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  • “The Phantom of Akihabara,” Chapter 4: “The Blindfolded”

    Posted on July 6th, 2009 keving 4 comments


    The publishers, meanwhile, throw millions into each project, the price of staying ahead in the industry. There is simply too much at stake for both creator and consumer to do anything creative. No. Games aren’t creative works of art. Deep down, both sides of the bargain know that games are products of precise engineering, like a car or your washing machine.

    Here is chapter four (“The Blindfolded”) of The Phantom of Akihabara: GAME OVER, a serial novel written by Yoshitaka Ohsawa between 2002 and 2004. You’ll want to start at chapter one if you’re new to the tale.

    With an economy in shambles and a nation in chaos, the Japanese government has forced peace and goodwill upon its people — a movement that dovetailed all too well with media’s tendency to censor itself, starting in the 1990s. With all the “poison” sucked out of their popular entertainment, how can Japan’s game nerds continue to exist…if they can at all?

    Happy readin’.

    It was kind of a special day. That was expecially so for gamers, who could be forgiven if they had been restless since morning. It was no exaggeration to say this day had become a yearly tradition, one that the TV and newspapers actively covered, giving it all a festival atmosphere.

    Today was the launch of the latest game in the series. That series. It only comes but once a year.

    It seems ridiculous to explain which series. This has continually been the most popular game in Japan since the age of the Family Computer; it established the fantasy-RPG genre in the country and still proves its most resilient hit.

    “Wow, this is crazy!”

    When I finally managed to peel my anemic body out of bed in the morning, I was rewarded with the sight of a young girl half-smirking at the TV, a box of Koala’s March in her hand. Great. Her again. I paid her no mind as I pointed my body toward the kitchen to brew some coffee. There was no point trying to deal with her. Age-wise I suppose she’s around twelve or thirteen. If you were a man of that particular persuasion, you might say she was cute, but I am not. The girl shows up at my place on occasion, thumbing through the inventory of old games and consoles I keep for my work and borrowing them without asking for permission. I don’t know her name, or where she comes from, and I don’t feel like asking. But she was a game addict, just like they used to have, and she was occasionally good for information. That, combined with the way she cleaned my games and consoles meticulously before returning them, was why I haven’t attempted to stop her.

    “Can you even believe this? These people don’t even know the guy’s name!”

    Finally realizing I was there, the girl turned around, nimbly pointing at the TV screen. On it was the name and face of the game designer who launched the series that spawned today’s release. The TV station was interviewing the young men and women standing in line outside a big-box store. “Huh? Who’s that?” “I dunno him.” “Did he program it or something?”

    “Well, yeah,” I responded. “Nobody cares about the people who make games. They never did.”

    “Oh, come on! He did more than just this series! He established the command-based text adventure format during the early years of the computer industry. He’s contributed more to the history of games in Japan than almost anyone else! These people are so stupid!”

    I had trouble figuring out why a girl who’d look more natural carrying a randoseru on her back was so concerned about the distant past.

    “You know how a lot of people compare games to movies,” I said, groggily pouring out some instant coffee. “But the biggest difference between them is whether they’re sold off the creator’s name or not.”

    This was a personal peeve of mine. Partly it was the fault of the designers themselves, too happy to let their publisher’s name enjoy first prominence instead of take responsibility for their own work. There was once a self-proclaimed genius designer, an oblong fat man who drew attention for portraying his rudderless, dead-on-arrival work as “multimedia” before disappearing, but one could hardly say that his titles contributed anything of value to game history.

    “Ahh, what was his name…? E…something.” Not even this freakishly nerdy game girl could remember. It couldn’t be helped, I suppose, given that his games were so boring that anyone who played them would be hard-pressed to remember what they were even about by this point.

    “If you look at it from the game designer’s point of view,” I said, “I suppose gamers are a bunch of blind idiots.”

    To be brutally frank, video games had never been sold based off the creator’s name — or, for that matter, the content. To be brutally frank, once you establish a brand name for a series, then it will always sell on a continual basis, no matter how much the hardcore fans slam it. Every time another game in the Final Fantasy series comes off the conveyor belt, all of the core gamers trample upon it mercilessly. And yet it still sells — and the sales figures only went up from VII on compared to the first six games, despite the way they treat those 2D titles like sacred scripture.

    The Virtua Fighter and Tekken series are another example. They retained most of their popularity despite the fact that the staff behind the second game in both series — the titles that built those brands — was long gone. In fact, the main staff from both franchises came together to form a single developer, Dream Factory, but their Tobal No. 1 failed to find major success, and the makers’ names faded into oblivion soon afterward.

    Gamers never attach themselves to creators; they follow series names, the brand of the games they play. That was one of the ironclad rules of the industry. In fact, once a company establishes a brand and makes a “promise” to their user base, it’s more secure for them to keep following that promise, releasing conservatively-designed, me-too sequels and freshening up the “promise” with whatever the latest in graphic technology allowed. It is that kind of world.

