Ni No Kuni: Wrath Of The White Witch – Behind The Scenes Interview
The golden age of Japanese RPGs – the period that stretched from Super Nintendo epics such as Chrono Trigger through to the seemingly endless gems found on the original PlayStation – sometimes seems all but a distant memory.
If more recent efforts aren’t trading all sense of wonder and whimsy for dour realism in a desperate attempt to curry favour with Western markets, they’re frequently clinging to the stuffy tropes of their forebears so stringently that they suffocate audiences with sheer gaming inertia.
Then came Ni no Kuni.
At once a love letter to classic RPGs and a pioneering effort in its own right, the game is bolstered by visuals so beautiful that your eyes will experience religious epiphanies each time you play. More than a bit pretty, then, and the game as a whole has already begun to earn rapturous review scores.
We spoke with Akihiro Hino, President and CEO of developer Level-5, to discuss the genesis of the game and collaborating with Japan’s finest animation house, Studio Ghibli, in bringing it to life.
Let’s talk about the early days of Ni no Kuni’s development – where did the idea for the game first come from?
Hino: Ni no Kuni originally began as a 10th anniversary project for LEVEL-5. We wanted to create something that we felt strongly about creatively rather than focus on how well the game would sell.
The opportunity came up to meet Toshio Suzuki, a producer at Studio Ghibli, and we asked him if they would like to create the animation for our upcoming project.
We aimed to showcase the grand world of Ni no Kuni to its fullest potential, and everyone on the staff gave the game their all, so we hope you’ll enjoy this animated film-like world.
Is there anything that stands out as being an influence on the game? Either stories or myths, or other games or anime?
Hino: We were focused mostly on conveying the Ghibli experience properly, so we researched their animated films quite thoroughly. Their films were constantly playing on the production floor.
We were determined to feel the Ghibli world in our bones rather than simply experiencing it with our eyes. It would make us very happy if our fans are able to sense the expression of Ghibli throughout the game.
The game starts in Motorville, a very romantic, nostalgic interpretation of a 1950s American city. Why start the game there, as opposed to perhaps a Japanese or European setting, and why pick that time period?
Hino: Motorville is modelled after an American town in the heyday of the auto industry during the 1950s and 60s. It made sense because the young protagonist, Oliver, is a boy interested in cars and machines.
Yoshiyuki Momose [Ni no Kuni’s Animation Director, and a veteran of Studio Ghibli who worked on classics including Grave Of The Fireflies and Pom Poko] suggested designing the clothes in a more modern fashion so that when you arrive in the other world, you get a stronger sense that you have stepped out of the familiar and into a different world.
The majority of RPG heroes seem to be teenagers or young adults, but Oliver is still a child. Why focus on such a young protagonist?
Hino: Initially, we put some thought into what type of message we would like children to take away from this game. As we brainstormed ideas on ways to express how fun it is to dream and adventure, we ultimately decided to showcase a coming of age story, and the protagonist, Oliver, was born.
Oliver travels to the other world upon hearing that his recently deceased mother can possibly be saved. At first, he is overwhelmed with the grief of losing his mother, and he’s concerned about journeying into an unknown world.
He has to face formidable enemies in battle and overcome many other challenges, but as he meets new friends who join him on his journey, and as he lends a helping hand to those in need, he gradually comes into his own.
We wanted children to empathise with Oliver’s development and independence, and we wanted adults to relive the sense of excitement and adventure they felt when they were children themselves while playing this game.
Compared to earlier Level-5 games such as Rogue Galaxy, Ni no Kuni feels much more traditional to play. At a time when a lot of developers are going towards faster, real-time games, why did you choose to stay with this classic style?
Hino: The battle is a mixture of action and command-based elements, so we can’t say that the focus was on one or the other. One of the exciting aspects of the battle system is fighting with familiars – creatures you have befriended.
The creatures ended up being so alluring, we added in action elements so they could be moved around as much as possible.
In Japan, command-based battle systems are quite mainstream and many people enjoy them, but we incorporated action elements that make for a unique battle system that we hope our overseas fans will enjoy too.
Cel-shading is a familiar sight in many of Level-5’s games, but never so well utilised as it is in Ni no Kuni. To what degree did the team have to develop new techniques for the game?
Hino: As you say, many of our previous games used the cel-shading technique as well. The objective for using it here was to enable players to adventure freely in a world that feels like part of the Studio Ghibli universe.
When thinking about the methods that would enable us to achieve this particular goal, we knew that cel-shading was the right fit. The possibility exists that we will continue to use this technique for future projects, but such styles are constantly evolving.
We hope to be able to incorporate new techniques that will enable us to create the proper tone for any particular concept.
How difficult was it to get the actual in-game animation – the characters’ movements, that is, rather than just the designs – to look and move like Studio Ghibli’s cinematic works?
Hino: We used motion capture to get some of the character movements for the event cutscenes. We then adjusted the captured data on our end in order to generate movements that look more animated.
Fundamentally, animations are a sequence of single pages that would look like a flip book if viewed manually, so we actually adjusted the movements in a way that would make them appear a little choppier.
Studio Ghibli’s Mr. Momose checked the essential movements from the storyboards, provided acting directions during the motion capture sessions, supervised the movie scenes, and extensively reviewed the content for us.
We’ve learned so much from working with him. He paid close attention to the motion of walking and running. We adjusted those movements countless times to ensure that they appeared both anime-like and natural since they appear most frequently in the game.
Given Ni no Kuni was released in November 2011 in Japan, has there been anything you’ve wanted to add, change or improve for the game looking back on it a year later?
Hino: We were very satisfied with the finish on the Japanese version since we did everything we could. We delved into the production of the overseas version with the same level of determination so we really hope our fans are looking forward to the game.
Are there any plans for further Ni no Kuni adventures? Under ideal circumstances, what would you like to do next with the series?
There are no plans to date, but if we were to create a sequel, it might be interesting to create a Ni no Kuni with an adult protagonist.
Ni No Kuni: Wrath Of The White Witch is released February 1st and NowGamer’s review is already live.