Sine Mora – Shooting Gameside Interview
with Theodore Reiker of Digital Reality
Interview by Yamoto Shinichi
—The gameplay system in Sine Mora revolves around the use of time: rewinding time, slowing down enemies, and extending your time limit by killing enemies. This system is combined with a story about time itself. Where did the idea for that fusion come from? Did you have the idea for the story first, or the system?
Carax 95, an inspiration for Sine Mora.
Reiker: The system came first. For the idea of a game based around extending your time, we were influenced by an old Japanese doujin Galaga clone, Carax. It added a fresh, unique flow to Galaga, and we thought we could use a system like that in a hori STG. To that basic system we then added the ability to manipulate time. At the same time we started thinking about the world of Sine Mora and the heroes’ backstories. When I was young I saw the film Wings of Honneamise, and I was deeply impressed by its wonderful world and the creator’s loving attention to detail. I wanted to create a game that could be meaningful, too. I wanted the game to be like a well-written science fiction story, where both the game world and the game system, acting in tandem, would tell the story.
—What made you decide to create Sine Mora as a horizontal STG, as opposed to some other genre?
Reiker: At first we wanted to make an arcade version of Sine Mora too. However, after careful consideration and research, we decided to make it only for console. For creating a STG, The current generation of console hardware is very powerful: HD graphics, 3D surround sound, online replays, and there’s even support for 3D displays now. To take advantage of these abilities, as well as the most widely used display form (16:9 widescreen), we made Sine Mora a horizontal rather than vertical STG.
Regarding the production itself, Sine Mora is the first game I’ve directed. Before I got involved in game design I worked in business research and development. In 2009, when Digital Reality established its publishing division, I was introduced to someone from Grasshopper Manufacture by Risa Cohen, who was involved with Shadows of the Damned at EA. Our company was searching for a quality game to add to our portfolio, and we were also interested in digital distribution. But for me personally, more than a simple business opportunity, it was the chance of a lifetime to create a game with a legend in the gaming industry.
So I left my position (in business R&D) and created the core team for this project. They’re all veterans with a great passion and zeal for this project, and they too had long dreamed of creating a STG. I added my personal experience to this recipe and our “trojan horse” development began; our goal was to bring the dying STG genre and its splendors to a wider audience.
—In Sine Mora, you don’t have the standard STG system where getting shot once==death. What was the reasoning behind that choice?
Reiker: We had two simultaneous goals for Sine Mora: creating a STG that would be deep and involving, and also creating a play experience that would be fun but different from other games. The time extension system served as the base from which many of our other ideas flowed. We also wanted to distance ourselves from the trend toward danmaku games and make a game that would appeal to a wider audience. Over the last 10 years Cave has pretty much perfected that subgenre, and we felt it would be suicide to try and challenge their dominance there. STG games today are synonymous with danmaku, and that’s all thanks to the incredible passion of Cave.
Therefore, we decided to make a classic STG different from the danmaku style. We think its equally difficult (in a different sense), while also not scaring off new players with intense danmaku patterns. I think there’s still a lot of room in STGs for new possibilities and ideas. In our system, you can take more hits before dying than traditionally allowed, so its a much easier game to get into. I think this system will allow more players to get hooked on the genre.
—Yeah, the fierce bullet curtains and instant death attacks can make STG look quite intimidating.
Reiker: Yeah, it does, doesn’t it? Sine Mora’s story mode was designed to be easy, where anyone could play it and experience the enjoyment of STG. I think it would have been very wrong to have made that too hard. But, yes, since STG players love the difficulty, we made the arcade mode hard. As a genre, STG is focused on player skills. So trying to make an “easy” arcade mode would have been pointless really. The true joy of STG comes from overcoming challenges, after all.
—The graphics in Sine Mora are very beautiful, and the retro-future mecha design is also very impressive. Please share any difficulities you had in terms of the art design and graphics.
Reiker: Thank you very much! The audio and visual work was done by Grasshopper Manufacture, and we’re very grateful for their wonderful work. We originally wanted to create something that more closely resembled Raizing’s Battle Garegga, but Grasshopper convinced us to choose a style that would better support the dark, serious story. We then decided on a presentation that would be similar to Studio Ghibli’s vivid color and animation style. Also, we were very honored to have Mahiro Maeda, one of Japan’s foremost anime creators, as a guest artist. In the west he’s known for creating the Second Renassaince portion of The Animatrix, as well as Kill Bill’s anime section. Of course he’s famous in Japan as a director. For Sine Mora, he designed 3 of the bosses: Steropes, Palladion, and the huge zeppelin in the Tira stage.
