Though there's little chance of it becoming a major mainstream hit, Sega's Valkyria Chronicles for PlayStation 3 has generated a very positive critical reception, and for all of the right reasons. By blending real time and turn-based strategy with direct character control, the game forges ahead in a genre better known for its staid adherence to formula.
The game's visual aesthetic is also extremely noticeable -- a blend of the realism war games are best known for with the anime panache Japanese strategy games are steeped in.
Add in the game's unique, sketchbook presentation, and you've got a fertile field to bring its characters to life -- and up the emotional impact of their struggles, and, sometimes their eventual deaths.
Recently, Gamasutra had the chance to speak to two of the creators behind this game, producer Ryutaro Nonaka and director Shuntaro Tanaka. Here, we present a discussion that gets to the heart of what these Sega veterans (Sakura Taisen, Skies of Arcadia) were trying to do, discussing gameplay evolution, the lessons of war, and Pixar's influence.
A lot of people right now feel that this game reminds them of the old, real Sega -- from the old days. You've probably heard this before. And I feel like the art direction's part of it. Was it a purposeful gear shift to get it to be this nostalgic feeling or is that not what you're aiming for? The old feeling, not necessarily that it's an old style of game, but the feeling that people could have. When they think: "Ah, that's a Sega game!" That that kind of feeling is revived in this.
Ryutaro Nonaka: We didn't go out to revive the old Sega or make something that would bring back the old Sega games. But we very much challenged ourselves.
We believe that we challenged ourselves a lot to bring this game to life, and that may be a revitalization of what the old Sega was -- because the old Sega had always challenged itself on bringing new things out to the market. And that's exactly what we're doing with this game.
How did you come to work with the character designer Raita? He was previously from the doujin comics scene; how did you decide to work with him?
RN: This game has a very strong military feel and sense to it. But it's not just realistic; it has a lot of fantasy aspects to it as well. We were looking for someone who understood the realism of the military feel but also understood how to incorporate fantasy into it. That's the type of designer that we were looking for.
I read through his comics and was amazed at how he can incorporate lies to create a very realistic world. For example, you're seeing tires instead of caterpillars on the tanks. Obviously that wasn't so back then, but he can make up those types of lies and make it seem very real. We wanted his talents of creating something that's unreal and making it realistic, making that become real. So we went and persuaded him to join us.
From a developer's standpoint, how different was it to design this semi-active / semi-tactical battle system, versus a traditional tactics system, like in Sakura Taisen, for instance?
RN: Basically, making any type of game is the same process, so that wouldn't change. But at the start of the project we did have to make some important decisions. For example, one of the first earlier discussions that we had was: with this game our main weapons is guns, as opposed to in other games it may be swords and magic. It's a very different type of game in that sense, so we started our discussion there.
Because of those differences we had to redo the whole logic of the gameplay itself. For example, people who are familiar with RPGs know that if you're going to cast a magic spell you can do it from the rear of the party. If you're going to go fight someone with a sword you need to go up front.
But if it's a military weapon like a gun, what are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to go in there? And what are you supposed to do when you have a bazooka? You can't just replace the magic with the gun, or the sword with the bazooka. So we had to reconsider the entire logic of the gameplay itself. That was the part that we spent most of our discussion on: how to logically reconstruct the gameplay.
Most tactics RPGs are pretty much necessarily in 2D, because they're grid-based. This game has nothing to do with grids, which is one of the big differences -- you have proximity instead of squares. It's a very different sensibility. You also have to aim, so it actually brings it into 3D. Was it a design decision right from the start that you weren't going to have a grid? And how did you come up with the active points system that allows character movement?
RN: The first time that we made this game it was actually a regular tactical RPG. We didn't have a grid from the start, but it was a top-down map and we worked on that. But then after we played that initial build we realized that it didn't express what we wanted to communicate in the game, which was having the player identify with the characters in the game.
In traditional tactical RPGs you'd have units, but one unit would maybe have five tanks, or four soldiers or whatever. And then when you fight with the enemy and after the battle ends, your unit may only two tanks left, or three soldiers left.
When you're playing that type of game you don't really feel the pain or the loss of actual characters that are in those units, and that's what we wanted to communicate in this game and have the player identify with in this game.
