Hidetaka Miyazaki and Collaborative Game Design

Photo of Hidetaka Miyazaki
Hidetaka Miyazaki
The 2011 FromSoftware video game Dark Souls was recently awarded the seemingly hyperbolic title "Ultimate Game of All Time" at the 2021 Golden Joystick Awards, which started in 1983 and is the second-oldest video game award ceremony of its kind. There's no end to the essays and video tributes to the game available online, not to mention endless lore exegesis and detailed design analysis, but having entered the "Soulsborne" universe during the pandemic, I'm thoroughly and continually awed by the immersive design work of mastermind Hidetaka Miyazaki and his colleagues at FromSoft. Digging into the mechanics of these games feels like studying James Joyces's Ulysses or mid-later period Coltrane; the level of interconnected detail, mystery, and implication is profound.

So, how do you come up with and implement a (series of) games that push the mechanical and storytelling boundaries of the medium? There's a central vision, of course, but also deeply involved collaborative work with a small team of designers. In reading the 2011 Design Works interview, I came across numerous points that seemed directly relevant to other collaborative work—for myself, the most relevant is composition for improvisers. 

A few choice excerpts and comments below (note the text below is from the Design Works book, while the linked text is an apparently different translation of the same interview from the Japanese, and all emphasis is mine):

Individual Freedom and Collective Unity

Otsuka: Did you have any concerns that giving your designers too much freedom would result in a lack of unity in the game art?

Miyazaki: It's true that a game's art work needs a certain level of solidarity, but I still decided to give our designers as much freedom as possible. As the one who makes the final call on everything, I have some unique quirks and I know the designers do too. It was my hope that these quirks would somehow work together to produce a special kind of harmony. I feel like enjoying the collaborative experience with a great team of unique designers will build a rich and intricate world. I've found that each designer has their own "in" when it comes to design work. While some designers like to approach a design from a philosophical angle, others do better when they have a character backstory to work off of. In this way, the different designers are able to bring their own touch to the project and possibly inspire new ideas in their teammates, eventually leading to a new level of depth in the final product. Having said all that, I will add that every project requires a certain degree of direction to keep everyone on track.

Although the director or leader ultimately calls the shots, the alchemy of individual personality and creativity is what allows a project to attain a degree of richness and world-building that distinguishes it from other generic efforts. Miyazaki also points out that different people find their motivation or direction through different approaches; similarly, some musicians might prefer different kinds of input when contributing their musical talents to a project or composition, so it's not necessarily helpful to provide the same kinds of materials or inputs for everybody when you're composing for a specific group or musical setting.

Leaving Enough to the Imagination and Trusting the Artists

Otsuka: Do your design orders tend to be more abstract in nature?

Miyazaki: It depends on the designer, but if I had to say one way or the other I'd say they tend to be abstract. This is because I think if I provided very specific orders, the resulting product will be limited by the boundaries of my design skills and imagination. I typically just communicate the core concept of my idea, and leave the rest up to the designer's imagination. My hope is that the designer will be able to surpass my own imagination or that we'll get some kind of by-product that I never could have come up with on my own. That's why the initial order is usually made up of abstract terms or keywords that don't really make sense to anyone but me

... Still, my goal is to get the designers into the design process with as few restrictions as possible, so I'll never give defining descriptions like what colors or shapes to use. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I consider designers to be more than mere tools. If the designers aren't able to produce something that meets or exceeds my expectations, that just means I did something wrong because I wasn't able to draw out the designers' full potential, artistic instinct, and unique imagination. That's something I'm always working on.

Despite his creative gifts, Miyazaki is practical enough to acknowledge that his imagination, like anybody else's, has its own innate limits. To that end, it's enough and maybe ideal to communicate the essence of what he's going for to somebody else, so that they can devote their attention to it and come up with something beyond his own wildest dreams. This answer immediately made me think of the Coltrane quartet as well, particularly how Trane had mentioned in interviews that he didn't necessarily know what McCoy was playing exactly, but that it was better that way. They could all approach the same musical space from their own perspective and create something greater than the individual parts precisely if they weren't playing from identical perspectives; the magic was in how those approaches overlapped in surprising, reactive ways. Furthermore, the leader shouldn't blame the others for failing to meet their expectations; it's the leader's job to enable others to perform at their best, which Miyazaki succinctly summarizes as their "full potential, artistic instinct, and unique imagination.

Working From Reality and "Building While You Build"

Miyazaki: ..."Armored Core" taught me that locations and buildings that are based on real things as opposed to coming purely from the imagination of a planner, designer, or graphic designer tend to have a good blend of concepts and intricate layers of details, so I wanted to try it out with "Dark Souls."

Otsuka: Looking at the Painted World in its entirety, it's easy to see the many unique details you put into it. I know I was excited when I went there because I didn't know what to expect.

Miyazaki: I appreciate that. Speaking of all of the locations in general, I think we were able to bring them together quite well. In order to offer a seamless experience, we stuck to the initial concept for the world without deviating too much but I also feel like we were able to incorporate a lot of unexpected ideas that popped up during development. Adding new ideas in order to expand the world beyond our original plan is my favorite way to build a world, but it can sometimes be difficult to refrain from straying too far off course and that's something I'm always wary of. I think this "building while we build" approach infuses the game world with an organic richness that you would not get otherwise. This is a method I applied to both "Dark Souls" and "Demon's Souls". The only problem with this approach is the risk of going too far or putting too much of one's personal aspect into the game, which makes it unsuitable for mass production and sale. I'll just leave it at that because I feel like I'm getting off the topic of design work, but it's something I feel strongly about and will continue to contemplate. 

