Zone of the Enders: 2nd Runner – 2003 Interview

Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner – 2003 Developer Interview

These lengthy Zone of Enders: The 2nd Runner (called Anubis in Japan) interviews were originally featured in the 1998 jp artbook Visual Works of Anubis. It features a detailed account of the development as told by director Shuyo Murata, producer Hideo Kojima, and character designers Tsubasa Masao and Kazuma Kaneko. A good deal of time is spent talking about the creative conflicts.

Shuyo Murata, director

—How did you find yourself in the director’s chair for Zone of Enders: Anubis?

Murata: During the development of the first Zone of Enders I was working on something else. Although I had no direct connection to the development, director Noriaka Okamura used to say to me “I don’t have the time to get this scenario finished.” Directors, you see, must do more than oversee the actual game development; they do a little bit of everything, attending to whatever needs attending to. They’re really pulled in a million directions. As such, Okamura didn’t have time to finish the scenarios, and after some back and forth with him, I was given the task of shoring up any scenes and dialogue that might be lacking, and connecting all the disparate fragments of the story.

Some time passed, and they realized there was no one yet assigned to the task of overseeing the final product of the CG rendered movies—basically, a rendering director. Since I understood the ins and outs of the story, and had made some films myself in my student days, they said “Murata, you do it.” (laughs)

—You make it sound like they just looked around for the guy with nothing in his hands. (laughs)

Murata: There was probably that. I joined Konami to work in the planning department, and had the circumstances been different I doubt I would have been given the opportunity to work with camera, lighting, and other things that are usually the domain of specialists. It was a good experience for me, and a lot of fun too.

After that, when the Zone of Enders 2 development began, the planners came to me with the finished story. Since I had some experience with directing and visual presentation, I was chose to be the director.

Shuyo Murata

—What kind of work did you originally want to do when you joined Konami?

Murata: I wanted to do game design, so planning and directing. When I was a student I made my own films, and I also had ambitions then about going to Hollywood and becoming a director. I had a friend who I had made movies with, and who had actually gone overseas to study abroad at film school. Unfortunately, most of what he had to tell me was bad news: that Industrial Light and Magic were only hiring one person this year, and that foreigners didn’t have much of a chance. It was all pretty grim news, and although I thought about the option of going and giving it my best shot, I concluded that staying and working in Japan was the better bet.

I met with someone from a movie production company in Japan. But I felt that the films I had made didn’t quite match their sensibilities. It was your traditional hierarchical company, and there were a lot of older people working there. In independent films there’s the idea that you can do “whatever you want”, and when I looked to the game industry, I sensed a similar mentality there.

—Yeah, there is a lot of freedom in games. You can have a game where the story coexists with the gameplay elements (as in Anubis), but there’s also the opposite, games that are pure puzzlers with no cinematic narrative elements.

Murata: I’ve never made a puzzle game yet, but I imagine it would be interesting. However, the personal skills I’ve cultivated lie in dramatic narrative—that’s the best way for me to express my ideas and contribute to a good game. Without those skills I probably wouldn’t have been given this work.

—Since joining Konami, your profile shows an impressive amount of script/story credits.

Murata: Yeah. When I joined Konami they were right in the middle of making Tokimeki Memorial, and I was assigned to work under the executive producer. That person went on to become the President of Konami’s music production subsidiary, KME, and he invited me to join him there. The “Motto! Tokimeki Memorial” drama cd series had just been released, and they were selling 20-30k copies a month. So in addition to their music production work, KME was also making radio dramas and drama cds at the same time.

—Sounds like you dived headfirst into the Otaku Wonderland.

Murata: Yeah, the genre might have changed, but an otaku is an otaku is an otaku. (laughs)

Before I joined KME (and after I left), those drama cd scripts were being handled by an outside contractor, but I heard they weren’t very good, so I was given a chance to try writing a plot for one of them. I had been used to writing screenplays and the like since my student days, and as I wrote out the plot I started to feel like I could finish the whole thing myself!

The Tokimeki Memorial drama cd series that Murata worked on.

What I learned the most from my time at KME, however, was the way music works in a scene. Before I actually tried my hand at it, my image of drama cds was pretty simplistic: a bunch of talking with music recorded on top. I was surprised to learn there was actually quite a bit more artistry involved than that. It taught me how much you can do with music alone. When I made my own films I used 8mm film, which has only two very thin tracks of film and awful sound quality.

As a result, although I learned the ins and outs of editing, I never paid a lot of concern to the sound side. I’ve always had the sense, therefore, that I’m not good with sound, but working at KME on the drama cds largely erased that impression and gave me confidence there.

—Japanese drama cds have their roots in radio dramas, as you know. After the war, radio dramas arose as a way to reach mothers working in the kitchen, whose hands and eyes were otherwise occupied. I think that legacy lives on in tv dorama, where great importance is placed on dialogue and speech. Do you think that fact that you had all these experiences with some very basic elements of drama has made your work with game scriptwriting easier?

Murata: Maybe so. Story games do require dialogue; if you try to have cinematics for everything, it will take up way too much space. That’s why you have movies for the important parts, but the background of the story is mostly conveyed through dialogue.

—Your job on Zone of Enders was fusing the story and game together into one experience. That’s the most challenging part of game development, isn’t it?

Murata: Yeah. In the original Zone of Enders, the two sides (story and game) worked in parallel, but didn’t really see each other: the game system was created through trial-and-error experimentation, while the story gradually took shape independently.

