Q&A with Kyle Orland, Author of Minesweeper March 03 2023

Kyle Orland is the author of a new book about the decades-spanning Windows staple Minesweeper, currently funding on Kickstarter. I caught up with Kyle over email to discuss 90s gaming stigma, unlikely book topics, and his own history with the game. - Gabe Durham
Your book is historical, and only barely touches on your personal history with Minesweeper. Could you tell us about how you got into the game?
I remember first finding the game while I was puttering around on my mom's work computer during one of those summer days where she had to bring me in to work for some reason. I clicked around semi-randomly until I found a mine and got very confused. Then my mom actually explained how the numbers worked -- and some of the basics of working out how to find safe spaces -- and the rest was history.
In the days before the Internet, I remember staring at Minesweeper boards for minutes at a time without making a click, trying to work out if there were any logical rules I was missing that could help me make more progress without guessing (usually there weren't). I remember being very excited the first time I was able to complete an Expert-level board, and quickly falling away from the game after that -- games like Freecell or Rattler Race or Skiefree or Tripeaks became my casual Windows staples for a while.
While I played Minesweeper now and then through the '90s, I got back into the game big time in college, where my college roommate and I got into a months-long high score chase together (hi Danny). Years later, I also had a brief obsession with the Adventure Mode added to the Windows 8 version of the game, which added items and a sense of progression rather than a battle with a ticking clock.
Between those periods of intense interest, though, Minesweeper is a game I'd often find myself drifting to once every few years when bored at a computer. "Oh yeah, Minesweeper. It's been a while. I wonder if I could do any better now." And usually, after a few weeks of obsessive practice, I could.


What made you think of Minesweeper, years later, for the topic of a book?

When thinking of a game to pitch for the Boss Fight Books treatment, I went through a mental list of the titles that I had personally spent the most time with over the year, trying to come up with one that (1) was popular enough to draw some interest in a book-length treatment and (2) hadn't already been written about ad nauseum.
I came up with a lot of candidates that met the first criterion, but Minesweeper was the best game I could think of for that second one. In fact, if you measure games by the ratio of "total aggregate hours played" vs "total aggregate number of words written about," I doubt any game would beat Minesweeper.
I was pretty sure the story of Minesweeper's creation and impact could sustain a book. But discovering the thorough history and documentation at The Authoritative Minesweeper web site cemented my desire to write about this game. There, I learned about the incredible story of how the Minesweeper record-chasing community started exploiting the game's random board generation to play on a record-ready "Dreamboard" where they had already memorized the mine placements. The resulting drama gave the whole book a human angle that really pulled everything else together.
Early readers have been fascinated by the book's portrait of Microsoft in the 90s, a time when some in the company were very against the idea of Microsoft having anything to do with games. What was the stigma around computer games at the time?
When Minesweeper was made in 1990, Microsoft was a behemoth making billions of dollars in annual revenue from its operating systems and massive productivity software like Office and Word. There was a real concern among some in the company that producing games would ruin Microsoft's business-focused reputation and make people think they weren't a serious company worthy of major corporate contracts. And even though there was a growing market for MS-DOS-based games at the time, a lot of executives at Microsoft still balked at the idea that anyone would buy one of these expensive number-crunching machines just to let their kids goof off. 
