Andrew Fitch. “Persona 4 Afterthoughts. Making a more personable Persona”, 1UP, 29 January 2009. <http://www.1up.com/features/persona-4-afterthoughts>
Persona 4’s spooky rural Japanese mystery captivated me at the end of 2008 — the game even surprisingly snagged co-Game of the Month honors with Valve’s zombie shooter Left 4 Dead in EGM’s January issue. So, I tracked down director Katsura Hashino and art director Shigenori Soejima for the inside scoop on development. I also chatted with Atlus USA project lead Yu Namba, lead editor Nich Maragos, director of production Bill Alexander, and manager of public relations and sales Aram Jabbari to discuss the game’s localization journey and Atlus’ overall philosophy as a niche publisher.
1UP: Was it harder or easier to craft the game’s setting in the Japanese countryside, as opposed to the “big city” backdrops of previous Persona games? To put it another way: How many members of the development team are from rural areas?
Katsura Hashino: It definitely wasn’t easy. In P4, for example, we set the party headquarters at a food court inside a shopping center — a place that wouldn’t be found on a tourist guidebook — but at the start of development, we had trouble coming up with an image of the countryside. Our staff comes from all over Japan, so our notions of the countryside vary greatly. But the process of putting it together was fun as we traded our memories.
1UP: Was it a challenge to design the characters this time around, especially considering the country setting? One thing I noticed is that the city kids — Yosuke, the protagonist — have more stylish hair than the others. Was drawing that distinction between the transplants and the Inaba locals by design?
Shigenori Soejima: Well, in the real world, the differences between the fashion of the country and the city have become smaller than I thought thanks to the ease of sharing information in today’s society. But as a means to visually distinguish between characters from the country and the city, I consciously drew their hair differently. With Yosuke in particular, I gave him accessories, such as headphones and a bicycle, to make it more obvious that he was from the city.
1UP: P4’s murder-mystery-mixed-with-horror-movie vibe isn’t incredibly different from the other Persona games, but that backdrop makes it seem more viable as an actual TV drama or anime. Since you’ve done the Persona 3 anime, were you thinking about a similar project for P4 during the game’s development?
KH: We didn’t develop this game with expansion to other media formats in mind; our priority is always to make the highest-quality game possible. Currently, there are no plans to turn it into an anime or drama.
1UP: My first experience in Japan was as a high school exchange student in Izumo, a small town in the western part of Honshu, and I saw elements of that experience reflected in Inaba. Was there a specific Japanese small town you took inspiration from to create Inaba, or is it sort of a general depiction of rural Japanese life? And is the name “Inaba” itself a play on “inaka,” the Japanese term for “countryside”?
SS: Inaba was modeled after a town on the outskirts of Mount Fuji. We didn’t copy it detail by detail, but I think we captured the main characteristics well. We say “countryside,” but the images that pop into people’s minds vary from person to person — such as a seaside town or a town in the mountains. Inaba’s not a country town that has tourist attractions; it was written as a “nowhere” place you’d just pass right through. For better or for worse, it’s a run-of-the-mill town. And, no, we didn’t pun “Inaba” from “inaka” — Inaba comes from a story in Japanese myth, A White Rabbit in Inaba.
1UP: You’ve mentioned that you’d like to keep Western audiences in mind when creating future Persona games, which you haven’t really done up until now. Do you worry that if you do, you’ll lose sight of what Western fans love about Persona? We’re just concerned that when Japanese developers try to emulate Western design — or, vice versa, when Western developers try to emulate Japanese design — they sometimes end up satisfying neither audience. How would you avoid similar pitfalls?
KH: If we want to win the approval of overseas users, then in the end, I don’t think there’s any other way than to analyze what parts of P4 overseas users like. I would like to continue developing games while being more conscious than ever about overseas users.
1UP: Did any specific mystery novels inspire P4’s setting and story?
