This month’s IGN First is a bit different than usual. Rather than highlighting a single game — we’ll get back to that next month — we’re highlighting the Japanese game industry as a whole. We visited some of the biggest studios in Japan to focus on their games and creative processes. Check back all month for interviews, gameplay reveals, and more!
Katsura Hashino is in a period of transition. After over a decade with the Persona series as director of Persona 3, Persona 4, and Persona 5 (plus a break in 2011 to direct the marvelous Catherine), Hashino announced late last year that he’s joined a newly-established internal studio within Atlus called Studio Zero.
Hashino has moved on from Persona, handing off development of the series to successors within Atlus. Instead, he’ll direct Studio Zero’s first project, a new fantasy RPG codenamed Project Re Fantasy with a team of Persona veterans including his longtime collaborators, artist Shigenori Soejima and composer Shoji Meguro.
Studio Zero marks a fresh start for Hashino and for Atlus, with the studio’s official site making its mission statement clear: “This is not Persona. This is not Megami Tensei. This is the beginning of a new story.”
Before looking ahead to his plans for Studio Zero, Hashino takes a moment to reflect on Persona 5, a project that took several years and multiple delays through the course of its development. Now that Persona 5 is out in the West and finding both critical and commercial success, Hashino admits that the game has performed better than he expected.
“It’s a real surprise. I had hoped it would be received well overseas, but before that, I was nervous as to whether it would even resonate with fans in Japan,” he told IGN during a recent visit to Atlus’ Tokyo headquarters. “It was more than I expected. In the West there is a tradition of stories where an ordinary person becomes a hero and faces down a terrible threat to society, and in a way that is similar, so I thought maybe people might like it. But at the same time, I don’t have personal experience of that culture. To me it might appear similar to the standard hero story, but actually Westerners could find it completely different. I thought overseas fans would either like it or find it terrible. So the reaction was really gratifying.”
“After the release in Japan I looked at the feedback from Japanese fans, and then I saw the reaction from fans overseas, and rather than seeing a difference in the feedback, it’s actually largely similar,” he continued. “In both cases the fans seem to have noticed the level of care and effort that went into the game. It feels rewarding to see the same reaction in Japan and abroad.”
I saw the reaction from fans overseas, and rather than seeing a difference in the feedback, it’s actually largely similar.
Western success is especially gratifying considering Persona’s strong connection to Japanese culture, which is a major part of the franchise’s identity and setting. In preparing for a new entry, Hashino says the team decided the game would take place in Tokyo early on, but that dealing with such a large area presented new challenges compared to Persona 4’s Inaba or Persona 3’s Tatsumi Port Island.
“When we decided to base the game around the Phantom Thieves, a provincial town seemed like a bad fit. It made more sense to set the game in a center of culture and information,” he explains. “Persona 3 and Persona 4 were set in provincial towns — well, Persona 3 was in Kanto, but still a provincial part. Once we had decided the location in those games, we immediately knew the layout of the area. The shopping mall is here, the local high street is there, and there’s a river. The space was limited, which made it easy to create, because we didn’t need much of a map.”
“But the moment we chose Tokyo in order to follow a band of phantom thieves, we realized that senior high schoolers, they don’t do everything in one area,” he continued. “They either hang out together at a large central neighborhood, or they go to their home neighborhood and hang out with local friends. In order to show a realistic view of Tokyo kids, we realized that we would have to make the whole map of Tokyo, because the players would expect to be able to move around the city. But there is a limit to the size of the map we can make. So we had to find a way to tighten our focus.”
In order to show a realistic view of Tokyo kids, we realized that we would have to make the whole map of Tokyo.
Hashino says it took roughly two months to solve that problem, which was exacerbated by Hashino himself not being entirely familiar with certain parts of Tokyo, as he moved to the city from a smaller province. “There are places I know well, like Ikebukuro, and that’s because a friend once took me there,” he said. “Or a friend had taken me to a restaurant in Shibuya and so I got to know Shibuya.”
This brought about the idea of learning Tokyo’s map one area at a time as characters introduce the protagonist to new areas. “Rather than knowing the whole map at once, we learn it one place at a time through human connections. Someone takes you to a shop in Jinbocho and now you know Jinbocho,” he said. “So as long as the human connections feel realistic and the play field is derived from that, it can be limited. So the community of characters became important, the people you hang out with after school and your classmates. If one of them suggests going to Inokashira Park, naturally you get to know Inokashira Park. If they say, ‘Let’s go for ramen in Ogikubo,’ you get to know Ogikubo, even if you don’t learn about Nishi-Ogikubo. If Ikebukuro doesn’t appear on the map, that’s just because you don’t know anyone from that area, so it makes sense.”
