Tetsuya Takahashi and "Persona's" Katsura Hashino: What Does it Mean to Create? Creators of World Renowned JRPGs Discuss Their Philosophies
February 2, 2018
Interviewer: Satoshi Eguchi
Original text: Ito Seinosuke
“’Xeno’ is a reflection of what I wanted to do the most at the time”
Satoshi Eguchi (“Eguchi”): This is the first time the two of you have met, correct?
Tetsuya Takahashi (“Takahashi”): This is the first, yes.
Katsura Hashino (“Hashino”): I can’t help but feel sorry for the timing of this talk. I’m sure players have so much to ask about the newly released game.
Takahashi: Oh, no worries. I have a lot to ask you, so I’m greatly looking forward to it.
Hashino: As am I. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I didn’t know that “Xenoblade” was a series that had been continuing since “Xenogears” until we were slated to have this talk. For fans of Takahashi-san’s work, they may think “What the hell are you talking about?”, but “Xenogears”, “Xenosaga”, and “Xenoblade” gave off very different impressions for me.
In preparing for this discussion, I had looked at previous interviews, and Takahashi-san had mentioned something about “if it’s going to be named Xeno…” (Note: I have no idea what interview he’s referring to), so I think there’s a constant of “Xeno” games that Takahashi-san believes in; an unchanging, core philosophy. I think that philosophy is why the “Xeno” games have been cherished by the fans. I came in here today wanting to hear how you approach all of this.
Takahashi: Well, to be honest, that’s one of the toughest questions I could be asked (laughs). I always get asked this question, and I really don’t know how to answer it.
It’s not something I think about. This might be oversimplifying it, but I just approach it naturally, trying to make what I want to make at the time.
One other thing is that I get bored of things pretty easily and want to try other things. Looking back, “Xenogears”, “Xenosaga”, and “Xenoblade” all being different, as you said, are probably manifestations of me wanting to do something, then becoming bored of it.
Hashino: When you say you want to “try other things”, does that mean you go into the next game thinking that? Or is it because there were some things that didn’t go right in the last game, and so you want another go at it?
Takahashi: For example, when I write up the script, after I’ve written it, I just don’t really care anymore.
Hashino: Oh, you’re that kind of person.
Takahashi: Yep, I’m that guy (laughs).
Hashino: That might actually be similar to me. In my case, I can never remember the finished game. After we’ve finalized the game, and all that’s left is debugging, my memories from there start to fade. When I get asked in interviews, I often forget and say, “How did we go about that?”.
Takahashi: Oh, I have that too. I’m an otaku, so I like building model kits. Not just building it, but modifying it, coloring it, getting all of that and work on it hard, but once it’s done, I feel like “Eh, I think I’m done with this”. Sometimes I even give it away to people. It’s fun when I’m making it. But once I’m done, I just don’t really care anymore.
Hashino: That is indeed similar. Are you the kind of person who doesn’t really have merchandise from your own games around your desk area?
Takahashi: Well, there’s an image I have to maintain for the company [so I have to]. (laughs) It isn’t a great look if the leader of development just abandons the game once it’s done, so I do display those sorts of things to show that I love the games.
Hashino: I actually don’t display those kinds of things. They make me lose interest. I feel like if it’s there, I’m going to be dragged down by my past games.
Takahashi: Yes, and that’s why I don’t have any of that in my house.
… Now my employees will know. (laughs)
Eguchi: Well, there is a rationale for it. It’s fun while you’re making it, but once you’re done making it, you’re satisfied?
Hashino: Not really satisfied… There’s an ideal image in my head, but I know I can’t reach that in my lifetime, but I really want to reach it. There’s absolutely no way I can reach it, but if I don’t try, I can’t do anything. They call this the “Unicorn’s Horn” in Jungian philosophy.
If you’re going to actually play baseball, you might as well aim for major league baseball, not just play as an amateur. That’s my motivation for making games, but once it’s done, there’s not much of that drive to go after the Unicorn’s Horn anymore, and you must make another game to have another shot at it. I’m not bored of that process, but once something is done, it’s more like a stepping stone to getting ever closer to that horn.
Takahashi: I know that feeling very well.
A Legend Because it Was Incomplete
Hashino: “Xenogears”, the game Takahashi-san made while at Square Soft has a lot of fans among my team staff. At the time, people were very shocked about the fact that disc 2 would become more of a novel. There’s probably a lot of reasons why it had to be that way, but to choose that path out of all the options, I think there was a stroke of genius in that.
It might be a bit rude to call it “the beauty of simplicity”, but because of it, there was a different layer to “Xenogears”, unlike other games. (Note: Not really sure what he means by “layer” here)
Because, you can’t just do that [what disc 2 did]. I was surprised to find someone in the vast video game industry, in a big company such as Square Soft no less, doing something like that. I was young at the time, and I really thought it was sick. I felt a sense of craftsmanship from that.
Takahashi: It was more like punching my way through. (laughs) I think I felt a sense of “I will NEVER give up” at the time.
