We talk with the mind behind the twisted Black Bird.
As opposed to the more well-known game designers to come out of Japan, Yoshiro Kimura has quietly carved out quite the career for himself. After working on cult classics such as Chulip, Rule of Rose and No More Heroes, Kimura decided it was time to jump headlong into indie game development, founding Onion Games and directing wonderfully oddball games such as Dandy Dungeon and Million Onion Hotel. At BitSummit vol. 6, Kimura showed off his newest title, Black Bird (as mentioned in our favourite games from BitSummit feature), which sees the studio take on a much darker, chaotic tone.
We had the pleasure of speaking to Kimura about Black Bird, the unique world-building in his games and the deeper meaning behind his upcoming Switch and Steam title. As this was a longer interview than usual, we’ve split it into two parts which we’ll release separately.
TIGW: Firstly, I wanted to talk about Black Bird. Black Bird is the first scrolling shooter that you have directed. Is it a genre that you have always wanted to work in, or do you prefer to hop from different types of games every time you make something?
Yoshiro Kimura: People often ask me why I always make games of different genres.
Does it just come with the idea that you have at that time?
Yeah. Maybe there’s a type of game I could not make, but I’ve made games since I was twelve years old. I would draw up many different kinds of games. So for me it’s natural. I can choose any style.
Well, maybe a tactics-based game like Tactics Ogre isn’t my style.
While genres are important, the most important thing for me is making my world and my story in the game. I want to express my world; that’s why my world should have good music and good visuals. Games are a technique I use to show my world. Even when I make a puzzle game, I want to add a story. For me, the world comes first and the puzzle gameplay comes after.
Speaking of the visuals and the music of Black Bird – Black Bird has a really unique tone. To me, it feels darker than your earlier games.
Fundamentally, deep down in my mind – I love dark tones. While Dandy Dungeon is kitsch and strange with its old man character – the protagonist of that game, Yamada-kun, was the happiest character that I invented. Million Onion Hotel is in-between; there’s a happy feeling with a dark feel hidden underneath. And now, Black Bird is the darkest.
So they’ve been getting progressively more and more dark.
Yes. The way I feel is, “Ahh! I can show my true mind, my real mind: I don’t need to lie in front of my audience in the indie video gaming world.” I can show just what I want to do. That’s very important.
This time, I made a very pretty game, with Kazuyuki Kurashima, our pixel artist – he drew these perfect pretty characters – and I get to shoot them all!
[Laughter] I love this!
[Laughter] I believe you’re also working with Hirofumi Taniguchi again on the music?
The music in Black Bird is so interesting – it kind of has a twisted, operatic style. What was the creative process like for coming up with music like that?
Well, it’s usually a secret… but last night I was discussing with Taniguchi-san about how he made that strange song.
Of course, you can imagine that it’s him singing – no one would be able to sing exactly what he wants. So, Taniguchi-san was singing in his house when everyone was sleeping. [Laughter]
A very special thing about Taniguchi-san is that he is a very logical person. The first moments he played the piano when composing for Black Bird, he already had a lot of elements in mind. When I first heard the piano version of the music, it felt broken. But once he added the orchestration and his singing – it was very good. Like magic.
He also explained to me how he recorded his vocals. First, he just begins singing ad-lib. He wanted to record a chorus with harmonies, but since his singing is completely improvised and there are no real “lyrics”, he couldn’t. So, after he sings, he plays it back and writes down this strange language he sung. Then he practices singing this gibberish language at different pitches so that he may record harmonies. So he’s recording completely by himself.
I asked Taniguchi-san why he made the chorus this way, and he told me that when you make this sort of gibberish language, in effect, when you are recording it you’re actually bringing this language into existence in this world. So it adds to the depth of the world because now we know that these people speak this way.
That’s such an interesting means of world-building. I think the music works so perfectly for Black Bird.
Yeah! I love his music.
I told Taniguchi-san, “This time, I want to make a shooting game, but you don’t need to see what I’m going to do. Just make music for me and I can combine it with the game.”
In regards to the story and world of Black Bird: in a video feature from the Untold History of Japanese Game Developers DVD, I noticed some of your personal artwork that you showed – and just like Black Bird, there are eggs! (I showed him the artwork on my iPad – here is a timestamped video showing Kimura’s artwork)
[Laughter] Aah, this takes me back! Woah! This is very rare. Not many foreigners know about this.
I’m also a painter, with black ink. Usually I don’t do exhibitions in Japan; I often go to Europe. Sometimes I get the chance in Switzerland, and so I showed my paintings. Still, now, I can draw like this. This drawing was twenty years ago, but I still love drawing with simple black ink – and eggs. I often draw eggs.
I noticed that was a theme in Black Bird with the girl becoming an egg. So that’s a common motif for you, the cracking of these eggs?
Well, cracking eggs often appear everywhere, but metamorphosing is a theme: like the insect and bird metamorphosing. It’s a very important theme for me. Something small and tiny becoming a baby, becoming a big boy, and eventually becoming this big 48-year old guy.
[Laughter] This is metamorphosing. I love this phenomenon.
In the intro for Black Bird, before the girl becomes an egg and then metamorphoses into the Black Bird, she’s poked by a man with a stick and begins glowing. Is the girl becoming the Black Bird directly due to her being poked by the man, or is it simply due to her tragedy?
It’s kind of a curse. Do you know about the story of the Little Match Girl? It’s a short story about a poor, poor girl who is selling matches on the road. She cannot afford food and she dies tragically.
My question is: why didn’t anyone help the Match Girl? And also, in Black Bird, the girl who collapses as she’s walking down the road – no one helped her, either. What she felt, and why people can leave it as it is – this is the theme of the story.
When people have a connection like this [Kimura motions to he and I], people are very kind, and helpful. But in the big city, people walk like robots. If someone is going to die on the road, no one will notice. I feel this is very sad. So my story isn’t just about the curse of the girl, but the curse of the girl and the curse of the people. This curse of cities.
By the way, Black Bird is not only a creature but also, for these people of the kingdom, Black Bird is a kind of natural disaster. Like a typhoon or a tsunami. Really, Japan has a kind of earthquake world, and people are in trouble with disasters. When disaster comes, we can co-operate together, we help each other – really, we combine. But my idea is: why don’t they help each other before disaster strikes, and have a good relationship like we do here, now.
In Tokyo, in the city, everybody moves around like this: BONG-BONG-BONG [Kimura mimics robot movements]. Why don’t they show each other compassion? That’s why I’m trying to tell this story. It’s like a Grimm story – a curse story.
So in its own way, Black Bird is also about love and peace (the tagline and core themes of Million Onion Hotel).
After all! I don’t say “love and peace, yay!” in this game, but Aspara-san appears again, and when you shoot Aspara-san, he still says “Aspara-san! Aspara-san!”
I was wondering about characters like Aspara-san making an appearance in Black Bird. Are these games – Dandy Dungeon, Million Onion Hotel, Black Bird – taking place in the same world?
As all my games are born from me, they are from the same universe. Of course, there is a reason why the Black Bird appears, why this world exists and why Aspara-san appears in all these games. In my mind, in my brain, there is a relationship, but I don’t need to tell that to everyone. It just comes from the same universe – right here [Kimura taps his head].
Jace is a lover of games experimental and strange. He is always chasing after wholly new experiences.