It was the surprise success of Windows Solitaire (which was built-in to Windows 3.0 in 1990) was the wedge needed to start changing that perception in parts of Microsoft. The small Entry Business Unit -- which was responsible for trying to kickstart Windows' home PC business -- saw an opportunity for a collection of simple Windows games that would convince customers there was more to the OS than making work. Minesweeper was included in the first Microsoft Entertainment Pack for Windows that year, and the rest is history.
As you cover in the book, Minesweeper doesn't get brought up a lot in "history of video games" conversations despite for a time being absolutely everywhere. Why do you think games like Minesweeper get left out of the conversation?
Part of it is that the game was so easily accessible for so long -- many players still automatically discount the inherent worth of free-to-play games, even ones like Minesweeper that largely predate things like microtransactions or in-game ads. If Microsoft was giving it out for free, how much value could it really have? A lot of people unfairly think of Minesweeper as "that game you play if there is absolutely nothing else to play" on a given Windows PC (a state of affairs that's very rare in the Internet age). 
Part of it is also probably the game's simplicity -- it doesn't have a deep narrative or identifiable characters or complicated mechanics  or any of the other markers of complexity that help mark a game as "serious" or "memorable" in people's minds. Yet there are tens of millions of regular Minesweeper players that can testify to the game's addictive appeal. I'd put Minesweeper in the same bucket as Tetris in terms of games where the lack of complexity is part of what makes them special. It seems like one of the primordial building blocks of the very concept of a computer game -- a basic puzzle that can't be broken down any further.
We had a draft of the cover of your book that we were pretty happy with until you got some feedback that wasn't... great. Could you tell the story?
Heh, yeah, we originally used a picture of a dog toy with a bunch of spikes that we felt evoked the look of the underwater mine icon used in the game. When I showed it to some friends and family, though, a few people told me the shape reminded them of the pictures of the microscopic coronavirus that had been all over the news for months at the time.
Once I saw that, I couldn't unsee it, and didn't want it to distract a pandemic-addled public. So we found a similar pet toy with rounded bumps that looked like a mine without evoking the virus quite as strongly.
Since you've been writing about games longer than most of our writers (and since you are the editor of a popular games vertical), I'm curious about how you'd describe the current cultural moment in how people are thinking and talking about video games. And then: What do you want to see more of from writers and content creators?
That's a big question. On the one hand, thanks to the Internet, there are way more people writing about games and aggregate words being written about games than there were when Minesweeper came out in 1990 (when a handful of monthly glossy magazines were pretty much it). The explosion of voices and quality criticism and industry analysis available to a thoughtful reader today is beyond anything I could have dreamed of as a kid in journalism school.
On the other hand, I fear that explosion in the supply of game writing has led to a devaluing of writing about games as a profession. Having so many people creating so much good content -- many of them willing to do it for free -- makes it harder to grab enough attention to stand out and actually make it a vocation, rather than a hobby. There's also been a large, wholesale shift in attention to video makers and streamers that has lessened the demand for writing about games, for good or for ill.
If there's one thing I'd like to see more of, it's reporting on the people making games, especially in a historical context. The people who made some of the earliest titles aren't going to be around forever, and capturing their memories and thoughts for future generations is going to be worth a lot more than some hot take on the latest AAA shooter.
I also love deep dives into hyper-niche groups of players or creators, like the competitive Minesweeper community I talk about in the book. The stories about games I find most interesting these days are the ones about humans playing them in interesting ways, or molding them into completely new forms through playful experimentation.

