Wayne Santos // Desert Island Video Game Auteurs

Photograph by George Qua Enoo

This interview is different to my other interviews, so I need to give the backstory.

A little while back I was prepping an interview with Aliya Whiteley and punted the idea of ‘Desert Island Vincent Price films’. We’d been planning to talk about films for a while, and Aliya liked the Vincent Price idea, so we went with it. It was fun and I’m really proud of it—listen to it on the INTERMULTIVERSAL Patreon.

Around the same time I asked Wayne Santos, author of The Chimera Code and The Difficult Loves of Maria Makiling, to come up with five things in a niche category that he would take to a desert island. I think I suggested video games. Wayne leapt at the chance and so we put this together. It was a pleasure to produce. I hope you enjoy it too.

When asked, ‘If you’re going to a desert island and you’re only allowed to take objects in a grouping of five’, the first thing I did was try to find a way to cheat that system.

Wayne Santos

WAYNE SANTOS: When asked, ‘If you’re going to a desert island and you’re only allowed to take objects in a grouping of five’, the first thing I did was try to find a way to cheat that system. In this case, ‘taking five video games’ morphed for me into ‘Taking the games of five video game auteurs’.

Of course, there’s going to be a lot of argument about throwing that term around with regards to video games. However, like cinema, video games are a massive collaboration that takes the work of hundreds of people. So while it’s typically unfair to say a big-budget game is a solo effort, since it requires the work of programmers, animators, musicians, motion capture experts, writers, voice actors, artists, sound designers, level designers, and a wealth of other experts, the games that have always attracted me have, like film, usually had a strong, singular guiding vision.

So if I’m going to a desert island, and I’m taking the games from five video game auteurs, these are the people that would end up on that list.

INTERMULTIVERSAL: Awesome.

Tim Schafer

Portrait by Thespaff (Wikimedia)

I’ve always been a proponent of the idea that technology doesn’t matter to game design. The example I always like to point out is Tetris, one of the greatest games ever made.

Tim Schafer

SANTOS: This will be a repeating theme with different names, but no one makes games quite like Tim Schafer. For one, comedy is hard generally, but comedy in the interactive space is both harder to do and rarer to find. Whereas comedy is a pretty easy genre to find in film, television, and even written fiction, it scares off a lot of people in games. Not Tim Schafer, though. Since the 90s, he’s consistently cranked out the funniest games in the industry, full of sharp writing, scathing observations, and epically groanworthy puns.

Since the 90s, he’s consistently cranked out the funniest games in the industry…

Wayne Santos
A screenshot from Psychonauts

Mechanical perfection is not something he’s well known for. Where other games are praised for how precise the controls are, Schafer games can often come up short in this department. But the stories, level design, and sheer imagination and whimsey he puts into these games make up for these shortcomings. They are clever, empathetic, original, and, best of all, will make you laugh like no other games available on the market. This isn’t the cruel, mocking kind of humor that relies on humiliating others to get a laugh. Instead, it’s that wise, insightful comedy that sees the absurdity of life and points it out.

A publicity image for PSYCHONAUTS 2

INTERMULTIVERSAL: I like this idea of the imagination and humour and ethos of the game making up for technical shortcomings. Do you feel the same when you’re reading? Or watching a film or a television show? Will you forgive a lot of sins if you can see that vision?

SANTOS: I personally do tend to be more on the forgiving side. I don’t write perfect stories, and I don’t expect perfection from the entertainment I consume. For me, it really comes down to whether the overall entertainment value outweighs the negatives. I can find something positive in just about anything, but if the positives are few and far between, it becomes harder to enjoy on the whole.

And I’m always very aware that if something is wandering into unfamiliar territory, it’s probably going to make a lot of mistakes just because so few people have gone where this thing has gone. I mean, can you improve the way the Apollo missions landed people on the Moon? Sure, of course, there are ways, especially by 21st century standards, they could have improved that trip. But they landed guys on the freaking moon, so I’m not going to say the whole thing was a failure because of a bulky interface on their control panel that could have been streamlined to be more efficient and aesthetically pleasing.

Tim Schafer Games To Play:

Grim Fandango, Psychonauts, Psychonauts 2

Fumito Ueda

Portrait by AI Dreamy

There’s a level of realism you can only achieve through the imaginary.

