“These days, because technology in graphics have advanced as far as they have, you have this very clear contrast between graphics that are almost photorealistic and those that really lean into the side of animation. I feel like there’s less of a middle ground as it were, and you’ve really got two approaches to development that break down along these lines, where some Japanese games companies make titles that are focused on appealing to the Japanese, and some that are aiming to make something for the west.”
When I sat down to chat with the veteran artist and character designer, Akira Yasuda, better known as Akiman, about his work on (the absolutely amazing) Star Ocean: The Divine Force, it was before Square Enix made a statement to shareholders to say it was going to focus more on global audiences and not just rely on the domestic market. Following that news, a day ago, Akiman’s comments in that interview now feel like they have a different context, as Star Ocean’s aesthetic is certainly one that you would suggest is more for Square Enix’s domestic market. Particularly with regards o the character designs.
Akiman has been responsible for a prodigious amount of work. Without a doubt, he is best known for his time at Capcom, where he created, among other things, Chun-Li from Street Fighter, but he has also worked on everything from Gundam and Code Geass in anime to Red Dead Revolver and Shiren the Wanderer in video games.
Building a new Star Ocean
Now a freelance artist, Akiman became the visual drive behind the Star Ocean series, starting with Integrity and Faithlessness, six years ago. This series in particular has always fascinated me, because it contains a big contrast between low-tech worlds and a very traditional fantasy approach to JRPG storytelling, with some very high-tech science fiction, and rather than try and meld them together, the series simply juxtaposes them, one side-by-side with the other.
Akiman seems to have been the right artist to continue work on this series, as he said that thist was exactly what he was aiming to do.
“I did really try and keep these elements quite separate,” he said. “For the fantasy part, I wanted to make it very clearly nostalgic for a culture that could have been 1000 years ago or so. So I incorporated things like armour and what you might expect to see in medieval Europe.
“Meanwhile, for the sci-fi side of things, I took modern clothing and thought about how they might evolve. For example, what a t-shirt or a polo shirt would look like 700 years in the future. It might look like it’s made of fabric, but actually, there’s more to it than that and there could be some energy woven into it.
“I thought that really by having these two science fiction and fantasy elements as very distinct in terms of design, that would then make it all the more interesting when they were when they came together in the narrative.”
It was the narrative side of the Star Ocean that was a significant pull for Akiman. While he has always been known for his art, even back with Street Fighter he had a role in writing parts of the narrative. Indeed, on that side of things, he worked quickly – “I had to write all of the dialogue in some of the endings in just two hours because we didn’t have the time,” he laughed. He wasn’t involved in the writing of Star Ocean: The Divine Force, but the potential for video games to tell ever-more complex stories have been deeply interesting to him. “I’ve always liked RPGs, so when I had the opportunity to work on Star Ocean, I was really interested to see how everything worked beyond my own role,” he said.
“Just to see the whole flow and creating a game like this where there’s so much story, and so many cutscenes. In a way, it was less for me about what I could bring to it and more about what I could learn from it. Games are getting to this point where we sort of get literature put into them.”
On being inspired by NieR
One thing that narrative-driven JRPGs and fighting games do have in common is their reliance on characters. If you don’t love the cast in these games, the chances are that you’re not going to love much else about them.
For Akiman, the secret to great and interesting character design is to not try and be too different. Rather, fusing the familiar with some original ideas together will result in something that people are both comfortable seeing, immediately, and intrigued to learn more about.
“Chun-Li, for example, has the traditional Chinese dress, but she’s also wearing tights. So the top half of her is a traditional Chinese kung-fu style character, but her bottom half is more akin to a pro wrestler. I think, more than anything else, it was that combination that both brought fans something new and something they could love right away,” he said.
“With Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness, I did something similar with a character named Fiore. On the one hand, as a magic user, she had a witch’s hat, a very sort of classic traditional design that everyone would be familiar with. But then from there, I wanted to do what I could sort of add a little bit of sexiness to her character.
“Normally you would approach that by sort of giving the clothes a bit more of a cut, like say a swimming costume or a night dress. But these days you can’t do anything too revealing, so I instead approached it with a checkerboard idea. By having those squares patterned across her I felt it would make the silhouette of the body stand out but without being too over the top.”
The character designs across the new Star Ocean – The Divine Force – are likewise a blend of the familiar with original twists to them. I asked Akiman to run me through how he approached one character in particular whose design I quite liked (Elena), and as it turned out, that one borrowed its “familiar” from the mighty NieR: Automata.
“A producer at Square Enix asked me to add a character with a slightly different sexiness to her – similar to how NieR: Automata has an almost fetishist approach to some of the costume designs. With Elena, starting with her trousers, I wanted to create a silhouette with a costume that left the impression of a thin fabric (a little like the leotard approach in NieR’s costumes!).
“Then in terms of her top, I’ve got her wearing a leather jacket. Of course, it’s completely standard to focus on the cleavage there, but I wanted to do more with that, so I’ve really focused on the harness element, similar to the kind of harness you’ve got with a parachute. I thought that would be quite sexy as part of a costume with a kind of light ‘bondage’ theme to it. The result is something that wouldn’t be strictly functional, of course, but that slight BDSM element adds something to her character – gave her a sense that she’d be the kind of person who’d be you know, perfectly fine and cool and collected even if she’s tied up.”
The results are excellent. Star Ocean: The Divine Force has an amazing cast of interesting characters, and, whatever missteps were made with the previous Integrity and Faithlessness, Akiman and the rest of the development team more than made up for them with this game. Star Ocean is back, and hopefully, Square Enix sees enough value in games for a Japanese market to keep it going from here, because even as both Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest continue to try to be truly global properties, it is nice to have one that is content with running with a very Japanese aesthetic, storytelling style, and gameplay structure.