Q&A with Bob Mackey, Author of Day of the Tentacle March 01 2023

Bob Mackey is the author of a new book about the PC classic Day of the Tentacle, currently funding on Kickstarter. I caught up with Bob over email to discuss adventure games, animation, comedy, and puzzle design. - Gabe Durham
Could you tell us about how you first discovered Day of the Tentacle? Were you already playing a lot of adventure games at the time?
After playing and falling in love with the Maniac Mansion NES port, I became an adventure game fan with no real access to a PC: the sole platform where the genre thrived. So when Day of the Tentacle appeared at my local game store in 1993 (in its eye-catching five-sided box), I absolutely coveted it—and should have bought it anyway, seeing as it's now an incredibly rare collector's item I don't have the guts to drop several hundred bucks on three decades later. We didn't get a family PC until 1996, and as soon as it entered our home I found myself catching up with 15 years of adventure games. Of course, Day of the Tentacle was one of the first ones I jumped into.
In the book, you hit on the growing pains that the point-and-click adventure genre went through before  Day of the Tentacle came out. How did the DotT team benefit from the lessons of the past?
Day of the Tentacle was the first project led by directors Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman, two guys who had previously worked directly under Ron Gilbert on the first two Monkey Island games. This duo of releases essentially codified the rules all (good) adventure games adhere to, and Schafer and Grossman took these lessons learned and applied them to everything within Day of the Tentacle. The result is an experience that feels more refined than everything in the genre that came before it, and one that remains incredibly playable today.
Making a legit funny video game is famously very hard. Why do you think Dave Grossman and Tim Shafer succeeded where so many have failed?
Grossman and Schafer realized the limitations of technology at the time, which is why so much of the DotT's humor isn't reliant on dialogue—in fact, voice acting entered the equation much later during the production. Of course, the dialogue is funny, and they nabbed some great actors to fill the roles, but the awkward pauses between spoken lines in games of this era couldn't necessarily sell jokes as intended. So DotT makes the right choice to rely on its visuals to communicate humor to an extreme other adventure games of the early '90s weren't attempting.
A lot of your work in recent years has been podcasting about The Simpsons and other animated shows, and Day of the Tentacle is often praised for its distinct animation style. Could you tell a little about the DotT team's approach? And how do you think they were able to pull it off with so much less space and frames than their TV & film counterparts?
Day of the Tentacle came about at a time when very few games had any formal sense of art direction. (Hey, 1993 was 30 years ago.) Earlier games featured cartoony visuals, of course, but DotT had an actual mission statement: "Let's make this look and move like a Chuck Jones cartoon." The artists behind the game closely studied classic animated shorts of the era, resulting in the most Chuck-Jones-like production possible at a resolution of 320 by 200. And they were able to make it work on just a handful of floppy discs using the same techniques of classic animation: strong poses and silhouettes that communicate everything you need to know about a character. (Not to mention stylized backgrounds that rely more on file-size-friendly abstraction than photorealism.) 
The puzzles in DotT are so goofy and clever. Do you have a favorite? And do you have one that you still have to look up online?
I don't want to completely give away all the steps, but there's a certain puzzle where you have to transform a cat into a skunk via a method that would feel right at home in a Pepe Le Pew cartoon. This isn't my favorite puzzle in terms of design, but it's the most evocative of how Day of the Tentacle is aspiring to be an interactive classic cartoon. And it felt absolutely natural to me as a kid who grew up watching close to 10 hours of Warner Bros. shorts a week on at least four different channels.
After growing up a Day of the Tentacle fan and working on this book project for years, there's absolutely no puzzle for the game I haven't memorized. If you see me on the street, feel free to ask for a hint!
There's been a resurgence of adventure games in recent years, including new games and remasters of old games. Have you kept up with the genre? Any games you'd recommend?
Return to Monkey Island released during the production of this book, and I can't recommend it enough; it stands alongside Day of the Tentacle when it comes to stellar adventure game design. And I also suggest that people don't sleep on the recent remasters of the Sam & Max episodic Telltale games. They've been lovingly remastered by some of the folks who worked on them back in the late '00s, and each episode is just so digestible, fun, and non-frustrating. Does everything I've mentioned so far have DotT co-director Dave Grossman in common? Perhaps.

