation is that . Interviews in Japan generally have their questions to supply ahead of time, so Szczepaniak had to comply with this convention. On top of this the nature of translation further limited his room for manoeuvre.
With all of these limitations in mind, Szczepaniak has done a good job of pulling useful a wealth of information from his interviewees. He has a deep knowledge of their work and is consequently able to ask incisive questions. There are times when he is wrong-footed, but that largely seems to be because the information that was available in English at the time was itself incorrect (with these books acting as a useful correction.) Can you use the interviews contained in these books to answer key questions like what inspired key Japanese developers to enter the industry and how Japanese developers were affected by the move to 3d? Yes, and you couldn’t ask for more than that, really.
Overall then, I think Szczepaniak’s exasperated forward is incorrect. These books are currently of immense value and will only grow more valuable over time. As gaming culture only grows more and more homogenous, books like this will stand as an important testament to a time where the US, EU and Japan were three very different gaming landscapes, even when those who remember it are no longer around to talk about it. If you have any interest in gaming history whatsoever, I’d definitely say these are books you should have in your collection.