Author Ed Moore interviewed Atlus Japan’s Eiji Ishida and Kazuma Kaneko about the Shin Megami Tensei series of games (also known as MegaTen) for his article in Issue 279 of The Escapist. What follows is the full transcript of that interview.
Stylized character design is one of MegaTen‘s strengths; the use of line, color, and shading is absolutely iconic and very striking. How do you research and design a demon’s appearance and imagery and collaborate with other developers to bring the demons to life?
Kazuma Kaneko: Thank you very much for your compliment. When I design demons, I start by researching their profiles in legends and folklores. Gods and demons that appear in myths greatly reflect the environment, culture and customs of the area they originate from. For example, both Zeus from Greek mythology and Thor from Norse mythology are thunder gods, but their attire and equipment are quite different. I get all that information in my head first, then give the demons new form, sometimes in accordance with their traditional image, and in other times giving them a modern interpretation. Once that’s done, the only thing left is for me to draw them in a pose that fits their character.
Whenever I fuse or recruit a new demon, I always check out its profile to learn about its background. I sense that you have a strong respect for mythology, folklore, and philosophy. Why do these elements interest you, and what experiences in your past inspired you to incorporate them into MegaTen?
Kaneko: “What’s at the end of the universe? Is there an end?” I think most people have asked this sort of question at some point in their life. Personally, I just love thinking about things like that. Even though humans are part of the universe, nobody knows why the universe exists, or how humans came into being. A philosophical approach is the only way we can reach some kind of conclusion. That’s exactly what myths are-philosophical explanations of the universe and man-and why I love myths so much. The demons in the Megaten series all appear with these questions. It’s not wrong to put everything into simple “good” and “evil”, like in other games, but what’s right and wrong can be completely different, depending on your position and perspective; it’s very ambiguous. So I say, why not let each player tackle that question of what’s right and wrong?
MegaTen games feature very creative settings for role-playing games. Instead of castles, elves, or other western fantasy tropes, they feature sci-fi/cyberpunk elements and fascinating alternate dimensions and realities. What inspires you to conceptualize these imaginative places?
Kaneko: Because MegaTen is all about the ordinary lives becoming inconceivably unordinary, it has to be connected to modern society somehow. To accomplish that, we often adapt concepts theorized in cutting-edge science into the game. At the same time, though, a huge number of gods and demons from all over the world appear in MegaTen. They too have a close relationship with our lives, but it’s more from a folkloric standpoint-you might consider that to be the analog approach, as opposed to the digital approach of science. We lay the foundation of the games by tying science and folklore-two seemingly incompatible approaches-together with philosophy. That’s what makes the Megaten settings unique.
There are so many things I draw inspiration from that I can’t touch on all of them, but here’s one example. In Japan, there is a Buddhist sutra called Hannya Shingyo. It’s a philosophical teaching of how a person should live, containing the phrase “Shiki-soku ze-kuu, kuu-soku ze-shiki.” Literally translated, it says that things with shape actually have no shape, and it’s the things with no shape that have shape. It can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but the basic idea is that the world is in constant motion and everything is transient, so anything in this world can be seen differently, depending to one’s personal perspective. I think about this and the quantum mechanics concept of Schroedinger’s Cat as pretty similar … That’s kind of how I usually come up with ideas.
Do you have a favorite demon or a race of deities from a certain mythology? If so, why?
Kaneko: People ask me this question a lot, but having drawn many gods and demons, every myth is so fascinating and every demon is so dear to me that I just can’t pick one demon as my favorite … I’m sorry. For the myths, though, I like the Old Testament of the Bible. Many myths in the world share traits like the triad of deities, duality such as good and evil, the creation of the world, and the flood. But because the Old Testament is the most simple, it gives me the idea that it might actually be the root of all the myths.
Why has MegaTen endured as a franchise over the past 20 years, and why has it become more popular in the West recently? Do you think it’s because of the demonic themes and mature subject matter?
