999 Interview

Article title for the interview.

I was digging through my closet when I found a copy of Nintendo Power (Vol. 267). Naturally, I read through it, and stumbled upon an interview with 999 producer Kotaro Uchikoshi. Read on to find out why the game turned out as it did, his personal thoughts, and jokes about his wife.

Interview With Uchikoshi

Nintendo Power: As a writer who specializes in the genre, what do you view as the advantages and challenges on working in the visual-novel medium, as opposed to writing traditional novels or films?

Uchikoshi: I'll start with the challenges. Visual novels have a lot of text, and people have a tendency to not like that. The large volume of text can make them hard to get into. Words are basically just a symbolic code, so it's a lot of work for the brain to decode words, and as a result, reading can tire us out. Conversely, pictures and sounds are processed intuitively, so they're easier on the brain than some sort of code.

When a player steps into a game store, they're normally looking for "primitive pleasures," so it's highly unlikely that they will pick up a visual novel that can potentially tire them out. They're usually thinking, "Why should I pick up a game and get tired? I want to empty my and just play a simple game that I can enjoy..." It makes sense.

That's why I believe visual-novel games don't belong in a game store, but in a bookstore-- although that might bother some of the game stores who like to sell my games, so perhaps I should rephrase it: game stores can certainly sell visual novels, but they should also be sold in bookstores. The visual-novel genre should not be fighting against major RPG/action-adventure games that developers spend billions of dollars on. It's a book, like a novel.

I hate it when visual novels get compared to major RPG/action-adventure titles just because they're both games. There's no way to win at that. It's like a bantamweight boxer going up against a heavyweight boxer. Actually, that's a horrible analogy. It might be better to say they're a swimmer competing against a 100-meter runner. They're both sports, but what's actually going on is completely different.

Now, all of the challenges of the medium can also be seen as its advantages. Compared to other games, a visual novel can have a more in-depth story, and you can present it in a composed, dignified way. That's because, once again, words are an extremely compressed symbolic code. For example, let's say you take a certain amount of story and try to express it as 3D animation. Imagine the amount of space you'd need! Not only would it take up more space, you'd have to get a lot more people to create it, and that will drive the cost up.

Additionally, compared to a normal (book) novel, a visual novel is easier to understand since you can understand it intuitively. When you read it, your brain won't tire out as much when it decodes it. I know, I know, that's the opposite of what I said earlier, but I was comparing the visual novel with other game genres. Compared to a book, though, it won't tire you out as much. Why? It's because there are pictures.

There are background graphics, pictures of the props, lots of schematic scenes, and most of all, you can see the characters. To top it off, there's sound effects, music, and even voices for the characters, in some games. All of those can expand your world and make the story more immersive, in other words, a visual novel is easier to understand than a normal book, and it's also much easier to empathize with the character and become emotionally attached to the story.

NP: How do you fell about being asked to explain the minutiae of your games' storylines? Would you prefer they stand on their own, with some mysteries left unexplained?

Uchikoshi: That's a really hard question. Generally when a writer is asked to explain the minutiae, they lose. Because if you look deep into the question, you can interpret it as "I didn't get it. What happened? Can you tell me?" If you made your readers feel that way, either you didn't have the ability to portray what you wanted to, or you got lazy, or you ran out of time. Whatever the case, it's still losing. Even if 99 out of 100 people understood what you wanted to portray, if there was one person that didn't get it, then you lost that one person.

Personally, I acknowledge my defeat and if anyone asks me to explain things, I try my best to answer them. Now, if someone asks why I didn't just make it obvious and easy to understand in the first place, then things get a little more complicated. I'm going to be blunt. If something is very, very entertaining, no one really cares if there are questions left over. That's because people come up with their own answer, or discuss it amongst one another on forums and the answers just come up on their own. The more questions there are, the more people talk about it, and the mystery becomes the beauty of it.

Do you guys know an anime called Evangelion? After you watch it, you're left with a whole lot of questions, but not one ever really complains about that. Why? It's because Evangelion is so entertaining. It's that simple. On the other hand, if it's not that entertaining, then those questions and cliffhangers can be its downfall. That's why when someone asks you to explain your work, you've lost it right there. Because it can mean "You story wasn't fun at all."

But even then, I write my stories with the intention that they will be extremely entertaining, so I like to leave questions behind. I mean, who knows: that mystery might become a good part of the story. I guess, in a sense, I'm taking a big risk.

NP: Did you have an international audience in mind when you developed 999? If not, why did you avoid so many typical conventions of Japanese visual novels, such as school-aged characters, Japanese settings, and so on?

Uchikoshi: Yes, I did have an international audience in mind. However, the reason why I didn't go the typical school-aged route wasn't because I had localization in mind. It was simply a code of ethics. In Japan (I guess maybe in the US as well?) it's really hard to release a game where students kill each other. It's not impossible but it's not easy either. In 999, murder is a pretty important part of the story, so I made sure that I wouldn't have anyone under the age of 18. Oh, and in case you were wondering, Clover is 18, but she's graduated from high school.

Of course, when I put it that way, you might wonder if I actually wanted to have typical school-aged characters in the first place. The truth is, I didn't. Quite the contrary, in fact. I sort of wanted to have a suave 40-year old man to be the main character. However, in Japan, having an old dude as a protagonist isn't accepted widely for some reason. (Mario is a different story.) This is especially true in visual novels. No matter how hard we try, late 20's seems to be about as old as we can get. My current secret wish is to someday write a story with an awesome middle-aged man or woman as the protagonist.