During that time at Square Soft, there was a one year and a half cap on development. We begged them to extend it to 2 years for “Xenogears”. Even with the extension, we weren’t going to meet the deadline, and I was told to “just cut it off somewhere”. But if I cut it off, all of it would have disappeared forever, and I thought really hard about it, and the outcome is what you see in the game.
I think in the end, it probably worked out for us. If we didn’t have any of that pressure and just worked on the game until completion, there wouldn’t have been any effort to try harder.
Hashino: And you didn’t abandon your goal. The world that came about because of all that hard work has touched the hearts of many people, myself and Eguchi-san included. In its own way, it’s an impressive feat. It’s a legend.
Takahashi: It was a simpler time back then. If I did that now, I would NOT have been forgiven. (laughs)
Eguchi: And the players could tell that something was going on behind the scenes.
Because the game was so good up until that point, they wanted to see more; the what-ifs. That fed into the game becoming an even bigger legend, I think. It’s surprising, but that’s why it has a lasting impression.
Hashino: You could feel the humanity in the game. That someone would do something like that [disc 2]. It was more like a small art project than a product.
…I’m sorry that we’ve only been talking about “Xenogears”, but my staff really wanted me to ask something.
For “Xenogears”, you’ve said before that the game is six episodes. What happened to that? This is just a question from a fan. (laughs)
Takahashi: For as long as I’m alive, I want to release the “answers” someday.
Hashino: I think the fans will love that answer. Thank you very much.
Eguchi: The reason why people are in such a frenzy about “She’s [KOS-MOS] Coming Back!!” in Xenoblade 2 is probably because there are so many devoted fans out there, I would say.
Takahashi: At that point, it’s more just for fun than anything. If we’re going to to do it, let’s go all the way. We actually wanted to ask Atlus for a collaboration, too. There are characters in “Xenoblade 2” called “Blades”, and a lot of artists have pitched in to design them. I had always said to my staff that I wanted to ask Shigenori Soejima to design a Blade. I was actually told by my director before I came in today that it’s not too late. (laughs)
Hashino: Is that so. (laughs)
Takahashi: But yes, that’s how playful we were about it. If it’s fun, why not? When “KOS-MOS Re:” was announced on Twitter, we got about ten thousand retweets, which was pretty amazing.
Once The Game is Done, I’m Ready to Move on to The Next
Eguchi: For “Xenoblade 2”, the colors and the visuals of the character give me the impression that you wanted to lower the target audience age. What do you say to this?
Hashino: I was wondering the same thing. I wanted to hear what Takahashi-san’s intention was for this.
Takahashi: For those that don’t know, you might think that. But really, I didn’t really think too hard about it.
I look at the games that Atlus makes, and I’m impressed by the brand that they establish. The world is cohesive, and you could tell just by looking that it’s an Atlus game. It easily attracts customers looking for that sort of thing. I was thinking about how amazing that is, and how you pull it off.
Hashino: If you were to ask if that is or isn’t a market strategy, then there’s definitely some of that, but it’s not that conscious of a decision. “Persona” is something those who came before me made, and I only started working since “Persona 3”.
When “Persona 2” was being worked on, I was working on another title. The “Persona 2” main staff would say things like “there is something wrong about the rumors swirling around in our company right now.” It’s common for rumors like that to start getting things tacked onto it like a game of telephone. The “Persona 2” team didn’t like the uneasiness associate with it and decided that for the game they would make a main theme about rumors, and I was present in those conversations.
So, it’s not really a marketing strategy. We just make our games about something that makes us, or society at large, feel uneasy and uncomfortable. We’re just following the template of how to make a modern teenager story.
We just repeat that over and over, so there’s really not much we do about marketing strategies.
(Note: I decided to skip a few lines of dialog because it was about Persona exclusively, without much input from Takahashi. I have not played any Persona games or any games by Atlus, and thus I have no idea what is being discussed and determined that it was better left alone for someone with knowledge of the series to translate.)
Takahashi: [Still talking about brands] As I said before, I get bored easily, so I don’t have one brand image that I can stick to. The reason why I went with the visuals I did in “Xenoblade 2” is just because I felt like the Earth colors of the original “Xenoblade” were getting old. I wanted to go with a pop look.
I might unleash the fury of Nintendo onto me by saying this, but I kind of wondered what would happen if I went in the complete opposite direction from the last game (Note: I assume he means the original Xenoblade, and not Xenoblade X). An experiment if you will. That’s the main reason for the shift in art style.
Eguchi: So, there isn’t really a discussion about marketing, or considering the player-base of those who own a Nintendo Switch and whatnot?
Takahashi: We’re developers, so we have to actively seek out that information to get it.
We learned [from Nintendo] what kind of player-base the Nintendo Switch has, so we did adjust to that somewhat. But really, I just wanted to go the completely opposite direction from the last game (Note: Again, I think he’s talking about the original Xenoblade).
(Note: The next part of this interview is about the character models of XB2. Siliconera has already translated this, so I will not translate this section.)
