'Persona 5' Creators Talk Series' Legacy, Character Design and J-Pop

'Persona 5' Creators Talk Series' Legacy, Character Design and J-Pop

Atlus

Audio director Shoji Meguro and character designer Shigenori Soejima open up about the obscure, but beloved, Japanese RPG series

Audio director Shoji Meguro and character designer Shigenori Soejima open up about the obscure, but beloved, Japanese RPG series

It's been about a month since the fifth installment of the much-loved – but certainly obscure – Persona Japanese role-playing series launched in the West. Persona 5 is everything the current generation of Western RPGs isn't. There's no vast open world to explore, but instead the streets and subway stations of modern day Tokyo, layered with sometimes surreal castles and dungeons that spring from the id of its villains. Realtime combat – a staple of blockbusters like Skyrim, The Witcher 3 and now even the great warhorse of the Japanese RPG scene, Final Fantasy – is once again resisted in favor of a deeper, more strategic turn-based system. Even the game's setting – a high school in Tokyo that contains as much inter-teen drama as dungeon crawling – couldn't be further from the bleak post-apocalyptic and Tolkienesque landscapes of Bethesda's most popular games.

Chalk it up to stellar execution on almost every front, then – from story to character design to music to the ever-expanding challenge of its sometimes bonkers world – that something so uniquely quirky has not only delivered on the outsized expectations of a dedicated fanbase but broken through to a public that previously turned a blind eye to its charms.

With Persona 5 fresh in the minds of fans – and continuing to light up Reddit with fan theories and tips – Glixel called on audio director and main composer Shoji Meguro, along with Shigenori Soejima, the series' longtime character designer, for a wide-ranging discussion on the 21 year-old series, its legacy and what it took to bring its world into the HD era.

When you began work on Persona 5, what directions, if any, were you given in creating the music and the art?
Shoji Meguro, audio director: I wasn't given any specific directions from the producer. The producer for Persona 5 is [Katsura] Hashino. I've worked with him for a long time and I feel we have worked together long enough that he trusts me. He gives me full reign over the music of the game, so I worked with no particular direction from the producer.

So in creating the music, is it like creating music for a film? Do you write the music alongside the development of the game, or do you make the music independently of the game?
Meguro: We start making demos quite early in the development cycle. The team comes up with the scenario, the script, and the overall environment before we start to provide them with early demos. Simultaneously, the art team will be creating the visuals for the game. Once the overall storyboard is completed, we add the music and make adjustments to visuals and audio accordingly. That's the general process.

If you had to choose a few keywords to describe Persona 5, how would you describe the style or flavor of the music in the game?
Meguro: Internally, we call the type of music we use in the game "acid jazz." So, that's one way to describe it. In comparison to Persona 3 and 4, the visuals have become a lot more realistic in Persona 5, so we tried to make the music more "real" as well. So, that's the second description: realism. I can only think of one more description, and it would be "green/innocence/young" because the game is about a group of high school students who are still impulsive and reckless.

Is the music suppose to match the style of the game or the game audience? I didn't realize Japanese high school students were into acid jazz.
Meguro: I'd say 20 percent applies to the market, and 80 percent to the game. Ideally, I'd really like to make the music match 100 percent to the milieu of the game, but Persona 5 is part of a series, so we need to take into account the fans of the game.

Mr. Soejima, were you given any specific direction for the game from the Mr. Hashino? What sort of guidelines were you working with?
Shigenori Soejima, character designer: Obviously I can't design the characters for the game without the scenario and storyline, so I was given very detailed instructions from the producer. The details of the story are not finalized until later in the process, but once the themes and general vision of the game is decided, I started working on the visuals to provide a color scheme and visual direction for the game. The producer talked to me about how he envisioned the overall feel of the game with explanations of – I think – about three characters. There wasn't a story, yet, but he said he wanted to create a game about these high school characters. That's where the character design started.

Could you give us an insight into your creative process in designing the main characters? Everyone's wearing a similar uniform, so you'd have to make these distinctions primarily in their faces.
Soejima: As you mentioned, the characters are all wearing uniforms, so it's challenging to design them to look distinctly unique. We use the battle scenes, where they transform into different costumes, and summon their personas, to accentuate their differences. We also have a consistent color for each of the characters.

