We talk to Soulcalibur V creators about sexuality, competition, and the beauty of realism.

One of the reasons we watch sports is to witness the seemingly unreal made manifest — the half-court shot with no time left, the diving catch by an outfielder. This isn’t always easy to pull off in videogames, but titles like Soulcalibur V attempt to do just this by giving players full control over a character and leaving them to their own devices within a cutthroat competition.

Marked by its flamboyant characters as much as it is by it’s weapons-based gameplay, Soulcalibur V looks to straddle that fine line between drawing in newcomers and nurturing a highly competitive community. We had the chance to pitch a few questions to producer Hisaharu Tago and director Daishi Odashima ahead of the game’s January 31st release, and we asked them about digitally capturing the energy and beauty of competition, why realism isn’t always optimal, and the series’ sexually-charged nature.

In sports there is this idea of kinetic beauty. It’s a kind of awe that’s felt when we see what the body can achieve despite its fragility and imperfections, and fighting games seem well-suited to the digital expression of this. They give you full control over a character’s movement, ask you to compete, but require the use of something as imperfect as a controller to express the body’s nuances. How important is this expression of elegance in a competitive title such as Soulcalibur V?

Hisaharu Tago: In life, humans are burdened with rules that limit the potential maximum a body can exert itself.  Which is why we are fascinated by, and praise people that can push these boundaries to their limits.  In that way, the game controller for fighting games is the same. We have to make sure that everyone is able to play the game and be able to utilize the tools each character comes with.  It is also why we feel compelled to watch and praise those people at a pro level who have taken these same rules that everyone else has, and take them to a place others are striving to one day achieve.

How do you map that kind of fluidity – the nuances of the body and the way it moves – to buttons and sticks?

Daishi Odashima: Soul Calibur has always been designed with intuitive controls in mind. The 8WAY-RUN is the prime example, making it possible to walk in the direction one turns the stick towards, which is something that is not surprising these days but when the original “Soul Calibur” was released it was ahead of its time.

Of course, that conscience is still being continued now. Weapon attacks are divided in two, with one being used for a horizontal attack and the other a vertical attack. If the motion of the on-screen character is vague, the player would be confused as to what attacks are assigned to each button.  We make sure that the motions of the attacks are clearly identifiable with either a horizontal or vertical attack animation. 

In regards to the stick control, it is assigned so that it is intuitive as much as possible. The move that is used by pushing the stick forward, an action of attacking while moving forward is anticipated, vice versa, the move that is used by pushing the stick downward, everyone will have the image of attacking downwards.

Other than this, there are implicit rules such as “moves can be done with similar controls” and “a move that uses two buttons is more stronger than that using one button” and so forth.

In addition, in Soulcalibur V, we wanted to make sure people know what kind of move it is by the way it looks on-screen. For example, when using a move that has great damage, there will be a very prominent graphical effect when it connects. I believe that the motion’s looks, its meaning in the game, and the players’ controls all are adjusted so that it matches as much as possible.

Of course, the ultimate goal in a fighting game is to beat up your opponent, not to be graceful, but the setting is perfect for seeing a kind of artistry or beauty on display. How do you see this relationship between the two?

Tago: Our first goal with creating Soulcalibur V is to entertain the payer.  The battle itself is very important of course, but we always want to be sure that our fans are always entertained.  Showing the artistry of the Renaissance time period, the animation and look of all of our characters and suitable music that fits the time period and also helps drive the battles are all inevitable and necessary.

Fighting games often involve people performing more elaborate and over-the-top moves than even an athlete could do. How do you make that feeling of kinetic energy convincing and believable, especially when the visuals and armor-laden costumes may not be?

Hiroki Minami (lead animator): The basis is the principles of movement and laws of motion. We take particular care are that all actions (move motions) are made from preliminary action (hold) -> actual action (hit) -> ending action (resonance, return), and the gravity point, which is important for the connection of movement and communicating power (where the power is being created from and how it is let out) as well as the usage of the weapon (is it cut pulling, or smash cutting, or is it a hit, etc.).

When all of these actions are gathered, it gives a certain persuasiveness. With these as a base, we add the essence. Deforming the animation so that it is cooler, more prominent, more so that it feels good, more sensation and heaviness, as well as putting in the characters’ feelings, personality and characteristics altogether are the essence.