When both sides were finished and we put the two halves together there were some subtle discrepancies. The story was a tearjerker, but the gameplay was light, casual action. I actually wrote the blurb on the package for the “Playstation 2: The Best – Zone of Enders” version, which said something like: “A moving drama about two characters meeting in the midst of wartime.” The tagline of the game, however, was “Fun Robot Action!” Something about those two didn’t quite match… (laughs)

Therefore, when it came time to talk about what the sequel should be like, the first thing everyone said was “Let’s do something about all these parts in ZoE that didn’t really blend together.” I understood that the appeal of the first game lied in how its core gameplay just felt good. However, a game is more than just gameplay, and the big thing for me was how to connect that up with a story. It would be boring to just do the same thing again; I wanted to make a game where the action setpieces were propelled by the story, which would also help make the action itself more meaningful. That totality, or cohesion, was very important to me.

In film too, sometimes an actor’s performance is great but the movie itself is horrible. Like a lot of Marlon Brando movies. (laughs) I think it's the same with games: if just one part is good, but the totality isn’t, the game may end up being regarded as a “kuso” (crap) game. As such, we were all in agreement that the game should be unified in story and gameplay.

Character designer Tsubasa Masao’s early concept art for Zone of Enders: Anubis.

—It sounds like, for your part, the Zone of Enders 2 development began with you getting a clear handle on what did work and what didn’t, and trying to restore the balance between the story and gameplay.

Murata: Yeah. And that’s really the advantage of doing a sequel: you already have an overview of what the basic gameplay system will be, so you can focus on creating a story and drama to suit. However, Hideo Kojima approached me and gave me some advice. He said that regardless of how well the previous game sold, or how much praise it received, I should have a critical mindset about it and consider it as rough and incomplete. “It won’t turn out well if you just do what the prequel did.”

That was his advice, and it was very true. I also had my own strong desire to do things my way. And I figured that if I wanted to keep directing games in the future, then I needed to add some of my own color and personality to Zone of Enders—even if just a little.

—I see. The first game used 3D CG seamlessly, eliminating the distinction between “movie” parts and “gameplay” parts. For Anubis, however, you separated them again into 2D story cutscenes and 3D CG robot gameplay. Did it take a lot of bravery to make that change?

Murata: I think rather than separate them, what happened is that the CG became more anime-ish. That was one of our starting points for the development, too. Both games were being released on the same hardware, the PS2—and it had been a number of years since the first game. Nevertheless, one of our design goals was to make this look like a next generation game, like something you’d see on the “PS3”, if it existed. We wanted the visuals to have that impact, where no matter where you saw the game—be it in a magazine ad or in a store—it would grab your attention and be immediately recognizable as the “Zone of Enders” universe.

That’s why I wanted everything to be consistently cel-shaded… 3D, but with an anime look. Of course, cel-shading isn’t rare nowadays. But by using hand-drawn backgrounds and cel-backlighting effects,1 we were going for that “japanese animation” look, something a little different than the way cel-shading has been used so far.

—The animation is very impressive. The result compares favorably even with the likes of Metal Gear Solid, I think.

Murata: That was something I personally really wanted for Anubis, too. Metal Gear has a number of theatrical, set-piece scenes, and I thought if I could capture the power of those scenes and maintain that energy through an entire game, it would be amazing. Metal Gear taught me a lot about the hardware specs and technical side of what was possible on the PS2. I thought I’d be able to make a very powerful game, with an epic sense of scale, if I took the realism that Metal Gear Solid pursued but spun it in a more theatrical direction.

—When you were thinking about the visual direction to take Anubis in, were there other works you drew inspiration from?

Murata: I know it sounds obvious, but for much of the first part of the development it was Ghost in the Shell.

Once it was decided that we’d try to use the cel-shading to make an anime-style game, the staff came back to me saying, “well, we know you said ‘anime’, but there’s lots of different kinds of anime…” They couldn’t reach a consensus on which specific direction to go in. When I tried thinking about what “anime” meant to me, I remembered sitting in the aisle of the movie theatre to watch stuff like Space Battleship Yamato and the Genma Taisen movie. I loved the atmosphere of those 80s anime movies like The Dagger of Kamui, with their dark tone, dramatic cel backlighting effects, and the epic scale of their visuals. It was the look of the movies from that era which constituted “anime” to me.

So I went back to the team again and said, “Ok, let’s make it like an anime movie!” To which they again replied, “well, we know you said ‘anime movie’, but there’s lots of different kinds of anime movies…” (laughs) The most recent example I could think of that had moved me was Ghost in the Shell, which of course more people on the team were likely to know than Genma Taisen, so I said that.

However, when we actually started applying cel shading to the CG models, it did look somewhat interesting, but it also looked extremely cheap. After seeing that, I was momentarily flustered—now they’re really confused! I figured one of them must have said “hey, anime means 2D, not 3D, so there’s no need to bother with a sense of dimension or solidity!” (laughs)

Dagger of Kamui, one of the influences on Anubis. The streak of light in the middle is the “cel backlighting effect” Murata mentions above.

—I guess they really they took your anime advice to heart. (laughs)

Murata: Yeah… I told them, wrong again guys. (laughs) While they worked on that, I asked myself what the beauty of anime visuals really was. I think the answer was the solid coloring—the beauty of a flat visual plane painted with pretty colors.2 I asked the team to try experimenting with that approach.

—Even saying that, achieving a look comparable to “theatrical anime” is certainly no easy hurdle to clear. There’s also, for example, the matter of the TV screen format… those anime movies were done in 16:9, not 4:3.

Murata: Well, there were two people on the team—Nobuyoshi Nishimura, who had worked in TV anime for many years (even though screen formatting wasn’t his particular forte) and Takashi Mizutani, who used 16:9 in Metal Gear Solid 2. With their help I didn’t think it would be too difficult.

—I see. This is another question about the visuals, but on Anubis you added a new character designer/illustrator, Tsubasa Masao.

