Q&A with Kyle Orland, Author of Minesweeper March 03 2023
What made you think of Minesweeper, years later, for the topic of a book?
What made you think of Minesweeper, years later, for the topic of a book?
This week, we are remembering friend and author Philip J Reed, author of our book on Resident Evil. Blair Farrell's 2020 interview with Philip for the site Electric Bento went offline when the site was shuttered. We are happy to republish the interview here with thanks to Blair and Electric Bento.
1) Blair Farrell: To start things off, let us get to know you. How long have you been writing?
Philip J Reed: Pretty much as long as I’ve been alive. I’ve always enjoyed reading, so it was nothing to pick up a pen and try it myself. I was terrible for many, many years. But that’s important. If you want to write, be terrible for many, many years and be okay with that! You’ll gradually get less terrible, and you’ll probably even get good at some point. I studied literature in college, where I was exposed to many more influences and worked under instructors who deliberately challenged me to further my abilities. I cannot emphasize enough how important and helpful that was.
Professionally, we’re looking at around 15 years of writing. I’ve written for a number of different sites, magazines, and other outlets. Nintendo Life is what brought me into the games criticism fold; I was fortunate enough to be part of the initial wave of writers for that site. I was with them for around seven years before striking out on my own.
2) What is your history with the Resident Evil series? What is it about the franchise that made you want to write a book about it?
My Resident Evil experience goes back to its very first Western release, pre-Director’s Cut. It was the first PlayStation game I ever played, and I hated it. It seemed like a clunkier ripoff of Alone in the Dark, which was already pretty clunky to begin with.
I’m almost certain my friend brought the game over just because he knew it would scare the hell out of me, and not because he thought I’d enjoy it. After he left that night, though, I couldn’t stop thinking about the game. We hadn’t made it very far. I saw the dogs crash through the windows, I got pecked to death by crows in the art gallery, I got crushed by the ceiling...but that was about it. And that was more than enough to get me wondering about what other horrific secrets the Spencer Mansion held.
I popped into and out of the series over the years, most notably when the first game was remade for the GameCube, and my appreciation has grown consistently. I think it says a lot that the original game, which scared me and angered me and frustrated me, still kept me coming back for more.
3) When did you pitch Resident Evil to Boss Fight? Describe what the process was like and how long it took from pitch to final product
I pitched in early 2018, and if I remember correctly it was accepted and I signed the contract in May of that year. Gabe, the head of Boss Fight Books, called me and we chatted about the pitch, about what he was looking for, about timelines and so on. He believed in this book from the start and that was a big source of encouragement.
The first draft, which was extremely rough and mainly consisted of me getting everything on paper that I wanted to flesh out and cover properly, took me a couple of months. From there it was a lot of fact finding, rewriting, discovering new directions for the book to take, and working with Michael P. Williams, Boss Fight’s superhuman researcher. He’d help me dig up just about anything I needed, and he’d do it in the blink of an eye. I’m pretty sure he’s part robot but I don’t want to rat him out. He and I spent probably a year going back and forth on drafts and concepts, and anything I did he was able to find a way to elevate it. I’d take something as far as I could take it, and he’d push me just a bit further. It was a remarkably beneficial relationship.
We landed on a “finished” draft in January of this year, I think, and it's just been a matter of polishing and refining it since.
4) What can readers expect from your take on the source material?
They can expect to be taken on a journey from frustration through begrudging admiration all the way to genuine love. I try to use the game’s trip through the Spencer Mansion as a way of tracing the development of my own understanding of horror in general. It’s amazing how instructive that game can be. Lots of folks remember it for its sillier moments, and that’s completely fair. The game gets quite silly many times over. But if you’re willing to push a little further and look at what it’s actually doing, how it’s accomplishing its particular goals, it’s often masterful. And that’s what the book does. It walks you through all of these moments like little exhibits, and we take a fun little journey of love and understanding together.
5) Resident Evil is an incredibly popular, and long running, series. What will make your book stand out against other creators who have also produced articles and videos about the game? Are there perhaps any teases you can let us in on?
It’s funny, because it seems like so many people discuss the game and the series, but everybody’s point of view is unique. If you watch 50 videos about Super Mario Bros. or Mega Man, you’ll hear a lot of repetition. That isn’t really the case with Resident Evil. The Sphere Hunter will do these great, personal reflections that are just bursting with love and heart. Avalanche Reviews will do a more detached retrospective with an emphasis on technical performance and the game’s ports. SinglePlayerNacho will do an entire lore video about a corpse you find on the floor that isn’t there when you come back. Dante Ravioli will do a video in which he sees if he can kill the chainsaw man with an egg.
