[Traduction JPN-ENG] That’s how Dark Chronicle was born ! Long interview with the development team Level-5

Une traduction qui sort un peu de l’ordinaire puisque cette fois, il s’agit d’une traduction du japonais… vers l’anglais.
En effet, je me suis dit qu’il serait peut-être utile de proposer quelques traductions du japonais vers l’anglais et du français vers l’anglais, non-corrigées par un natif – dans le but précisément de donner un aperçu de mes compétences (bien qu’imparfaites) dans d’autres langues et compléter ce « portfolio ».
Mon anglais n’étant pas au niveau d’un natif, j’aurais bien évidemment, dans le cas de missions officielles, besoin d’un anglophone pour corriger, ça ne fait aucun doute ! Mais j’espère pouvoir élargir mon éventail de possibilités.

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This interview from Dengeki Online features Level-5 CEO/writer/game designer Akihiro Hino, composer Tomohito Nishiura, art director Takeshi Mashima, chief designer Yoshiaki Kusuda and character designer Jun Sonobe.

That’s how Dark Chronicle was born !

Long interview with the development team Level-5

Dengeki : When Dark Chronicle is being brought up, it looks like the first thing that caught the players’ heart is its magnificent universe. You often hear about how good the paved streets and the wooded areas look. Did you have something particular in mind when building this world?

Hino : At first we had in mind a world with civilization and machines at its core, and Mashima-san did all the designs one after another.

Mashima : Yes, we used England as a basis, during the industrial revolution era. But we felt it wasn’t cool enough, so we implemented more fantasy elements. All the machines in the game have this retro, low-tech feeling to it. Actually, they work like high-tech machines, but they look low-tech and that’s something I was mindful of.

Dengeki : The sceneries are surprisingly detailed, are there some that gave you a harder time than others ?

Mashima : I think you noticed when you played the game but, since you can move the camera around you rather freely, I tried to make them as detailed as possible, as they can be seen from here and there. Even though you could think « who’s going to see that thing from this specific angle anyway? », there was in fact no way to be sure about it so we would put as much work into it as everything else.

Dengeki : Are there some particular places in the game you gave all of yourself on ?

Mashima : Humm… I’d say all of them. I wanted to make them look as good as possible, even the simplest places, like the forests that have nothing extraordinary about them.

Hino : Speaking of backgrounds, there were times where you said, oh, what if we put something cool here and there, etc. Maybe you overdid it sometimes (laughs)

Mashima : Well, for me, as a background designer, it’s not that hard to do. Actually, I wanted to add even more flashy, uncommon stuff to the places, but it would’ve definitely been too much (laughs). I mean, as the outward appearances reflect someone’s personality, I played around with the interior designs a lot, so that they have their own features. The place had to match the personality of the character that lives there.

Dengeki : There are two worlds in the game, the present and the future – how did you proceed when you created them, with their distinctive elements ?

Mashima : Well to put it simply, I worked on the sceneries set in the present like I usually do, and played around a lot more with the futuristic parts. As a designer, there are things that I want to do in my own way, and I think I put that feeling into the « Future » places. As the role of backgrounds is to give a stage for the characters to come to life, I had to think of how they would make the characters stand out.

Dengeki : About the general atmosphere of the game, the graphics, the characters, the beginning of each chapter… it’s got this «World Masterpiece Theater»* feeling.
(* A series of anime adaptations of classic literary works from outside of Japan that aired on Fuji TV in the 80’s. Heidi, Tom Sawyer, etc.)

Hino : Yes, that’s right ! When I introduced the project for the first time, I specified that I wanted the game to look that way. I wanted the main character, Max, to be like Tom from Tom Sawyer – and his friend Donny was Huckleberry.

Dengeki : The fact he’s looking for his mother is reminiscent of « 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother ».

Hino : Yes, you could say that. I was pretty conscious that it was « World Masterpiece Theater »-like.

Dengeki : There’s a lot of idyllic places in the game. Yet the characters are given the harsh task of saving a collapsing world.

