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Every so often a game comes along that really makes you sit up and pay attention.
Sometimes it’s because it features a beautiful refinement or evolution of some established mechanics. Sometimes it’s because it really pushes graphical technology forwards. Sometimes it has famous names attached to it.
And sometimes it’s 428: Shibuya Scramble, a title so far removed from what we traditionally think of as a “video game” that you can’t help but notice it.
We’ll talk more in depth about the mechanics and structure of 428 (as we shall refer to it hereafter) in a subsequent article, but for now, the gist is that it’s a visual novel with five separate but intertwining narrative paths that have the ability to affect one another, and graphics that consist exclusively of digital photographs and full-motion video footage.
428 is described by some as a “sound novel” rather than the more widely recognised term “visual novel”, and there are two distinct reasons for this.
The first is relatively straightforward: “sound novel” as a mechanical and presentational genre descriptor refers to text-centric games that, while often unvoiced, feature a strong emphasis on music, ambient sound and spot sound effects to create their atmosphere. They typically unfold in an environment where this use of sound can be used to immerse the reader in the setting, creating a truly multimedia experience — though not necessarily an interactive one by the traditional definition. Outside of 428, probably the most well-known and well-respected example of a sound novel that is readily available in the West comes in the form of the Higurashi: When They Cry series, but that’s a story for a whole other day we won’t get into right now!
The second definition of “sound novel” — or perhaps more accurately, “Sound Novel” — is more specific. Otogirisou was released in 1992 for the Super Famicom, and was not only Chunsoft’s first ever self-published title, it was also the beginning of a series called — you guessed it — “Sound Novel”.
Speaking with Famitsu in 2014 on the occasion of Chunsoft’s 30th anniversary (translated by Shmuplations), company founder Koichi Nakamura explained that the original concept for Otogirisou took an even more literal approach to the “sound novel” idea — it didn’t have any graphics at all!
“Originally, the background was just a textured page, like from a book, with text and the occasional animation like lightning or a car coming at you,” he explained. “However, when we announced the game [at the Nintendo Space World event], marketing partners weren’t thrilled. ‘I get what you’re going for, but it’s going to be very hard to sell like this.’ The gaming magazines said the same, that it would be hard for them to feature.”
The latter part in particular is understandable; gaming magazines in particular have always been a very visual medium, so one can see how Otogirisou’s proposed static “book” background wouldn’t have made for a particularly compelling spread in that month’s issue. Moreover, at this point in gaming history, the concept of “visual novels” hadn’t yet established itself; text adventures existed, but nothing quite like how Otogirisou planned to do things. In response to these criticisms, Nakamura and his team decided to add around 20 backgrounds to the game that complemented the text and provided some visual variety — the emphasis was still very much on the text itself, however.
Oddly enough, the mechanical concept for Otogirisou came about at least partly due to its earlier stablemate Dragon Quest.
“Despite the fact that Dragon Quest had been such a hit,” Nakamura explained, “I had friends and family members who hadn’t really played it much. When I asked them why, they told me things like ‘it’s hard to read because it’s all hiragana‘, or ‘I can’t figure out how to use the controller.’ I thought I would like to try creating a game that allowed those kinds of people the opportunity to experience games and get used to using a controller.”
He settled on the concept of a game where all you had to do was read and occasionally make use of the controller to select from several available choices. No reflexes required, and the higher resolution of the Super Famicom compared to the original Famicom that played host to Dragon Quest meant that text could now be represented using kanji rather than just hiragana, making it more comfortable to read for its native audience.
“I felt like the text adventure genre didn’t really have a good showing on the current consoles,” Nakamura explained. “And I wanted to change that. Otogirisou, then, was the solution I came up with for all these problems.”
Otogirisou sold reasonably well on its original release, but Nakamura and the Chunsoft team were surprised to discover that it had an incredibly long tail, more than doubling its initial sales over the course of its lifetime. It seemed that people were not only enjoying the game, but they were telling their friends about it; the fact that it was often sold out when those friends subsequently went to look for it contributed to something of an air of “mystery”, which of course made more and more people interested in what this peculiar game could really be all about. Viral marketing at its finest.