Q&A with Mike Sholars, Author of PaRappa the Rapper February 09 2023

Mike Sholars is the author of a new book about the 1997 PS1 classic PaRappa the Rapper, currently funding on Kickstarter. I caught up with Mike over email to discuss games writing, demo discs, video game music concerts, and the rapping dog mantras. - Gabe Durham
Why was PaRappa the Rapper THE game you wanted to write a book about? Were there other games you also considered pitching to us?
Short answer? The Chicken Level Song had been stuck in my head for decades, and this was the best way to do something about it. But taking a step back, I had to do a lot of introspection. I've written articles about individual topics, games, whatever. I've written some aggressively long articles. But a book is a conversation, and I wanted to make sure it was a good one. There are games out there I could ramble about for tens of thousands of words, but it would be painful for everyone involved. Something like Super Mario RPG would be a great example of that; lots of thoughts and feelings, but I knew I'd struggle to provide big ideas or new historical research. And I also didn't want to go Full Journalist Mode; I wanted to make sure the reader knew I had passion and a personal connection to the game. My mind went to the Yakuza games; I love them and find their development history fascinating, but my own insight would be at arm's length.
PaRappa felt like the perfect mix; I'm a forever fan, but I felt like its story wasn't common knowledge when compared to something like Doom or Super Mario Bros. At the same time, I knew there was a universal story here: This decades-long arc of a game that invented music games as we know them, but doesn't get the credit. Like Searching For Sugar Man or The Sparks Brothers, but also written by an anxious Millennial who turned his first published book into a running joke about Aerosmith. (And I'd do it again.)
You mention in the book that as a kid you read video game mags obsessively, and as an adult you've written essays for a lot of good video game and pop culture sites. What do you look for in good writing about games? And how has that changed over time?
Despite spending all my formative years as a know-it-all, my favourite feeling in the world is being shown something new. When someone you trust (a friend, a critic you follow, someone on social media) can express not just why a work of art is good, but how it made them feel and think, that's magic. When I was devouring GamePro and EGM issues as a kid, game criticism was mostly surface level; more product review than At the Movies, you know? And there's absolutely a place for that; I have had my mind changed plenty of times because I thought a game was going to play like one thing, and in reality, it was something else. We've never had more options when it comes to objective coverage of video games, and I don't see that changing. So what I look for in good games writing, and what I try to do with my own work, is take that next step, and do my best Roger Ebert impression.
(Did I just spend 100 words paraphrasing that one monologue from Ratatouille? Oui.)
A Marques Brownlee-style approach to reviewing things is incredibly valuable when you're on the fence about committing your time and money to something. But what about after you've watched the movie, read the book, or played the game? When you're sitting there with your thoughts and the end credits scrolling in the darkness, where can you take that energy? That's good games writing, for me; it's something I can take with me and turn around in my brain. It doesn't need to be full of spoilers, but I want it to go deeper. I love when writers are brave enough to explain what they brought into their experience with a game, because it shapes what they took away from it. Because games journalism and pop culture criticism outlets are facing the exact same money-gatekeeper problems that drove me away from mainstream journalism, the biggest change I've seen over time is in how many writers are encouraged and supported in those kinds of deeper dives. You can't write that type of piece around a week-long embargo review period (although everyone does their best, and many of them are miracle workers), and a game will rarely be as click-worthy as it is during its launch window. This type of writing (and these kinds of writers!) are often migrating towards YouTube, creating multi-hour video essays that I adore.
But that's the heart of it: I think games are relevant past their first month of release, and I don't think games writing should be treated like it has an expiry date. You may have noticed this when I wrote a book about a game released in 1997.
You also mention in the book that a demo disc was how you first encountered the game, or at least the first level. Was that true of a lot of people you've talked to? And if so, how did that one demo disc find so many eager players?
I have no way of proving this, but it feels very accurate. Everyone who knows a bit about PaRappa remembers Chop Chop Master Onion. In some ways, I think it's just that the whole world was smaller at that time; console gaming was split between two companies, all games were enjoyed through physical copies, and pirating media was a dark art that few had the resources or desire to master for themselves. And demo discs were cheap/free. There's also certainly a novelty aspect to all of this: On that same demo disc, you can play Cool Boarders 2. We were already at a point where multiple 3D snowboarding simulators existed, and Cool Boarders wasn't even the best one. But a voice-acted cartoon starring a rapping dog? It was fresh then, it's fresh now.
What is something you learned about PaRappa while researching and writing the book that surprised you?
There were so many things, I don't even know where to begin. I learned that a huge amount of the preliminary art was sent via fax machine from Rodney Greenblat (in New York) to NaNaOn-Sha (in Japan). But we're talking mid-90s fax machines here; they were in black and white. So Rodney essentially turned all of his concept art into a paint-by-numbers, which the team in Japan would then decipher and put into the game. One of the most colourful games of its era started in monochrome!
