[Takeyasu Sawaki, the director of the visually inventive El Shaddai, discusses the game's unusual inspiration, how Japanese development has changed this generation, and how his experience on Devil May Cry and Okami affects the game.]
One of the most interesting Japanese games in development right now is El Shaddai. Its publisher is UTV Ignition, which is UK-headquartered but has its own naturally-grown studio in Japan.
The studio's primary development effort is the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 action title El Shaddai, a game based on the Apocrypha -- books not part of the Biblical canon but which tell stories in the Christian tradition. In this case, the main character of the game Enoch, a human who is promoted to be an angel.
Its director, Takeyasu Sawaki, got the idea for the game from a conversation with someone at the company's UK office and embellished it with his own ideas and visual style -- as well as gameplay director -- which arose from his experiences working at Capcom on games such as Devil May Cry and Okami.
Looking unlike any game on the show floor of either E3 (where it publicly debuted for the first time) or Tokyo Game Show, El Shaddai meshes an innovative visual style with hack and slash adventure gameplay -- a formula Sawaki has been well-acquainted with in his previous work.
To find out more, Gamasutra spoke to Sawaki about the game, his former coworkers, who are at Capcom and Platinum Games, and more.
How did you arrive at such a distinct visual style?
Takeyasu Sawaki: I have had a concept for this sort of visual style for a very long time. I used to work for Capcom, but I became a freelancer after that. But now I've been recruited, along with new staff, for a new company. Four years ago, I thought I'd be ready to create something like this.
To create the look of the game, did you have to develop technology like the game engine, shaders, that kind of stuff to support the individual style?
TS: The dev team made special technology to create these kinds of graphics.
What's the biggest priority with creating a game for you? As you said, you worked at Capcom, so you have a lot of experience. When it came time to make your game, what was the biggest priority of your creation?
TS: Of course, I'm always thinking of the players. I'm thinking of making something that all the players can like.
Do you have an image of the audience of this game? Is it a broad, wide audience? Is it specifically people who are interested in mythology or art or anything like that?
TS: I wish that all kinds of players can play this game.
It's interesting that it has the two dimensional sections and 3D sections. How did you arrive at that sort of design?
TS: I think action game become more playable -- because in a game that's more than ten hours, there will be a lot of repetition. So, I wanted to put different things to avoid players getting bored. So the tempo of the game becomes like 2D, 3D, 2D, 3D...
I think that 2D has recently become more popular because 3D technology has become more commonplace; it's not as novel anymore.
TS: I absolutely agree with that. Even though now all the users are liking 3D games, I still think a lot of users will like those 2D games. There are a lot of iPhone or PSP games that are 2D action games, too.
How did you actually arrive at using this backdrop of mythology, the Christian Apocrypha, that is the basis for the story?
TS: Well, our company's headquarters is in the UK, and one person in UK who used to work for UK office brought this idea to me, and I wanted to make a game related to this kind of religious theme. The theme was basically given to me.
It's interesting because it's like a very different take on this material than I think we would have gotten from a Western studio, or even from other Japanese studios. It looks at a story that we probably wouldn't hear about and it's also told in a different way, I think.
TS: As a Japanese creator, I want to make something that only Japanese people can make. I don't want to follow the European people's way.
What's interesting because you've got the two characters, Lucifel and Enoch, and it's a personal relationship, which is something that you wouldn't typically associate with a religious theme, I think.
TS: The main character, his name is Enoch, and he used to be a human, but he was very pure, so he was brought to heaven to work for God. And Lucifel, he is one of the strongest archangels. I think that's very interesting -- those two people working together with one purpose. So players might think "What is God is thinking about, to let those two people work together?"
In the story, you talk about how Enoch is a human whereas Lucifel is an angel. So, you think about how those two people would feel in that situation. Where one was "promoted", I guess, is the word. In a weird way, you can compare it to like a workplace scenario at your job or something like that.
TS: Well, the relationship between those people... For example, Enoch is very proud the fact that he is protected by one of the very strongest archangels, but Lucifel thinks that he was ordered by God to follow Enoch, and he thinks, "Why do I have to do that kind of thing?" So, it's very interesting.
How much did you read any source material? Did you read any other stories like from other creators that had these characters? Or did you just sort of get the basis and go in your own direction?
TS: Well, I read, of course, the Book of Enoch, and I also read a lot of other people's books dealing with those two characters. I think all of those books were boring. I think my image of Enoch is closer to the original Enoch. Because I read a lot of information, and based on that, I drew this Enoch.
Is the entire game set in a spiritual realm, or heaven, or something like that? It completely doesn't look like the real world at all.
TS: Well, this setting, the world... You know, those seven fallen angels, they made their own ideal world, so I'm working within those worlds. It looks very different from reality.
There's one part of the game where you're running down a long path, and it's shining, or glowing. It's hard to even describe the effect. How did you achieve that graphical effect?