Murata: Yeah. Hideo Kojima recommended him to me first. Before this Masao and I had worked together in making the Gameboy version of Beatmania. He was the main designer, and did the retail package illustration too. He has a youthful sensibility—and in fact he is young. Kojima noticed him and said he should do costume design. In choosing Masao, it wasn’t the case that we thought that ZoE’s character designer, Nobuyoshi Nishimura,3 had done a bad job; we just wanted Anubis to have a different look from the first game.

I first sat down with the two of them and said, “Masao has done several drawings based on the story/script. Nishimura, I’d like you to take those drawings and ‘anime-fy’ them.”

—This may be an exaggeration to say, but it sounds like you had just multiplied their work! Now there was a manga/drawing side, and an anime/direction side to the character design.

Murata: Hah, that’s true. And what happened is they started fighting. (laughs) Their creative styles clashed—which I knew from the beginning would happen, but it was way worse than I had imagined… This was Masao’s first time working as a character designer, and I had to tell him that while I knew he wanted to show the world his unique sense and style, he would probably have to compromise in some places, and just do his best and endure it this time around. However, once the actual work began, they butted heads something fierce.

—Do you think the “chemical” reaction between the two raised the quality of the game?

Murata: Of course. Naturally there was conflict, but I think that’s because they were working to create something unique, something neither fully Nishimura or Masao. As for the illustration process, it went something like this: Masao would first sketch something, then hand it to Nishimura, who’d do the finishing work and add coloring. Then he’d pass it back to Masao, and even at this first step there was fighting.

Last year (2002) Masao drew an illustration for a pamphlet to be used at E3, and he really wanted his rough sketch to be used as-is. He wouldn’t let Nishimura even touch it. (laughs) When Nishimura would revise Masao’s designs according to his own aesthetic ideas, Masao would say “this is wrong” and go re-correct it himself. This was extremely frustrating for Nishimura, who was angry that someone had taken it upon themselves to change his work. (laughs) I think they were both operating under different rules, there.

—I can see how that would be stressful for Nishimura.

Murata: You’re probably wondering why I insisted on them working together after all that. The reason is that something made where blood has been spilled—speaking metaphorically, of course (laughs)—would turn out to be something unique that neither of them could have made alone. If I was going to make the very best version of Anubis possible, I thought this was the only way.

When a problem came up or they were fighting, I’d step in and try to mediate. But finding lasting solutions was not easy. There was a period when they couldn’t even be around each other. (laughs)

Concept art by Masao of the “rival” character. The text is too blurry to make out entirely, but it does refer to this as a “Gatchaman“-ish design.

—It sounds like things got ugly. (laughs)

Murata: They didn’t dislike each other on a personal level, and it’s not like they couldn’t talk cordially. But they each had strong feelings about art, and they weren’t very good at communicating that to each other, which made it that much worse. I’m not saying they have to be as close as Fujiko Fujio, but if they hadn’t come together as one, I didn’t think Anubis could have been finished.

That is something I could say about the whole team actually, not just Nishimura and Masao. I knew the core of what I wanted to do, but Anubis was made from more than that: it included the ideas of people who had worked on the first Zone of Enders and thought of the series as something belonging to themselves, and it included the ideas of people new to it. If you were to change those people, you’d have a different game on your hands.

Accordingly, I tried to let everyone do what they wanted, to the extent possible. It was similar to the approach I took in my previous work making independent films, I think.

—How would you compare the way you go about making a game with Hideo Kojima, the producer?

Murata: Kojima, like me, is very flexible when it comes to ideas for a game. Even one single game requires a metric ton of ideas; it’s not the kind of thing one person’s brain can handle alone. And of course that means you’ll never make it if you don’t listen to the opinions and ideas of your staff. Or you could say, if you don’t listen to them, your work will be pockmarked with holes.

However, for Zone of Enders, Kojima created an incredibly detailed world and backstory from the beginning, so in that sense, Anubis proceeded a little differently.

—Because game development is necessarily a group endeavor, it seems like establishing your own color, or “creator’s spirit” would be difficult. How about you, Murata—do you feel like your personal creativity came across in Anubis?

Murata: Lately when I’ve been playing games, I’ve unfortunately found them all extremely tiresome and tedious. So I wanted to make a game that would feel like a roller coaster movie! I told the programmers I wanted a “sense of speed”—something with urgency. Upon hearing that, the CG director Mizutani said to me, “Murata, the tempo of this game and your script is so fast… to match it, I’m going to try and use a lot of quick, fast cuts in my editing.” That made me happy to hear. So I think that yes, my personal creativity does come across in that form.

—Indeed, recent robot games have had a simulation feel—they’re lacking in that fun, easy playability.

Murata: I think that’s because they’ve pursued realism: in doing so you lose the ability to have a snappy tempo. But there’s many different kinds of robot games in the world. Some have been hits, and some are even worthy of being called masterpieces. When it came time to think of what I would contribute to the robot game genre, and what the core of my game would be, as you can imagine I didn’t want to do something others had already done. I didn’t make the game system for Anubis: that was something the amazing developers of the first Zone of Enders created. And of course I think that realistic robo games are fun—but my sensibilities are a little different. The sound the Orbital Frames make, you see, is not “zushin zushin”… it’s “shakiin shakiin”.4I get the feeling that difference really sums up Anubis to me.

Hideo Kojima, producer

—Continuing your work with the Zone of Enders series, for Anubis you took on the role of producer.

Kojima: Most of my work for Anubis was on the macro level: getting the initial design plans started, assembling the team and appointing a leader, deciding the overall direction the sequel should take… I left all the detailed, substantive decisions to the team themselves. I did veto a couple story ideas, but mainly I played the traditional part of a producer.

—This is a rather basic question, but as a producer, why make a sequel to Zone of Enders?

