Interview:Nintendo Power January 2006

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Part VIII of Nintendo Power's series of interviews with the development team of Twilight Princess. This eighth one is with Atsushi Miyagi, the visionary landscape designer for Twilight Princess.

Seeing the Sights in Hyrule
(NP:) In previous months, Inside Zelda has revealed the surprising dynamics behind Link's design and the wide range of NPCs that will populate Twilight Princess, but the characters all need a stage on which to play out their story. That brings us to landscape designer Atsushi Miyagi. His aim is to make your jaw drop when you see his vistas and environments, and his philosophy roots every visual knockout in the gameplay. While you're hacking, slashing, and dashing through Hyrule, you might take your focus off the background, but the relationship between you, Link, and the landscape is much more intimate then you might think. Miyagi ventures into his own background to reveal where his design philosophy turned a corner – and he reveals the fascinating places where he finds inspiration.

Cultural Shift:

Long before I started work on Twilight Princess, and long before I even joined Nintendo, my head was in a very different place as a creative person. After I graduated from my university, where I studied fine art, I wanted nothing else from life then to be a professional painter. So I wanted to devote all of my time to my craft. I took only contract jobs and aimed to cut down working hours so that I could paint and draw. But then something rocked my world. I happened across a magazine article about one of the major Japanese role-playing video games, and that article featured much of the game's artwork. It suddenly hit me: Art talent was not only finding work in video games; that's where true artistry was actually thriving. In those days, I didn't have much knowledge about computer graphics, except a vague notion that they were used to artful effect in Hollywood movies like The Terminator and Jurassic Park. Other then that, I only knew that I needed to express myself in the Japanese gaming industry.

During the time that I worked for several game companies, mainly as a graphic artist, a burning question was working itself out in my mind: What is the true meaning of graphics in a game? Coming from a fine-art background, I was well aware that oil paintings, which I'd studied in school, were mainly destined for display on museum walls to be stared at by people, or for being traded among an elite group of consumers. But game graphics, I realized, were in a different world. For regular Joes. For gamers. And what should this kind of art be like? I eventually reached the conclusion that game graphics were nothing if they weren't synchronized with gameplay. That realization led me down the road to where I am today, working on Twilight Princess as a landscape designer. This role creates the design of geography and outside environments, such as the ground, towns, rivers, and castle exteriors. While dungeon design is often part of this job, the Twilight Princess creative staff separate these into two teams. I'm in charge of the field-design team. After studying the overall game design, our team creates the appropriate images that live within that philosophy. In many cases, I participated in that very early game-development phase, where I shared some ideas from a visual perspective. Now that we're deep into the project, sometimes we envision new possibilities, and we feel free to bring those into the larger picture for consideration by the game designers and programmers.

While people might think that creating graphics is the toughest part of my job, what's far more difficult is to adapt our landscape designs to changes in the overall game plan. When you're playing a game, these changes aren't exactly obvious. For example, if the game needs a certain new kind of enemy character, which always brings new programming challenges, we designers may need to rethink the landscape. I might have been conjuring square or triangular houses, but suddenly the new enemy might need a circular shape for it's gameplay. The back and forth is sometimes a headache, but ultimately the gameplay is the most important consideration, Thus, the round house wins out.

The Lay of the Land

During the five years that I've been working for Nintedo, I've worked on Super Mario Sunshine, the Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and Pikmin 2, which each featured very different landscapes, all of them boldly imagined. Super Mario Sunshine was a fascinating project. The early direction was that the game ought to have a natural look. Yes, the game would have had much fantastic detail, but all of it's images and objects had to be grounded in the real world. Now here's the conundrum: in a 2-D Mario game, it doesn't look strange to see bricks floating in midair. But in that 3-D Mario game, we didn't want to have a big pile of blocks defying gravity in the middle of a town, for instance. I had to wrap my mind around all sorts of design puzzles like that. Bianco Hills was my favorite landscape to create, since I needed to go back and forth with many possibilities before I came up with the perfect environment.

In our creative processes, sometimes inspirations strike like lightening, and other times we have a general sense of what we want to do, but not a single concrete notion about how to get there. In Pikmin 2, for instance, everyone agreed that we wanted something to be crushed when the player tossed a lot of Pikmin on top of it, and we initially fixated on it being a piece of wood. We weren't satisfied with that, but we knew that we couldn't dwell on it. We needed to move ahead with other designs, so we put the problem on a shelf. That's always a danger, right there. What happened was that by the time we got back around to resolving the crushable-object question, we had wood scattered elsewhere on the gameplay landscape. We changed the object to a paper bag, and that's how those ended up in the final game. Two more notions that really affected the landscape of Pikmin 2: Because players went under the earth to treasure-hunt, I had to design an underground space; but since my work tends to bury my head in a PC all day long, I didn't like the feeling of crawling around a dark area. So I designed some underground zones to have a connection to the world above, such as one “subterranean jungle” made of concrete and sand, where I let some natural light break through a slit in the ceiling and let some grass appear down below. And then for some above the ground areas, I wanted to have places that felt rejuvenating; so that's why you see areas where cherry blossoms carpet the earth.

