Okay, my name is Rodney Alan Greenblat. I am 55 years old. I live in the middle of New York City, actually down in SoHo, which I've lived here for many years.
I got into the game business on a crazy path, because my career had been in the fine arts and I had graduated from the School of Visual Arts in the late '80s. I started making really colorful kind of cartoony art and I was part of the East Village arts scene in the 1980's, along with Keith Haring and Kenny Sharp and all kinds of -- David Wojnarowicz and all kinds of amazing people. I was very lucky. I was only about 25 years old, I was 25 years old in 1985 and I was able to be in the Whitney Biennial, which is a big, twice a year exhibition at the Whitney Museum here in New York. And it was really exciting. It was an exciting time and it was a lot of fun. I made lots of artwork and sculpture and paintings.
Then, by chance, a guy came and looked at one of my shows at a gallery and he was a young businessman from Japan who was hoping to start a business repping foreign artists. That was his angle.
He saw my gallery show and he thought that my work might have commercial potential in Japan. We had met, we met a couple of times and eventually he started getting me some illustration jobs, which I wasn't really exactly looking for because I was having a relatively good run as a fine artist.
[Laughs.] I mean, you were in the Whitney.
I was in the Whitney, but that doesn't mean you can make a living on it.
Oh no, I'm aware. But I think that might direct some of what you were hoping might happen next in your career at that age.
Right, right. I was a kid. I didn't know what was gonna happen next. I just thought whatever opportunities come, I'll take.
I did a couple of station jobs and couldn't believe -- I was paid very well to do some really high, really out-there ads. Actually, one of the first ones out there was for Sony, just by chance, and working with huge advertising agencies to do some jobs for department stores and a couple of other things.
And that lead me, actually, to get a contract with a licensing division of Sony. So, Sony had seen some of my ad work and they had seen my -- I forgot to mention, I also did some interactive design for CD-ROMs and they had seen that work, too, so they had decided to make a deal with me as kind of a contractor with the agent that I was with, whose name is Taki Wayoshi. So Wayoshi-san and I formed a little -- well, I was his client and he was my agent, and we created an interesting deal with this license division of Sony. It was really fun. I started designing all kinds of printed materials like T-shirts and lunchboxes and notebooks and address books and keychains and just all kinds of stuff, and I drew some little cute characters. They were good. I mean, it wasn't like making tons of money, but it was really fun and it was so cool to see my stuff in stores in Japan. That was really wild.
And that was going well, but then all of a sudden out of nowhere we got a call from another division of Sony, a company called Sony Computer, and they were developing this game machine called PlayStation, which was gonna be a "Nintendo killer." I think that was the basic plan.
They wanted me to kind of meet this guy, Masaya Matsuura, who was developing this kind of "Simon Says"-like game for this amazing PlayStation thing that could actually do 3D computer graphics live. It was like -- it was so mind-boggling then that it was great. So, I went and I looked at this thing and they showed me, like, a dinosaur's head rotating in 3D. [Laughs.] I was like, "Woah! That's on a game machine?" And they were like, "Yeah!"
So, they asked me to be the designer on this 3D environment game and I had no -- all my drawings are flat kind of cartoon-style drawings. And I said, "Well, I don't know how my drawings are going to look in this kind of weird 3D." And then Matsuura said, "No, no, we want to do it in 2D. We want to have 2D characters running around in a 3D world." And I was so into that. I was like, "This is great!"
That's how I joined that team. It was really kind of fun, 'cause I was already in Japan, working for Sony Creative and Sony Computer was just starting to become the huge company that they are now, they were just getting started actually.
That is how I got to be the character designer for Parappa the Rapper.
This is an odd first question to ask, and I didn't anticipate asking about this, but you went from collaborating with Sony on things for keychains and all sorts of different products -- did it seem like the videogame division of Sony approached those products differently than the work projects for key chains and so forth?
[Laughs.] I'm not sure where you're going with that --
[Laughs.] I'm not going anywhere specifically, I'm just wondering how a giant company like that approaches embarking on things like that. They were involved in movies and TV before they got into videogames, so I’m mainly curious about interdepartmental bleed-through or whatever. Were there similarities?
Well, from the point of view of a licensing company, not really. They were gonna license the characters, like, within the company. One division was gonna license to another. So, of course, a license for a keychain would be very inexpensive, but a license for a videogame would probably be more expensive.
I don't really know the workings of how that happened in Sony, but it worked out well for everyone because the people I worked with in the licensing group were very creative, very interesting people and lots of artists. So, I had a great back-up when I started doing the character design.
