Too Kyo, Too Crazy: An Interview with Kotaro Uchikoshi
The Zero Escape and AI: Somnium Files creator talks to Gamereactor about his creative process and reflects about philosophical topics such as humanity's balance between emotion & logic.
With branching narrative-driven games proliferating in the West with titles big and small trying new takes on the genre, and with one of its best representatives in Japan now opening up to new types of games and styles, we thought it was the best time to approach Mr Kotaro Uchikoshi, who is best known for the Zero Escape trilogy and last year's excellent AI: The Somnium Files.
Even though the latter game changes in tone at first, the premise is as similar as it is captivating: both are murder mysteries with masterfully-written branching stories. Visual novels at heart, but filled with interesting (sometimes obscure) puzzles, Uchikoshi's scenarios put a varied cast of characters against a looming backdrop where death is always just around the corner. However, it's the writer's successful introduction of philosophical, scientific, and sci-fi topics that makes players think outside the box for an even more engaging experience.
We at Gamereactor are thankful Uchikoshi-san took the time amidst the COVID quarantine and from his über-tight schedule at Too Kyo Games (a pun between Tokyo and too "crazy" in Japanese) to answer some deeper questions we couldn't possibly have asked during our shorter, event-based encounters. Fans will for sure identify his peculiar sense of humour and style of writing within the answers below.
★ With such complex stories, how do you work on keeping inconsistencies at bay? Your events/facts diagrams and your flow charts must be spiderweb-like sights to behold, would you like to share an example with fans? And how do you document introducing so many references to real-life science, philosophy, or psychology in a fitting way?
Since I don't have a good memory, first of all, I start making various materials. For example, it could be a flow chart, chronology, character settings, and a list of stage settings. The rest is just memo writing, but there are enormous memos like a "don't forget milk and eggs". While going back and forth between these materials, I do write a scenario. Basically, half of the time I spend for writing a scenario is "search". Of course, "search" includes searching the web and for erotic sites, but it is the confirmation of these materials and the full search for the scenario files I have written. I read articles about "Life science, philosophy, psychology, etc." in books and online, and if there is an interesting (intriguing) description, I make a note of it. When I make a new title, I pick up the things I could use and the ones I want to use from the memo and apply to the appropriate place.
★ One of the most emotionally-touching storylines within AI: The Somnium Files is that of Mayumi Matsushita, where you explore her dementia dream world in a very respectful way (it moved me personally as my grandma suffered from Alzheimer's). Hellblade, another recent release, also dealt with psychosis in a unique way. Do you think creators and audiences are now more ready to see mental health issues better represented in interactive entertainment? What's the benefit and how would you like to explore minds next?
"Don't you think that it would be nice to have video games like the movies of Kubrick, David Lynch, Ozu Yasujiro? "
These things are expressed in novels, manga, movies, and Netflix frequently, therefore, I don't think I've done anything special. It rather is unnatural for traditional video games to avoid such delicate problems. There are many problems in the world, not only mental health, but also gender, race, religion, drugs, abuse, etc. It may be necessary for future video games to present how to deal with these. I love games like shooting enemies on the battlefield and blasting zombie heads at police stations; separately from that, I feel like the video games that are more static and heartrending need to be increasing, and also I think it should be. Don't you think that it would be nice to have video games like the movies of Kubrick, David Lynch, Ozu Yasujiro?
★ For someone who's that much into branching narrative, cause and effect, or parallel universes, does this recurrent topic affect you in your everyday life in any way? As in, thinking twice before making a decision, overthinking "if I do this then perhaps that", or imagining what could be happening to other-selves of yours in other timelines?
Well, I feel like that; people who are making adventure games with branching storylines more or less are looking at the world from the angle of "multiverse" (the many-worlds interpretation). For example, regarding the issue of coronavirus in Japan, people have been discussing what if "it was better to declare a state of emergency earlier?", but when making adventure games with branching storylines, sometimes I realise the barrenness of thinking about such an "if".
Human beings don't always decide things on their own. For example, when you pick up a coffee cup, that is not the action on your own? You don't think hard to try to grab a coffee cup. It should be done unconsciously. When a person wants to do something, the brain has started its activity before that. That is called "readiness potential". Therefore, if you woo a woman at the bar and are rejected, you don't need to get down. Because you are not the one rejected, someone else inside you is.
★ How do you go about constructing a good ending? With grand finales criticised in Game of Thrones and Star Wars, what's the secret behind building up for a great ending... and then delivering and leaving players fully satisfied?
As the project grows, the number of people who interfere in the scenario is increasing according to the budget. That should be it. In a sense it is natural. The side of investing never wants to fail. The more budget you have, the more risk of failure increases, and various people make demands on the production. As a result, like a stone rolling down a river, the edges of the work get rounded off, and it becomes totally boring.
Whether the ending of AI is great or not, it's up to the player to decide, but considered objectively, if there is a secret, I think it is "do not succumb to extensive power".
