Interview with the wolfgirl - Agness Kaku
KOJIMA IS NOT A WRITER
Something Agness has been critical of is Kojima's writing ability, or rather his lack of it. Offering her free opportunity to speak, I asked what she felt, "I think he's very bad at character, and I think he's extremely conventional, as in non-creative, when it comes to plotting. I know that I'll probably get an incredible amount of hate karma - can you say hate karma? - about this. So I'll just say that I did grow up reading, I told you I grew up without TV, so I read instead. And I like Cormac McCarthy, and the science-fiction writers; I love Frank Herbert, I love Alfred Bester, right now I really like Greg Egan, so I am extremely picky, and I do have a high standard when it comes to writing."
"I think that if you're ripping off Tom Clancy, it's...Tom Clancy is Tom Clancy, he deserves all the money and fame. The guy has worked hard. Writing is hard work. So to shoot out a bunch of these kinds of things, that we've been talking about, and then claim yourself as a writer when...And you know, there's good work being done in games. I think Portal is really well written, very beautifully written, but Kojima's stuff is...Fine, be a game creator, and know what you're not very good at, and learn to work with people who are. Stanley Kubrick, famously, the one thing he could not do was write. He could do everything else, but he didn't know how to write, so he worked with good writers, and worked with them in a very sort of relentless partnership. He knew his limits. I don't think Kojima's a writer. The fact that he would even be considered one shows how low the standards are in the game industry. Nothing in MGS2 is above a fanfic level. He wouldn't last a morning in a network TV writers' room, and those aren't exactly turning out the Dark Tower series or The Wire."
After a pause Agness added, "Here's something that might better contextualise my criticism of Kojima's banal imaginings about corridors of power: I've ghosted speeches and other content for the kinds of people he would consider bigwigs, for events like APEC conferences. Politically, I'm a well-informed cynic to the extreme. I also once created and ran a site that attempted to track all the media-reported kidnappings in Iraq."
OFFICIAL KONAMI REVISIONISM
It's clear Agness has the experience and language ability to speak with authority on the subject of MGS2's writing. Which leads on to an interesting subject. Just prior to the release of Metal Gear Solid 4, Ryan Payton commented on MGS2, shifting the blame for fan dissatisfaction on to the translation. As he told 1UP, "I did walk away from Metal Gear Solid 2 a little bit disappointed and really confused about a lot of the plot elements and the narrative. Now looking back at the script and looking back at the translation and realizing where things might have gotten cut and where things got lost in translation - there really wasn't a problem with the original Japanese print. I think it was more a problem with some of the translation and some of the direction that was taken with the localisation. With MGS4 being the direct sequel to MGS2, I decided to investigate MGS2 as much as possible to gain a thorough understanding of it. I played the [Japanese] game over and over again, looked at the script with a fine-toothed comb, and realized: 'You know what? This is actually pretty cool now that I fully understand what is going on.'"
Having heard how others had tried to bait Agness into a confrontation regarding Jeremy's work, I was very careful not to appear wanting to do the same regarding Ryan's comment. But at the same time it did warrant investigating, and allowing Agness to explain her side of things. First off she debunked the idea that in its original Japanese the game was more palatable, "One thing I remember is I played it with someone so I could take notes - so my boyfriend was playing it - and I just sat next to him, and he loved the original game. He's a total kind of gamer generation, he knows way too much about [retro] things. But even he was like 'God! They just talk on, and on, and on, and there's a Colonel that'll go on and on, in this kind of political intrigue babble that wasn't particularly well written, droning.' The sheer amount of talking, I think makes it rather difficult to get through, but then if you just go ahead and skip it, maybe there was something in there?"
JS: I disagree with Ryan's stance, because no matter how you look at it, a majority of fans felt that Kojima had jumped the shark with MGS2.
AK: "I guess some people said it jumped the shark. I'll believe that, because these are people who loved the first one and liked the second one fine. But it's kind of like the difference, and not that I'm comparing Ridley Scott to Mr Kojima, but between Alien and Aliens. Aliens is a lot of fun, but Alien is something else. In my opinion. Obviously you may not agree."
JS: To me it seemed, maybe, almost like revisionism? MGS4 was coming out, fans were concerned with how the story had gone on MGS2, so someone came out and said: 'MGS2 was great, but you'll only know this if you speak Japanese. So trust us when we say MGS4 will be just as great...' Ryan was of course heavily involved with MGS4.