Yeah, I think what some people may not remember is how truly big PaRappa in its heyday. You mentioned "Nintendo killer," but I think a lot of that era was marked by the search of "Mario killers" as well.
I mean, I had read or gotten the impression that PaRappa was the official mascot of Sony Japan. Is that true?
No, it never really was. It never was their official mascot. I begged. I hoped that they would, but they never actually did.
Was Mr. PlayStation the actual official mascot over there?
PaRappa was never their official mascot, and I think that was a big mistake on their part. They should have, it was so perfect. Actually, there were some Japanese characters that they used in their promotion. They never had an official mascot over there.
If you look at Sony, they actually never really use cute characters to sell their products. They always maintain kind of a tech angle, even to this day. Even in Japan, where every company uses cute characters, Sony, for some reason, didn't do that, and I was always surprised and also disappointed because PaRappa was just the perfect character to describe Sony, I thought.
Well, because he was about music, he was very upbeat, he was young but not too young. He's kind of like a young teenager all the time. I mean, he really cut across several different areas that their audience was interested in. He is international. He speaks English. I mean, lots about him, and then the whole rap thing. Just so many things, I thought, would express what I think Sony should have been expressing.
But they went in a different direction.
You had a trajectory that I think is lacking a lot in the game industry right now, as far as people who come from a radically different background, who already had a career as a fine artist. Beyond technical knowhow, what do you think blocks creative people with different backgrounds from working on games?
Well, I think the technical part is a big stumbling block because it seems like you have to be very technical to be in the videogame industry. But that's not true. The videogame industry needs great art and great writing just in the same way TV production does, and you don't need to know anything about TV production to be a great TV writer. It's sort of the same, but for some reason it has a more tech feeling.
I think that's one roadblock.
And the other is just how videogame companies operate. You know, Hollywood has a way of dealing with artists. I mean, they really have a system and they really maintain it. And even the licensing industry, which is a sub-industry in some ways of other industries, they also know how to pay creative people and to give creative people contracts and treat creative people. But I've never really felt like the really commercial videogame industry ever got that right.
It all seems to be in-house -- maybe not all of it, but quite a bit of it comes from within the industry. It's a little weird.
Well, there's no pipeline if you're a very talented writer or whatever, to find a game company to work with or individuals or the way that the industry is structured, you'll never see a "dream team" collaboration with a lot of different talent from different companies. "Locked" is too strong a word, but they are gated or siloed from collaborating. It works both ways, if you're outside -- what if you wanted to make a videogame but you don't work at one of those companies but, like, you're a great jazz pianist or something?
Right. Right. Right.
Yeah, like, how do you find a way in?
There doesn't really seem to be a way in. [Laughs.]
I mean, I don't know about it.
If I was a jazz pianist and I wanted to score a movie, I would get an agent and that agent would tell me which places I could knock on the door and I would get my stuff together and make a go of it.
I mean, do you just feel like you got lucky and it was random?
Uh, I was very lucky.
I was very lucky because --
I mean, you have one of those trajectories where, like, when people come to you for advice on how to work in the game industry, what do you even tell them?
[Laughs.] I know. It's really hard! Lots of young people write to me and they want to know how to get into the game business and they have a great, crazy character idea for a game, but I don't really know how it happens. I mean, the way it happened for me was just, like, this really strange path that basically put me in an office in Japan. [Laughs.] With people who were friends with these people who were starting this game company. So it was just, like, hard to repeat.
As people could probably guess reading as far as this into the interview: You're not in Japan anymore. What happened? Why did you not continue to seek a career in the game industry with Sony or anywhere else? And I know that may be none of my business and I hope it isn't painful to ask.
Well, there were a lot of circumstances. Let's see. You know, it was a TV show. In Japan, there were 24 episodes of anime for kids.
Yeah, of PaRappa.
Yes, I was going to ask you about this.
It was a big deal. It was a big deal.
In order to make the animation company, which was also another part of Sony -- but they really wanted a large part of the rights to make the show. They wanted a big piece of the pie in order to pay for projected 20 segments that they wanted to produce, whatever they are, 20 minutes long. It's really expensive to make TV animation.
And they had what they thought were the best writers and they really had it all worked out, how it was going to work. And I really wasn't into it. I didn't like their writing. I didn't like the way that they were gonna market the show. I wanted so much to be on the writing team, but they didn't want me, basically.
