Monday, October 29, 2012

Yoot Saito and Seaman: Analysis of one of the best interviews... ever.

[Note from Jake: our writing staff expands ever further, with the addition of Alex Metcalf!]

Extreme Close-Up Courtesy of

   October 15th of this year marked the 50th birthday of one of the most peculiar and arguably one of the least business-friendly designers in the video game business.

   Yoot Saito gained his reputation when he created Seaman for the Sega Dreamcast. The game was best described as a pet simulator; your pet grows, develops, and interaction is much encouraged. The key factor, though, is that your pet happens to be a mutant talking fish that features a human face and a weird phallic appendage attached to its forehead. The player interacts with this creature via a cheesy-looking microphone attachment for the Dreamcast controller. Seaman has the ability to recognize spoken words with the microphone—almost any spoken word stimulates a specific voice-over response from the mutant fish to promote intuitive interaction. This game was released in 1999, so the technology at the time was rather impressive.

   That premise in itself is one reason why this game bombed pretty hard in its initial sales in both Japan and the United States. The other reason was that it was on the Sega Dreamcast—the only major gaming console since 1998 not to have exceeded a 3-year lifespan. Even though sales seemed demeaning in its early process, attention for the game roused up gradually, especially in Japan.

And besides, how can anyone not love a face like this?

   In 2006, the slowest year in the Nintendo GameCube's lifespan, Yoot Saito released his next long-awaited project, Odama, on the system. Odama was a breed of pinball gameplay and tactical wargaming in the setting of Japan in its feudal period. With another silly premise and its release on a dying console, does Yoot Saito carry some case of a fetish for these two aspects?

   In order to consider his perspective, I took time to look up some of his interviews—only to he hardly ever does interviews. Does he take pleasure in being mysterious? Is he overly shy? Does he want to be the goddamn Batman of the gaming industry? Whatever his reasons are, it is both a shame and a baffling fact, because some of the things that he has to say when asked questions are simply astounding. Whether he is an absolute genius or a man who refuses to conform with the norm, his point of view as a developer for so few, yet so out-of-this-world titles should be taken to perspective by almost all developers. was fortunate enough to conduct a full-fledged interview with him in June of 2000 so they could dig deep into his intentions with designing and developing Seaman with his team, Vavarium.
 His interview with IGN kicks off with his experience at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in 2000:
"At the game kiosks, I'm not looking at the TV screen, but at people's reactions - how they respond to the games. Seaman's reaction was really nice, only the people have to wear headphones, so there can't be a crowd - you know, "wow," or "gee" - that kind of thing, but I think it was really positive. It's a good sign because the people seem to be very... disturbed." 
- Y. Saito
   Because the primary character in Seaman is a talking fish with a human face who invades your personal life by asking your personal questions, Saito's possible intentions are to develop a game where the true shining star is the player. The fish has a responsibility to maintain that player as the centerpiece. This sounds like simple self-indulgence. This is very much comparable to Andy Kaufman's intentions with comedy. The only thing the performer sees is the audience, and the audience is the only media for entertainment for the performer. A performer like Andy Kaufman gets joy from manipulating the crowd. Normally, a developer will have to spend their time of careers with the game instead of the audience, but Saito-san manages to look ahead and analyze how people will react to what he's developing.

   The talking fish in Seaman is very rude and pompous to the player.

   His consistent frown... his ways of making you feel uncomfortable. He can also correct you, put you down on your specific characteristics when he asks you of them, accuse you of being a horrible caretaker, and simply show off his vast knowledge beyond the player's mental capacity.
   "So, I had three things really opposite from conventional game design methods. One is to have a disturbing character - not cute, not to be loved. The second thing is not to play, but to be played by the game - being peeped at. Third, I didn't put any text, dialogue, windows, etc - I wanted to have everything in one hierarchy, one layer, so the users don't have to pull down menus or choose anything. You can do everything from one screen. No text, no dialogue, no buttons, no menus." - Y. Saito

   The elements of simple, straightforward joy are taken out and replaced with peculiarity, occasional enlightenment, slight offense, and downright disturbance.. Not a game to challenge yourself against, but and experience to absorb and tinker around with. It reminds me of David Lynch’s films.

   Another interesting segment I took out of this interview was how his interaction and personification of his cats influenced his idea of an interactive voice-based pet simulator. The internet has been doing this for the last ten years thanks to LOLcats. Most of us humans absolutely adore imagining what our pets could be thinking based on their moves or their facial expression as long as we are not too realistic about it. The concept of animal personification can date back to films like Lady and the Tramp and Charolette's Web, or novels like George Orwell's Animal Farm. Even farther back, many fairy tales like “Henny Penny” do this as well.

I knew I'd find an excuse to upload a Golden Girls image somehow.

   Although there are other pet simulators, Seaman seems to be the only software in existence that lets you actually hear what your pet has to say back to you. It's no wonder Seaman has gained so much popularity with the casual crowd in Japan.

   "Actually, that's a strange thing that's happening in Japan - non-gamers are buying the game a lot - women, kids - people I didn't even expect. I was expecting PC users, and maybe some of the middle-aged guys who never play games but just wanted to play this because it doesn't have anything complex for menus - it's just talking, which is easy to understand between just two users."

- Y. Saito

   My mind was not entirely blown until I read this section of the interview. This part summarized how the gaming world made a drastic change in 2006 with the release of the Wii, the gaining popularity of Nintendogs on the DS, and the rise of the smartphone gaming market. This philosophy was the gateway to Nintendo's explosive success from 2006-2009 as they focused more on the non-gaming market. To appeal to that kind of audience, you have the simplicity, the uniqueness, and the intuitive nature that Seaman had years earlier. If Seaman were to be developed and released at the era of a casual revolution, on a system like the Wii, would the game have received more attention?

   Seaman has developed enough of a cult-like status to gain a sequel for the 3DS (13-14 years after the release of the original), and there couldn’t be a more fitting platform to celebrate the franchise. Just look at the similarities. The 3DS has a microphone, and it’s a console that’s already famous for pet simulators. And like the Dreamcast, many people are pessimistic about the future of the 3DS. Maybe it’s odd that 3DS is the platform of choice over a smartphone, but then again, Yoot Saito is never one to be associated with "doing-the-obvious" business practices.

"Let's talk about the prospect of touching. Do you take pleasure in touching things?"


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