Rather than working purely from imagination, it's can be productive to have some concrete, existing basis to work from—a substrate that you can obscure, abstract, or extend, so that the final result is both conceptually rich and layered with detail simply as a by-product of this kind of process. I hadn't thought about this, but this approach is more or less how I've composed primarily over the past few years: working with existing musical material or information (often transcribed improvisations from the masters), and then finding angles or implied concepts that can be extended to bridge into something surprising or unfamiliar to me. 

Miyazaki also credits a willingness to embrace unplanned possibilities that emerge while in the act of designing that allows for an "organic richness" that might be missing from a more rigidly, centrally planned work. He acknowledges that this has to be carefully considered, though, lest you go too far and make the work too idiosyncratic—in my interpretation, so inward-facing as to be inaccessible or off-putting to an audience, to be personal to the point of exclusion or solipsism, which is a fine line perhaps easily crossed. 

Complementary Inspiration and Using Existing Language

Gaping Dragon
Miyazaki: I imagine the Gaping Dragon's process of evolution being something like, "I want to eat!" "My esophagus is in the way!" "Why does food have to travel such a long distance to get to my stomach!?" (laughs) I hadn't really thought about the design that far, and I probably wouldn't have been able to come up with the specific keywords that would have guided any other designer to create a monster quite like that. That really blows me away. It's the beauty of the collaborative effort I was talking about before. Each person brings their own unique talents and imagination to the table, and in my opinion there is no better work environment than one where you can inspire and be inspired by your colleagues.

Nakamura: Something I wonder about the demons I designed is whether I went too far with them in any way. I was always under the impression that Miyazaki hated direct and obvious uses of things like archetypes and symbolism because they can limit the game world from evolving in unexpected ways. That's why my designs turned out the way they did...

Miyazaki: Hmm... It sounds like you might have worried too much about my thoughts regarding that sort of thing. (laughs) It's true that I don't like making games that look like they were popped out of some mold that's been stored in the video game industry's warehouse, but I'm not so unrealistic as to say every single aspect has to be purely original. For instance, there are times when I'm looking at a design draft and I feel like there's still something missing. I'll go searching through a bunch of photos and other images until something catches my eye. I will then find a way to work that thing, whatever it is, into the design. So you see I don't think there's anything wrong with preserving pre-established images or notions. In fact, with things like the goat-headed demon, the reason why giving that monster a goat's head automatically grants it a demonic and ritualistic vibe is because goat-headed monsters have long been depicted in that way in various cultures. Sometimes it can be important to perpetuate existing symbolism because that sort of legacy is what gives those images their power. With that in mind, I wouldn't reject the idea of a goat-headed demon just because "it's been done before". Symbols are symbols because they have established that position for themselves over many years, and it is not so easy for a totally new image to adopt a similar strength of visual influence. Acknowledging this means knowing that symbolism can be a powerful weapon in terms of design work. Therefore, to try to bring this rant back to its starting point, I think it's totally okay to use pre-established imagery in designs from time to time. 

Citing one particularly memorable boss design, Miyazaki gives it up to the designer for conceiving something that he never would have never thought of on his own, which is just another example of the collaborative process at its finest: mutual, reciprocal inspiration that provides a self-sustaining source of creative energy. In commenting on when it's appropriate to use clichés or historically-rooted visual symbolism, Miyazaki also points out that if there's a certain specific effect you want to get across, sometimes the most effective way is to use a powerful existing piece of visual language, since a more novel approach won't easily have that sort of "visual influence." That is, it's not always necessary or desirable to try to do something that's been done before; the ultimate, collective effect of the individual pieces may feel unique or personal, but when dealing with the nuts and bolts, it's important to feel comfortable drawing from the well of language to make the strongest, most effective choice in a given situation or context.

Leaving in Imperfections or Unintended Details for Greater Impact

Otsuka: Speaking of motion, the way the Attack Dogs in the Depths moved was quite unsettling.

Miyazaki: Technically speaking, that motion is a little off but we found the somewhat unnatural movement to have an unsettling quality to it, as you said, so we decided to leave it that way. If you make everything in a game too perfect, you lose that creepy otherworldly vibe that you can only get from something that feels more organic. The result would be a rather bland game with no surprises that wouldn't leave much of an impression on the players. At the same time, however, that desirable level of unnatural eeriness is not something you can just plan out and execute effectively. Instead, you have to rely on the unexpected and be prepared to use every opportunity to improve something beyond your initial plans. Whichever way you go with something, it's all about moderation and finding the right balance.

This small point surprised me, but it rings true: leaving in a certain degree of imperfection is actually desirable because it better reflects our experience of the world, which is full of moments of minor strangeness that lends lived experience its unique texture. In other words, making everything too neat makes the work feel unrealistic or lack an immersive quality by making it feel not lifelike—by making it feel like a video game. As Miyazaki says, "it's all about moderation and finding the right balance."

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