Hashino: Oh yeah, when I got the opportunity to play “Xenoblade 2”, I thought “This is a good game” and “This feels nice”. Games like that, from my observation, tend to have a good idea of what is and isn’t needed in the game.
Of course, all games have to draw that line somewhere in the sand because they’re on a tight budget, but games that feel nice are very systematic and methodical about it. This might also be “the beauty of simplicity” from earlier.
I’ve never gone to Egypt, but I’ve been told if you go to the pyramids, there are fast food shops right behind them, and you can’t help about think “What!?”
When a photographer takes the photo, all of that is intentionally left out. The pictures they take show the mystical wonders of ancient Egypt, not the fast food shop.
Even if it’s not like movies or pictures where real things are involved, we don’t have an infinite budget. So, I think it’s important to have some sort of philosophy for that.
Takahashi: When talking about art, there’s always addition and subtraction going on; it’s not a competition to see who can draw in the most details. Similarly, I think if games have a good balance of that addition and subtraction, you’ll think it’s well-made.
Monolith Soft is owned by Nintendo, so we definitely have a good backing, but it’s not as good as people might think, and we don’t have a huge budget like major titles.
We have to work with that in mind, but I used to work at Square Soft, so I often use addition too much [as in, he doesn’t consider the budget and tries to keep adding more and more to the game].
But that addition risks losing the narrative we want to tell, and it becomes all messy unless we subtract. I’m always thinking about how I need to be careful, but it’s honestly a work-in-progress. Works that really leave a lasting impression know how to balance the two, and the subtraction accentuates the overall narrative that they want to tell.
The Desire to Create “The Entirety of a Universe” in an RPG
Eguchi: So the theme of today's discussion is “What is at the core of a JRPG?”. Both of you have the fact that you have continued to make RPGs in common. Why RPGs? Hashino-san, you’ve made Rhythm games and “Catherine”, too.
Hashino: The rhythm games and fighting games are made by another team within the company or another developer.
As for “CATHERINE”, we made it the same way that an RPG would, so put it that way, there wasn’t much of a difference. How about you, Takahashi-san?
Takahashi: Only RPGs. Sometimes I wonder myself why I make RPGs, but I think at the core, it’s just that I like them. After all, why would I make something I hate?
With that being said, I’ve been someone with low self-esteem ever since I was a child, so it might be that I want to play god, within the world that I create.
There’s also the desire to be in that world I create, and to try and create the entirety of a world, so to speak. I think it’s just that the easiest way to go about that is through an RPG.
Eguchi: You want to make a world, more than you do characters?
Takahashi: I would say so. I’m not much of a person to focus on characters, personally. I put more weight on the universe. That hasn’t changed since “Xenogears”.
Of course, I’m not saying characters aren’t important. We’re making a game, so I want to please players as much as I can.
But if I were to say which that I personally put more weight on, it’s the universe.
Hashino: When you’re creating a world, you need a sort of realism to make the world believable.
My understanding is that western games often take the design approach of “If they’re in this era, they would be wearing this”, while fantasy JRPGs tend to ignore that and try to go for another approach of trying to convey the fantasy aspect in the design.
This [fantasy designs] is completely foreign to me, so I wanted to hear Takahashi-san’s thoughts on the subject.
Takahashi: Let me use the example of something we use in our daily lives, like a cup. In fantasy and sci-fi, there’s an inclination to design interesting-looking cups, but I avoid that.
I try to keep things that are related to our everyday-lives and familiar to us as is, but for things that aren’t related, I go for interesting designs. That’s my approach.
Hashino: I see. So, you carefully considering what kinds of things the characters are eating and drinking?
Takahashi: Not just that, but everyday items like shoes and whatnot. Stairs too. Things you can relate to like that, we leave as is, but as you go on, we put in more and more unrealistic things. That’s the approach.
I’d like to say we do that perfectly, but we’re still not there yet.
Hashino: So, you value the interaction the characters have with the world.
On the other hand, the clothing is quite flashy. Have you seen the butt of “Xenoblade 2”’s heroine? (laughs)
Even with that, the world feels like it exists, and it must be because of your philosophy of how the people interact with things.
Takahashi: Yes, because I don’t want it to feel like it’s not everyday life. With that being said, I do put in my fetishes. (laughs) It’s hard to balance it all. (Note: I assume he is talking more broadly about fantasy designs, and not specifically his fetishes)
The Origin of Fantasy is to Dream What is Impossible in Reality
Eguchi: In games, there’s something alluring about being able to experience something you can’t in real life. If you make it about the modern world, though, a lot of problems emerge, but if you make it a fantasy world, it might not be as awkward, is what Hashino-san told me before.
Hashino: If we’re talking about experiencing something you can’t in real life, then I think “Xenoblade” has that same idea.
Takahashi: The approach is probably different, though. I think what defines the “Persona” series is being able to relate to some experiences or memories, but for “Xeno”, it’s much vaguer, more dream-like.
