Note: This is mostly machine translation; I’ve done some edits and cleanup, but I only know a little Japanese, so take it with a grain of salt.
Zero, celebrating its 20th anniversary, is a hit again in its first Asian outing; we ask Kikuchi & Shibata how to make and sell horror games.
The horror game Zero, released in 2001, is a Japanese-style horror adventure game that uses a camera called a “Camera Obscura” to fight ghosts that should not exist.
The series has counted 10 titles to date, including ports and derivative works, and celebrated its 20th anniversary last December. Most recently, the remaster of Zero: Nuregarasu no Miko sold 340,000 units globally, making it Koei Tecmo HD’s highest shipping title in Q3 FY03/2022.
The Zero series, which was also a market pioneer as a horror work rooted in Japanese local culture, continues to expand its fanbase overseas. We spoke to producer Keisuke Kikuchi and director Makoto Shibata, who have led the development of the franchise for 20 years since the first title, about its evolution as a franchise title.
A Japanese horror game with a strong overseas market
Shimanaka: The series celebrated its 20th anniversary on 23 December 2021. Congratulations.
Kikuchi: Thank you.
Shibata: Thank you. I never thought it would become a series that would last 20 years. I’m really happy about it.
Shimanaka: Zero: Nuregarasu no Miko, released in October 2021, has sold 340,000 copies worldwide. The title was originally released for Wii U in 2014; how do you view its sales?
Kikuchi: We are surprised and very happy that the sales have exceeded our expectations. Sales in Japan have stayed relatively steady, but outside of Japan, sales in Asia have increased significantly. Looking at sales by hardware, the Nintendo Switch version has been by far the biggest seller in Japan and the rest of Asia.
Shimanaka: The remastered version has significantly enhanced graphics, but the scenario itself is the same as the original. What do you think was the reason for the success of the game in Asia and outside Japan?
Kikuchi: There are two reasons, I’d say. The first is that the game was released simultaneously for PlayStation 4 and 5, and Nintendo Switch, as well as for Xbox One and PC, which have a large international user base.
The other reason is that the Japanese style of scare presentation, which is one of the greatest features of the Zero series, has been more highly regarded and may have led to the series becoming a hit. Recently, as in the case of the excellent horror titles coming out of Korea and Taiwan one after another, horror content has already established itself as a genre in many Asian countries, and I think that Zero was able to easily enter the genre as a horror title with a Japanese flavour.
Shimanaka: Does this mean that there was a high affinity between game fans in the Asian region and the Japanese horror representation in Zero?
Kikuchi: Right. Zero: Nuregarasu no Miko is the first in the series to be published in Asia, and I think we’ve got off to a very good start.
Shimanaka: The series has already been successfully developed overseas since its early days as FATAL FRAME in North America and PROJECT ZERO in the European region. What events have prompted you to consider overseas markets?
Kikuchi: In fact, when the first work was first planned, we had no idea that it would be developed overseas.
However, as soon as we released “Zero”, offers started pouring in from overseas publishers. We decided to go overseas, and started selling the game in the US through a subsidiary of Tecmo (now TECMO KOEI AMERICA Corporation), and in Europe through a French publisher, as we didn’t even have a sales network at the time. The company Wanadoo was asked to distribute the product.
Despite being virtually unknown in the European sphere, Wanadoo’s proactive PR helped it gain a large fan base. Although it didn’t happen, we even received an offer from DreamWorks (DreamWorks Pictures), a world-renowned film company, to make it into a film. It is no exaggeration to say that the worldwide success of the Zero series today is due to the deep pockets of the North American and European markets at the time.
The essence of Zero lies beyond fear
Shimanaka: What do you consider to be the most decisive factors and strengths that have made you so successful at home and abroad?
Shibata: I think the greatest feature of the Zero series is the expression of spiritual terror rooted in the climate and culture of Japan. That’s what we put the most effort into throughout the series.
Shimanaka: I see.
