Unpacking The Silver Case: A Q&A with Grasshopper Manufacture
The Silver Case is the first game Grasshopper Manufacture ever made. Before Killer 7, before No More Heroes, before Let it Die, The Silver Case showed what GHM would become. A studio where story and visual flair were paramount.
It's an adventure game, in the visual novel style of classics like Snatcher, but with a more realistic setting, posed as a hard boiled crime story. It was originally released on the PlayStation in 1999, only in Japan, the only original Grasshopper Manufacture game with that distinction. That's why the recent PC port, called The Silver Case HD Remaster, is exciting – it brings the entire original Grasshopper catalog into English.
To dig into what makes this game special, we spoke with some of the developers of the game, original and new, discussing character design, story, and the port itself.
PART 1: VISUAL DESIGN
Takashi Miyamoto, character designer
What influenced your design style here?
Takashi Miyamoto: The story is set in 1999, but there was an inclusion of near future aspects which came from the writings of William Gibson. Additionally, numerous films have also influenced the design.
Which films? How did they influence the design?
TM: What I remembered from your question is Metropolis, Gattaca, Heat, or Seven. But these answers don't mean I was influenced regarding the character design, it's more like the overall image including the background or scenes.
Of course all those films, since my childhood, are accumulated into my core, but I really don't think I got any direct influence about the character design from them, at least that's what I remember.
However, Suda told me that Morikawa and Kotobuki could look like characters appearing in the Japanese television series Taiyo ni hoero. I didn't search for the actual photos or videos, so still everything is made from my imagination.
Why do you think there's a more western style prominent in detective style visual novels?
TM: Perhaps it would be in the interest or longing to the culture totally different from our own. Also, it might be difficult to make up something new from the cities you've grown up in, I guess.
I’ve never played an adventure game other than “The Silver Case,” though, so I have no idea how many games with Western settings are there or such.
What impressed me long ago was the stylish UI. Was this an iterative process getting there, and can you describe the process?
TM: At the time, the game was made with such a small team; I think the staff’s sensitivity to it was displayed in a straightforward style. The mood of the visual becomes complete with the inclusion of my art and it had to be up to the story to work. I myself was able to sink in the story and it was very comfortable.
Tell me about your most important pillars of character design. How do you craft someone unique, and bring their personality forward?
TM: I avoid the expressions and poses of common symbolic emotions that Japanese animation and manga uses, unless there is a good reason to. At my core, I always want to design characters with a back-story, and I think that suited Suda’s demand for characters at the time.
Can you give some examples of how a character's backstory influenced their character design?
TM: As far as I remember, the process of those character designs were something like; Suda shows me a fashion magazine for the costumes, and explains to me each one’s personalities, then I’d imagine the background (it's not told in the game).
Once my imagination is ready, I’d get the OK from Suda and start drawing and so on. So, no one knows about all those processes other than me and Suda. I guess Suda was doing something similar with the scenarios since he was working on it at the same time.
PART 2: Story
Masahi Ooka, scenario writer, “Placebo” section
When writing a detective story, how close do you stick to tropes of the genre?
Masahi Ooka: I personally like to defy tropes, but in the case of The Silver Case I was actually going for a “hard-boiled” story instead of a detective one. I remember writing the story with the mind set of making the writing as “hard-boiled” as possible.
How would you distinguish between a detective story and a hard-boiled one?
MO: The book that rings a bell with the term "hard-boiled" is the Philip Marlowe series by Raymond Chandler. Also Robert Brown Parker is a favorite, too. If you say "detective story," that would be the "Sherlock Holmes" series. In Japan, there is a detective story series called Akechi Kogorou written by Ranpo Edogawa. When I was still in my early teens, I loved detective and mystery stories. Then in my late teens, I was into Sci-Fi novels. Finally in my twenties, the hard-boiled genre came up as a choice among other mystery novels.
That might be why I feel "detective story" and "hard-boiled" are different genres. So in short, there is a big genre called "mystery," and within that, "detective story" is just one category, then another category called "hard-boiled" exists inside my head.
The difference? The writing style, the air, the reasoning and action of the protagonist, I guess. The heroes of hard-boiled stories are all tough, merciless, and stylish. Well, in the era of Robert Brown Parker, those heroes became more humane and somewhat unstylish, I should say. (The game's second protaginist) Tokio Morishima, of course, fulfills my aesthetics but he is a character who is a little unstylish and "poorly-made."
How is it collaborating with other writers? Do you take charge of a certain aspect, like dialog, or do you write whatever and edit each other, or something else?
MO: With the cooperation of Suda, I will receive the scenario once he completes it; we will have a meeting in regards to the scenario, confirm what will be covered in Placebo, and then finally start writing the story. We also had help from the writer Kato Sako, who we also met up with at a café, giving out ideas and then writing the story. As a journalist, I would usually write after an interview, write after research or write with an editor. So The Silver Case was written as an extension of that practice. Of course, there were also times I’ve submitted the scenario and fixed the script so it matches the overall story.