Hashino feels that expanding the world in this way helped make Persona 5 feel like you’re building a community, which he feels is reflective of real-life young people in Tokyo, who would rarely explore an area they don’t already know. This is also why the game’s class trip takes place in Hawaii, which marks the franchise’s first trip outside of Japan, but is a setting that would be fairly comfortable for Japanese students.
For our young protagonists, who are used to living dangerously, this paradise is boring.
“For Japanese people, Hawaii is a place where celebrities go for the New Year holidays. I’ve been there too, and Japanese language is widely spoken there, in the cities at least. In most shops you can use Japanese,” he explained. “For a group of young people to step outside of their home territory and change their own paradigm to end up in Hawaii, it’s the symbolic opposite, because they can go about their daily lives as usual. This is of course the charm of a holiday resort. They can mess about without worrying.”
“For our young protagonists, who are used to living dangerously, this paradise is boring,” he continued. “They go all the way on a trip to Hawaii but they spend their whole time worrying about the Phantom Thieves in Japan. They sit in their hotel room and read the news from home on their smartphones – they are overseas but they only think about Japan. I wanted to have that contrast.”
With Hashino moving on from Persona, I asked about one of the franchise’s most enduring and iconic mysteries, the Velvet Room. A consistent element of recent Persona games, the Velvet Room changes depending on the protagonist and is generally home to each Persona game’s larger meta-narrative, outside of the day-to-day life that makes up the bulk of the game.
Each new Persona game means a new Velvet Room, which also means a return appearance from Velvet Room master Igor, as well as a new assistant. Past Velvet Room residents are all named after characters from Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, so I asked Hashino what the connection to that story is, and if he ever considered having the cast of the Velvet Room take on a larger role.
“I’ve been working on the Persona series for over 10 years but this is the first time I’ve been asked this question,” Hashino confessed, explaining that since Igor has been in the franchise since the original game, that character’s name was decided by previous staff and was not Hashino’s decision. Still, the name served as inspiration as Hashino invented Velvet Room characters moving forward.
“Igor was a character who appeared in the movie version of Frankenstein, not the original novel,” he explained. “After I started working on the games, I began to wonder why he had been named after this character from Frankenstein. Since then I decided to add other characters from Frankenstein as members of the Velvet Room.”
Persona 3’s Elizabeth and Persona 4’s Margaret (Elizabeth’s older sister) are among those homages, as are Persona 5’s dual residents Caroline and Justine (plus an additional Frankenstein nod late in Persona 5’s story). Hashino explains that Persona is a series deeply rooted in psychology, and that the original Frankenstein novel fits a similar mold.
The angst of having to work these things out for themselves is similar to the angst felt by the author of Frankenstein. It’s a theme that unites the generations.
“The story of Frankenstein as written by Mary Shelley is not only a famous one, it is one of the most famous monster stories ever written, and it is a revered cultural work that has influenced so many adaptations,” Hashino said. “And so the connection between the fiction of our story and the story that Mary Shelley wrote about Frankenstein… Well, Frankenstein is a story about development of personality. ‘Having been born into the world as a monster, what exactly am I?’ The Jungian theory of searching for the Self. It’s a very sad story.”
“’What am I?’ That is the theme,” he continued, “and in the world that we try to portray in Persona, the young characters are searching for themselves and trying to figure out how best to react to their situation, critically analyzing themselves, defining themselves, which is a juvenile kind of path to glory. So naming the characters in the Velvet Room after characters from Frankenstein has this logic running through it, which is why we have done so for all this time.”
Hashino also sees the authorship of Frankenstein itself as thematically connected to Persona, as Mary Shelley struggled to find acceptance, which helped her create the character. “For young people today, they have no measure for how adults tell them they should live their lives,” Hashino said, “and the angst of having to work these things out for themselves is similar to the angst felt by the author of Frankenstein. It’s a theme that unites the generations.”
The many wisdoms of a deck of tarot cards are all inside each of us from birth.
As for the Velvet Room itself, Hashino sees it as a place created inside of every person by imagination. “The word ‘persona’ is a concept of psychology,” he explained. “Inside the mind we have multiple personalities, and different versions of ourselves. A playful side who is reckless, and a philosophical side who watches his step. The many wisdoms of a deck of tarot cards are all inside each of us from birth. In the game, the Velvet Room is a fantasy zone where part of the story takes place, but in terms of a meta story, everybody has a place like the Velvet Room inside of them. And within that space, we have someone like Igor who pushes us to be more and offers us enlightenment.”
Hashino said he intentionally kept the Velvet Room as something mysterious and unclear, and that despite references to connections between the Velvet Room residents, he sees their story as supplemental to the journey of each protagonist.
“I feel like if the combined personality of the family members in the Velvet Room becomes too strong, there is a risk of losing the protagonist’s own identity and personality and you would start to feel like an observer,” he said.
With Persona officially behind him, Hashino hopes that starting work on a new project within Studio Zero will give his team a fresh start.