That's just why we developed the current system where it's almost like third-person action -- where you're battling in the gunfire and you're being shot at as you shoot other people and you have to hide behind stuff.
At a certain point in traditional tactics RPGs when you've seen all the battle animations you'll turn them off. You don't care anymore to see the same animation over and over. But in this case you never do that, because you're actually playing through it. It cuts out some of the fluff that you didn't need for the gameplay before. It's an interesting way to do it.
RN: Thank you. I agree with your comments and I'm very thankful that you see the game that way. We wanted to add something that was more emotional into the tactical RPG genre.
Rather than you being God and you moving your chess pieces on a board, we wanted the player to be in the battle and to feel the tension -- to be afraid of your enemy shooting back at you.
Your game was originally created as a traditional top-down tactics RPG. Was the initial design done on paper, or is it done in the engine with polygons?
RN: I start out with pen and paper and then I give it to the map development team who specializes in 3D modeling environments.
It seemed like some of them were very deliberately crafted from the overhead perspective, so that's why I was wondering if they were created that way first.
For the battle system that you have, did you make multiple prototypes to figure out how it would work or did you document it all first in the design document? It seems like it may have had to evolve naturally from that original gameplay system that you created through iterative prototypes.
RN: All the changes were made at once. I had the first version of the game, which we built. We played it and it was a regular tactics RPG -- and no one was happy with it.
We discussed all the changes that we needed to make, and because we wanted it to be like third-person action, we discussed how all the maps needed to be 3D and have verticality. And then those were all implemented at once. So we had a big change, all at one time.
My impression of the process in Japan as being somewhat different from that in the U.S. is that there's a lot more documentation up front, quite often. Whereas in the U.S. the documentation will be much more vague and just outline systems. But then all of the actual gameplay as it fits together will be developed on the fly.
RN: I'm not aware of how things are done in other companies or countries, but in my experience it is true that there's usually a lot of documentation up front and then everything needs to be secured and approved and good to go before you start building anything.
But in this case, for Valkyria Chronicles, because the team started out very small and we were all thoroughly aware of all the issues in the game, we understood the game and what it needed to be. So everything was done as we went with that very small team.
It's very interesting that you allow characters to die forever, as long as they're not main characters. How did you make that decision?
RN: That was one of the first things that we decided that we would incorporate, and it was incorporated into the very first build -- which was just a simulation-like tactical RPG as well.
And we wanted it very realistic in that sense -- that if you lose a person in the war, that person is not going to come back. We also wanted the player to feel that they need to go and rescue their platoon members if they were in danger, and feel the loss of their members if they happen to lose one of them to the enemy.
It's very interesting because there is so much back story for these characters -- and also story moving forward. There is a lot of work put into the scenarios of each side character, like the girl who gets rejected by one of the main characters and then becomes an S&M queen. (laughter) I'm sorry that that's the example I took for my question. (laughter) There is a lot of thought put into it; who is doing the scenario design and how much time did all of that take?
RN: The main writer for the scenario and all the characters is the director Tanaka, and then we also have a team that works with him.
We really wanted to get that sense of urgency and also the realism of when someone in your team is hurt and lying there, do you want to go and help them or do you want to go on with your mission? Do you want to help them and risk your own life? Or do you just want to leave him there and go on?
In order for the player to feel that sense of urgency and identify with the gameplay we felt that it was necessary for each character to have their own unique personalities -- their own unique features, and that's why every one of our characters has a different setting, different personality, different strengths and weaknesses, as well as a very different visual design.
It was quite successful, at least anecdotally, because I have a friend who played through quite a lot of it, and there was a character that wouldn't listen to his commands sometimes and who was starting to annoy him more and more, so when he got killed, my friend just let him go and didn't care anymore. (laughter) But on the other hand there was a character who was really good at headshots and he used him all the time. His friend would watch him play and when that character got killed she cried. (laughter)
RN: That's exactly the type of emotional identification that we wanted it to be. I'm happy!
How did you go about creating these characters? Obviously in order to appeal to as many people as possible there have to be archetypes, so that they can be general enough to identify with, but also have enough specific personality traits, and elements, so that someone can latch on to this character versus that character. Did you spend a lot of time thinking about that and balancing that?