My point is that Resident Evil, for whatever reason, is so vastly open to interpretation that new voices nearly always have new things to say. I love everybody I listed above, and my discussion of the game is also nothing like theirs. I approach it as someone who has grown to love horror – the best and worst of horror – over the years. I critique it and analyze its blocking and direction the way I would a film. I even track down the actors and voice actors who made Resident Evil the closest thing to a playable horror film we’d ever had, so that I could construct for the first time the complete story of those recording sessions. That’s something else the book offers that I don’t think any video or article can: comprehensiveness. You get the entire story in one place, and I’m honored I am able to provide that.
As far as teases go, and what also sets this book apart from any other video or article, is the fact that it contains interviews – consisting almost exclusively of new information – with nearly every known actor and voice actor in the game. There are two sad exceptions: one who passed away and one who declined to be interviewed. But otherwise, this is the most complete story we as fans have ever had about Resident Evil's notorious performances.
6) What were some of the more challenging things to research while writing Resident Evil?
This might be an even better question than you realize! There is so much misinformation about this game on the internet. Constantly I would stumble across something that seemed interesting, and I’d try to validate it as fact. So I’d go backward from wherever I found it, trace it through various repetitions over the years, and discover that it originated as someone’s theory on some long-dead web forum. It was never a fact to begin with, but people read it, repeated it, and now they “know” it, even though it’s not true. That was profoundly frustrating for me, and I wasn’t alone. When I interviewed the actors from the game, they took the opportunity to clear up some misconceptions themselves.
Part of this is due to the era in which the game was released; video games were still not taken seriously, and the haunted-mansion zombie game wasn’t going to buck that trend. A lot of definitive records of the development process simply don’t exist because nobody cared enough to keep them. That’s okay, but I think we as people and fans do have a responsibility to separate fact from fiction when we write about the game. Perpetuating fictions does a lot of harm to the folks trying to piece together the facts.
7) Will your book mostly look at the 1996 original, or will it also touch upon the beloved 2002 remake?
Mainly about the original, but I definitely wanted to drill into bits of the remake as well. I think the remake is a genuinely fascinating game in its own right, and the Lisa Trevor stuff is still, to this day, my favorite thing in the entire franchise. It takes something that was touched upon in the original (“These monsters were once real people. See? Here’s someone’s diary…”) and brings it to the saddest, scariest, most unnerving extreme. It’s not just good for a horror game; it’s good horror period.
8) Finally, where can people find your work on the internet, and is there a proposed release window for Resident Evil?
The book is finished, so anyone who pre-orders it through the Kickstarter can expect to receive it in August. There’s the standard COVID caveat that things could change in the interim, but the book is as ready as it can be prior to printing and distribution!
You can find my work at TripleJump on YouTube, where I write for the two funniest guys on the internet. I also have my own site at noiselesschatter.com, which is full of critical essays about film, games, books, and every episode of ALF.
This week, we are grieving the unexpected death of our friend, Philip J Reed, whose book on Resident Evil we published in 2020.
Philip had such a natural conversational writing style, and could find depth in even the most shallow-seeming subject. He loved exploring B-movies, junk TV, and deeply flawed video games. Even when he made fun of the worst of what pop culture had to offer, the jokes never seethed at their subject, but rather pivoted toward the universal, marveling at the combination genius/hack that lives in us all: Isn’t it funny that we’re like this? Aren’t our failures so fascinating and revealing?
Philip wrote regularly for many years on his blog, Noiseless Chatter, often creating critical dares for himself like, “I’m going to play and discuss every level of every Mega Man game,” or, “I’m going write a ten-essay scene-by-scene breakdown of The Life Aquatic,” and then, unlike most of us, he actually completed those projects. (A sad sticking point for some of us is how close Philip came to completing his longrunning episode-by-episode series on Better Call Saul, passing away with just a few episodes to go.)
In the most famous/infamous essay series on his blog, Philip unpacked each and every episode (and numerous spinoffs) of the awful sitcom ALF. “I started the project as a way to write about a topic I didn’t have to take seriously,” Philip wrote when Gabe asked him about it in an interview ahead of Resident Evil’s release. “It’s ALF, for crying out loud. Within a few weeks, I was taking it seriously. I started using ALF as a springboard to talk about literature, music, and movies. And religion. And politics. And basic human decency.”
It’s no wonder Philip saw a kindred soul in Nathan Rabin, another of our great America junk mystics who can report back from the biggest flop with the deepest insight, or that when it came time to find someone to write a foreword to his book, Philip tapped none other than the great B-horror king Lloyd Kaufman.