“I have worked on the Persona series for over 10 years, on 3, 4 and 5, and before that I worked on Shin Megami Tensei. These are titles that have a certain recognition around the world,” he said. “By setting up the new studio, I hope that this team of mostly veterans who have worked on those games can create something new that will reach a similar level of recognition.”
For Hashino, the idea of creating a fantasy game instead of using a modern setting means starting completely from scratch. “The problem with games set in the modern day is that it’s easy to go too far and make something that seems unrealistic, because we all know how things look in the real world,” he said.
In a fantasy setting, Hashino believes it’s easier to focus on how the story affects its characters since the player isn’t distracted by comparing the events of the game to real life. “By clearing all of that to one side and stepping further into a world of illusion, we can discard the paradigm of the modern world and look at the fundamental things that make humans tick,” he tells us. “What makes us upset, or want to compete, or endure conflict, where do we see human weakness or strength, the things in common that are relatable to people alive today, which also touched the lives of people in the past. I feel there are stories we can tell in this way. Fantasy RPGs that focus on these kinds of things, each of these titles demonstrates its independent value.”
I’m not particularly interested in returning to some golden heyday of fantasy games. I don’t want to do that, and I wouldn’t be qualified to do that.
“My hope is that we can, for example, look at what Tolkien achieved [in his novels] and redefine it as a very small game studio,” he continued. “Because we have never made a fantasy game before and we are starting from zero as true amateurs, we feel we can build a world of illusion that takes the kind of societal issues we use in Shin Megami Tensei or Persona games, make them entertaining to play and find new success. That’s our ridiculous delusion.”
“You can easily move to a different paradigm than our modern world. By moving away, you know, there are so many games where you play as a senior high-schooler who gets whisked away to a parallel world and goes on an adventure, because this is a paradigm with which we can sympathize. In that way, Persona can be seen as a low fantasy work, with a modern setting that makes it easier to empathize with,” he explained. “But on the other hand, there are probably things that can only truly be felt by moving from that paradigm to a different place entirely. So in the sense of differentiating it from previous series, that’s a challenge I want to take on.”
Hashino sees his team’s lack of experience with fantasy games specifically as an opportunity to rethink some of the genre’s tropes and possibly modernize some familiar ideas. “A ‘return to the roots’ is an oft-used expression, but I’m not particularly interested in returning to some golden heyday of fantasy games,” he said. “I don’t want to do that, and I wouldn’t be qualified to do that anyway, because I wasn’t making them then. Instead I want to take a fresh look at the source of fantasy.”
We are aware of the templates of course, but as amateurs we just want to build our fantasy world.
“By taking an existing template as a base, you acknowledge that you like that template in the first place, and I think it takes real skill for someone who is accustomed to that template to interpret it in their own way,” he continued. “But we are really amateurs. We are aware of the templates of course, but as amateurs we just want to build our fantasy world. We don’t need to adhere to templates, and we can remove them completely if we want to, so I am not terribly interested in thinking about any such templates.”
One such template is what Hashino describes as a “road to glory” tale, a traditional adventure story about triumph over the odds that’s common in Japanese storytelling. He thinks his team doesn’t necessarily need to follow this example.
“There are two ways to create a ‘road to glory’ tale,” he explained. “Many people believe that they must follow the traditional template closely, because this is staying true to their origins, and that is a perfectly acceptable way to look at it. But for us who are starting afresh, that is not how we think. I believe that a ‘road to glory’ is something that can echo throughout the generations. It’s something we can all relate to. Everyone is born from someone, which means we all have family members, and in turn this means we all feel sympathy or empathy, which is why such themes are often seen in family dramas. Not that I’m particularly hung up on family dramas, but I think that a ‘road to glory’ tale of adventure is something we can understand throughout the ages, and that it can even have mass appeal.”
As for that mass appeal, Hashino believes that a fantasy setting could attract a wider audience than the Shin Megami Tensei or Persona games, though he hopes longtime Atlus fans will also still be interested.
In a fantasy game, there is no high school.
“I hope that this will be a game that Atlus fans will be surprised by but also become engrossed in,” he said. “I want to continue to make games for the people who have enjoyed Atlus games up until now, but since this is a fantasy game, I hope it will reach a wider audience, or at least I expect it will. For example, it may seem surprising, but Persona is not played as much by the younger generation of gamers. There is something nostalgic about the setting of Persona, the inevitability of high school days coming to an end, the realization that friends will not be together forever, and so on. But for people who are still at high school, that end has not yet come, and so there is no nostalgia for them yet. That’s my analysis, anyway. But in a fantasy game, there is no high school.”
“I’m sure there are many young people who are wondering how to make the most of their life,” he concluded, “and I hope to make a game that will have appeal for adult players while also resonating with the younger generation.”
Andrew is IGN’s executive editor of news and has the platinum trophy in Persona 5 in two languages. You can find him rambling about EarthBound and cute animals on Twitter.