Kojima: The first reason is that Zone of Enders sold 800,000 copies worldwide… though some people did say that was only because it came bundled with a demo of Metal Gear Solid 2. (laughs) Even so, 800,000 copies, for a new original game, is a great success. But when I looked at feedback from the players, many people were saying “It would have been a fine length for a demo, but right when the story was getting good it ended! It was too short, and the missions were too tedious and boring.”

I really loved the basic gameplay system in Zone of Enders. But when I played the completed version, I have to admit it’s true that there was too much tedium. It was a real shame, considering how great the core gameplay was!

So at Konami, there was a debate about whether or not we should keep going with Zone of Enders. To its credit, I think the mechs have a unique “floating” feeling. They’re fun to control. It feels innovative for the mech genre. And you can tell this pretty quickly just by watching someone play, but the battles are really enjoyable. I wanted to take this system and expand it further! That was my motivation for making a sequel.

Hideo Kojima shows off the Zone of Enders HD collection.

—The combat is extremely intuitive. You almost don’t even need to read the instruction manual. I think that’s the way to go for an action game.

Kojima: “Is it fun to control?” That’s key. And this was something that we had gotten a lot of positive feedback from players about, too. Knowing that the combat, which we had really wanted to show-off, was so well-recieved by players really put a lot of wind in our sails. It inspired us to give the Zone of Enders series one more shot. If this sequel didn’t work, then there wouldn’t be another chance. We all had that mentality going into Anubis: this was it.

However, even though I’m the Producer, I never knew exactly what the team—including Murata—were up to. They showed me the planning docs and the story. But if someone had said to me, “ok Kojima, make this game now”, I wouldn’t have known where to begin. But that’s what being a Producer is all about. Imagine if the game director is in the middle of directing a scene, and the Producer comes in and says “That’s wrong.” I don’t think he should be saying that.

I appointed Murata as director for Anubis because we had shared some of the same “ingredients”: he had worked on the Metal Gear Solid team with me, and he had been a part of motion and effects sub-teams. But the thing is, if you change the chef, then you’re going to get a different dish. It doesn’t make sense to put a chef in charge and then deny him the ability to add his own individual “flavor”. And I wanted Murata’s to be able to freely build his world, which would then draw in a whole new fan demographic that is specific to him.

I really find it amazing, the way the entire tone and shape of a development can change just by swapping out directors. It’s like the Alien movies—each movie in the series its own different entity.

—Does this stance differ from the first Zone of Enders, where you were also Producer?

Kojima: I deliberately put some space between me and everyone this time. Ultimately, I feel the game design part of the development should be done by the game designers. If I start tinkering with the work they’ve done it would be weird. I did ask what their intentions and ideas were, but I didn’t know what was really going on. If I had started meddling there, it would be like punching holes in the foundation of a building. “This column looks funky—take it out!” And then the whole thing collapses. I did a little meddling in the first Zone of Enders, unfortunately, but this time I was resolved not to. Well… I did speak up a bit there at the end of the development. (laughs)

That’s why my work for Anubis was mainly macro level: I decided the overall direction and appointed staff, added new staff as they were needed, went to E3 to get some good promotion going, invited Kazuma Kaneko as a guest designer, asked GONZO to join and help with the anime, and did other promotion and filming at various game shows… all stuff like that.

Concept art by Masao. Text reads: “Leo pilot suit draft. Maybe it should look more stylish?”

—But it’s a pretty bold decision, to relinquish all the substantive control to those working beneath you like that.

Kojima: When I saw them developing the boss fights and the opening demo, I knew they were making a good game. However, when it was all connected up into a finished game and I played it, I did feel some nervousness because Murata’s game design sensibilities were (naturally) very different from my own. I don’t mean that they were better or worse. Hmm… how can I explain it? It’s like his thinking about what players want, and how to give that to them, is very different from mine. So it could be that people who dislike my kind of game would love Murata’s kind.

His attitude towards players is based on restriction, not freedom. For example, say you’ve got a game where walking, running, and flying are all possible movements for your character. In that case, I’d start by asking how I can make all three of those movements fun for the player. But Murata would take away flying as a starting option. By restricting that, his gameplay would be able to focus more on walking and running—and when the player finally did get to fly, they’d be overjoyed. It’s sort of like our game design priorities are reversed. But I think there are a lot of people who like this style—especially in recent years.

—Your outlook on games seems almost “traditional” to me. I think you could call that kind of gameplay a legacy of the early 80s, which lurks in the background of all your work to some extent. Things have gone in a different direction in recent years, though. Final Fantasy is a good example.

Kojima: One definite difference between us, and I think you can see this clearly from boss fights and special events, is the way players are motivated. Murata prepares solutions to his puzzles/fights that are, in a sense, very “game-y.” If you do this here, and that there, then you’ll defeat the boss. It’s an approach to problem-solving where the solution is laid out very clearly. I wonder if it has anything to do with him being part of the generation that grew up with video games. Take the equation “1 + 1 = 2”. For me, if the answer is 2, then “3 – 1 = 2” is just as valid.

In Metal Gear, for instance, I always prepared at least 3 different ways to solve a problem. Murata, on the other hand, creates a single method to solve a problem. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that approach, it’s just not how I would do it. Perhaps its a generational thing, but I think younger players today find Murata’s approach more pleasant. To a designer of the older generation like myself, the “answer” itself is meaningless. It’s the process of getting to that answer that is interesting. The trend in games today is to focus more on that answer.

A game designer is someone who find new ways of having fun and new rules through which to communicate that fun to players. What will the game system be? What perspective will the player have? What will the action be like? A designer has to decide those basic things first, then find the world, story, dialogue, map, and other elements which will bring the best out of his ideas. The person who can think of all that and render it in dramatic form we call “game designer”, and back in the day, a single game designer did everything for his game.