When the actual development began, we were amazed at the quality of the concept art Grasshopper Manufacture had given us, and we wanted to recreate it for the game as accurately as possible. Luckily, almost all our design issues were worked out in the initial planning stage. Using a simple grey box demo level, we pointed out the significant structures and elements which the artists would need to create. The concept artists in Tokyo did the coloring for these key frames beforehand.
The greatest challenge was the 3D presentation, especially with bullet trajectories. Sine Mora is entirely in 3D, and we wanted to make full use of stereoscopic 3D rendering. When you force a 2D game into 3D, there’s the possibility for many problems. So 2D games that want to look 3D often use “2.5D.” One of the most important things we learned in development was how difficult it was to insert a 2D object in a 3D space, in such a way that the player knows it is part of the gameplay.
In many of the boss battles, we encountered a strange problem; that is, when the bosses actually entered the play area, the difference in scale was too big and it was confusing. So to blend the actual game elements and non-interactive cinematic elements together, we used some tricks. In many cases, we placed the bosses several hundred meters away from the background scenery, rendered the bosses’ bullet trajectories on the same plane as the player, and avoided things like lengthy graphics fx and warping particle fx. I don’t think players would notice these tricks outside of the stereoscopic mode. When you play on a 3DTV, the bullets are all rendered on a separate plane above everything. Before seeing it in action, this was my biggest worry. But it actually looks quite good, natural, and is suprisingly easy to play.
—I was impressed by the Domus boss fight among the huge buildings, and the Libelle boss that looks like a combination of a giant mech and living creature… the artwork and the setpieces for the boss battles are very elaborate.
Reiker: Our studio had never made a STG before, so we really struggled with that first boss fight with Kolobok (the huge guardian from the Moneta Point level). He doesn’t just throw out a variety of bullet patterns and attacks, he also moves around as if he were alive. Blending the various animations together for those organic movements was very difficult. In contrast, the factory spider boss Tsuchigumo was the last boss we created, and it took far less time. Kolobok took about a month, but Tsuchigumo, including all his attacks, took us only a week.
—Please share how you came up with Sine Mora’s story, which features tyranny, revenge, and other very dark themes.
Reiker: The main theme for our story is fighting against time. The time we humans can spend on Earth is limited. During our period of existence, we’re constantly confronted with certain important questions: “Am I making good use of my time? What if I don’t spend enough time with my family and children? Must I respect the time that went into the legacies of my father and forebears? How do time and trends influence our morals and actions? Aren’t so many of our beliefs shaped by the place and time we live in?” …and so on.
The actual story comes from a dilemma I was experiencing myself. To me, Sine Mora meant “the chance to create a game in a genre I love”, but on a deeper level, it meant working together with a country I deeply admire and respect, one whose history and culture is steeped in games. It was also a chance for me to share the doubts I had with others.
—The geometry of the danmaku patterns is beautiful, and they’re quite varied. Please share your design concept for the bullet patterns.
Reiker: Thank you. It makes me very happy to hear that you like the bullet patterns! To be honest, we don’t consider our game to be a danmaku game. Of course, since we love Cave’s games and design, there’s definitely that influence, and maybe its impossible to avoid the comparison. Our bullet patterns are a mix of the style and design of Raizing and Seibu Kaihatsu. We did a lot of experimenting with the bullet pattern designs. Our planner would come up with all sorts of interesting ideas, then we’d test them out in the game.
Naturally, Sine Mora was influenced by all the STGs we’ve played before, and those we played during development. As a result the bullet pattern style is mixed, and I hope players find it interesting and original.
—Which STGs you were inspired by?
Reiker: Probably the biggest influences are Einhander, Under Defeat, and Shinobu Yagawa’s legendary Battle Garegga. From Battle Garegga we took the score and rank system, as well as the dark theme and dieselpunk setting. Einhander is not a danmaku game, but is open even to casual gamers, and it made highly effective use of 3D. So that was very important. Finally, Under Defeat was an inspiration with its incredible attention to detail.
And there’s many other minor influences in the game, like Progear no Arashi, the Gradius series, Steel Empire, G Darius, R-Type…
—Please give a final message to our readers.
Reiker: I am very honored to have had the chance to work with Grasshopper Manufacture. They are a very open company that allows a lot of freedom, and they excel in creating entertainment that will appeal to players outside of Japan. Thanks to them, I was able to express my respect for the Japanese STGs that inspired me as a child. With this joint development, we were able to share our part of the world with Japanese players, too. I hope others will find this journey interesting and valuable!