Harnessing the Power of Players' Minds
This setup may sound extremely far-fetched -- and it is. But the internal logic is what matters, not the plausibility of a given scenario, Uchikoshi argues.
"The easiest answer to this question would be 'As long as it's interesting, anything goes!'" he jokes. "If the story is interesting and you can immerse yourself into the world, the 'implausible' becomes 'plausible.' It's strange, isn't it? It becomes plausible in the player's head."
This has a dangerous flipside. "On the contrary, if you try to make the 'plausible' more plausible, and you give a forced explanation to justify it, the story instantly becomes boring, and the 'implausible' looks even more implausible."
His advice: "just put your trust into the player's power of imagination. I'm sure they’ll find things wonderfully 'plausible' in ways that you never even imagined."
Another one of his tricks is underpinning the story with interesting concepts -- this keeps the player guessing and also, he says, adds a layer of believability.
For example, the AB Game explores the Prisoner's Dilemma -- which Uchikoshi describes as "fun and intriguing" -- in a concrete way, while the concept of Schrödinger's Cat, which is also toyed with, simply adds flavor to the game.
These thought experiments add a lot of flavor to Virtue's Last Reward. "However, all of things are used only to hint at things; I'm not using them to explain the mysteries and phenomena found in the story," says Uchikoshi. "Having the player personally wondering, 'Maybe the principal idea is this?' gives the story the feeling of being real and credible."
There's a line you don't want to cross, he says. These concepts are included for the player's mind to explore, not for the writer to dictate to them. "I felt that if I explained things in detail, it would sound like I was trying to come up with excuses, and the story would lose its credibility and not be convincing."
"What ultimately makes a story convincing is the player's mind," he argues. "That is the reason why I only hint at things. It is so the player can personally create the world..."
Uchikoshi also draws on ideas from other sources -- notably drawing in concepts from writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Isaac Asimov.
"My personal opinion is that 90 percent of any creative endeavor is made up of bits and pieces taken from the work of others," he says. "To overstate the point, most works today are mostly amalgamations of already existing ideas and forms."
"The question of whether what you've created is worthwhile or not depends on how skillfully you incorporated those influences with your own ideas. That is how a writer’s ability and talent is ultimately tested."
"So what comprises the remaining 10 percent? That would be creativity," Uchikoshi says; he defines "creativity" as "something that, because of your own experiences, only you can express."
"In order to fully express their creativity in that 10 percent, a person uses the influences and ideas in the other 90 percent as the foundation for their original creation. To put it simply, the process is 90 percent craftsmanship and 10 percent artistic inspiration," he concludes.
The Art of Characters
Given the high concepts that form his games, it won't be surprising to hear that story comes first for Uchikoshi -- and then the characters follow. "I extract the characters that I need to make it work," he says. This story-led style is unusual for Japan; generally Japanese creators concentrate on strong casts of characters over intricate plotting -- "as basically that is what sells."
For Uchikoshi, it's more about creating characters that serve the overall dynamic. "You create character profiles so there is an equilibrium," says Uchikoshi. "Once you set the story and come up with the characters, the next thing to do is look at the overall balance between the two.
"For example, if you make Character A's personality cold, then you would make B kind. If there's an older grandpa-type character, then you'll need to add a child. So basically you look for plus/minus, positive/negative, assertive/passive, rational/emotional."
Another important element of creating characters for a game like Virtue's Last Reward is misdirection, Uchikoshi asserts. "I deliberately throw in a character that straight-up looks like a bad person to draw the player's attention from the real antagonist," he says. "When there's a character you can vent your frustrations on, people tend to focus on that person a lot more, and it makes it more difficult to see who the bad guy really is. I learned this trick from politicians."
It doesn't hurt to team up with a talented artist, like Kinu Nishimura, who handled the designs for both 999 and VLR. "I think she is one of a very few designers who can make you excited about how the story will unfold with just a group shot of the nine main characters."
In the end, Uchikoshi's goal is to keep players thinking about the story -- even fixated on it. Those who have already played Virtue's Last Reward and 999 can attest to this. Whether the ideas Uchikoshi puts forward are simply interesting, or whether they form the core of the mysteries of identity and motive that rest at the center of the Nonary Game, there is plenty for your mind to play with.
Onward for Uchikoshi
Even though he's responsible for the creation of a cult hit franchise, Uchikoshi isn't yet satisfied.
"Compared to other media, I feel like fans support us feverishly. It's very humbling and I appreciate it very much," he says. "The full impact is just beginning to hit me."
Later, though, he remarks that he doesn't think the Zero Escape series can be called a "success" just yet. "For example, if you look at TV dramas such as Lost, 24, and Prison Break, those are considered to be very successful. You have to be that big to consider yourself to be successful," Uchikoshi says.
"I know you might laugh, thinking, 'Wow, you're comparing yourself to a different scale,' but with my development staff, [publisher] Aksys' help, and our fans' continued support, I feel like it's a possibility to reach that level."
"Rather than being 'a cult hit that only core players know,' we are constantly thinking how we can appeal to mainstream gamers. Therefore, if we want to make our project even bigger, we need to work on it."
Whether or not he can achieve even a tenth of this success, it's clear that his ambitions have had one effect. Uchikoshi is already pushing the boundaries of what game narrative can be.