Into the mind's eye.
Investigations, interrogations, serial murders, and a whole lot of plot twists--it's all here in the upcoming puzzle-adventure mystery AI: The Somnium Files, the latest game from Zero Escape director Kotaro Uchikoshi and the team at Spike Chunsoft. It's not much of a surprise that AI borders on bizarre and grotesque, as you can see in the latest trailer (see below). Having seen it in action briefly and getting a taste of its early gameplay, it appears to be in the same vein of Uchikoshi's past work, but with it's own unique flair.
Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (colloquially known as 999), Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward, and Zero Time Dilemma formed a trilogy of mind-bending narrative experiences built around puzzle-solving. But Uchikoshi has traded the twisted escape room premises of those games for putting you in the shoes of a detective. With Uchikoshi and assistant director Akira Okada on-hand during my demo time, I asked about their approach in creating something new and thematically different that still had the spirit of past games.
"What I had in mind is that I wanted to make this for adventure game fans around the world, including investigations into a separate dream world," Uchikoshi said. "I can't go into details right now, but as an adventure game, you want to expand as much as you can so everybody can have fun. Everyone knows what an adventure game is like, but in 2019 I wanted to make that a little more fresh."
People who haven't played adventure games: first go home, try to drink a gallon of tequila, make sure your mind's loose, and then just accept what it is. Then you'll get used to the game, and it'll just suck you in. - Kotaro Uchikoshi
There is a thematic twist that's new for Uchikoshi, which shares a few similarities to aspects of Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain or even Suda51's The Silver Case. Okada even points to games such as The Walking Dead and Life Is Strange as influences. However, a lot of AI: The Somnium Files' DNA can be traced to Zero Escape, since you're still trying to investigate and unravel mysteries from a first-person perspective, at least when you're taking the role of the main protagonist Kaname Date.
As Date, you talk to folks around the crime scene and examine your surroundings, but that's only half the work. His cybernetic eyeball named Aiba (pun intended)--and partner in crime-solving--can enter an alternate dimension to unlock deeper secrets, new pieces of evidence, and more abstract thoughts of the specific characters involved. It almost reminds me of Persona 5's Phantom Thieves entering the Metaverse to uncover the true nature of others, and ultimately affect those people's reality. Aiba gets a moe anthropomorphization in these sequences, where you roam around a deformed version of the crime scene from a third-person point of view. The catch is you have a limited amount of time to investigate this dimension, and interacting with story-critical objects will consume time depending on the action you take. Thus, AI offers branching narrative paths dictated by your decisions and actions.
I got a sense of pressure in these moments and asked Okada how they approach balancing difficulty for a narrative-based adventure game.
"In general you would play more and more of the game, doing puzzles, and that was the challenging part, for me as well, playing a ton of puzzles and trying to balance the levels together," Okada responded. But in general, playing the game multiple times will help the player out, help understand the puzzles." It seems that players have to live with the result they earn in AI, at least for chunks of the game, and that's how branching paths are constructed--something like 428: Shibuya Scramble came to mind. Okada continued, "We think a lot about accessibility, options for difficulty, options for games that aren't entirely story based. So I think that's still a big concern."
A heavy narrative is the driving force in AI: The Somnium Files, and in that department, there's been a bit of an unconventional lead-up to this game. If you haven't been following, I'll catch you up a bit. Uchikoshi first revealed AI as his next game at Anime Expo 2018, and held a panel covering some of the design philosophies. Promotion for the game then pivoted to shining the spotlight on one important character: Iris Sagan, an in-universe influencer and pop star under the stage name A-set. She spilled into the real world with songs, music videos, and interactions with fans through Twitter and YouTube--hell, I even 'interviewed' her and Uchikoshi at the start of all this. We learned a lot about her, like her favorite Hatsune Miku song and opinion on the best boy/best girl of the Danganronpa series.
However, it was pretty clear where things were going once Iris' own YouTube videos were corrupted with creepy subliminal messages. A few horrifying videos went up a couple weeks ago, one of which was just camera footage of her apartment left running without a trace of her presence, and another showing a bi-pedal polar bear about to chop her in half with a saw blade. Since then, her channel has had two hilarious video in promotion of the game featuring her commentary on Uchikoshi himself and different parts of the game's lore. In the game itself, we've seen her crying for Date's help and on the verge of getting killed Saw-style in the latest trailer. It's wild.
There's been a heavy focus on Iris, but what about the other characters? We don't know much about Date yet, other than the fact that he works for the Tokyo MPD and lost his memory six years prior. So I asked about how they approach creating characters and what we could expect from the game's cast, to which Uchikoshi responded, "First of all, the care and balance of personalities is very important to me. So the character types don't double up. If we have a sad person, we don't want another sad person. And the game is based on a murder mystery, so we kind of want you to try to figure out who these characters are, while everyone's working together."
Admittedly, I couldn't get much out the rest of the game's cast, but character design appears to be a major appeal. Having employed the talent of Yusuke Kozaki (known for his work on No More Heroes, Fire Emblem, and Pokemon Go), it's an important aspect. Okada agreed, saying, "I think since the illustration and art is visually attractive, during the whole game, while you're playing, it'll draw you to the story also. Looking at the characters, that's how I started getting hooked. The visuals would get you first, then the mysteries will get you to keep on playing."
AI seems to be really going for it with its outlandish pretense, and I wouldn't expect anything less from Uchikoshi. I think his continued response to my questions about why people should keep an eye on his new game says a lot. "So, for the people who already played adventure games, I understand they'll really like this one," Uchikoshi said. "But people who haven't played adventure games: first go home, try to drink a gallon of tequila, make sure your mind's loose, and then just accept what it is. Then you'll get used to the game, and it'll just suck you in." Please don't try this at home, or anywhere, really.
You can take up the role of detective and adorable eyeball sidekick in AI: The Somnium Files when it launches for PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC on July 25, 2019.
Editor's Note: Translations for the interview portions with Kotaro Uchikoshi and Akira Okada were done by Spike Chunsoft.