NP: What do you make of the difference in reaction to 999 from international audiences? For example, the differences in favorite characters and the differences in questions you're asked about the storyline.

Uchikoshi: I answered some Q&A from American audiences a little while ago. If I remember correctly, a lot of the questions were about Akane. Most of them were like, "Is Akane really a bad person?" or, "Is she just pretending to be innocent and she's actually cruel?" In Japan, not too many people asked about that. I think it was because the Japanese audience thought, "That's not even a question. There's no way she can be evil."

Personally, I didn't intend for it to come across that way. The opposite, in fact. Well, actually I didn't want to portray her to be pure evil, but I wanted to portray her as a cool-headed, intelligent girl that will do whatever it takes to achieve her goals. Doesn't that kind of girl just give you the chills?

NP: Hopefully, 999's success will make it easier for games of this genre to be localized for Western audiences. Would you approach your game-development process any differently if you knew that were the case?

Uchikoshi: Oh no, no, I don't consider it a success yet. I'm really honored that you consider it a success. Of course I am aware that it has been receiving great reviews, and I appreciate that from the bottom of my heart, but I don't think that makes it a success. I guess I'm coming from a business standpoint. I really want even more US players to enjoy our games. Still, I am really happy that 999 has been accepted so well in the US. I think it was thanks to Aksys putting their hearts behind this title and its localization! I can honestly say that that played a huge role.

Musicians and artists can use their own hands to communicate with people internationally. They are able to express themselves directly. A writer can't do that because there's a huge language barrier. However, what I got out of this game was that in essence, a story is much like music and art and it can indeed overcome that barrier... I know, I'm sure everyone is thinking there are tons of games that have been localized from Japan to the US or vice-versa, but this time, by gaining the support of the U.S. audience, I was able to feel that first-hand. Of course, this is all thanks to Aksys' awesome localization. I am truly thankful for them.

999 gave me a lot of confidence. I have a feeling my style is a better fit for the US. In Japan, the genre I love and excel in-- sci-fi mystery-- isn't too popular here. [Laughs] With that said, I'm currently developing a game that's even more geared toward the international audience than 999. In order to create a game that can be enjoyed by the entire world, my staff and I are spending nights and days working hard. In fact, we're planning on releasing a lot of visual novels in the future with localization in mind. I hope you'll look forward to them!

NP: In both of your last two games, the male and female leads have been childhood friends reunited after a long absence. What intrigues you about that relationship?

Uchikoshi: Hm, I suppose it's because my wife has become a very scary lady. So I guess I'm longing for a character that reminds me of my childhood friend who was so sweet and innocent. On a subconscious level, of course...

NP: As far as we know, 999 was your first game to feature a game mechanic (in this case, the puzzle rooms) outside of the visual-novel parts. Why did you decide to include that element? Do you see adding game elements like that as a necessary evolution for the genre?

Uchikoshi: This really ties in with your first question. Currently, it's really hard to sell a game in Japan that is a straight-up visual novel. If you just want to enjoy a story, you'd go watch a movie, or read a comics or a book, or whatever. There are a lot of other places where you can get a story, so why pay a lot of money to get your novel in a video game?

The reason why there are puzzle rooms in 999 is because I personally love puzzles and escape games, but also because of the current realities of the gaming industry. I wanted as many people as possible to pick up this games, so it was only natural to add additional game mechanics. We figured, you go into the shop, you look at the package, you see it has puzzles, and you think, "Oh, this looks fun." Pretty simple, but that's good enough for us. Did that plan work? I'm not sure, but that was our thinking.

However, I don't think that adding game mechanics is a necessity for the evolution of the genre. If you just want to enjoy the essence of a visual-novel, you don't even need the puzzles. But I guess we just didn't know how to sell the game without them. I can't just say "Seriously, it's fun!" and expect people to go pick it up. I suppose the same thing applies to other forms of entertainment.

For instance, sometimes a good plot isn't enough to get people to go watch a movie: You have to get famous actors, or put in a lot of special effects, or add romantic or erotic scenes. Even if the screenwriter doesn't feel like they need those things, they have no choice but to put them in. Don't get me wrong, though. I'm not saying that visual novels don't need puzzles at all. I know I'm repeating myself, but I put them in 999 because I love them.

NP: Conveying a story as complicated as the one in 999 must have been an enormous challenge. Are there any aspects that didn't work out the way you hoped? What would you change if you could go back in time and do it again?

Uchikoshi: Life in general doesn't go the way you plan it. But if you try to force something to happen, sometimes you make it worse. Take a look at a paper clip, for example. If you try to straighten it out, it ends up being this squiggly, useless piece of wire. But because it's twisted and warped into the shape of a paperclip, it functions as it should.

What I think is important is to just go with the flow, and let things unwind as they should. Maybe I just trust in the morphogenetic field? So to answer your question: What would I change if you could go back in time? My answer would be: my wife.

NP: As far as we know, you've never made a direct sequel to any of your games before, but you floated the idea of a 999 sequel in the Aksys Answers Q&A. Putting financial issues aside, do you think the story of 999 should continue?

Uchikoshi: Well, I didn't write 999 with the intent that it would have a sequel. Do I think it should have one though? Yes, I do. I guess it all depends on how well 999 does, so please, spread the word on your blogs, and Twitter and Facebook, and so on, and you'll make me a very happy man. We're counting on the fans! Lastly, I hope from the bottom of my heart that a lot of people will read this interview... and that my wife won't be among them.