A little while back, we learned that legendary game creator Keiichiro Toyama — the man behind classics including Gravity Rush, Silent Hill and Siren — had set up his own development company Bokeh Game Studio alongside fellow industry veterans Kazunobu Sato (Siren, Puppeteer, The Last Guardian) and Junya Okura (Siren, Gravity Rush).
In a beautifully shot video produced by documentary specialist Archipel and released on the studio’s official channel, Toyama has opened up about how he got into the games industry in the first place, the frustrations at working with Sony that led him to found Bokeh Game Studio, and some philosophical musings on the directions his new game will be going in.
“Games have become bigger and bigger these past few years,” he explains. “The audience has become wider, especially for companies like Sony, where I was. However, rather than reaching to the widest audience possible, my games choose their audience in a way. They tend to have odd concepts, and in the end I’m confident that they leave a trace. I aspire to make IPs that fans can enjoy even ten, twenty years after they’re released.”
Toyama’s words here are noteworthy, because these days there’s an increased focus on games being all about the “now” rather than enduring appeal — or even preservation.
We have “live service” games that are constantly evolving, updating, adding content and being rebalanced — and eventually being “sunset” so that they are no longer playable. But single-player experiences aren’t immune, either; the rise of digital storefronts and the mobile marketplace in particular has led significant parts of the audience to expect constant updates for their games, lest they brand the developers as having “abandoned” them. The idea of an artist being “done” with a creative work has seemingly been lost for a lot of people.
That might not seem like a terrible thing, given that it allows problems that came to light after release to be fixed. But consider what will happen to that single-player game which saw gigabytes of post-launch updates in ten or twenty years’ time. Will those updates and pieces of additional content still be available? And if not, what can those who want to enjoy that work to its fullest do?
Today, we can pick up video games from thirty years ago or more and enjoy them exactly as they were back when they were first released; thirty years from now, however, many of today’s games will be completely unplayable at worst, significantly inferior to how they were at their “peak” at best.
A lot of this is down to, as Toyama notes, the fact that many modern games are designed for an extremely broad audience. The reason for this is, of course, to ensure that they sell as many copies as possible and prove as profitable as they can be — or at the very least, to recoup the costs of development, which are spiralling out of control for the biggest budget games these days.
If you choose your audience before you make your creative work, you’re making a commercial piece. If, however, you create your work and then let it choose its own audience, as Toyama advocates for, you’re creating art. And while this might not necessarily be the most profitable approach in the short term, this is how you go about creating fans for life. There’s a reason people are still talking about Silent Hill 2 twenty years after its original release — and a reason why Gravity Rush has some of the most passionate fans out there, even despite Sony’s complete lack of effort at marketing that series.
“I have multiple directions for my works,” continues Toyama. “The one I took [for our first game] is quite dark; far from my more recent titles. It’s like I’m coming back to my roots. However, rather than something deeply rooted in horror, I want to keep an entertainment note. While keeping elements from horror, I want the player to feel exhilarated when playing the game.”
Toyama’s past work has proven beyond a doubt that he understands horror intimately. He understands that horror does not have to be about blood and gore; it can also be about the unsettling, the profound and the disturbing. But it can also be about the absurd, the erotic and the darkly amusing. Horror as a genre has endured not just because it gives us a rush of adrenaline, but because those who are good at it understand that it needs to be entertaining more than it needs to be gross.
“The view I have of horror is that of everyday life being shaken,” he continues. “Rather than showing scary things, it should question our position, make us challenge the fact that we’re living peacefully.”
This angle on horror is particularly relevant to our everyday lives right now. For the last year or more, everyday lives across the world have been shaken by the global COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s unsettling. And everyone copes with it differently; some people are upset and frustrated, some people deal with it through humour, others knuckle down and try to make the best of a bad situation — and, of course, there are even people out there who try to deny that anything is wrong at all.
Toyama’s idea of “challenging the fact that we’re living peacefully” is extremely pertinent right now, in other words. Because there are arguments both for and against the statement that we are “living peacefully” right now. If you look out of your window at this very moment, chances are things will look pretty quiet. But we’re also living through a time that has seen, among other things, significant civil unrest in the United States, along with humanitarian crises and ongoing conflicts all around the world.
Toyama hasn’t specifically revealed the details of his next game as yet, but it’s clear he hopes to take a similar approach to both Silent Hill and Gravity Rush in particular, where the location in which the game is set is just as important to the experience as a whole as the main characters and the central narrative.
“One trait of my games is the setting,” he explains. “What city or village do we evolve in? How did these people get there? What’s their emotional state? This is how I approach games. I’ve been inspired by locations this time as well, and started with that. I’m roaming through maps, trying various methods to build up the setting.
“One trigger was a trip I took in my private time,” he elaborates. “My family and I went to visit this city in Asia. It had this dynamism proper to Asian cities, keeping an exotic touch mixed with a feeling of modernity. I started to imagine a setting that kept that feeling of evolution and the energy of the people. I thought it was a good theme to include in my game.”
Another core theme that ties in with Toyama’s desire to create works that will continue to resonate with audiences even ten or twenty years from now is the idea of capturing emotions through creativity. Over the years, he’s found himself particularly drawn to photography as a means of expressing himself — and of enjoying solitude when he needs it.
“A motivation I have behind taking photos is to find a way to make records of the emotions I feel,” he explains. “Back in school, I was focusing more on analogue videography. I would shoot chunks of our daily lives. Photos have that time machine aspect, allowing you to go back to a moment in time. I enjoy that nostalgia you get from them; I make sure to engrave these moments. It calms me in a way. This is why to this day I keep a camera on me at all times.”
This also explains why Gravity Rush 2 in particular had such a significant photography component. It provided the player with a means of expressing their emotions through the game, whether that was simply through keeping a record of a favourite vista they found in their travels around the game world — or getting protagonist Kat to use one of her many emotes and costumes to pose in a way the player found appealing or appropriate for the way they happened to be feeling at the time.
“Making games is a group activity. We make them together in a studio, and I really enjoy that,” Toyama continues. “However, on the contrary, when I want to express an emotion I have inside of me, I want to create new works as part of my daily life, but it can be quite difficult. Photography is the only way I get to easily express my own interpretation of the world. You feel how times change, too. I realise how differently I was seeing the world a few years ago — it especially shows in the colours. It’s a way for me to face the world by myself in a way.”
While we’re not living through the best of times right now, it sounds as if Toyama has a great deal that he wants to express — both through his own personal, solitary projects such as photography, and through his upcoming horror game project.
We’re yet to hear any full details on this project as yet, but based on what Toyama had to say in this video, I think it’s safe to say we can look forward to another title with that distinctive brand of Toyama artistry about it — and this time, freed of any constraints imposed by working under someone else.
I can’t wait.
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