I learned that both Greenblat and Masaya Matsuura were relatively new to game design, and operated without a ton of oversight from Sony. The PlayStation was a gamble, and every option was viable. That wouldn't last long; even by the end of the 90s, the idea of what games were supposed to be like had a big influence on Um Jammer Lammy and PaRappa 2.
Finally, I learned about Ryu Watabe, who might be the coolest person ever? He was the backbone of this project. Bilingual in Japanese and English; left a corporate job to pursue his love of hip hop. He penned all the lyrics on the fly, working with Matsuura and Gabin Itou. He laid down the demo tracks for every character in the game. And that's his voice as Chop Chop Master Onion. Dude put in the work, and I did my best to sing his praises.
I'm obsessed with this YouTube video you shared with me of the PaRappa rappers and singers performing their songs live (along with songs from Um Jammer Lammy). I want to be at this concert! Do you think a cover band who performs songs from the PaRappa/Lammy trilogy would be successful? How much should they charge?
Yo, I want to be at that concert. On a very practical level, that is footage from a Sony marketing event; most of the crowd is games media and/or people affiliated with the games. But the vibes are immaculate (and once again, Ryu Watabe is objectively dope as hell). But...PaRappa is weird when you just consider the songs. Almost every music game that followed it treats player input as the trigger that makes music happen; it you don't press a button, the song stops, or your score goes down. But if you mess up in DDR, the song keeps going. PaRappa and Lammy are more like Simon; the song is built around a pattern that the player immediately repeats. It's fun and intuitive when you play it, but it's kind of ridiculous when you do it live.
So, I think it would have to be a more general cover. And we're in a golden age of amazingly talented musicians taking the bones of game music and turning them into compositions and performances that are amazing as a cover and in their own right. I'm talking about groups like the J-Music Ensemble, Mariachi Entertainment System, The Oneups, GameChops, and the 8-Bit Big Band. That last artist won a goddamn Grammy for a Kirby Superstar cover last year.
Somewhere out there, a punk band an a jazz/hip hop duo are planning out their Lammy and PaRappa projects. I can't wait to hear them.
There is a contagious optimism to the character of PaRappa. This optimism scans as authentic in a way that sneaks past my defenses and warms my frosty heart. Why do you think that is? What's the difference between the cheap sentimentality, sometimes called "toxic positivity" these days, and PaRappa's "gotta believe" mentality?
There's layers to this one. Hip hop culture has always been tied to the energy, perspectives, and creativity of youth; that's why it ages so fast, like comedy. I talk about this in the book, but for a variety of reasons, there is no Aerosmith or Rolling Stones equivalent in hip hop. And once you slip past that cultural event horizon, you come off as corny. The coolest thing in 2003 will almost certainly be the corniest in 2023. PaRappa avoids this because he wasn't trying to meet a mid-90s idea of Hip Hop Cool; there wasn't anything quite like him. He's not Poochie from The Simpsons; there's no sense that a board of shadowy executives crafted him into being by committee. It's too sincere to be fake, basically.
That sincerity is absolutely not going to work for some people, but that's a separate issue altogether. Once you get past his basic visual design and presentation, the surprising thing about PaRappa as a game and a character is how character-focused it is. It's a 6-chapter slice-of-life cartoon about someone working to believe in themselves. PaRappa's insecurity isn't a vague reference; we are shown, in big cartoony cutscenes, that basically all of his anxieties come from a false belief that he needs to be richer/manlier/better in order to deserve love and friendship. And I don't know about you, but I've dealt with those feelings way more than my struggles with saving a Princess from a castle, or my fears of a weapon to surpass Metal Gear. We connect with his positivity because we relate to his negativity, as well.
Finally, I feel like "toxic positivity" is more of a social phenomenon; it's when negative thoughts and feelings are downplayed or denied. When only positive feedback is allowed or acknowledged, it's just an echo chamber with pastel colours. Versions of it are everywhere, especially in the worlds of fans and fandom. PaRappa could have easily fallen into that trap. Then there's artificial sentimentality; when you know your heartstrings are being pulled for maximum effect, and it doesn't feel earned. Think of every action movie that opens with an obligatory Tragic Backstory for its main character; for a game example, play the first hour or so of Watch Dogs. The game is doing everything in its power to make us feel, make us care, but you can't force that. And on the flipside, look at Pixar's Up, and how it wordlessly made millions of people cry in its first 10 minutes. PaRappa could have stumbled here, too.
I think it avoids both by being, for lack of a better word, real. PaRappa is a character riddled with insecurity and anxiety; his motto is about pushing through all of that, or at the very least not letting it define you. His failures are small (but real), and his wins are also pretty humble. There aren't life-or-death stakes in this game, and it trusts its audience to care. So many things about the game's presentation are loud and big, but the victories of everyday life are treated as worth celebrating in their own right.
I could write a book about all this!
Mike's book is currently funding on Kickstarter.