When we asked Philip what Resident Evil and Kaufman’s work had in common, Philip cited “their willingness to just go for it.” He continued, “You can play Resident Evil or watch a Troma film, and in either case you see artists barreling toward their vision without hesitation. Sometimes it works great, other times you can see where the end product might have benefited from a more deliberate approach, but the fact is that you wouldn’t have gotten those particular moments of greatness if you hadn’t been barreling in the first place. It’s a big gamble to just let yourself fly with artistic abandon, because if it lands it lands brilliantly and if it doesn’t, it falls very flat.”
Though we don’t think he intended to, Philip was also distilling what is so great about his own writing. He gave himself permission to take big swings, confidently barreling forward toward moments of greatness, trusting he could always go back and cut whatever wasn’t working.
Philip’s deep kindness shines both in his Resident Evil book and in the thousands of unpublished words exchanged about it. Throughout the entirety of our iterative research and editing, we got to know Philip through two years of ongoing, open conversation across Gmail and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and text messages that veered through all the spheres of low and high culture (but mostly low), peppered with so much good humor and fun and friendship. There are dozens upon dozens of emails and hundreds more messages of our ongoing work conversation, full of misdirects, red herrings, jokes, tangents, anxieties about publishing and life in general, all leading toward bringing his manuscript to life.
Gabe has fond memories of working with Philip (always remotely, unfortunately) on his book from the coworking space he used to rent in the Larchmont Village neighborhood of Los Angeles, and of how excited Philip was to watch a great book emerge better and better with each subsequent draft.
For his part, Mike best remembers the detective work that went into the book. Mike worked with Philip to track down an obscure early dub of the Hayao Miyazaki film Porco Rosso, the version shown on Japanese Airlines that featured Resident Evil’s voice actor Barry Gjerde. In our attempts to contact Gjerde, who had been wary of writers making him the butt of their jokes about Resident Evil’s laughably poor dialogue, Mike and Philip hunted through an obscure Norwegian genealogy website to find his living relatives as potential contacts. Philip eventually found a less creepy way to get in touch with Gjerde, and was able to include him in the book in a way that not only respected the constraints on the actor’s performance but also celebrated his work and craft.
Philip was pleased with how his Resident Evil book turned out, and how much it connected with readers and reviewers. People noticed, for example, the care that he put into showcasing the way fixed-cam early PlayStation games allowed for attention to film-like direction and composition, and the achievement of finding and interviewing the English-language voice and live-action casts.
For some readers, though, it was the book’s open-heartedness that stood out most. The book begins and ends with Philip reflecting on his own difficult childhood, and the friends he’d eventually make a clean break from, but who also introduced him to the horror genre as both an art form and a coping mechanism. Philip writes in the book’s final chapter, “It’s nice to focus on monsters you know aren’t real, to distract yourself from the real ones for a little while, from the ones you can’t blast into a pile of smoked meat. It feels good to prove to yourself that you can survive. To remind yourself that you’ve survived already.”
For Philip, art was an essential vehicle for coping, growth, and survival. Philip once had plans to start his own series of short books about “how creative works shape lives” in which Philip was to write his own book about how Mystery Science Theater 3000 shaped his own young life: “It’s seen me through some of the darkest stretches of my life, and it’s bolstered me through some of my most creative.” (We’d read the hell out of that book.)
When explaining the publishing project, Philip wrote that while “we share a lot of opinions,” we “often have trouble articulating the psychological, emotional, visceral response we have to those rare pieces of media that shape who we are, that reconfigure our world views, that begin with us seeing life in one way and end with us never seeing anything the same way again.”
And while that particular project did not come to pass, Philip offered feedback and encouragement to countless friends and colleagues. Philip generously offered Gabe feedback on his Majora’s Mask book, and then did the same for Sebastian Deken’s book on Final Fantasy VI. Philip wrote for the love of the game, and for the joy of connecting with others. For Philip, reading/writing and connecting with others was so often one and the same. Those intertwined passions brought him deeper into our Boss Fight crew, and cemented our friendship with him.
And Philip was our friend, even though we never met in person and rarely spoke on the phone. Our most frequent synchronous contact was tiny flashing dots on messenger apps and when we could watch him livestream holiday specials of shitty Christmas movies for charity. In a strange digital age, this is a familiar kind of friendship for us, but the death of a friend in this era is fundamentally weird. We don’t have the rituals to mark his passing. We don’t have the tools to shape our grief. We don’t have photographs of us together or voice messages from him. Just so very many words on digital paper.
