Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor interview: War as celebration of life

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Capcom's Tatsuya Kitabayashi speaks to Polygon about Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor's gritty, realistic portrayal of life and death on the battlefield.

I'm talking to the Japanese producer of Capcom's latest, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, and I'm afraid I've deeply offended him.

Tatsuya Kitabayashi sits before me in a crowded storage room just off the banquet hall where his game is being shown to journalists from around the world. We ducked into this room - no more than a closet, really - looking for a quiet place to talk. Kitabayashi, his interpreter, and me.

The conversation, as with all translated interviews, is laborious. We struggle to make our meanings clear. We speak. We wait. We listen. Throughout, we are interrupted by hotel staff coming to and fro, looking for the extra chairs we are sitting on. We are in their way.

Kitabayashi speaks in Japanese. His interpreter translates:

"The original Steel Battalion was an innovative title," he says. "It gobsmacked lots of people and excited people. So the question is: Are we going to make a sequel and again release another huge controller for it?"

This is where I make my mistake. I interrupt, look directly at the interpreter and, ignoring Kitabayashi, ask the interpreter a question. There is a momentary stunned silence. A sharp intake of breath.

Then we sit, all three of us, waiting.



Interpretation is a subtle art. Particularly across such a wide cultural gulf as exists between the Japanese and Americans. So many little flairs and nuances of communication can get lost in the missed connections between languages that were never meant to coexist.

Most people assume that for every single word or phrase in any given language, there is an exactly corresponding phrase in any other. That translating between one language and another is as simple as knowing the dictionary. This couldn't be further from the truth. In reality, the differences between languages often extend beyond the actual words themselves to how they are used. Simple phrases in one language become impossibly dense in another because of the way that people talk. Not just the words they use, but how they use them. Colloquialisms, turns of phrase, or manners of speaking that are simply foreign.

An interpreter's job, therefore, isn't so much about matching words, but about matching meanings. Sometimes they get it right, and sometimes they get it very, very wrong. Telling the difference is a fine art.

Kitabayashi's interpreter said that people were "gobsmacked" by Steel Battalion. He is a slender, young man with distinctive Japanese features, yet he speaks in impeccable English with a pronounced British accent. I know that the word "gobsmacked" was his choice, not Kitabayashi's. It is a decidedly British word used to describe astonishment, where "gob" is slang for mouth. Therefore smacking one's gob is to put one's hand over one's mouth in astonishment or surprise. Gobsmacked.

The interpreter is telling me that Kitabayashi believes that people were astonished by Steel Battalion, which I believe is true. What I want to know is: What did Kitabayashi actually say? What is the Japanese equivalent to being "gobsmacked"?

The interpreter smiles and shakes his head, then goes silent. Kitabayashi, beside him, grows tense. This is the moment.

It is traditional to ignore an interpreter as much as possible. I know that, particularly in Japanese culture, signs of disrespect are taken very seriously. Engaging an interpreter in direct conversation can be very disrespectful. This interview may be over before it has even begun, but I have to know.

Kitabayshi is smiling, but I can feel his irritation. He leans in to his interpreter. They whisper between themselves. Another moment of tension. Then a smile. Then they laugh. The moment has passed. Now they, too, are amused.

And then they let me in on their secret.


Steel Battalion was released for the original Xbox console. The game put the player into the cockpit of a giant fighting robot. And it shipped with a massive controller with dozens of buttons and knobs. The total price was over $200 US. Gobsmacking.

Capcom had no intention of making a direct sequel and releasing a new, $200 controller for the Xbox 360, and thereby pricing the game beyond the reach of the ordinary consumer. So the franchise got shelved alongside the Japanese publisher's many other idle game concepts, waiting for an idea and a producer that would bring it back to relevance.

Enter: Project Natal and Tatsuya Kitabayashi.

Natal was the codename for Microsoft's Kinect, before it was Kinect. As part of its pre-development, Microsoft toured the technology around the world, visiting game publishers and developers, selling them on the concept, and looking for new game ideas. When Microsoft visited Capcom, Kitabayashi says "ideas flashed."

"We said: 'This is it!'" he tells me, through his interpreter. "Of anything we could make for Kinect, it's going to be a sequel for Steel Battalion."

Years later, Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is finally ready to be shown, and journalists attending Capcom's 2012 Captivate event in Rome are gleefully lining up to drive a heavy Virtual Tank across alternate-history versions of a World War II-era battlefield using a combination of the Xbox 360 gamepad and simple, Kinect-enabled motion controls.

Kitabayashi hopes that once gamers get their hands on the game, they will once again be gobsmacked.


Popping out of the liver

They are laughing, Kitabayshi and his interpreter.