KH: I like classic mystery novelists — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Seishi Yokomizo — and was greatly inspired by them. Here’s a prime example: It’s common for classic Japanese mystery novels to start with the discovery of a bizarre corpse in the countryside, and from there, a story that reflects Japanese mythology unfolds.
1UP: Outside of Persona 2, all Persona games revolve around high school life and take place in Japan. But since many of your fans are working adults, have you considered creating a Persona game that may reflect their lives? Maybe a salaryman bands together with his boss and coworkers to unlock their Personas and take down some demon? And would you ever consider creating a Persona game that takes place in America or Europe, or are you just not familiar enough with the culture to make it feel authentic?
KH: An important characteristic of the Persona series is that it’s a “young-adult fiction” work, so even though we know there are many adults in the fan base, we still chose to focus on adolescent boys and girls for P4. But there’s the precedent of Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, where the party consists of adults, so we can’t say there won’t be an adult party member in the future. Also, another important aspect of the Persona series, from P3 on, is the sense of real life. For the story to take place in America or Europe, we’d need more staff with firsthand experience in those areas of the world.
1UP: I was highly amused by the surprise appearance of Chihiro and Gekkoukan High in P4 — but slightly disappointed that we didn’t get to interact with her outside of the school-trip cut-scene or explore Tatsumi Port Island with the P4 crew. Is this P3/P4 “world” now the established universe for the Persona franchise going forward, and do you have thoughts of creating a follow-up game somewhere down the line that perhaps features characters from both games?
KH: We heard a lot from our fans that they wanted to walk around the P3 city more, but it wouldn’t make much sense to the players that started from P4, so we only brushed the surface and put our efforts elsewhere. Actually, the entire Persona series so far — not just P3 and P4 — has taken place in the same world. But for the same reason as above, we chose to make the connections weak. As for a follow-up game, we currently have no plans for such a title.
1UP: If I was designing a game like Persona, I don’t think that I’d be able to resist the urge to create characters based on real-life high school friends and rivals. Are characters like Yosuke, Chie, and Yukiko based on anyone the development team went to high school with? And you didn’t go to school with any Japanese pop idols like Rise, did you?
SS: There aren’t any characters directly based off of friends, but the first things I thought of when I heard about the story and setting were people I remembered from my school days. The fat guy, the class nerd, the jock, and so on. The Social Link characters are based more on real friends than characters in your party. I usually receive a lot of direction when it comes to party members, so in most cases, I create them without real-life models. Believe it or not, I was in the same class as an idol once. [Laughs] But I didn’t base Rise off her; she had a completely different personality.
1UP: On that note, we found P4’s cast to be more relatable than any recent RPG we’ve played — they actually feel like people we went to high school with. For the most part, they come off as normal guys and girls — even Rise, once you get to know her — which P3 didn’t pull off quite as well. Did you specifically want to make an effort to portray more realistic-feeling characters this time around? And did you want to avoid the classic Japanese RPG character stereotypes and archetypes?
KH: When we decided to use the mystery element as the subject of the game, I knew that P4 would be on a smaller scale than P3, so we put more emphasis on the “reality” of the character settings. That’s probably why you guys felt close to them. We tried to avoid making the characters stereotypes, but since the worldview was already pretty far from the ordinary, it naturally followed that the characters were full of originality. People can’t relate to something they’ve never seen before, so we actually put more effort into adding common characteristics — without overdoing it — than we did into differentiating the characters.
1UP: One of the things I like about P4 is that the mystery isn’t solved for you — you actually have to solve it by figuring out who the culprit is, or you won’t unlock the true ending. I actually had a hard time figuring out who the culprit was, because I didn’t want to believe that a character I had a soft spot for could actually be the killer. Was it your intention to create a culprit players probably wouldn’t suspect? And did you intend for P4’s culprit to be the killer from the beginning of the character-design process, or did you design all the characters and then decide which one made the most sense as the killer?
KH: Since “mystery” was one of the main themes, we made sure the “Whodunit?” part wasn’t so easily figured out. The culprit changed a number of times during development, but the character’s design commenced only after it was decided. I wanted the culprit to look like a normal person but leave a moderate impression. It was a difficult request, but I think Soejima did a good job.
