Like many mystery-driven adventure games, AI: The Somnium Files is a little tough to talk about. It's not exactly action-packed in its moment-to-moment gameplay, and most of the intrigue in games like it comes from the ways in which they challenge your investigative skills and decision-making--plot twists and character dialogue are often at the heart of it all. This is very much the case when it comes to games under the direction of developer Kotaro Uchikoshi, best known for the Zero Escape series.
Since AI: The Somnium Files was first revealed, we knew that it would channel similar gameplay elements from Zero Escape, but it's aiming to be an evolution of that. As special agent Kaname Date, you travel between reality and a dream world to unravel the truth behind a series of murders. Its overarching theme revolves around a pun for the word eye: "eye" as in your sight, "ai" the Japanese word for love, and A.I. as in artificial intelligence. Not to mention all the murder victims have one eye gouged out as well. Date himself has one eye that's actually an A.I. companion named Aiba (a Japanese-English pun for eyeball). And the real name of A-set, the virtual influencer/idol behind music videos and promotional materials, is Iris.
Last time we spoke with Uchikoshi-san, he talked about love, story details, and the dream world's Psync mechanic, but there's still more than meets the eye. To get further insight into what's going on, we corresponded again via email and dug into the game's direction. We were also able to loop in the English localization team lead Alex Flagg for additional perspective on what it's like to deliver a dialogue-heavy Japanese game to a Western audience.
If you're not caught up on AI: The Somnium Files, check out our interview with Iris "A-set/Tesa" Sagan or our hands-on preview with the game from GDC 2019. The game launches for PlayStation 4, PC, and Nintendo Switch on September 17 this year.
Can you explain the "Somnium" world? It's the key to solving mysteries, but are these people's secrets, true feelings, dreams? How does Kaname Date use that information throughout the game?
Kotaro Uchikoshi: Somnium means "dream" in Latin. So a Somnium world would mean "dream world." Dreams are made from fragments of memory stitched together like patchwork. Hidden inside are people's secrets and suppressed feelings. It's Kaname Date's job to interpret what he sees in the dream to solve mysteries and move forward in the investigation. For example, there's something like this: A girl was alone at the scene of the crime. However, she suffered mental trauma and now has aphonia, so she can't talk. So, Date will dive into the girl's dream world and find a lead: she heard a phone ring. Then, Date will return to reality, go back to the scene to investigate and look for a cellphone somewhere. Something like that.
We've seen AI being both dead serious, cheery, and sometimes outright absurd. How do you strike a tone that comes together?
Alex Flagg: Through a lot of hard work! Uchikoshi has this amazing ability to blend Wikipedia-diving information dumps, absurdist theater, and sex jokes into a gripping and touching story. What I've discovered by playing and localizing his work is that you can get away with a lot that seems narratively inconsistent as long as you've already captured the audience's attention with an intriguing plot and interesting characters. Uchikoshi taught me that tone can fluctuate wildly, as long as the heart is centered and steady. Because if your heart is fluctuating wildly, you're probably having a heart attack and are about to die. You know, narratively speaking.
KU: This is a hard question. All I can say is...by watching the balance. If I were to compare it, it's like a barista or a mixologist. Their jobs are very sensuous, and it's hard to put into words how they balance the ingredients. Or maybe it's similar to hitting on someone. You can't always be serious and cool and you can't always be energetic and carefree. They'll just brush you off, won't they? It's important to understand when to be serious and when to be energetic… What I'm trying to say is that everything is balanced out by things and you can't just explain it away with words. Having said that, my pick-up techniques have never been very successful. I bet Alex is really good at it, so next time I'm in LA, maybe he can teach me a few tricks!
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There's some body horror, light gore, and morbid imagery in your games, AI especially. Do you ever have ideas then stop yourself from going too far?
KU: When I was writing the scenario for AI, the character designs weren't finalized yet. That meant that I only had a general idea of the characters while writing. That's why I didn't feel much guilt putting the characters through some really tough times. When the designs came in, I thought, "OMG, so cute!" That's when the characters started to really exist. But then it crossed my mind. "Ah, why did I do that to them...?" I didn't want to have a guilty conscience about it, so I thought, "Could I at least try not to put them through the darkest of my ideas?" Because of that, some scenes are now milder than the original idea. But this isn't censorship, this is love. Love for my characters. I decided to tone down some things, but the story isn't any less interesting or fun because of it. Please don't worry about that.
What are your thoughts on canonical endings in games with branching storylines? How does AI handle that?
KU: I remember watching a Hayao Miyazaki documentary, and he said something like, "I'm over this, I don't want to do this" while drawing original cels. Branching routes are like that to me. It's so much work. I scream, "Augh! I'm over this, too much work!" while writing the story too. In AI, the story splits from the decisions you make in the Somnia. To put it simply, picking either the "A" lead or "B" lead changes how the story unfolds. Branching stories are a pain in the ass for the creator, but to the player, there's nothing better. There's a lot of interesting elements in this game due to the branching paths, so please look forward to it!
What are some important things Akira Okada (assistant director) has brought this time around for AI that you didn't think of?
