Japanese story-driven games and visual novels such as 999 and Danganronpa have established a dedicated niche following here in the West.
The games, which often depart from traditional gameplay in favour of compelling storylines and complex characters, have particularly found a following on handheld devices such as the 3DS and PlayStation Vita.
MCV caught up with Yoshinori Terasawa, producer of the Danganronpa series at Spike Chunsoft and Souhei Niikawa, president of Nippon Ichi Software and executive producer for the Disgaea series, ahead of the launch of Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair to discuss the future of narrative-driven titles and why the company prefers handhelds to home consoles.
Do you believe that the market and player interest in story-driven games has increased or evolved over the last decade?
YOSHINORI TERASAWA: There has been an increase in the number of games with immersive cinematics, so it may seem that consumers are getting more interested in story-driven games again.
But, over the past few years, the visual novel game market in Japan has shrunk substantially, so I don't think interest has increased or evolved. However, even during this time, the Danganronpa series has become very successful, so there is an opportunity for this market to grow in the future.
Do you think that consumers are demanding more from video game narratives?
SOUHEI NIIKAWA: It depends on the genre of the game, but I feel that hardcore fans of Japanese games tend to have high expectations for character and story elements, and that expectation gets higher every year.
Console games are expected to have rich graphics and great game systems, and smartphone technology is improving to accommodate these same high-quality elements. In order for console games to stay ahead of free-to-play games, like those on smartphones, I believe that many game creators and developers have begun focusing more on improving their character and story development.
Do you believe that the narratives of video games will ever command the same respect as those of films or novels?
YT: That I don't know. It might be difficult to expect the same level of respect as films or novels, simply because of the clear differences in their history and culture alone.
Many people still have strong prejudices against video games. Games also require more active interaction, so comparatively, this limits the number of people who are able to really interact with the story aspect even more.
SN: I do believe that video games will eventually gain the same level of respect. There is no future for Japanese RPGs if they can't.
Our hardcore fans may not be a majority of the population, but as long as they exist, we as a Japanese RPG publisher must keep innovating on video game stories and creating things that are just as good as movies and novels. The most important thing is to provide a story experience that players can only get through a game.
Has a new focus on telling stories through gameplay in modern titles led to evolution or innovation in other areas of game design?
YT: Yes. In order to make a story enjoyable and relatable on an emotional level, gameplay mechanics have changed and evolved. In order for players to really feel the emotions that the creators intended, all of these different elements have had to innovate. Also, as hardware improves, even more possibilities become available.
SN: Gameplay and story are two elements that cannot be separated. If they were treated as separate, then the story would add very little value to the overall game. If a player thinks they could play and enjoy a game even without its story, then that game has failed to provide the same entertainment value as movies and novels can.
Every video game's story should make players feel like it's something they could only experience by playing the game. This philosophy affects a game’s visuals, systems and controls as a result.
It doesn't matter whether the story or gameplay comes first. What's important is to balance those two elements in order to deliver an experience unique to games.
Does the technology used in the PS4 and Xbox One allow developers to implement more complex mechanics in order to tell more engaging stories?
YT: Improved technology definitely adds value to improving game design and direction. However, I don't think it carries too much weight in determining how appealing stories may become. The technology is simply a tool to supplement an appealing story.
In the past there have been plenty of titles that have touched people’s hearts without the use of modern technology. Human imagination is one of the greatest powers we have.
On top of that, if our goal is simply to perfect cinematics, then the title should just be made into a movie, because in the end, a game doesn't need that kind of focus. A truly great game is made by combining self-expression and play, which can only be done through games.
SN: The technological potential for expression has certainly improved thanks to evolving hardware. So in that sense it has become rather easy to develop a story that's more appealing – which is to say, extravagant and showy.
But to be honest, it's impossible to match game cinematics with, say, a Hollywood movie. If we tried to do that, the cost would be ridiculous.
Is there a particular reason you chose to release Danganronpa, Disgaea 4 and other titles on handheld platforms only?
YT: It depends on the country. In Japan, a TV is something that's shared with the family, so it's hard for someone to use a TV alone for an extended period of time. Another difference is that many people in Japan take public transportation instead of driving cars.
Unlike, say, a 3D action game with immersive graphics, Danganronpa offers an enjoyable storyline, which means it doesn't need to be played on a big screen. I think it's more suited to a handheld device, almost as if you're reading a book.
SN: One big benefit of a handheld device is that you can play it anywhere, anytime. If you were to play Danganronpa on school grounds, for example, that might ground the game's sense of reality more. Games that have hours and hours of gameplay, like Disgaea, are great for taking with you during your train or bus commute, or on flights or things like that.
Why do you choose to place such importance on narrative when creating your games?
YT: It's simply if there is an interesting and appealing story there. I want to create great, innovative games that utilise their worlds, characters and surprise elements to the fullest. The entire staff is passionate about creating something great, and we are able to come up with new ideas while having fun at the same time.
SN: When I was a student, I was just someone who liked games. I didn't know how to program, or draw, or sing. So in order for me to be involved in game development, and be a leader in the overall game design, I inevitably went down the path of becoming a storywriter.
For me, I don't create games in order to express good stories – instead, I write stories in order to create good games. This is why I put so much focus on those story elements.
Above: Yoshinori Terasawa, producer of the Danganronpa series at Spike Chunsoft (left) and Souhei Niikawa, president of Nippon Ichi Software and executive producer for the Disgaea series (right)