At the core, there might be a desire to have a world that there’s no way in hell you can actually get to; something you can’t achieve even if you wanted to. Even if you tried, you just can’t travel to the world of Bionis and Mechonis. I think that’s the approach I take. It might just be that I want to escape reality.
Hashino: Around when did you start dreaming of these sorts of fantasy worlds?
Takahashi: Since I was a kid. I was a child that really looked forward to the future. When I was a kid, there were a lot of books about a positive future, and I loved to think about how this and that would happen in the future. That’s probably where it all started for me.
Eguchi: I was the exact opposite. I believed in Nostradamus’ prophecies, so I thought I’d just drop dead by the time I was thirty. (laughs)
Takahashi: I can relate to that a lot. We’re of the same generation. (Note: Many Japanese at the time believed his doomsday prediction of a “Great King of Terror” descending in 1999)
Hashino: On the other hand, I didn’t engage in much of this fantasy thinking. For example, I tried to think about how people of the middle ages tried to come up with something fictional. I went to art exhibits to try to get a feel for that.
Starting from there, I worked my way all the way up to 2018 and then asked what kind of fiction would be made now. Aren’t I drag? (laughs)
Eguchi: So, you study medieval paintings and the like?
Hashino: I talk with my staff and choose. If my staff says, “we want to do fantasy”, I didn’t know if my staff simply liked fantasy, or if the games they liked just happened to be fantasy. I didn’t really like not knowing the answer to that, so I invested some time to take a look at the issue. If we were going to make it, I wanted the answer to that first.
I was reading some books, and what one critic said in a beginner’s guide for fantasy was: “fantasy is not an escape. Fantasy is affirming that the world does not need to be the way it is now.”
What this is saying is that this world is not a constant, and it’s possible that humans have the power to shape it into a different world, and fantasy is a test of how much of that creativity exists within you. (Note: Not really sure what is trying to be said here.) I was absolutely certain that this is what I had done with the “Megami Tensei” and “Persona” series.
Of course, there’s an aspect of escape to immersing yourself into a game’s world, not restricted to fantasy, but I feel like there’s some thought put into the future of that escape, and it’s not really an escape, but more a hope. We had to understand that through logic, but for people like Takahashi-san, it must be something that comes naturally to them, something they’ve enjoyed since they were a little boy.
Takahashi: Listening to you speak makes me realize how much of an artist [ specifically, someone who draws] I still am. I think in an artwork-like way.
Hashino: I tend to go with logic and words, so I admire those that can come up with a mental image in their head, and I wish I could do the same.
Wanting to Cheer up Today’s Youth Through “Xenoblade 2”
Hashino: I’ve read from your previous interviews that the original “Xenoblade” first began as an idea of a world that takes place on the bodies of two gods fighting each other; quite a fantasy-esque vision.
When I read that, I thought that Takahashi-san must be someone who comes up with the visuals first. He comes up with the world, and them immerses himself in it and calls out for to people to join the world.
Takahashi: For the original “Xenoblade”, it was a sudden inspiration. I think it was around 2005 or 2006, I had a meeting with GONZO-san, and saw footage of “Brave Story”. The artwork was really nice, and a fire inside of me really ignited.
Of course, it’s completely different from what actually came out. I’m always amazed at how the human brain works that way.
So, the way I’ve made games before might have been how you’ve described it. But for “Xenoblade 2”, I actually approached it through logic.
Hashino: Oh? You make games that way, too?
Takahashi: For “Xenoblade 2”, I think a lot of people feel a sense of stiffness and lack of mobility for today’s society, and I wanted to make something that would cheer people up. I look at my son and daughter, and they just look so confined. They get bogged down by the negative information around them.
But it really isn’t so. If you just change your thinking a bit, there’s such a colorful world out there. So, I wanted to do something that was in line with that idea, and cheer people up.
Hashino: “Xenoblade 2”’s protagonist is quite wise. He’s not weak and clueless. It was interesting that the story started with him already being a warrior.
Takahashi: This has to do with what I said earlier, but I didn’t want to look back. If you only look back, you can’t move forward, and you can’t find yourself. If you’ve been living 50 years, you know from experience that if you just keep looking forward, you’ll find your next self.
It might be tempting to look backward, but I wanted to say that it doesn’t have to be that way, that that isn’t all life has to offer. I made the protagonist a straight-shooter for this reason.
Hashino: For us, we go the opposite way, and put our protagonist in a position where he doesn’t know what to do and doesn’t take any initiative. The characters around him give him things to motivate the protagonist, and he slowly becomes a leader. There’s a lot of ways to write a teenager story, but our staff noted how different it was from our own.
(Note: I skip a few more lines, as they are exclusively about persona.)
Eguchi: Hashino-san has previously stated that he designs a game by trying to incorporate things that make players feel the way that he wants them to. Takahashi-san, is there something you want your players to feel as they play your games?