RN: For the main characters we spent a lot of time locking down the personalities. Just because it impacts the game story itself. For the sub-characters, these are all regular citizens that are brought into the army because of the war, so basically they can be anyone around you.
We're pretty adventurous in bringing different types of people through the sub-characters. Some of the characters therefore may be out of place for the tone of the story, but we wanted a lot of variety.
You have these individual characters, yet leveling up is the opposite of a traditional tactics RPG. In traditional games, each character levels up, and that's where part of their personality comes from, whereas in this game, unit types level up. So you give them more personal identity but also they have less functional identity, because they level up together.
RN: That's actually an area we had a lot of discussion on. Because we have about 50 sub characters -- and including the primary characters it all adds up to maybe 60 characters -- if we did it the way other RPGs would do, like you said, with level-ups per character, then players are going to have their favorite characters and not use any of the other characters, and we didn't want that.
We wanted the players to always be able to choose different varieties of characters for each of their missions. You can choose about ten characters per mission. And then in order for us to do that we thought it would be better and easier for the player to choose other characters if all the units leveled up at the same time.
This explains how the actual system itself is very harsh in Valkyria Chronicles, in the sense that if your character dies they're gone forever for that game. Each mission, it doesn't matter how many characters die or how many characters you kill on the enemy's side. It's only whether you win or lose the battle with the number of turns you take.
And all the characters, no matter how much effort you put into using one character or the other, the units with the same dimensions level up at the same time. So in terms of the system itself, it's very harsh. It doesn't take into consideration each of the character's personalities or weaknesses and strengths at all.
So that's another way for the team to present the player with this situation of which characters you choose. And in this situation, do you kill off all your characters because you still have so many more left to use, and dispose of?
Yeah, it's very interesting to make character choice based on personality instead of ability, to me.
RN: We wanted it to be emotional.
Turning to Tanaka-san, as a director, what was your aim with Valkyria Chronicles? What was your goal, what were you trying to accomplish with this game in terms of interacting with users and what you want them to feel?
Shuntaro Tanaka: When I directed Skies of Arcadia it was about going out and exploring the world. This time for Valkyria the theme was war, and how even in the 21st century now, we are still at war with each other. There are many ethnic wars going on in the world.
The characters of the Valkyria, within the game's story, actually represent weapons of mass destruction like nuclear bombs. I would like the players who play Valkyria to go back, understanding that these issues still remain in this world, and to think of what impact these issues have on the world, and on themselves.
Quite often, in a game that has a theme like that, the message can be very shallow -- as simple as "war is bad." Through this human drama, where characters can die forever, do you think that you can create a message with more impact? How do you get this message through to the players without making it too simple?
ST: What's unique about the storyline of Valkyria is Welkin, the main character. When he talks about the war, he doesn't say that war is bad, because the background for Welkin is that he studied biology as a college student, and he wants to be a biology teacher. He understands that all animals evolve by fighting each other. Animals maintain their society by fighting each other, and the strong survive.
Humanity fundamentally being animals, he understands that it's part of humanity to be engaging in war against each other. However, he also believes that because we're human we're different from the other animals of the world.
We have knowledge and we have the ability to think. That should help us overcome our animal instinct -- or necessity -- to fight each other. And that's the message that the game holds for gamers.
I realize that if it's just "war is bad" then this really doesn't get across to the players. There is a difference in saying, "War may be a necessity in a sense, but because we are human we have the strength and the knowledge and the capability to overcome it."
Is that part of the abstraction, why it's set in a fantasy Europe instead of a realistic location, like actual World War II?
ST: Exactly. If we based it off of an actual historical setting, an actual war that occurred in Europe, then there would be too many complicated details and restrictions because of these details.
There are so many countries in Europe. There are many religious and political factors that you'd have to think of, which could make it too complex, so that the core message may not come across as easily. Therefore we chose to create a fictional Europe so that the background is very simple.
I think it is very interesting that it takes this storybook style. So many games now try to push for realism -- gritty hardcore stuff. Whereas this game is -- unlike its subject matter -- visually very "blue skies".
Do you think that that kind of graphics style limits or expands your audience? Will you get more casual users or will it be the people who remember the older style of games? The graphics are certainly very stylistic, which means they will appeal to a certain group and not appeal to another group, because they're not generic. How do you feel about that, and what was your target?
