Most people would not give someone as rapturous a reception to the fact that they had an interest in the philosophy of science as Zoya Street did to me when I spoke to him about Dreamcast Worlds: A Design History: the typical reaction to this is a passive, borderline-sullen nod of acknowledgement or a strained “oh, really?” muttered through clenched teeth doing little to hide the subtext of “you pretentious bastard.” Such deviation from the typical should be expected from Zoya, however, given that his work is similarly deviant: Dreamcast Worlds is not an explanation of the Dreamcast’s lifecycle in terms of the efforts of inebriated salarymen, but rather in terms of the networks of interactions of actors that centred around the games themselves.
Aside from an introductory ice-breaking discussion of what makes the Dreamcast, above all other consoles, fit for a such an in-depth holistic discussion, much of the first “half” of our conversation focuses on methodology: we talk about how conventional approaches to games history seem to ignore the games themselves, treating them as merely the product of market forces rather than by virtue of their creative processes shaping such supposedly autonomous market forces themselves. He also willingly expresses a reticence to accept that the work, even within the context of the three games upon which it focusses (Shenmue, Skies of Arcadia and Phantasy Star Online), is complete: he accepts that more can always be done to further explain, especially given that the majority of the research undertaken in aid of the project has been done through the reconstruction of narratives given by others. As an effect of this, Dreamcast Worlds ends up derivative in the most wonderful sense: as an act of aggregation, the game worlds are explained in a sense that takes account of the multiplicity of experiences that one can have when playing a game in worlds as vast as those in the games upon which he focusses.
This talking about games within the framework of value-laden social structures continues into the next key talking point: consideration of what makes games developed in Japan “Japanese” in character. Again, Zoya is keen to take a more nuanced approach than defining them as a corollary of concrete historical situations: Japanese games are such by virtue of their being a cultural product of people who find themselves situated within, in the case of Sega’s in-house development for the Dreamcast, 1990s/early-2000s Japan. This concrete social situation provides a meaningful selection of choices to creators creating within it, limiting the possible and thus creating not just one vision of a “Japanese” game for this time period, but a multiplicity dependent upon which cultural artefacts are drawn upon in the act of creation. Though more fleshed out in our discussion, this idea forms part of his arguments in the book: Tanaka’s influence from Laputa in Skies of Arcadia and Suzuki’s Yokosuka of Shenmue are both inspired by cultural artefacts that are situated concretely in Japanese culture of the time – they are both Japanese, but in unique ways.
What I find surprising, however, is that, in spite of my remarking that my attitude to games can be summed up, for the majority of cases, by the mantra “if it ain’t Jap, it’s crap”, Zoya is willing to talk a reasonable rationale through with me. Rather than retorting with an accusation of cultural imperialism, which would be justified given the context in which I made this remark, he is willing to move forward, exploring why this may be the case, without resorting to explanations of why I may feel alienated from my own culture. “Having a smaller audience gives you a bit more freedom,” he remarks, relating this to design oriented around a Japanese-speaking market when compared to an Anglophone market: what I assume to have been perceived as a fondness for novelty on my part being rationalised in such a way – a way that I had not thought of before – is further testament to the interest that I found more generally in Zoya’s reasoning throughout the book.
In a move that could well be considered inevitable, the conversation turned to the navel-gazing exercise implied if two people who write about games start talking about writing about games. We are both in agreement that diversity is what is lacking, with people like Leigh Alexander and Mattie Brice presenting, though in different ways, new ways to look at things. We should not be product reviewers: we should be writing about games in a more general sense, whether this be in terms of narrative techniques, mechanical innovations or more personal stories involving games, games writers corporately should be more concerned with expanding the horizons of the way people think about games – if only out of a responsibility to inform the industry as a whole in order that games become better.
In the way that it analyses how a variety of both human and non-human actors conspired to create Shenmue, Skies of Arcadia and Phantasy Star Online, Dreamcast Worlds truly is something special in the annals of games writing in general, yet alone in terms of game histories. In moving beyond empowering the auteur, the businessman or the engineer with the responsibility for any design success, it talks in terms of complex systems of interaction that come to define cultural artefacts and indeed the Dreamcast more generally. Dreamcast Worlds, and, by extension, Zoya himself are articulate, passionate and accurate about games. This is very much an example of a writer following through on responsibilities they may have to their community.
Dreamcast Worlds has its hard launch scheduled for 9th September. A “beta” copy of the digital edition can be bought here – and it is really a book worth supporting for all of $10.