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GDC: All About Ninety-Nine Nights: Next-Gen Character Design

March 24, 2006
 

Introduction

"Before starting this project, SangYoun Lee and I agreed on two things," said Tetsuya Mizuguchi, chief creative officer and producer at Q Entertainment. "First, we should improve the quality of the action game to make it suitable for the next generation of consoles. And second,we should pursue a new kind of drama in a game by letting the player experience both sides of justice, not just one side. We decided to combine action on the battlefield with drama. If these two big things have chemical reaction on Xbox 360, we can create a completely new thing."

The panel, entitled " All About Ninety-Nine Nights : Next-Gen Character Design," was held on Wednesday night of the 2006 Game Developers Conference. Q Entertainment's Mizuguchi, whose previously designed games include Rez , Space Channel 5 , Meteos and Lumines , was joined by Phantagram director SangYoun Lee. Ninety-Nine Nights , an upcoming release for the Xbox 360 and the game being discussed in this panel, was co-designed by both studios, in Japan and Korea, respectively.

Killing Lots and Lots of Guys

Ninety-Nine Nights can be described, briefly, as an action game featuring a single player taking on massive hoards of enemies in combat, with a dramatic war-torn backstory. Lee, who appeared to be responsible mainly for the game play elements of the title, explained the basics:

"So in your usual traditional games one would be fighting against one hundred opponents in combat, five hundred at most," said Lee. "So that's what you have in your traditional combat scenes. But what we wanted to focus on was one vs. ten thousand in combat. So that was our basic concept for our combat scenes. And with that combat, we wanted to create many different combat styles and methods."

Lee showed a long video montage of Ninety-Nine Nights ' different characters, around seven in total, each exhibiting unique combat styles and weaponry, all taking on overwhelming armies. Additionally, each character had a unique "orb spark" attack, which wipes out a large amount of enemies around an enemy, an experience Lee describes as being cathartic for a player.

Not Just a Pretty Face

 



War-torn and beautiful Inphyy

 

In designing the main characters of the game, Lee explained that they had two main goals in mind: to design characters attractive to both Western and Eastern gamers, and to find a fine balance between realistic rendering and "deformation," which Lee says is somewhere in-between realistic and animated.

"We had never done so many different reiterations of designs and changes," said Lee. "And also we had to pay attention to the characters' personalities, and looks and attire as well. And also it has to be appealing to gamers, somebody who is really good looking, so the gamers like the characters while playing the game."

A still on screen displayed a close-up facial model of Inphyy, one of the game's female protagonists. Mild reflection in her eyes softly suggest tears. Her eyelids, through soft and gentle, can do nothing to hide her weariness. Her lips glow, slightly. Inphyy is a deep character, and Lee wants us to know that.

"So we pay a lot of attention to such detail," said Lee. "So characters are finalized that way, and based on these we put together many other characters as well. So it took all together about eight months [to develop the game's main characters]. We lost a lot of sleep, but at the end our hard work was worth it."

Mizuguchi then took over to talk about the other major half of Ninety-Nine Nights . "Those of you attending here are game developers, so I think you understand how difficult it is to bring together games and drama," said Mizuguchi. "If you don't do it right the game is ruined, it will end up uninteresting and boring. We decided that we would let the user play the game assuming roles of different characters."

Ninety-Nine Nights is the first war-themed game Mizuguchi has ever been involved in, and he felt it was important to show war from more than one perspective. "There are always more than two conflicting parties in a war, which both have justice and cause," he said. "However, in a war between nations or tribes, individual feelings are hidden. People tend to be collective."

 



Boom!

 

"Love echoes, love between parents and children and mental conflict," he continued. "There is drama there. We decided to show the subtle difference from each character's point of view in a large scale war action game. We decided to create a story of justice for each character. The player can experience all of them, and the player will assume a different point of view."