Mr. Meguro, the Persona 5 soundtrack has 110 tracks on it alone. How are you able to produce such a significant quantity of music without the quality suffering?
Meguro: [Laughs] Time was on my side. We were working on this title for about three years so I had a lot of time to make the music.

The longer it takes for the game to hit the market, you start to lose confidence in what's expected of you

How many songs did you write in all? Some songs must have been left on the cutting room floor.
Meguro: We also had other composers working on the game and music that didn't make it to the final cut. I'd say maybe 80 percent of the music in the game was composed by me – I think about 70-80 songs. There was a lot that wasn't used in the game, as well. I number the music files on my computer, and it went up to 97 for Persona 5. So, I wrote 97 songs for the game and, roughly, 70-80 of them were used in the game.

You were also responsible for the overall audio design?
Meguro: Yes. That's correct.

A lot of RPGs use orchestral music, but your approach is a lot more contemporary – acid jazz, hip-hop and electronic J-pop sounds. Are you eager to distinguish Persona from other RPG games by using such contemporary sounds?
Meguro: I'm not consciously trying to distinguish our games from other games or gaming music. The games we make are very different, so because I'm composing music for a game that is very unique, it's fitting that the music is also unique. We have very unique individuals here at Atlus. [Laughs]

Hearing upbeat vocal J-pop-style house music tracks during encounters might, to some, feel less like a life-or-death situation and more like a party. Is this something that you're conscious of when composing battle themes?
Meguro: For the more tense and difficult battles, the music is more serious and heavy and reflective of the character's mood within the game. For the earlier, lighter battles, where the players face common criminals or the casual street fight, the music is more upbeat because it's not a fight that the character is particularly tense about. It's an everyday occurrence that the characters are used to and not particularly stressed out about. That's the idea. So, the background music is also casual and something I imagine [the characters] would listen to on any given day.

Which other video game soundtrack composers do you admire?
Meguro: Koichi Sugiyama, the composer of the Dragon Quest series. If I were to name others, Hiroshi Kawaguchi and Takenobu Mitsuyoshi, who work at Sega. I'm not saying their names just because they work at Sega, either. [Laughs]

Who are your favorite musicians in general? I know you like [Japanese jazz-fusion group] Casiopeia.
Meguro: I used to listen to Casiopeia and T-Square [another jazz-fusion band in Japan] a lot in high school. I used to listen to a lot of fusion bands, actually. Music that I've listened to a lot in the past and continue to do so is a lot of classical music. I like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Recently, I've been listening to classical music composer, Edvard Grieg.

You frequently use English lyrics in Persona tracks, particularly in the battle themes. Is this because you're aiming at an International audience, or do you just like the way words sound in English?
Meguro: Apologies to the Western gamers, but to Japanese gamers, because many Japanese don't speak the language and they don't understand the lyrics, the English lyrics blend in as background music. The lyrics are not distracting to the gamer, so it's convenient to use as background music. If the lyrics were Japanese, the players would probably find the music too distracting from the game. Also, [some things] just sound cooler in English.

If you could work with any Western singers on your soundtracks, who would you choose? Beyonce? Janet Jackson? Taylor Swift? Mariah Carey?
Meguro: That would be an extreme privilege, so I'd welcome anybody.

How about Metallica?
Meguro: Also welcome!

I have a question about another popular Persona track from the past. The "Junes" shop jingle from Persona 4 is a real earworm. Once you hear it, it sticks in your head. Where did that one come from? It's like one of those super-catchy jingles you hear in a [Japanese electronics chain] shop like Sofmap.
Meguro: This actually isn't my song, but initially it was a jingle written for a very short scene in the animated series [Persona 4: The Animation]. So, the jingle was very short but we had to extend it to use in other, longer scenes, like a commercial. And then once they started working on the anime, we needed to make it even longer into a full length song. So, what started as something that was very short, almost nothing at all, we all put our heads together to extend it into a full length version.