AK: "It's weasel words, kind of, but you know, if [Ryan] is indeed doing that, he might want to think about the fact that the guy who worked on the first MGS, Jeremy, has since been blamed [by Kojima] for its lack of brilliant perfection, so much so that his work was replaced wholesale for GameCube; the girl who worked on MGS2 has been blamed for getting in the way of its brilliance, and continues to be talked about like an unfortunate relative online; I don't know what happened to the person who did the third one, I turned it down. But if Kojima gets it in his head, that MGS4 was not brilliantly perfect, then perhaps Ryan will be joining Jeremy and I, in the lost-in-translation, unfortunate-relatives' club.
NOT ENOUGH CRITICAL THINKING
JS: Many players don't realise the work that translators and localisers put into these games. You're stuck between appeasing the fans and dealing with the developer too.
AK: "What I am, I don't know if other people who worked on this share this view, I am a gun for hire. That's what I've become, when it comes to writing. And if you're not a gun for hire, you're a cog. You have really these two choices, and you can try to be, try to sort of placate clients you've worked for, and try to make sure that they don't turn on you, but sometimes you have no control. I'd rather not do something, or say anything, that I won't be proud of in 10 years. That's why I never took the opportunity to join in some kind of MGS bashing, even though people really tried to get me into it. Somebody from [WEBSITE] really wanted me to trash talk about Jeremy. Some guy named [REMOVED]. I don't even know where Jeremy lives."
JS: He also lives in Japan.
AK: "If you ever come to town the three of us should get together."
JS: That would be cool. We could all trade war stories. Do you want to share anything else?
AK: "Something I do want to say is that, regarding my criticisms, I won't say my criticism comes from place of love, because I don't love Metal Gear. But Greg Egan said in one of his stories, which is rather great, and that is: 'If a medium doesn't have a language as powerful as that medium, the result is an unearned suspension of disbelief...to me a kind of a nightmare.'"
JS: There's not enough critical thought or appraisal of games today.
AK: "It's like a molasses it's been caught in all this time. I think in the early days the medium was quite limited, so the language you used, whether it was graphics or game control, or just the actual text, was in line with that. All was kind of good. But very quickly the medium outstripped the language, and in the meantime it's just continued to gabble in this stuff grabbed from poor movies. Or just arbitrarily stuck-in comic book pieces. I don't know when it's going to get out of this. I'm sure some people have experimented, but as long as everyone sits around... A polite way to say it is a mutual congratulations society. As long as this keeps going on it's not going to get better guys, it's really not."
JS: Do you have regrets about your time in the industry?
AK: "I've made my peace with it, though I feel fortunate that I didn't really have any dealings with Konami after this. After hearing all these stories. I mean, I guess I was actually lucky that I was kind of kept completely in the dark. I left the industry completely and just stopped doing game work until I was offered Katamari Damacy. And one of the reasons I left, was because it didn't need me to give anything of myself. [Game developers treated game localisation like]: Oh, here's a Kleenex to blow our nose and that's what the story and characters and all these things are. If you're going to feel that way you may as well make something that doesn't have any story. In some ways nothing much has changed. There are some good games, I've mentioned Portal, but they're a rarity."
JS: Yeah, the industry is so different today. It's why I like hearing stories from developers who worked in the 1980s - where four guys could rent a house and make a great game, like MULE. It was a more innocent time.
AK: "Before, I remember, people used to make shareware games, and making good enough money at it. But it meant they had lives, they weren't necessarily that young, and they'd gone through college, and they'd had a job, and had to get along with other people, and they had friends and other hobbies, and were married, and some of them had kids..."
JS: Yeah, the games they were developing was their first experience of videogames. Today young designers have only grown up with games.
AK: "Yes, and they haven't done anything else. You know that's something rather shocking to me, is that you have these very similar types of people, across international divides, involved in games, and most of them have never handled a real weapon, but they're doing all these games, and if they have it's only at a shooting range. And nobody ever told them that holding a gun is a huge responsibility, or that it practically breaks your arm when you fire it. Or if you have a kid around, you don't even want to talk so much about guns, because they might get the wrong idea."
AK: "I mean, how are you supposed to write a romance if you've never been in love, or never even had a semi-successful relationship? You have these people writing about these globe trotting, kind of soldiers of fortune types - but if you dropped them in LAX they would be scared. I don't think you can be creative unless you've done a hell of a lot of things with your life - you know, kind of mucked around."
JS: Very true. Katamari was different for you though, wasn't it? You had a lot of creative freedom? Tell me about Katamari Damacy.