Shibata: There were already successful examples of Japanese horror games such as Resident Evil (Capcom, PlayStation, 1996) and Silent Hill (Konami Digital Entertainment, PlayStation, 1999), so it was only fitting that the horror of these games should be as good as these masterpieces. Thinking about expression, I arrived at spiritual fear, which was the inspiration for Zero.
Of course, both titles are international hits, so aiming for that level of success is a tough challenge. But the company (Tecmo at the time of “Zero”‘s release) encouraged us to take on new challenges under the slogan “Something New”, and although “Zero” was a really difficult production, we managed to bring it to the world.
Shimanaka: So, the expressions of fear based on Japanese customs were refined little by little while groping in the dark?
Shibata: That’s right. I had a complete picture of the spiritual atmosphere in my mind, but I had to find a way to express it. It had to be conveyed through what could be expressed in the game, such as backgrounds, effects and the timing of sound, so we built it up piece by piece.
Shimanaka: Certainly with horror games like Resident Evil, there is an overlap between zombie movie-style scare tactics and action game tension, but when it comes to creating an action game with Japanese-style scare tactics, it may not be immediately obvious how they would merge.
Shibata: J-horror films were already recognised, but the situation was different when it came to games. At first it was difficult to get media coverage. I think the idea of a ‘Japanese-style horror game’ didn’t really hit home at the time. It was the same at the development site, and the first challenge was to get the staff to understand the sense of fear I was looking for.
Kikuchi: It was the first time we had made a horror game, so we were already lacking in terms of background knowledge of horror works. There were even some staff members who shied away from scary games, saying, “I don’t want to play scary games…” (laughter)
Shimanaka: You had to go through a lot of difficulties which would be unthinkable nowadays.
Shibata: There are many different kinds of fear. Some of our staff liked splatter but not psychic horror, and they didn’t know what kind of spiritual horror this title was looking for.
Once the game has taken shape to a certain extent, with the presence of spirits that make you think they are there, the damp air that clings to your skin, these things become “visible” on the console, and you get to the point where “just moving around is scary”, the game is finally ready to be played. Development began to move forward.
Shimanaka: Mr Shibata, what did you say to the development team members to share the ‘fear’ that they should aim for?
Shibata: I think no matter how many concepts and concrete examples we talked about, in the end words did not convey the message. I realised that the atmosphere before the spirits come out is still difficult unless you experience it at least once.
I often recall when we were developing the fourth game in the series, Zero: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse (Nintendo, Wii, 2008). After it was completed, Grasshopper’s Mr Suda said to me that it had suddenly become scary (during development), but he didn’t know why it became scary. Those words really left an impression on me.
Shimanaka: Even the world’s leading top creators have failed to unravel the horror.
Shibata: I was surprised that they didn’t get it, knowing the process we went through when we were making it together and gradually adjusting it. Whether it’s scary or not is separate from the gameplay. It’s something that builds up. Suda-san must have suddenly had a channel that allowed him to “see” it.
Shimanaka: There is something about the worldview of the “Zero” series that is evocative to me.
Shibata: It may be true that it is harder to convey a message if you don’t experience it than if you explain it in words. The worldview of the Zero series has been focused on the atmosphere that seems to emanate from the spirit in every title, but I think it is difficult to understand unless you play the game.
Kikuchi: Many horror games are long-lived classics, such as SIREN (SCE, PlayStation2, 2003). There are also many interesting ones in the indie world.
But I’m still fascinated by the horror Shibata creates. Mysteries are always present in horror films. In Resident Evil, there is a huge pharmaceutical company called Umbrella Corporation, and in Siren, the village of Hanyuda itself is a mystery, and the more you solve it, the more fear and violence you will encounter. The more you solve the mystery, the more fear and violence you will encounter, and the more you are motivated by the goal of defeating the mastermind.
