Talking sharp looks with the team behind the distinctive characters
Style and fashion are important themes in Neo: The World Ends With You, with its striking character designs among the many facets that distinguish it from other RPGs. We talk to creative producer and character designer Tetsuya Nomura along with character designer Gen Kobayashi to discuss how they defined the game’s unique look.
How do you go about creating new characters for the followup to a game from 2007, while keeping the game’s style as fresh and relevant as the original was? Tetsuya Nomura The challenge really was more about the character rather than the fashion to me, personally. Obviously, for 14 years The World Ends With You has kind of been represented by the character of Neku, and so his impact has been really quite strong there. So when I was designing Rindo I really had to think about, ‘How can I create a character that will live up to and perhaps be even better than this image and design of Neku that’s been around since the first game? How can I come up with a new protagonist that will sort of live up to that ideal?’ I couldn’t really find a good idea for those whole 14 years. Once the deadline for making this sequel had passed, the idea for Rindo just suddenly appeared and I knew that this was the main character that could live up to Neku.
Rindo appears to be a bit more open than Neku – after all, he’s already with his friend Fret when they both enter the Underground. Was it a conscious decision to create a protagonist that was a contrast to Neku? TN I think that the environment that they were brought up in is very different between Neku and Rindo. Also, there is a difference of course between the modern youth of 14 years ago compared to the modern youth of today. While he’s got Fret as his friend, Rindo also has a slight dependence, perhaps, on his smartphone. He can communicate with others, but most of it is communication that relies on his phone. So perhaps he has more friends that are online friends or friends that he contacts solely through his phone rather than natural in-person relationships. He’s a very different type to Neku, but Rindo isn’t as extroverted and sociable as Fret is, so he does still have those different aspects that are again very similar to modern-day youth.
The fact that Rindo wears his mask under his chin has probably drawn more attention in the current climate of the pandemic – were you concerned about how that might translate to an international audience?
TN The design for Rindo, including his mask, was actually all completed way before COVID-19 even became a thing. Of course, as I’m sure you know, once game production and development is under way, it’s quite difficult to rewind to some of those early stages. So for example if we need to go back and say, ‘We have to make him wear the mask properly’, then that would seem rather strange and out of place unless everyone else in Shibuya was also wearing a mask. Eventually, we just went along with the original design and concept that we had made without trying to overthink those points too much.
How did you go about designing the Wicked Twisters to feel distinct as individuals and how they interact with one another?
Gen Kobayashi The way the character design worked is that the concept of the character was decided by the planning and other divisions, and then it came over to us to be designed and fleshed out fully, including the main characters in the party – specifically, Fret for myself, and Nagi for [Miki] Yamashita-san. Because there are three of us working on the main characters in this team I think that we were really able to bring our own individuality and our own skills to emphasise the individuality of each team member in that way.
The rival characters are similarly striking – did you have specific themes in mind for each of the leaders? GK We really paid a lot of attention to how the player would relate to that character, what their role was within the story, and what impression we wanted players to have of that character. So we kept that in mind while we designed them and tried to make sure that the design was reflecting that role and that impact that we wanted them to have. There is also a lot of individuality between the different teams in terms of their fashion.
Were there any styles you wanted to lean into that you didn’t manage to in the original game? And how much inspiration did you take from real Shibuya fashion? GK Rather than fashions or styles that we weren’t able to put in the first game that we put in this time around, it was more like, ‘What are the modern styles that exist now that perhaps didn’t exist 14 years ago?’ So, for example, a more modern style would perhaps be K-popinfluenced costumes and outfits, and there are some characters in the game that have those elements incorporated into their design. The black mask that Rindo wears is also one of those elements, a sort of newer generation of fashion. As for whether there’s any actual influence from the real Shibuya itself, I personally went and looked around the shops in Shibuya to get a feel for it and then used that as inspiration in my designs. Sometimes, there were specific requests to add that musical influence to characters – for example, Susukichi has a bit of a hip-hop influence to him.
The journey, not the destination. That’s what a good road trip is supposed to be about, isn’t it? But while DigixArt’s game has plenty of tales to tell along the way, it has its eye firmly on the end of the road. The multiple trips you take across Petria are always headed for the same terminus: the country’s northern border.
It seems that the entire teenaged population of Petria has had the same idea. As you travel, you meet a selection of itinerant under-20s, all of them headed north. You play as a few of them, too. At the beginning of each session, you pick a new teenager from a selection of three silhouettes, differentiated only by their distance from the border, the contents of their wallet and their remaining stamina. Then you lead them to the border and, hopefully, across it.
