Shigeru Miyamoto and Yuji Horii Discuss the RPG and the Silent Protagonist Circa 1989
Posted on December 12 2011 by Nathanial Rumphol-Janc
The second part of the 1989 interview between Shigeru Miyamoto and Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii is now online. This time the conversation steers away from specific talk, like in the first part of the interview where the two discussed A Link to the Past and Dragon Quest IV (the games they were currently working on at the time), and moves into a more general discussion about RPGs.
However, before they started discussing more general topics, the two focused on their own personal methods of game development. At one point, the topic of designing dungeons came up:
H: Adjusting the difficulty of the game is tough as well. Whenever I draw out a dungeon on paper, it always ends up being really hard. I test play it thinking it’s going to be easy, only to find it’s outrageously difficult.
M: We always endeavor to reduce the difficulty of the dungeons by 20% once we finish making the game.
H: You decide that in advance?
M: That’s right. I’m exaggerating a little when I say we always plan to reduce it by 20%, though. Our criteria isn’t that concrete. [Laughs] When we’re doing an action game, we start with the second stage. We begin making stage one once everything else is completed.
H: I see. We’re actually collaborating with Famibou Tofuya (the pen name of former Famitsu editor Yoshimitsu Shiozaki) to make a board game. We made stage one before doing anything else, and it turned out to be really difficult. So, we decided to make a practice stage. It was still too tough. In the end, the first stage we made ended up becoming stage four. [Laughs]
I’ve never thought about what order developers design levels, but it certainly makes sense to start with the most difficult levels (for the player) first. Things are probably accomplished a little bit differently today, especially with games like Skyward Sword, which I know had teams divided by region. However, within those teams the hardest sections of those regions were probably designed first.
The next part of the conversation focuses the player experience in an RPG game, and the balance between gameplay and story-telling.
M: Do you think that RPGs and adventure games will become a substitute for novels?
H: Nah, I think that novels still have their place. Games are more active. If you were to write a novelesque story for a video game, players would feel that it dragged on and on. The sense that you were the one driving the story would disappear. I think the most important aspect of game design is to immerse the player in the game’s universe and make them feel like they’re actively driving the plot. That’s the reason I won’t risk having the protagonist speak, even though it would make writing the story much easier.
M: That’s a common feature of RPGs these days.
H: Oh, yes? Generally speaking, I think having the protagonist speak alienates the player. He’s playing as though the character is an extension of himself, so why is his avatar suddenly speaking of its own accord? He’ll be struck with the realization that the character he’s been thinking of as himself up until now is actually someone else entirely. Having the protagonist speak for himself and decide own his own which way the story goes would make players uncomfortable.
To tell you the truth, I actually did take that approach once. In
Dragon Quest III , you rescue the pepper sellers from Kandar’s cave and they run into Kandar while they’re trying to escape, right? The protagonist, if he’s the head of your party, says “Leave him to us! Run! Quick!” I took that route because I couldn’t see another way around it, but there were a lot of people who were uncomfortable about the fact that the protagonist, who’d been silent up till then, suddenly spoke. It doesn’t matter how much talking the supporting characters do, only the protagonist’s lines will stick in the players’ heads.
M: Cutscenes in action games are the same in that regard. There are scenes that make you feel as though you’re the one doing everything, and scenes that make you feel like you’re being pulled along against your will. I actually really dislike taking control away from the player. I want to do everything I can to ensure they feel like they’re in control. Mario grabs onto the flagpole, slides down to the bottom, and enters the castle on his own, right? I don’t like that at all. I want to let players enter the castle themselves, if possible.
H: So, action games run into that problem as well.
M: R-Type’s cutscenes are really good. It’s like you’re sitting in the dock the whole time. It’s easy to grasp when you’re able to move on your own, and you can fire bullets the whole time. Just between you and I, I don’t think
Adventure of Link had very good cutscenes. You feel like you’re watching things happen rather than achieving them yourself. Exactly what you were saying, pretty much.