We can’t reread them all. We won’t delete them either. They will subsume into a cosmic digital radiation that a future culture writer will one day discover. They will write perhaps one day on Better Call Saul, or The Life Aquatic, or even ALF, will find a clue that opens up a window into Philip’s expansive writing, incisive criticism, and generous heart, will memorialize him for a new audience of inspired weirdos, and compel them to create something strange, and sad, and lovely.
Philip used to fundraise for The Trevor Project, a charity providing mental health resources and free crisis prevention for LGBTQ youth. If you’d like to make a donation in his name, you can do so here.
This is the fifth and final installment of our author-vs.-author Boss Fight Q&A series. Both Philip's book on Resident Evil and Gabe's book on Majora's Mask are funding now on Kickstarter.
What was the initial kernel of an idea that made you pitch Resident Evil to us as a subject?
I had a friend who really wanted to submit a pitch. I encouraged him, and he encouraged me right back. I think he didn't want to go through the process alone. I wasn't sure what I'd want to write about, so I brainstormed a bunch of weird and obscure games. I figured I could pitch some truly bizarre title nobody else would dare pitch, and that that would help me stand out a bit.
A different friend of mine -- both of these friends are named Matt, for maximum confusion -- had recently rekindled my interest in the first Resident Evil game. That's certainly not obscure so I didn't give it much thought, but it kept creeping back into my mind. I knew I'd have a lot to say about it. It was the first PlayStation game I played. I have vivid memories of that night, playing it for the first time with two friends. I remember comparing it to Alone in the Dark, a PC game from a few years prior that I had also played. I knew I could walk through the entire game like a museum exhibit and talk about what every little thing is doing and how it's contributing to the overall atmosphere...
There were a lot of angles I could take, but I didn't want to pitch Resident Evil because I was certain hundreds of people had already pitched it. My friend Matt -- the first one -- told me to stop worrying and do it anyway. I did, and I learned later I was the first person to pitch that game to Boss Fight! There's probably a moral to this story but I'm not sure I learned it.
How did the book change as you wrote it? What surprised you, either from the research or the writing itself?
I have two answers! From the research side, it was the sheer amount of misinformation out there. It drove me crazy. I’d find something I thought was an interesting fact and I’d try to validate it. Article A cites Article B, so I look at that to find Article B citing Article C, so I look at that to find Article C citing nothing. To be fair, a lot of the time I'd follow a trail that led to something being specifically presented as unverified. Somebody would write a theory about how the game was made, or something, and it was clear they were theorizing. Of course the internet being what it is, other sites would quote it or report on it without being clear that it was conjectural, and then other people would cite their reporting, and then readers accept it as fact.
It’s major stuff, as well. Somebody will say, incorrectly, that the characters were voiced by the same actors who played them in the live-action cutscenes. People pick up on that and it becomes gospel, even though it’s not true, there's no evidence for it, and you can disprove it the moment you try researching it yourself. Fred Fouchet, a very active Resident Evil fan who has dedicated himself to identifying the actors, vented to me about how frustrating it was. Bad information constantly ends up leading him in the wrong direction and wasting his time. He’s acutely aware of how false information has made his job harder than a complete lack of information would have.
From the writing side, I ended up learning that one of the friendships I was writing about -- the friendship that was pivotal to me discovering Resident Evil -- was toxic. I started writing about our relationship, which made me think about it in ways I never had before, I guess. Between two drafts I went from wistful to wondering why the hell I kept him in my life as long as I did. It's the sort of emotional journey you hope a reader will have, and I got to have it as a writer.
One really fun aspect of the book was how you successfully interviewed the voice actors and live cutscene actors -- many of whom have spent their lives not knowing they were in the game at all. Could you tell me about your process of finding and talking to these people?
There's about a fifty-fifty split between the actors who have been identified and the actors who have not. It's really strange. There's an entire chapter in the book that explains why the actors in Resident Evil didn't know until recently they were in Resident Evil. In the cases of those who are still not identified, I did what every fan does and tried to track them down myself. Then I did something that nearly every fan does, which is fail at doing that.
As for the others, I had a lot of invaluable help from the fan community, which was so warm and welcoming to me. Specifically, Monique Alves and Fred Fouchet helped me establish contact with the actors. Sometimes directly, sometimes just by nudging me in the right direction. My process involved reaching out honestly and sincerely, being clear about what I was doing, and hoping they'd be willing to be part of this book. Every one of them was, which still blows me away. Barry Gjerde -- who voiced Barry -- has been bullied relentlessly for his performance in Resident Evil and was the only one who didn't reply to my requests. I tried so many times to get in touch with him, as Barry is an integral part of the game's legacy, but I got nothing. Ward Sexton -- the narrator who growls "RESIDENT EVIL" at you when you boot the game up -- is friends with Gjerde, though. When he heard that I had difficulty getting Gjerde's attention, he reached out to him and assured him that this wasn't a hit piece; this was a chance for Gjerde to set the record straight and be treated with respect. That's all Gjerde needed to hear, and he gave me so much great information for the book. Thanks to him, and the rest of the actors, I get to tell for the first time the true and complete story behind those infamous performances.
