Matt Sainsbury discusses his upcoming book Game Art - Interview

Almost a year ago at this time, Matt Sainsbury began a Kickstarter to see a book to life that discusses the medium of video games and how it should be perceived as art. While the Kickstarter did not hit its goal at the time, the material was of interest enough that it was picked up by publisher No Starch and now pre-orders for the book are available. With interviews from Akihiro Suzuki (Dynasty Warriors), Naoki Yoshida (Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn), Mike Laidlaw (Dragon Age and Mass Effect), Guillaume Provost (Contrast), Goichi Suda (Lollipop Chainsaw), Jean-Francois Poirer (Child of Light) and more - the book boasts an impressive number of contributors from a variety of backgrounds.

Game Art is a collection of interviews with developers, producers and directors that are set against beautiful concept art while discussing the effort that went into bringing these game ideas to life. Matt is an Australian art and game critic who has been writing about the industry for over fifteen years now, with his work appearing in publications such as PC Game Zone, GamePro, PC World and Official PlayStation 2 Magazine. I had an opportunity to chat with Matt and ask him several questions about the book itself, lessons learned in getting it published and his outlook on the coming year.


Chalgyr's Game Room:
So it has been a busy year for you. You've done some travel, finished a book and still run the site Digitally Downloaded. So, what are your goals for the next year?
Matt Sainsbury:
It sure has! My first priority this year is finishing off the book, and getting it out there in the wild in July. There's still some work to be done there. Other than that I'd like to continue seeing DDNet grow and develop in the year... and hopefully I've got  a couple more book ideas in me and I can start working on those!

With any luck I'll be even more busy this year, is what I'm saying.

Chalgyr's Game Room:
You have been writing game reviews for a long time now, having been published in a variety of places. Still, your approach to reviewing games is different than what we see on many sites. What are the key things you are looking for when you fire up a game for the first time?
Matt:
I like my games like I like films, books, music, or whatever other art form is out there - it's great if they can entertain me, but I'm also interested in experiencing stuff that makes me think. I come from an arts criticism background - it's what I studied in university and so on. And so when there's a game that taps into the various philosophies or themes that I studied back in the day I find myself that much more involved in the game, because I'm pouring over every word of dialogue, exploring every nook and cranny, and otherwise completely immersed in the game.

To me games can be more than a bit of fun. It's fine if the game is simply good fun (I like Smash Bros. as much as the next person), but for me the truly great games are those that are entertaining AND offer some kind of intellectual depth so that I'm thinking about the game for weeks or months afterwards.

With regards to how I write my reviews, I try to approach them the same way the film critics I admire approach their work - rarely does a good film critic fixate on the technical side of the film. Instead they focus on the meaning, narrative, and performance of the film. To me that's what I'm looking for when I play games, so that's what I focus on when I'm writing about them.

Chalgyr's Game Room:
How did you come to the conclusion that your first book would be about Game Art?
Matt:
It's a book I've wanted to write for a long time. One of the strange things I've always found about games is that, aside from some notable examples like Molyneux or Miyamoto, people don't usually associate games with a director's vision. It's always the developer (or even the publisher) that is mentioned when talking about the games that we're playing.

But just like films have a director, so too do games, and I wanted to write a book to highlight that and show that behind any game there is someone who has thought deeply about how to produce something interesting for people to play.

I also wanted to write a book that would show people that there are ways to think about games as more than pure pieces of entertainment, so I hope the interviews in the book inspire people to start getting a bit more "philosophical" with the games they really love.

Chalgyr's Game Room:
There are so many beautiful games out there musically, visually and of course thematically. When you first settled down and decided to write this, did a particular game or studio immediately spring to mind first?
Matt:
Not really. There are so many truly artistic games out there that it wasn't exactly difficult finding inspiration for the book or creating a shortlist of developers that I wanted to speak to. That being said I of course wanted to speak to game directors from both Square Enix and Bioware. I grew up with Final Fantasy and played Baldur's Gate more times than I should probably admit, so it was a genuine honour to be able to chat with the main folks behind Dragon Age: Inquisition and Final Fantasy XIV.

