Wonder Project J2 – 1995 Developer Interview

Wonder Project J2 – 1995 Developer Interview

These two Dengeki SFC interviews cover the making of Wonder Project J2, the sequel to Almanac / Givro & Enix’s hit “communication adventure” game and one of only two Enix-published games published for the Nintendo 64. Producer Hiroki Fujimoto and director / writer Takashi Yoneda discuss their endeavors to offer more nuanced guidance and interaction with the games’ primary characters and J2’s voluminous, high-quality 2D animation.

Hiroki Fujimoto – Producer. Joined Enix in 1992. After working as an assistant producer on 46 Okunen Monogatari, he also helped with the overseas release. His other credits at Enix include Just Breed, Mystic Ark, Star Ocean, and Terranigma.

—First off, tell us what led to the making of the prequel, Wonder Project J?

Fujimoto: My major premise was wanting to make something that had never been seen before, something brand new. I believed that communication would be an interesting theme to explore. We had an idea to create a game which would feature a subtle, intricate level of communication between the player and the on-screen characters. That’s how Wonder Project J was born.

At first, the game was about you caring for and raising this mysterious creature, but that ended up becoming a boy, since we thought a human would be more lively and engaging, and ultimately it became a mechanical boy. Comical animations, like getting hit on the head and having his eyes pop out, would be more acceptable if he was a robot, you see. (laughs)

—When did you decide you’d make a sequel?

Fujimoto: The first game was released in December two years ago, but we were already talking about a sequel then. Plus, we’d gone to the trouble of creating this fresh new gameplay system, and we thought it would be a waste to only use it in one game. Getting players on-board with this kind of a game was itself a big step, so we wanted to make something more refined next time, and decided to further pursue that important theme of communication.

Hiroki Fujimoto (1995)

—Was there a reason you chose the N64 for WPJ2?

Fujimoto: We started planning the sequel right around the time the Playstation and Saturn were released, so going ahead with the Super Famicom again would have been harsh, when you consider when the game would actually come out. On top of that, the developers always like taking on new challenges, so we decided to go with one of the next-gen consoles.

That being the case, rather than one of the already-released systems like the PS1 or Saturn, we ended up going with Nintendo’s new 64-bit hardware which wasn’t out yet. At the time, however, we didn’t know anything about the N64’s actual specs, including whether it would use cartridges or CD-ROMs. (laughs)

—What do you feel the defining feature of WPJ2 is?

Fujimoto: We poured the most effort into the artificially constructed personalities of the characters, and the verbal communication. Last game, the character behavior was determined by internal parameters only, but this time the characters have personalities, so it’s not just about the stats anymore. How you communicate with the characters will cause them to have different information available to them, and that combined with their personalities, results in different behaviors.

In other words, it’s no longer the case that having a strength above 80 will automatically make that character be into sports. Even with those raw stats, whether that kid actually enjoys sports or not will depend on your verbal communication with them. It’s possible they won’t like it if you don’t give them the right words and encouragement.

—So what do you mean exactly when you say verbal communication?

Fujimoto: When the girl asks you a question, the player has the option to respond in one of three ways: positively, negatively, or to ignore it. These choices are routed to three buttons on the controller. Originally, we wanted to have specific dialogue options that you’d select from a list, but we thought the player might feel frustrated if what they wanted to say wasn’t on that list.

In Dragon Quest, for example, the protagonist never speaks. I think that was done as a way to address the fact that each player will think something different.

That’s also why we chose to assign those feelings to the three different buttons; two players who press the same button can still have their own individual conception about what that means. Furthemore, in order to make it feel more true-to-life, we added that “vague” option, a response that is neither clearly affirmative nor negative. It’s kind of like the vague interjections people make in conversations: “uh huh”, “right”, “i see”… things that don’t really mean much on their own. It adds nuance.

—Why did you make the character a girl this time?

Fujimoto: Boys are more straightforward in expressing their feelings, and in contrast, with girls, there’s an element of not quite being sure what they’re thinking. We wanted to depict those kinds of subtleties in greater detail in this game, so we made the character a girl. We also got a lot of feedback, from both players and our staff, that a girl would be good. (laughs)

Wonder Project J2’s detailed 2D animation went unrivaled among Nintendo 64 software and unmatched by most contemporaneous CD-format games, too.

—It looks like you also undertook the challenge of full animation for this sequel, too.

Fujimoto: Yeah. The methods are probably different so a simple comparison may not possible, but the number of animation frames we created for a single character’s actions was equivalent to or beyond what an animation studio would do. Taken together, I think we animated the equivalent of a 30-minute anime episode.

—Are there any connections between WPJ and WPJ2?

Fujimoto: There are. The inventor Gepetto created both Josetto and Pino, so they’re sort of like siblings. WPJ2 takes place 15 years after the first game, so there’s been a number of changes, but the events take place in the same world. There are some other significant links between the games, but I think you’ll discover them in due course as you play.

—This is the first fully 2D game on the N64.

Fujimoto: In some ways, it’s harder to use 2D on the N64. However, it’s a machine capable of far more beautiful graphics compared to other hardware, so we tried to give it our all. In actuality I think it’s going to exceed my expectations, so I’m very satisfied with the choice.

—How has the sound changed, with the switch to the N64?

