Was it difficult to balance the game so that players who just wanted to plow through the main story without hanging out with its characters could do so, and still have a satisfactory story?
HS: I was very confident that the main storyline would be a very satisfactory and cool story in itself. The side quests were designed so that you get more detail about what's going on in the town. For people like you, who would go and talk to everybody in the town, you would get more information about the things that are going on in the town and hopefully, by design, we were trying to tickle you into wanting to talk about the game to other people. It's a small little tactic, a little technique that was experimental that we put into the game.
It's cleverly done. It's very effective.
HS: I wasn't totally sure that this would work. So when we implemented that spec, that part of the game, I wasn't totally sure it would work or not. So it's good to hear that.
When the townspeople go about their daily business and do things independently of you, it reminded me Sega's Shenmue. Is that where the inspiration for that came from?
HS: I only played that game for about 30 minutes, so it's hard to say if I was influenced by it. I think I was more influenced by real-time strategy games, where even if you let go of the controller you still see things going on.
Of the three games you've directed, I'd say Deadly Premonition is your first story-based game, where you're directly interacting with the story and influencing its events. Certainly Spy Fiction and Extermination had a narrative, but it seemed separate from the gameplay.
HS: When players finish my games, I want the player to be surprised. I want them to have something that lingers with them. With Spy Fiction, there was this little thing where we made it so that the gamer would have to finish the game twice in order to see the real ending. It was just the way the game was designed; the rails were very strict in that regard. There was no freedom of timing. In Deadly Premonition, after looking back on Spy Fiction, I thought maybe we can relax those rails a bit and see what we can do there.
The freedom of timing really gelled well with having [Deadly Premonition protagonist] York and [the voice in his head] Zach agreeing to solve the crime at their own pace. They're not in a big rush. If you decide to not do something now, you have Zach agreeing, saying, "We don't have to do this right now; we can do this tomorrow."
Let's talk about your career. When did you start in game development?
HS: I believe it was 1996.
You were doing what in 1996? How did you start?
HS: I was at SNK. The first project they gave me was a game called Kizuna Encounter. I got to work on the main character's collision and some of the AI adjustments for that character.
How did you get there? Were you seeking a career in video games?
HS: At first, when I was studying in school, I wanted to make movies. That kind of evolved into wanting to make CG animations, working on commercials and stuff. And after a while that evolved into me wanting to actually control that character that was on the screen. So I started looking for jobs at game companies. I ended up working at the company that was closest to my home, and that was SNK.
Did you play games before that?
HS: Yes. I was a gamer. I owned a Nintendo. But even before that, my father owned a PC, so I was playing simpler games before that.
Was there a particular game that you played that made you realize that video games were an effective means of telling a compelling story?
HS: In regards to stories in games, I was very impressed with Goichi Suda's Flower, Sun and Rain and Hideo Kojima's Policenauts.
When you started at SNK, you said that you wanted to control your characters and animation on screen, rather than just animate them. Was there a sense of satisfaction working on the Kizuna Encounter characters, or was that not enough? Did you need more?
HS: We were working on fighting games, and that was fun. But inside I was yearning to make some kind of free-roaming game, where you could actually roam around. But the tech just didn't exist at the time. So when Super Mario 64 came out, I was in complete shock. It blew me away and made me think, "I need to make something like this."
What kind of roaming game did you have in mind back then?
HS: At the time, I was really in love with fighting games. There were great games that were coming out: Virtua Fighter, Tekken. I was thinking in my mind, it would be fun if I could make characters that moved around like Jackie Chan inside a town. You could go breaking down dojos and picking fights and walking around town.
So not talking, not interacting, but action-oriented.
HS: Yeah, that's right.
That would have been around the time you were working on The Last Blade at SNK.
HS: Yeah, it was probably around the time that The Last Blade came out. I was really shocked because their game came out at a similar price as my game.
You worked on The Last Blade 2, after that, right?
How did you come to move away from SNK?
HS: I hit a point where I wasn't sure what I wanted to make anymore. This may sound weird, but I went on basically six months of vacation time to look for what I really wanted to do. I went on trips, went on voyages, trying to look for what I was missing and trying to find, basically, myself. Then when the time came, I went to work on Tomba! 2 at Whoopee Camp.
That work came at the conclusion of your six-month sabbatical. Had you come to a conclusion? Did you come any closer to finding yourself, or were you still trying to figure that out?
HS: No, I definitely did not find who I was yet. I just ran out of cash and needed work.