August 26, 2010 12:00 AM | Simon Carless
[Really enjoyed this Brandon Sheffield interview with Capcom's Shu Takumi (Ace Attorney) -- in which he shares his inspiration for writing mystery-based games, the process behind developing relatable characters, and the troubles and triumphs facing the intriguing Ghost Trick.]
Mystery-based games are a rare occurrence; even rarer are games that succeed in creating interesting characters and placing them into an equally engaging tale. Capcom's Ace Attorney series is lauded for doing just that, and the upcoming Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, led by Ace Attorney creator Shu Takumi, hopes to earn the same success.
Ghost Trick is a point and click game for Nintendo DS that has players take on the role of a murder victim who can use his ghost to interact with the environment and protect others from sharing his fate.
Due in North America in Winter 2010, the game combines the quirky characters and mystery overtones of the Ace Attorney series with a unique visual style and real time adventure game mechanics.
Gamasutra sat down with Capcom's Shu Takumi to discuss his inspiration for writing mystery-based games, the process behind developing relatable characters, how to make the most out of limited hardware, and the troubles and triumphs facing Ghost Trick.
Inspiration And Writing
Let’s start with a very simple question: Where do you get the inspiration for the games that you do? They are not along the standard lines of what we see nowadays.
Shu Takumi: When I was younger, I liked reading mysteries, so mysteries have always been a large part of my life. One of the reasons I joined a game company like Capcom is because I wanted to make a mystery game.
Maybe it’s not so much that I’m different and unique, maybe it’s just that there are so few people that focus on pure mystery. Mystery stories and mystery novels are very interesting and unique on their own; they are a bit unusual in their own sense, so it’s not me, per se, it’s the number of mystery writers in the games industry.
I’ve been thinking for a while about the possibility of an open world mystery game. Games like Fallout 3, or even Red Dead Redemption, have some elements where you just explore, gather information, and figure stuff out. Can you envision an open world game that is more focused on unraveling a mystery than shooting?
ST: I think it would be really difficult to make a game like that; it would definitely take a lot of work, a lot of thinking, and a lot of planning, but it definitely sounds like it would be a lot of fun! One of the things about sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto, for example, is that you have a lot of events going on at various locations.
So for the game that you mentioned, maybe you could have a serial killer who has multiple things going on at once; maybe there are actually two killers, and they are trying to kill each other! Who knows? I enjoy thinking about these kinds of things; if you have something happen in one location, maybe it will affect something else later on down the road. For me, it would be a lot of fun to play.
Who actually does the writing for Ace Attorney, Ghost Trick, and things like that?
ST: I write everything.
How do you go about writing characters? The characters you create have a lot of depth to them, but it’s not an external depth. You never explicitly see it, but you can tell by the way they talk and react to things that they are characters with a lot of thought put behind them. How do you begin when you create a character?
ST: In the process of creating the characters, I write the story first. First and foremost, I want to make a mystery game, so the focus is on the story -- as I’m writing the scenario, the characters need to fill in different positions and slots in that story that appear in my mind. These characters start to take shape as I write the scenarios.
What makes them personable is probably when I write a bit of myself into the characters. Obviously, each character has to fit their situation, they have to fit the mystery, and they have to work well, but at the same time they have to seem real. For that, I just draw upon what is already inside myself. What people perceive as depth and what they see as real in the characters is what I put of myself into these characters.
One thing I noticed while playing Ghost Trick and Ace Attorney is that the team uses a lot of sound effects when the characters talk to each other. What is the thinking behind putting sound effects there and how do you make sure you keep it interesting?
ST: For the sound effects in the background, I envision it in my head while I’m writing. Afterwards, I’ll take the script and go through the whole game and put them in one-by-one on my own. So I’ll read a sentence and say, “Oh, here’s where I want this sound effect.” And I’ll put that in there and direct people to put the code in there. It’s not only by feeling, but also by certain reactions I’ve gotten from certain scenes and statements. For those, I’ll put something there to move the players to feel the way I want them to.
The first time I played Ace Attorney, I had to learn how to appreciate these sounds. But now, I expect it from those games, and it feels like visual novels and things like that are missing something.
ST: I know what you mean; it can feel kind of lonely or empty. When I was making the first Ace Attorney, the hardware limitations of the Game Boy Advance at the time made it so you couldn’t really do much; you couldn’t use any voice or anything like that. So I was asked myself, "How do I express the voices, the emphasis? I want to express the 'Objection!' and things like that." So that’s what led me to doing things like shaking the screen, and making it flash and things like that. That was the starting point for putting those sound effects in along with those visual effects.