When writing a story like this, do you ever find yourself trapped in your own logic? Sometimes when I write, I have a great idea, and then I realize it contradicts other things I've already put in place. How do you deal with this?
MO: Yes, of course, I was occasionally trapped. The Silver Case is a piece of work which presents the seems-to-be logical answer but creates inconsistency at the same time, and then someone comes up with a new piece of logic from another perspective but it also produces a different inconsistency... it keeps going on like this and ends up with just a chaotic situation. So, sometimes I had to think about "What is the logical consistency anyway?" That was just tough. Or quite simply, there might be some inconsistencies left over intentionally, you know.
Apart from The Silver Case, "logic" is a mere element to construct a story. It is the same even for mystery which has a strong weight upon logic. It is true that if the story has any inconsistency, that might make the user stop following it, but if the work has something more important than keeping the consistency, it is author's choice to prioritize the inconsistency, this is what I think. If any of us come up with brilliant idea, we should rely on that rather than try to make something look good. I prefer a "marvelous idea with some inconsistency" rather than a "logical consistency." Of course we need to balance them well though.
Yes, the balance. A so-called masterpiece is something with a good balance which includes logical consistency. However, that well-balanced piece could be interesting but boring, no one knows. What I like is something that pretends to have the layers of logical ideas and just destroys everything in the end, something that seems to be made upon the unreal logic. Well, it's hard to describe.
Saying that, I, myself am a very bad story writer. Please someone teach me how to create an interesting story.
Is there anything you've changed from the original game, or anything you wish you could?
MO: For me it’s the norm to feel embarrassed at my own past writing, so I don’t really like to read it once it’s written. If I were to start fixing the text, I would probably rewrite the whole thing. However, Placebo was something I’ve written a considerably long time ago and I don’t really remember the fine details of it. So it’s probably going to feel like someone else had written it. Well since I haven’t touched the script in over a decade, I don’t think I would have the urge to change it.
I'm sure you didn't plan for this game to be translated into English from the start? Is there anything that has surprised you about the localization process?
MO: I wouldn’t have even dreamed that The Silver Case would be released in English. Being totally honest, I’m surprised that people still even remember it as a game. Kind of like the living dead. I’ve got no clue how the English audience will receive the game. Suda’s scenarios would likely be accepted outside of Japan, but I’m worried that people might not get what’s going on in Placebo haha.
PART 3: The port
Yuki Yamazaki, programmer, The Silver Case HD Remaster development team
Looking back at old code, was there anything embarrassing there? Anything you fixed up?
Yuki Yamazaki: To be honest, I still don’t know all of it. We’re rebuilding the source code from scratch, recycling fine algorithms and parameters from the original source.
Can you talk about how you're rebuilding the code base? And with those old algorithms and such, do you feel the need to improve them?
YY: For the basic functions like audio/movie playback or fade-in/out of the screen, I just ignored the original algorithm and designed it so that we can easily use it. Contrary to that, I painstakingly tried to keep the original design for the “film window system” to preserve the coordinated decision or movement timing decision algorithms.
What I had difficulty with was that very original message display system. There was an automatic page break function which worked only a couple times throughout the whole game, so I was checking the code each time with thinking “Do I have to use this ‘automatic’ system? Can we just do this manually?” Then in the end, that function became totally different from the original algorithm and I just ended up regretting my decision to edit that “automatic page break” function from the start.
Did you port to a modern engine, or modify the original?
YY: We are using the latest Unity engine. Using an engine from 17 years ago was out of the question.
What has been updated for modern platforms? How did you deal with aspect ratio issues, et cetera?
YY: We pretty much remade the game from the ground up. For the aspect ratio, were trying to make the “Film Window” functional in a 4:3 environment. We decided not to change anything like forcefully stretching the image.
What are the challenges of working with an old code base?
YY: Since we didn’t have the original data, I’ve decided to make a converter that extracts the sound data from the PlayStation sound data. However since the format is so old and so little of it, it was quite difficult.
Can you go into detail about the PlayStation sound converter?
YY: The sound file for PlayStation had two separate types of music data; pitch data and the musical score data, which is rather similar to MIDI files.
Adding to that, for The Silver Case, the musical score data contained the parameter for background effect manipulation so that the BGM and background effects can be synchronized. So I had to create two converters to extract the waveform data from score+pitch data, and background manipulation parameter from the pitch data.
As for the sound effects, there was only pitch data and no music score. Instead, it was programmed like “Play the C sound with strength of 80!” directly to PlayStation. I was wondering for a while can I extract that… then came to the idea, “Why don’t I just use the converter I just made!” So I made the music score having “one single note with the sound of C with strength 80,” extracted the waveform data using my newly designed converter.