Yesterday, we shared some exciting Comic-Con news. Today, the coverage continues with an exclusive Q&A with Square Enix—the developer of Tales of Wedding Rings VR and an exhibitor at this year’s international fan fest in San Diego.
In May, Square Enix released the first chapter of Project Hikari, an initiative from the Final Fantasy developer’s secretive Advanced Technology Division, aimed at reshaping the ever-popular manga genre through the immersive power of VR. Available on Rift, Tales of Wedding Rings VR explores the romantic and magically-charged misadventures of doe-eyed teen hero Sato and his neighbor and lifelong love interest Hime. Since their 2014 debut in Monthly Big Gangan magazine, the lovesick couple has dashed through five volumes of Shōjo-style drama and humor, picking up a loyal and increasingly vast readership along the way.
To better understand Project Hikari, and get a glimpse inside Square Enix’s operations in Tokyo, we talked with Project Lead Kaei Sou about the purpose, plan, and promise of manga in VR.
What sparked your interest in VR as a new manga experience?
Kaei Sou: We became interested in VR technology when we tried the Oculus DK1 at GDC 2013. I was absolutely amazed by what I saw and immediately considered the tremendous potential for storytelling. Oculus sent us a couple of dev units, and I spent my off hours prototyping and thinking about what storytelling could look like with this amazing new technology.
After a few months, it became clear to me that VR would become a gateway to new worlds. I was convinced these worlds could be filled with rich narratives that capture the imagination. After showing one of my prototypes to our CEO, we decided the VR content we wanted to create would be story-focused and uniquely Japanese. Right then, we knew there was nothing more fitting than the amazing stories from the world of manga.
While Square Enix is known for its game titles, it’s also a publisher of manga. Our team approached the division behind Gangan Comics with the idea, and they were thrilled by the challenge of bringing manga to a new medium.
How are Gangan and Square Enix working together on Project Hikari? Was Tales of Wedding Rings VR a collaborative endeavor?
KS: The team behind Gangan Comics gave us a tremendous amount of support, providing us with source materials, artwork, and time with the mangaka [manga author] to make sure we stayed true to the original work. This project would not have been possible without their support.
Does manga work particularly well in VR? Would another narrative form have proven as successful?
KS: This is a difficult question to answer because it isn’t easy to objectively compare one form of narrative to another. That said, once a story is brought into VR from another medium, the method needs to evolve to suit the immediate immersion VR is so good at.
One of the things we realized during development is that the immense amount of cognitive information presented to you at any moment in VR can sometimes be overwhelming or confusing, taking you out of the experience. When designing narratives in VR, it’s very important to take this into account and exercise a high level of control throughout.
This idea of “controlled expression” is something that is also done to a very high degree in Japanese manga through framing. On any given page, the size, position, order, and number of frames are meticulously designed in order to achieve the author’s intended pace for the highest level of immersion. Due to the similarities in design philosophy, it felt natural for us to work with manga as opposed to other types of narratives.
What were your key priorities when taking Tales of Wedding Rings from the page into VR?
KS: A trend we see in entertainment, both in Japan and the rest of the world, are adaptations—taking an original manga and adapting it for the big screen for live-action or anime. As a fan, I’m always excited to experience my favorite title in a new way. At the same time, it’s important that adaptations stay true to the source material. This was the number one goal of Project Hikari: to make sure we didn’t disappoint fans of the original work.
We worked hard to ensure that what you experience in VR is exactly what you imagined when you read the manga, whether it’s the way characters look and move, how the world around you is structured, or the sounds you hear. Thanks to the support of Gangan Comics, we were able to consult with the mangaka to make sure our designs were consistent with his vision, and we’re confident that fans will be happy with the result.
Additionally, we dedicated time to develop our own rendering techniques to achieve a level of monochromatic line art seen in iconic Japanese manga. Building on this, we developed something we call “LiveWindows,” a way to render full 3D scenes concurrently within the VR space to reproduce the kind of frame-based storytelling used in manga. We were adamant about making sure the experience looked and felt like manga, and we intend to continue improving in this area.
How did the unique perspective offered by VR inform the way you approached the project?
KS: One of VR’s defining features is the lack of a controlled camera angle, since users have full control over where they look. In the early days of VR narrative design, there were discussions and studies regarding user control, possibly from an attachment to techniques used in traditional 2D film. While I believe that keeping the user engaged throughout the experience is vital for VR, it’s debatable as to how important deliberate guidance of the user’s gaze is for VR narratives.
