Yoshiro Kimura is a game director with a different way of looking at the world. His 2002 PlayStation 2 game Chulip, unreleased in the U.S. until 2007 due to translation issues, puts the player in the role of a cherub who cheers up the inhabitants of a town by kissing them.
His latest game, Little King's Story, was recently released for the Nintendo Wii in North America via XSeed and Marvelous. In the game, you play as a young boy who becomes a king and must, in a strategy/simulationy sort of way, lead his townspeople to improve their kingdom and eventually take on the world.
He respects Shadow of the Colossus creator Fumito Ueda and Fable impresario Peter Molyneux -- and counts Katamari Damacy developer Keita Takahashi among his friends.
While Little King's Story hasn't gotten a lot of popular notice in the West just yet, it's a creative and appealing game with a subversive sense of humor that currently sits with a quite impressive 87 rating on Metacritic.
Gamasutra recently had the chance to talk to Kimura about his influences and inspiration for the creation of Little King's Story, as well as find out more about what direction his left-of-center development style might take in the future.
We also present pages from his sketchbook -- which he brought to our interview -- that show the games he's worked on in the past, as well as new ideas forming in his head that may become games of their own one day...
When I look at Little King's Story, it's very charming, but it's still kind of a very niche oriented game -- kind of like your PlayStation 2 game Chulip was. How can you market this kind of game, and to whom?
Yoshiro Kimura: [laughs] One of the things that I love to do, is I like to give an impression to people who play the game.
And the tendency lately is to go more realistic, make more movie-like games. But because of that, I wanted to go in the opposite direction and stand out.
I really liked the storybook graphics in the intro. I think it's really quite nice looking. I just hope that people won't think that it's only for kids.
YK: That was one of my concerns as well. The real essence of the game -- it has a lot of dark humor, ironies, and all the boss characters are unique in a way that all the adults can like look at it and enjoy it, too.
It just didn't really make sense if it was a realistic character doing those things, so we wanted to make it cute, to make those things more humorous.
I just hope that people will actually get to play it because the Wii is such a tough and oversaturated market right now.
YK: I did get a lot of the same questions with that, but I kind of made it towards the hardcore gamer in my mind, in the beginning. In the very beginning of the game, it's really simple. Everybody can start playing, but the difficulty curve just jumps up. Because the final boss is ridiculously hard.
You mentioned to me before that this is your favorite game that you have worked on. Why is it so personal for you?
YK: One of the ones that you mentioned before was Chulip, but that was actually one of my favorite games as well, because of the originality. It's a really original piece. But at the same time, because I was still not experienced enough, the game design or the gameplay wasn't up to the expectations that I wanted.
But I still wanted to have that strange quirkiness, and that's what I implemented in Little King's Story -- but with the good gameplay and level design.
So this is the game that meets your personal expectations?
YK: In the very beginning, this was my goal, to make the game that I created. But as I was going along, I started setting more goals that I wanted to create, so I want to implement that into the next title.
What's next for you?
YK: [laughs] If possible, I want to go with Little King's Story 2. If I am to create another Little King's Story, I want to make it more adult-oriented, a little more artistic. But it is artistic as it is right now.
The last time we spoke, I asked if you could ever foresee doing a whole in the graphical style of the intro. Maybe something like that?
YK: It's just a vague idea that I have in my mind right now, but if that's possible, yes, I want to use that utilize that opening image and try to make a game.
But at the same time, I want to try and create a game doesn't really talk much -- not that much dialogue or text. And people might say that's just an action game, but my idea is something different.
One of Kimura's new ideas -- a game about a girl who's trapped in a prison, with a wolf for a guard.
I know what you mean. In fact, I really like games that communicate story by showing instead of telling. Like Ico, or something like that.
YK: I really think [Ico creator Fumito] Ueda-san games are really excellent. He's a genius.
When we spoke last, two years ago, the game was not done. You were still figuring things out. How has your vision of the game changed since then?
At the time I asked, "If one of your villagers dies, do you have to explain to the kid where his dad went"? Is that still where you're going?
YK: So, [we don't offer] much of an explanation, but there are some deep, sad parts about it. For example, if there's a family that's only one adult and one child, and if that adult for some reason dies, at the funeral, there will only be that one kid going for the parent.
So, for example, if the group still travels together, they have this strong relationship with each other. So, if that person dies, everybody comes to that funeral. But if that one character doesn't have that many friends, if you go to the funeral, there's only a few guys mourning for him.
It sort of sounds like you still have the same kind of message that you want to send people -- it was a similar "We should get along with each other," gather friends kind of message, correct?
YK: It's more of a message of, like, "We, as a group," but it's more like there's a leader, which is the king -- or in real life it could be a president. And each citizen will have their own life going within a world.
But if the king says, "Okay, I want to go to battle," and just yank them out of their everyday life, they will complain about bit, but at the same time, at the end of the day, it's what the king wants. So, it's how you want to bring them into it together.
Throughout the story, there's a game system, but it's really about co-existing with each other. For example, there's a leader and his subordinates. And all the subordinates are looking up to you, and they want to follow you because you're the leader -- the king.