I was on the game team and they thought the game people had to be separate. And we were just finishing Um Jammer Lammy, and I was actually done. My part of it was done. The game was still being finally finished and they thought I shouldn't be on the TV team because I should be finishing Lammy. But I was actually done. I mean, personally, my illustration part was done.
So I fought to be on the TV team and make the TV show great, but I wasn't able to.
Yeah, I mean --
It was a little disappointing.
Gleaning from the outside, my best guess is just that it seems like the rights were sold thinking you would have more say in the creative process and then that didn't happen. I mean, I did watch several episodes again in anticipation for us talking and it seems like it takes no real inspiration from the source material at all.
Right. Right. Right.
I mean, there's no rapping in it, even, which is strange critique to make. But that's pretty central to what it is.
[Laughs.] Exactly. Exactly. I'm not imagining it, right?
I'm not, like, picking at details. It was like it didn't have any rap. It was really weird. And the characters were like schoolchildren, sitting at desks in a classroom.
Well, and they added some characters to, I think, inject some conflict.
But it's odd. But you're saying that and the way it turned out -- I don't want to put words in your mouth -- gave you a sour taste and that's what made you want to leave the game industry?
No, it wasn't that at all. The rights to PaRappa got boggled and for us to make another game involved that animation company, involved Matsuura's production company which was separate, Sony Creative, the licensing company, and then myself, and my agent, our group, and then there was also a sponsor. It was Takara Toys. So, like, five competing large entities struggling for the rights to this thing, and then the TV show was not a success in Japan.
So we had what basically looked to them as a failed property with five different people trying to split the contract. I couldn't do anything about it. I just -- I just gave up. I have to admit. I couldn't fight them. I couldn't make them do what I'm doing. So, that's all it was to it. That's all.
And you weren't interested in working with Sony or -- because you did a Wii game a couple years later.
Yeah, no, I was still interested. No, I was still interested. I wanted PaRappa to go on and on. I mean, I wanted to see a PaRappa race game and I wanted to see PaRappa quiz games and I wanted to see all kinds of PaRappa games.
But after the TV show boggle, I just didn't feel like there was anything I could say that was going to cause them to do that. I mean, I don't know what the politics were inside Japan. I don't know what they were doing or what their arguments were. I really don't know. So, I just had to sort of fade out of the whole thing and wait.
But nothing ever happened, basically.
Yeah. Of course, now, you know after this interview goes up people will be hitting you up, suggesting you do a Kickstarter for any slight variation of what you just said.
[Laughs.] What would it be for?
It would be PiRappa the Racer or something. It would just different enough.
[Laughs.] Well, yeah. Right.
Okay, one more thing. If you really wanna know.
Yeah, of course.
I'm not alone. Matsuura was the genius behind the music and the game. Let's face it. He is amazing and an amazing artist and he didn't really want to go for it, either. I never really understood why because I kinda felt like he had a little more energy than I did and a little more clout inside of Sony. But he didn't. And you'd have to interview him to find out why. I really never got the story of why he also felt like fading away from Sony also.
So, without Matsuura and without me it was really --
Well, it was just like a deadlock all around.
It was. It really was.
And at that point, why bother for what feels like a cause that all these other companies resisted in your involvement in and are preventing you from working on.
So, I think, too, against that backdrop there was a big cultural shift as far as the types of games that became more and more popular. When I think back on PaRappa, it's a game series that can demonstrate to people that videogames are capable of more than just running and jumping and shooting. But why are "coming of age" music games more niche than games about amateur archaeologists with guns or space soldiers shooting people?
Why is something like PaRappa considered more niche and we don't see its influence around as opposed to something like Doom or Quake? They're both fairly niche, but one obviously got more popular.
Right. Well, I mean, I think PaRappa was the inspiration for, like, the Guitar Hero things. And that was really big.
In a way, yeah, and they're more about music, but PaRappa is a relatable character and he had stories around him. I don't know that we necessarily see a lot of those.
I see. Right. Right.
The "coming of age" part is important because I don't know if you pay attention much to the games coming from the industry but I do feel like, "Where are the relatable characters?"
Yeah, right. Right. No. It's true. It's true. When I go into the games store, none of them stand out. Now, my only experience is to walk into, like, GameStop and look around or walk into Best Buy and look around at what they're pushing. And I never love the characters that are on the box covers. None of them spark my interest that much. And I don't know why that is. I don't know why that is.
I was about to ask, but I guess the more salient question is you've been deeper in at a game company than me but what seems to dictate what gets copied or picked up on as far as what gets made?
I'm not sure, but money is a big factor. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] I knew you were gonna say that.