Kaneko: MegaTen games are designed so that the player’s decisions as the protagonist determine the course of the story. Within that story are many characters-bad guys who oppose the protagonist and others who want to befriend him-and each of them has their own motivations. Frankly, that’s how it is in the real world, too; I’d even go so far as to say that events in the world of Megaten are metaphors for the real world. So for those of you who played a MegaTen game when you were young, I’m sure you’ll have a different experience if you play the same game now. I think that’s why the fans have loved and supported the series for so long.
Like Western RPGs, MegaTen involves thoughtful choices with varying degrees of consequence. I had a recent experience with Nocturne where I had to agree or disagree with a philosophy representing power and hierarchy. While my choice didn’t alter the overall plot, it determined if I would face a strong boss or a weak one. I replayed this part several times to experience all the potential outcomes but ultimately chose the more difficult boss (because fighting weak enemies wasn’t satisfying to me) and the game rewarded me with more experience. As a designer, I thought this was very clever, and I think more developers should try harder to convey meaning and influence players’ feelings using mechanics, rather than cut-scenes. How would you like to explore or expand upon elements of choice in future Megaten titles?
Kaneko: The branching storyline that’s dependent on the player’s choices is an established system, so I’d expect too many additional elements to cause an overabundance of choices in the game. One direction I’m considering is for each Megaten subseries to have a unique type of consequences for the player’s choices and enhancing it in a way that suits that specific subseries. Another is … The recent game console trends began changing the way people play games. I’m thinking it would be nice to incorporate that into the player’s in-game choice-making, and thereby enhance the gameplay experience.
Megaten has used different ways of conveying a story experience to players. Some MegaTen games use voice dialogue, text, and cut-scenes, (Persona, Digital Devil Saga) while others are more minimalist, placing greater emphasis on the tone, atmosphere, and mechanics (Nocturne). Which narrative style do you prefer, and why?
Eiji Ishida: The purpose of each narrative style is a little different from others, so I can’t simply compare them, but my personal preference is the minimalistic approach. I like the way it makes you feel that you’re an active part of the story. The player should always be at the center of the story; event scenes with the subjective view of the player help maintain that feeling.
Also, this isn’t about the visual aspect, but I like the dialogue-style storytelling very much. (We made an effort to do that as much as we could when we worked on Strange Journey.) When the players are confronted with questions and choices that shake the very reason for their actions, they think, “Man, what should I do…?” Those tense moments when the players are sucked right in to the game are, to me, the pinnacle of in-game storytelling. On a side note… In Fallout 3, I just couldn’t decide on what to do at the Tenpenny Tower. I finally made up my mind, and later… I really regretted it. But that’s what I’m talking about! You can only get that kind of experience from event scenes in games! It’s so awesome!
MegaTen has a reputation of being very challenging. In a typical game, there are hundreds of demons, diabolical bosses, and tons of player skills and stats spread across dozens, even a hundred hours or more of gameplay. How do you pull off this big balancing act so well and keep the experience fresh, engaging, and challenging over such long periods of playtime?
Ishida: I believe that for any challenge, the important thing is to make both the goal (the reward for overcoming the challenge) and the means to achieve that goal clear to the player. It’s really basic and nothing out of the ordinary. However, I think that is the single most crucial point when developing games; it’s what gives the players the feeling of accomplishment. Strange Journey consists of many different systems, but the game is designed so these systems form a lattice toward one goal: to defeat strong enemies and conquer tough parts of the dungeon so the player can move on. As long as the goal and the means are made clear, the players can control the process to their liking. That makes the process itself an enjoyable experience, and when the players achieve the goal, they get a strong sense of accomplishment. (If you just wander around a maze and reach the goal by chance, you won’t accomplish anything and it’s definitely not fun, right?) The secret to keeping the player’s interest level and motivation high is to provide them with lots of objectives, and make sure the game systems that let the players achieve those objectives function well. I’m sorry my answer became kind of conceptual, but if I go into details of each system, this interview will turn into a book… But hey, if you think about it, you can see how the concept of “a goal in sight allows you to try hard” applies to both games and real life!
