(NP:) The cast of characters and creatures that surround most of Nintendo’s headliners is truly massive. Who gets at the heart of our heroes by designing around the edges? Designers like Nintendo’s Satomi Asakawa, that’s who. She’s one of the creators of Nintendo’s secondary characters, and the woman behind Twilight Princess’s community of NPCs. Much of what we feel we all know about Link – who he is, what he believes in, where he comes from – is deeply connected to every other character that he’s bumped into over the years, not just the major collisions with Zelda and Ganon. It’s not often that you hear from the mind behind the masses – and Asakawa offers one of the most colorful perspectives that we’ve ever heard regarding the bit parts.

Playing God with Bit Characters

My first character design assignment for Nintendo was the wise, old owl in Ocarina of Time, Kaepora Gaebora. Mr. Miyamoto left me a yellow sticky note with a few pointers for the owl’s design and turned me loose to explore his look on my own. So casual! I’d always thought of Mr. Miyamoto as a game god, so I’d assume that he’d lord his influence over his creative team, but I was really surprised by what a friendly person he was, though he does maintain extremely high standards for gameplay.

My responsibility has always been to create sidekicks and secondary characters, not the main ones. In Majora’s Mask, for instance, I designed the white monkeys and the turtle-island; in the Pikmin series, I did the President and several enemy characters, such as the Waterwraith. That’s one of my favorites. Though the Waterwraith has a giant, menacing presence, motoring around on two stone rolling pins, it really breaks down once you smash the pines. I often like to attach that kind of of-and-off dynamic to my characters. But I’m not only an animal creator. I’ve also done people like the Bombchu Gallery landlady and Ikana Canyon’s Pamela, both side character sin Majora’s Mask, plus – one of my biggest splashes – the Pianta people in Super Mario Sunshine. That was a huge learning opportunity, and it’s been a pleasure to see the Pianta show up in other Mario games since Sunshine. My workmates always think that I like to create chubby characters. I’ve got to agree! Chubby; I love it. And blockheads; that’s another favorite.

Character design involves taking care of everything about a character. After the director provides the general direction, the character designer goes through a long process that starts with creating sketches and some modeling, then does the animation and is ultimately in charge of all of the character sequences in the game. It’s a big challenge, especially when you factor in how the players will interact with the character. Originally, I’d sought out a career in animated films, so thinking about player interaction is very important. My desire is that all of my characters leave an impression on a player; not just a fleeting sensation that they’re just cute or strange, but a lasting attachment that makes the player think about them for a long time. It’s the holy grail, but I really strive to create character that players will later wonder how they’re doing – as if they’re actually friends who live far, far away in the real world.

The Quest for CG Design
In High school, I was interested in graphic design, and I studied imaging art during my college years, where I was somewhat drawn to puppet animation, though my university work centered on the research and study of surrealistic images. Overall though, I felt that something was missing in my life. After I graduated, I worked for a video production company on commercial promotion videos. In those days, computer-graphic creations were getting a lot of attention, and I wanted do study CG design, though there was nowhere to study it as a discipline in Japan. So I saved up money to leave the country and study abroad – no specific place in mind. One day, purely by chance, I read about the CG class held at the Vancouver Film School in Canada and I learned that it was about to split off into an independent school. So after six years in video production, off I went to the new DigiPen Institute of Technology in 1996 – which of course would move across the border to neighbor Nintendo’s US headquarters just a few years later.

At DigiPen, I spent two intense years studying the theory and technique of CG animation. But that wasn’t all I learned – I also studied how to communicate in the uniquely North American way! Here’s what I mean: In Japanese culture, it’s customary to think that if you state your opinion, you may alienate someone and make them uncomfortable; but in Canada during my studies, I really needed to learn how to be comfortable with saying exactly what I was thinking, then listening very carefully to their response. In those days, I really learned my ability to communicate – and even debate! – with others without feeling like I was starting a battle. Not so easy when you’ve grown up in Japan! Of course, picking up English during my stay in Canada was challenging and valuable as well. While I wasn’t rolling in cash while I was in Vancouver, I gained a precious treasure of experience while I was in that beautiful city. Little did I know that all of that life experience would add up to a career in character creation someday!

When I graduated from the DigiPen Institute of Technology, I wanted to get a job in North America at an animation studio like Pixar. It was my dream to work on a production like the Wallace and Gromit series on a movie like The Nightmare Before Christmas. As it turned out, I applied to only one Japanese company – Nintendo. I’d lived near Nintendo in Kyoto since I was 12 years old, and I’d always loved the Mario-world characters that the company created. I’d always felt a deep connection to Nintendo. I sent my animated short, “OneBigBanana,” which had been my DigiPen graduate project, to Nintendo as part of my application. Must have been received well, since I got a position! So off I went again – back to Japan.

Truth be told, I’d never been into video games, though I’d grown up surrounded by them. My father worked for a game company, so consoles had always been in our home. I think I first connected with console gaming with the Super NES… possibly with the release of Glory of Hercules III, which was sadly never released in North America. It was an RPG which really made an impact on me. It was the story of a hero who lost his memory and went on a quest with his friends to beat an evil power that destroyed a world; during their journey, they heard about many sad, tragic events caused by the evil forces, which just fueled their vengeance. In the end, the hero confronted the evil, which was surprisingly connected to the hero himself, he atoned for his own sins by carrying heavy rocks to rebuild the world. At that time, I was deeply moved – and quite surprised – by how much video games could create such a range of emotional expression. Again, who could have imagined that such rich experiences would lend themselves to a career at Nintendo?

Twilight’s Secret Society
Here in Kyoto, we’ve all been told that Twilight Princess got a huge reaction at E3. What pressure! Little known fact: I played the voice of Beth in the E3 playable demo. For Twilight Princess, the character design process is vastly different from my earlier projects. After studying the game development plan, all of us on the character design team present ideas to the games’ prime custodians, like Mr. Nakano, who’s in charge of overall character design, and Mr. Takizawa, the art director for Twilight Princess. Mr. Nakano has a real passion for the Zelda world, and his creative ideas are remarkable. It’s an exciting experience to say the least!

I’m responsible for all NPCs in Twilight Princess. Because this game demands realistic human characters, this is quite a challenging task, as you can imagine. My hope is to create strange, cunning characters for the game – it’s a unique combination. But I hope to turn my fantasy into reality with this project. Such characters can also elicit fear from players. Think Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, one of my all-time favorite animated movies, and you’ll get a sense of what I’m going for: all of its characters were colorful and vivid, but the fact that they inhabit dark, moody environments make them very strange. As the realism in graphics start to hit their limits, I think that we can go even further only by reaching for such deeper impressions with players. And I can vouch for the whole development team here in Kyoto – everyone wants to make Twilight Princess into an extremely engaging experience.

Back to My Roots
Since every day is consumed by the work for Twilight Princess, I often go home very late, as does my husband, who is one of Nintendo’s sound effect programmers. I work in my creative studio; he works in his sound studio; but we try to get away and refresh our minds as often as possible. Kyoto summers are very hot – and the humidity can be terrible! – and I often long for the beautiful summers in Vancouver. I do love Kyoto though, with its long history as a place of great craftsmanship – which I truly believe connects with Nintendo’s own history. All of us here at Nintendo are all friends, but even more we’re developed to game development as a serious craft. With so many people devoted to game development, it’s not hard to envision all of the vigorous discussions – always productive! – that we’re always having about how to make Twilight Princess the most alluring game that you’ll ever play.