But now the labor in a development has been divided: the planner does the planning, the scriptwriter writes only the script, someone else does the story… even the individual maps will be drawn by different people. And at some point everyone’s work gets squashed together into one game.

That’s how games are made today, but thankfully Murata is multi-talented: he can write stories, handle direction, and he understands games. He’d also done radio drama work, and understood how to use music, which was important. In those ways his perspective, or way of thinking about games, is probably closest to mine. But there are parts of Anubis that I could never have designed—and as I said before, he has something in him that I don’t have. Hence my jealousy.

—Jealousy?! Amazing…

Kojima: Hah, there’s nothing amazing about jealousy. (laughs) Towards the end of Anubis there’s a chaotic battle scene againt BAHRAM forces who are trying to prevent you from reaching Aumaan Crevasse, and there’s LEVs and Raptors fighting all over the place. As long as you finish the battle with some LEVs alive, you’ll clear the mission. But when I was dropped in there I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Everyone was yelling “help me!” but I didn’t know what was going on. In my generation of gaming, you would never have seen something like this. It felt new and fresh though. That sense of immediacy, of urgent danger, was palpable.

The battle before Aumaan Crevasse.

—Visually its a great scene, you really feel like you’re one man taking on an army. On the other hand, there’s a danger that sections like that will break the gameplay. You might have players who are confused and don’t know what they’re supposed to do.

Kojima: Yeah, that “what is going on!” even caused me to think “is this a kuso game?” at one point. (laughs) I didn’t know what to do. I took some shots at my companion Leo, and he went “Dingo, I’m your ally!” (laughs)

I really didn’t understand what the team was going for with this whole area. I was very worried while they were making it.

—But of course Murata had conviction about what he was doing, I would imagine.

Kojima: I think so, but I was still uneasy about it. I was like, “do you really find this fun…?” (laughs)

—You seem to gather together a lot of strange people for your developments. Murata, Masao. But adding so many different talents can have adverse consequences too.

Kojima: Yeah. Mizutani, for example, really wanted Yoji Shinkawa to be the director. I think he was thinking of how Tetsuya Nomura, also an art designer, had recently become the director for Kingdom Hearts. I think Shinkawa felt his talents lied elsewhere though, as he told me he didn’t want to do it. The Metal Gear team is full of guys like that though. That’s why I thought if I removed myself from the equation and put in a new director, someone from outside like Murata, it might help everyone gather their strength around a leader. I’ll probably have to mix things up in the future again. If I direct the same team, it will only lead to the same game being made.

—In that sense, do you feel like you want your teams to have more independence in their work?

Kojima: To be honest, they can design what they want, and if it’s fun, they can build it however they want. So long as the deadlines are kept and it sells—well, nothing could be better! Of course I still have to make a lot of business-level decisions, and must consider the overall quality of the product. Anything having to do with budget, money, or negotiating with Konami goes through me.

In all honesty I would like the team to be a little more aware of that dimension in the future. I think creating video games is the best job in the world. But even though I’ve now become an administrator of sorts, its still not within my power to freely change release deadlines. When I was a grunt-level developer, I’d just brazenly ask “can we have another week?” No matter how much time you have, though, it will never be enough, and if I give them that first extension there’ll be no end to it.

As a developer I never thought about the harm to the company; I was only thinking how I could make a good game, and how could I get them to give me more time. I never wanted to rush a game so I could go on vacation or anything. Rather, it was the opposite: I was terrified and would rather die if my game was going to be released in this incomplete state! (laughs)

It’s true that on Anubis, the team’s thinking and approach to game design is very different from mine. But there’s parts that are fun and moving to me, too: the big battle scene, the second transformation of Inhert, those were awesome. At the same time there were things that worried me. I suspect that was all intentional on Murata’s part; however, from my perspective, some things may have been overthought and overwrought. The first Zone of Enders was called monotonous, a “one-pattern” game. But perhaps that was inevitable. Maybe in trying to come up with variety for the sequel, we overdid it a little. I think a smaller change would have worked just as well.

—I see. A Father is always hard on his sons!

Kojima: No, no, I don’t mean it like that. Anubis turned out to be an extremely good game. And hearing that players loved it makes me the most happy of all.

Tsubasa Masao, character designer

—I wanted to start off by asking some questions about your background. What would you say has been the biggest influence on you as an artist?

Masao: Hmm, well. Most people in my generation would say anime or manga, but those haven’t been a very big influence for me. I’ve been more influenced by the artists of Capcom—specifically, the fighting game artists. Lately I’ve been into American comics and cartoons (which are starting to become popular here in Japan too). I like some of those artists a lot.

—You’re 28 now?

Masao: That’s right.

—I understand that you originally started drawing as a hobby?

Masao: Yeah.

—Do you still draw for yourself, for fun?

Masao: I do. When I was a student I drew a little doujinshi, that kind of stuff.

—Along with Capcom’s designers, I bet you’re a fan of Katsuya Terada.

Masao: I am, I like his art.

—But before Anubis, you had never done any professional work as an artist?

Masao: Yeah. I’d only done normal design work.

—How was it that you came to have your debut on a big-named title like Anubis?

Masao: I had shown Hideo Kojima some of the drawings I’d done as a hobby, and I guess they caught his interest. I heard, through the grapevine, that he had said “Masao can really draw!”

—Wow, what an honor.

Masao: Yeah, and that being the case, I had no choice but to take on the job. I was definitely happy to be handpicked by Kojima, but I didn’t know if I could live up to his expectations, and instead of being excited I was really stressed out at first. Until the main characters were finished, I was very worried. Ken Marinaris was the first design I completed, but even those sketches took me forever. I just sat there in front of my desk staring into space, unable to concentrate and get any work done. It was tough.

