One of the most interesting takeaways from Nintendo's Splatoon 2 GDC 2018 panel was that early prototypes for Splatoon featured Yoshi instead of the now ubiquitous Inklings. But the behind-the-scenes information didn't stop with that tidbit. Following the panel, we had a chance to talk with the presenter, Splatoon 2 producer Hisashi Nogami, about what it's like to work at Nintendo, how Yoshi worked in the game, and even the meaning of "dark Nintendo."
That's "dark" in a narrative sense. The underlying story that goes deeper than the bright colors and happy smiles you see on the surface. And it's that focus on the deeper layers that Nogami says makes Splatoon (and most other Nintendo properties) feel like they have so much depth.
You can find the full interview below, along with images of the slides from the presentation, which show off various prototypes in Splatoon and Splatoon 2's development. While they don't capture all of the anecdotes from the full presentation, they provide a visual summary of some of the cool development insight Nogami provided.
GameSpot: From the Splatoon panel I got the impression that you have a lot of freedom to ideate. It sounds like Nintendo encourages employees to come up with new ideas. What is your personal experience at the company?
Hisashi Nogami: I think it's as they say, "With great freedom, comes with great responsibility." [laughs] We start out by trying to create a particular type of game experience, and then we have to come up with a world, a look, a feel, that is best suited to that and expresses or help supports this game experience we're trying to offer.
Something I've heard from Mr. Miyamoto frequently, and I also mentioned something similar in my presentation, but a game's art needs to support its functionality. It has to help serve as an expression of that functionality. And so we want, when creating the way a particular world looks, to make sure that it's not doing anything to hold back or constrain the gameplay that we've laid down as a base.
So, we actually have a reason for coming up with this style of creation at Nintendo; as Mr. Yabuki [the director of Arms] mentioned in his presentation yesterday, one of those reasons is you need to be able to say when you're asked, "Okay, well why is this the way it is?" You need to be able to provide that answer to others in the company that you're going to show the game to. And if you can't answer that question yourself, then there's no real path forward for you.
It may be possible to say that we do have this wide array of choices in front us about the way we want a game to look, or that we have freedom in terms of how a game will end up finally being. But what we choose is really carefully...criticized might not be the right word, but it's carefully looked at. It's examined and analyzed. We need to be able to justify the decisions we make.
Thinking about Splatoon's early development, you mentioned starting off with rabbits and then saying, "Well, it doesn't make sense. Why are they shooting ink? Why would they they disappear into the ink?" But rabbits seem to pop up a lot in Nintendo games. More recently, they ended up being the bosses in Super Mario Odyssey. And of course, rabbits appear a lot in other games, including Mario. Are rabbits a popular pet among the Nintendo development staff? What's with all the rabbits?
[Laughs] Yeah, it is kind of curious. I'm perplexed by it myself. But when you think about rabbits, they're something that people are familiar with. They're cute and fuzzy. They are animals that can actually imagine being close by. It's true that there are previous examples of rabbits in other games, and I guess this is something Mr. Miyamoto may have thought was an appropriate character for his games as well.
He understood our reasons for wanting to initially go with rabbits as our Splatoon characters--they are mischievous, and they fit the world well in that way. But when it came time to justify things like you mentioned with the ink, especially from Mr. Miyamoto and others like him, we got that feedback of, "Well, maybe there's another option that might work better. This doesn't completely feel right."
I should stress that it's not just that Mr. Miyamoto keeps rabbits. [laughs]
During your presentation, you showed an image of Yoshi, and it looked like he was in the game. With the rabbits and with the tofu, that was obviously a prototype; but the Yoshi felt like much further along. How far did you get with putting Nintendo characters and other characters that we're familiar with in the game?
I think that option we were considering of whether or not to use pre-existing characters or IP came right around the time that we started to have doubts about our rabbit characters. We thought, "Okay, if not rabbits, then maybe we can consider these other characters."
Of course, as Nintendo developers we're aware of this stable of pre-existing characters we have and their appeal with players. It's not that if we had found a character that was perfectly matched to the type of gameplay we were trying to create that we would not have considered going with it. For Yoshi, he can come in many colors, change his color; he was in this case, more appealing and a better fit than Mario.
But then when you get that far and think, "Well, okay, Yoshi can change his color, that makes him suitable," you run into the same questions. Why would Yoshi shoot ink or dive into ink? Is it okay that he wouldn't shoot his tongue out or throw eggs like he typically does?
In that prototype, did Yoshi hold a gun or was he shooting the ink out of his mouth?