Did you take much inspiration from traditional visual novels? They’ve been doing more with panning camera angles on stills, and shaking the camera to add some dynamics to these otherwise still scenes. Is that part of where you took those elements from?
ST: You asked earlier if I drew inspiration from anything, but when I was young, I didn’t really play all that many games. I played a few games on the PC, like Mystery House. When I was making the first Ace Attorney, mystery was considered something that no one could make a game about. People thought you just couldn’t make a good mystery game. But I set out on my own and said, "I’m going to make a mystery game!"
After I made Ace Attorney, I played some of the other games in the market and said, "Oh, I guess some people are starting to jump on the bandwagon here." I did the same thing with Ghost Trick. It’s not about taking inspiration from others; it’s about coming up with new stuff for yourself. Coming up with new stuff and new ideas is the only way to push the industry forward, and you have to be the one to do it, and not just take inspiration from other places.
Although it can be tough to know if it’s a new idea if you don’t know what ideas already exist!
ST: Well, when I was making Ace Attorney, I wasn’t making something that I thought was new, I was making something that I wanted to play! It was after the fact that I realized it was kind of the first in a new genre. I was like, "Oh, I guess I was lucky I made something new!"
Crafting Ghost Trick
Ghost Trick is interesting because it’s almost a bridge between Japanese visual novels, which have been around forever, and American style point and click adventures, which have also been around forever. It’s almost like a real-time adventure game. Is that something that you thought about, or is it a happy accident?
ST: Again, it’s probably a little bit of luck and a little bit of what was planned. One of the things we wanted to do with this game was to show off the characters and their movements. We wanted to do something very different than Ace Attorney, the whole concept of creating a mystery novel or a mystery game is to push the story, but there’s usually not too much action in them. It’s mostly about the human drama. But one of the things we wanted to do with this game was to show off the motions; we made these incredibly smooth animations by hand, from scratch.
In showing them off, we were able to give each character very unique characteristics, and give the game the 2D visual style that we wanted. That really lends an action element to the game, which was something that we couldn’t do with the Ace Attorney series. In that sense, we are lucky and happy if that makes it more appealing to a Western audience.
The animation is done in a fun, stylized way, but at the same time, it takes a long time to finish. It’s great the first time, but if you want to get through it again, there’s no way to skip through it faster. It seems like one of those UI problems that are always difficult to fix, but do you think there is a solution to be found there?
ST: Regarding the problem about not being able to skip stuff or make it go faster, the same thing happened with Ace Attorney. After we made it, in retrospect, we were like, “If we could have made it skip or go faster that would have been nice,” but we just didn’t have time. The same thing happened with Ghost Trick, we just didn’t have enough time to do that tweaking at the end. But if we make it into a series, it will grow along with us, and we will keep that in consideration in the future.
Most of the game requires you to take action within a certain time limit. Is it difficult to create these scenarios?
ST: In creating the puzzles and stage designs, it is definitely difficult. We have to keep the tension high; we have to keep it intense for people so they don’t feel like there’s a drop in difficulty for the puzzles. The main way we go about making these is we make the stages, and then ask people for feedback.
We listen to the feedback about how difficult it is, or if it was too simplistic. We also asked an extremely casual user: our producer; he doesn’t play many games, so if he got stuck in a location for two hours, we knew it was too difficult. We balance that out by making sure we provide enough hints with the little thought bubbles in the game. With these elements, we made it just difficult enough for casual players and hardcore players alike.
You seem to really enjoy creating sidekicks or secondary characters for the main character to talk to. What is your reason for that? What does that do for you in your games?
ST: There are kind of two reasons why I have sidekicks in my scenarios. The first is to give the main character someone to talk to. In Japanese culture, a lot of humor comes from dialogue. I’m really into humor and comedy and stuff like that, especially Manzai, so I wanted to create a sense of comedy and fun in my own games.
So I’ll have the main character and someone he or she can talk to, and they can bounce jokes off each other. The other reason is, as I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m really into mysteries when I was young, and it’s the same model as Sherlock Holmes; you have Sherlock and Dr. Watson next to him, and he’s the companion character.
When I’m writing a main character in a scenario, I want to make the main character someone the player can relate to, so a lot of the time the main character will actually say things that the player is thinking. In the sense of directing the character from a game perspective, you can use the secondary character to do that, because the main character will be like the player, while the second character will drive the main character to do something else, lead them in a certain direction, or make them think certain things.