Otogirisou was followed up two years later by Kamaitachi no Yoru (aka Banshee’s Last Cry), also for Super Famicom. This went on to become one of Chunsoft’s most popular titles, and since its original release it has been ported to a wide variety of different platforms and even finally got an English localisation for iOS devices in 2014, courtesy of Aksys Games — though this port did transplant the original game’s 1990s Japanese setting to contemporary North America, including changing the characters’ names.
Kamaitachi no Yoru was a murder mystery title in which the story branched off in various directions according to the choices the player made along the way. Certain choices would allow the player to uncover clues; failing to obtain enough clues by various points in the narrative causes additional murders to occur, and the story ultimately concludes in one of several endings.
It’s clear how both Otogirisou and Kamaitachi no Yoru would go on to be influential games; in fact, they are widely credited alongside Yuji Horii’s Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken and Leaf’s early titles from 1996 onwards as outright establishing this whole method of interactive storytelling in the first place, with Leaf’s titles typically being credited as coining the term “visual novel”.
In 1998, the third entry in the Sound Novel series was released: Machi (literally, “City”). This game originally came out for Saturn before being ported to PlayStation in 1998 and PSP in 2006, with the latter including new story content and marking the beginning of a two-year relationship between Sega and Chunsoft.
Machi is regarded as the spiritual predecessor to 428, and it’s not hard to see why. It has a narrative that features multiple protagonists; it consists of photographs and video with text overlaid on top; its structure places a strong emphasis on switching between characters to influence the intertwining narrative paths; hell, it’s even set in Shibuya.
Machi’s core “mechanic” is described as “chain of fate”. This refers to the fact that each of the various characters’ narrative paths throughout the game can impact the others in various ways. For example, in one scenario a gang member attempts to pull off a jewel heist, with his success or failure depending on the player’s choices. If the heist is successful, another character who bears a striking resemblance to the gang member ends up getting pursued as a suspect, while if it fails, this sequence of events doesn’t occur at all. In total there are eight different characters, each of whom is able to affect the stories of the others in various ways over the course of the complete narrative, ultimately culminating in various “good” and “bad” endings.
Although Machi never saw an overseas release, it was extremely well-received in Japan. Its 2006 PSP version scored a respectable 33 out of 40 from the notoriously stingy Famitsu, but more significantly a poll attempting to determine the readership’s favourite games of all time saw the game come in fifth place out of the top 100. And this popularity endured, too; over a decade later in 2017, Famitsu ran another poll, this time to determine the readership’s top five adventure games of all time — in Japan, pure visual novels tend to be regarded as “adventure games”, unlike here in the West — and Machi was right up there alongside Steins;Gate, Gyakuten Saiban (aka Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney), the first Danganronpa game… and 428: Shibuya Scramble.
428 was first released in 2008 for Wii as part of Chunsoft and Sega’s partnership. Spike, who would later merge with Chunsoft in 2012, ported the game to PlayStation 3 and PSP in 2009, then an iOS and Android version followed in 2011. However, the game wouldn’t come West until 2018, when Dutch company Abstraction Games would port the game to PlayStation 4 and Windows PC, and localisation director David Kracker would finally fulfil what he believed to be his “mission”.
“My favourite Japanese video games have a certain sensibility that you don’t find in Western titles,” Kracker told the PlayStation Blog in 2018. “They’re off-kilter, but in a good way, you know? 428 is the most ‘Japanese’ game in our back catalogue, so when I joined Spike Chunsoft, I made it my mission to localise it. The titular Shibuya Scramble crosswalk is a Tokyo landmark, something like the Times Square of Japan, and the game captures the vibe of the city, that anything could happen at any time.”
Kracker brought on Kajiya Productions to handle the substantial job that was localising the text of the game. This company was founded in 2002 by veteran localiser Alexander Smith, formerly of Square, and best known from his time at that company for his excellent work on Vagrant Story. Smith, along with co-founder Reeder, would go on to establish the company as a successful translation and localisation outfit for a variety of clients, with some of their most well-known and well-respected work over the years including Final Fantasy XII for PlayStation 2, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney for Nintendo DS, and Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together for PSP.