KU: Of course Okada-kun was a huge contributor, but AI was created from multiple ideas from all the staff members. For example, Aiba turning into a cute girl in Somnium, the video game inspiration behind a certain action scene, one of the stages from one of the Somnia. All of those were ideas from the staff. I mean, the Somnium parts, from the setting to the structure, was mainly done by Okada-kun and Yamada-san. I have nothing but respect and appreciation for the staff.
Are there any particular difficulties that come out of having to do a simultaneous Japanese and Western release?
AF: Oh, absolutely. Working side-by-side with the Japanese creative team is a totally different experience than picking up a completed project and adapting it.
KU: Thanks to the hard work from Alex, Kazu [Okura], the other Spike Chunsoft Inc. team members, and [community manager] Dave Kracker, I didn't really have any trouble with simultaneous shipping. So, to the Spike Chunsoft Inc. team of course, the development staff in Japan, and the Chinese localization staff: I thank you very, very much, from the bottom of my heart!
What are some Japanese- or English-only quirks you get to put in the game? Are there some unique things players will get out of either language option?
AF: The Japanese and English are largely the same, script and presentation-wise. There are a few times here and there that, say, a joke was intentionally not localized, or a character's voice performance in the English has a slightly different feel than the Japanese performance, but for the most part they are two versions of the same game.
Some jokes or one-liners might come across differently in either language. And one thing that we're very proud of is that A-set's debut single, "Invincible Rainbow Arrow," is fully localized, right down to matching the Japanese rhyme scheme and poetic meter. So if you are playing in Japanese, you will hear the Japanese version of the song; if you are playing in English, you will hear the English version.
How involved are you with the performances of the voice cast?
AF: The translator for this project, Kazu Okura, and I were either there at Bang Zoom! studios or listening in over voice call every single day of recording. While we offered feedback and direction, especially during particularly intricate or complicated scenes, we can only take a little bit of the credit: it was our audio engineer JP Aller and voice director Chris Faiella that really helped the words come off the page and become something incredible in the performance.
What's the toughest aspect for localizing AI that folks might not realize?
AF: I would say the humor is by far the most challenging aspect of localization, especially "dad joke" humor, jokes that are intentionally bad. If you localize that joke to make it genuinely funny, you aren't exactly matching the tone of the Japanese. If you localize the joke to make it unfunny, you run the risk of the audience not realizing that the joke is supposed to be bad, it's supposed to make you roll your eyes and groan. AI is full of these kinds of jokes, so my translator and I worked very hard to make them funny...but not too funny.
"Tesa, aka A-set, you bet." was totally the localization team's idea, huh?
AF: Yes, it was. Her slogan cheer is different in the Japanese and the English. In the Japanese, it goes something like "volatile solvent of the net world, Aseton, aka A-set!" It's a wordplay on the honorific "ton" added to her stage name "A-set," making it sound like "acetone," the chemical solvent. Keeping it "Aseton" in English would be clunky, invite mispronunciation, and lose the cuteness factor of the Japanese wordplay. So we decided to go with "Tesa," a cute, easy-to-say nickname that utilizes the game's prevalent motif of reflection ("Tesa" is of course "A-set" backwards). There was a time we briefly considered making her nickname "Ace," but Zero Escape fans will know why we decided against that.
A-set has been a huge part of AI's lead up. Besides being a major character and idol, what was the idea behind breaking the fourth wall with A-set's YouTube channel?
KU: One of the themes of this game is dreams and reality. So by linking the real world that we live in with the artificial world of AI, I tried to express the analogy (or is it a metaphor?) of "dreams and reality," or something like that. Iris (A-set's real name) is the goddess of rainbows in Greek mythology. She is said to be the messenger girl that delivers the words of the gods. Rainbows are also sometimes called the "bridge of heaven," so you could say that A-set is the "bridge" between fiction and reality.
With all the lead up to AI and A-set at the forefront, how involved are you in her video content?
AF: Very involved! Our team and the creative team in Japan were sharing ideas for videos and story beats for months, coming up with the general "plot" of her YouTube channel together. Once that was more or less in place, we localized and recorded each video based on Japan's video, which was incredibly difficult because of the fast pace they had to be produced. Often times we didn't even have a final video render to look at while we were recording, so we had to feel it out by the script alone. But it came together beautifully.
How's she been as a promotional partner?
KU: She was amazing! I know there were times I pushed her, but she didn't make a face and took everything very seriously. I thank her from the bottom of my heart. Also, she smells really nice. A sweet scent that tickles a person's heart... If she comes on screen while playing AI, please put your nose up to the screen. I'm sure you'll start to smell irises…
Will A-set's presence in our real world play into events in AI?
AF: "Our real world"? What a peculiar way of phrasing it. You can see her, hear her; she is information in the universe and she occupies space in your mind at this very moment. She exists in this world the same way I do right now, typing away at my computer, communicating with you only through ones and zeros. One and the same.
KU: I already kind of answered this, but Iris is the bridge that connects our world to their world. As long as she exists, both worlds will continue to be linked.
How much tequila have you drank since the A-set interview we did?
KU: The situation has changed. Currently, rather than me drinking tequila, it's more of tequila drinking me. My office is always full of it. That's where I wrote the game's story. Just like one of those caterpillars in the bottles of tequila.