‘A very quiet and calm story’ … Déraciné, a forthcoming VR game from the Dark Souls designer and FromSoftware president Hidetaka Miyazaki. Photograph: Sony
The game designer discusses swapping horror for a strange VR adventure game about fairies, inspired by manga and Celtic folklore.
The downside to making something critically revered and loved by millions is that it isn’t easy to get out from under its shadow. For Hidetaka Miyazaki and the game development studio he now leads, FromSoftware, Dark Soulswas a golden ticket. In 2004, Miyazaki was a designer on the Armored Core series of mech games. By 2015, he was the company’s president and the games he has directed – Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls and Bloodborne – have been lauded as some of the greatest of the modern era.
Now, finally freed from the Dark Souls series, which came to an end (for the time being, at least) in 2016, FromSoftware has previewed two brand new games this year. One of them, the samurai-themed action game Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, shares a lot of the DNA of Dark Souls: intense, violent combat, a ravaged setting full of fallen creatures, and cleverly designed locations that interlock and wrap around themselves.
The other, Déraciné, is a VR adventure game about fairies. Both are under Miyazaki’s creative direction, and represent a way forward for the developer. But the inspiration for Déraciné came from looking back.
Otherworldly ... FromSoftware’s Déraciné for PSVR. Photograph: Sony
Before the Souls series, FromSoftware’s softography was eclectic, taking in numerous mech action games, roleplaying games and strange adventures, a game about cats living on an island, a co-operative cartoon adventure starring two cute bunnies and a few samurai games that doubtless inspired the studio to return to warring-states era Japan with Sekiro. One particular game from the back catalogue encouraged Miyazaki to branch out from violent action games for the first time in 10 years.
“FromSoftware had made adventure games, before we acquired our recent reputation for the series everyone is familiar with,” he says wryly. “One of them was Echo Night. We didn’t want to just recreate it, but we know what makes a good adventure game, and we thought, let’s see what we can do. I’ve observed some surprise in the reactions so far from people who were not aware that FromSoftware does other things besides Souls. This serves as a reminder to me that we have an established reputation – and that we should work on different games, so we can be more flexible and build a broader profile. That’s how I see our future.
“We’ll obviously continue to make the larger scale productions that we’ve become known for. That is our reputation. But at the same time we want to put out one-off, quirky, flavourful games. We are not always given the opportunity and the timing may not always be right, but I think that is who we would like to be.”
‘VR gives you an uncomfortable feeling I wanted to harness and overcome’ … Hidetaka Miyazaki. Photograph: FromSoftware/Sony
Déraciné is a strange, otherworldy game for PlayStation VR, in which you play a fairy suspended between the real world and the supernatural. You move around what looks like a fairytale version of a Victorian children’s home, stopped in time like a film set, its inhabitants caught mid-action. By finding objects, keys and letters around the house, you can trigger events in the past or in the future, stoking the children’s belief in your powers. It being a FromSoftware game, I was constantly on edge waiting for something horrible to happen, but, at least in the 40 minutes I played, nothing did.
I have no doubt there is more to Déraciné than first impressions betray. Miyazaki’s games are known for their layers of intricately interwoven meaning; their stories told through places, objects and fragments of myth. But it is a much calmer and less stressful experience than any of his other games so far – refreshing to play, but also, for Miyazaki, refreshing to make, after years of immersing himself in the eldritch horror and dark fantasy of Bloodborne and Dark Souls. Miyazaki cites classic Japanese girls’ manga as an inspiration close to his heart – he has been reading it for most of his life – as well as Celtic spiritual tales by Scottish Victorian writer William Sharp, published under the name Fiona Macleod.
“It’s creatively fresh for me personally. I am drawing from different sources of energy,” he says. “But it’s not just me, it’s the staff too. People working on our other games find it a nice change of pace! Internally, it’s been perceived as a breath of fresh air. As you can imagine, our other title, Sekiro, has a completely opposite mood and direction. The more time I spend working on Sekiro, the deeper I sink into this zone of blood and gore and conflict. But if I want to get out of it, I can walk over to the other side of the studio and ease myself into a completely different feeling when I work on Déraciné.
“But after a while with this very quiet and calm story, I start to feel like it’s almost too far from the stress of real life, and I can’t stay in it forever, so I throw myself back into Sekiro. I think there might be some people in the studio who think I must be slightly mad to be able to simultaneously work on two completely different games, but it gives me flow and balance.”
Uncovering clues around the house in Déraciné lets you influence the lives of the people living there. Photograph: Sony
VR is not an easy medium for developers without a lot of experience in it. Which, at this early point in the technology’s life, is pretty much all developers. Motion sickness is still a big problem, especially for a game such as Déraciné, in which you are free to wander in a space as opposed to strapped into something with a fixed point of view, such as a cockpit or rollercoaster. Miyazaki’s own sensitivity to VR motion sickness meant Déraciné’s movement had to be particularly gentle. But VR has become inseparable from the conceptual impetus behind Déraciné, he says.
“I had a chance to check out some of the games that were in development before the current VR headsets shipped, which gave me a very strong sense of how VR can transport you; it feels like you exist in a different space,” he explains. “But at the same time, when you try to touch or feel something in that space, it’s not there. There is a sense of disconnect; of being there, but not really. It’s an uncomfortable feeling that I wanted to harness and overcome, so I went back to a game concept that I had about being between worlds, about being present but not quite present, and thought about how VR could help me to realise it.”
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the game that has been getting all the attention since it was announced, and understandably so. Anyone who loves Dark Souls or Bloodborne will recognise a lot in it. But those interested in seeing a different side of the studio, and of Miyazaki’s fascinating creative mind, should be looking forward just as eagerly to his strange VR fairytale.