As long as we keep the principles of movement and laws of motion steady, we can create it persuasive even though it is a little over animated and more prominent move than that an athlete could do.

In The Republic, Plato wrote that “Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity.” Fighting games have traditionally bent towards complexity, while recent titles like Street Fighter IV and Soulcalibur V attempt to simplify things. How do you view this relationship between the two?

Odashima: There are a few reasons why we decided to simplify the gameplay for Soulcalibur V.  The first is that we wanted to change some of the gameplay elements that players may feel tired of after five installments of the game. By simplifying it we can make it more exciting for fans and newcomers alike.  The second is that there is a limit on the number of actions most fighting game fans can do at once while playing the game.  By adding more complex actions to the game to keep it fresh for hardcore fans we will alienate and potentially scare away gamers who are curious about Soul Calibur.  Making actions too simple isn’t the key, but by simplifying some elements and changing others, we believe we achieved our goal.  In this installment we have two new gameplay systems: Critical Edge and Brave Edge.  We made Critical Edge moves flashy and relatively simple to pull off so anyone can do them.  When someone who isn’t a fighting game pro uses a Critical Edge move, there is a sense of accomplishment.  On the other hand, we also added Brave Edge moves which take a little more work to do.  These attacks change properties of a few existing moves for each character and can be used to start or extend combos for skilled players.  We hope that as new players start  to practice and discover how useful Brave Edge moves are they will start to incorporate them into their play style.

Where does the story fit in here? Tago has also talked about how fighting games have always been about the simple back-and-forth between two people. Soulcalibur V features a separate development studio (CyberConnect2) working solely on story and cut-scenes. Why is that? Talk a little bit about the story’s role.

Tago: The story mainly revolves around the drama of Patroklos and Pyrrha Alexandra and their connection to the Soul Calibur and Soul Edge swords.  Patroklos is insolent and self-confident, boasting about his subjective brand of justice, but he soon realizes that his views are ineffectual in a world much larger and unknown that he previously thought. 

The Soul Calibur series is a fighting game first and foremost, but it does have a connected storyline though each game revolving around the two soul swords; Soul Calibur and Soul Edge.  With each new installment of the series, fans look forward to the character creation mode, the special guest character, and the storyline.  In the past, the story was not given too much importance, however when I became Producer it was one of the elements in the game outside of the fighting mechanics, that needed great evolution.  Because of the scope that was needed for the story mode we asked for assistance from CyberConnect2, who has done a wonderful job with creating gorgeous story sequences for NAMCO BANDAI Games’ NARUTO SHIPPUDEN: Ultimate Ninja series.  

A few months ago, Producer Hisaharu Tago mentioned that good characterization is a priority over realism. Can you elaborate on why? What makes a strong character?

Tago: Visual realism is bland to those who typically don’t play games.  It’s the same as someone not being able to feel excitement from watching a sprinter’s video if they themselves have never ran on a track. A game needs to provide an experience that players cannot do in real life.  In that aspect, when we pursue realism it becomes dull.

Thus, the imaginary realism is more important over visual realism. The imagination of people has a wide range, and often is prominent, quick, powerful, and something that is emphasized. In other words, imaginary realism is the dream, wish, or delusion of that person.

Being able to portray this in the game ends up to have good characterization and a game that is collectively created from it has a strong personality. 

How do you bring out a fighter’s personality? There’s this idea that there’s a connection between a Samurai’s soul and his sword. Is there a link between a character’s weapon of choice and their personality?

Odashima: A fighter’s personality is not only linked to their weapon, but their motions as well. An appealing part of Soul Calibur is the sense of unity between an action that is created for a specific weapon and the character is likely to choose that weapon.

The character wielding a giant axe is a tough giant, and swings it around as hard as he can. The elegant wielder of the rapier is a nobleman that is good at accurate thrusts through the interspaces of armors. These are examples but you can see that how they use the weapon simultaneously shows the character and game mechanic.