I also knew from the start that I wanted to demonstrate the sheer artistry that tiny development studios were capable of as well. Art doesn't require a budget and a development team of one or two people is capable of a creative vision of a similar standard as a studio of 1000 people, even if their games are more limited in terms of visual fidelity or gameplay features. So I am in a way most proud that this book was able to include interviews with the people behind Blast 'Em Bunnnies, the Atelier franchise and Contrast to sit next to the interviews with Square Enix and Ubisoft producers. Because when we are discussing games as art, budgets shouldn't matter. 

Chalgyr's Game Room:
Usually when writing something like this, you miss an opportunity or two that you wish could have been included in the book. Any particular studios or games you really hoped to include in your book but for some reason you were unable to do so?
Matt:
I have a spreadsheet that has a "short list" of people I wanted to interview for this book that would fill at least four additional volumes or sequels! There are so many creative studios out there that I can easily do these as long as they keep selling.

As for specific games and developers that I would have liked to have interviewed... Fumito Ueda, the guy behind Shadow of the Colossus would be the obvious choice. And then Yuko Taro, the guy who dreamed up Nier. These two are personal heroes of mine, and certainly their respective games are the very definition of art, but the stars didn't align this time. Hopefully there's a next time!

Chalgyr's Game Room:
You got to do a bit of travelling as a result of getting interviews around for the book. Any particular highlights you want to briefly touch on from the travel?
Matt:
Well, I only travelled to Japan for this one, but that was a highlight in itself, since I did all of the interviews with Japanese developers while Tokyo had the lot of them in one place for Tokyo Game Show. That show was itself an event worth experiencing (rumours of its declining relevance are greatly exaggerated), but then also going on a 700 km trip around Japan to take photos of castles and battlegrounds for the piece on Japanese history and Samurai Warriors in the book was an eye opening experience, and being in Japan was an excuse to head on over to Akihabara to indulge my Hatsune Miku obsession and buy a boatload of Miku music CDs and miniatures. I love Akihabara.

Chalgyr's Game Room:
What advice would you give to anyone who is looking to write and publish a book for the first time?
Matt:
Let's wait and see if this book is a success before deciding if I'm the right person to provide advice on writing books, haha. The main thing is to give yourself plenty of time to write it, I guess. Back when I started writing the book I thought I'd have it done by June 2014. That didn't happen.

The other thing is to not put all your eggs in the "being a writer," basket. Don't quit your day job and sources of income until you've started seeing how much you'll earn from your work, because that's like quitting work in the hope that a film studio is going to give you the next Avengers film to direct.

Chalgyr's Game Room:
You initially tried to fund Game Art through Kickstarter, before it was picked up by a publisher. Any particular lessons learned from the Kickstarting process?
Matt:
Kickstarter is a brutal, soul-crushing process, and unless you're already a brand name, then it's very difficult to raise any real money from it. And there seems to be signs now that the appetite among consumers for Kickstarter is starting to abate, which is only going to make it even more difficult. I think the most important thing about Kickstarter is to ask yourself the question "is there a reason that a regular publisher won't pick this up that I have to rely on crowdsourcing. And, if no one will publish it, is there a reason? That last one is an important question because a lot of the time the answer you'll come up with is also a reason that Kickstarter campaign are not successful.

In short, I'm glad a publisher was happy to take this book on.

Chalgyr's Game Room:
So with one book completed, do you plan to sit back and see how it is received, or have you already begun formulating notions for something new?
Matt:
I've got a couple of other books in mind that I'd love to write. The question is whether I'll get the opportunity to do so, but with a spot of luck I'll be able to work on a couple more this year. Hopefully even something a little outside of the games industry!

Chalgyr's Game Room:
Last but not least - we're all gamers here. What are you playing the most right now?
Matt:
Don Bradman Cricket 14. Every year in the Australian summer I find myself addicted to a cricket game (whatever is the best one on console at that point in time). There's a PS4 version of that game on the way too, which I can't wait to get my hands on.


I want to thank Matt for taking the time to share his thoughts with us, and if you have an interest in seeing any more of Matt's work, he can be found running the site Digitally Downloaded where his thoughts on game theory, the industry as a whole, and of course reviews can be found.


Article by Nick
Share on Google Plus