This was demonstrated by showing how a particular story point cut-scene plays out from two different character perspectives, those of siblings Aspharr and Inphyy. In the scenario, brother Aspharr and sister Inphyy arrive at a crossroads on the way to their destination, the goblin base. A dying messenger limps toward them, explaining that their castle is under attack and they need help. The characters are left with a choice: do the honorable thing and help out fellow soldiers in need, or continue in pursuit of the goblin base.

If the player is assuming the role of Inphyy, she will disregard the soldier's request, despite her brother's empathy, and insist that they remain on course toward the goblin base.

Mizuguchi then showed the same clip from the player perspective of Aspharr. Though the same scenario plays out, subtle cinematic changes are immediately noticeable. Through clever camerawork, Inphyy becomes cold, distant, and – at times – larger than life. As in the previous movie, a soldier collapses into Aspharr's arms, begging for help. Inphyy refuses, saying that they must continue on to the goblin base. This time, however, the player is given a choice.

If Aspharr agrees with Inphyy, he reluctantly lays the dying soldier down, despite his begging and crying out ("I have come so far! You must send help!") and, head lowered but loyal to the end, follows his sister.

If the player instead chooses to help defend Varrvasarr Castle , Aspharr takes a stand. "A knight can not forsake those in need," he says, and demands that they go help.

"Aspharr has to make an important decision," said Mizuguchi. "What he will make as a human, as a knight, and as Inphyy's brother will be thrown onto the player. The player chooses him or herself the course, and the outcome of the game greatly changes."

Mizuguchi then quickly showed another cinematic, this one occurring at the goblin base itself, assuming the player's path lead them there. Inphyy and Aspharr arrive after seeing a goblin mother and child killed needlessly by a human soldier. In the Inphyy-controlled scenario, she very coldly passes off the incident as part of war, and moves on. Aspharr is left speechless.

"Here we see Aspharr's gentle nature, his weakness and wavering, which is striking," said Mizuguchi.

 



A cinematic still from Ninety-Nine Nights

 

We then see the same scene from the player perspective of Aspharr. As the leader, he is in control of the situation, and rather than bowing to his sister's viewpoint, Aspharr shows her his point of view by slapping her in the face.

"Uh oh," said Mizuguchi. "You really shouldn't hit your sister. He's become more violent after living through war, it seems."

He then showed a video from the other perspective: from a young goblin, who watches his brother die at the hands of Inphyy, and vows revenge on humans.

"Well, when this idea came to me, I was so worried because when we change the position between enemy and friends, it's interesting," said Mizuguchi. "And when I play as his role, my sense of justice is reversed. Whenever I see this movie, I think, 'human beings are bad.' When I was Inphyy, I liked her, she's cute and has a nice body. She has good cleavage, I threw that in for the player's sake.

"Aspharrr and Inphyy are attractive and lovable, they show a lot of stories. But all of a sudden when you see this movie, you have empathy with the goblins. My sense of empathy is reversed, and I fight against human soldiers. Even though I played as them before, I'm killing them now. And it's a strange feeling, but it's enjoyable!"

Rashamon and Tragedy

"The source of my inspiration was media reports after 9/11," admitted Mizuguchi, comfortable admitting this only among his game developer peers. "After the attack, I saw a lot of different news reports from different countries. I was in Tokyo at the time, and learned about this attack through TV. It was really shocking. 'What will happen to the world? What is going on?' I was so worried. And at the same time I thought, why do people fight and wage a war? I was seriously thinking these questions while glued to the TV."

"Then the war started. The coverage varied depending on the country. There are countries for and against the war, different points of view."

"I started thinking about how to subtly make these conflicts in the game. Movies have limits, they only reward good deeds and punish bad. But using games I can go beyond that, because you can experience it. You can experience different points of view, both sides of justice."

"Movies can not do this kind of thing, but videogames can."

Mizuguchi had another inspiration: Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film Rashômon. "It has an excellent structure," he said. "The content was shocking though, the couple traveled, the wife was raped by a certain guy and her husband was killed. That was a shocking incident, and the movie is a collection of testimonies from different people. Each witness said a different thing, and the final judgment is up to you. It's a black and white movie, 55 years old. When you have time please take a look at this movie. It's a great movie."

 

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