ST: Regardless of the actual target -- we weren't thinking of a specific target when we developed this -- because we had this specific message that we wanted to get across, and the message was very real, we wanted to make sure that it was conveyed very directly to the player.
If you use realistic graphics on a realistic setting it's doubtful that you will get the real emotional, real psychological, feel of the game. You couldn't be sure if the message gets across. I felt that by distracting from the realness of the environment and the realness of the setting, the realness of the emotions and the message behind it would get across better.
I agree. In cartoons, for example, if you have something that looks like a Pixar movie - Toy Story or something like that -- versus something like The Polar Express, which was trying to be real -- the animation that has more of the characterization of a person to it will be easier to relate to than the one that looks real. Take Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, for instance. But at the same time some people may think that the Pixar movie is just for kids, and so there may be a barrier before they get into it. Even though, if they did, they would find it much more emotionally appealing.
ST: From the onset we knew that certain people may reject the game just by looking at it, even before they play it. We realize that, and we accept that, however we don't want to compromise on delivering the message of the game because of that. We would rather use the artistic style that we did in order to engage the audience, to deliver that message.
I also feel that, if you take Pixar movies for example, when they came to Japan they were also "kiddy movies". But then their audience expanded, because the quality of their movies was so high, that parents who took their children would, by word of mouth, say to people that it was enjoyable for adults as well.
Nowadays when a Pixar movie releases in Japan, adults without any kids will go, too. In the long term, I believe that's how you build your franchise and build your brands.
RN: I also agree on your example of Pixar. If you take Toy Story for example, it's a bunch of toys, and toys are built to entertain children. But it's about toys actually stating that, "Yeah, we're built to entertain kids." It would be too graphic if it were done with humans, but because it's in that animated style, the message gets across better.
Since a part of the topic of the interview became transfer of emotions between people: In Sakura Taisen, the thing that you more or less invented, or made popular, was that you would have human relations/communication with some girls in the game. And depending on the emotions, which was basically depending on how "in love" the girls were with you, they would be better at fighting in the tactical part. That was the whole idea.
You would have an adventure part where you hang around girls and the more they like you, the better they would be at fighting. You already had this idea very early on, maybe 10 years ago, of how human emotions mix into the battle system. I wanted to know how the experience helped you with Valkyria -- if you thought about implementing this kind of system at some point, or did you think about how to make it better in Valkyria?
ST: The impact of characters to the strength of the battle system may be similar in Sakura Taisen, but in Valkyria Chronicles, it's expanded. In Sakura Taisen the whole goal was to get to know and to be acquainted with a specific girl, and in Valkyria it's about getting to know a variety of people and finding the best balance to make your team the strongest.
We have a big diagram of all the characters that are in the game. Of who and who are good friends, who are rivals -- so that if you put rivals in the same platoon, the platoon won't do as well as if you would put in someone that's a very good friend. It's a much, much broader version of that gameplay system.
I notice you're wearing a Van Gogh shirt. (Tanaka laughs) I wonder, what artists have inspired you and the team in the making of this game?
ST: I respect and like Studio Ghibli's Hayao Miyazaki a lot. I believe that Miyazaki's anime style is fantastic -- the way that he takes something that is totally out of the norm and incorporates it into his world is amazing.
On the other hand, it is more difficult for Miyazaki to really engulf the theme of war in his anime movies, and we were able to do that because we're creating a game. I hope that our team has encompassed and achieved more than what Miyazaki can do in his anime movies.
Valkyria Chronicles has an European style and look to it, especially the environments. Van Gogh in his early works was very influenced by Ukiyo-e. And in fact I saw some of his early paintings and I'm really amazed by this -- he wrote nonsense kanji on the borders to emulate the style. There would be things like "koi" upside down and just random things he thought looked right. It's really interesting that that cultural exchange has been going on for so long.
ST: It's a little rare for the Japanese game developers to use European war as a setting, however, I would like for the Japanese gamers to, through gaming, be a little more conscious of what is going on in the world, and of history outside of Japan, and outside of Asia.
RN: As Japanese developers we are influenced by many things from the west, and as a result we have created Valkyria Chronicles. It would be interesting to see developers and creators in the west that are influenced by things from Asia, so that we can see an output of that.