At first glance, and probably even at the second and third, the upcoming Xbox 360 game "N3: Ninety-Nine Nights" would seem to have little to do with the aftermath of September 11, 2001.
Medieval knights wage combat on lush valleys and plains full of fantastic warriors, goblins and magicians. They slash swords and burst spells in order to mow down legions of enemies to pyrotechnic effect. The apparent gameplay goal seems to be the 360-powered ability for players to lawnmower a field of a 10,000 enemies in one button-bashing buzz.
It has repeatedly been presented to the gaming press as a spiritual successor to recent Xbox war games like "Kingdom Under Fire." That fits, because the "Kingdom" titles and "N3: Ninety-Nine Nights" are made by the same Korean developer, Phantagram.
And yet at the Game Developers Conference in San Jose, California, last week, acclaimed Japanese game creator and "N3: Ninety-Nine Nights" producer Tetsuya Mizuguchi closed an hour-long presentation of the game by saying that, among his peers, he felt he could show where his inspiration for the game had come from. On a screen that had been showing movies and screenshots of warriors hacking and slashing there suddenly flashed a photograph of the World Trade Center towers. Scenes from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq followed.
"After the September 11th attacks, I saw a lot of different reports from different countries," he said. They distressed him. " 'What happened to the world?' " he remembered thinking. " 'What's going on?' I was worried." "N3: Ninety-Nine Nights" would be his way to reconcile the fragmented views of a world that increasingly seemed to differ on what exactly was happening.
In the four years since the 9/11 attacks, mainstream games have had little to say on the subject. War games have continued to primarily focus on World War II or combat in the future. Games that have explicitly dealt with 9/11 have tended to be quick, downloadable, so-called "casual games," like Newsgaming.com's "September 12th."
Mizuguchi appeared an unlikely candidate to be the first major game designer to draw on such subject matter. After having created a series of racing games for Sega starting in 1990, the founder of Q Entertainment garnered a reputation for making quirky music-based games like "Space Channel 5," the musical shooting game "Rez" and the techno-driven PSP puzzle "Lumines."
Mizuguchi had never made a war game, and when he tried telling people his idea, he was largely met with confusion. "Most of the people, their reaction was, 'What? Why 9/11?' " The truth is it's not inspired by the 9/11 events so much as by the multiple views of that day and the political and military events that have followed in the years since.
"I know the power of media," the game designer told MTV News. "Now you can watch a real-time war field by satellite or Internet and you can also watch every country's media by the Internet." Mizuguchi had watched the recent events in America and the Middle East on everything from CNN and Al-Jazeera to Japanese and Korean broadcasts. The ability to see multiple perspectives of the same events nearly simultaneously struck him as a historic breakthrough that could affect the depiction of war in video games — even a war set in a fantasy world with no explicit connections to terrorism.
"My idea was, 'OK, let's play each point of view and if you play everything as experienced [from those various viewpoints] you may feel something. That was the inspiration. I was very scared about the result. Is this fun or not?"
The idea influenced the way the game's story is told, via non-interactive movie scenes that break up the game's main levels of action. During his presentation, Mizuguchi showed how the movie scenes would differ depending on which character the player had chosen to control. Some of the effects were low-key. In one set of movies shown side-by-side, camera angles shifted, making the more bellicose Inphyy seem more distant for players controlling her brother, the noble human Aspharr.
More explicit differences were evident in a scene involving the murder of one enemy creature's parents. Focusing on the aftermath of those killings, the Aspharr version of the scene includes a fleeting note of regret. The Inphyy perspective is less sympathetic and coolly references the unavoidable casualties of war. The perspective of the child creature, witnessed by players controlling him, is altogether different. In it, the human characters seem monstrous.
Mizuguchi said he expected players' sympathies to shift depending on who they played. "When I play as Inphyy, she is 'good,' " he said, acknowledging that the character is explicitly designed to make the typical gamer sympathetic to her agenda. "She is attractive," he said, jokingly adding, "she has good cleavage."
But when Mizuguchi played as the monster and saw his parents murdered, he changed his perspective. "Whenever I see the movie, I think human beings are bad," he said. "I started killing the [human] heroes. It's enjoyable. It's a strange feeling. I let out a whoop of triumph."
Mizuguchi emphasized that his focus was not on the politics and morality of 9/11 and the wars that followed, but on the differing views, a basic idea he hoped would have impact. He also drew inspiration from Akira Kurosawa's "Rashômon," an iconic 1950 Japanese film that depicts a crime from four different perspectives.
Other game creators are also on the verge of making more explicit statements. Maverick game designer American McGee has promised that his upcoming "Bad Day L.A." PC and Xbox game will focus on the culture of fear that followed the 9/11 attacks. The game even uses a Department of Homeland Security-style threat level, coded by color.
"God of War" lead creator David Jaffe has said that the next game he is directing, a PSP title code-named "HL," is inspired by his response to post-9/11 events. In an interview with MTV News in February, he explained his still-percolating idea.
"I'm a really liberal guy," he said. "Like everybody else, 9/11 and the Iraq war and what's happening right now in Iran, it kind of seeps into your thoughts and into your work. And what I love about interactivity is designing interactive scenarios that force the player or allow the player to experience something that gets the wheels turning about those kinds of subjects." Jaffe had said it was too early to give any specifics; his game isn't expected until 2007.
"I'd rather fail and try than just make another racing game," Jaffe said.
Mizuguchi, who's come a long way since his days of making racing games, would probably agree.
"N3: Ninety-Nine Nights" is due this spring.