Hino : Right, an RPG is a bit weak if you don’t have to save the world in one way or another, so we had to. If there’s a next time, I’d like to make a story where you just have to help the granny from your neighborhood instead of saving the world (laughs). I think it would be interesting to narrow the field of action a bit.

– A gameplay & combat techniques that were born from the character design

Dengeki : Where did the ideas for the characters come from ?

Hino : Back when we made Dark Cloud, I had in mind a world that would be split into two continents, one of them being a civilized land excelling in modern engineering. I couldn’t actually show it in the game, but it was supposed to be a world that had more civilized areas than natural environment, like one big city. I asked Jun Sonobe to visualize what a character living in such an environment would look like, and he came up with a prototype of the Max we know today, our « young assistant boy from a workshop ». « If we’re going to use this character, then we should also add machines, and something that involves inventing stuff »… and that’s where the gameplay came from. We created the character from a concept, but then reworked said concept thanks to the character design, etc.

Dengeki : Max fights using a wrench, Monica uses a sword – how did you separate the characters’ different abilities ?

Hino : Switching characters back and forth in Dark Cloud was a bit annoying so we decided to confer enough abilities for one character to be able to stand through a whole floor episode (TN : dungeon floor) on their own. Their appearance helped us decide what their abilities would be. The fact Max uses a wrench was also because of his design… I think ?

Sonobe : Maybe ? I think that’s how things went (laughs)

Hino : You don’t remember ? Oh well, when we presented the project, we had already decided that Max would fight using a wrench. I wonder what the players think of a main character that beats his enemies up with a wrench as a weapon.

Dengeki : It actually feels nice waving around those heavy-looking objects as if it was nothing. The swords also feel quite different from one another.

Hino : We were pretty exigent about that.

Kusuda : Right. We wanted to make it so that the motion feeling changes according to the heaviness of the weapon. With Monica for example, normal swords do 5-hits combo, while the heavier ones reduces the count to 4. But the lighter ones can make 6 hits in a row. The second half of the game is more action-packed, so I think it’ll contribute to the fun. I think it’s great when the gameplay gets smoother as you level up throughout the game. Max’s moves are purposefully slower than Monica’s, so the players might complain about his dullness (laughs). We did it on purpose.

Dengeki : Is there a way to upgrade your weapons that’s better than another ?

Kusuda : Basically, if you take any weapon, it will go through different stages of evolution to eventually transform into its final form. There isn’t a lot of weapons that stop evolving halfway. The game’s difficulty varies according to how much you build up your weapons, so the players who aren’t too much into combat stuff will be able to get through the game smoothly if they keep grinding them.

Dengeki : It wouldn’t be recommended to go all the way up to the end of the game while grinding only one weapon, right ?

Hino : No, I don’t think so. Then again, the game doesn’t frequently require you to play the characters separately.

Dengeki : What about the sealed areas ?

Hino : You can still use the seal-breaking scrolls, but you might want to fight instead of spending your money on those. I don’t really want people to use those items.

[Dengeki : (TN : the question seems to be missing, there was a blank)]

Hino : From a technical point of view, the fact we used a different 3D graphic engine had an impact on the game’s general design. While Kusuda-san and Sonobe-san were thinking about how they could make the characters stand out, they renewed their gestures and expressions. That resulted in some great changes within the game’s (visual) design.

Dengeki : What kind of indications did you get from Hino-san ?

Kusuda : He told me to do the characters first. Since it’s cel-shading, even though it’s 3D, there’s a certain warmth to it. I think what changed the most compared to before was the fact the characters had those contour lines and how the graphics needed to look like drawings – which means that instead of using the usual type of tone-shading, we had to pick colours that would make them look as close as possible to hand-drawn illustrations.

Hino : When working on the previous game we relied on motion capture, but we decided to put it aside this time and create the characters motion from scratch. The thing with motion capture is that the movements end up looking realistic, and we were going for a more manga, toon-esque feel for Dark Chronicle.