Mr. Soejima, growing up, who were the artists and illustrators that really inspired you?
Soejima: I'd have to say the biggest influence was [manga artist duo] Fujiko F. Fujio, the creators of Doraemon. Also Hayao Miyazaki, an unsurprising choice, I know – I like pretty much all the same artists who inspired everyone growing up in the Eighties and Nineties. Gundam, of course, as well. [Laughs]

You start to question your instincts and go back and forth on decisions. It's harder to see the truth

Is Aigis still your favorite character? You've mentioned this in the past, but I wonder if anyone has taken her place in succeeding games.

Soejima: [Laughs] I don't think it's very proper for a character designer to show favoritism towards a character that he has created, but I do like to draw Aigis the best. I also enjoy drawing all the main characters from Persona 3 to P5 because fans seem to really enjoy those characters.

When designing personas, you don't have the same restrictions as you do with the human characters. Are they more fun to design?
Soejima: I enjoy designing both, but it's actually more challenging to design the personas. They're not just creatures, but are based on popular characters. For example, in Persona 5, they are based on fictitious literary characters. So because we are basing the personas off of existing material, like Arsène Lupin, I want players to enjoy the new interpretations, but also preserve the charms of the original character. So, in terms of challenges, it was harder to design the persona.

What are the guidelines for each of the personas?
Soejima: For Persona 5, there's the name of the characters. The main character's name is Arsène from "Arsène Lupin" [the fictional thief by French writer Maurice Leblanc], and there's also Zorro [the fictional character created by Johnston McCulley]. All the characters have names based on fictional characters and were reinterpreted for this game.

Is it also challenging because you have to create multiple stages of the personas as they level up and transform?
Soejima: Yes. I can't seem to think of an example right now, but at the point where we have the name for the persona, there's a final form that we have in mind. So, as the names are created, I simultaneously design the characters based on their name.

Given that Persona 4 is a PS2 game, the jump production quality between it and Persona 5 is immense. Was it a tremendous workload for you?
Soejima: Yes, of course. Not only for myself but for the whole team. At the same time, the level of detail and realism that's possible for the PS4 is that much greater, so in this way, it is much more rewarding. With Persona 4, I didn't have as much control over the tone or feel of the visuals. For this project, I had to have a very clear vision of what I wanted, or else I would end up with a very mediocre drawing. So, I feel I spent a lot of time and energy and a lot of trial and error trying to figure out how to develop an efficient working process.

What other duties in the development were you tasked with? Were you also the art director for the game?
Soejima: I wasn't in charge of the art direction, no. I was the character designer. But I didn't work solely on the characters. I also created the concept art. After the character art was completed and as the scenario progressed, I designed the boss characters and the battle scenes. If there was a key item that needed to be drawn, I'd handle that as well. I was a jack of all trades.

What was the most fun thing for you on the project? What was the least fun?
Soejima: I'll say what wasn't fun first. It was exhausting!

Because the development cycle was long?
Soejima: Yeah. When [the development cycle] is short, you can ride the momentum and the game hits the market quickly, you get instant feedback from the players. How do I say it – it's easier to read the market and find out what is expected from the market. But the longer it takes for the game to hit the market, you start to lose confidence in what's expected of you. You start to question your instincts and go back and forth on decisions. It's harder to see the truth [when you're caught up in the project]. It takes more energy to pull through and stick to your original vision without being swayed. That was the hardest part.

The best part was when the game was finally released and seeing the positive response from the public, particularly when they saw the characters and said, "It's not bad." This was the most rewarding experience.

Which of the covers that you've done is your favorite?
Soejima: The cover artwork for the Persona series has a lot of characters in it because we want to illustrate the fact that it's a story with lots of characters. But, when you put so many characters on the cover, they all start to look the same and it's hard to distinguish them, so if I were to choose, I'd say the cover art for Catherine.

Mr. Meguro, Persona Live concerts are incredibly popular in Japan. What would it take to bring a Persona concert to North America?
Meguro:
I think there's a lot of things that go into performing a live concert in the US or Europe, but I don't think Persona has the fame or popularity overseas to attract an enough of a crowd for a concert. If there was more hype online and greater overseas sales – particularly if Persona 5 sold more copies – I'd be happy to bring the live concert overseas. I, personally, would love to do it.