Ken Marinaris, the first character design Masao completed.

—When you were creating the sci-fi character designs for Anubis, I imagine you were influenced by Gundam and the countless other mecha forerunners. Fans of this genre are bound to notice similarities, but at the same time, I feel like there’s something unique and hard to pin down about the visual style of Anubis.

Masao: Well, first and foremost, I didn’t want my designs to overturn or destroy the look of the first game, which was designed by Nobiyoshi Nishimura. Those designs weren’t exclusively sci-fi, and they were a little different from that Gundam-ish, Sunrise studio style. So I thought I would try to develop further Nishimura’s own design style. He actually told me it was ok to change things even more, but I wanted there to be some continuity between the games.

Also, Murata told me we were going for an “anime movie” theme for Anubis. I imagine he’s told you about that already?

—Right, he wanted something with the drama amped way up, compared to a normal tv series. I can see how “anime movie” will be clear to those already in the know, but to those who aren’t, it might be a somewhat vague instruction. Were you one of the people that got it right away?

Masao: Yeah. I knew what he wanted. It was like the difference between the Patlabor tv show and the Patlabor movies. The directing and visuals should have that dramatic punch to them. That’s how I interpreted it at least.

So I set to work with the idea that everything should be scaled-up, including the very size and height of the characters. Also, personally I thought that in the previous Zone of Enders game, the “anime” and “game” aspects didn’t quite gel together in places. For Anubis, I wanted them to fit together more seamlessly, co-existing and operating on the same plane.

—It sounds as if you really grasped what Murata wanted to do with Anubis in terms of an “anime movie” theme.

Masao: Hmm, yeah, maybe. Here’s the thing though. As an artist, my drawings have a lot of busy linework. It’s something of a crutch, but it’s always been difficult for me to draw with simple, clean lines. Even though Murata approved of my work, when Nishimura saw it, all he told me was “Please don’t include so much detail, this can’t be reproduced as anime.” There was a lot of that back and forth in the beginning. Nishimura would say “I like this personally, but I can’t animate these. You’ve got to change it.”

—Isn’t it the case that working within certain limits often spurs on creativity, though?

Masao: Hmm… true, but you need time to get used to the change. And until that happened, I wasn’t finding any compromise with Nishimura. The fighting really distracted me and I couldn’t concentrate on the work. My style just wasn’t meshing with Nishimura, and I wondered if it even could? I spent a lot of time revising to that end, to the point that I couldn’t focus on the designs themselves, and it was very stressful.

—It seems that Murata was hoping for a kind of “chemical reaction” between you and Nishimura—a relationship premised on conflict.

Masao: That’s probably true… but we actually did fight. Like, real fighting. Since Nishimura did the character design for the last game, I think he had some ideas about what the visual direction should be for the sequel, and he worried that my designs would destroy the world he had created. So for Nishimura there was inevitably going to be something unsatisfying about the whole process.

—Yes, but to be blunt, by choosing you for the character design, it seems that Murata was hoping for new designs.

Masao: Yeah. I was aware of that. That’s why despite the grief from Nishimura, I wasn’t about to waver.

—I can see it. “Demolitions Officer Masao, reporting for duty!”

Masao: Hah, no! To be honest I would have preferred if someone could have acted as a go-between for us. Someone above us who could have handled all this—with me hiding behind and drawing. (laughs) That way I could have focused purely on the design side.

—Did you ever ask Murata to step in…?

Masao: I did. I told him, “This isn’t going well. At this rate, it’s going to hurt the game. Please do something!” He never gave me a clear answer though. (laughs)

—Geez, it’s like leaving a loaded gun out. (laughs)

Masao: Yeah, and it resulted in Nishimura and I fighting something terrible.

—So who ultimately budged, you or Nishimura?

Masao: I would say we found a middle position between us.

—I understand you worked a lot with Nishimura to get the character illustrations ready for E3. I heard you were somewhat unsatisfied with the way the illustrations were textured, in the usual cel-shading anime style.

Masao: To be honest, I wasn’t confident that I pull off something credible in an anime cel style. So I studied up on cel-shading techniques for anime, and looked through magazines like Newtype. Still, I just wasn’t getting it. Eventually I realized I was going to have to apply some tricks to get the texturing right.

The Zone of Enders: Anubis cast, from the E3 designs. Personally, I don’t think they’re that far off from Masao’s underlying drawings.

—How did you work together with Nishimura, in this instance?

Masao: He helped me with the getting Dingo’s face right. I had this side-profile close-up of Dingo, and it just looked really bad when I applied the cel-shading. It had no depth. In Yoji Shinkawa’s illustrations for Metal Gear Solid, I think he was able to convey depth because he was drawing in ink and pencil, but for the thick swatch of undifferentiated color that you use in anime shading, his face just looked totally flat and bare. I tried touching it up myself, but Nishimura stepped in, in his usual way, and said, “Here, I’ll do it.” I guess it’s only natural, since he was the animation director.

—So do you feel, overall, that teaming up with Nishimura for this game was a good thing?

Masao: Hmm… well, my job title for this game was Original Character Designer, and I wish I had anticipated a little bit better how these drawings were going to ultimately be converted to anime form. Nishimura had told me he didn’t want the drawings to look too realistic, and I think I get what he meant now, but I wish my original drawings had been more in-line with his thinking from the beginning. One of my design themes was to do something different while still building on his work from the first game, and I feel like I injured his pride a bit and irritated him.

—Would you not do something like this again, then, unless required for your job?