We decided to take a passive approach in our design. Specifically, we allow full freedom to look wherever the user wants. At the same time, we focused on designing the narrative, so the most interesting and engaging content is happening where we’d like the user to look and where it feels natural and intuitive. We kept to this idea in designing the structure of the environment, the layout of the animation and characters, and the placement of story content “LiveWindows.”
Rather than dictating your perspective, we focused on creating situations and opportunities where you can choose to change your own perspective during the story. For users who remain passive rather than actively moving around and looking in all directions (myself included), the experience is just as rewarding and enjoyable.
How did you go about choosing the right mix of sound and music to enhance Tales of Wedding Rings in VR?
KS: With unparalleled immersion as one of VR’s defining characteristics, we consider sound and music to be an essential part of any experience. For Tales, we decided to include full voice acting, original music, and fully spatialized sound. We enlisted the help of the Square Enix sound department, whose credits include our biggest game titles, to help us achieve these goals.
We wanted the experience to sound as authentic as possible, so we recorded dialogue with the help of some very talented local voice actors. Additionally, the environmental sound was recorded on-location in Tokyo, at places that inspired the original manga. We took care to ensure everything sounded the way the mangaka had envisioned.
One area where we had more creative freedom was music direction. The composer, Yamazaki-san, and I spent many afternoons listening to references and discussing what would be ideal for our story. We were inspired by the project’s mix of elements from the analog era (manga) and the digital era (VR). We decided to go with something modern, but with a hint of retro thrown in as both of us are fans of ’80s anime. We ended up with something that’s a departure from what you normally hear in anime but fitting for a story like ours. We made zero compromises in this area, and we hope everyone will enjoy it once they experience it.
How else did you leverage the unique properties of VR?
KS: We decided to tell our story in full 3D rather than 360° video, which means the user will have full freedom to look around from every angle—not just at the characters, but the environment and visual effects as well. For this reason, our assets are designed to look convincing from any angle, meaning that a lot of typical screen-based techniques were no longer applicable. Many of the technical decisions involved in creating our visual assets revolved around this limitation. While this made our work much more difficult compared to other projects made for flat screens, the result we got made it worthwhile.
Did you learn anything unexpected while adapting Tales of Wedding Rings for VR?
KS: Creating this title was one of the most profound experiences of my entire career. Going into the project, we knew it was going to be highly challenging based on the work of those before us, yet we vastly underestimated how much dedication a production of this scale requires. We’re delighted to have made it through, and we hope those who experience this title will be able to see and feel the care we put into it.
How do you see VR changing how we consume digital narrative in manga and games in the future?
KS: We’re starting to see the emergence of the holodeck in its early form, and I believe this trend will accelerate as time goes on. For this reason, I believe that immersive forms of entertainment will draw more and more people away from traditional forms of entertainment. As the line between reality and virtual worlds continues to blur, I do wonder if a day will come when VR content will no longer be categorized as “entertainment,” but rather an extension of everyday life. Maybe when that day comes, we’ll discover new ways to value and appreciate traditional entertainment like manga and games.
What did you learn while demoing the project in its earlier stages? Were there any pleasant surprises?
KS: During the development of this project, we demoed prototype versions to a small group of industry people. Almost every single one of them had a hard time envisioning how manga and VR would come together—no one knew what to expect. Some of them had seen other comic apps for VR and thought our experience would be more of the same. We’re happy to say that almost everyone who tried the demo walked away impressed and told us what they experienced far exceeded their expectations of what VR is capable of.
We were still curious as to how the public would react to our approach to VR narrative. Conventional wisdom said that the odds were against us, mainly because our content is monochrome and lacks the interactivity core users expect from VR. We were also worried about keeping users engaged for extended periods of time, especially for anyone new to VR
To find the answer to our questions, we demoed a short version of the experience at a few events in Japan and the US. We were delighted by the overwhelmingly positive response and glad to know our concerns were non-issues. I was most happy about the reaction from those who were VR skeptics, as many of them told me what they saw changed their minds about VR. As for the fans, many said they can’t wait to see more of this kind of VR and hope other manga titles are made available in the future.
Do you have a message for Tales of Wedding Rings enthusiasts anticipating the next chapter in the series?
KS: We’ll be working hard to make sure the next chapter is just as amazing as the first. We would also appreciate feedback and support from those who are excited about manga in VR. We’ll be looking for responses on social media and other channels, so please don’t hesitate to let us know what you think about the experience! I also believe many fans are highly talented individuals, and we’d be delighted if any of them would be interested in working with us to create future chapters.
— The Oculus Team