Takahashi: There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to talk about what I want them to feel outside of my game. If possible, I want them to play the game to get the message. Even if they didn’t get it, I don’t want to go on social networking sites and say, “This is actually this way.” I have that philosophy, so I try to make sure that all of that is explained in the game.
Eguchi: You want players individually to decide on their own what they see?
Takahashi: I think that’s fine. Sometimes I’m surprised at how players perceive things. It’s quite exhilarating. That’s why I don’t use any social networking sites. I would rather not have connections between users other than in my games.
Hashino: I don’t use any social networking sites either. Not from principle, just because I don’t have time. I guess I’m an old man. (laughs).
Eguchi: If you want players to feel a certain way, that means you do have something to say through the medium of a videogame?
Takahashi: Yes, but if I say it, I would immediately contradict myself from what I said earlier. (laughs)
Making Props When You Can’t Move The Company
Eguchi: The first “Xenoblade” came up earlier in our discussion. I heard that you actually made a visual representation of the Bionis and the Mechonis and presented it to Nintendo.
Takahashi: We’re developers, so when we show our ideas to clients, it has to pack a punch and be straightforward. For the first “Xenoblade” we made that representation and showed it to them.
Hashino: It’s quite an extraordinary way of going about it. (laughs) Was there a reason why it wasn’t artwork?
Eguchi: Because you thought it wouldn’t be good enough just to present artwork to Nintendo?
Takahashi: It wasn’t anything that calculated. (laughs) We’re making 3D games, so I thought it’d just be quick to see a 3D representation. Developers can’t waste three or four months on a prototype that might not pass muster. If we’re not constantly moving, we’re going to go out of business. I tried to come up with a way to get across our point easily without “moving” the company too much, and that’s what I came up with.
If you say, “This time we’re doing this story, with these characters” It’s just not going to pass. We have to explain our starting point and what our backbone is. If we get one out of ten shots, then we’re pretty damn lucky. We usually bring a few dozen to Nintendo.
Eguchi: I didn’t think it was that way. For someone like Takahashi-san, I would think all he would have to say is “Nintendo, you’re cool with this, right?”
Takahashi: I wish it were that simple. (laughs) Even if it passes initially, we can be told “actually, no” halfway. I don’t think that’s just us, but all developers. All the products you see on the market are really just the tip of the iceberg.
Hashino: For “Persona”, we first decide we’re going to make it, and then we come up with our plan to show to our staff, so that’s pretty different from us.
Takahashi: I’m always telling my staff that they’re lucky to be where they are. Only a handful of people can fight on the frontlines. Being able to make what we want is truly a blessing, and I want everyone at Monolith Soft to always have that in mind.
Is The Definition of a JRPG “A Story-Driven RPG”?
Eguchi: I would like to ask about the term “JRPG”. What do you think people call JRPGs? I think your games are always referred to as JRPGs.
Hashino: I did read in a videogame critique book that it was about whether the story took the lead, and not the gameplay. That the goal of a JRPG is to finish the story. In western RPGs, the story is only one way in which developers try to see the world and experience it, the book said. I tend to agree with that definition.
Eguchi: In the past, I think it used to be a more binary “Western= freer, Japanese= linear” type of differentiation. But now, there are more and more linear western games. I don’t think being story focused is a particularly Japanese idea. Then what exactly is a JRPG? It might be about designs and gimmicks, or other aspects of the game.
Hashino: A movie is always story driven, because there’s a story that needs to be told for it to be a movie. “If a game is going to be story driven, I’d rather watch a movie. Show the world in only a way that games can”, is the thinking, I guess? If you could show a story that could only be told through a game, the discussion isn’t about whether it’s an RPG or JRPG anymore, but proof that it’s an experience you can only have in games.
Eguchi: Honestly, “Persona” is a story you can only experience through a game. You develop a relationship with the characters, and that’s why some lines leave such an impression on you.
Hashino: I hope so. Takahashi-san, have you ever thought about the term?
Takahashi: Not at all. I only use it for convenience to get my point across on occasions such as these.
But no, I don’t think about it. I don’t really see the necessity in dividing everything into genres. It is easier to get your point across, so I don’t have a problem with it, though.
Eguchi: Giving everything a name is something the Japanese are good at. I guess the people who are actually making the games aren’t too worried about it.
Eguchi: What was your impression of speaking with Takahashi-san?
Hashino: An impression very different from the games he makes. His games gave me the impression of a “sharp” person. (Note: “sharp” as in hipster, rough around the edges, niche. Not mental acuity.)
Takahashi: The face I’m putting on right now is a façade. I don’t really like people, so I like being alone. I don’t really feel comfortable in occasions such as these, to be honest. I don’t really want to show myself, if that makes sense.
Some of it, I imagine, has to do with my position. When I used to work at Square, I was much more bellicose. But if I act that way, the employees don’t last. It can be power harassment, and that’s something that I just can’t afford to do.
Takahashi: I used to start fights all the time. confronting my superiors at the top of my voice. (laughs)
Eguchi: What did you want to accomplish, taking it that far?