Blair Farrell Interviews Philip J Reed about Resident Evil August 09 2022

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, which is full of critical essays about film, games, books, and every episode of ALF.

Remembering Friend and Author Philip J Reed August 09 2022

Photo credit: Travis Weger

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.

Q&A with Alyse Knorr, Author of our New Book about the Making of GoldenEye 007 June 27 2022

Cover of the Hardcover Deluxe Edition of GoldenEye 007
Alyse Knorr is the author of the next book in the Boss Fight series, GoldenEye 007, as well as a previous book, Super Mario Bros. 3. The GoldenEye book is currently being funded in a Kickstarter campaign and comes out later this year, first as a paperback and then as a special edition hardcover. I caught up with her today over email, and she graciously answered my questions as one of her editors on the book. - Gabe Durham
What did you learn from writing the Super Mario Bros. 3 book that you then brought into writing about GoldenEye?
So many things! From a research perspective, I learned that writing about games well requires exploring a huge range of sources: interviews with the developers, interviews with super-fans, interviews with cultural critics, research into academic game theory, and research into the contextual history of the era. You need to talk to people, comb through old copies of The New York Times online, stalk old buildings on Google Maps, and simplify then apply complex theoretical ideas from games criticism. Sometimes the most exciting research finds are articles that were written just at the time the game originally came out--comparing the historical criticism alongside today's commentary is so fascinating. 
When it comes to writing, I learned from Super Mario Bros. 3 that my job is to weave together all of these different sources on all of these different topics to tell a clear and compelling story. Anyone can find a cool listicle online called "10 things you didn't know about GoldenEye," but when you tell a story, you have to work things out like narrative arc, scenes, character development, and what's at stake emotionally. Writing Super Mario Bros. 3 taught me that you need a clear throughline for your book--a guiding question, hypothesis, or argument--to bring everything together. That's what makes it a cohesive and satisfying experience for a reader (I hope!)
In a recent video, you do a great job of describing what GoldenEye's multiplayer mode meant to you when the game came out. What other games have you loved playing with others, either local or online?
The three games I played most with friends through high school and college were Mario Kart 64, GoldenEye, and Super Smash Bros. for the N64 and then GameCube. They are such hilarious, silly games. They are designed to create so much emotion--I mean, there's nothing like the anger you feel when your buddy red-shells you just INCHES before you cross the finish line in Mario Kart 64. But it's a hilarious kind of anger. Of course, I also still love playing Super Mario Bros. 3 with family and friends, and I have a lot of memories of growing up and playing it with my dad and brother, which I wrote about in my Boss Fight title on Super Mario 3. I still think it's so fun to introduce that game to little kids--I played some with a 10-year-old the other day and he was shocked at how hard it is. "It's old-school hard!" I told him.
What about the history of GoldenEye surprised you or ran counter to what you had assumed going into your research?
My biggest surprise was just how organically this game was made, through iterative design and a profound trust between each of the developers as well as between the developers and Rare management. Early on, GoldenEye was meant to be an on-the-rails shooter--a fundamentally different type of game than the open 3D world in the final version. The multiplayer was thrown together in six weeks right at the end of development, pretty much just to see if it could be done.
Because almost none of the developers had ever worked on a game before, they didn't know what the rules were, and so they could easily break them all. This, along with the work culture of Rare at the time, allowed unparalleled creativity and freedom. These were such brilliant, adventurous, and ambitious designers, and so it's no wonder that, given the time to experiment and innovate, they came up with something as beautiful as GoldenEye
The year is 1997. You're playing GoldenEye multiplayer with three friends on a big boxy 4:3 TV. You're going to play multiplayer for the next 3 hours, but the twist is: You have to keep the same weapon/play mode specs the whole time! What are they?
Power Weapons, Facility, 10 minutes! I think I've done these very settings for 3 hours, haha.
What's your relationship with the Bond franchise like outside of this particular game? Do you have a favorite Bond actor and a favorite movie?
Like many Millennials, I really didn't care much about Bond until GoldenEye the game, which was really the first meaningful interaction with Bond I ever had. So GoldenEye the movie is my favorite Bond film, and for me, Pierce Brosnan will always be Bond. No offense to Daniel Craig fans, but he's too bulky and sweaty to be my Bond! The women actresses in GoldenEye are also amazing. I really love Judi Dench as M, especially when she calls him a "misogynist dinosaur"! I also love the fact that Famke Janssen (who plays Xenia Onatopp), was so hardcore that she sent an actor to the hospital during filming because she "got carried away," and she herself broke a rib after Brosnan threw her across a room. What a badass!
You're very good at pitching books, and I remember appreciating that you put just as much work into your 2019 GoldenEye proposal as you had the first time around with SMB3, even though we already had a working relationship. But more than that, I remember what a great impression both proposals made on Mike and me. How do you approach a book proposal? What advice would you pass on to people who have a nonfiction book idea that they want to pitch to a press or an agent?
This is such a nice thing to say! Thanks, Gabe. I wanted to give you and Mike just as polished and professional a proposal for GoldenEye as I did for Super Mario Bros. 3 because I respect the hell out of you both, and the work you do for Boss Fight. You deserve only the best. 
I think a book proposal is like a combination of a job interview and a date. It needs to be meticulous, persuasive, and professional, to prove that you are ready to do this job, but it also has to be fun and exciting, and give a sense of your voice. You hope that your proposal will make the editor say "Holy smokes this is so cool! I need to hear this story. And I'm totally confident this is the author to tell it." Editors have to invest a lot of time, money, and trust in their authors, so I believe that we authors owe it to editors (not to mention readers!) to show up and do the job well. 
From a technical standpoint, I try to center my proposal on a clear, concise thesis so that it will stick in the editor's mind all day and be very memorable. I only write the proposal after I've already done a lot of research, seen what's out there, figured out my approach, and written a sample chapter. That way I can really prove to the editor not only that the book itself is worth getting behind, but that I will write it on time and write it well. The pitch is in part saying: listen, I've done my homework already, I've got a plan, and this is why it's a great plan. In this way, writing the proposal is basically like getting started writing the book itself.  
Read more about the book on our Kickstarter page here.