However, for new characters of this installment such as Z.W.E.I. and Viola, the gameplay that we wanted to portray was exactly the starting point. A collaborated attack with a weapon that moves separately from the main unit was a new gameplay that didn’t exist in the series. Even though it was made in this way, we come up with the character like “it should be this kind of character if it’s a character that would be played in that way”. Viola is a character with a feature of continuous attacks using an “orb”, a mysterious weapon that moves in the air on its own, but if Viola is massively built, it would be more normal for them to make use of their muscle swinging a sword rather than this weapon. Since it is a powerless woman, she uses a small weapon like the orb in order to move effectively making use of the speed.

Perhaps not to the extent of titles like Dead or Alive, but Soul Calibur can be quite sexually charged. How do you draw the line between what’s acceptable and what’s not during the creative process?

Odashima: Creating a balance is always puzzling, because at the end of the day everyone’s subjective views determine what is and isn’t acceptable.  In past installments of Soul Calibur, the amount of exposed skin with female characters was criticized and touchy.  We decided to hold back on that aspect with Soulcalibur V by not portraying them too sexual.  However, we expanded the character creation tools in this installment.  So if someone prefers to use a character with a more revealing outfit they have the ability to do that on their own.

There’s a debate going on surrounding the recent Soulcalibur V advertisement featuring Ivy’s breasts. What are your thoughts on the controversy?

Tago: The Japanese ad has “Hearts swell with anticipation.”  That has a double meaning and is meant to point out the new body type changing feature in the character customization mode.  Players are now able to manipulate various body parts while customizing their own original character.  The outfit design is created by Mari Shimazaki, famous for her character design of Bayonetta, and is changed to black in this ad from its original color in the game emphasizing the ability to change characters’ outfits with different colors and patterns in the game.  I view Ivy as an iconic character for the franchise and has the ability to bridge returning characters from past games with the new cast of characters in Soulcalibur V.

We think that having some sort of erotic aspect on the surface is part of Soul Calibur, but more than that, there is a collaboration aspect, expanded creation features and a new chapter in the series that is also important.

Fighting games have enjoyed something of a renaissance the last few years. Why do you think that is, and what specifically about Soul Calibur draws people in?

Odashima: Going back to the topic of simplicity, I think that the idea of one-on-one fights is easy for people to understand.  With evolved online environments and hardware specs, playing against numerous players is fun, but after a while it becomes too chaotic.  I think the simplicity and purity of testing your abilities against a single opponent is one of the reasons players keep coming back to fighting games.

I think that its beauty is what’s attracting people to Soul Calibur. Beyond comparison from games that handle numerous people, one on one games can use the hard spec to portray humans. Being able to freely move around that kind of character with a beautiful graphic and motion at their will is an appeal that cannot be replaced by anything. And in this beauty, Soul Calibur takes pride of the utmost quality in fighting games. This means that, it has the best quality in every game.

Most really popular fighters play out in 2D. Why do you think 3D fighters haven’t been able to strike as large a chord? What makes Soul Calibur different?

Odashima: The biggest weak point for 3D fighting games is that they are difficult for spectators to understand while they are watching gameplay.  2D fighters overcome this problem by using prominent performance and screen structure.  If spectators have an easier time understanding what’s going on during the match it becomes a much more appealing product to purchase and try out for themselves.

What we aimed for in Soulcalibur V is to bring this idea of understandability in 2D fighting games to 3D fighters.  I believe we were successful in creating a game that is not only fun for the people playing the game, but also for those watching it.

Soulcalibur V is set 17 years after the fourth.  Why put so much distance between the two?

Odashima: In one word, I wanted to challenge myself to create a “new” Soul Calibur. There are a few aspects of creating something “new” that I tasked myself and the development team with:

1. Creating new gameplay: Up through Soulcalibur IV there were no big changes to the gameplay, and what did change was generally concervative. Gameplay continuing from the first Soul Calibur was more or less the same.

2. Creating something new for today’s youth and players who have not tried Soul Calibur before. By introducing numerous new characters we wanted people that have never played the series before without diffident. If it’s a new game, they won’t feel the difference between old-school players so it would be easier for them to feel that they want to try it for themselves.

In regards to the setting taking place 17 years after the previous title, this is the maximum time progress if we wanted to keep some characters as well as add new characters. Patroklos being in his late teens and Pyrrha in her early 20s was just right.

Jordan Mammo