I think they need to sell to their core audience big time. The core audience shifts, they just shift with it. I felt like with PaRappa and with the first PlayStation and also Nintendo's boxes and Wii that they were heading towards a more general audience, which I thought was great. I thought, "Wow, if this is really going to be an entertainment platform for general audiences, then I'm gonna have a good place in it myself and it will be something that will sell to all kinds of people."
But that just really didn't happen. It doesn't seem to have happened that way. It really went kind of more for the young, male techie, sports, and war kind of audience. And I'm not really sure why.
I'm not sure why, either.
Do you think it might be because those people could spend more on games individually?
That's one theory that I have.
I think part of it's the perception that videogames have always been for children, which was never the case. But I think it's sort of a combination of that perception and then the fact that people sort of "age out" of videogames. They stop playing at a certain point.
So there isn't a substantial part of the audience that's like, "Hey, I'm in my mid-twenties or my thirties and I'm still interested in playing, I just don't want to play those sorts of games."
I don't even know how game companies are supposed to be receptive to be to listening, or how they're going to be made to listen. Because I see the same thing in Best Buy that you do.
Right. Right. Well, in this interview, when you publish it, you should make a graph of, like, "What is the median age?"
Right! That's a whole different thing.I mean, what those people want -- the psychology behind that is so different than games for kids. I mean, it's a whole 'nother thing. PaRappa didn't fit into that at all, I don't think.
I don't know. Some people are very upset about representation at every age.
The games you did work on are notable in that you did have a female lead in one of your games that was a strong character and relatable.
Yeah, of course.
Lammy's the greatest character. [Laughs.] She's so great. We were just talking about her the other day.
Myself and -- let's see. Who was I talking to Lammy about? Oh, I know, they're using Lammy in Japan. This company in Japan that does kind of cell-phone wallpaper, you know what I mean.
Yeah, like backgrounds?
Yeah, backgrounds. It's kind of integrated with the text, it's that company LINE. You know? It's big.
LINE, in Japan, LINE Japan is using some Lammy icons. They came out really well because Lammy is a character that -- she's kind of an emotional character. And to show, like, these emoticons you have on your phone, you have to show on the little tiny character face some kind of expression. And Lammy is just so expressive in that way, to show disappointment and to show happiness and to show anxiety. [Laughs.] Her face is really good for that kind of stuff and the icons they made came out really well.
She's very nervous is the way I would think of her.
It does seem like in the games series and in the cartoon -- she's not even in the cartoon. She kind of got thrown under the bus.
She does pop up in PaRappa 2 a little, and I usually don't ask about these granular, nerdy sort of things but, like, other characters in that game are always stealing her thunder and I didn't know if that was you guys making fun of yourselves and how Um Jammer Lammy did commercially or -- what was going on there?
[Laughs.] I really don't know. [Laughs.]
Do you know what I'm talking about?
Yeah. I do. I mean, the writing of PaRappa 2 I thought was really peculiar. The storyline with the noodles and everything like that -- [Laughs.] I thought it was a little bit on the -- weirdness is good. But weirdness that you can't understand or that just seems random isn't so good sometimes.
I wasn't sure where that whole story was going. I think Matsuura always wanted to do something new and I was really more interested in creating series. I really wanted to have some continuity, but that wasn't Matsuura's thing. Continuity was not something that he really cared about. Which I thought was interesting, because continuity, to me, in storytelling seems very important but it wasn't important to him so I kinda went along with him. But yeah, I think if I had written it, I would have done it a different way. As more of a continuing story instead of, like, this whole other world all of a sudden.
Since I've already opened that door to nerdy questions, this is something I've always wondered: Does PaRappa have a mom?
Yeah, he does. He does. She's in one scene somewhere. In PaRappa 2, there's a scene where PaRappa's dad is talking about how he's gotta get a job and do something with his life, something like that. The beginning of PaRappa 2, I think his mother is there in the background. [Laughs.]
How were these games written and how were the songs written?
They were written by this guy named Gabin Ito. Basically, he is a conceptual artist. Like, gallery-style, way-out there conceptual art is his background art. But to make money he became a writer. I'm not sure what mediums besides computer game, but he wrote maybe animation. I'm not sure. But he was a game writer and Matsuura loved him. Everything he did, Matsuura loved. Some of it I thought was just so bizarre but I was just like, "Okay. Let's try that." [Laughs.] Gabin Ito wrote that story about the noodle attack and all that stuff.