-The creation of the soundtrack from vague indications, which helped expand the game’s atmosphere even further

Dengeki : There’s a great variety of BGMs. When in combat mode, it changes drastically and you can feel the tension rising.

Nishiura : That’s true. There’s more areas and cutscenes, it kept me pretty busy. There are 70 tracks in the game, but I actually composed more than 100 ! I think I would make 1 new track every 3 days.

Hino : BGM are usually something you make according to the atmosphere of the game’s places and cutscenes, but in « Dark »’s case, it changed drastically in the middle of the development and there were tracks I had asked him to do before things were set for good. He wasn’t too happy about it.

Nishiura : N-no, that’s… (panic)

Dengeki : Were there some good ones that got rejected ?

Nishiura : A lot. A lot !

Hino : Well huh, they were good but we had to leave them out because of the changes (laughs). But I really think it was too bad. Some of them were really unusable, though.

Nishiura : Hino-san was like « make one for this, and another one for that », etc, I was only following his orders.

Dengeki : Hino-san, did you already know how the music should sound like ?

Hino : Basically, Nishiura looks at the screen and comes up with the musical atmosphere it should have. Then I’d sometimes ask « could you do 3 sad tunes for this dramatic scene, thank you », probably.

Dengeki : And you can create music from that ?

Nishiura : Well, I try.

Hino : My job is to leave him some vague instructions and then nitpick at the finished tracks (laughs). But with this method he’s able to compose freely, and he made some great music thanks to that. His compositions have a good reputation since his work on Dark Cloud.

Dengeki : Is it a foreigner who sang the song we can hear in the demo ?

Nishiura : No, she’s Japanese. She’s a local singer from our area (Fukuoka).

Dengeki : The song is in English, right ? Which is also fitting to the game’s atmosphere.

Nishiura : That’s right. I tried to write the lyrics in Japanese at first, but I couldn’t come up with anything good. So I changed it to English, and it sounded better. I tried writing the lyrics myself at first and since it was made clear to me that we just couldn’t use this version written in my terrible English, we had a native proofread it. But the previous version was used in a promotional video that aired at Tokyo Game Show…… I’d break into a cold sweat everytime I’d hear it in the hall (laughs).

Hino : We were pretty demanding on the song, yeah. We fixed it quite a few times.

– How Everybody’s Golf gameplay got implemented in the game as « Spheda » 

Dengeki : In Dark Chronicle, there’s the main storyline where you’ve got to save the world, but also a lot of side activities like fishing or playing «  Spheda ». Is it something that was planned since the very beginning ?

Hino : The photographs part as well as the fact you could use them to build a robot was already there when we first presented the project. However, Spheda was added only later in the game’s development. It all started when I talked to Kobayashi-san (Yasuhide Kobayashi, the head of the 3rd development department of Sony Computer Entertainment) about how it’d be like to play golf in a dungeon. Since we got his authorization, we stuck with Everybody’s Golf gameplay. It’s not a rip-off or anything.

Dengeki : The players seem to be captivated by the mini-games, including the fish races and the fishing contests. To the point we couldn’t really call them « mini » games anymore.

Hino : That’s true. Even back when they were in the making there was nothing « mini » about them anymore.  About ten days before the final deadline we chased relentlessly after all the little things that seemed off and fixed many, many of them.

Dengeki : I bet a lot of players are going to forget the main story to focus on the fish races and Spheda.

Hino : Well, taking pictures, inventing stuff and looking for scoops can also be considered as mini-games. Gathering scoops allow you to get new outfits as a reward. All of those only require the camera feature, and I think [the camera] is like a mini-game in itself.

Dengeki : The central point of Dark Cloud was the Georama mode. It showed what you could do with the Playstation 2’s technical performances.

Hino : This is a tricky subject here, but the problem with Dark Cloud is that since we made it all about the Georama feature, it ended up being more like a house-building tool rather than an actual RPG, and I think it made it harder to reach the audience that’s more interested in the RPG part. That’s why in Dark Chronicle we consciously focused on the story and made the Georama a side thing. We had to make it clear to everyone that it was a typical RPG this time. But I personally think it’s nice to have the Georama feature as a side feature, it’s a good approach.