One of the things that I love about MegaTen is the boss fights-they are diabolical opponents that will exploit errors and crush you for mistakes. However, even in defeat, it feels fair, and when you figure out the right strategy, it’s very rewarding and addicting. How do avoid frustration and achieve this balance?
Ishida: This will be a continuation from the previous question, but regarding Strange Journey‘s difficulty level, the staff and I focused on one thing: to clearly show the players the reason for losing the battle. If the players can analyze the battle and understand why they lost, they can figure out how to win the battle, and, as I said in the last question, they can control the process to victory themselves. So… To achieve that, we decided to implement a simple paper-rock-scissors style battle system where the outcome relied heavily on the preparation made prior to the battle, not the tactics. We designed the system so the players would think, “I lost because I didn’t plan out my party right… I’ll work on demon fusion and make a demon that helps me win the battle!” Yes, in Strange Journey, it’s not the battle that the players need to put their thoughts into, it’s the demon fusion! If we made the battle system as complex as the demon fusion, the players wouldn’t be able to tell the cause of their defeat-whether it was their demons, or something they did wrong in battle. If they don’t know why they lost, they can’t accept their defeat, and the battles simply become too much hassle for them. Since we wanted the game to revolve around demon fusion, the battle system ended up being quite simple. But keeping the battles simple enabled us to make the gameplay surprisingly straightforward, logical, and deep.
What did you learn about user interface design from developing SJ on the DS, and how do you think this will benefit future MegaTen games?
Ishida: The biggest advantage the DS has over other systems is that you can use one of the two screens purely for displaying data. It allowed us to keep things like dungeon maps and enemy information on display at all times, which led to stress-free gameplay. But it also meant that until now, we had been designing the game interface, which relied on the players’ memory, forcing them to not concentrate on the gameplay fully. Comparing a one-screen system to a two-screen system is a bit too extreme, but being able to realize that was a huge plus for me, as an RPG developer. From this experience, I learned to be strongly conscious of the players’ data processing load, when designing the game interface.
Do you play other games? If so, which ones do you enjoy, and why?
Kaneko: I play different kinds of games, but I play games like Tetris the most, where I keep doing the same thing over and over and try to get a high score. I guess I get more enjoyment out of beating my own score than competing with other people. I also like first-person and third-person action games. I’m a big military fan, so I really get into games that pay meticulous attention to firearms and gears. I’ve been wanting to make a MegaTen game like that, but such an undertaking is difficult to carry out… It’s frustrating.
Ishida: I most certainly play other games! I recently finished Red Dead Redemption. While I was shocked by the final portion of the story, I was deeply moved by the development team for making the decision to go with that ending, whether the players praised it or disapproved of it. As for the kind of games I enjoy, I like games with dynamic visuals and totally immersive gameplay. In that sense, Red Dead Redemption was just perfect. Besides those, it’s hard for me to keep my focus on one thing, so I love games that give you lots of freedom and choices. I start doing one thing… but when I get bored, I can try something different… That’s definitely my kind of game.
Is there anything you can share with your fans outside of Japan to give them something to anticipate? For example, what new technologies interest you? Do you have a vision of how Megaten will evolve? What kind of work would you like to do next?
Kaneko: It’s hard for me to answer this question, but… As I said in the previous question about giving players choice, recently there have been changes to how we play and enjoy games. I do like to address that.
Ishida: I’m sorry to say I can’t disclose any information about our ongoing projects, but I’m personally interested in AR (augmented reality) technology. You go out, and when you see through a camera-or even your own eyes-there’s a MegaTen demon on the street! I’d love to make a game like that. “I heard there’s a huge demon named Beelzebub at an intersection in Shibuya! Let’s go beat it!” “If we can get a hundred people together, we can summon Metatron! We’ll meet tomorrow in front of Tokyo Big Sight!” Doesn’t that sound exciting?