And he was pretty much the head writer. Everything he wrote -- they needed characters to match these crazy stories and I would draw the characters and I usually would give the characters names to suit the characters. So they incorporated my naming ability with their sort of evolving story. And they would change the story depending on if the character design looked really cool to them. They would change the story a little bit and make the character work. It was collaborative, but basically Gabin Ito was in charge of the writing.
Do you remember anything as far as ideas or song ideas that were rejected for any of the games?
The songs all came from Matsuura. He wrote the songs. And he had different people write the lyrics and do the singing over the years. But, like, I can't think off the top of my head -- I mean, a lot of the characters got rejected. I would do maybe five or six or seven different variations for each of the characters they needed. I think one of the parts of history of PaRappa is my struggle to get Lammy right. I think this is well-documented. I drew the main character of that game maybe 15 times and was rejected on 14 of them.
I mean, I struggled to please Matsuura's vision of what this character was gonna look like. She was lamb. It was gonna be a lamb. But it was hard to draw a lamb -- a character that was a human lamb that didn't have, like, goat features. [Laughs.]
I struggled with that and I came up with all kinds of different things. And he didn't really like them very much. I was really -- I worked so hard to get it right and finally I did, and I was inspired by a pop singer. I think she was from Australia. This young woman named Natalie Imbruglia.
She was a pop singer in Australia, I'm not sure if that's right. But anyway, I loved her face. She was a beautiful woman. I decided to use her as a model because I thought, "How could you go wrong?" [Laughs.]
She was an amazing pop star. How could you go wrong?
So I kinda patterned my last designs off Natalie's images, and that actually became the final Lammy. But it was really tough and Matsuura was very tough until I finally, finally got it. And it came out really well. I think he was right. Although I do think some of my other incarnations were pretty cute. But the final one was right.
Did you guys at that time, I mean, was there some sort of dossier or something on approaching designing and release games for both the American and Japanese audiences simultaneously?
I remember a story about Sega and Sonic and initially Japan was pushing hard to appeal to westerners and so Sonic was originally going to have a girlfriend named Madonna and he was going to have a huge guitar and huge huge fangs. I don't know if you know any of that. But I am curious to hear about the wisdom was coming from within Sony on how to approach a game like this and how to appeal to both those audiences.
[Laughs.] I don't know. I don't know how much that was going on because we ended up making a really big mistake with Lammy. Do you know the last level takes place in a jungle?
I know it was supposed to take place in hell.
It was supposed to take place in hell.
But Sony US didn't want the hell scene. So that's why we had to go back and recreate this weird, like, jungle set-up. It didn't make any sense. Because the whole thing was Rammy was the anti-Lammy, and she came from the fax machine, and it was just great. It was great. And then the Rammy hell was such a cool place that I designed and they had that fox singer down there. It was so surreal and wild, but we had to tone it down. For some reason Sony US couldn't allow a vision of hell, which is odd, because in a lot of those fighting games there's, like, clowns from hell and stuff killing each other. [Laughs.] I don't know. It was just weird that we had to redo that.
Yeah. I mean, you look at what a lot of videogames are today and the sheer level of violence and brutality -- but maybe there was concern because there was the perception that it's a children's game.
Yeah. It could be.
I don't know, though, because I've only ever known older teens and twentysomethings playing those games at that time.
It's pretty hard for little kids to play, actually.
They aren't really able to. I mean, if they're under seven years old, it's really hard for them to really play and win.
Well, but I mean, how does that happen where you produce a whole part of the game and -- does Sony of America just check in on it later, or what's involved with those logistics where you can end up writing, producing, making, and then find out, "Oh, you can't use that."
You know, that's inter-corporate stuff. They really should have had better communications but they didn't. I mean, I don't know who got in trouble for all that, but it was a costly mistake. I mean, you know, these companies are huge and there's lots of people involved so I really can't answer that question.
Did you run into communication issues like that on the non-Lammy games you worked on?
Well, like I said, I worked for this company Sony Creative Products. They were a licensing company and those people had really become my close friends. It was easy for me to talk to them to make adjustments. And they always kept me up on what was gonna work in Japan or not. So I never really had to worry about that very much. And they also defended my case if they thought the character was really cute, because they were gonna make products out of it. So they were like this very really great advocate for me in Sony Computer. You know, the weird misunderstands between me and the Japanese market would kind of be filtered by Sony Creative, and they did a pretty good job.
How big was the team you were working on?
Well, there was my agent and myself from -- the company was called Interlink Planning. And then at Sony Creative, the people that worked on all my products, PaRappa and Thunder Bunny -- Thunder Bunny's another license line. There was about 10 people at Sony Creative involved with my project at different times. And of that, a five-person core that I really worked with.