With only two exceptions -- Scott McCulloch, who voiced Chris and has passed away; and Lynn Harris, who voiced Rebecca and prefers not to be interviewed -- we hear from every known Resident Evil actor in this book. I am both humbled and honored that no other singular source can make that claim!
Beyond the first game and its remake, what other games in the Resident Evil series have you enjoyed most?
I’ll always have a soft spot for the first game, and I believe its remake is one of gaming’s great masterpieces, for sure. Outside of that, the one I enjoyed most is probably a controversial choice; it’s Resident Evil: Revelations.
I bought it because at the time there was very little else worth owning on the 3DS, and I couldn’t believe how great it was. It’s not as scary as most of the other Resident Evil games, but it’s definitely one of the most effective. The game is mainly set on an abandoned, drifting cruise ship, which is such a perfect setting for Resident Evil. And by that I really do mean I can’t think of a better setting at all. Jill is in it, which is always a plus, a lot of the new characters are great, and it’s just so much fun. My only complaint about Revelations is that the subseries died so quickly. Capcom did a sequel, which was also good, and that was it. I would have loved to see those games continue.
Elsewhere, Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 4 are both brilliant, and I want to show some love to Code Veronica, which is among the very best in the series and doesn't get nearly enough recognition.
You got the infamous B-horror director Lloyd Kaufman to write a great foreword to the book. What do you think Resident Evil and Kaufman's work (like The Toxic Avenger) have in common?
I’m almost certainly oversimplifying things, but the first thing that strikes me as a commonality is their willingness to just go for it. You can play Resident Evil or watch a Troma film, and in either case you see artists barreling toward their vision without hesitation. Sometimes it works great, other times you can see where the end product might have benefited from a more deliberate approach, but the fact is that you wouldn’t have gotten those particular moments of greatness if you hadn't been barreling in the first place. It’s a big gamble to just let yourself fly with artistic abandon, because if it lands it lands brilliantly and if it doesn’t, it falls very flat.
I think it’s that willingness to “go for it” that gives certain works their specific identities. A more carefully crafted Resident Evil wouldn’t have had the staying power. (I know, because that game was Alone in the Dark.) A more carefully crafted Toxic Avenger or Class of Nuke ‘Em High or Poultrygeist would have just been a competent B-movie. It takes bravery to run headlong into your craziest ideas instead of conferring with your team and trying to decide whether or not you can even pull it off.
That’s from the production side of things, but from the audience perspective I think there’s a perceptible earnestness behind both. Shinji Mikami and Kaufman are both punching above their weight, and people like seeing that. It’s transfixing and hypnotic. We laugh when things fall apart, as they inevitably do at certain points, but when something works -- when we get an image or a line or a sequence that sticks with us -- we never forget it, because on some level we are aware of the sheer gall it took for them to try in the first place.
As a writer, one of the projects you're best known for is your review of every episode/special/movie of ALF, a very bad sitcom. Could you tell me about what drove you to complete a project most would've abandoned, and what you got out of that process?
One thing I got out of that process was the reminder that you never know what an audience is going to latch onto. I've written a lot of things across various outlets that I put my heart into, truly expecting them to take off. One October, for instance, I spent the month writing about Christian horror films, which I thought was such a fascinating topic. Nobody cared. But I write angry jokes about ALF and I'm flooded with readers from all over the world.
I started the project as a way to write about a topic I didn't have to take seriously. It's ALF, for crying out loud. Within a few weeks, I was taking it seriously. I started using ALF as a springboard to talk about literature, music, and movies. And religion. And politics. And basic human decency. I was writing tens of thousands of words about each episode at one point. The most flattering comment I ever got was that reading my reviews -- of ALF, mind you -- was like attending a series of lectures on television history with a very passionate professor.
I want to say it was the readers that drove me to complete the project, and without question there's a lot of truth to that. Mainly, though, I was proving to myself that I could do it. I could take a topic literally no human being cares about and write something worth reading. Each episode was like a writing prompt from hell, but it forced me to either find things worth discussing or to take things that weren't worth discussing and find a way to make them entertaining. It's not my place to decide whether or not I succeeded, but I can say with confidence that I've written more about ALF than anybody else in human history.