The ‘Zero’ series, on the other hand, is consistently afraid of the unknown. You’re scared and anxious because you can’t see the other side of the shoji. You think you hear a noise, but you don’t know what it is or what it means. The anxiety that arises from the lack of information drives the player’s imagination, and the sensation of fear seeping into your mind – I think this is the essence of the ‘Zero’ series.
Shimanaka: Indeed, each “Zero” is accompanied by an unspeakable fear, a sense of unidentified insecurity.
Kikuchi: In the Zero series, the positioning of the mystery itself is slightly different from other horror games. That is, the more the mystery is revealed, the more it leads not to fear, but to unexpected emotions. This emotion can lead to pity, love and sometimes resignation. There is no other horror game like Zero.
Shibata: The enemies of ‘Zero’ are spirits. They are already dead and cannot be defeated anymore. Unlike other horror stories, there is no exhilaration in defeating them. Furthermore, the story is set in a world where there are no inherently evil people, just like in reality, so it is not a story about solving the problem by defeating the bad guys and stopping their ambitions. Everyone is already dead and it’s all over.
You record each of their deaths with the ‘Camera Obscura’ (a film camera that appears in the game and projects the ghosts), and then you sit with them in their grief and give them closure. In this way, the story is designed so that the protagonist can empathise with the pain of the spirits and come to a single resolution.
“Impossible things” identified during the interview.
Shimanaka: It is the 20th anniversary of the series, which also means that the two of you have been working together for 20 years.
Kikuchi: Actually, Shibata and I joined Tecmo at the same time. We were also on the same team that produced training programs for new employees.
Shimanaka: So you had the same starting point for your career?
Kikuchi: That’s right. In addition to Zero, we also worked on the Trap series, Kikumeikan (Tecmo, PlayStation, 1996), followed by Kagerou: Kikumeikan Shinsho (Tecmo, PlayStation, 1998) to Kagerou: Another Princess (Koei Tecmo Games, PlayStation4, 2015). We were involved in development together until 2006.
During the development of Zero, I often feel a connection with many people, including Shibata. The same goes for Mr Suda, and Ms Imaide, who was also a Grasshopper CG designer, produced the ‘Screaming Ambulance Ver. Zero’ promotional campaign, which ran for two days at Yomiuriland (Inagi City, Tokyo) in December 2021 and was extremely well received.
Shimanaka: I also took part in the media test ride of the Screaming Ambulance Ver. Zero, and was I was overwhelmed from start to finish by the terrifying effects. It was a truly amazing experience, even though I was only sitting in it for about 10 minutes.
Kikuchi: Thank you very much. I have been on a couple of rides for supervision and was really surprised at the planning ability of the scare team. It’s a great frightening and moving experience, typical of “Zero.”
We would like to encourage those who have played the Zero series, as well as those who don’t yet know it, to experience it for themselves. Participants will also receive a small ‘memento’. The date of the next event has not yet been decided, but as soon as the new coronavirus infection is under control, we plan to resume the event little by little, so please look forward to it.
Shimanaka: I received a “memento” as well. I’ve kept it. (Laughs)
Shibata: Did you see the little girl when you got into the ambulance?
Shimanaka: Little girl? …No, I didn’t see that.
Shibata: She was in the corner when I test drove the Screaming Ambulance, so I was a bit curious… she was staring at Kikuchi.
Kikuchi: What?! I didn’t notice that at all.
Shibata: That’s what I thought. When I asked Ms Imaide about it, she smiled happily and said, “So you noticed her, then?”
Shimanaka: Wait. Could that be “real”…?
Shibata: It’s okay. Ms Imaide said she’s a well-behaved girl.
Shimanaka: Will the girl be riding in the next Screaming Ambulance Ver. Zero?
Shibata: Yes, it is a unique opportunity. (Laughter) Please come and see us at the next one, you might even meet some “girlfriends”.
Shimanaka: Thank you very much for your valuable story, which took an unexpected turn.
Shibata: Thank you.
Kikuchi: Thank you.