1UP: Outside of P4, what’s your choice for game of 2008, and why?
KH: 2008 was so busy…. I’ve been straying away from games in my private life, so I’m not really knowledgeable about the latest titles. [Laughs] I buy them, but they just stack up. Whenever I have time, I focus on hobbies other than games.
SS: This year…I didn’t really have any, either. I do play King of Fighters against my coworkers regularly during lunch breaks. [Laughs] There are a lot of games I’m looking forward to, though.
1UP: Can you reveal any sort of secrets or Easter eggs that players might’ve missed out on during their first playthrough?
KH: The fake Batman-like doll at the hamburger shop in P3 is called “WILD HERO,” and the DVD of it is in the P4‘s protagonist’s room. The designer put it in there, but I don’t know if you can get the right camera angle to actually confirm it! [Laughs]
1UP: On the localization side, were there any content cuts or censorship issues with P4? The only potential one I can think of is the King’s Game scene on the school trip to Tatsumi Port Island, which possibly depicted underage drinking in the Japanese version. Or was the dialogue completely the same in both versions? And if you do need to make changes, is Atlus Japan generally receptive?
Yu Namba: Nothing was omitted in the U.S. version of P4. The King’s Game scene really didn’t make much sense, even in the original Japanese version — I mean, who would behave like that without drinking, right? But we just left it as is because it was explained in the scene that none of the drinks were alcoholic. To be honest, we didn’t make drastic changes to any of our recent MegaTen titles. But if we come across something that requires a major change to the game, we definitely contact Atlus Japan before making a decision.
1UP: Kanji’s sexuality and Naoto’s gender issues are probably the most controversial aspects of the game for North American players. We’re a lot more open about that kind of stuff in the West, and while EGM’s reviewers weren’t offended, I’m worried that perhaps some gay players — or straight players, for that matter — might take Kanji’s story the wrong way. Did you discuss how you wanted Kanji portrayed in the localization, and did you make any extra effort to read over the lines that referenced his sexuality in order to make sure it wouldn’t be taken as offensive? And was it an issue for the voice actor to portray the “effeminate Kanji” at all, since he goes a little over the top with the delivery?
YN: It’s true that Kanji’s Shadow self initially acts quite flamboyant, but that becomes understandable once you take into account the fact that the “other selves” are TV-show personalities. Be it Yukiko, Kanji, Rise, or Naoto, their other selves act out their characters to entertain their audience — the viewers of the Midnight Channel — and draw their attention. When Kanji confronts his other self, the Shadow acts more genuine and personal, focusing on Kanji’s internal struggle and insecurity. And the same can be said for the other members of the investigation team. That’s why no changes were made in the script; these scenes depict the contrast between what people appear to be and how they really are. As for the voice actor’s performance of Kanji’s other self, we had him listen to some sample Japanese lines and let him do his job. I think he nailed all aspects of the character — the flamboyance, anger, and desperation.
Nich Maragos: It’s true that Kanji’s Shadow is a parody of gay stereotypes that some people might get offended by, but the flip side is that Kanji himself is anything but stereotypical. It’s left ambiguous as to whether or not he really is gay, but if gay players want to claim him as one of their own, he’s an example they can be proud of. Apart from being abrasive, short-tempered, and violent, of course….
1UP: What’s your general localization philosophy? Do you try to play through as many localizations from competing publishers as possible to get general ideas of what works and what doesn’t work? For example, Troy Baker, who played Kanji, recently had a standout performance as Yuri Lowell in Tales of Vesperia, so did his performance there influence the casting at all? Or do you generally try to avoid other localizations in order to give yours a specific flavor?
YN: If only I had time… I rarely have time to play the games I want to play! Here’s an example: Throughout the P4 project, I played through the game about six times — Japanese and U.S. versions combined — while doing all the work. I’m curious as to how other companies localize their products, but I guess to fully understand, I’d have to play both the Japanese and English versions. I personally select voice actors according to their performance on our other titles, their sample voice files we receive from the recording studio, and what the studio tells us about them.