"I really want other languages to be localised, but it would be up to fans to make it possible. Thank you for your support"
★ Your stories are deep and complex, with varied characters dealing with tricky sci-fi and philosophical topics, and that's why the translation of your games must be as good as it must be difficult to produce. Sadly, in Spain and many other territories, these stories end up being way less-known or fly under most peoples' radars because of the English-only translation. While keeping in mind the obvious difficulty of these localisations, and with recent Japanese examples such as Persona 5 Royal, Judgment, or Sakura Wars being finally localised to more languages, can you see your games at last reaching a way broader audience in the near future? Do you think publishing partners will be more open to that?
Actually, localisation is not as easy as you think. Just adding one language will cost you a blast. Localisation is not just simply a translation. It's something that can't be done without the involvement of many people, such as those who work for programming to respond to the language, debug, and management of these things. It costs a lot, therefore unless a publisher can expect to outweigh the benefit of localisation expenses, they don't try to localise the language. I really want Spanish and other languages to be localised, but it would be up to fans to make it possible. Thank you for your support.
★ You've worked on The Girl in Twilight anime and now Too Kyo Games is working on both anime (Akudama Drive) and full-motion video projects (Death Come True). Was the creation of the new studio a means to being more able to challenge yourselves with new media? What can fans expect of those projects?
Although Tookyo Games is named "Games", to some extent, it's a studio that has been established with the purpose of providing content to the diversified media as the main axis of video games. So, we'll do whatever project looks interesting, not only games, but also animation, live-action, stage, manga, novels, adult video, and so on. I think all the products we have been working on will please fans. Please look forward to it!
★ When you recently joined forces with Danganronpa creator Mr Kazutaka Kodaka to create Too Kyo Games, your respective fans rejoiced and dreamed of a potential definitive game scenario by Kodaka-san and Uchikoshi-san together. When will that dream game come true?
Thank you! I shared a bed with Kodaka last night, so after 9 months I think I will have a child.
★ Speaking about collaborations, by playing your games and reading your stories we imagined some of the scenarios and characters fittingly crossing over with the ideas by other Japanese creators such as No More Heroes' Goichi Suda or Ace Attorney's Shu Takumi. Have you ever considered or hoped to do such collaborations with these or other creators?
That sounds interesting! I would say Japanese creator Yoko Taro, and international creator David Cage, but the collaboration means that I want to appear myself on their games as a character of Uchikoshi.
★ Zero Escape: The Nonary Games trilogy released on PC and PlayStation. With AI: The Somnium Files being so popular on the Nintendo Switch and the console allowing for TV and handheld play, and with 999 and Virtue's Last Reward releasing on Nintendo DS and 3DS respectively, do you think the trilogy has any chance of releasing on the Switch?
I hope that happens!
★ One thing we love about your games is how, as seen in Virtue's Last Reward or AI: The Somnium Files, there's a sci-fi 'reason' behind the player character's amazing ability to jump between timelines/universes. With this player agency and the scientific background you provide to make it possible or more believable, are video games the best way to tell your stories?
Of course, games have the highest affinity, but I think if we devise, it would be possible to be compatible with any media. Death Come True by Kodaka is one example. This is also very interesting, so please look forward to it!
"I think the society has been starting to prioritise emotion over logic (...) I'm already exhausted by the existence of 'humans'"
★ With recent successful examples such as the more intimate vision of Life is Strange or the movie-like production values of Detroit: Become Human, what do you think about the current approach in the West when it comes to branching narrative-driven games? Are those styles something you would like to try out yourself?
I honestly envy these titles. Of course I want to make video games like that, but it's like when a poor baseball kid admires a major-league baseball player. It's a dream story for a creator like me who is unsuccessful, has no talent and has aged wastefully, probably I will never reach the level for the rest of my life. I just try to make video games silently and solemnly that fans can enjoy. I'm honoured to be interviewed by Gamereactor and I'm tearing up. I'm thankful for you.
★ Conspiracies and secret organisations are also recurrent topics in your games. Have you recently been inspired by crazy movements such as Flat Earthers, climate change deniers, or perhaps hardcore fans turned review bombers?
I'd rather say recently I've been more tired of the existence of human beings than inspired. What the Flat Earth (I think it's almost a joke like Flying Spaghetti Monster) and harsh criticism by hardcore fans have in common is that the logic does not work, therefore, I think I feel something like a sense of futility, fatigue, and exhaustion. Once upon a time there was power in "the ethically right thing", but now I think the society has been starting to prioritize emotion over logic. Of course, emotion is important, but I would say that the balance is lost. Society where ethics don't work, I wonder whether it's meaningful to weave words or not. What do you guys think? Anyway, as I'm already exhausted by the existence of "humans", I want to live a quiet life someday in the remote mountain while drinking three gallons of Tequila every day with dogs and cats surrounded by beautiful girls in VR; however, it's still a long way off. For a while, I will keep making things at Too Kyo Games. Please look forward to the interesting works. I would like to thank you for your continued support.