Fumito Ueda

SANTOS: When people start condescendingly asking the question ‘Can video games be art?’ with the answer already prepared as ‘No’, I break out Fumito Ueda (上田 文人, Ueda Fumito). This is another critical darling that has been shouted from the mountain tops but doesn’t enjoy the kind of sales that a Call of Duty title can count on every year. These games are minimal, sometimes bleak, always original, and emotionally evocative.

Where Schafer makes you laugh, an Ueda game draws you into worlds where you have many questions and very few direct answers. The landscapes are often empty but haunting. The end is always something that surprises you with what emotions you experience as the game concludes.

…anyone that wants to experience art, instead of just watching it, or hearing it, or reading it, should play a Fumito Ueda game…

Wayne Santos
A screenshot from the 2018 remake of Shadow of the Colossus

Ueda games tend to be spare, third-person exploratory/action games that hint at complex stories in the architecture and enemies you encounter. They typically take place in ruins, and you can glean or imagine a lot from what you find there. They also tend to draw upon complex, sometimes intense emotions. I would say that anyone that wants to experience art, instead of just watching it, or hearing it, or reading it, should play a Fumito Ueda game and prepare to wrestle with the emotional reaction afterward. When you come away from a game with strong feelings that you can’t articulate because you’re not sure you’ve ever experienced emotions quite this way before, that’s something special.

INTERMULTIVERSAL: I’ve always found the ‘Can video games be art?’ question to be a little ridiculous. It feels like the very worst type of cultural gatekeeping. If video games were more widely recognised as art, do you think it would be beneficial for the industry? Would more people come in to work on games, do you think?

SANTOS: I think as it is, a lot of people already want to work on games and go to school for it, for the exact same reason that even though Star Wars or Star Trek aren’t considered the epitome of literary narrative, many still love them and have gone into film, or even STEM disciplines because of them. Games have brought a lot of joy into people’s lives; even critics turn their noses up at them and think they’re trivial and low-brow.

I think, though, that ultimately, it would be better for everyone if games were considered art because they are interactive. That’s new. That’s something a painting or watching a dance, or a stage play can’t do. If these critics scoff at interactivity because they’re wrapped up in games, they’re denying themselves an experience—artistic or otherwise—they can’t get anywhere else, and their world is smaller because of it.

INTERMULTIVERSAL: There are certain storytelling devices and narrative techniques that can only work in video games, because they’re interactive. Is there a particular story you have in your head that you know would only work as a (work of) video game (art)?

The cover of Interplay’s Neuromancer

I think almost any one of my books could be turned into an action game or a role-playing game. The Chimera Code as an action RPG is practically a no-brainer since some of it was inspired by things like the original Neuromancer game based on the William Gibson novel.

But I don’t have any stories burning a hole in my pocket that could have only been done as games. I’ve done a little bit of writing for games, and I’m very aware that the writing processes for these two media are radically different, and it’s something you have to plan from the very beginning.

Having said that, I have several ideas for games, especially RPGs, that I would love to see happen, but I need a big publisher to drive up to my house with several dump trucks full of money, asking me, ‘When can you start?’

Fumito Ueda Games to Play:

Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian

Yoko Taro

Photograph by Axem Titanium

I don’t think that humankind is worthy of trust when we can’t let go of war, draw borders between neighboring countries, seek to become richer than others, find joy in defeating others at sports, and choose someone of the opposite gender based on their appearance.

Yoko Taro

SANTOS: George Carlin once said, ‘Inside every cynic is a disappointed idealist’, and I think in a lot of ways that sums up the strange, disturbing, provocative, and often unexpectedly optimistic games of Yoko Taro. His games were a complete accident for me. Like many people during the PlayStation 2 era, I had no idea what I was getting into when I sat down to play Drakkengard, which I was interested in just because it had dragons in it.

I got dragons, but I also got incest, trauma, the destruction of worlds, existential dread, and a constant wondering whether there was any meaning in this world and, if so, why didn’t it feel like it?

If you want to cry over androids or watch robots performing Shakespeare, you need to play a Yoko Taro game.

Wayne Santos

Yoko Taro plays with expected game mechanics and conventions a lot. He has multiple endings. He changes the genre of the game from third-person action to text adventure to a side-scrolling platformer. He has disappointing male gaze moments for female characters but then has those same characters be the most complex people in the game with moments of triumph. He repeatedly stresses that the world is a horrible place, people do horrible things, and sometimes it feels like nothing matters, and then shows that love matters. All while having you execute well-timed action combos to kill stuff. If you want to cry over androids or watch robots performing Shakespeare, you need to play a Yoko Taro game.

