Monday, May 1, 2017

Comments on Kickstarter Update #66 [Yu-san on Story Building]

Comments on Kickstarter Update #66: Yu-san on Story-Building

True to their word in the last update, the Shenmue team have delivered another Kickstarter Update for the month of April (technically, at the very start of May) in the form of a video interview with Yu Suzuki about story building. The "loading screen" title pages in the video date the interview as April 15th.

Official update and video:

The video does not have a lot in the way of scribbled Japanese notes for the usual frame-by-frame analysis - the diagram on the whiteboard next to Yu has the most potential for clues but it is so cryptic that it could well be a red herring to throw fans off the scent!

In any case, this post will recap Yu's interview answers, with some expanded comments where his words in Japanese carry additional meaning that the English subtitles may not easily convey.


The whiteboard next to Yu, with an enticing but cryptic diagram.

Section 1: Game and Story

Q: Is there a difference between the story in games and other kinds of entertainment?

Yu comments that, compared to a movie that may be a couple of hours in length, a game can be played over dozens of hours and so a different approach must be taken for the story. There is a need to ensure players remember events that may have happened much earlier in the game.

Something that Yu talks about here that may not have come through clearly in the subtitles is his reference to a well-known four-part structure that expresses the story development of classic narratives. With its origins in Chinese literature, it can be expressed in a single four-character word,  kishōtenketsu 起承転結, in which each character represents one stage of the narrative. It is a concept that all Japanese will be familiar with from their school studies:

Ki = Introduction
Shō 承 = Development
Ten 転 = Twist / Denouement
Ketsu 結 = Conclusion

In fact this ties directly back to a Shenmue "Postmortem" talk Yu gave about Shenmue at the Game Developers Conference in 2014. In his talk, which can be viewed on YouTube, he explained that the plot of Shenmue (or Virtua Fighter RPG, as he originally named it) follows this very structure, as shown on this slide.

GDC 2014 slide: Shenmue plot structure
Minor spoiler alert! A slide from GDC 2014:
The narrative for Shenmue's story is based on a classic four-part structure.
In the interview this time, Yu remarks that including one narrative structure (consisting of Introduction, Development, Twist, Conclusion) in the game is not enough to fully engage the player, so it becomes necessary to include multiple plot structures. The problem then arises of how to manage each of the different Introductions, Twists, Conclusions without things becoming hopelessly confused.

Yu's solution is to eliminate the middle two stages (Development, Twist) in the structure for each of the sub-plots, and keep what he feels are the two most powerful elements for each: namely, the Introduction and Conclusion. This makes it much more manageable to mix and position them within the overall story.

Eliminating the Development & Twist stages

Section 2: How to Create a Story

Q: Where do you get your ideas for the story?

Yu comments that with digital media like DVDs, he is able to note down the exact timestamps of movie scenes that take his interest, so that he can come back and review them later.

He also explains that for him, the key to producing emotional impact is a strong contrast between two states (e.g. a dark vs brightly lit scene, or dead silence vs blaring noise). He finds it instructive to study the way in which these are placed and overlaid in movies to good effect.

At this point the interview appears to be over and Yu takes a sip from his Shenhua mug...

Yu sipping from his mug

..before a final, seemingly-unscripted question.

Q: Will the Sword of Seven Stars, which came out in the last part of S2, come out in this series too?

A little snippet of new information to finish with, as Yu confirms re-appearance of the sword that Shenhua's stepfather left for her. Although it would be have been quite a shock if the answer had been negative!

Yu replies regarding the Sword of Seven Stars

The Sword of Seven Stars
The Sword of Seven Stars at the end of Shenmue II
Overall, a nice little update, although it doesn't give much away about development progress on Shenmue III. I'm OK with this, and it was a pleasure to hear Yu Suzuki speaking about his approach to game and story design. They may well be saving further demonstrations of in-game footage until a trailer or reveal of some kind for maximum impact - the upcoming E3 event in mid-June is one I'm sure we are all keeping a close eye on.

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