Masao: No, it’s not like that. It’s hard to explain…. You know, I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but now that I think of it, it’s been 5 years since I joined Konami back in 1997. I wasn’t working as a traditional designer at that time, but I hoped to someday do drawing and art. And that desire had been steadily accumulating in me, to the point of agony. That was a big part of my taking on the work for Anubis. I had wanted to do this for so many years, I wasn’t going to let this chance slip by.

Many of the developments I had been involved in up to then had very tight schedules. They weren’t like Anubis, where I could spend a week working on some minor detail like a cup or furniture. Instead I’d have an hour to finish that. I desperately wanted to work on a game where I could sit myself down and take the time to really focus on the design. I wanted to make something with that level of quality.

—I see.

Masao: Also, how to put this… I imagine all artists feel this way, but my life is empty without art. Take away drawing, and there’s not much for me to do. It’s all I’ve got, so I simply must draw. I realize that’s not very articulate, but…

—No, I think I understand. It’s in your blood, something you’ve just got to do.

Masao: I guess if I was smarter or something, I’d be living a different life. But that’s not the case, so… (laughs)

—The atmosphere of your doujinshi drawings seems to have been lost in translation somewhere, for Anubis. I think that’s probably due to the fact that making a game is a group endeavor, which means some of your individuality is going to be extinguished.

Masao: Yeah. With Anubis, I don’t feel like I’ve made something that I can say, “This is it. This is perfect.” If I were drawing something for myself, I could go further, but that wasn’t possible with this project. I do feel confident that I’ve shown some part of myself and my personality as an artist, however. So for the next game I’m involved in, I really want to create something that I’m fully satisfied with. It’s true that I have some regret over not being able to really expend my full power this time. I guess you could say that for me, Anubis is just the beginning.

Kazuma Kaneko, guest character designer

—Please tell us how you came to be involved in the Anubis development.

Kaneko: I sometimes go out drinking with Hideo Kojima, and it was on one of these nights out that we got to talking about Anubis. Kojima started talking about mechas, and I had been interested in drawing some robot stuff for awhile, so a kind of “groundwork” had already been laid in me, for a project like this.

As the night (and our drinking) went on, at some point Kojima said to me, “You wanna do this game? Let’s do it!” And I replied back just as casually, “Sure, ok, let’s do it.” That’s how it all got started.

Kaneko: I sometimes go out drinking with Hideo Kojima, and it was on one of these nights out that we got to talking about Anubis. Kojima started talking about mechas, and I had been interested in drawing some robot stuff for awhile, so a kind of “groundwork” had already been laid in me, for a project like this. As the night (and our drinking) went on, at some point Kojima said to me, “You wanna do this game? Let’s do it!” And I replied back just as casually, “Sure, ok, let’s do it.” That’s how it all got started.

—Both you and Hideo Kojima have been involved in the game industry since the early days. Looking back on it now, we can see that (for better or worse) the Famicom was clearly the “mainstream” console, with rival consoles appealing to different niches and groups. Kojima carved out a dedicated fanbase by staying true to his creative vision even in the face of such a huge commercial market. I think that you, Kaneko, did something similar: a game released by you wasn’t just another Famicom game, but a “Kazuma Kaneko” game. Do you feel a kindred sympathy towards Kojima, as a creator?

Kaneko: I think I had an awareness of him, yes. It’s not something that happened all at once with some specific game. It’s more like, as Kojima released more and more works, I naturally took notice. As a general rule, in the game industry they don’t push creators’ names to the front the way they do in the movie industry with famous directors. In spite of this, Kojima followed his creative spirit, and while other companies would probably have erased his name, Konami put it out there: “Directed by Hideo Kojima.” That was extremely fresh and new at the time, and how I thought things should be. As for me, my approach differs from Kojima, but we share that same vision, so our sensibilities may be very similar.

At the same time, I’ve also got a lot of jealousy towards him. On the day Metal Gear Solid came out, I felt like, “Impossible! How could anyone make something like this?!” I was honestly blown away that someone made something that amazing.

I started in the game industry when it was still undergoing change and development, but I sensed that in the future, games were going to become a medium not unlike manga, anime, or film, in which artists could more forcefully express their individuality. But looking around, I could see a lot of “one-hit wonders”—and you see that in music and other industries too. I knew the key to longevity in this industry was to keep releasing games, even if occasionally that meant one had to work on middling projects not up to one’s standards. In that sense I felt a kinship with Kojima, who had navigated those waters himself.

Inert, the orbital frame designed by Kaneko.

—Working together on Anubis, then, I imagine there was very little friction between the two of you.

Kaneko: Yeah, it was smooth. I think we were both on the same page with what we wanted to do. For this project, I don’t think we were terribly concerned with “What should we do for Anubis, specifically?” I think a bigger thing was that we were just excited to do something with robots. I don’t mean that in a negative way towards Anubis, of course.

—I’m surprised to hear that “mecha” was the hook for you. For the actual work, did you wait until a certain amount of concept art was done and delivered to you before starting?

Kaneko: When I visited Konami, they didn’t have a lot of storyboarding done yet, but there was a huge amount of concept art. They showed me an impressive number of drawings, including all of Yoji Shinkawa’s early mech sketches.

After seeing those, I decided that I wanted to contribute by making some kind of weird, unusual character, maybe an enemy boss. That’s what I told them, but I soon learned that they’d already prepared a very specific set of design instructions for me. (laughs) They wanted me to make an enemy who, I quote, “Was like a ninja, used daggers and homing missiles, and fought in the darkness.” I read that and was like, “Seriously? You’ve already finished the design yourself!”

I had been wanting to do something weirder from the get-go, you see. Something like Jehuty, maybe an orbital frame with a human silhouette, or a non-human shaped orbital frame even. The character I was thinking about was a mad scientist, with a characteristic eyepatch, of course.