Gabe Durham Interviews Philip J Reed About Resident Evil May 25 2020

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.

Pre-order your copy of Resident Evil by Philip J Reed.

Sebastian Deken Interviews Gabe Durham about The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask May 18 2020


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?

I think Ocarina is totally a natural reference point. Majora was built from the parts of Ocarina by many of the same people who made Ocarina. Those developers were thinking about Ocarina constantly because they assumed that most of Majora's players had already played Ocarina, and so they worked hard to differentiate Majora from Ocarina, to deliver a novel experience. I like the Beyonce/Solance comparison -- that tracks for me, especially for how Solange seems to ask of her music, "What is my blockbuster sister NOT doing?"
Link's Awakening is another useful reference: It's the game that first showed that Link can leave Hyrule, Zelda, and Ganon behind -- AND that Link's adventure can contain surreal or mysterious elements -- and we'll all still accept it as a Zelda game. (And in both games, those elements largely came from Yoshiaki Koizumi.)
Last, there's the German movie Run Lola Run, which the part of my book that was excerpted in Polygon brings up. According to different developer interviews, Lola either partially inspired Majora or their similarities are pure coincidence, but either way you can see a bit of Majora in the movie's "hero must replay the scenario until she gets it right" plot. Groundhog's Day gets brought up too, but that movie is more ponderous and less goal-oriented than Lola or Majora -- even if [90s movie SPOILER] it's love that saves him in the end.
The concept of time is at the heart of both N64 Zelda entries, but in very different ways. How else do the games speak to each other?
Ocarina set up Majora really well for how it would play with time. Ocarina already had an in-game clock that switched from day to night, though it only ran in certain locations. And Ocarina already featured an ocarina with the power of time travel. These elements were a boon for a time-strapped development team trying to make a sequel quickly, and they pushed both the in-game clock and time travel much further in Majora.
This is similar to the use of masks. The masks in Ocarina make for a fun quest, but they aren't a huge part of the game. Majora asks, "What if the masks change how everybody treats you?" And, a step further: "What if the masks change YOU? Your body, your size, and your abilities." I don't think the mask mechanic at the core of Majora would exist if there hadn't been some light use of masks in Ocarina.
It was by no means a flop, but why do you think Majora's Mask didn't have the same runaway success of its older sibling? What do you think might have happened if Majora's Mask had been released before Ocarina of Time?
I've thought about this a lot, and here are a few factors that hurt Majora's sales: 
  1. It's a late-gen N64 game. If you look at the list of the top-selling N64 games, they all came out before Majora. And Majora has the dubious honor of "bestselling N64 game released after 1999."
  2. It famously arrived on the same day as the PS2, the console with the greatest slate of launch titles in history, and got a little lost in the shuffle.
  3. Its sales were hurt by the requirement of a RAM upgrade called the Expansion Pak -- which everyone who didn't own Donkey Kong 64 had to buy separately. There were reports of stores that had Majora copies but had run out of Expansion Paks.
A "Majora comes out first" timeline is fun to consider. It definitely would have sold better, but it also would have confused a lot of players because many of its design choices skewed away from over-tutorializing in the early game. The devs envisioned a slightly older player who has already played Ocarina.
It would also be weird to start with a bold experiment in a new land and then return with a relatively safe hero's quest in Hyrule. Majora places itself in the tradition of "we gave you exactly what you wanted the first time -- now here's a darker sequel." Like Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. Or Babe: A Pig in the City. A lot of people, myself included, are hoping they go in a Majora direction for the BotW sequel. Mostly I think we mean: We hope they use this as an opportunity to surprise us. They gave us the big classic Zelda adventure: Now what else do they have to show us?
Majora's Mask's initial Japanese release date was less than 18 months after Ocarina of Time. What the hell was Nintendo thinking, and how the hell did the development team do it? How did they manage to make something so idiosyncratic—and so right—with so little time and with recycled resources?
Majora's developers were masters of reusing assets. There is a chapter in the book titled "The Art of the Remix" because they did such an incredible job of recontextualizing characters, enemies, items, and music from Ocarina and making it feel... not just fresh but often eerie, turning Termina and its inhabitants into a sort of Bizarro Hyrule. The developers turned the similarities into a strength.