Takahashi: As I said before, I wanted to make a universe. At the time, “Final Fantasy VII” was using pre-rendered CG, and I thought, “You can’t make a world with this approach”. So, I wanted them to use 3D for everything. It’s the same as I said earlier. I wanted to make a world, and that hasn’t changed since then.
I think the reason why I left the “FFVII” team had to do with the misanthropy I talked about earlier. I can’t go along with someone who doesn’t want to go in the same direction as me. I was also young then, too. So, I questioned myself, “Why am I making something I don’t even want to?”
We didn’t really fight or anything. We’re good friends, and we went to go out and eat together. I don’t hate them. But I just didn’t feel right about it. That took a toll on me, so I wanted to leave the team and make something else.
Eguchi: After all of that, you left Square to make your own company. It sounds like your misanthropy is a bit contradictory, considering that fact?
Takahashi: I don’t like other people, and I’d rather do it myself. I do think about why I’m doing what I’m doing, putting myself through all of this. But you just can’t make videogames alone. You need connections, so I use the power of words and various techniques, and in a way, lie. If you can’t do that, you can’t make anything. I think I’ve gotten better at doing that.
Eguchi: I get the impression that Takahashi-san’s games have gotten a lot nicer over the years. Nicer as in, some of your past games are so “sharp” that it hurts. It was enjoyable for me to decode the story that was being told for those games. But you’re not really “sharp” in that way anymore; a better sense of getting to the heart of the game. Is that something you have changed about yourself consciously?
Takahashi: Honestly, I’ve felt like I’ve become a softie ever since I’ve had kids. I don’t really like that about myself, to be frank. I think to myself, “Man, I used to be able to just do whatever I want”.
I do have a desire to be “sharp” again, but I’m subconsciously pulling the brakes on it. I think things like, “My kids would feel hurt if they heard this line”. I do feel uncomfortable about that gap between who I am today and who I want to be.
Eguchi: I’m around the same age as you, so I understand. I have a daughter in middle school, and I just don’t want to play games with too much skin showing in front of her. (laughs)
Hashino: This conversation has taken a turn. (laughs)
But they do say that you become softer as you become an adult. but I do think that it’s more about being flexible, not being a nice person. When you’re young, you don’t really have enough experience to know how people will react to this and that, so you tend to be rougher around the edges. As you get old, you don’t say things that won’t make a difference, so I think that’s part of it. I was a little over thirty when I made “Persona 3”, and I don’t know as much about society, or anything, as much as I do now. But I think that’s why I could make “Persona 3”. When you’ve made multiple games for the same series, you get closer to your fans and start being able to predict somewhat how they react, and the quality of your fanservice changes. I think that isn’t a bad thing, though.
(Note: A few more lines about Hashino’s new project are skipped.)
Joining The industry to Pay Back Tuition!?
Eguchi: You both entered the industry in different parts of your life. Why did you join the videogame industry? Takahashi-san, you first got a job at Nihon Falcom, correct?
Hashino: Were you a fan of their games?
Takahashi: I had a computer, and I did play their games, but I wasn’t a particular fan of theirs. The real reason is really stupid. (laughs)
I had used up all my tuition funds, and that was going to really piss of my parents, so I decided to work part-time, and Nihon Falcom was hiring.
Hashino: Did you have a desire to be a part of the videogame industry?
Takahashi: I did think that. I liked games, and I liked to draw, so I thought it was a good fit. There’s really not much more to it than that.
Eguchi: How about you, Hashino-san?
Hashino: My origin story isn’t spectacular either. I was just interested in it. At the time, it wasn’t a job that was particularly sought after, if I recall.
Takahashi: It was pretty much like a mom-and-pop shop at the time. You would do everything from development to customer support.
Hashino: Oh, I had to take calls too. Phone calls from players were the responsibility of the development team.
Eguchi: And now you’ve worked your way up the ladder to lead and direct projects.
Hashino: It was all luck for me.
Takahashi: I don’t think it was luck for Hashino-san, but it was luck for me. I often wonder where I would be if I didn’t take the path that I took. Where I would be if I hadn’t used my tuition money to buy a PC Engine. (Note: PC Engine is the name for the TurboGrafx-16 in Japan).
Eguchi: You had spent all your tuition money to buy a PC Engine? (laughs)
Takahashi: I moved from Nihon Falcom to Square, and I wonder where I would have been if that had happened six months later. I think I wouldn’t have been doing what I do now.
Eguchi: There was probably a turning point that made you more passionate about your job. A job that’s about leaving an impression on people isn’t easy.
(Note: A few more Persona lines have been skipped.)
Should The Creator Become The Face of The Game?
Eguchi: Both “Xeno” and “Persona” fans are quite passionate about the games. I often wonder what the source of all of that is. There isn’t a similar passion for games like “Dragons Quest” (Note: Dragon Quest is immensely popular in Japan; the Mario of JRPGs). I think it comes from the fact that only a small subset of people “understand” the game, and the games are playing to the sort of audience that gets where the creator is coming from.
