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Xenosaga Interview with Tetsuya Takahashi (2001)

By fenegi (of, translated from japanese interview

Q: Give us an outline of the Xenosaga story.

T: I know people may think this is a sequel to Xenogears, but this is an entirely new game; I've gone back to square one to create it. Its foundations are in SF. If you compare it to a movie, then it's a space opera like Star Wars or Star Trek. It's a small part of a very long, epic story which takes place over thousands of years, and since it's the beginning of the story, it's been subtitled "Episode I".

Q: What is the basic theme of this game?

T: That's summed up in the second part of the subtitle, "Der Wille zur Macht" [the will for power]. The people in this game are all living with some past put upon them, filled with regrets and unavoidable destinies. They all need to find their own identity, and they all need to find the power to go on in life. That's the "desire for power" I wanted to show in this story. The villians in the story are exactly the same; as the game goes on, their wills begin to clash with those of other people.

Q: So it's going beyond the typical morality plays we see in most RPGs.

T: Evil is an abstract concept to begin with, after all. The characters the player fights against all have their own logical reasons for what they do. I think that concepts of "good" and "evil" all depend on what point of view you're looking from.

Q: This game pits the human race against an alien life form known as the Gnosis...

T: Well, the player's true opponents in this game are the humans themselves. The human race has been divided up into two large factions, and you play a member of one side. Then, above that, the Gnosis arise as another power in the world.

Q: The Gnosis were the aliens you showed us attacking the spaceship earlier while you were explaining the game?

T: Right. This effect hasn't been implemented yet, but they're actually semi-transparent beings, like jellyfish. As a result things like walls and most weapons have no effect on them at all. The human race can't combat against them with conventional weapony, and so KOS-MOS and the AGWS were developed.

Q: What's the difference between the two?

T: The AGWS robot is able to detect the presence of Gnosis beings. Gnoses are vulnerable to attack only upon running into interference with some physical matter; that's their only weak point. This interference takes place only for a tiny amount of time, so the KOS-MOS android was developed to force Gnoses into more substantial forms.

Q: KOS-MOS shows up as a character within the game. Does it have any emotion at all?</b>

T: It's been developed as an emotionless robot. As its battle systems were drawn up along completely different lines from the AGWS, it was designed as a female android.

Q: A character named Chaos was also revealed, so it's simple to see the contrast you have between cosmos [order] and chaos in the two characters. Will that become prevalent in the story?

T: Well, the "will for power" is borrowed from Nietzsche, so these two characters, each carrying a philosophical meaning, have a lot to do with the main theme. However, that's merely the way I think about the story. It was deliberately devised not to be highly involved, so anyone should be able to get into it easily.

Q: Come to think of it, the main character, Shion, starts out on a ship named the Woglinde, which comes out of Nordic valkyrie lore.

T: That followed soon after Nietszche. He was connected with Wagner, so I pulled it from there.

Q: Now that we've talked a bit about the game, tell us what you are personally doing in this project.

T: I am the director, and I was also in charge of the game's script. Besides that, I acted as mediator in staff arguments, which was actually the most difficult job of the project.

Q: What sort of problems did you have?

T: Mostly it was the friction that developed whenever two directors had different ideas about how something should go. Whenever this happened, I had to listen carefully to both sides. We had arguments over character designs, scene developments, and much larger things to boot. Where I worked before, if things weren't working out I could just have people switch positions with another department, but I can't afford to do that here. Whenever a problem crops up, we have to talk it over until both sides are satisfied. If I can't find fault with either side's opinion then we think of a solution that involves both.

Q: Xenosaga is your first attempt at the PlayStation 2; what was the most difficult part of development for you?

T: The biggest headache was gathering people and building up a development team. The PlayStation 2 is a remarkably high spec machine, so the knowledge programmers and graphic designers bring to the table can have major effects on the quality of the game. Programming the machine well, getting the enormous amounts of data involved through the CPU as quickly as possible, requires a large amount of skill. Really, it wasn't until the beginning of this year until I had a sizable team I was happy with.

Q: With such a large team, did you ever have any trouble keeping the direction of the game focused?

T: Not especially. Before beginning actual development, I sat down with the head of every section and worked out the game script with them. After that, it was just a matter of creating a modular environment, allowing each section to do what it does best.

Q: So the division of labor functioned well during the project.

T: Right. Usually the planner takes his script [here we're talking about the script used to drive characters around the screen for events and such] and assigns the animator the task of character movements... For example, let's say there's a scene where a character turns around while walking. Using a script to generate that will almost always result in a jerky transition, so it's usually the job of the animator to fix things like that. The planner's job is to direct the animation, timing, message displays, and camera positioning.

Q: So the process of assigning these positions requires some groping around.

T: You can divide up the work only so much... (laughs) Namco's support in this project, both in the development and office level, was extremely helpful here. I was able to use their studios for motion capturing and other things, which helped to create the film-like atmosphere of the game.

