This is the one hundred seventy-fourth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Our one hundred seventy-fourth random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality is talking to us about games, design, and the art in and around them. It’s Simply The Best, by Moon Books Publishing (and authored by Mat Bradley-Tschirgi), and its tagline in the bundle reads:

Interviews with Video Game Designers, Composers and Scofflaws

It’s time for some discourse.

Simply The Best is a book of interviews, originally conducted by Mat Bradley-Tschirgi for the website eBoredom in 2004-2005. There are 34 interviews in total, and the interview subjects are impressively varied. There are famous designers like Al Lowe (known for the Leisure Suit Larry series), Eric Chahi (known for Another World and From Dust, both of which I’ve written about on this blog), and Feargus Urquhart (known for classic role-playing games like the original Fallout games, first two Baldur’s Gate games, and Knights of the Old Republic II), sure. But there are also many interviews with composers, writers (both for and about games), and fan creators ranging from game music cover bands and remix projects to amateur filmmakers. Despite this breadth of subjects, each interview is brief and tightly focused, making the collection a fascinating read.

Part of my fascination was due to the time the interviews were conducted. I wasn’t playing many games in 2004 and 2005, my earlier ’90s playing having been interrupted somewhat by college, so the latest trends being discussed in the interviews feel like conversations I missed at the time. There are discussions of the original Xbox versus the Playstation 2, and a lot of familiar talk about whether these newfangled console games are missing something that older games had. That’s a refrain I hear often today, one championed by many indie developers who aim for retro stylings in their games, like classic console role-playing games or platformers. Today, we’re even seeing games imitating the early 3D visual style of games for the original Playstation, as players who grew up with them indulge in nostalgia. The Xbox and Playstation 2 arrived about five years after the Playstation, so maybe we’ll see a retro revival of those games by the end of the decade.

Back in 2004, many of the interviews were already looking to the past. There’s an emphasis on role-playing games and adventure games of the preceding decades, including discussions of whether something was lost when adventure games added graphics and mouse control, instead of sticking with the text parsers that birthed the genre. I remember these discussions, and despite the ubiquity of nostalgic glorification in games, I must concede that there’s some merit to the point. The open-ended nature of text parser games remain a distinct and often compelling experience, that fell to the wayside as developers sought fancier presentations for their games. There are some illuminating discussions about how designers adapted to the new graphical paradigm, something I admit I hadn’t considered. I also enjoyed the interview with Nick Montfort, wherein he highlights the then-burgeoning Interactive Fiction scene in which independent developers were already pushing beyond what parser-based adventure games had done in their heyday in the 1980s. I recall playing several of the titles he cites after college, and being fascinated by them.

Perhaps the strangest thing about reading these interviews today is that they were conducted before “indie games” really existed the way they do now. The rise of digital distribution was just starting, and in a few scant years would lead to an explosion of games of all stripes. Today, in fact, it’s quite possible that we have too many games, with developers struggling to find audiences, games routinely bundled together or offered in sales for huge discounts, and a wave of layoffs sweeping the industry. In these interviews, however, we see a glimpse of the opposite problem: major publishers controlled everything, often following new trends and fads that left groups of players yearning for different experiences. Where had all the adventure games gone? Why are all the action games focused on multiplayer bouts, instead of singleplayer stories? Throughout Simply The Best, I was impressed with the depth of thought on display whenever interviews veered into these topics. Much of the analysis rings true nearly twenty years later, and it’s heartening to know that so many in the industry recognized what was happening at the time, and had good ideas for how to adapt. I was also pleased to see a few interviewees fight back against the danger of blind nostalgia. Neskimos, a video game music tribute band, sum it up nicely when they say:

…there is the honest question we need to ask ourselves: were the old school games really that great, or did we just like them because we were 10 years old then? Try to imagine a game like Final Fantasy 7 or Metal Gear Solid on the Nintendo or even Super Nintendo. I think there’s a lot more truth to that theory than we’d like to believe.

I found the interviews with fan artists like Neskimos or Trey Stokes particularly interesting reads, as they recall a time when such things were much less ubiquitous in the public consciousness. YouTube would not launch until 2005. Before that, it was a lot harder to find weird fan-made films or music projects, unless you have a site like eBoredom to highlight them for you. Fan-made stuff is everywhere now, but these interviews catch creators at a time when their work was new and exciting. There’s an interview with Ben Isaac, creator of the Castlevania fan film Prelude To War (which I’d never heard of until now) that’s filled with optimism for the future of films based on the franchise. Ben sent his film to Konami in the hopes they might greenlight an official film adaptation, and, well. Today we’re all too familiar how that type of thing goes, with rights holders striking down any fan-made works with fervor. We did eventually get an animated series based on Castlevania, starting in 2017, without Ben Isaac’s involvement (to my knowledge). But a live action film never emerged.

There are some disappointments within Simply The Best. All the interviews are short, consisting of a handful of insightful questions, but some responses are more terse than others. I was hoping to hear more from Jeff Vogel, whose games I’ve enjoyed in the past, since he was making independent role-playing games long before the indie games explosion. But his answers are just a sentence or two without much information. It’s also disheartening to see an interview with composer Jeremy Soule included. This is not Mat Bradley-Tschirgi’s fault, as the interview was conducted years before Soule was accused of rape by a former work associate, with a second victim later adding similar allegations. But it’s still troubling to see an interview with Soule now, especially as part of a bundle explicitly promoting equality and justice for marginalized groups. Also, this may be my prejudice talking, but Soule’s responses seem less illuminating than those from other interviewees, full of name dropping and often sidestepping questions rather than actually answering them. I recommend just skipping that interview.

Fortunately, there are several more interviews with game composers, and even one sound designer, that are much better reads. Longtime readers will know that my love of music and games comes together when considering game scores, so I loved reading about the processes that different composers use in their work. Multiple interviewees reminisce about the Roland MT-32 sound module, which I recently wrote about myself as part of my History Lessons post about Sorcerian; an amusing coincidence. I also feel that sound design is an often overlooked part of games that has a much bigger impact on player experience than most think, so I really enjoyed the interview with Bo Bennike diving into the art of great game sound. It’s brief, as all the interviews are, but still manages to cover issues like retaining iconic sounds across a series and designing for different sound hardware.

I, admittedly, have a strong interest in game history, so it’s no surprise I enjoyed reading Simply The Best so much. But I think others will enjoy it as well. If you weren’t playing games in 2004-2005, you may find a strange glimpse into another time, before the internet had fully transformed how games were made, distributed and played. If you were playing then, the interviews will conjure that era again, and in all likelihood highlight some things you weren’t aware of at the time. I can recommend Simply The Best to anyone with an interest in the history of games and game culture. If you missed it in the bundle, it’s sold for a minimum price of $3, which nets you a simple, unadorned PDF as well as an epub file. It’s unclear if Moon Books Publishing ever released a print version, but the digital copy is still a great read even if it doesn’t have exciting formatting.

That’s 174 down, and only 1567 to go!