To the uninitiated, the Dreamcast and PlayStation game Rez,
published by Sega and developed by its UGA (United Game Artists)
division in 2001, is near-impossible to describe. The title, which had
a very limited release and relatively small sales, has since become a
distinctly cult classic.
of those who noticed the game on its release and gave it a spin felt
that it was just a simple on-rails shooter with music game elements.
But a small and dedicated fanbase has argued that the first group
doesn't "get it", and believes the title defies simple classification,
even to the point of transcending the idea of what a video game can be.
Whatever the reality, it seems that the finer details behind Rez,
much like the game itself, are quite enigmatic. Most know that it's the
brainchild of Tetsuya Mizuguchi, yet another subdued, but inspired game
designer from the East with an eclectic catalogue of games, from a
classic cross-terrain racing title (Sega Rally) to a rhythm title starring a spunky intergalactic news reporter (Space Channel 5).
Mizuguchi has explained his rationale behind Rez's
development a number of times, and provides the compelling viewpoint on
its construction, as the game's primary creator. But a little-known
fact is that, despite its Japanese origination, there was at least one
Westerner working on Rez, and his story is a fascinating one.
Jake Kazdal was the only American to work directly on the game as an
animator and designer, and he spoke to Gamasutra about his game
development background, as well as his time working on Rez and his experiences as a foreigner working at Sega Japan.
a little background: Jake Kazdal started working in the world of gaming
at the age of 16, as a game counselor for Nintendo during the heyday of
the NES. Not too longer after, Jake realized that his talent for art
could be used towards the creation of games, so went on to study art in
Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia . Immediately after graduating
in 1996, Jake got his first professional gig at noted Sega Saturn
developers Lobotomy Software, and then migrated to Boss Game Studios.
1998, an Alias representative who was on-hand to demonstrate the latest
version of the company's software noticed the abundant amount of
Sega-related toys on Jake's desk, and asked him if he was a fan of the
company. A rather enthusiastic response led the rep to reveal his past
working relationship with Sega, and offered to introduce Kazdal to
Mizuguchi (the representative was the person who performed the voice
acting for the game Sega Rally, such as "Right Turn. Maybe.").
thereafter, Kazdal and Mizuguchi met, and Kazdal was then asked to come
to Japan, where he hung out in Tokyo for a week (it was Jake's first
introduction to psy-trance at "some crazy rave way out in the forest" -
Mizuguchi's affinity for the club scene has often preceded him). Kazdal
soon discovered that Mizuguchi was starting a new Sega development
division for the company's new system, the Dreamcast, which was a few
months from launch, and was looking for some fresh outside talent. Jake
was then formally asked to join United Game Artists.
a few months, Kazdal arrived in the thick of things, though the
transition was not completely smooth. In addition to his inability to
speak Japanese, Jake explained: "As far as I know, I was the only
gaijin [literally "outside person", a Japanese term for non-Japanese
people] artist at Sega ever. I know a handful of other
programmers and other personnel at AM2 doing motion capture, but no
other artists." But despite the language barrier, and the significant
cultural barriers, Kazdal gradually acclimated himself. It's possible
that it helped that UGA was not like the other Sega development groups;
whereas Sega's other teams were all located in Haneda, which is the
industrial suburbs, Tetsuya's small team was smack in the middle of
downtown Shibuya, the hip urban center of Tokyo. UGA's location, where
the art and culture of music and fashion meet, was a strong reflection
of the team itself.
and Mizuguchi had already talked about doing a game that was inspired
and influenced by music and art, and by the time Jake arrived, a few
tests had been done, going under the name of K-Project. So Jake started
out doing character design and animation for music action game Space Channel 5 instead. After Space Channel 5's
completion, K-Project began finally taking shape, so Jake then joined
up with its team. He explains: "I did character design and animation,
and wrote all the English text in the game. I was the one who showed
Mizuguchi-san the Winamp plug-ins [that were a partial inspiration] and
got the ball rolling in that direction."