Speaking with Square Haven in 2007, Smith described his approach to localisation as drawing out the “inner English game hidden away” in every Japanese title.
“Once you find it,” he explained, “it sets its own bar and the goal then becomes to meet those expectations within the constraints of time available. Vagrant Story was one of those rare projects that was just screaming to be in English from the moment it was made, so the bar, though high, was very clear.”
Smith had exposure to Asian culture from a relatively early age, including a two-month stint in China while he was at high school, and went on to study at Keio University before attaining a Masters in classical Japanese literature from Harvard. He found his time at Keio particularly helpful for exposure to both Japanese language and culture, though notes that an academic focus on Japanese isn’t a requirement to become a proficient translator — an understanding of the culture is, however, though this doesn’t necessarily mean just dropping in Japanese terminology for the sake of it, unless it’s directly relevant.
“Context is everything when translating,” he noted. “If you’re widely read and widely exposed to the culture, you’ll be able to understand a particular line in a game from the perspective of the writer and the Japanese gamer. This frees you from a literal translation. The goal then becomes to leave the word-for-word text behind, and create something that will be as significant to the English audience as it was to the original audience.
“If you don’t really know how a particular line sounds to a Japanese audience, you might misfire when transposing it into English,” he continued. “Or worse, offer up a direct word-for-word translation that leaves the game sounding bland. That line that had a vivid life and cultural context in the original is just an unanchored string of words in the target language. Appreciation of context is the key to creating a localisation that is both a good read in English, and faithful to the spirit of the original.”
Smith and Kajiya subsequently brought on translator Kevin Frane to work on the actual text of the game, with Smith acting as an editor while Frane took on the heavy lifting.
“The total amount of text is equal to roughly three average-length novels,” explained Frane in a Tumblr post announcing his involvement shortly after GDC 2018. “And with five different storylines all intertwining (with all the branching paths therein based on player choice), there was a lot to keep track of and a lot of constant checking that the pieces were all fitting together properly. It was an honour to get to work on this, which isn’t something I say lightly; I’ve had novels of my own published, but I still think that, of all the projects I’ve been able to put my name on, 428 is the one I’m the most proud of.”
“The script has a very wry, absurdist style of humour that’s rare in Japanese media, but a natural fit in English,” added Kracker. “So the challenge was to keep from going overboard! For example, [police detective protagonist] Kano carries around a notebook of maxims by a senior detective he admires. It was tempting to slide a joke in and call these ‘Dick Tips’, but to maintain the restrained tone of the original, we went with the more subdued (but still catchy) ‘Dick Dictum’.”
Much like its spiritual predecessor Machi, 428 was extremely well-received — in fact, on its original release for Wii in 2008, it was only the ninth game Famitsu had given a perfect 40/40 rating since the magazine’s inception in 1986. It went on to win Famitsu’s “Dramatic Prize” in its 2008 awards, as well as an award in the “Future Division” at the 2008 Japan Game Awards for its level of realism, and of course, it also took its aforementioned position in Famitsu’s “top five adventure games of all time” poll in 2017.
Upon the game’s Western release, it was received similarly warmly — which is rather unusual for a visual novel, with a few notable exceptions over the years, such as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and the Danganronpa series. Critics praised its strong characterisation, its branching structure, its compelling narrative and its clever mechanics, as well as highlighting how it pioneered a lot of ideas that would go on to be further explored and refined in its later stablemates, the Zero Escape and Danganronpa series.
For those unaccustomed to how visual novels do things, 428 is a great way to introduce yourself to what the genre has to offer at its very best. And for visual novel veterans, 428 represents masters of their craft showing off some of their finest work. The only risk, of course, is that you end up spoiling yourself somewhat!
Next time, we’ll look at 428’s structure and mechanics, and how they elevate the game from being a conventional, linear visual novel into the compelling, mind-bending, non-linear masterpiece that it is.
More about 428: Shibuya Scramble
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