Interview:Nintendo Power November 2005

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Part VI of Nintendo Power's series of interviews with the development team of Twilight Princess. This sixth one is with Keisuke Nishimori, the man responsible for animating the player-characters in Twilight Princess.

(NP:) A Link Unlike Any Other
What would it be like to really be Link? Maybe you know a little something about that if you've saved Hyrule a few times in your day. But designer Keisuke Nishimori is currently living and breathing Link 24/7: He's responsible for bringing Link and other player-controlled characters to life in Twilight Princess. It's a more complex undertaking then ever before, because you won't only control Link to make your way through the hero's darkest adventure; you'll also rove the Twilight Realm as the wolf, with the mysterious creature Midna riding on his back, plus travel across Hyrule on horseback. Nishimori plans on making you the hero in ways no one has ever imagined – and he's got more then a few insights into your next Zelda quest.

A Life of Pure Imagination

I'm one of the newer members of Nintendo on the Twilight Princess creative crew, having come to our company during the early days of the Nintendo GameCube. In fact, my first assignment was to help create the demo movie for Luigi's Mansion. Remember the sinister crows hanging out in the trees? Those were mine. Though I had studied three-dimensional CG animation at my art university and absorbed everything I could about how to make 3-D movies, creating data for a game was completely different! Honestly, I'm not sure that my university study gave me such a big advantage when I first joined Nintendo. My overall creative passion has given me much more of a leg up. Ever since I was very young, during the NES era, I loved to draw pictures. My parents were very strict about how much time I could play video games, so if I wasn't getting in gameplay at a friend's house, I was probably spending time drawing. I didn't own my first console until my university days, when I bought myself a Nintendo 64 and lost myself in the worlds of Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64.

At the time I studied 3-D animation, I really had to wonder where I might find my dream job, one where I could really express my imagination. In Japan, there was a long-running children's television show called Ponkikki that featured utterly outlandish, high-quality short films. I had a strong interest in that kind of work – really free, really over the top. At the same time, the Toy Story movie came out and blew me away with it's innovative use of 3-D animation – and then I dreamed of working for Pixar! So when I graduated from school, I visited many creative studios, both in movie-making and game development, and ultimately decided to focus on trying to find a job with Nintendo. Specifically, I wanted a position creating 3-D character animations. Lo and behold, I got exactly the job I wanted! I still think of the similarities between Ponkikki and Nintendo- both encourage artists to explore creative expression, and Nintendo's development philosophy, which encourages us to imagine worlds that will appeal to a wide variety of ages, inspires a high degree of imagination. You never know where your passions will carry you in life – mine took me to a dream job at Nintendo.

Sunshine versus Shadow

After my work on Luigi's Mansion, I was in charge of the modeling and animation of non-player characters in the Wind Waker, such as the forest creature Makar, Link's Grandmother and pre-Zelda Tetra, plus more NPCs in Mario Kart: Double Dash!! I also helped design some of the standard Mario series character models that have guided designs on Nintendo's Mario collaborations with other developers. It's really interesting to see such characters go and be designed into other games, doing a variety of things outside of Nintendo. Ah, and here's one more of my characters that you might remember: Bowser Jr. in Super Mario Sunshine!

Back in my N64 days, when I played Ocarina of Time, I was strongly drawn to the dynamic of player freedom. In the Zelda series, as you know, players occasionally move forward by solving puzzles or figuring out a mystery. What I really admired was how – when I got stuck in Ocarina of Time – the game provided me a realm of things to do where I could enjoy totally unrelated pursuits, or just simply walk around, and then the solution to my earlier problem would pop into my mind. And then I could go back to the main gameplay. Ocarina had a big field where the player could explore at will while letting any linear-gameplay solutions emerge naturally. That helps the player feel like he really exists in the game – and on that field – and that experience has become core to my own philosophy about game development. The player's freedom is essential!

Artistically speaking, I like a visual style that's simultaneously cute and dark. I'm a huge fan of Time Burton's the Nightmare Before Christmas, for instance. It's kind of cute on the surface, but also has a depth of darkness. But it's also highly entertaining for a wide range of people. I have a strong interest in that sort of thing. It's why I've been particularly drawn to the Zelda universe. Before I started working for Nintendo, I was very interested in the Mario world; but after working extensively on both series, I've come to a deeper understanding that the Zelda series offers a home for malevolence and darkness among it's characters and stories.

Running with the World

For Twilight Princess, I've been placed in charge of the modeling and animation of player-controlled characters: Link, the wolf (and Midna on his back) and Link's horse. It's the first time that I'm supervising other people's work, rather then just focusing on my assignment, and I'm working with Satoru Takizawa, the art director, and Yusuke Nakano, the overall character designer, to move all of their projects forward. Since these characters are the heroic figures of the game, I want the players to feel like they themselves are really cool while they're playing and feeling that connection. But Twilight Princess will also have something else special – by coincidence, the team has more women creators then usual, which is lending a poetic softness to the experience.

When I first heard about the wolf idea, it was quite a huge shock. While the Zelda games have had unique player characters, link Goron Link, who've looked and acted less like a human, they've always been at least somewhat humanoid in form. Designing the wolf has invited many new challenges – frightening but stimulating challenges! If you've seen the E3 Twilight Princes trailer, you've had your first introduction to Midna, who's not only a key character, but also performs an essential role in relation to the wolf. Exactly what? Well, I've got to keep many wolf details secret for now, but let me discuss a few philosophical points, and you can start imagining what we've got in store for you.