Then at Sony Computer, the people that I worked with directly on the game were also about five or six people. Some producers, the writer Matsuura and Matsuura's inner circle. Certainly not too many people.
That's sort of what I had gleaned from paying attention to the credits and stuff.
I'm sure you know that team sizes on games at bigger studios, they can be hundreds of people.
Like a movie.
If not teams of hundreds of people all over the world working together. Obviously, you've had your experiences with it but having gone through it, what do you feel is not really possible anymore at a company like Sony when you rarely see a 10- or 20-person team but instead tend to see hundreds of people. What's been sacrificed?
Well, it's like the difference between a Hollywood blockbuster and a small independent movie. I mean, you know, I like Hollywood blockbusters actually. I think they're fun to watch. But I'm also really glad we have really wild independent films being made at the same time. I guess in the computer industry it's a little harder now to find the independent games. I'm not sure if there even are any that make it into the stores. It seems like it's all blockbusters at this point in the game business.
I'm curious to hear you talk, too, a bit about the cultural difference of making art on a computer now versus in the '90s. I do remember there was a burgeoning artist scene on the CD-ROM. I think I remember Peter Gabriel extolling its virtues. What do you remember about that time?
That was great fun. I mean, that was a lot of fun. The technology was so poor but we worked so hard to try to make it work.
At that time, my CD-ROM was published by this company Voyager. Voyager was a real pioneer in the interactive media arts -- I'm not sure what it was being called, but they were trying to make interactive entertainment. And they were pioneering, also, like books. Electronic books. That was like a cool thing back then. Now it's everywhere. But they were pioneering interfaces for electronic books and interfaces for interactive storytelling. It was really really fun and it was exciting.
I used to go to these computer conferences and I was asked to speak from the point of view of an artist. It was really kind of cool. And I talked a lot about trying to figure out how to do interactive storytelling and what would be interesting about interactive storytelling. And I tried to do that and it was fun. It was really fun.
What were the things that you found people in the audience were especially intrigued by. I'm imagining maybe there people who flagged you down after your talk was done to be like, "Oh, I really want to talk to you about that." Do you remember anything like that?
Well, I guess -- there were a lot of things going on. There was a lot of people interested in the technology of it, right? Like, they wanted to know how to make interactive narratives. So, there were quite a few people who were interested in how I could do the technology myself. I mean, my own CD-ROM productions like Dazzeloids were made with about 10 people and using off-the-shelf software. So, a lot of people were interested in that. A lot of independent designers would want to know what kind of operation I had to produce Dazzeloids, and it was really small, and that, I think was inspiring to people. So a lot of people were interested in that.
Yeah, I mean, I think at that time, too, unless you were a large company you would never see or have access to "professional software." Which I guess is just a lot of things now you get for free when you make a Gmail account?
Yes. [Laughs.] Exactly. Exactly.
But I am curious, since you come from a different background into the game industry. This will sound nebulous, but what sounds weird or different about the space and how it seems to function?
The game industry now?
Then or now. I don't know if you really pay attention to it still.
Well, I mean, I pay attention to it peripherally. I'm interested. I do once in awhile wander into the games store and see.
I guess the 3D environment thing kinda threw me. Like, when you look at Nintendo. When you look at Super Mario and Super Nintendo and all those games, they're great. They're so much fun. And they don't have any 3D computer-graphics hardware in them at all. It was just fun to play and try to win and beat the levels was fun. It was simple.
But the 3D thing and the faux reality that it projects -- I never really cared about. I never really saw the beauty of it. I mean, when you go and you watch a Pixar movie you can see the beauty of it. But I never really saw the beauty of it on the game platform machine. And I never was that attracted to it. So that was one thing that kind of -- and that was really the direction everybody was going in. Everybody was talking about how much 3D and movement and how vast of a world you could put into one of these boxes. And that became a whole tech thing. But now it seems like they've got that conquered in a lot of ways.
The tech stuff?
The worlds that they can build inside the last generation of set-top boxes is amazing. But I guess my question is: Why? I mean, amazing for what? So you can wander in and around a virtual battleground or a virtual Olympic stadium, let's just say, so I don't keep harping on the violence. But you can wander around in these virtual worlds, but why?
I don't know. Is it fun to wander around in a -- I don't know. Unless you're wandering around to find something or to meet someone, I don't know. I really don't know.
What's the potential you feel is not being explored?
I wish I knew the answer to that question. [Laughs.] I mean, that's a great question. I don't know.