This is the fourth in our author-vs.-author Boss Fight Q&A series. Both Sebastian's book on Final Fantasy VI and Gabe's book on Majora's Mask are funding now on Kickstarter.
It feels impossible not to compare Majora's Mask with its older sibling — like it's the Solange to Ocarina of Time's Beyoncé. How does/doesn't it stand on its own, and how does/doesn't it fit into the Zelda canon? Do you even think OoT is even the right reference point, or is there a better game to set beside Majora's Mask as a point of comparison?
This is the third in our author-vs.-author Boss Fight Q&A series. Both Sebastian's book on Final Fantasy VI and Matt's book on Red Dead Redemption are funding now on Kickstarter.
First off: what's your personal history with FFVI -- and, more specifically, with FFVI's music? What made you want to embark on this unique critical project?
I actually didn't know Final Fantasy III had come out before I got it. When I was in grade school, I was absolutely obsessed with Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II. I owned Final Fantasy, but only rented Final Fantasy II (from Blockbuster, of course) — and I rented it over and over and over again, over a period of a year or so. I never wanted to return it, because that meant losing my save data, so we racked up unimaginable late fees. I'm pretty sure it got to the point that Blockbuster froze my dad's account and would no longer let him rent movies or games. By the time I hit fifth grade, my parents had had enough, threw up their hands, and decided to eat the up-front cost and buy it for me. When my dad got to Toys R Us, though, they didn't have it — But they did have Final Fantasy III. When my dad brought it home and I plopped the cartridge in, I was immediately in love.
I loved music as a kid, but didn't live in a house of melomaniacs — we didn't have a family stereo or album collection. Most of the music I knew came from a.) church, b.) oldies we listened to in the car, or c.), and most importantly, video games. I remember crying a little bit when I first heard the overture sequence of FFVI—the part with the oboe, where the Magitek armor is walking across the tundra. The opera sequence made me want to be an opera singer — and I was, for most of my twenties.
I wanted to take this project on because I think this game's three-CD soundtrack holds up against modern game soundtracks recorded by live musicians. There's some kind of magic to it. I wanted to figure out what that magic was, and figure out, from a critical distance, why I was so obsessed with the music, and why I returned to it over and over throughout high school, college, and in the post-college real-world of my 20's and, now, my 30's.
From a musician's perspective, what makes Uematsu interesting as a composer? What did he do in this game -- or what has he done, in general -- that other composers of video game scores haven't done?
Woof, what a question. To my ear, he's interesting and unique in that he hammers out melodies so effortlessly. This was the sixth Final Fantasy game, each soundtrack larger than the last, and he hadn't run out of juice! He also walks a very thin line between "classical"-sounding music and "pop"-sounding music. Almost all of his music has a string section, often brass and/or woodwinds, but it also might have an electric bass and a steady rock-like beat from a virtual drum kit. He also jerks around very clearly in other genres that do not sound anything like this: Celtic, industrial, jazz, ragtime, techno, there's a pretty big laundry list. I'm sure other composers/games do this — but I can't come up with any off the top of my head, so to me Uematsu obviously does it most memorably. Other games seem to stick to one sound without bouncing around so much—Mario's a little kooky, Zelda had its dramatic "classical" sound, Mega Man had this synth-rock thing going, etc. I don't think Uematsu even does this intentionally; I think he does it instinctively because he's so into prog rock, and pretty omnivorous (maybe as a result of the prog rock).
The opera sequence in FFVI rightfully gets a lot of attention from critics and fans, but I've always been drawn even more to the complexity of "Dancing Mad," the amazing multi-movement battle music that plays during the final fight with Kefka. I remember being obsessed with the rock version of it that Uematsu played with The Black Mages, his FF music cover band (which still owns). I'm sure this is a big topic in your book, but what's your take on "Dancing Mad"? What do you think Uematsu was trying to do with that track?
"Dancing Mad" does get some attention in my book, but not nearly as much as the opera scene. It probably could be its own chapter, though! I didn't get too deep into analyzing it while I was researching/writing, I bet a musicologist could come up with some really fascinating stuff about it. My take on it is that Uematsu took this mentally shattered character and shows us four of the shards. Each movement takes a piece or pieces of Kefka's theme and transforms or elaborates on it/them. The first movement feels pretty straightforward, hopping back and forth between grief and anger. The second is militant and unhinged. The third is fascinating to me: it's all organ. It nods a little toward baroque and early classical church music — it starts off with a bell, for god's sake, and he ramps up the reverb on the organ to give it a sense of space. It's Kefka's desire for self-apotheosis. And that final movement is just killer—the off-kilter meter, the sick bassline, the jammin' rock organ. Man—it's fun to listen to! The fact that "Dancing Mad" is in four movements may have been a choice the developers made, not Uematsu, but it's worth noting that pieces with four movements are pretty common in classical music. It's fun to think of this as a mini-masterwork.