Fujimoto: With cartridges you’ve got memory issues, of course. To be honest with you, at this point the sound isn’t all that different from the Super Famicom. Still, we’re now starting to get some sounds that would have been unthinkable at the time of the SFC release, so I think it will continue to evolve from here.

—I felt that the previous game had a relatively straightforward, linear story, but how is this one shaping up?

Fujimoto: For the first game it was important that players understood the new game systems. If your system is new and has a lot of freedom, players can easily become lost, so we added a story to help guide players. It appears there were some people who feel it was too restrictive, but if we’d made it more open-ended it probably would have turned into a game no one could play. (laughs) The story feeling linear, too, is because there’s a set path the player should take.

In the last game, in other words, there were strict conditions—like if there was an enemy you wanted to defeat, your character had to have a combative personality or it was impossible. For WPJ2, we’ve done away with that, and I think players will be able to enjoy the game as they see fit.

—I’ve heard WPJ2’s story is something of a swashbuckling adventure, too…

Fujimoto: You know, I think it’s mainly kids who are the ones playing video games. When you ask yourself what kinds of stories kids like, I think adventures are the best. Since the last game had a more heartwarming story, and for the sake of variety too, we went in an adventure direction this time. Being an adventure, of course, with regard to the combat scenes, we plan to have more elements than just fighting available. We’re also thinking about a scene where you fly around in a polygonal-airship, and potentially including dungeons, too.

The original design sketch for Josette’s distinctive over-sized clothespin hair ties, as taken from the Wonder Project J2 Fan Book; these accessories were added as part of the tenth design draft, at the suggestion of the wife of character designer Akihiko Yamashita. Incidentally, Yamashita would reuse this distinctive accoutrement when designing the lead character for the Studio Ghibli film The Secret World of Arietty (2010).

—Any other notable differences from WPJ1?

Fujimoto: In the last game, the main character Pino had a few facial expressions, but he mostly expressed himself via actions. This time we’ve got a richer variety of facial and emotional expressions, and gestures too. I think it will help the characters to feel more alive.

—There’s lots of items too.

Fujimoto: The first game only had story-related items, but since communication is such an important element of WPJ2, we’ve added items that don’t have a story-specific purpose. We’re currently brainstorming different events that would be connected to the items. We want players to feel free to experiment and enjoy Josette’s reactions.

—Does time pass in the game?

Fujimoto: You can advance the day by going to sleep, but there’s no penalty or time limits or anything for letting time pass. We’ve had some ideas, like having the characters’ moods or condition be good or bad depending on the day, or making it so players are encouraged to see how few days they can complete it in, but as of yet, none of those have actually been implemented.

—Please give a final message for players.

Fujimoto: We’ve created a game where you can feel like you’re really communicating with the robot girl inside your screen. I hope you’ll play WPJ2 and experience this strange, unusual sensation for yourself!

Wonder Project J2 – Post-Release 1996 Developer Interview

originally featured in Dengeki SFC

Takashi Yoneda – Designer. CEO of Givro. Directed 46 Okunen Monogtari, E.V.O.: Search for Eden, and Wonder Project J. Also worked on Actraiser.

—You’re always coming up with fresh new ideas and translating those into video games. What’s your secret?

Yoneda: We created Givro for the express purpose of challenging ourselves with new things, and so with WPJ2 too, we were consciously trying to include new ideas. However, whether those ideas can be turned into an actual commercial game is a deeper question, and one which involves the entire development staff. New ideas alone do not create games; you must reach a mutual understanding between the programmers, designers, producers, and the entire staff. On that point, Enix fully understood that this was a joint production, and freely shared their opinions with us (in a positive way, I mean), which made it all go easily.

—Did the WPJ2 development progress smoothly then?

Yoneda: It was our first time working with the N64 hardware, so there were a lot of difficulties there. But I think we achieved about 80% of what we first imagined. For that last 20%, I admit that personally, at least, I did want a bit more time to tinker with some of the fine details. It’s not like anything came out particularly bad or anything, though, and ultimately, who knows if my tinkering would have actually improved the game or not…

I really think the gameplay system of Wonder Project J is one that will continue to evolve. If we do make a J3, I think we can make Pino and Josette even more human and lifelike.

But the question of what makes something “human” is a difficult one. It’s not simply about adding more data and more detailed reactions for the characters. To a certain extent, players’ imaginations will be more stimulated if you include the unfathomable, the uncertain, and an element of randomness, and this is somehow connected to that feeling of something being lifelike.

Hiroki Fujimoto (left) and Takashi Yoneda (right)

—What were you trying to make when you made WPJ2?

Yoneda: There’s nothing else out there that directly compares, so it’s easy to think of it as an ikusei game (raising/caring game, usually translated as “life simulation” in English). But what I was aiming for, was having a character with a will and mind of their own, and as you move her around and interact with her, and solve problems together, doing all that would suffice to make an enjoyable game by itself. Then I thought it would be neat if, as you’re playing, and your mind wanders back to your own life and self, if the events of the game and the game world had a kind of feedback effect on your real life. That’s why I encourage players not to just try and reach the ending, but to experience and see as much of the character dialogue and behavior as they can.

Finally, for me personally, the final line of dialogue in the ending really encapsulates all my myriad feelings about the game. I’m very curious about how many people will understand it.

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