Goodbye, Mr. Iwata, and thank you

james pokemon

I admire (and slightly envy) those who’ve been able to set aside their emotions today, and write about Satoru Iwata’s passing; mourning a huge loss, while celebrating his many achievements of a too-short life. I’ve been somewhat at a loss of what to say. What can you say? This is a man who has had incalculable impact on so many lives. I’m not sure my words – anyone’s words – can ever really do him justice.

You’ll doubtless have read elsewhere about his kindness and humour, his grace under pressure. The time he stepped in and used his programming know-how to save Earthbound. How he compressed Pokémon Gold and Silver to create one of the best endgame surprises: an additional region on the same cartridge. And you’ll have heard how, rather than lay off staff when times were hard, he halved his own salary. These are wonderful snapshots of a man that, in part, get someplace close to the heart of what made him great, and why today we are all in mourning.

The above picture was taken three years ago at the Pokémon Video Game Championships. That’s my son, James, six at the time, playing on his Nintendo 3DS and smiling. It’s a smile I’ve seen often. I’ve seen it when he plays games on his own. I’ve seen it when we play games together. The common factor? Nintendo. Nothing in the world makes me happier than to see that smile, and under Iwata’s stewardship, Nintendo has created dozens of games that have made that happen. For that and so much more, I will forever be grateful to him.

Putting smiles on faces. It’s become a mantra for Nintendo under Iwata. A company ethos. We’ve seen the phrase brought out a number of times, often following investor briefings. It’s no hollow boast, no marketing buzzphrase. It’s simply true. This is what Nintendo wants to do. It is a business, of course, and it needs to remain profitable. But its ultimate aim is to make those who play its games happy.

Let’s think about the Wii and the Nintendo DS for a moment, cited in many editorials as the crowning glories of Iwata’s reign as Nintendo president. Both were huge risks for a company whose fortunes appeared to be on the downturn, and yet they revived Nintendo, briefly making it one of Japan’s most successful companies – in any industry. They reached beyond the traditional audience, by making games more accessible, more inclusive. They made it easier for us all to play.

But this wasn’t even a new strategy. The Pokémon games, for example, were designed to encourage sharing and good-natured competition between fellow trainers. More recently, StreetPass has offered another way to connect with our fellow players. Meanwhile, Miiverse has blossomed into the most creative, convivial social network around. In an industry that sometimes seems to specialise in looking inwards, Iwata has always tried to reach out.

All of these ideas are realisations of a dream. A dream that we might all play together without stigma, without barriers. That we might all share the wonder, the childlike joy of play. That, I think, is a big part of the reason Nintendo always seemed a little archaic in its attitude towards online. I don’t attribute that to insularity, a lack of foresight or awareness, a lack of technological savvy. I think it resisted online for so long because it wanted us all to make the effort to play together, in the same room. Sure, online gaming can be wonderful, but it will never beat the giddy thrill of local multiplayer.

Wii U hasn’t enjoyed the same success, of course. But it’s a part of that same ethos. It’s a reaction to a very real concern about the second screen disrupting our time together – the idea that it separates us, rather than bringing us closer together. The thought process behind Wii U was to create new forms of entertainment that would include the second screen: to make it an integral part of play. Nintendo couldn’t find enough uses for that idea. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t valid. If Wii U was a failure, it’s one that was conceived with all good intentions.

I’ve listened to a great many things Iwata has said over the years, and read a great many words he’s written. He is pragmatic when needs must, but ultimately he is an idealist. Think about Wii Fit, the upcoming Quality of Life initiative, the aborted Vitality Sensor. These ideas are all concerned with making us all better, healthier people. Even Wii Music, a toy conceived to foster a greater appreciation for the joy of composition and performance, among those without the necessary musical talent to realise that simple pleasure. It was considered a flop, but I love it – as much for what it represents as what it is.

And what it represents, along with those other games, and with Wii Sports and its ilk, is a mission statement that stretches beyond this medium. Iwata’s Nintendo didn’t merely want to make great games; it wanted to make the world a better place. Games just happened to be the delivery method. I may not entirely agree with Iwata’s insistence that fun should be the only goal for games as a medium. I am delighted, however, that it is Nintendo’s goal, because that is what Iwata’s Nintendo has always been brilliant at.

Iwata’s passing leaves an unfillable hole. Like any death of a significant public figure, we’re left feeling as if something is missing, as if the world is somehow a little darker than before. This sensation is particularly keenly felt for a man who has, for many of us in recent years, come to feel like a friend or relative who occasionally comes to visit, often bearing wonderful gifts. Nintendo Direct is a marketing tool, sure, but Iwata’s presence has always made it feel like a special treat. Through his charming, avuncular nature, his wonderful sense of humour, his readiness to poke fun at his own persona, he has become a source of great warmth and delight in many of our lives.

As I tweeted earlier today, part of the reason Iwata’s death hurts so much is because we have come to associate him with feelings of happiness and joy. And so the contrast now seems particularly stark, and hard to bear. I know I will miss him in forthcoming Directs. I will miss the comforting constant that is his name on the end credits of every first-party game: a personification of the famous Seal of Quality. I will miss all those [laughs] from the incomparable Iwata Asks interviews.

But I’m sure this hopeful man, this idealist, this optimist would not want us to feel sad for long. After all, for many years he has been in the business of putting smiles on faces. And I’m sure for many years more he and his games will continue to do the same.

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