The Black Mages version is really cool too, but amped up just slightly — it actually sticks pretty close to the original and even uses similar, but higher-quality, synth sounds for the organs (man, it would have been great if they had hired an actual organist. That would have been sick as hell.). Until it gets to that wild guitar solo at the end, I imagine this is what "Dancing Mad" would have sounded like if it had been used in FF7. Maybe with some more intense choral action, though, given what Uematsu did in "One Winged Angel."
One of the things I love about FFVI is the fact that the world ends halfway through the game: Kefka succeeds in destroying the "World of Balance" and creating the "World of Ruin," scattering the 14 heroes across a postapocalyptic landscape. Do you find that there's a big difference between WoB music and WoR music? How does Uematsu complement the game's sudden tonal shift?
By the time you hit the World of Ruin, I'd ballpark that about 75–80% of the game's music has been introduced in one form or another—but a lot of it is recycled/repurposed/massaged, so the stats are pretty subjective. Because of that, there's a limit on how much the tone can really shift. There are some clear contrasts, though. The airship music in the World of Balance sounds like a Showcase Showdown on The Price is Right, but in the World of Ruin it's a melancholy number featuring a pan flute instead of a brass section. The town music is almost performatively mopey. The overworld music is probably the starkest contrast; it, more than anything, has that post-apocalyptic Pure Moods vibe. I think the way the change is really hit home is in the music direction (i.e., the cues/placement): the strongest reminders of the World of Balance come when you reunite with friends — when their theme music plays — and when you beat the game. Other than that, things are relatively static.
As a longtime JRPG fan, I can think of a lot of great music besides Uematsu's work on the FF games: Yasunori Mitsuda's score for Chrono Trigger (which Uematsu also worked on); Yoko Shimomura's work on Kingdom Hearts, Xenoblade Chronicles, etc.; Toby Fox's music for Undertale. All bangers. Do you think JRPGs tend to have better music than other game genres? If so, why? Is it just that the genre has always attracted singular talents, or is there something about the genre that enables a different approach to composition?
So I need to come clean here: I largely fell off the JRPG train after Final Fantasy VII (for a number of reasons not related to JRPGs or video games at all). As I researched this book, though, I did touch on a lot of really great JRPG scores — and I agree with you that there are tons of amazing ones out there. These scores are memorable — I think— because of the purpose they serve and the needs the games have. JRPGs traditionally have pretty linear storylines and predefined characters, so the music has to tell a linear story, and the composer can plan ahead for how the music and characters converse. Our reception of the music is necessarily tangled up in our reception of the story; it's supposed to be. In a lot of ways, that makes the music more powerful, and I think that's why JRPG's feel like such a fount of amazing music. (Don't get me wrong, though, there are a few real clunkers in this genre.)
That said, there are so many bangers out there that aren't JRPGs—the comparison between JRPGs and other genres may be apples-and-oranges, because the music functions differently, because the games' needs are different.
If you could do a book like this about another game's music, what game would it be?
Argh, I hate to list another 16-bit JRPG here because I would love to branch into another genre and era, but it would absolutely have to be Super Mario RPG. There's a lot of rich material there! The music is really idiosyncratic, memorable, and effective — it really does feel like a mash-up of 16-bit Nintendo and 16-bit Squaresoft. I would want to explore its relationship to the Mario franchise and to its 16-bit contemporaries — FFIV–VI, of course, but also Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Breath of Fire, etc. I also want to get in Yoko Shimomura's head. She did Street Fighter II and Breath of Fire in this era, but this really feels like an important moment in her career: a real mark in the 16-bit JRPG world, where the expectations/standards are so high — especially at Squaresoft! — and in the Mario franchise. It's really wild to think about that 2-in-1. Also—Women in video game music are forgotten/marginalized in history a way that's really similar to women in classical music (and other kinds of music). Yoko Shimomura is a big exception here, and I want to know about what it was like to break in, and how she managed to break through.
Pre-order your copy of Final Fantasy VI by Sebastian Deken.
This is the second in our author-vs.-author Boss Fight Q&A series. Both Mike's book on Silent Hill 2 and Philip's book on Resident Evil are funding now on Kickstarter.