Every trip is strung together out of vignettes. Lasting five minutes or so apiece, these scenes play out in a single location or in transit of some variety – you might find yourself in the driving seat, as a hitchhiker riding shotgun, or in the back seat of a taxi. Alongside the dialogue, most feature their own minigame-style activity: air hockey, Guess Who?, a basic rhythm game, even something as simple as tuning a radio. These are of varying quality, but that’s not really the point. They’re just there to keep your hands busy while you make the acquaintance of Petria’s colourful residents.
There’s Sonya, a bratty TV anchor who acts as the mouthpiece for Petria’s regime, and Zoe, a politician’s daughter rebelling against the authorities. John, whose bearlike appearance – Zangief as a long-haul trucker, essentially – belies a soft heart. Jarod, a dinosaur-fixated taxi driver with a voice and figure like the cigarette that constantly hangs from his lips, and a fuming temper he struggles to control. Fanny, the conflicted cop. Stan and Mitch, the inept bank robbers. Alex, a child prodigy whose dialogue makes even Life Is Strange’s ‘hella’-laden excesses seem moderate by comparison. You’ll meet others on your travels, but this is the core recurring cast, each of them starring in their own handful of vignettes so that you dip in and out of their stories as you play.
Each character’s strand has its own soundtrack provided by a single artist – so that, for example, encounters with Jarrod are lent an extra layer of tension by the trademark pitch-black synths of Stranger Things’ Survive. You can disrupt that, though, if you’re travelling in a car with a tape deck, playing any cassettes you’ve collected instead. As on any good road trip, music plays a big part here: every segment is titled after a different pop song (‘Thieves in the temple’, ‘The passenger’, ‘Video killed the radio star’). Given the ’90s setting, we’d be tempted to call it a mixtape, but Road 96 does something the era’s cassettes never could: the whole thing plays on shuffle. As you move from one scene to the next, the game plucks a vignette from its remaining deck. With the exception of a couple of threads which advance in
The brevity of scenes means it’s possible to have a complete adventure within the space of an hour
strictly linear fashion, the story is totally modular, able to be played out in any order.
It could feel like a muddle, were it not for that fixed destination. Between scenes, a map flashes up, charting your journey northward and counting down how far you’ve got left to go. 1,181 miles to the border: you make a friend and play music together. 830 miles: a petrolstation owner presses you into work before reporting you to the cops, and you steal his car. 436 miles: you get carjacked by a pair of ski-masked idiots. (Evidence of karma at work?) Eventually, the counter ticks down to nine miles, and a final scene takes you to the border, where you pick from a few methods – paying a coyote, say, or hiding underneath a truck – and attempt to cross.
This final destination might be a sticking point for some. In a game that’s mostly buoyant, the border sequences make for a dramatic tonal shift. The consequences for failing to cross can be brutal and, while the presentation is never gratuitous, we’re not sure Road 96 ever quite justifies its appropriation of real struggles. (See Post Script.)
What saves the game, even in its wobblier moments, is that structure. It’s not a Roguelike, exactly, but the pleasures are certainly similar. The brevity of scenes means that it is possible to have a complete adventure within the space of an hour. We suspect it’s testament to the brain’s appetite for patterns, rather than to the genius of whatever algorithm picks the scene order, that these shuffled vignettes take on the familiar shape of a beginning, middle and end. Whatever the case, we come away each time feeling we’ve been told a selfcontained story, and hungry for the next.
This is in part because every one of your trips – we’re resisting calling them ‘runs’ – also contributes to a larger whole. There’s a broader story at work, every journey counting down to a grand finale on Petria’s election day, your actions (at least, if the incessant pop-ups are anything to go by) having an impact on its outcome. Mechanically, meanwhile, you accumulate a set of skills (hacking, lockpicking, conversational intuition) that open new options in the world. This is where the game hews closest to the modern Roguelike.
As in those games, though, the most satisfying thing you gain is knowledge. Even as your character resets, you hold on to your understanding of the recurring cast. This means that you’re equipped to pick up on the inference of a particular line, an added layer of meaning that wouldn’t have been there had that scene been served up sooner, or connect the dots between two scenes that happen to sit next to one another. The execution can be uneven, but in all of Road 96’s wild ambition there is a touch of genius. This doesn’t feel like the endpoint of all these ideas, but the marking out of a route forward. It’s one we’d love to see explored further.