I think artists that are versed in those environments and really start to understand them will be able to break them, you know what I mean.
To be able to break through what it is and the way it's used. It's like a piano. They finally worked out how piano works, and now they need composers to not just make music but to break down music, to really stretch out what the possibilities are. I'd love to see that happening. And I suppose there are a few examples of people trying to do that out there.
You said you pay attention peripherally. Have you heard of Gamergate at all?
No -- oh. You mean a kind of a scandal?
Yeah, I know what you're talking about.
Some of the aggression and anger and attitude of ownership from the audience -- what do you remember as far as audience behavior when you were at Sony?
Huh. Well, the PaRappa audience was amazing. They were really -- they loved the upbeat fun of it all. And they loved the music. So they were like music fans in so many ways. I mean, the music in PaRappa 1 I think is phenomenal. It was just really great music and that's a huge audience. That's like the audience for pop music. That's an audience that is so vast that I don't think even game-business people can understand it. I mean, pop music is huge.
And PaRappa had those pop hooks in it, and the people that responded to it really loved it. I mean, they were people who owned PlayStations. They had all bought this very new system, and then they were treated to a game that was so poppy that they just were amazed. It was a phenomenon in Japan, really.
Well, I think Sony, if I'm recalling correctly, they did things with the pricing schemes to try to entice people who would not otherwise necessarily be interested in videogames. Wasn't PaRappa, like, $30 or $40 at the time?
Yeah, I think it was pretty reasonable when it first came out.
Compared to the standard $50 or $60.
Like, Final Fantasy was in its high days at that time. I'm not sure how much a copy of Final Fantasy cost, but it might've been about $60.
Yeah, I mean, so you can certainly see indications from the games you worked on and the way the industry acted with some of that pricing to try to bring more people in. But do you remember anything as far as audience aggression or --
For PaRappa? No.
Well, no, just from the game audience. I certainly don't think of PaRappa fans as threatening people online.
I could be wrong.
No, in any of the games I was involved in, no, there was none of that.
Do you remember anything from talking to other game creators in Japan or just paying attention to the space over the years? Do you remember hearing about anything like that, that sort of behavior?
No, not really. From the fans, no.
Not really. Not really. I mean, we have a lot of crazy fans. [Laughs.] They're crazy with love, basically. [Laughs.] I mean, they come up to me in Japan and they're like, "Oh, we love you and we love PaRappa!"
I met this guy in a bar. I was just in Tokyo and I was in a bar, kind of a restaurant-bar. And this guy comes up to me. They figured out who I was. And then this guy said in this strange English. Actually, it was pretty good English, but he was like, "Everyone in Japan loves PaRappa." That's what he said. That's not true because Japan's a huge country. [Laughs.] But the way he said it was -- it's revered. I was really touched. I kinda knew what he was talking about. Like, revered. Like it's everybody's child or something like that, which is just so great. Just so great.
Well, I had told a few colleagues that I was going to be talking to you and I received a similar sentiment. People curious why, all these years later, is it still resonating. Like, a colleague said, "Is it because I'm still, as an adult, not very confident and I remember those games?" I mean, who knows why people become fans of the things they become fans of.
Even when you look at it, though, it looks so different from anything all these years later still.
[Laughs.] I know. It’s amazing.
I'm curious about some of the decisions behind anthropomorphizing so much stuff in those games.
[Laughs.] That's me. That's totally me. I just love doing that. I mean, I love animals and I think that animal people is a way to get across something about people, you know? You gotta design characters and they can be anything, but I love starting out with an animal form. I think a psychologist would have to work with me to figure out why I do this. [Laughs.] But it's just my angle and I just really enjoy doing it that way.
I mean, I seem to recall, like, a walking ear.
An ear with feet and hands and also ears.
So, it wasn't a thing to avoid accusations of racial stereotypes? It was just an arbitrary creative choice?
Yeah, arbitrary creative choice, I think, basically, is one way of describing it. [Laughs.]
They loved it. I mean, the production people and the writers loved it. So, it worked. It worked.
So you made a dog rap because you thought it was cool, basically?
Well, if you really wanna know about that in particular, the characters that I'd been doing for Sony Creative were cute animals. Right? I had done PJ Berri the bear and Katy Kat the cat and the flower character, Sunny Funny. I had already done those.
So, when they came to me with PaRappa, they needed a main character. And Matsuura kind of had an idea of what the personality of that character would be, and it sounded like a dog to me. It was, like, loyal and kind and funny and getting into trouble, a boy always trying to please people. It sounded to me like a dog. So, I decided to make a dog-boy, and that's kinda how that came around. And that's kind of -- a lot of the trajectories of the characters were just sort of like that in a way. They give me a little bit of an idea of what they wanted the function and the kind of personality and then I went from there.