You’re known primarily for humor, but you’ve selected one of the most deadly serious titles in gaming history. What made you decide to write about Silent Hill 2? What do you think you bring to the conversation as a humorist?
Silent Hill as a franchise seems like it should be able to endlessly reinvent itself, but after the third game its star harshly fell and never quite recovered. Now it’s dead, at least for the time being. Why do you think it failed to keep an audience?
It's hard to say, because I am a fan of the series as a whole. Even bad Silent Hill is still fun in its own goofy way. Most forms of art, and especially games, require massive teams of people who all genuinely want it go well. Nobody wants to leave a project feeling like they disappointed their audience. But if I had one criticism of the series - and please keep in mind this comes from a Silent Hill 2 fanboy - it's that it became too enamored with its own iconography and lore. Lore is great, but when a horror series gets weighed down by its past, there can sometimes a split between introducing new, scary elements and fan service. For example, I love the Bubble Head Nurses in Silent Hill 2, but when they come back in the movies and on t-shirts and in games like Book of Memories, they feel like mascots rather than horrors. There's just a point where Freddy Krueger goes from haunting your dreams to being a vinyl figure on a shelf.
So I don't necessarily think Silent Hill failed to keep an audience - and there is still a very dedicated audience online - but I do think that some later entries lost the thread on what made the series so captivating in the first place. Sadly, games that did try to reinvent the series like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories were essentially buried by Konami. Show of hands - how many of you played Shattered Memories? Exactly. You're missing out. Konami's cancellation of Hideo Kojima's Silent Hills after the release of the incredible P.T. also likely left both the series and the fandom in suspended animation. Finally, Konami has unfortunately failed to make playing most Silent Hill games easy for modern audiences. Outside of the poorly-produced Silent Hill 2 HD Collection, there's just no easy way to play most of the series on modern machines or at all. Well, unless you emulate.
We each chose to write about survival horror games! What are your thoughts on how that genre has largely faded in the past couple of generations, with the emphasis shifting back to action?
I don't think horror games have largely faded, but I think they've split up into action games with horror elements like the Evil Within and smaller, more artistic horror experiences like Layers of Fear. I'm sure this theory doesn't hold up under even the slightest scrutiny. But for me, the genre didn't fade so much as I found the experiences I needed off the AAA path. Games like Corpse Party, Pathologic (1 and 2), Darkwood, and Stories Untold. These are off the top of my head, not a list of my favorite games, people who are ready to be mad at me. That said, many of those AAA action-horror games are great! Look at something like Bloodborne. It's action-based. It's an RPG. But the way the game unfolds, the way you try to figure out what exactly happened doesn't feel that far from what Silent Hill often tries to do with its environmental storytelling. And I'll say that playing Resident Evil VII in virtual reality is one of the scariest gaming experiences I've ever had.
What is the earliest piece of media (not necessarily horror) that you remember scaring the hell out of you? Walk us through every aspect of that childhood trauma!
Two things come to mind. First, I was terrified of horror movie VHS box art. Just the designs - especially of those late '80s, early '90s horror movie boxes, just felt mysterious and terrifying to me. I didn't get into horror until middle school, so as a child, I would just see boxes for movies like Child's Play and feel immense fear. Two, the Large Marge scene from Pee Wee's Big Adventure. Honestly, still scary.
How far did the final book land from what you envisioned? What changed during the writing process?
Hoo boy. As you know, these books aren't very long, so we don't have space to cover everything we want to talk about. I had to cut down chapters on the development and release of the game (although I do touch on it) because the developers themselves released a making-of documentary that's available on YouTube. My first draft was somewhere in the range of 65,000 words and I had to get it down to 30,000, so some topics just had to go. I care about these topics! I just put more emphasis on other subjects I felt like I'd seen a little less of in the ether. I'd also say that the earlier drafts were "funnier" in the sense they had more jokes, but upon re-reading, I felt like I was shoe horning them in a bit much, accidentally making the book a bit more cringey than fun. Who knows if I've succeeded making it less so. Probably not!
Mandatory question: What features and creatures would you encounter if you were to visit Silent Hill? (Or, perhaps, “when.” I have no idea what you’re planning to promote the book.)
What I like about Silent Hill 2 compared to other games in the series is that the horrors you face come directly from your own sins. Most of the other Silent Hill games may have put the horror on a cult, but Silent Hill 2 just wants its characters to feel bad for what they did. So I'd probably encounter a really sad, deteriorating city that made little sense and left me feeling lonely and isolated based on the sin of letting friendships and relationships fester until they died. As far as monsters? I think the ones that always disturb me the worst are the ones that have human forms but look wrapped in a sweaty sheet made of flesh. F that S.