The wolf's control perspective, for instance, strongly shapes our direction. In a typical 3-D Zelda game, the third-person perspective has the player watching the back of the character as he controls it. But Mr. Miyamoto has helped us to fully think through what this would mean for wolf control: If we used the same track, the player would constantly look at the wolf's tail. Boring. And it'd be hard for the player to know which direction the wolf was running, with so much wolf tail and its rear haunches blocking the view! So… having Midna riding on the wolf's back helps us solve some of those problems.

Another thing, because we've never had a player directly extensively control a character with four legs before, it's hard to find precedents to know whether our solutions are authentically Zelda in spirit. Not to mention, how can I use a wolf to do Zelda-like things? A wolf can't push a block! A wolf can't climb ladders! On the other hand (and here's where things get interesting), a wolf can do some things that only a wolf can do, and we've never had this dynamic in a Zelda game before. While a wolf can't use items – another Zelda hallmark – it does have the power of a wild creature. That is, a creature of the wilderness. I promise you that it'll be a unique experience. When I'm giving guidance to my team, keeping the wolf's wildness in mind lends certain wildness to our thinking. Someone suggests, well, how about this? And I say, well, how about this! And new ideas are born. Or I'll make a test program while working with programmers, just to see how new ways of programming might shape the wolf, and then present these new ideas to the team. There's a lot of trial and error. The real challenge is to make Link control and wolf control seem very connected, yet still preserve the totally wild spirit of the wolf. It's exciting work – and I'm sorry that I have to be so vague about it!

Keeping Stride with Link

When Ocarina of Time was made, the development team went to study the motions and behavior of a real horse. I thought it would be crucial to do the same thing for Twilight Princess. Mr. Miyamoto paved the way for my to visit an equestrian club, not the formal British-style equestrian clubs, but an American-style center – a much better fit for the spirit of Twilight Princess, because Link is much more like a cowboy in this game. What a difference working with live animals makes over simply viewing pictures of videos. You just don't get a sense of how powerful and immense a real horse is until you've been dwarfed by one! That experience really strengthened my belief that you can heighten the realism of a game by exaggerating the size and action of things. So far, I've been able to research wolves only on DVDs. I'd like to come face-to-face with a real one, if possible. Though I could certainly see a wolf at a zoo, no doubt encountering a wild wolf would be a far difference experience. I can hope!

The Wind Waker is the only Zelda title that I've worked on before. Obviously, it's leagues away from the style of Twilight Princess. In the Wind Waker, Link could do moves that were super-deformed, sometimes even cute. Twilight's Link must conform to a more realistic world. But that doesn't mean that I won't have him make exaggerated moves – I want to take full advantage of the fact that we now have adult Link's longer arms and legs when composing his actions. I've fully researched the Links of all the previous games to prepare for this game; of course, if we're imagining Link in 3-D, our thoughts can wander to Wind Waker and back to Ocarina of Time, where we can ask this question: What could a realistic Link not do on the Nintendo 64 that we could do with the Nintendo Gamecube? It's led us to so many fascinating ideas. You've already seen a few of our efforts to take horseback riding to a much higher level, and we're hard at work doing the same with combat. We've used motion-capture technology with professional swordfighters to get the dynamics down perfectly, and then we've used the data to bring combat to life on the GCN. We're also thinking about using motion capture with real dogs and a horse – animals are such an essential part of the game.

What Free Time?!?

My whole world is Twilight Princess right now, so there's not much time to indulge my other interests! But when I have the time, I try to soak in everything I can from movie directors who use powerful imagery. I'm a huge fan of Spike Jonze – his music videos and his films, like Adaptation, and Being John Malkovitch, are really groundbreaking. And Takei Goodman is my latest obsession – he's doing some very electrifying work directing Japanese music videos. Musically, I'm all about hip-hop, and Beastie Boys and the Japanese group Suchaparapa really make me relax. Back when I was in school, I played a lot of basketball and practiced kendo. Actually, when we were working on the sword-fighting motion capture, I wore the motion-capture suit and unleashed some of my moves! Hopefully, my own moves will still be in the final version of Twilight Princess. Though I've also become interested in snowboarding, don't think that I have a secret plan to have Link use some kind of snowboarding moves in the game!

Though I like to play games at home that I've been involved with (it's amazing to see your work come to life in the final version), since I've only worked in Nintendo Gamecube games, I try to play as many Game Boy and Nintendo DS titles as I can. In Japan, there's a trend right now where people who never play games are picking up DS titles like Electroplankton and DS Brain Training. I really want to understand that phenomenon, what it is about those titles that pull those new people in so deeply. For instance, my parents are playing DS Brain Training – when I try to saw something to them while they're playing the game, they'll interrupt me and tell me to wait until they're done playing! And then they'll remind me that when I was a kid, whenever they caught me playing a Famicom, that I never wanted to be interrupted either!

But back to my current passion. I'm really almost entirely focused on Twilight Princess right now. My ambition is to create the coolest Link that's ever existed. Not to say he'll be totally different from other Links, since the longtime Zelda fans need to be satisfied with where we go with him. To be truly honest, I wish that I could play Twilight Princess like any other game fan, somehow forgetting all the secrets and surprises that I know about, so that I could be just as surprised and stunned by the experience that we're creating. At least if I can't, you can – it's going to be historic.