But if you progress through the story, there are different kingdoms and different kings, and they have that same aspect. People are looking up to them because that's their mindset, and they think that's the strongest king.
Later on, you'll be fighting those kings to say who's the more noble, who's the better king. But throughout the whole game, there's the question of, "What is noble? What is to be more important? What does it mean to be the best in those kinds of aspects?"
In Kimura's game concept, the wolf guard is meant to be scary, but he's old -- so he's in a wheelchair. However, it allows him to move quickly, and makes scary noises. As the young prisoner, all you can do is run and hide.
It's dealing with the responsibility of leadership.
YK: It could be described that way, but nothing too square like that. More like each of the boss characters has their own characteristic, their own way of thinking of how people should live.
So for example, the land of the drunkards, the king is a drunken king, and everybody thinks that whichever king drinks the most is the most noble one. And that's because when he drinks, he's happy, he's jolly. So, right when you meet him, he says, "World peace!" and he says, "Cheers!", but right after that, he throws fire at you.
Another example is that there's one where they think whoever is the tallest or whoever is at the highest location is the most noble one. So, they're all trying their best to be longer and taller and try to one up everybody. The main character goes into that land because he's still a kid. He's really small, so everybody is condescending to him. By going to different kingdoms, you see their aspect of what's good in that land.
So, one of the things that I want the U.S. audience to really watch and understand is that there's a land of TV, and the king is called TV Dinner. Basically, I got that idea because talking to people that I know in America, my friends and myself. I love American TV. And people in America really love TV. So, in this land, people who watch the most TV or make the best programs are considered noble.
One of the things, I guess it's not a spoiler, but I haven't talked to anybody about this -- but TV Dinner, his land is actually a world map.
It's actually a world, so you'll see little pins marking Italy, France, and Germany. In each country, there's a porter. If you go talk to them, they're talking about what the country is about.
TV Dinner thinks that he's actually broadcasting to everybody. But each country, they have their own biased opinion of what that country is.
So, for example, if you go talk to Italy, he's saying something like, "People in Italy are all hairy, and they try to compete on who's the hairiest." The king at the TV land, TV Dinner, he thinks broadcasting war is the most noble thing because a lot of people are interested in it.
So, he wants to have something going on. So, as soon as the main character goes into their land, it becomes a world war within that section -- so World War III.
Is there some kind of message that you want to bring across with this TV land? Actually, I would be very unpopular TV because I don't watch TV at all.
YK: More like I love watching TV, but I fear for myself -- that watching TV will make me stupid.
Me too. So I stopped.
YK: I know that's going to make me stupid, but I can't stop myself from watching it. I really don't say this much, but I love American TV. So, every time I go to Europe or Africa or even Japan -- any place in the world, I always try to find major networks -- always trying to find like Heroes, Lost... And right now, I'm really into American Idol and Six Feet Under.
When I'm watching it, I'm really happy watching it, but afterwards, I have just like a little bit of depression saying, "Ahhh... I think I just wasted some time." So, with all that combined, that's the reason I made this TV Land. I haven't told this to that many people yet.
You should try The Wire and Dexter.
YK: I haven't seen The Wire, but I have seen Dexter. That is funny. It's a little confusing because I haven't really seen this show, but it's about a serial killer trying to be hero or something, and the father advises him to kill bad people.
Yeah, he has the feelings of a serial killer and he can't escape it, so his father, who is a cop, told him, "You should only focus on bad people, because I know you can't control it." So, actually, he works in the forensics department of the police -- so he actually is helping the police. But when he sees someone who is beyond reform, then he will kill them and sink them into the lake.
YK: [laughs] Yeah, he's like watching them.
You mentioned, in Japanese, a "nobi-nobi" country. What did you think of Noby Noby Boy?
YK: I haven't had time to really play that. But actually, Takahashi-san is a friend of mine. He often comes to my house to play. I have a lot of game creators come to my house, and we have drinks as well. Takahashi-san used to live really close to me, like 200 meters away. Walking distance.
Do you have any thoughts on Microsoft's upcoming Project Natal? I think you would be very interested to see it. Peter Molyneux presented a demo for it at E3.
YK: I love Peter Molyneux. Especially like the AI part, there's a person who's kind of like Peter Molyneux in Japan, Yasanaga-san, and he was involved in the AI process in Little King's Story. So, I'm really looking forward to it. I think his work is really great. I'm looking forward to it. There's no way I could beat Peter Molyneux. [laughs]
It seems like it's a kind of fit for the type of game that you like to work on. Like Chulip, where you have to go around and kiss a bunch of people. If you could actually do that in reality, that would be interesting.
YK: [laughs] Yeah, I want to make an American version of Chulip. Right now I have something in my mind, it's getting together, but I'm thinking about like a New York Bronx type of setting with an African-American kid, or a Caucasian, Asian, doesn't really matter, but will be going around kissing everybody -- the American version.
[For more conversations with Kimura, Gamasutra interviewed him in early 2008, when Little King's Story was still in development and lacked a final Western title.]