The Rezvolution Of Rez
The early versions of Rez took many strange forms, according to Kazdal: "Hip-hop dudes riding these huge speaker chariots, Space Harrier
type characters running and jumping, super abstract shapes and
characters... when we showed it, no one could understand it, it was
really abstract, but man, was it ever cool? After that it started
becoming more traditional with 'enemies' and a player 'character', but
for a while, it was way out there."
what exactly led the move from abstraction to more identifiable game
aspects? Was it a conscious decision, perhaps due to outside people's
reactions, or did it just happen naturally? "Well, internally we were
really into its abstractness, but people from the outside playing it
had a hard time knowing what to do, or indeed just what the hell was
going on. You know how it is when you are too close to a project: a
painting, a music track, a game, anything. You [yourself] understand
it, but maybe others won't. So I guess it was both a conscious decision
that happened naturally." However, the game does go back to its roots
to an extent with the TranceMission mode, which is just bold colors and
shapes, with no identifiable player or enemy character on-screen.
Despite the small size of the Rez
team, it had some intriguing characters from the world of Sega. "For
being so small, it had an insane ratio of killer designers and
artists", Kazdal comments. The staff included Katsumi Yokota, who
served as the art director and lead artist, and was previously the lead
artist of Panzer Dragoon Saga: "That guy is a total trip, way
into hardcore sci-fi novels and zen existence. He's hard to understand
and harder to please, but man, that game wouldn't have been the same
without him." Yokota is currently part of Mizuguchi's new production
company, Q Entertainment.
addition to game designers, Kazdal notes that graphic designers
comprised key members of the team, including Noboru Hotta, who is also
currently at Q and has just completed Meteos, and Yasu
Matsuzaki, who now works for Nintendo. Again, Mizuguchi had surrounded
himself with an eclectic mix of talent, including designers, VJs, and
"mimes." You rarely hear of so many artists working on a single title,
though as one might expect, it was never easy sailing: "There were
disagreements, it wasn't always smooth... at all, actually." What
exactly was in constant debate? Aesthetics. "The lead artist had his
style, and everyone else had theirs, and we went through so many
versions of things, although I do have to admit it could have been much
worse - things did all get settled in the end."
Another element must be discussed with talking about Rez
is the sound design. "A guy named Ebizoo-san, a Tokyo DJ, kind of led
the evolution of things and was the main guy early on. Later we got
another guy on loan from Wave Master." [Wave Master is the internal
Sega's studio dedicated to sound and music production.]
spent time in Africa researching tribal music, the call and response
theory that made it into the game." What exactly is call and response
theory? "African tribal music often has a guy sing a word, or tone, and
the audience calls something back. It's like interactive music... hard
to explain, but it became a real part of our theory. You call out, and
earn a response from it." This concept is rather inherent to video
gaming itself, a fact that was not lost on the team.
the game's signature sounds were in a constant state of flux it would
seem: "We used Underworld for our demo, and [even] talked to them... in
the end they passed on the project, not wanting to be part of a
'violent' game, because we were shooting stuff." Two other notable
names from the world of electronica, Fatboy Slim and Aphex Twin, were
also involved, but Sega also couldn't reach an agreement with them for
various reasons. However, the changing of the music did not
dramatically alter each level, oddly enough. In the case of the first
level: "The Underworld track worked so well with the first stage,
although the guy from Wave Master who was responsible for the final
version [ Keiichi Sugiyama] that's in the game did a really excellent
job." Along with Sugiyama on the final soundtrack are other, more
recognizable names, such as Adam Freeland, Joujouka, and Ken Ishii.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the mechanics of Rez,
here's how the graphics and the sound worked for any given level:
things begin barren and quiet. As you shoot enemies and objects, noises
are formed. As you pass checkpoints, the sounds become more complex and
the backgrounds begin to form. Kazdal comments: "That was always part
of the theme, to go from nothing up and evolve into something very
different. I don't know if this has ever been talked about, but I guess
it's pretty obvious that we used ancient cultures as a design
inspiration for each level." The last level is different from the rest,
with no particular human culture being empathized, but simply the
creation of all known life itself.
last stage was Yokota-san's personal trip out level, also my favorite."
Each transition between each subsection has a vague narrative that
Kazdal translated. What was the intended message behind the words and
the last level itself? Jake simply relays: "You'd have to ask [Yokota]
for the primary goal behind the creation of the game: "Synesthesia -
the combination of visuals and audio to form something new, the merging
of two senses to overpower you." Mizuguchi was most influenced by the
artwork of Wassily Kandinsky, hence the name K-project - Kandinsky is
regarded as one of the founders of abstract art.
Even though the game's concepts was hard to wrap around one's head, and
the various aspects were constantly changing, the level of enthusiasm
managed to stay consistent, even when the upper management at Sega
initially didn't know what to make of it. Kazdal comments: "I never
went to any of the upper level presentations, I was just a pixel peon.