Well, at the stage we were considering putting pre-existing IP into the game, including Yoshi, we had already decided that this was a game where we wanted to have a large variety of weapons and tools for you to use in order to shoot ink in different ways. We were already pretty far along with that idea, so rather than just give Yoshi the ability to shoot ink out of his mouth in one particular way, we had him hold these weapons that we had already started to design.
On the subject of guns, and I guess going in a more serious direction--Nintendo in general has such a playful kid-friendly focus, especially with Splatoon, which definitely isn't a traditional Western shooter. But in recent weeks a big focus in the press has been on violence in video games and its affect on kids. In Japan and in Nintendo, are you having those kinds of conversations as well? What are your thoughts on all of this focus on violence in games?
As a game developer, I hate to hear that games would be thought to be capable of having a negative influence on society. Games are something that I feel have the power to have a positive influence. They've had a positive influence on me and my life as a developer, and one of the things that I see in my role as a developer is to create games that give people good experiences and have some sort of positive influence.
That's how I've made games up until now. That's how I want to continue making games. That's not to say that other companies are making games with some sort of negative intent. I think all game creators are making games because of their interest in them, and because they want their games to be positively accepted and have some sort of good influence.
So the others may make shooters with more realistic gameplay. I don't think at all that they are doing that with any sort of negative intent. I think that they're proud of the things that they're creating and want to put those expressions out into the world. But at Nintendo one of our goals, and I mentioned this yesterday as well, is to create games that can be enjoyed by as wide a variety of people as possible. To take on that challenge of making games that can be enjoyed regardless of age or background, that's one thing that we've put a lot of effort into making sure we follow through on.
Splatoon is colorful and lighthearted, and in a lot of ways even silly, but the lore is surprisingly dark. In the trailer for the upcoming Octo expansion, that especially seems to have a darker tone. How will the expansion balance with the silliness of Splatoon?
This might be just sort of one of our particular traits as developers, but we start by creating this well-built exterior to our games. But I think that, in the worlds we create, we strive to also have interesting inner content. For example we started with the gameplay necessity of a character that could transform, and we wound up with these humanoid characters that can transform into squids and vice versa.
But then we had to answer the question: "Why would they do that? What type of world would they live in?" That's where imagination comes in. So maybe it would be that these squids lived in some sort of far-future world, where humanity doesn't exist anymore, where it's met some sort of end. This was their world that they had evolved into. You think of things like that as you go along.
That ability to give this thing we've created an interesting inner world comes from the amount of energy we spend trying to answer that question: "What would their world look like?" And after creating the characters: "How will they live?" Focusing on answering those questions, it's not that we necessarily set out to create something with darkness inside of it or with those darker sides you were mentioning, but with depth. We wanted to make this world feel alive, like it has purpose, and to make it feel convincing.
Just like real life, you don't live every single day with the same attitude. You're not smiling and laughing every day of your life. In the same sort of way, we give that feeling to our world; it's not simply bright colors and fun times. There are variations in the emotions in this world that it feel more convincing and draw people in further.
We actually have a phrase in Japan: "dark Nintendo" or "the dark side of Nintendo." It's something the players have said, but I remember Mr. Iwata saying it as well. It's not something that we're spending too much time trying to make sure our games are edgy and dark, but that we want them to be believable. We want them to feel like they have heft and weight to them.
It's something that hovers in the background in order to give characters that three-dimensional feeling.
We have the squid kids. We have the Octo Expansion coming up. Are we going to see anything more about the Salmon?
We think of the Inklings and Octolings as different, but they're not so different as to prevent them from becoming friends. That's something we can imagine. But the Salmonids from Salmon Run are pretty different, so we're not sure that they'll ever be able to join Inkling Society.
This is a world where humanity has come to ruin, and 10,000 years have passed. That said, we envisioned the creatures of this world as having some of the same impulses that they've always had. In Japan we think of squids and octopi as being...maybe natural enemies is too strong, but they're compete against each other. They use each other as food sometimes, and we've continued those thoughts as we made our world.
Salmon exist in a, kind of, different world. They behave a different way than squids and octopi. So we're not sure we see a future where they are able to join this type of society. That's not to say we consider the Salmonids to be complete barbarians. It's not that the Squid are the forces of good and the Salmonids are the forces of evil. It's more that the Squids have their own society, and the Salmonids have their own different society.
Final question: Out of all of the star Inklings (Callie, Marie, Pearl, and Marina), who is your favorite?
That's like asking me to choose between my daughters! I will confess and say that I fought for Team Callie in the final Splatoon One Splat Fest so...
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.