NM: I’m not as busy as Yu in general, and I do try to play RPGs from other companies to see how they handle things — I’m incapable of playing one nowadays without counting how many characters per line they get! I rarely finish them, but I play enough to get a sense of what they do that works and what they do that doesn’t, and I prefer that approach to just ignoring what else is out there. Now and then, if I come across a game that does something really noteworthy, I’ll write up a report on it for the other localization staffers.
1UP: Japanese can be a very vague language, and part of localizing any game is making things a bit clearer for English speakers, since we tend to be more direct with our expression. With that in mind, did you perhaps add in any minor hints to clue in the player as to who the killer actually is, or did you keep everything the same as in the Japanese version in order to maintain the same gameplay experience?
YN: No additional clues were put in the U.S. version. However, we made sure that all the clues in the game remained intact and understandable — especially those that led to the mastermind.
1UP: You guys do a great job of expressing the Japanese cultural stuff, but some weird cultural issues still slip through at times. For instance, Kanji gets a nosebleed at one point, which indicates sexual arousal in Japanese culture, but in American culture, it represents…well, a nosebleed. Did you consider explaining that joke at all, or was it a case of “If they get it, they get it”? And was there anything else like that in P4 that just would’ve been too cumbersome to actually explain?
YN: That nosebleed scene may make little sense to the American audience, but that portrayal of sexual arousal really couldn’t be substituted with anything else that’s not visually adult-oriented — you know what I mean! And our justification is that the scene can be interpreted as Yukiko becoming grossed out by Kanji’s nosebleed, not by the fact that he’s having perverted thoughts about her and Chie. One thing we’d like to avoid is making the text so explanatory that it doesn’t sound like dialogue anymore. If it’s really important, though, we’ll definitely consider tweaking the text. A few other things were left unexplained in the game — like hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the New Year — but we added a glossary page to the instruction manual to explain those terms.
1UP: One of the things I like about Atlus USA is that you guys will take somewhat controversial games like Eternal Poison, Rule of Rose, and Operation Darkness and give them a home in the North American market. No one can deny that these games have style, but they also have some serious gameplay flaws, which I’m sure you guys discuss during the evaluation process. When you’re evaluating a game like Eternal Poison or Rule of Rose for potential North American release, what’s the deciding, most important factor? Does the decision have to be unanimous among Atlus USA staff? And can we expect you to pick up similar games in the future?
Bill Alexander: There are a number of factors that influence our decision-making process. Obviously, if there is interest among Atlus fans — if it’s a title with existing awareness — then the title lands on our radar. Is the game fun? Does it bring something to the table that one cannot already find in the marketplace? Does it push the envelope — and not necessarily just from a graphical standpoint? How would the game play for a less hardcore audience? How will the most dedicated Atlus fans receive the game? It’s title-by-title, case-by-case, and we’re proud of every game we localize, rough edges or not.
1UP: Atlus is a little different from most publishers in that so much of your success is tied to your small print runs and your close relationship with your fans; I almost never see Atlus games in the used section of stores, and I know that if I want an Atlus game, I’m probably going to need to preorder it or buy it the first day. With that in mind, do you feel like you guys are affected by used game sales the same way bigger publishers are? And are your small print runs specifically designed to avoid large amounts of your games being sold as used?
Aram Jabbari: Small print runs are a product of Atlus being a small — albeit growing — publisher, not a conscious attempt to cut supply to increase demand. While we, as any publisher, would love for our games to be purchased at launch and kept forever, the reality of things is that there are hundreds of games a year to choose from, and we understand that some gamers just can’t afford not to get some value back when they’re done with a game. Fortunately, our titles, whether by their own virtues or because of the special things we try to provide — preorder bonuses, for example — seem to be held on to instead of sold off, and that may be another reason Atlus games become harder to find down the road. Gamers are collecting them, proud to have them in their library.