But there was some doubt, I think, it was in pre-production for such a
long time, people I think really wondered whether it was a good idea or
not... But Mizuguchi-san just kept fighting; he really wanted it to
happen. It was his baby."
continues: "The atmosphere at Sega when the game started, which was
during the height of Dreamcast development, was much different by the
time the game actually came out, when the DC was floundering, and thus
the decision was made to go multi-platform. I remember the only time I
saw Mizuguchi-san really bummed out and feeling defeated was the day
the PlayStation 2 specs came out. Everyone was oohing and awwing, the
tension was in the air!! Even if the PlayStation 2 didn't ever deliver
on all of those early promises, it was enough to fatally puncture the
choice to go multi-platform was not only a blow to Mizuguchi, but to
the whole team as well, including Kazdal. "We were all summoned to the
meeting room and he dropped the bomb. I distinctly remember a bunch of
the old timers jaws just dropping. It was the end of an era... Sega
hardware had just been so beaten down by Sony... everyone knew it was
an uphill battle, but how could you not root for the underdog?
Especially when you worked for the underdog."
So with Sega's new strategy, and with Rez
suddenly becoming an opening salvo on non-Sega platforms, there was a
whole new level of pressure to perform, as well as the already-looming
problem of the public "not getting it." Despite its uniquely abstract
qualities, the team felt there was still hope for sales success. Kazdal
comments: "Well, it felt different... so much what was coming out of
Japan at the time was the same formulas, the same things. This game was
[different]. I thought it would be the next Wipeout."
Unfortunately, Kazdal considers the U.S. ad campaign for Rez
underwhelming at best, basically amounting, in his view, to a vinyl
single, and some basic print advertisements. This, combines with the
abstract nature of the game, meant that on almost every front, the game
received extremely disappointing sales. The situation was made worse by
the game's lack of licensing potential, which is where Sega had made
good money in the past: "We had all kinds of licensing deals with Space Channel 5 for toys, music, and so on. But Rez collectables never really made it, besides the T-shirts and some record singles."
After Rez, Kazdal moved onto a GameCube project, which lasted over a year. Meanwhile, a sequel to Rez
was actually being developed for a while - Kazdal comments: "Man, it
looked cool, but never made it". But the GameCube project was
eventually cancelled, so Jake moved onto the PlayStation 2 Astro Boy
game right before leaving UGA, which was shortly before it was merged
into Sonic Team and Mizuguchi himself parted ways with Sega.
was not the only one who was concerned over the merge with Sonic Team:
"It was depressing. People started leaving, the spark was dying out -
it was rough. UGA was really tight; for a long time, everyone was
friends. we had a lot of good times together. [And] when everyone
started leaving it was like, whoa, party over."
number of other factors played into the UGA exodus, Kazdal contends:
the death of the GameCube title which killed morale, the lack of
interest in the Astro Boy project, the belief that Mizuguchi
and the head of Sonic Team, Yuji Naka would not be able to work
together effectively. Some members of the UGA team went to Microsoft
and Nintendo. "A handful of other guys just wanted to move on to
something different. Some even left games." However, the rather bleak
situation did help Kazdal come to terms with his desire to move back to
America . "I had learned so much about design theory and been doing a
lot more digital painting, I was really itching to get away from 3D
continues: "I was almost 30 years old and living month to month, no
savings whatsoever, married, and I felt maybe I should plan out my next
steps, to really follow what I had found to love doing, conceptual
design, and digital painting. This meant no more 3D. I wanted to get a
good education in design by this point: the flame had been awakened in
me, largely by those few members of the Rez team I keep talking
about. School in Tokyo was out of the question and I was starting to
get cranky with all the cigarette smoke, crowded trains, and limited
paychecks. So, over Christmas 2002, I spent some time in Los Angeles
looking at the top schools, and once I found exactly what I was looking
for, I told Mizuguchi-san in January 2003 that I would be leaving in a
few months time. He was supportive, and said he looks forward to
working me with again in the future... and I really plan to make that a
reality as well."
Today, Jake is on sabbatical studying concept design at the Art Center
in Pasadena. But to this day, he's quite proud of his contributions to
one of the most consistently talked about games in the past four years,
which over those years, did manage to find its audience after all.
Kazdal comments: "Well, people who like that game love it. People still
come up to me all the time and freak out when they hear I worked on
it... a total cult following. I doubt I will ever work on anything
cooler, which is actually depressing in some ways. But it's my goal to
work on something as memorable as Rez again someday."