But games are a team effort. How do you feel about being singled out in that way? I usually see younger people say something like “We worked on this as a team”.
Hashino: For me personally, I don’t really want to see that. I want to like the work, not the old hag behind it. I say that as I’m participating in this talk, so I feel a bit sorry about that.
Eguchi: It would sadden me if that personal aspect was removed from games. I’m sorry to bring up movies again, but there’s a sort of thing where you watch movies because it’s by your favorite filmmaker, and if there’s a new movie coming out, you gotta see it. I think it’s the same in games. I feel like it’s better for someone to be an icon then to just say “We’re a team”. Of course, the main attraction is the characters on the screen, and not the people behind them, but…
As players, we know that there’s a limit to how much one person can impact a game, and how it’s a team effort. But at the same time, we know that there are people on the team that have influenced the game to be the way it is. If Hashino-san didn’t work on the third, fourth, and fifth “Persona”, I don’t think it would be the way it is.
Takahashi: For low-information consumers, I do think it’s necessary to have “Director: ___”.
But I don’t like it either, to go see a movie because it’s by whomever. I try to go to the movies without prior knowledge. I want to just go and see the movie, and if it’s good, say: “Oh, so it’s by the same guy who did that movie. So that’s why that was similar”. People gather around the movies made by the famous filmmakers, but I just want to find the good movies for myself.
Eguchi: I think for videogame fans, I think fans play the game and then wonder “Who is behind this game? What is this Takahashi person like?”, and they develop a liking for the series as a whole. I think for people in those kinds of positions, they should be the face of the game.
Takahashi: Looking at it as a business, that’s probably the smart thing to do. There might be people out there who think, “If it’s by that guy, there’s no way in hell I’m getting it!” though. (laughs)
My staff, knowing all this about me, included my name last in “Xenoblade 2”’s ending.
Hashino: I’m pretty sure the one who’s responsible for everything should appear last. (laughs) Are you saying you would rather not be the focus of attention?
Takahashi: I would like for my games to gain attention, but not myself specifically. I don’t really have much to say for occasions such as these, and I don’t really want to talk, either.
If you just look at what I put out, then I don’t really care about much else. I often have the temptation to just release a game without any names attached to it and see how people would react to it.
Branding Comes From Trying to Please The Atlus Fan Within
Eguchi: Hashino- san, you are trying to make a mainstream fantasy RPG right now. The RPGs that Takahashi-san has made are science fiction, but in a way, they’re also fantasy. Takahashi-san, is there any advice that you would give to Hashino-san?
Takahashi: I’m not in any position to give any advice to anyone. (laughs) But when I saw that Hashino-san was going to make a hardcore fantasy game, I thought the timing was fascinating.
Hashino: When you say timing, do you mean because fantasy isn’t exactly a hot seller right now? (laughs) I get told that all the time.
Takahashi: I’m still a gamer, and I was thinking about wanting to make a hardcore fantasy game. My games are fake. Fake fantasy, fake sci-fi.
I look at other games out there, and it’s too fuzzy; not what I want to do. So, when I saw that announcement, I thought, “He beat me to it!”
Hashino: Oops. (laughs) I’m very weary of my abilities to make something that will ever compare to what Takahashi-san is envisioning.
(Note: Some more dialogue has been skipped.)
I consider it a job well-done if I can please the hardcore Atlus fan within me to say, “If it’s that kind of fantasy, it looks interesting, so I’ll get it. No guarantees what I’ll think of it after I play it”. I want to make something like that.
Eguchi: Is that another instance of the branding as we talked about earlier?
Takahashi: Yes, that’s it. I think the games are always constant because you make the games with that feeling in mind. That’s why people say, “This is what I wanted!”
Listening to this, I might actually hate Monolith.
Hashino and Eguchi: What? That can’t be!
Takahashi: I loved Square while I worked there, and I still love it. But ever since I’ve made my own company, I don’t really have much I like because I lose care for the games once I’m done with them, and I get bored easily. I thought that might be because I don’t have the skills to brand myself.
Eguchi: I think that’s just because it’s about yourself. It’s the same with Monolith Soft and your games, they’re all a part of you.
Takahashi: I’m not sure. I just thought of it while having this conversation. I don’t know, maybe I just don’t like it, or I’ve become bored of it. I wouldn’t have thought this way by myself, so I’m glad I came here to talk about this today.
Eguchi: I think there’s a certain brand to Monolith Soft and the “Xeno” games. There’s something unique about it, and the fans love that and want more of it.
Hashino: You said that while you worked at Square and Falcom, you would stand your ground even if it meant not getting along with others around you. I think that says something about your core being. I felt like that Monolith Soft was perhaps the manifestation of that, but maybe you don’t really want to tell that to others?