H: That’s what makes games different from movies or novels. If you make it work, you won’t alienate the players, and it’s possible to make them feel like they’re actually there.
M: There’s also a big difference between feeling like you’ve figured out something on your own and feeling like you came upon the solution by chance. It’s really difficult to give players the impression that they’ve solved a puzzle themselves in an adventure game that consists of choosing commands from a menu.
H: You can’t let them solve it by accident, and it’s no good if they still can’t figure it out after trying everything. It’s a huge bother to go through a list of commands.
It’s amazing how identical this part of the discussion is to those of today. The same logic and reasoning concerning how a game’s story is presented to the player and how a player experiences a game through the protagonist hasn’t changed in the last two decades.
Some elements of storytelling, and video games for that matter, will never change because those elements help define them. However, one must determine if the elements in question really are foundations or if they are actually subject to change.
In this chase, the point of contention is whether or not story presentation in a video game should be enhanced with voice-acting and whether or not the protagonist should speak. The reason why this is such a hot topic is because other games have voice-acting and are successful, but Zelda has yet to try voice-acting.
Everyone has this idea in their head that voice-acting is the key to improving story-telling and the player’s experience, but I don’t think it will change much. I say this mainly because when I read the text I imagine certain ways those lines are delivered based on my own personal take on the story and the protagonists relation to story. I read the text with different inflections than others even though we are all playing the same game. Voice-acting takes that element away, even if the voice-work is done well.
I just think we’re all getting too wrapped up over the issue and should start thinking of completely different ways to make the video game/story experience more immersive, ways that haven’t been tried in any video game yet.
Miyamoto and Horii then continue to discuss adding a new element to RPGs: network connection. In essence, they discussed what would become the MMORPG.
H: Personally, I want to make titles that have a story that draws the player into the game’s universe rather than titles that fit nicely into a genre like “RPG game” or “adventure”. Today’s RPGs are incredible, in a sense. They get a lot of publicity and suck you into the story. I wonder, however, if we can’t take them a little further. I think one example would be an RPG game that made use of a network connection.
M: There’s been talk at Nintendo about making a Famicom network. However, speaking as a player, it’s not going to happen as long as the biggest problem of the telephone age remains unsolved. People will go crazy for a game with a network connection once it’s released. Then they’ll see their monthly telephone bill and realize that they can’t afford to play anymore. NTT is going to have to change the way they look at phone bills and figure out how they’re going to separate the cost of connection fees from regular phone use.
As long as phone bills remain fundamentally unimproved, it’s going to be a hard thing to pull off. Until NTT stops thinking that connection fees fall under the same umbrella as general phone calls, the potential networks have to reach a wider audience will be limited.
H: I don’t think people will start making games that utilize networks until they extend their scope. There’s no use in making something only a small number of people will play. Once networks can be accessed by a bigger audience, that’s when game worlds start getting interesting.
It’s clearly something Miyamoto was interested in, at least as a talking point, but he’s never shown any interest in creating an MMORPG himself. I’ve always wondered what that genre would look like if handled by Nintendo; it certainly would be unlike any other MMORPG.
H: I think there are a lot of ways to go about making games on the Famicom. It’s interesting to think about what rules you’re going to have when making a board game, for example. If people get tired of RPG battles, maybe new games won’t have any. If everyone makes fantasy games, people might get sick of those as well. Then another type of game world will come onto the scene. Instead of each genre stagnating, people will release games that push their boundaries.
RPG games, action games, simulations… I feel that RPGs might be split into two types, for example. In one type, the story will take precedence, and people will take it very seriously. In another, only the world will be established, and you’ll get to eke out your own existence. Wouldn’t that be interesting? To have a fun RPG that allowed you live your own life?
M: Sounds like fun!
And so Animal Crossing was born. Not really, but Animal Crossing is Nintendo’s take on the Harvest Moon style RPG.
If you’re interested in reading the interview in it’s entirty, make sure to hit the source link.