INTERMULTIVERSAL: I definitely want to play these. I definitely want to see robots doing Shakespeare, and I’m totally on board for the idea that love matters when the whole world feels like it has no meaning and is going to hell. That is also something that you explore in your writing. How much inspiration for your own work do you find in Yoko Taro’s games, and in games generally?

SANTOS: I’ve definitely been inspired by the visuals and action of Yoko Taro games, although I’ve been very reluctant to take my stories as far as he has since he’s willing to go to nihilistic extremes just to make his point, and I’m not quite there yet. But I do find it refreshing that here’s a guy that goes to great lengths to say ‘Everything sucks’, and then just when you think he’s given up all hope on everything, he comes out and says, ‘But this doesn’t. This is beautiful and worthwhile.’

A clip from the opening of Drakkengard

It takes guts to be able to be so bleak and then still find some hope at the end of it all, and I do tend to remember that in my writing. In games generally, however, I do find it useful in a plotting sense how games structure themselves. Because games are situations where developers have to give players something to do and are asking them to sit down and do it, they have to be very careful to make sure their game doesn’t feel like work. The way they balance things like smaller quests that ultimately feed into a larger quest narrative is pretty interesting for me in demonstrating how all these actions can feel like something is happening that characters need to do that can still matter to a larger purpose.

Yoko Taro Games To Play:

Drakkengard, Nier: Replicant, Nier: Automata

Katsura Hoshino

I feel that every person living in this modern society has something hidden within their hearts,  and we made this game with that memorable element in mind

Katsura Hoshino talking about Persona 5

SANTOS: The typical Japanese role-playing puts players in the shoes of a non-speaking protagonist, often an orphan, amnesiac, or both, at the center of a big fantastical conspiracy to beat some evil outside force, often a handsome traumatized villain out to destroy the world. Katsuhiro Hoshino, however, turns a lot of that upside down. The first time I ever played one of his games was Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, which starts off immediately with the world getting annihilated and you have to decide—in the world’s current, proto-embryonic state—which ideology from potential gods will be the ruling one for the next incarnation of the universe.

The next games I played from him, from Persona 3 onwards, were about high school students traveling into the minds of others to free them from the societal neuroses and personal traumas that had shackled them down.

Katsura Hoshino is responsible for the most unique JRPGs I’ve ever played. The themes are either massive and cosmic in scale or surprisingly personal and even progressive, especially by Japanese standards. That’s not to say his games are thematically perfect; like many Japanese game developers, there’s still an undercurrent of sexism or male gaze that’s kind of built-in as a result of cultural conventions, but he presents ideas and women personalities that rise above this. These are games that get you so heavily emotionally invested that by the time they’re over, you really do feel like you’re saying goodbye to good friends, and you’ll miss them.

INTERMULTIVERSAL: You’re doing an excellent job of selling these to me. Which specific video game characters have you become attached to emotionally? And are there any characters you want to see return in a game in the future (as much as I want to see the Return of the Teek)?

SANTOS: Persona 4 Golden, in particular, is the game I was talking about where I said you feel like you’re saying goodbye to friends. Kanji Tatsumi starts as a gruff, uber aggressive bullying type who you eventually find out is just wrestling with issues of self and sexuality. Watching him grow was an emotional investment I never thought a game would give me.

Naoto Shirogane is a young but brilliant detective who is railing against the sexism of Japan and the internal contradiction that’s created about trying to accept who you are versus trying to become the person you wish to be and whether that wish is even the correct one. And Nanako Dojima is probably the most perfect child in the universe. I don’t have a kid, but if I did, I’d want her to be like Nanako.

By the time your summer at Inaba ends in the game, and it’s time to hop on the train and leave these people behind, you really don’t want to. Or at least I didn’t.

Katsura Hoshino Games To Play:

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, Persona 4 Golden, Persona 5 Royale

Hideo Kojima

Photograph by Georges Seguin

70% of my body is made up of films.

僕の体の70%は映画でできている

Hideo Kojima

SANTOS: He’s probably the least surprising name on this list since, unlike the others, he’s a pretty big mainstream hit among gamers. That’s all the more surprising considering just how quirky and weird his games ultimately are, but they’re wrapped up in some of the most inventive and engaging game mechanics, which is something most of the other developers aren’t quite up to par on.