AK: "Katamari was really interesting, because when I was brought in on the first one, some of it had already been translated, and Lindsay Gray, who had gone to work for Namco, decided that it was just... I guess he might call it 'a fucking mess'. So he grabbed me, and I ended up rewriting a lot of it, but not all of it. And possibly because they trusted Lindsay, Namco was extremely hands-off about the whole thing. They did talk to me a lot, but they were perfectly fine with the English being a rewrite."
AK: "One of the things that I did was... You know the King speaks in a royal 'we' all the time? That was something I decided to do with the first one, because it felt right. It's also lovely because it saves on a lot of characters, instead of referring to himself as, I dunno, 'I the great', or whatever. But the second one on, and I guess I don't remember how many I worked on, but the second one they basically just told me: 'You can just write the English version.' They gave me almost a kind of... 'In this part we need however many sets, this long, for this stage. Or this is the item you need to describe.' It wasn't a translation, it was just write the English, and it was lovely."
JS: So you were clearly very happy working on Katamari?
AK: "At that point I had already started to do a lot of ghost writing, so I don't think I would have taken the job if it were more game translation, since it's really quite grinding work. Otherwise, I have nothing but good things to say about working on that franchise. I think it's a little disappointing that they didn't take it to a more... They kept making the same game, because people liked it. I did find that disappointing, but they were really good to me. *laughs*"
JS: I loved the writing in the Katamari games. The reason I bought the similar sequels was due to the writing alone. It reminded me of Digitiser, a now long forgotten and very surreal televised games magazine from the UK. Very surreal, very Monty Python like with its humour - and I felt that Katamari also had a kind of Pythonesque humour to it.
AK: "Obviously I know Monty Python, and I did spend my teenage years in Canada, in the middle of Canada, where it's all rock 'n' roll, or comedy, or drink, so I opted for the first two. Maybe that kind of 'wonky' or British humour. Obviously the King was based on Freddy Mercury, some of his looks... Katamari was very good to me. It was kind of a godsend, at times, because I was moving a lot, which made it difficult to have a long steady contract, at times. So I did a lot of Katamari on the road, in many places. So I guess I did five games, up to Katamari Peaceful. I dunno, maybe they changed the name. I did five, the last one was in 2009. I did actually, again, want them to go a little dark with Katamari *laughs*. I kind of pitched it, and they were very nice, but it was not to be. I guess that was four or five years ago."
JS: Please, tell us about your Katamari pitch to Namco.
AK: "I saw that some people did Katamari photoshops, after hurricane Katrina. There was just this huge mess, and people standing there looking devastated at the ruin of their home, and someone drew a Katamari with the little Prince. And I thought, you know, that's actually pretty cool. Our world IS a damn mess, and so I had a series of ideas: the Prince comes in and cleans up these lonely people's minds. Basically people who are possibly descending into, you know, this madness, and he cleans it up. And the final stage was supposed to be war, or at least a war zone, with no people, but rubble, kinda like Iraq, with children's toys and all kinds of very sad remnants of everyday life. When the King takes him over there he says: it's very hard, but I had to do it to become a King, and your mother had to do it to become Queen, and you're old enough and you're going to do this."
AK: "So he goes and cleans everything up, and when it's over, the King for once is kind to the Prince, and takes him into this grove of trees and the Katamari he's collected with all this detritus of war turns into a seed, they plant it, and the idea is that the trees are grown from all the war - human wars. And at the end you see the Prince walking the girl who was carrying a doll that was in the rubble. So that was my proposal. I felt that it would be kind of a nice way to end the series. But maybe some people just want it to go on - maybe that's the better thing?"
JS: That sounds like an incredibly moving idea. But repetition sells and the industry is very risk averse today.
AK: "Yeah, it's so new the game industry, but it's just as conservative as movies. At least with TV there's HBO. But I like to hope that there really are people dedicated to making changes, in key positions. But I don't have their number. Keita Takahashi, who did Katamari, he's working on a game called Glitch, he's at a company called TinySpec, so I think he's looking to continue doing something creative. Play and be a craftsman. If the joy it isn't there, what the hell is the point?"
JS: Finally, what are you working on these days?
AK: "Actually I work for a game company again. I started in September. I'm currently a contractor with DeNA, and I have similar arrangements with other companies and organizations. So big Japanese company, smart phone gaming. Yeah, it's a big change after a nuclear disaster. I was actually offered a new Katamari, I guess on the Vita, but I was already under contract. I'd already signed on with DeNA, so I couldn't really take it."
JS: Thank you for your time answering all our questions - it was eye opening!
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