    Perhaps video games aren’t art after all, the way that novels or comics or movies are. As a form of media, they are remarkably inaccessible, requiring a 2-30,000 yen machine and several thousand yen per game to experience. The publishers, meanwhile, throw millions into each project, the price of staying ahead in the industry. There is simply too much at stake for both creator and consumer to do anything creative. No. Games aren’t creative works of art. Deep down, both sides of the bargain know that games are products of precise engineering, like a car or your washing machine.

    Self-proclaimed “creators” who failed to understand that point were left to be swallowed up with their work by the raging storm of the expanding industry, no matter how much they complained or touted their innovation. Or maybe movies, novels and comics were only beginning to follow the same path now. In this day and age, the CG staff of any movie studio on the planet can create anything with the technology they have at their fingertips, just like with games. Novels and comics are all about division of labor these days, with several authors working on the same series without anyone raising an eyebrow. From The Five Star Stories to Guin Saga to The Heroic Legend of Arslan, there are more cases of publishers finishing up series with other authors, after the original creator grew too old or too disinterested to keep writing, than I could care to count. Sometimes, new authors entering the mix even led to drastic improvement in the series.

    090706-akihabara2Perhaps the job of “creator” is no longer necessary at all in this industry. There was a time in video games when content completely failed to be relevant to the users buying it. The girl-games and otaku-oriented anime of the late 1990s were never rated based on their innate qualities — all they needed was a set of easily-recalled characters to base merchandise on. It didn’t even matter if everyone knew the game or anime was bad. The worse it was, the more useful its “infamy” became. Being so-bad-it’s-good was just as much a selling point as being good. Sister Princess and the Di Gi Charat lineup were ample enough evidence of that. With the proliferation of the Internet, Flash, and easy game-making tools, there was even a time when publishers aimed to produce “material” that would be used and abused online as much as possible.

    Creative work turned into engineering processes; creative work turned into remixable comedy material. The role of creator — or, at least, the sanctity of the title — had plainly become less and less important by the time the 21st century rolled around. And since this process had made the creator unimportant in the grand scheme of things, the identity of the man behind the game launching today had become lost to society.

    “Besides,” I said, putting my thoughts into words, “the customers don’t need to care about who’s producing the entertainment they consume.”

    “Yeah…I guess. Did you know that more people think that The Lord of the Rings is a movie series that spawned some novels instead of the other way around?”

    Even that was about as much recognition as J.R.R. Tolkien received these days for his work. Keep making sequels, and that’s what happens. Maybe it was like that as early as the first film. I don’t know. Nobody cares that the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is based off real Chinese history; people are amazed when they discover that Oda Nobunaga actually existed. How would these people respond if you told them that Japan and the United States fought a war against each other once?

    “Doesn’t anyone dream about anything anymore?” the girl asked. “Or are these people so stupid that every day’s like a dream world to them?”

    “They’re out there. People chasing their dreams into the past, into their games, whatever. That’s why I can do the work I do.”

    “No wonder he retired.”

    The great game designer on the TV screen had left the industry a while back, chifing at the restrictions placed on him and longing for the days when he was free to create whatever he wanted. He tried to deny to the media at the time that any more games from his series would be sold. The publisher sued, claiming the intellectual property rights were with them. They had to; the series had been the supporting beam of their finances for years. Despite the exasperation the general public had over the disagreement, the affair was settled out of court, the series left the creator’s hands, and the sequels kept coming.

    The core gamers slammed the new games at first, proclaiming that the series couldn’t possibly exist without the man, and they keep slamming it with every installment. But the staff consists entirely of people who had played all the games in the series, intensely, since childhood. They may not be crafting classics, but their output isn’t that bad. All the public cared about was exploring the world the game weaved, as long as it was an enjoyable process. Some titles in the series had key staff leave midway; some were rushed to the market before they were fully complete. But no matter what anyone said, the continual release of the series had taken the form of an unbreakable promise to the consumer.

    Besides, after the original designer left, the series found release far more regularly in the marketplace, stabilizing sales and making both the publisher and the general public happy. That promise had taken a somewhat bitter form for him.

    “Oh! Hey, phone!”

    My cell phone was snatched up off the table before I could respond. I took it back from her, increasingly jealous of her reflexes.

    “Yeah.” The girl stared at me with her expectant eyes, hoping it was some kind of work. I nodded and spoke up so she could hear me. “You got someone who wants Karuizawa Yūkai Annai? Funny how that’d pop up today. I’ll take a look around.”

    I closed my cell phone and got to work.



    The command-based text adventure format: Before his involvement with Dragon Quest, Yuji Horii created a series of three graphical text adventures for computers, starting with Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken in 1983.


    3 responses to ““The Phantom of Akihabara,” Chapter 4: “The Blindfolded”” RSS icon

    • The hard-boiled industry grousing is killing me.

      Has Ohsawa done anything else of note?

    • Ohsawa was editing Yu-Ge at the time but his main business is actually in writing history books and novels, mainly about ancient China.

    • Thanks for these translations, they’re great!

      I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but the tags for each post make finding them a bit weird — only 1-2 are tagged “phantom of akihabara” and only 1-3 are tagged “reading room”.

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