The Lair of Hungry Ghosts

Tokuro Fujiwara of Sony explains the concept behind his newest PS2 title. Can a survival-horror FPS work?

When Sony first introduced Hungry Ghosts for the PlayStation 2 in Japan last month, the collective response from gamers worldwide was confusion giving way to derision. Perhaps it can't be helped�after all, the only game developer Deep Space has to their credit so far is average space-horror adventure Extermination. Besides, what's up with that name? Is this some kind of Pac-Man World sequel?

This idle nitpicking, however, may be a little premature�especially since Hungry Ghosts is trying to do something with the horror genre that's never been attempted before. Set in a ghostly, not-so-friendly version of the afterlife, your character (either male or female) must make his way through a wealth of ghastly hazards and to the Final Judgement waiting for him at the other side of the realm. Once you reach this last stop (if you make it there), you'll either be sent to hell for eternity or reincarnated anew as a human being�a momentous decision that depends entirely on your actions within the game. Every item you take, every enemy you encounter and every conversation you have with this world's denizens could affect your ultimate destiny, meaning that no two games of Hungry Ghosts will end up exactly alike.

This sense of foreboding that pervades the game's plot is enhanced greatly by its original interface. Hungry Ghosts is shown entirely from a first-person viewpoint, with your character collecting items from chests and exploring the assorted worlds that make up the afterlife. To help create the feeling that you're really there, Deep Space has chosen an odd control setup�to take items or wield weapons, you don't just press a button; you press R3 then push the right thumbstick around to jab your spear forward or reach towards an item with your hand. This is important, because many items are booby-trapped in one way or another�you'll have to pull the stick back to retract your hand from danger, assuming you want to hold on to it for the long term.

In a recent issue of Weekly Famitsu magazine, publisher Hirokazu Hamamura sat down for a chat with Tokuro Fujiwara, Hungry Ghosts' designer and the founder of Deep Space. Fujiwara isn't that well known in the U.S. scene, but his past games definitely are�while at Capcom, he designed the original Ghosts 'N Goblins and contributed to other titles in the Mega Man and Resident Evil series. In this interview, Fujiwara explains what his team's trying to achieve with this new game, how he expects players to respond to the concept, and what he thinks is wrong with most console adventures today.

Hungry Ghosts comes out for the PS2 July 31 in Japan. No U.S. launch has been announced.

Hirokazu Hamamura, Weekly Famitsu: I finally got to play Hungry Ghosts!
Tokuro Fujiwara, Deep Space: Thank you. What did you think?
HH: Well, my first impression was that it was a Doom-ish first-person game like the kind you see in the U.S. and Europe a lot, but it's actually completely different, isn't it? Once I actually got my hands on it, I was surprised at how much it seemed to suck you into the game world. I mean, it's set in the world of the afterlife, but it's set up almost like a giant theme park, and you can walk around it as much as you like. Where did the concept for this game come from, anyway?
TF: We wanted to create a kind of virtual experience; it's an idea that's been in my head for about ten years now. All games are virtual experiences in one way or another, of course, but most of them are from an impartial viewpoint... you view the action as a member of the audience. With this game, I wanted players to experience it not as a spectator, but with their own mind and body. The game's also set in a world that's impossible to experience in real life, so the concept behind the game was to give users the opportunity to explore a completely new plane of existence.
HH: It does feel like a virtual experience. The feeling of actually being there was unnervingly fun.
TF: With normal games, you play the role of the hero and you follow a story that's pretty much set in stone for you, but this game isn't like that at all. It begins by forcing gamers to ask "Well, I'm here... What should I do? What do I want to do?" If you're curious about something in front of you, then you're free to act upon it, and something will happen as a result. But, if you don't care about the surroundings, then the game will still gradually develop for you. Some people will go around discovering new things everywhere, while others, I think, will shut their eyes and go straight down the main pathway. A lot of it will reflect the personality of the player.

