Interview: Daniel Johnson Discusses His Critical Analysis of Wario Land 4

"It's all about improving the current conversation around games"

In recent weeks we've let you know about an eBook called Game Design Companion: A Critical Analysis of Wario Land 4, in which author Daniel Johnson adopts a thorough, detailed approach to the popular Game Boy Advance game. With over 600 pages that include essays, room-by-room breakdowns and an extensive glossary forming just part of the content, it's an ambitious text that challenges the reader to thing about the games they're playing in a different way.

As a relatively unique piece of writing currently in the market, we were keen to learn more about the motivations and ideas behind the book. We've caught up with Daniel Johnson to get that insight.


Nintendo Life: First of all, can you introduce yourself and tell us a little about your background?

Daniel Johnson: I'm Daniel. I'm from Adelaide, Australia. I've been writing about games for 7 years now, primarily on my blog, but also for other places too. Most of my writing is centred around understanding gameplay and game design. Outside of writing, I work with English Second Language learners doing training and language assessment.

NL: To kick us off on the eBook, please outline the key details of your book and its approach to analysing Wario Land 4.

DJ: Sure. I take Wario Land 4 and break it down into its key components, I analyse those parts, and then look at how they all fit together in the context of the game's levels. Through this process, I cover all sorts of interesting topics like mechanics, narrative, psychology, skills, and education.

As for my approach, my thinking goes like this: Video games are complicated systems of rules which combine the expertise of various professions (graphic design, music, engineering, etc.). Therefore, to talk about games critically, we need a language to articulate the complexities of this art and should use specific examples to ground our ideas. In Game Design Companion, this approach allows me to make specific observations about Wario Land 4's game design, and thereby reveal the incredible level of ingenuity and artistry that goes into video games.

NL: When did you originally come up with the idea for this project?

DJ: I came up with the idea and started planning in late 2010, but didn't start the first draft until January, 2011.

NL: You explain early in the book that, in approaching Wario Land 4 in this way, you're really critiquing games writing in its current form. Can you expand on that for us?

DJ: Sure. Well, by using a clear language and examples to anchor my ideas, I'm able to articulate exactly what makes Wario Land 4's gameplay great. This is something that I feel that the gaming community at large is struggling with (talking about games beyond the surface). It's why we go to Roger Ebert to tell us if and why our medium is any good. In recent years, there's been a burgeoning community of blogs and writers who are trying to approach games more seriously (games criticism). This is fantastic. However, making broad generalisations and focusing on one's opinions and not on the game itself is not going to get us any closer to understanding games/ourselves as players. This is what I see when I look at the current state of games criticism. In this sense, Game Design Companion is trying to be a counterweight. I want to show people the other side of the coin, what games criticism would look like if someone had the right tools to discuss gameplay.

I also like the idea of me writing about Wario Land as opposed to The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, or something like that. Those games are all over the shop when it comes to gameplay design.

NL: So why did you choose Wario Land 4?

DJ: The original idea was to write about Metroid Prime, but I was living in China at the time and didn't have access to a Gamecube/Wii and Metroid Prime. So I opted for Wario Land 4 because I thought that I could write a solid 80-120 pages on it as a sort of warm-up to a larger book on Metroid Prime. And then I just kept writing.

Wario Land 4 is also a fantastically convenient game to write about. For example, more so than the previous games in the series, Wario Land 4 has a refining level variation. So each level introduces an idea and builds upon on it room by room, as opposed to just having a set of unrelated level arrangements put together without order or structure. Makes my job a lot easier.

I also like the idea of me writing about Wario Land as opposed to The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, or something like that. Those games are all over the shop when it comes to gameplay design.

NL: The scale of the book may seem daunting for some. Can you outline the structure, and how you've broken the book up into multiple sections?

DJ: Sure. The book is written so that each section prepares the reader for the next.

Need to Know - I introduce the game mechanics, game elements, and other important bits of info. This part is important for framing the rest of the book, but it's quite analysis-lite, so it doesn't require heavy reading.

Digging Deeper - I cover the key areas of Wario Land 4's design, like the mechanical balance, game feel, interplay, narrative and game ideas, visual/audio, psychology, etc.

Level Analysis -The meat of the book. I take all of the concepts from Digging Deeper and explore them more thoroughly by applying them to the levels.

Topical Essays - A warm down from the level analysis. I talk a bit about Wario Land 4 in respects to other games in the series, the mechanical differences between Mario and Wario, etc.

The book also has screenshots and diagrams, so it's not as menacing as you might think!

NL: With the level of detail in this book — at one point with room-by-room breakdowns — can you highlight your target audience? Are you aiming for aspiring and current game designers, or do you also hope that those that are perhaps eager gamers (without game design ambitions) will be engaged?

DJ: Both. It's all about improving the current conversation around games, and that's good for both players and designers alike. I'm not into academic gobbledygook or talking fancy just for the sake of it. Game Design Companion is written so that anyone can read it. Since we released in December, I've had both game designers and players come to me and tell me that they've enjoyed the book. If you've got an interest in better understanding games, then I think that you'll get a lot out of this book.

NL: Is it fair to say that the major goal of this book is to promote the idea of a greater academic focus on gaming? Encouraging a form of study and analysis common in academia for other art-forms, such as literature, fine art, film and so on?

DJ: Sure, you could say that, but I don't really link it to academia. It's more about how we can have better conversations around games. I think that everyone who's grown up on games hopes that the medium will be taken more seriously. This is why building the language necessary to be able to talk critically/accurately about games is important.

NL: Where do you think we stand today in this field of critical analysis in gaming?

DJ: The state of games writing at the moment is the best it's ever been. There are more voices talking about games and therefore a better audience representation. People are also better organised too and the blogs have this trickle-down effect which is slowly changing the sorts of writing we're seeing on the larger sites. As for the games analysis stuff I do, it's a desert. People don't even know what serious games analysis looks like yet, which is part of the reason why I wrote the book.

NL: For those eager to learn more about Critical Gaming, to borrow a phrase from your introduction, what resources can you recommend?

DJ: Ooohh..lots! Most of the things I've learnt about game design have come from my good friend and mentor, Richard Terrell, and his site Critical-Gaming. His Game Design 101 series is a good start for newcomers. The articles on the 2D Mario games, Smash Bros., Kid Icarus: Uprising, Pokemon, and Pikmin are all fantastic too.

The two of us are also part of a weekly games discussion group. We're always looking for new people join us. Otherwise, you've got my blog, and my Adventures in Games Analysis bookazine series will starting up soon. So there's plenty of ways to get started.


We'd like to thank Daniel Johnson for his time. The eBook is available for $4.99 until 14th February, after which it'll cost $7.99; it can be found on the Amazon Kindle store or as a DRM-free multi-format purchase on Stolen Projects.