What we create touches the hearts and spirits of people and moves them. This gives us big responsibilities. I imagine the faces of my wife, friends, and complete strangers. More and more I think about the face of my son. These are who we make games for. Inspire them. -Yoshio Sakamoto
Here's a highly generalized assertion based on impressions from the three most recent San Francisco GDCs. My stab at profundity is probably more than blind guesswork, but less than wisdom from industry experience.
It seems to me that Japanese designers have a particular knack for discussing the personal origins of their work - the seeds of inspiration, if you will - but almost no inclination to discuss the nuts and bolts. Western designers, on the other hand, are incredibly adept at lifting the hood on their work and explaining precisely how all the parts function; but they rarely connect us to the passionate impulses from which their ideas flow.
Exceptions exist, of course. Brenda Brathwaite's presentation on Train last week was easily the most personal of the conference; and Tsuchida and Yajima's talk on automatic sound triggering in FFXIII was mostly technical.
But more often than not, I think my thesis holds. Yoshio Sakamoto's (dir. Metroid series) presentation on designing for different audiences at this year's event reminded me of others I've attended by notable Japanese designers like Suda, Ueda, Kojima, and Miyamoto. Compared to their western contemporaries (Wright, Meier, Hocking, Pagliarulo), these Japanese designers seem to prefer articulating personal impulses and tracing genesis ideas.
At a conference like GDC, this approach can frustrate some who come looking for practical tools or concrete takeaways. On several occasions I've been advised to avoid presentations by Japanese developers in the Design Track of GDC. "They never say anything," cautioned one GDC veteran. "They're here mostly for PR, and they stick to a rigid script."
If someone had asked for my impressions after the first 30 minutes of his talk, I might have agreed. He presented a history of the Metroid series, showed a promotional trailer for the upcoming Metroid: Other M, and generally paid tribute to the genius of his boss Satoru Iwata.
But then his remarks turned in a more revealing direction. He discussed his need to explore both the serious and comic sides of his personality, aware (painfully, he hinted) that Iwata thinks of him "only as someone with a comical side" because of his work producing the WarioWare games.
Sakamoto explained that he's fascinated by horror and traced his respect for the genre to Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, and he cited Argento's Deep Red as deeply inspirational. "Before Deep Red, horror always left me feeling empty. Argento arrested me."
Sakamoto studied Argento's work and concluded that his primary tools for engaging his audience were mood, timing, foreshadowing, and contrast. "My early design work was an homage to Argento's work. I have continued this through my career, and Other M is no exception." But soon after launching the Metroid series, Sakamoto realized that he needed to find his own aesthetic sensibility.
"I'm not a movie fanatic. I probably don't watch any more movies than the average person," Sakamoto stated. "However, films have opened my eyes to techniques that can bring a story to life. I'm not obssessed with them, but they have inpired me." Sakamoto began looking beyond horror movies to non-Hollywood films like Besson's Léon: The Professional and John Woo' s A Better Tomorrow series.Sakamoto loves making people laugh, and he began to see a connection between the dark films he admires and his penchant for comedy. "I'm not a comedian, but I enjoy helping people have a good time. I"m actually quite meticulous about it."
Reflecting on personal experiences and discoveries - which he has recorded for many years in a journal - Sakamoto realized that, for him, the line separating comedy from horror is quite thin, and both rely on the same core elements: mood, timing, foreshadowing, and contrast. Tomodachi Collection, which Sakamoto describes as more comedically subversive than people credit it, is the outcome of this personal exploration.
Regardless of whether he's working on a Metroid or a WarioWare game, Sakamoto's creative process is essentially the same for each. "As long as one is open to the possibility of new expriences, you can move people in a variety of ways."
"My spirit has been moved by interactions with the world. These experiences create indivisual images that stay with us. It's our mission to give our images shapes that can be conveyed to other people. I had to find my own way at Nintendo. Similar to the way a child is given a new toy and becomes engrossed in it."
Sakamoto found his own way, and through that process came to better know himself. His account of that journey may or may not inspire other designers, but I found it captivating.