Dr. Serizawa from Godzilla!

Kaneko: Unfortunately, I’d already done something like that in Maken X. (laughs)

—It sounds like you’d be given a certain degree of guidance, but rather than just dutifully following those instructions, your job was to try and find a way to subvert them.

Kaneko: Well, even in Gundam, when an outside artist designs a robot for the series, I think what often happens is that somehow that design ends up getting subsumed by the greater Gundam universe and becomes a part of it, whether intended or not. In that sense, it doesn’t really matter who the designer is.

—It’s also cool to see your designs side-by-side with the main mecha designer Yoji Shinkawa. Sort of like a Designer Face-Off!

Kaneko: From my perspective, Shinkawa is an amazing artist. I see his drawings and it’s like, “whoa, awesome, I could never do this!” I knew there was no competing with him; I’d have to stand out in a different way. (laughs)

—I suppose your role in Anubis was somewhat akin to designer Makoto Kobayashi’s in Z Gundam: something very edgy, that almost breaks the consistency of the world, something with your own personal stamp as an artist.

Kaneko: Yeah. I didn’t think there was any other option, really. If I didn’t introduce something with a slightly different lineage to this universe, it wouldn’t be interesting. In my case, those influences were Black Onyx from Tetsujin 28-go, the GR-2 from Giant Robo, and Danube α1 from Mazinger.

—The Danube! That’s quite the list of venerable villain mechas!

Kaneko: For an older mecha fan like me, those are the big names, right? (laughs) Although I was working with Orbital Frames for Anubis, my point of reference, conceptually, was different. I wanted everything, from his powertrain system to his look, to be unique. And above all, it was important that the mech be “handmade.”

The villain mechas that inspired Kazuma Kaneko: the GR-2, the Danube α1, and the Black Onyx.

—For a mecha fan of yesteryear, that trope is a given. The lone scientist who secretly constructs a robot all on his own…

Kaneko: In the back room of his house, right? (laughs)

—I totally get what you’re talking about right now. But did you also want to pay homage to the Black Onyx and all those villain robots of older anime?

Kaneko: Yeah. I think you hit the nail on the head. When you watch older robot anime, those villain mechs always have some motivation or purpose behind their actions, right? The enemies have their own problems and concerns, they aren’t just there for as an opponent for the good guys. What I actually did in Anubis was a little different, but yeah, I wanted there to be that kind of “outside” quality to the character I was creating for Anubis. Hey, I am called the “Demon Painter”, after all. 5 (laughs)

—How did the actual design work for Inhert and Lloyd go? Was it relatively trouble-free?

Kaneko: I first made my request to do something weirder. Then I had to figure out how to work the ninja image into that. Ninjas have a slim, lean build, and they use deception to attack. The question was how to include that without having it look cliche and cheap. On that point I brainstormed for a long time, trying out different ideas, but they were all kind of lame. (laughs) Plus the decoy attack was already something the Anubis frame could use.

Another thing, people usually think of mechas as industrial products, so hard==steel. But I thought there could be other materials used for their armor. When you think of tanks and vehicles, not all of them are heavily armored.

—Right, there’s also a strength in flexibility.

Kaneko: A strong but flexible material was an absolute must in my opinion—all the moreso when you consider how these robots are doing all these dextrous, crazy movements! That was how I came up with the idea for the gel armor. Plus I thought an armor with a springy material could be fun to work with.

—I think it also contributes to the “weird” theme you had for Inhert’s design. I bet Murata and the others were happy to see your playful spirit come out. And animating a gel-style armor would be a fun challenge for the CG developers to work with.

Kaneko: Well, I felt like it was really my purpose in this project to bring that old-school “villain robot” feel. To be honest, I haven’t been very excited by the mecha stuff of recent years. And that older style of robot anime, well there’s really none of it today. So with my work here, I wanted to allay that dissatisfaction and present a new image in the old-school vein. That was a central theme for me, and I’m very happy with how it came out.

—The scene where we first meet Inhert is also very reminiscent of those villain mechas.

Kaneko: Yeah. That turned out to be a very memorable scene for me. One thing that’s very important for me as a gamer, is that feeling of “Ah, that part was so hard! That guy was impossible!” Because that’s a feeling you can only get from video games. I asked the developers to make the battle with Inhert suitably difficult for a real villain, one where players would be telling their friends, “Damnit, I can’t beat that guy!”

—So did you enjoy this work on Anubis, then?

Kaneko: It was a lot of fun. This was my first time working within someone else’s framework like this. In my own work, I’m able to revise the backstory and world as I go. And although we’ve sometimes had robot enemies in the Shin Megami Tensei series, their role has always been somewhat perfunctory. That cheapness has been due, in part, to my lack of abilities, so on Anubis I really gave it my all and pushed myself, and I’m very pleased how it turned out.

If you've enjoyed reading this interview and would like to be able to vote each month on what I translate, please consider supporting me on Patreon! I can't do it without your help!

  1. The “cel backlighting” refers to a technique in traditional cel animation where a light source is projected behind the cel, which has slits cut in the appropriate places. The effect can make things look like they’re glowing, and was often used for laser effects in anime.

  2. The Japanese term used here is “beta nuri”, which originally comes from manga and denoted the parts of an image that the illustrator (or an assistant) would fill in solid black after the initial outline was drawn—hair, backgrounds, etc. In anime, the same basic idea applies but with color.

  3. Nobuyoshi Nishimura is credited as “Character Design 2D Animation Director” on Anubis, and worked together with Masao.

  4. Zushin is a “thud” noise, like the sound of a very heavy, “realistic” mech moving. Shakiin is a lighter, more metallic clink/clank sound, implying the lighter, less plodding movement of the Orbital Frames that Murata prefers.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *