A Cane and Rinse interview with Keiichiro Toyama – creator of Gravity Rush, Siren and the original Silent Hill.
Although he had previously worked on a selection of well-known and diverse titles such as Konami’s Snatcher and International Track & Field, most of us would have first encountered the games of Keiichiro Toyama when Konami released his seminal survival horror title Silent Hill in 1999, to positive reviews and commercial success. Sometime after the release of Silent Hill Toyama-san left his position at Konami and landed a role within SCE Japan Studio, where he remained within the survival horror genre with the development of the impressive and atmospheric Siren series of games. Most recently however, he has forgone with the grim, nightmarish scenarios for something with a much lighter, bandes dessinées vibe with his action role-playing game Gravity Rush (Gravity Daze in Japan) for the PlayStation Vita – which has gone on to garner a positive critical response across the world with it’s distinctive visuals and enjoyable gameplay.
Toyama-san was kind enough to put some time aside from his busy schedule creating stuff for us to play in order to answer the following questions that both the Cane & Rinse team and our wider community put to him about his career, his games, his thoughts regarding the games industry and preference in headwear.
Jay asked: How did you first find your way into the video games industry?
Keiichiro Toyama : In a very orthodox way. I was studying design and video art at university; around this time the games industry started significantly expanding and requiring many designers. As I very much liked playing video games myself, I got into the industry, initially being employed as a designer.
mikeleddy83 asked: The mega CD version of Snatcher was the definitive example of design for games at that time for me. What was it like getting to work on the project, and did it have any influence on your career since “Gravity Rush” is the closest game I’ve seen capturing that same atmosphere in recent years.
Toyama-san : Snatcher was part of training for me as a rookie, so my job was mostly adjusting colours during the conversion of the other console versions. Towards the end of the development, however, I got to work on some of the new content, which I remember how excited I was about. What had bigger influence on my career was the game I took part in next called Hyper Olympics in Atlanta (aka International Track & Field). I got to experience various new things such as 3D and motion capture, which became the basis for my present career.
mikeleddy83 asked: What major influences were there for the stories of both Siren and Silent Hill, and what pushed you towards the survival horror genre of video games?
Toyama-san : For Silent Hill, Stephen King’s novels and David Lynch’s films were major influences. For the nightmarish theme of the game, you should also be able to see influences from films like “Alice” by Jan Svankmajer and “Jacob’s Ladder” directed by Adrian Lyne. Siren was mostly influenced by ensemble cast novels such as “Battle Royale” and “Shiki”. What pushed me towards the survival horror genre was simply my company’s request, but having realised it surprisingly matched my production style, I continued with it for long after all.
AndyKurosaki asked: Where did the inspiration for Silent Hill’s bizarre enemies come from?
Toyama-san : Some of the inspiration was taken from Japanese horror comics, but a lot of the credit has to go to Masahiro Ito, who joined the team later as a new recruit, had such an amazing imagination, I let him draw as he liked as long as he followed the minimal guideline for the game.
Paul Rooney asked: Survival horror games are in a strange place just now, and it seems more action orientated gameplay is favoured by developers; what do you think the future holds for this genre? Is it something you are still interested in?
Toyama-san : I suppose the reason why more action oriented gameplay is favoured nowadays is because the increase in the budget requires a wider appeal. In order to make a more horror oriented game, you need to do it with a low budget, but I am very interested in that direction and would definitely love to do it again one day.
Paul Rooney asked: Your games always have something that strongly sets them apart from others in the same genre such as Sightjacking and multiple perspectives in the Siren series. Are these unique aspects something that’s important to your design approach?
Toyama-san : What scares me the most are for my titles to be engulfed by the sheer profusion of other games, so I’ve got this habit of starting with the aspects that will absolutely differentiate them. For my personal taste too, I prefer something new and original even if it’s crude, rather than something neatly put together, so I can’t help making my games with that in mind.
Paul Rooney asked: Do these unique aspects bring with them difficulties when making a game, or do you think they bring more opportunities? What difficulties did you come across in Gravity Rush?
Toyama-san : Both. It feels just like being on a pioneering journey without a map. Although it’s very hard to find the right route, when you succeed, you get to go into the new world that nobody else has been to. Although we managed to construct Gravity Rush’s gravity action system from scratch, it took us a lot of time, effort and a process of trial and error to get some things right such as the feel of falling and the level of difficulty.
SpoonSix asked: There has been talk of a certain stagnation in the Japanese games industry – companies relying on maintaining established brands rather than challenging the players (and themselves) with new concepts and mechanics. Do you agree with this view?
Toyama-san : The main factors I suppose are the distinctive market size and studio size in Japan, the advancements in visual performance that the recent radical evolution of hardware enabled, and the explosive growth in the amount of materials they have to deal with while the production process got more complicated. In other words, when they try to challenge with new mechanics and visual performance using the latest hardware, the market size in Japan makes it difficult to afford to plan a project that can display Japanese uniqueness, and because of the size of studios being small comparing to western countries, they haven’t been able to establish a clear system of mega-size development – These issues are making it difficult for them to make new challenges.
We are also flooded by so many kinds of entertainment these days, games companies now have to lower the level of entry for people to pick up and check out the game – That’s another factor I can think of. However, as we now have a complete online infrastructure, lots of innovative games started appear in the indie game and social game area. So I would say it’s diversification and compartmentalisation that’s happening, rather than just stagnation.
Karl Moon asked: What were your major inspirations for releasing a game like Gravity Rush and did you feel any pressure when releasing it knowing that the Vita format was waiting for a major, stand out game?
Toyama-san : Ever since I first saw drawings by Moebius more than 20 years ago, I always wanted to make a game with that kind of vivid images and floating feel one day. I did feel the pressure that this game might even end up never getting a release when the production process didn’t go as we’d wanted, but by the time of release, I was just excited to hear the users’ reactions and then I no longer felt pressured.
Karl Moon asked: Gravity Rush being the stand out PlayStation Vita title so far with its spectacular visuals and a very unique style of play, were there any concessions made when developing for a handheld console, and would you one day like to release it for the PlayStation 3?
Toyama-san : While Vita is a very high-performance handheld console, it of course doesn’t have as high operation abilities as non-portable consoles do, so we needed to be more creative with some things like AI. Nonetheless, thanks to Vita’s high graphics performance and big memory, we managed to pretty much fully materialise the visuals and gameplay that we first imagined as ideas.
Of course higher-performance hardware could be attractive, but it could also cause some difficulties such as requiring the expansion of the production size. In this point, Vita is brilliantly well-balanced.
AndyKurosaki asked: The touchscreen controls for this game are brilliant. They quickly become second nature and suit the gameplay really well. How did you come up with the touch-screen controls, and is there any other ideas that changed during the game’s development?
Toyama-san : We had various tests on the touchscreen panel and reached the conclusion that it’s better-balanced to keep the touch control fairly subtle because this game makes great use of the L/R sticks and the gyroscope. The “dodge” move idea, for example, was added by the action production team.
Paul Rooney asked: Having worked on such a big title for the Vita, will you be continuing to work on Vita games?
Toyama-san : Vita is a well-balanced platform that has high compatibility with the size and method of Japanese studios, so I hope to continue to be involved.
James Carter asked: The comic book-style panels in Gravity Rush produce a fascinating, almost 3D effect. Given the strong sense of atmosphere in your games, is 3D something you have considered?
Toyama-san : I like 3D very much; it’s certainly something I’d love to challenge if I got the opportunity.
James Carter asked:In Gravity Rush, Kat’s amnesia means that, though her true identity is hinted at, it is never fully revealed; Kat is therefore defined by her actions and not her past. Was this intentional and could you speak about how much you and the writers discussed her previous life whilst developing the game?
Toyama-san : My apologies but I’d like to keep this question unanswered.
Karl Moon asked: In an ideal world, are there any other games out there that you would love to have been a part of?
Toyama-san : I would love to have taken part in the development of classic shooting games such as Xevious, Gradius…
Jay asked: You also appear to have a fondness for headwear but do you have a particular preference between a flat cap or a beanie?
Toyama-san : Nowadays a flat cap has become like my trademark. People seem to think I have a lot of them, but I actually only have a few and wear the same ones.
Cane and Rinse would like to offer a massive “Domo Arrigato” to Toyama-san, for kindly taking the time out to answer these questions and to Jay’s lovely wife Chi, for translating the questions into Japanese and the answers back into English.
Last, but most certainly not least, many thanks to all those who took the time to provide us with the questions.