Was there ever a concern within the team about perceptions of stereotypes or anything in any of the characters?
Not really coming from Japan. I hope they have become more sophisticated in that area, but in Japan at the time those weren't really big concerns of theirs.
Yeah. No, I know what you're talking about.
The games, they were playing the games for Japanese audiences, the teams that I worked with. But I went out of my way to try to do that. I tried to create sort of multi-ethnic animal-plant characters in different ways. And, you know, I was moderately successful at that, I think.
You said in our emails, too, that you don't really play games anymore. Is that right?
No, I don't. And it's really unfortunate. With the big screens now and the 3D environments, I feel ill. [Laughs.]
You said you're happier to be that way.
I don't know what's happened but physically I'm not just able to -- my eyes or something. They just make me dizzy. The immersive 3D environments, especially on a big TV screen, I can't really look at them unfortunately. It's unfortunate because I'd really like to study what goes in some of these games, but just getting past the first level is really hard. [Laughs.]
I thought maybe I should get a tiny little TV. [Laughs.] Like, the smallest thing, like watch it on a phone or something like that. But I don't know. It's just kind of a problem right now. Maybe I'll outgrow it. I don't know.
Do you pay attention game blogs and media today or did you when you were working at Sony? Have you ever paid attention to games media?
You know, not really. Not until after PaRappa came out, I started seeing what was out there because PaRappa got reviewed everywhere and I was reading the reviews. But no, I was never really that interested in it.
Could you elaborate?
Yeah, it certainly got further and further away from my general interests. I don't know, so, why didn't I keep up on what's going on in the game industry? I'm not sure. I have many things to do and I have many interests and that just was one that I couldn't pursue.
You said in your emails, too, that no one asks you about world peace.
So, I mean, did you want me to ask your position on it or?
[Laughs.] I'm against it. No!
Do you know I'm a Zen student? I study Zen here in New York City and I work really hard at it. I'm a big part of the temple where I'm at. I think that -- this is off the topic of games but if you really do want a less violent world, you really have to be less violent yourself. And violence is a very -- it's deep. I mean, there are threads in everybody that I think should be explored. You've really got to look into yourself to see what is a limit and what is wrong and what is right.
You really -- you can't look at culture and ask culture to tell you. You have to look inside. And I think if people really did that, we really could have world peace. Because most people do not like to be injured or killed. They really don't want that. [Laughs.] There's hardly anyone who wants to be injured or killed.
Although, to be fair, it is hard to get people's opinions on whether they liked being killed.
[Laughs.] Especially coming from the game industry where you can be killed.
That's true. Maybe that's why the game industry exists.
Okay, so, that's exactly the point. I mean, you've gotta look inside yourself and see where these boundaries are. I think if people did that, it would be a lot easier to decide where you go to survive. What do you do? Do you start wars and kill people in order to preserve something about yourself or something about your culture? You really have to look at that. I think if they did, they'd see that a lot of their concerns weren't that important, and the things that they thought had to be done, especially with the use of violence, probably wouldn't need to be done in that same way. But it really would take some serious introspection, which I think means that world peace is not a massive cultural undertaking. It's a very very personal undertaking that I think a lot of people don't want to take.
I would agree. And I think, too, not that we're obligated to steer it back to videogames, but when you criticize violence in videogames, sometimes you run the risk of being accused of being a prude. But I think, also, it gets boring.
You may not want to eat the same meal every night.
[Laughs.] Exactly. That's true.
So, in the spirit of Zen and general reflection: What do you think videogames have accomplished?
What have they accomplished? Oh my God. What have they accomplished? Oh, it's hard to think of a positive.
You don't have to think of a positive.
You really don't. As I told you, I'm talking to a lot of people. So please, say whatever you feel is true.
I guess they have created a socially acceptable way for people to disconnect from each other and I'm not blaming videogames for that. I think there's something else going on that's making people interested in kind of a closed loop entertainment system. But videogames certainly have perfected a world that is separate from the world around us and nobody is afraid to disconnect and be part of a virtual world that's full of violence and aggression. I mean, they're just not afraid. It's fine. And it's actually very much accepted by almost everyone that you can do that. I'm criticizing it in a way but it's actually just out there. It's one of our parts of our culture and it's not going away. So, that is a pretty incredible cultural technological field that videogames have produced.