Dengeki : Was the time-travelling part a way to justify the Georama’s existence ?

Hino : Back when it was still a project, we had planned to stick with what had been already done in Dark Cloud, but the Georama editor we had then was conflicting with the needs of the story and I think the players would have shyed away from such a system. I think we achieved a good balance with the current system, as it allows the player to build the towns while enjoying the story. Besides, a great number of Georama elements can be photographed and then used for inventions too, which is a good reason to focus on the building part.

Dengeki : The current system, which has you find the different materials to build the Georama elements according to the plans found in the Geostones, require an extra effort from the player – compared to Dark Cloud that only required you to gather the scattered parts.

Hino : Since this installment is more about « building » and no longer about rebuilding, I went for a system in which you have to go after the materials you need. It requires a few more steps so it’s a bit more sophisticated than before and maybe more troublesome, but I think it gives you the satisfying feeling of having actually « built » something. The story and gameplay were designed in order to make the main character, Max – an inventor -, come to life. Everything about it revolves around the idea of « making ». Not only you can make villages – but also weapons, the robot… History itself, even. In Dark Chronicle, the word « making » comes in all shapes and sizes.

– From the post-game content to the rejected ideas, they’re giving away all their secrets !

Dengeki : The particularity of Dark Chronicle is what happens after the ending…

Hino : Yes, when you reload your save file after seeing the ending for the first time, you unlock the post-game scenario, Chapter 8. What seems to be a side-story in appearance is actually a brand new sequel. That part of the game was pretty hard to make, you know. I think this dungeon alone has 1/3 of the game’s monsters?

Kusuda : Perhaps even more. Chapter 8 is very dense, so seeing the players beat it would make me happy.

Hino : After beating the main game you only got to see 2/3 of the monsters. Besides, there are two bosses that were made exclusively for the post-game dungeon, plus 4 other mid-bosses… it’s got a lot of hidden content. It’s like two whole games in one. Usually with post-game stages, you just reuse what already exists in the main game, right ? But in Dark’s case there’s a lot of original content, including some brand new cutscenes. The schedule got a bit tight because of that (laughs).

Dengeki : Was that planned from the beginning ?

Hino : Yes, we made it because the post-game dungeon we added in the western version of Dark Cloud (TN : Demon Shaft was included as a bonus for the western versions) was pretty well received by the players. We thought it would have an impact on Dark Chronicle’s sales. The players wanted to push limits and be able to try out the weapons they had build-up to their maximum. For example, let’s say that your weapons are around level 10 when you clear the main game : you need to level them up to level 30 to complete the post-game scenario. That’s the interesting part of stretching the gameplay to its limits, and it comes with a bigger level of difficulty as well.

Dengeki : It will really please the most dedicated players.

Hino : I hope they have fun getting stronger and stronger.

Dengeki : There’s also a lot of players who mentioned the absence of a « jump » function.

Hino : Ah, we were worried about the jump thing from the beginning of the development until the final deadline.

Kusuda : We had plans for it, but…

Hino : About one week before the final deadline we asked ourselves if we should include that jump function or not after all, but we couldn’t have, anyway.

Kusuda : It was definitely too late. We couldn’t have made it in time (Nishijima-san, communication manager from SCEJ : « Putting it at a time like this will only get us in trouble !!»)

Hino : However, even though Dark Chronicle does have some action elements in it, it’s not supposed to be an action game. For example, the female players who aren’t into action games can play it by just pressing the buttons. The one who’s got to get better throughout the game isn’t the player, but the characters themselves, you see ? It’s more of a RPG rather than an « action-RPG ». Had it been the latter, I would have gladly included more jumping, flying, swimming… but I want this game to just be considered an evolution of the classic « battle commands » system. That’s why as long as you keep building up the weapons and strenghtening the characters’ stats, you’ll be able to get by with most enemies. That being said, the jump function we thought about including wouldn’t have affected the gameplay much.