Q: Could you tell us a little about the game itself?

T: The game is in the RPG genre, but the method of storytelling is greatly different. Most RPGs are set up to have different subplots dotted around the world, waiting to be connected together by the player and develop into a complete picture. If you talk to someone in one town, you're then allowed to hear someone else's story in another town. Of course, this is part of the fun of the genre, but in this game I didn't want the story to grind to a halt because you didn't set a flag somewhere. In Xenosaga the story and game sections are completely independent of each other. To put it in an extreme way, I wanted a game that could be turned into a drama if you extracted all the story portions and put them on video.

Q: The event scenes seem longer than usual, but you weren't worried about the user getting bored?

T: That's the difficult part. It's easy to see when an event's just too long... but the storyteller side of me wants the player to get through the game part as quickly as possible, because he wants to see what happens next.

Q: Are all of the events in 3D this time?

T: We used regular animation in the previous game, but around the point the 3D screens and maps were completed, I suddenly realized I really wanted to go for 3D instead. I didn't follow through with it back then, but this time around I managed to follow my desire. I've been blessed with some extremely talented people in the field of 3D animation as well.

Q: What are some of the difficulties 3D presents compared to 2D?

T: Well, both the characters and the backdrops are entirely 3D, so you can't use the symbolistic direction you see in animated TV shows. If you don't direct it the same way you would a film, the results just look strange. As a result, for this game we made continuity and layout sheets for all the event scenes.

Q: So it was very similar to developing a movie.

T: Right. Of course, this is CG we're talking about, so as a director I want to take advantage of the things you can't do in real life. The biggest difference is in the camerawork. Angles that'd be impossible to shoot from in real life are accessible in the world of CG. You can have the camera go into objects and still be able to shoot right through them.

Q: Are the cameras completely fixed?

T: They're divided into two types: free cameras that can move with the characters, and stationary cameras that simply track their movements. Some RPGs let you change camera angles any way you want, but Xenosaga just switches between follow and set cameras. The maps are mainly set so that north is always up; they've been tweaked to keep players from getting lost as often as they did in the first game.

Q: The NPC animation we saw was amazing too. Some enemies chase after you on first sight, while some you see prowling around their prey...

T: The animation's become quite complex, since the enemies are right on the map this time. They've been given a fair amount of strategic AI -- some of them come right up when you get near them, and some you can tiptoe right past without them noticing. A side effect of that is that we had to include a fair amount of freedom in character movement as well.

Q: Programming all of this in 3D must have been difficult.

T: Technically it wasn't a problem, but the sheer quantity was a headache. The maps in Xenogears were done in 3D, so generally speaking it had three times the graphic data to deal with over 2D games. Xenosaga has about three times more data than that. In the beginning we had the mechs walking on the maps themselves, but the units are too big and the map data would've become too much to deal with.

Q: The battle system in Xenosaga is supposed to be extremely deep. You're not using the typical encounter system you see in RPGs.

T: I hate randomly running into enemies while going around the map, so in this game, battles only begin once you get within a certain range of enemies you can see onscreen.

Q: The strategy aspect of the battles has been enhanced as well. You can have an advantage depending on where you run into enemies, and so on.

T: The hard part is balancing battles with event scenes; we're still working on this balance right now. There really wasn't much strategy at all to battles in the previous game, which let you advance quickly without interrupting the story, but some players also felt there wasn't enough game in there. I wanted to make something that people could play for hours on end if they wanted to, so this time around I've tried adding some more strategy.

Q: There aren't small, medium, and large attacks.

T: Basically there are short-range, long-range and finishing attacks. There're also ethereal attacks, which correspond to magic.

Q: It seems like you have a lot of tactical options available via special moves and such. Do you think the typical player will use them all?

T: Well, it's still a turn-based system, so beginners should be able to get along without becoming lost. It may look complex at first, but it's set up so that just a little strategy can make things much easier. You can finish the game by bulldozing your way through battles, but you'll be consuming items at a frenetic pace all the way. There's a lot you can do with the ability to interrupt command sequences, for example. If a character that's about to die has an enemy on his heels, you can interrupt the battle and refill his life. Character positioning is also a vital strategic element; enemies have an easier time attacking people in front, so it's better to put characters with high defense there.

Q: What's the maximum party size?

T: Three people. And their mechs.

Q: You can only call your mechs once per battle this time, right?

T: Well, depending on your equipment you can use your mechs during the entire encounter, but it just doesn't work well for longer battles. As a result, deciding when to call them out during boss battles and such is another part of strategy; maybe you'd use them when your HP is low so you can keep on fighting. You can finish the entire game using nothing but robots if you want; it all depends on your playing style. The enemies don't have anything like mechs, but they do change their stances depending on your moves. If you can read their behavior and adjust accordingly you'll find that the battles will go very smoothly.

Q: In Xenogears, the items you got after boss battles depended on what you did and how long you took to win...

T: It's the same way this time, too. The fewer turns you take, the more experience points and bonus items you can acquire. I want players to pursue the limits of what's available to them strategywise, both in and out of battles. With all the skills and finishing moves players can build up their own personal style of fighting; there's a lot there for players willing to put in the time.

Q: What else is there for the more hardcore player?

T: We're currently in the planning stages for some kind of trading and collecting minigame. I'm hoping to weave it seamlessly into the story. You'll be able to get rare items and such from playing.

Q: The collecting aspect sounds fun.

T: Mm-hmm. I'll leave the rest to your imagination for now. (laughs) We're also thinking of an iLINK compatible battle mode, but I doubt many players can or want to connect two PlayStation 2s together. We're seeing if it can't be done via some kind of split-screen mode.

Q: The character designer for Xenosaga is Kunihiko Tanaka, the same person who did the designs for Xenogears. How did the design process go this time?

T: First, I had Tanaka work on the design, giving him character descriptions and comparing the image I wanted with real-life actors and such. I tried to be as close to his designs as possible while modeling them in 3D. The toughest part was facial expressions. With the big-eyed characters he drew, the face can be completely destroyed depending on lighting and a thousand other tiny little balances. The knowledge base for realistic, smaller-eyed characters is much larger, so expressions are a lot easier for them.

Q: Junya Ishigaki came back to do the mechanical designs this time as well.

T: I had asked Ishigaki long before, but for this game I also asked a new designer, [Koichi] Mugitani, to help us out. He's doing all of the Vector designs. I've picked two designers because there are two specific design lines in the game -- the federation, and Vector, the group the hero is aligned with. The original KOS-MOS design was actually done by Mugitani, with Tanaka cleaning it up afterwards.

Q: [Yasunori] Mitsuda is doing the music again, but this time you've asked the London Philharmonic Orchestra to perform his work.

T: Mitsuda's schedule was tight at the beginning, but we managed to get him into the game. As for the performance, we figured if we were going to do it, we might as well go with one of the best in the field. I had some great expectations for them; I wanted to pull myself up to the huge amount of ability they have.

Q: You've assembled the staff for this game from all kinds of different fields, but what do you remember most about this project?

T: Definitely back when Monolith Soft was first created. I remember how we all talked to each other about our hopes for the future and all sorts of other things. People tend to forget what's most important to them as time goes on, so I've been trying to keep my mind on what we've set out to do in the first place. I can't make this game by myself, after all.

Q: The industry is currently abuzz with new hardware like the Xbox and Game Boy Advance. As a designer, could you give us your opinions on these?

T: Some of my staff talk about how the Gamecube looks easy to program on, or how you can use normal PC development tools on the Xbox so it's simple to deal with, but personally I don't really worry much about the hardware. I mostly just worry about which platform will get me in touch with as many gamers as possible.

Q: What direction do you think the RPG genre will take in the future?

T: I think a lot of the industry is drifting towards online gaming, but I want to keep making games that toe the line of current graphic capabilities. If technology continues advancing as it has, the line between games and movies or TV will become more and more ambiguous. As the more "game-like" styles of expression fall out of fashion, I want to direct in a way that doesn't have to accept compromises and isn't beholden to any particular game style. In my approach, though, I can't help but have lots of different people's viewpoints creep into the scenario, which complicates making the game truly interactive. I'll need to work on fixing that in the future.

Q: What have you been doing with your spare time these days?

T: I spend most of my days off playing with my kids lately. I still watch just about every movie that comes out, although I have trouble remembering titles afterwards. (laughs)

Q: What kind of movies do you like?

T: Well, I watch SF, I watch action movies... things from Hong Kong, things from Russia, I'm not picky at all.

Q: Watching movies in the theater is the best way, isn't it?

T: Well, if I can, then I'll always choose the big screen and the sound system. I go to Q Front in Shibuya a lot; there's a Warner Mycal close to the office with a great screen, a great sound system and great seating. I'm busy with game development now, though, so I usually end up watching the video instead. (laughs)

Q: What other hobbies do you have? I remember hearing you were a paintball fan.

T: I don't know why, but we have a ton of paintball fans in our office. Out of a staff of 60, I'd say about half play it. Besides that... I used to ski a lot, but I haven't gone since I got married. I'm not that much of an outdoorsman anyway.

Q: What kind of user do you want playing Xenosaga?

T: The main target is definitely gamers who enjoy story-driven RPGs. I think the more hardcore faction can get into this game as well. I tried to keep the volume down a little, but there are still a lot of features to explore.

Q: And finally, some words for gamers looking forward to Xenosaga.

T: Gamers are my number-one motivation and spiritual support; it's thanks to them that I was able to build Monolith Soft, so at the very least I want to create something that won't disappoint. Xenosaga is a very long story, so I don't know how successful I've been in bringing it to life, but I'm hoping that gamers will be enjoying it for years to come.

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