Kojima is, of course, responsible for the Metal Gear series, which itself comes off on the surface as a pretty conventional spy or espionage game about infiltrating bases, killing people in stealthy ways, and uncovering global conspiracies. Over the years, he’s consistently played with the conventions and mechanics of gaming for some truly unique and bizarre experiences. I will never forget my abject surprise at Metal Gear Solid revealing to me that the radio frequency I needed to contact a potential ally was written on the back of my game packaging. Or that in order to beat a psychic who was reading my moves from the game controller, I needed to unplug it from port 1, which he was reading, and plug it into port 2, which he couldn’t read.

When everyone else was making games with stories about killing evil wizards, Kojima looked at post-cold war politics and information economies and made some of the most prescient and depressing predictions about how the Internet would be used for propaganda.

Wayne Santos

Hideo Kojima is a bizarre fusion of deadly serious global conspiracy and philosophy, combined with a playfulness and even slapstick nature that has a meta-awareness of games and gives voice to it. It’s one of those things that surprises the unfamiliar who think they are going to get nothing but sober, serious military action and then find themselves in bizarre scenarios where the game knows it’s a game and provides game options to circumvent different obstacles. At the same time, though, Hideo Kojima dragged the entire industry, kicking and screaming into a place where cinematic quality cutscenes and more mature themes and dialog were acceptable. When everyone else was making games with stories about killing evil wizards, Kojima looked at post-cold war politics and information economies and made some of the most prescient and depressing predictions about how the Internet would be used for propaganda.

INTERMULTIVERSAL: The internet is being used in all manner of nefarious ways, yet it is also bringing people together. There is the horrible, and the love. Where are you at the moment on the sliding scale of ‘the internet will be the end of us’ to ‘the internet is going to save us all’?

SANTOS: The Internet is like anything else in this world in that it was a wild, wooly, and more interesting place when powerful people weren’t paying attention to it. Once they realized they could exploit it and even circumvent physical and legal boundaries with it, that’s when things took a turn for the dystopic.

It’s kind of like being in stormy seas, pursued by cannibal pirates, but knowing there’s some safe ground out there somewhere.

Wayne Santos

I still think the Internet can be a force for good, connecting people and allowing them to go beyond their own physical or mental limitations through technology and bonding with other people. But I also think this kind of positivity on the Internet is now on the fringes, or in ‘pockets’ where no one of influence is looking. If you carve out a little digital domain for yourself within a small, grey space of a vast social media platform, you can still have a positive, healthy experience in there, but you’re also surrounded by a mechanism that is designed to propagate hysteria for the sake of clicks.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the Internet can have islands of good. And you should keep an eye out for them. But they are islands of good in a sea of paranoia, rumor-mongering, and strong-shall-eat-the-weak dystopia. It’s kind of like being in stormy seas, pursued by cannibal pirates, but knowing there’s some safe ground out there somewhere. You just have to keep looking for it and try not to drown or get eaten alive while doing it.

So I guess it’s accurate to say I still have hope for the Internet, but it’s a small hope, and I don’t see that hope getting better, or bigger, so much as, ‘Well, let’s just enjoy it while we still can.’

Hideo Kojima Games To Play:

Metal Gear Solid, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Death Stranding

INTERMULTIVERSAL: You’re publishing Nowhere with your wife, Charlene Chua, you have a short story in Alternate Plains, and of course the novella and the novel. What projects are you working on at the moment, and what are you most excited to see out in the world next?

SANTOS: It’s kind of a tricky question to answer because no contracts have been signed, so nothing is guaranteed to come out, but I’ve currently got a lot of irons in the fire with different works in submission for different age groups. There’s a couple of projects that might come to fruition for younger readers, something aimed more at the YA audience, and another book for adults that takes more of an urban fantasy/comedy approach in the same vein as The Difficult Loves of Maria Makiling, except this one involves a paranormal insurance investigator that forces policies to pay out if it really was a fire demon that burned down a building instead of a human arsonist.

And right now, I’m writing the work-in-progress of my nerdy adolescence with my own take on the giant robot genre. Probably the best way to describe it is throwing the Macross anime, Homeworld video game, and Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica TV series into a blender and having that mix declare war on Fox News. So far, I’m having a lot of fun with it, but then how can you not with space battles and giant robots?

If you enjoy INTERMULTIVERSAL, and if you can manage it, please consider getting me a virtual coffee. Or you can support me on Patreon. Your support helps me to produce the interviews and do the research. Your support also buys me a little more time to speak to more writers from all over the planet. Thank you.