HH: So there's no right or wrong way of doing things?
TF: Correct. You can do whatever you want, and whatever you choose to do will lead to different results. We've prepared a lot of variety in the possible outcomes. If you can gain knowledge about your surroundings, you'll open up the path to new story elements; if you don't have any of that knowledge, then you'll have developments of your own to experience. You may want to help out someone because you know his story, or you may want to leave him alone for the same reason.
In a normal game, if you press a button, you'll usually automatically perform some kind of action. However, I came up with this game's control method because I wanted to find a way to make players feel they're closer into the game. Even when you're simply taking an item, I didn't want it to turn into just another staid operation. If an item's ripe for the taking, I didn't want players to just take it; I wanted them to experience the process leading up to the taking. The ability to bring out your hand lets me do that.

HH: Has there been any game which tries to picture the afterlife like this before? I don't think there has.
TF: Well, we call it the afterlife, but it's really a lot more like hell than heaven, if you know what I mean. (laughs) It's sort of the world of enma daioh (the Japanese equivalent of St. Peter, except instead of judging people by the gates of heaven, he does so near the entrance to hell), the place where it's decided whether you're going to hell or not.

HH: That decision depends on your actions in the game?
TF: Precisely. I think most people will end up going to hell at first, because at the start of the game, the hero's predestined to end up in hell anyway. But, if you manage to pull everything off correctly, you can also get a chance to become reincarnated as a human being... getting into heaven is not an option, but still. The location you're in is pretty much hell already, though, so it's a brutal place and it's filled with all sorts of terrible people.
HH: It is, it is. But at the same time it's also kind of fun to go up to each character you find and ask them why they died, what their stories are. Being able to ask them directly is a little scary, but it's also very fascinating.
TF: Nobody likes being in hell, of course, so they're all trying to invite you to come up to them. None of them are really telling the whole truth to you, either. Nor are they asking for your help, though�they're beyond help and it's not like you could achieve anything by trying to save them.
Basically, the game's characters live in a world where it's deceive or be deceived, and they're all simply trying to satisfy their own desires. It's not a good idea to let any of them lead you on.

HH: Like, for example, there's a scene where someone asks you for a photograph, but in most games, he'd probably hand you something in return when you give it to him, right? But this game's different. You do that here and he'll say "Ha haaaa, now it's mine!" and disappear into thin air.
TF: With events like those, you're always asked if you're absolutely sure you want to hand over the item. After all, whether or not you give the item could completely affect where the story goes.
With most games up to now, they've always been based on the premise that there's one right way to do things. This game, though, approaches its design from the opposite direction. As a result, the more used you are to video games, the worse you'll do the first time, probably. (laughs)
HH: (laughs) It's definitely not the kind of game where you get all the items, defeat all the enemies, and view the entire story in one go. And there are so many choices to make, too, so it's very difficult to get the whole story in any one game. It's more the case of "if you find something, then how do you want to deal with it?"
TF: Right. You'll run into tons of items, too, but you're never expressly told not to take any of them. All you're asked is whether you want it or not. There isn't any required inventory.

HH: The one thing I'd like gamers to understand after reading this is that, regardless of what you experience or who you choose to deal with, it was all a lot of fun to me. No matter whether the results were good or bad, it was all fun and very exciting. Even going down ladders, or looking at dead bodies or faraway lights on the horizon; it all made me really nervous.
TF: Once you play a few times, I think you'll begin to understand the way this world works. You'll see things the second time around that you completely misunderstood the first time... which, in turn, leads to other pathways to take the third time around. I'd like people to play this multiple times.

HH: It's like there's this horror theme park, and it's completely up to you which way you want to go and what you want to experience. It's not a game as much as a separate dimension for you to explore.
TF: Video games tend to get compared to movies a lot these days, but the areas in this game really are a lot like attractions in a theme park. A lot of these "attractions" are the sort that you just go up and look at them, but some of them are all right to actually touch as well. It's a hands-on kind of afterlife. (laughs)
I think everyone that plays this game will experience a different overall story. There does exist a finale that we consider to be the "good" ending, but that's not the end-all and be-all of the game, either. The other endings are also very important because they let you enjoy the "what if" aspect of the choices you make. That's why you're allowed to do whatever you want within the game. If you want to destroy everything, then you're free to do so, but if you want to take things more slowly, then you're free to examine everything closely.
HH: Do you think most players will finish the game?
TF: I think most players will get to an ending of some sort, at least. But every player will experience a different story with different content on the way to this ending, so how the player feels at the end will vary widely. Once you get used to this world, after all, it starts to feel almost normal.