TS: I just ordered the creators to make it. [laughs] Those people were like, "We don't know how!" or "We don't know what to do," but I just said, "Do it."
Do you have graphics programmers working on all the special effects?
TS: Yeah, they work on it.
Are they completely dedicated to just doing those kinds of effects? Or do they have other responsibilities as well?
TS: It depends on the creators. One, for example, said he only wants to focus on one thing, but another one just wants to do several things.
Did you build all the technology for this game in your studio? Or was any of it like licensed?
TS: Well, we used different companies' technology. For example, Gamebryo, or other things.
How did you decide to choose Gamebryo, for example?
TS: First of all, because we started from zero, so we didn't have any technology, so we had to look for one to use. The reason we decided to use Gamebryo is we thought Gamebryo has the potential for us to arrange it the way we like.
Has it changed the way you worked? I'm assuming the games you worked on at Capcom were all like internal engine technology. So, I'm wondering if it's changed the way you work since your previous job.
TS: Well, when it comes to the middleware -- the technology from the different companies -- when we started using that, we had a lot of complications to understand it, so that was very hard.
Now, this is the first game you worked on as the director, right?
I know you previously worked on Okami.
TS: Not as a director. I worked as a monster designer, and also I did a lot of the illustrations in the game.
Do you pay attention to what's going on in other games, or do you just make the decisions you want to make based on your inspiration?
TS: I have a very long experience of making action games. And also I used to work on Devil May Cry, and I thought Devil May Cry was kind of the pioneer at that point. As I have seen the history of action games, now I have a solid idea of what the action game should be, or how it should evolve. I based my ideas on that, and I am making this game.
Did you see the trailer for the new Devil May Cry?
TS: Yes, I saw it.
What do you think? [laughs]
TS: [laughs] I am very looking forward to it.
Did you know it's being developed in England?
TS: Yeah. I know.
I'm sure you know [Capcom's Hideaki] Itsuno-san. He's working on it too.
TS: I used to work for him.
Right. [laughs] I figured. [Conversational pause] Don't want to comment, I'm guessing? [laughs]
TS: [laughs] We're not a strong company compared to Capcom and other companies, so we can't just really say anything.
TS: Well, one thing I will say is, if I were satisfied with other action games, I would have stopped making action games. When I played God of War, I was kind of surprised because that was very high quality.
I also think BioShock was a very good one. I think BioShock has a lot of romanticism. I think that game was very dramatic, and very interactive.
It also had really good art direction.
TS: Yes. It's very nice.
Have you played Bayonetta?
TS: I beat the game.
Are you friends with the guys at Platinum Games as well? Obviously, you worked with some of them, too.
TS: The director, [Hideki] Kamiya-san, he just came here yesterday, and he played El Shaddai. I used to work with him.
What did Kamiya have to say about El Shaddai?
TS: Kamiya loved it. He actually visited Twitter, and he wrote a lot of comments about El Shaddai. Kamiya also gave the dev team comments. He says "El Shaddai was very enjoyable, so please doing the good work and finish the game."
[Sawaki shows Gamasutra an iPhone video of Kamiya speaking to the El Shaddai team.]
That's awesome. You're going to play that for the team when you get back to the office?
That's great. I know you guys used to work together, but there is a reputation in Japan that different companies or even different teams in the same company don't communicate. There's not as much of a culture of going back and forth, working together, collaborating or even just being friendly between teams.
TS: I think those big creators, if they succeed in making very good games -- high quality games -- then maybe they could become friendlier.
I don't know if you've been to or heard of GDC. It's like CEDEC. You know, Game Developers Conference. You have CEDEC here. Those kinds of things are much more common, and people in America share information very freely. I think that would probably help a lot in Japan, but I get the impression it's not so common.
TS: I think Japanese people are kind of shy, so we don't really tend to share all the information, compared to American people.
I was surprised when I realized that, because this company has given me a lot of experience working with people from other countries, I'm more able to communicate with people at other companies.
And I think, for example, Americans, or English people, are very straightforward, and they insist their opinions as much as they can. I think that's very different from the Japanese.
Do you think it's helping you make a better game? Or was it hard to get used to?
TS: I honestly am right in between those situations. I just don't know if it works for me or if it doesn't work for me. Because I have my own idea, and now... I have to accept a lot of other ideas coming from other companies or the UK office. So, I'm just struggling with what's good for me.
The amount of budget that it requires to make a game these days seems to make it really difficult. That's why you have to listen to other people because you have to sell as many copies as possible, right? And that makes it hard to pursue one vision.
TS: I have been putting a lot of effort to convince people for us to make what we want to make, but as you said, you know, the budget maybe is coming from... Half of the "direction" I have been doing is convincing other people.
Well, the upside of it, is if you didn't have that much money, you couldn't make a game that looks that good, right?
TS: Yeah, otherwise I can't really make this kind of big title game.