Nioh interview: Yosuke Hayashi on how Samurai finally arrived on the PlayStation 4

The new game delicately balances folklore and history, magic and truth

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The Independent Tech

Samurai don’t tend to be something you be, but something you see. And that’s best done from afar, given the amount of blood and guts that they have spilled in popular culture.

But with the release of Nioh, the new but long-awaited action game for PlayStation 4, that’s about to change. The game puts you right in the middle of the life of a samurai – with all the mystery, training and beautiful violence that you’d expect.

That’s done largely through the main character, based on William Adams, an Englishman who was one of the first ever from his country to reach Japan and the first known western Samurai. When he did so, he became central in the life of the country, becoming a key advisor to shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and using what he learnt to influence both the outside world’s view of Japan and Japan’s own politics.

It’s not the first time that William’s story – in all its grand collision of the life of Japan, exploration and power – have been depicted, and films and musicals have been made on the basis of his story. But Nioh looks to bring that to life in more detail than ever before, taking the character through 16th century Japan and a personal mission that involves combining both the historical and supernatural imagination of that medieval world.

William’s story is also perfect for an international game. It unifies both the Western and Japanese audiences, depicts a character and a time that fascinates both of them, and then sits them right in the middle of it.

“William is a protagonist who comes from the west and who doesn’t know anything about Japan, so we’re hoping that’s something that resonates with non-Japanese users as well, and that they can experience that journey together with William and learn more about Japan,” says Yosuke Hayashi, head of the Tecmo development studio Team Ninja that made Nioh.

“Sixteenth Century Japan has a lot of fans and a lot of appeal among Japanese people, and the notion of a westerner coming to Japan during that period is something that is romanticised in Japanese culture, so we wanted to leverage that concept and incorporate it into the game.”

But that focus on japan wasn’t necessarily a central part of the game, says Mr Hayashi.

“We didn’t consciously make it a Japanese game as much as we focused on just wanting to accentuate Koei Tecmo’s strengths,” he says. “So Koei Tecmo has been making these historic games for 35 years so there’s a lot of know-how behind making those kinds of games, and we were just interested in making a game that took place in 16th century Japan during times of war in states, so we’re really excited to see how it resonates with users.”

That same historical focus requires a delicate balancing act, however, between faithfulness to the world it depicts and an interest in the kind of magic or supernatural that shines throughout the game.

“Koei Tecmo games in general leverage Japanese history and we’ve made a conscious effort not to distort or bend the truth or things that actually happened and Nioh is no different to that,” says Mr Hayashi. “For instance, if a military invader existed in a certain area, we’re going to make an accurate reflection of that.

“But having said that, we also want to create ‘ifs’ by incorporating folklore, so people that are knowledgeable about Japanese history and Japanese folklore will appreciate some of these references that they’ll see in the game, and for those that don’t know, we hope that it interests them that something like this existed or could have existed in japan during that 16th century time.”

The game itself has its own long history. Team Ninja became involved with it around three years ago, and it was announced 11 years ago. Since then, it has built a huge and devoted fanbase, all of whom were waiting excitedly for it to come out. Much of the detail of the story – including the blond-haired, blue-eyed protagonist that players control - was set more than a decade ago, but has slowly developed over time.

But getting too into the story might be missing the larger point. Mr Hayashi says that the company wasn’t focused purely on the history and magic, exciting as it might be – and that the focus was as much on creating a game that was a joy to play.

When asked if he worries that Samurai stories are too well told, and have too much history, Mr Hayashi warns that might be the wrong way to see the game.

“Dramas exist in the samurai culture, but having said that we made the game first and foremost for a game play,” he says. “It’s not that we made the game for the story, but more for the game play.”

But the idea of a Samurai still seems perfect for a game. The story is almost eerily parallel to the traditional structure of a game: a training session at the beginning, a gradual levelling-up, until a person is able to exert sufficient skill and mastery that they are known as a master.

In that respect it seems odd that Nioh is rare among games in that it actually and accurately depicts the life of a Samurai (with a heavy load of mystery and magic thrown in).

“There’s a lot of entertainment, whether that’s comics or films, that incorporate the samurai,” says Mr Hayashi. “But in a game, especially on PS4, there is no equivalent Samurai entertainment. So we wanted to offer a Samurai entertainment experience through Nioh that rivals Samurai entertainment across other media.”

That brought its own challenges. The Samurai are fascinating precisely because of their sometimes supernatural-seeming expertise – the challenge of playing as one in a game is maintaining the same kind of beautiful mystery while allowing players to actually understand the life of the game.

“We studied sword fighting quite a bit and we obviously motion-captured sword fighting as well to ensure the sword fighting in Nioh was really believable, so to your point about how you feel like this is the perfect samurai, if a player feels like a samurai when playing Nioh, that’s how we define success.”