Behind the 80s Shoujo and Mecha of 13 Sentinels with Akiyasu Yamamoto

The ATLUS producer explain what went into creating this strange, stunning visual novel from an action-adventure dev.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim isn’t just Vanillaware’s most unusual project yet. It’s also the studio’s biggest. Created by a team of less than 30 people, it’s an uncompromising deep-dive into all of (the often contentious) studio director and writer George Kamitani’s passions. Blending sci-fi and anime tropes with non-chronological storytelling, it’s a difficult game to summarize. It’s also different enough from previous Vanillaware action games like Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown. Those were side-scrolling adventures set in high fantasy worlds. It must have proven a challenge to Kamitani and his team, and so I reached out via email to ATLUS producer and long-time Vanillaware collaborator Akiyasu Yamamoto to find out more about the making of 13 Sentinels.

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[The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

Malindy Hetfeld: You have worked with Vanillaware for a long time, and the studio established a reputation for a certain type of fantasy game. 13 Sentinels is a strong departure from that. What were your feelings when the studio announced its plans to make something so radically different, both thematically and in scope, from its previous output?

Akiyasu Yamamoto: The development of this game all began seven years ago, with Vanillaware’s New Year’s greeting card. That year, we were informed that Kamitani-san sent out a card to external companies outside of ATLUS that included the visuals for his latest game proposal, as well as 9KB of text data laying out the concept details.

At the time, we were right in the middle of developing Dragon’s Crown on the PS3/PS Vita. While planning the promotional campaign, I actually made Kamitani-san promise me that “once Dragon’s Crown is completed, we’d be the first to hear about his next big idea,” so to hear he did that was shocking, to say the least! After relaying how dejected I felt, Kamitani-san apologized, saying he completely forgot about our promise… However, what really left an impression within that text proposal was the eccentric combination of the “80s shoujo manga” meets “mech robots” concept, as well as the simple answer Kamitani-san gave to the question: “What do you want to make players do after they play the game?” He answered: “I’ll make them cry.”

MH: How would you explain the game to people who might not know Vanillaware and its history?

AY: This game was actually built not on the traditional notions of a “game,” but rather the feelings of excitement and suspense that American thrillers and dramas thrive on (where you don’t fully understand what’s happening, but that keeps you excited to find out what’s about to happen next and uncover the truth). The story mostly takes place within the bounds of a school, but within that constraint, we established each segment of this game where players can gain a sense of freedom and exploration amidst the various intersecting themes and tones (detective story, suspense, shoujo manga, etc.) and structures of the plot. We take a lot of pride in the fact that we managed this with 13 playable protagonists.

MH: From what I heard, this is a game in large part inspired by Noboru Ishiguro’s anime Megazone 23, could name some more influences?

AY: While it’s true that the work of Kamitani-san is largely inspired by other existing classics, the game is designed so that people who aren’t familiar with the original sources can still connect certain dots and speculate that a specific plot point might be inspired by a specific influence. I would actually encourage those who’ve played the game to speculate and debate amongst themselves.

MH: 13 Sentinels took a lot longer to make than originally anticipated. What are some possible reasons for this?

AY: Although it was decided that we’d be relying on Kamitani-san as our main writer since the project was first greenlit, the text proposal for the game specifically noted that the main parts of the story will be written by Kamitani-san, and everything else will be split and sectioned off with the assumption that others will assist with the writing. However, considering the narrative so layered in mystery, an intent for all 13 characters to have unique and distinguishable story concepts to keep things fresh, and a mechanic where players can change between the different character perspectives on top of travelling between different time periods, we ultimately reached the conclusion that we couldn’t afford to split the workload and Kamitani-san would have to write the script entirely on his own.

MH: The game shows its players narrative branches to help you keep track of each character’s individual story, but I still marvel at how each story is part of a larger whole. How did it come together?

AY: Based on my previous answer I don’t think our process was the most efficient, but we used the following five steps: We built out a script program that would compose the main adventure portion of the game. We prepared the graphic assets for the characters, backgrounds, props that are required to progress the story. Kamitani-san closely studied the way the script program was built, and manually created overarching episodes by manipulating the graphic assets. With this process, each episode took two years to create. Finally, we then checked over each episode with our QA staff to ensure there were no narrative contradictions and made adjustments as needed.

MH: What is the inspiration behind the Cloud Sync system used for interactions? I like to compare it to thought clouds in a manga.

AY: This is a great question. I previously explained that this game tries to evoke feelings of excitement and suspense found in American thrillers and dramas and bring them into a video game. In a situation where players are thrown into this world where they don’t fully understand what’s going on, but must progress the story through 13 playable characters, the thought cloud system essentially acts as a function to allow players to put themselves in the position of the character they’re currently playing. I view it as a necessary compass that helps players navigate the sea of mystery with some semblance of control.

MH: Finally, the localization of this game surprised me. While it has Western influences, it still feels distinctly Japanese to me. In the past, ATLUS and Sega worried whether some of its projects, including franchises you’ve worked on, like Shin Megami Tensei, would appeal to Western audiences and whether players would understand the material’s Japanese nuances. Is there a similar worry with 13 Sentinels or do you think by now Western audiences and Japanese developers know each other well enough for that not to be a worry? How much do you think studios like Vanillaware take into account the “gaze” from the West when making a game?

AY: I have absolutely no worries in regards to the quality of the final localized product itself. In general, I do also agree that there’s been less of a gap that exists between Western users and Japanese developers since around 2013, which was when we released Dragon’s Crown, a title that was well-received by many players in the West. As a gamer myself, I do play many Western titles, and I too feel it’s much more common to see well-localized Western games in Japan these days. But to answer your last question, truthfully, I will say we don’t usually try to take into account how we think the “West” would view our games, but rather try to focus on making games that we can see ourselves enjoying and having fun with.

In regards to whether I’m worried if Western users would fully understand a story set in 1980s Japan, a world that is alien even to our younger Japanese players, I would say that it’s okay if not everything clicks right away. The experience of diving headfirst into a niche world that is even more foreign to Western players, who grew up with a completely different cultural and historical background, is in and of itself a very unique experience, in my opinion. So I’m very curious to see how players interpret this game. Although I can’t deny that I occasionally worry about how much of the game’s nuance will truly come across to players in the West, considering the linguistic and cultural barriers, at the end of the day, this game’s sci-fi grounding is universal.

MH: Lastly, would you encourage Vanillaware and other studios to take more risks and make more “weird” games? Do you think this will lead to Vanillaware trying even more “unlikely” projects, or are games like 13 Sentinels rare passion projects?

AY: This is a very interesting question, and one where my answer would change depending on who exactly I’m talking to, haha… Honestly, if I had to have a conversation like this with a staff member within our own development team, I would bring up the laborious production process I mentioned above, and ask (pretty sternly) if they truly can commit to completing a script entirely on their own, spanning multiple years, even it meant having to use temporary graphic assets. I feel that in order to recreate this sort of experience with a different story, you would almost need the help of AI, rather than depending on human manpower. So while I don’t think we’ll ever try to recreate this exact experience with another story, we do want to stick to our root idea of trying to express what we think is interesting and fun within a game, and help players enjoy themselves to their fullest.