These dynamics extend to Zelda development, as well. For example, if the overall game plan says that wood can burn, then we need to keep wood in mind when we design landscapes, since everything that we design as wood-based – including houses – has to be burnable. So then we're asked to provide some wooden fences that can be burned by the fiery arrows; that is, the fence can't be destroyed until the player finds the fire bow. Ah, but from another direction we've heard that bombs can obliterate trees. So then we hit a potential snag: Can the wooden fence, made from trees, be destroyed by bombs too? At the outset of the project, you never know when these enigmas will pop up, and sometimes we can't move development ahead until we resolve them. In many cases, we do leave those as open questions and tie them up later. Ultimately, which landscape are tethered to the gameplay, and which are simply for atmosphere? The question emerges constantly. My first stab at the Zelda series was on Wind Waker. The exterior architecture of Ganon's Tower, the Tower of the Gods and the courtyard in Hyrule Castle were my doing. Then for Twilight Princess, I joined the process when we were working out the landscape rules with the character designers. As it turns out, I also created almost everything you saw in the E3 demo, which drew upon some of those ground rules. While Twilight Princess often has a dark, sad feeling, that's not always the case. Take the horseback riding, for instance, which is very intense – we really had to think about the landscape design. Even when speeding across Hyrule Field, Link is still constantly surrounded by majestic details that evoke an epic experience.

In my opinion, it's important to maintain the Legend of Zelda series at the top of the fantasy genre. Since many of the key people on the Twilight Princess team experienced development on Ocarina of Time, it's totally natural from them to be conscious of the Ocarina world as they work on the new game. But I'm trying not to let myself become too trapped by Ocarina standards. I feel like game development always moves in it's own way, like a living creature. So, as for where the Twilight Princess vision will carry us, I can't say until it's taken us there.

Some may think that there's a perfect game-development plan that exists in which every single detail is nailed down before development ever starts. If you compared it to a movie, that would be like having complete dialogue and complete casting just before the camera rolls. Everything's perfect, but what happens if the main actor's injured? The whole plan is in jeopardy and the movie may never be filmed or released. In game development, we must be open to trial and error from multiple directions; if we try to plan everything so it's always perfect on all fronts, we'll never get the game finished.

The Landscape of His Mind

Travel has influenced me greatly, and I've traveled to many places. Once I went to Europe for several months and did nothing but visit museums and study ancient ruins. On another trip, I visited New York with the intention of viewing 20th-century art, but after I found that the city's atmosphere didn't agree with me for some reason, I instead found myself wandering down to Mexico for a long time just to study the ancient Mayan ruins. Who can say where a journey will lead you if you keep your eyes and mind open? Long ago, I dreamed of minimizing my work overtime and pursuing a career as a painter, but look where that led me. Yes, I sometimes get a little jealous when I think of my friends who've made it as painters, but I never regret where life has taken me. There are many rooms ahead of me, so to speak; I can fill them all with ever-higher creative achievements.

And still life's journey opens my eyes in new ways, now that I'm spending much time with my two-year-old son and not traveling so much lately. While travel used to expose me to new influences, now it's spending time with my kid, who shows me how to be amazed by very ordinary things. He'll feel joy simply when a train is passing by. And in game development, I think that it's extremely important to look at ordinary things in a way that's easy for everyone across the world to understand. In fine art, creations are often founded on the strong ego and unique vision of the artist; and if the viewer comes from a different nationality or culture, it forces him to study the dynamics in the artist's head to understand the intention. Very egocentric, and not very helpful to the viewer. I would now prefer to discover something from everyone's ordinary life and elevate it into something that amazes people. How does that translate to gameplay and game development? That's a difficult question, but one that's worth exploring.

My feelings about travel and journeying have a direct bearing on my thoughts about Twilight Princess. The player needs to be impressed and constantly surprised as he travels through Hyrule, which is so enormous in the upcoming game. Also, I think that we need to always keep a certain tension in the air, or else players risk getting that creeping sense of dullness. But I'm scouting the horizons of Twilight Princess, looking for ways to amaze and inspire fans, and to see the Legend of Zelda world in ways that will take them to places they never believed possible.