Dengeki : So basically, the point is to allow the people who aren’t into action games to progress smoothly.

Hino : Exactly. Well, the second part of the game might give the players a hard time. The final boss battle is especially tough.

Kusuda : Also, the timing at which you switch the characters does help. The monsters have different weaknesses, and it gets more fun once you understand how it works and are able to use it to your advantage.

Dengeki : You can also weaken them with the Ridepod before giving the final blow yourself.

Hino : That’s a good way to level up your weapons, indeed.

Dengeki : It’s amazing that you were able to put all of this into one game, despite its density.

Hino : I think that’s what I’m the most happy about. My biggest concern was whether we could put everything in one game or not. I think we found a good balance with how you can play around with all the side things while progressing in the main story ? But in my honest opinion, it’s still too soon to tell.

Dengeki : About that, could you tell us about the content that got removed from the final game ?

Hino : I think the biggest thing we removed from the final product was the taxi. We had planned to put a taxi in every important area of Palm Brinks, that the player could use to fast-travel from a place to another within the town. It’s too bad we couldn’t keep it. You see that demo movie that starts when you wait long enough on the menu screen ? There’s a scene in it where you can see Max driving a car. It’s all that remains of that taxi feature. But yes, despite of what the movie shows that car can’t be driven at all ingame, so you can look for it all you want, you won’t find it.

Dengeki : Seems like you’re going to get a lot of questions about it from the players.

Hino : « Where do you find that car ? » « Does it appear in New Game + ? », I can imagine. I haven’t got any so far, though.

Dengeki : Finally, for the fans who are reading us right now, what would you want to draw their attention to, regarding your respective involvement in the game ?

Sonobe : It was my very first time character-designing, so I took a lot of other works as a reference and there’s a lot of imperfections coming from my lack of experience – but I strove for improvement while I was doing it, so I would be happy if the players paid attention to it.

Dengeki : Any character you like, besides of Max & Monica ?

Sonobe : The Clowns…

Hino : Oh, so it’s not Flotsam ?

Kusuda : When I worked on the character motion I’d check carefully that they look good on-screen, or feel good to play with. It’s interesting to see all the monsters moving in a different way.

I hope the players have fun watching the characters come to life, whether it be during the cutscenes or when they’re fighting.

Mashima : Right, I already mentioned it before, but I designed even the tiniest details in the sceneries and we put a lot of hard work when we turned them into 3D as well. I sure would be happy if it shows, yeah.

Dengeki : Any place in particular ?

Mashima : Hum, let me think. My part of the work was mostly the artistic direction. But the team who created the data followed every single part of my instructions very tightly and I am very grateful to them. I don’t know where I would like the players to look in particular. I guess everywhere.

Nishiura : Please look at everything using Max’s camera’s zoom function, is what he means.

Mashima : Nah that’s really too much (laughs)

Hino : That would be awful. At a distance of 5 meters, at least.

Mashima : Making backgrounds may seem like a simpler task compared to making the characters but it’s a very considerable amount of work. (Nishijima-san : « Probably so considerable that you can see blood streaming from the stone paving. »)

Nishiura : As for myself, I composed the music for a lot of different areas and cutscenes while remaining as faithful as possible to the atmosphere of the game’s universe so I would be glad if the players appreciated it. Also, I made the melodies easy to remember, it’d be nice if little kids listened to them.

Hino : So you thought of the children. First time I hear about it.

Nishiura : No, no…

Hino : While thinking about the new features I wanted to put in Dark Chronicle, there were times where I feared that we couldn’t bring everything together. I think the final product came out pretty nicely… even though some parts were kind of pushed together (laughs). Therefore, I am looking forward to the players’ feedback. I hope they have fun playing every single part of it. I would also like them to enjoy all the side things we prepared for them in addition to the main story. I mean, there’s something new added in every chapter until chapter 6 – the game is just that dense, and I hope you will savour it.

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