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Level-5 President Talks Ni No Kuni And Studio Ghibli

by Kimberley Wallace on Oct 19, 2012 at 10:00 AM

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In our latest issue (#235), we celebrate some under the radar games. Today, we’re continuing the trend with an interview about Ni No Kuni: The Wrath of the White Witch, the collaboration between Studio Ghibli and Level-5. We spoke to Level-5’s president and CEO, Akihiro Hino about what to anticipate from Ni No Kuni and his experience working with the famed Studio Ghibli.

What about Studio Ghibli attracted Level-5 to creating a game with them?

Studio Ghibli is an extremely popular animation company here in Japan, and that sentiment is not limited to just the games industry, but Japanese society as a whole. I am personally a huge fan of their works, too. When we decided to work on a project together, I simply couldn’t believe it. Just to be able to work with such a great company had my whole team over the moon, myself included.

Once the actual work with them began, I realized just how much respect Studio Ghibli pays to the old analog animation processes through each and every step. They are a genuine historical animation house. The entire production, from the preliminary storyboards, all the way through placing the artwork on film, is all beautifully drawn with no cutting corners. I could really feel how much pride they take in their handiwork at each stage in the process.

Did you feel pressure to live up to the Ghibli name? What steps did you take to preserving their legacy with Ni No Kuni?

It might overlap a little with what I said previously, but the biggest challenge for us on this project was how far we could go to recreate the world of Studio Ghibli.

As far as the graphics are concerned, in order to express a proper Ghibli world, we were constantly replaying and studying Ghibli’s films over and over for comparison. We did test after test to get elements like the colorization, the way the characters’ shadows are cast, and the finest details of the character motions down pat.

For the theatrics, we had Studio Ghibli’s director, Mr. Momose, oversee the story-boarding and attend the motion capture sessions in order to give more detailed directions to us as we created the game. So you’ll be able to enjoy his special touch in the real-time polygon models too, not just in the Ghibli animation scenes. One point that makes Ghibli’s approach different from most was that we were told to make the characters “perform everyday acts.” The key to this was not just having the actors and our animators simply “do” mundane actions such as sitting, eating, or standing still, but to have them actually perform them in the most natural way possible. If even the most minor details in the everyday things we see around us seem unnatural in some way, the audience will pick up on that instantly and become distracted. This was their secret to creating a more expressive world.

Studio Ghibli films touch on a lot of emotional themes and life lessons. Does the story of Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch continue that trend? What about it do you think people will most resonate with?

In Ni No Kuni, we wanted to create a theme that would resonate with children in particular. First we thought about how to express the fun of having dreams and adventures to children, and then we considered who would be the greatest influence in a child’s life. We soon realized that it would have to be their mother. To lose one’s mother would be the greatest of all tragedies for a child. So it made sense for us that the desire a child would have to help his mother would serve as motivation to continue a long journey.

The DS version of the game presented a journey where a boy learned how to defeat his arch- enemy, and along the way, matured to the point of being able to stand on his own two feet without his mother needing to watch over him. The PS3 version, which is being localized for the Western markets, takes it one step further. The hero who matures from this experience now also sets out to help others who need saving, so we see the complete transformation from child to adult here as he grows up and learns to care for others. We really hope that younger players, or anyone who might be heading into or are now experiencing their teenage years, will be able to appreciate and enjoy the theme.

Can you talk about Ni No Kuni’s main character, Oliver, and what stands out about him?

Oliver is a young boy with such a strong and pure heart, it can change the way people feel. He sets out on a journey to a parallel world after hearing that he may be able to magically bring his recently deceased mother back to life there. He faces a lot of personal trials: overcoming the sadness of losing his parent, the anxiety of traveling in a strange new land, and having to battle a formidable enemy. But Oliver learns and grows by believing in his new-found traveling companions and helping out a lot of other people with their own problems. He matures from a dependent child into an adult who can get by without his mother. We hope that the young and young-at-heart alike are encouraged by his story.

Did you include any references in Ni No Kuni that only long-time Studio Ghibli fans would understand? Are there any ties to any of the films?

There are no direct connections with any Ghibli anime per se, but seeing as we were doing our best to express the feel of the Ghibli world in our game, there may be several scenes or characters that look like or have similar names to previous Ghibli works. Keep your eye out for them.

Many of Level-5's previous titles focused on exploration. Does Ni No Kuni follow this trend?

Yes. Ni No Kuni has a lot of hidden elements and often rewards the player for trying things. On the open field, there are a lot of places to explore and interesting items to find. It can really pay off to stray away from the main story for a little while and just see what you might find. 

Is the game fully voice acted? Many Ghibli films use A-list Hollywood voice talent. Is that the case here?

The Japanese voiceovers do use a lot of famous Japanese celebrities. For the English voice cast, we placed the emphasis more on the quality of the acting and getting it to match the feel of the world, so we selected the actors accordingly. A lot of the parts required that the same actor portray both American English and British English accents, so finding actors who could do both convincingly was a great challenge. We also used child actors to perform the roles of Oliver and Pea. Finally, for the English version’s ending theme song, we were very fortunate to have it sung so beautifully by a very talented child soloist who is somewhat famous for his roles in British church choirs and children’s music groups. All of these children gave amazing performances. They really empathized with the emotions of the characters.

In the Western release, you can switch between audio languages. So we hope you’ll enjoy comparing the quality of the Japanese and English voices and the different atmosphere each language’s portrayals provide.

Would you consider collaborating with Studio Ghibli on another video game in the future? Any chance we’d see a sequel to Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch?

Right now we don’t have any plans for a sequel or another collaboration. But if we were to create a sequel, I would actually like to make a different Ni No Kuni world where the main character is an adult.

What do think people will take away from Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch that they can’t find in other RPGs? What separates it from the pack?

Of course the foremost element is that you are freely able to explore the world of Studio Ghibli. The animated cutscenes are a selling point, but we tried our best to reproduce the look and feel of those scenes in the real-time graphics so that you would hardly be able to tell the difference between the two. You’ll be able to adventure to your heart’s content in a lovingly rendered cartoon world.

When we designed the open field graphics, the look of the geography is meant to remind you of a miniature diorama, so it is both reminiscent of an older time, while also feeling like it is new and fresh. That juxtaposition was what we were aiming for in the feel of the graphics.

And finally, for the story, it may feel a little peculiar in the way that you explore two entirely different worlds where the characters are oddly similar, but this is because all living things have their souls connected between those two parallel universes. It is different in the way that the hero travels between these two worlds in order to solve people’s problems. So this is something new that we hope you will thoroughly enjoy when you actually play the game for yourself.

Be sure to read the new November issue of Game Informer Magazine (#235) for more on Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. Visit the hub for more on all the under the radar games this month.