Also, there were not a lot of team meetings. The devs just divvied up the workload and got to work. For instance, Koizumi was more in charge of Clock Town, the game's central hub, whereas Eiji Aonuma was more in charge of the rest of Termina and the dungeons. Composer Koji Kondo got almost no notes and was left to do his thing. Mitsuhiro Takano wrote the dialogue. And we're lucky that a lot of elements worked well on the first try because the team truly didn't have time to go back and change things.
The last answer is kind of a downer: Nintendo was not immune to crunch culture, though nobody called it that yet. I think the team worked too hard. Poor Takano, newly married, didn't see his wife enough and had to wait to take his honeymoon until after the game was done.
Majora's Mask is dark, with constant reminders of the passage of time, mortality, and existential futility. It feels less straightforward—it's no save-the-princess story—and far more cerebral and somber than any previous Zelda game (and most/all of the ones that came after it). How does the game manage this and find some sense of balance and appeal? What does joy look like for the player within the game, and for the people of Termina?
The game does a great job of balancing that somber tone you mention with a lot of classic adventuring.
For the player, I think there's a lot of joy in helping people. The characters in this game feel much more well-rounded than your typical NPC -- perhaps because you catch them in so many different situations and moods throughout each of the three days. They feel antonymous, and you get to know them slowly.
I will say, though, that for me Majora is the most stressful Zelda game to play because of the ticking clock. I'm so scared of screwing something up and having to start all over again! Majora is by far my favorite Zelda game to think about and talk about, but my favorite Zelda games to relax and play for fun are Breath of the Wild and A Link to the Past.
I have been thinking endlessly about Siobhan Thompson's recent tweet: "There are currently three types of video game: 1) you are a special fighting shootboy who shoots things 2) oh I get it, it's a metaphor for depression 3) nintendo." Joke aside, it feels like there is a kernel of truth there, and Majora's Mask seems to fit somewhere between #2 and #3. Do you think the game reflects on depression/mental illness? If so, how? Do you think this was the first major Depression Game?
Interesting! I guess it doesn't feel to me like a game about mental illness so much as it is a game about people dealing in different ways with the approach of death.
 To feel despondent in the wake of an impending apocalypse makes a lot of sense. To me, the least mentally healthy characters in the game are those who refuse to believe what's going on, though they find their way to acceptance eventually.
I think Majora's Mask works nicely as a metaphor for any worldwide disaster: climate change, our current life dealing with COVID-19, or nuclear war. Majora's developers tell the story of being at a colleague's wedding at the same time that a North Korean rocket flew over Japan. It turned out the rocket was a failed attempt to launch a satellite into orbit, but all of Japan wondered if this was a declaration of war. The contrast of the rocket and the wedding informed the game: How weird it is to try to live a normal life with such a grave threat going on in the background. This is explored most literally in Majora in the Anju and Kafei wedding plot.
But to cycle back to that tweet: I think one thing that's really cool about Majora is that it chews on all this heavy stuff, but it is still unapologetically thing #3: Nintendo. Majora may be dark, but it's also silly, sweet, and playful -- and that duality serves it so much better than if it were merely a Serious Art Game. Especially in the year 2000, a time when most game studios were obsessed with nailing the aesthetic of action movies. Majora's devs had their pick of two different Link designs from Ocarina, and could have easily have made Majora starring adult Link. The fact that they chose Kid Link instead says a lot about the kind of game they wanted to make.

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Matt Margini Interviews Sebastian Deken About Final Fantasy VI May 11 2020

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.

Philip J Reed Interviews Mike Drucker About Silent Hill 2 May 06 2020

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?

To be fair, I played Silent Hill 2 long before I tried and aggressively failed to be funny. Silent Hill 2 is one of those games that's stuck with me my entire life. It also holds up incredibly well, making revisiting it less of a stroll down memory lane and more a chance to peel back more layers in its design and story. I'd say I'm approaching Silent Hill 2 less as a comedy writer and more as someone who's suffered from mental illness and abuse, which is always the most fun angle one can take. At the same time, comedy and horror do carry similar rhythms; both rely on context, suspense, surprise, and escalation. While Silent Hill 2 is rarely funny, you could say that the game's twist is an eight-hour punchline on the first scene of the game.

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.

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