Takahashi: It’s not that I don’t want to say it, but it’s a little embarrassing. (laughs) But I do like Falcom and Square still, and I want to keep feeling that way. Maybe that’s part of the reason I feel this way. Falcom was a company that put a strong emphasis on visuals, and Square was the opposite of that, focusing on story, because of the influence of Hironobu Sakaguchi. So, when I moved to Square, I felt that there was no way Square was going to win when it came to visuals. Sakaguchi-san agreed with me, and I think that’s part of why Square Enix is the way it is now, and that’s what I like about Square.
I like drawing, so that’s part of the reason why I like it, and it’s also just gratifying to know that someone like Sakaguchi-san agreed with me. I want to cherish that experience.
Wanting to Make Something That Changes Someone’s Life; Something That Resonates
Hashino: Earlier, Takahashi-san said that what he makes is a fake, and I’m really curious what you meant. I’m wondering what you consider “real”?
Takahashi: When I read sci-fi novels and movies as a kid, it resonated with me; like a knife piercing my heart. To me, that’s what’s real. What left an impression on me and changed my life. And when I compare that to my games… They’re fakes. They don’t pierce through the heart. Maybe there’s someone out there who doesn’t feel that way, but…
Hashino: Oh no, there are plenty of people out there who have been touched, I think.
Takahashi: I’m putting in everything I got when I’m creating it, but once I don’t I can’t help but feel that way.
Hashino: Do you feel that way maybe because you realize it’s not what you really wanted to say? Or because the final product didn’t live up to what you had hoped to do?
Takahashi: I think there’s a lot going on. Trying to bite on more than I can chew. Having to cancel things for various reasons. (Note: He seems to be talking about the failure of Xenosaga here) I’m still not good enough, so I’m trying to improve still, because I do want to aim higher.
Also, as games get closer to reality, you can’t help but feel like all the extra stuff we include to deliver a better experience feels a little trite and silly. As games get more realistic, people want more realistic NPCs and story progression, but at a certain point, there’s no reason for it to be a game anymore. It’s irritating not being able to deliver a solution on that dilemma, and it’s something I want to solve.
Eguchi: Hashino-san talked about the Unicorn Horn earlier, but creators really must always be pushing themselves to do better. I feel like maybe Takahashi-san doesn’t hate other people, but he hates himself, in a good way.
I do think, though, Takahashi-san, that the young generation of today is being touched by your work, like how you were touched when you were a child. There’s a sort of Holy Grail based on what you experienced as a child that might be hard to reach, but I think you and Hashino-san’s work could become a Holy Grail for others. I think the “Xenoblade” series is exactly that, and Hashino-san, you making that new hardcore fantasy has to do with that too, right?
Hashino: I hope I can accomplish something like that.
Eguchi: I can’t help but wonder how today’s elementary or middle school kids would feel if “Xenoblade 2” was their first RPG. I think they would be overwhelmed with emotion if that was their first experience.
Hashino: I wonder what the next installment will bring. Is it too early to talk about that?
Takahashi: I’m not sure. We’ve got a long-term “Xenoblade 2” DLC plan.
For modern mobile games, players can voice feedback to the developers, and the developers can respond back too. But it’s harder to do that with consumer titles. We have to contact our publisher to do anything, so it’s that much more difficult. Everything we do tends to be slower paced, and some customers don’t want to wait. I’ve been thinking about how to solve that issue lately.
It’s Better to be Told “You’re Weird”
Eguchi: I want to start wrapping things up. Both of you, how do you feel after talking with each other?
Takahashi: I thought Hashino-san was a very clever person. Not the type of person I know among producers and developers. I can understand why he’s the man behind “Persona”.
When I first saw promotional material for “Persona 5”, I thought, “wow”. And there was no gap between that initial impression leading up to the game’s release, and actually playing it. Promotional material tends to exaggerate things. When you actually play it, you might feel like you were let down, but I never felt that with “Persona 5”, so I was wondering who was behind it all. I now know, after talking with Hashino-san.
(Note: Again skipping a few lines of Persona.)
Hashino: Alright, so I guess it’s my turn. Before we met, I was a little anxious to speak with the man responsible for the juggernaut that is “Xenogears”, and because he is a bit older than I am. I was pleased to find out that he was a very gentle person.
Takahashi: This is also a “persona”. (laughs)
Hashino: Making the amazing games that he does, I didn’t think he would be such a gentle person. I thought he would be someone stricter. (laughs) I think he’s very confident of his own intuitions and inspirations, and he approaches the creation process almost like a game. I guess I haven’t really met someone a little weird and mysterious like Takahashi-san, either. This might be a little rude to say, but what do you say to that?
Takahashi: I’m grateful. My motivation is fueled by negative emotions. If I’m complimented for being “awesome” or someone says, “this was fun”, I lose motivation. It’s better if I’m told, “you’re odd” or “I can never tell what you’re thinking”. I think, “Why you little…!” and that motivates me.
Hashino: So, you’re a rebel. That rebellious attitude is probably why you’re so strong, Takahashi-san.
Eguchi: Thank you both for this discussion today.
(The original interview can be found at: http://news.denfaminicogamer.jp/interview/180202)