The interpreter is attempting to translate into Japanese the word "gobsmacked." His Japanese-inflected pronunciation of the word (ghob-smock-uh) amuses Kitabayashi, who has no idea what it means. There is no direct translation and they are tickling each other through negotiating a common meaning. My interruption is forgiven as we tackle the challenge before us. Cultural unity through recognition of absurdity.

The interpreter tells me the Japanese phrase Kitabayashi used. I can neither pronounce it, nor write it. Then he tells me the literal translation, and I laugh.

The Japanese phrase means "popping out of the liver." To Kitabayshi (and for all Japanese people, I can only assume), a good, sharp poke in someone's liver is the surest way to elicit surprise. Much as an electrical shock would in America. We would say we are "shocked." The Japanese would say, "My liver has popped out." The British would say, "My hand is over my mouth," or, in practice, "I am gobsmacked."

This is the art of translation.

Steel Battalion poked people in the liver and Kitabayashi wants to poke them again with the sequel.


A tool for immersion

Capcom's unwillingness to release a new controller alongside a new Steel Battalion game necessarily altered the formula. Whereas Steel Battalion was as much about the controller and the Virtual Tank it drove as anything else, Heavy Armor would have to be something new. It would have to draw the player past the novelty of driving a massive, robotic tank, and into an experience that could stand on its own.

"It's boring if you're just replacing the controller," says Kitabayashi. "Where Steel Battalion was almost a simulator - you got into your VT and the fun of the game was in starting up the engine, starting up the machine, and moving it - in Heavy Armor it's a tool for immersion into the battlefield itself rather than being fixated on the VT."

For Kitabayashi, immersing the player in the battlefield means more than creating jarring camera cuts and loud explosions. It means exposing the player to the realities of war in the guise of play. A concept he calls "un-reality."

"A normal person living in a modern peaceful world would not experience a real war," he says. "So although I am pursuing reality in my games, the whole concept is unreal. It's the sense of bringing something that isn't real into your life, which, in turn, makes it fun. And I think that's what drives me in creating games.

"Until now games were less active because you'd see things happening on screen and interact by pressing buttons ... but in the end you basically triggered these actions and you watched the results happen in front of you. That's the repetition of modern games. But with Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor using Kinect, it's one step further into actual interaction because you've actually got to do these actions. If something happens, if somebody's falling, you've got to grab their hand. You've got to move your body to grab and I think it takes you that much closer to actual experience that I'm pursuing."

I ask Kitabayashi if the ability to create un-reality through a player's direct actions can create the possibility for making a player do things he or she didn't intend. If it's possible, in other words, to abuse this power over what happens when a player acts.

"As creators, the closer the experience we provide gets to the real perception of the world for that player, the more that we will need to think further in terms of what it is that we want to tell them," he says. "So if it's a baseball game, sure, you swing a bat and you hit the ball, but is that it? Or is there more meaning in swinging the bat?

"I think giving meaning to these actions is obviously a responsible thing, and in games like Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor [when] something has happened, we've really got to make sure that we're one hundred percent focused and straightforward in asserting what it is that we mean by making you do this action. Obviously we could be making people do things without them knowing."

I can do anything

Tatsuya Kitabayashi would appear to be an odd fit for his role as the savior of the mech-based war game. He is dressed as a soldier, wearing a heavy, old-style round war helmet. He laughs, saying it is heavy, but that he was encouraged to play dress-up by the game's promotional team. He smiles a lot. He seems happy.

As a producer, his repertoire to date has been with, as he calls them, "pretty games." All-ages titles produced like candy. Most of his work has been with lesser lights in the Mega Man franchise. His last game, released in 2008, wasWe Love Golf.

But Kitabayashi 's dirty little secret is his affinity for darker themes in gaming. He got his start as a programmer for games like Resident Evil Zero, and now he wants to make a game that says as much about the horrors of war as the joy of playing with Kinect.

"Heavy Armor has a lot of gore in the game," he says, "and this isn't because I've been itching to put gore into the games I produce, but it's more just to show the raw reality of the battlefield. There's no point masking reality when it comes to games that primarily have immersion as the main feature. We didn't consciously cut anything out; we just did what would happen. If a shell explodes next to you, somebody will die. And they don't just die nice and clean, they'll be minced into pieces.

"I'm not consciously putting these gory details into the game just because I've been working on 'pretty' games and I've been itching to deal with the gore. But it's a very interesting title and I hope that it's going to do me good. So now, next, I can do anything."

Kitabayashi_555Kitabayashi poses in full mock-soldier regalia at Capcom's Captivate 2012 event, in Rome.

Kitabayashi tells me that Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is a celebration of life. I laugh. He doesn't.

I decide to not query the interpreter on this one. I can tell by his stony stare that he means what he has said. Kitabayashi explains.

"When we decided to do Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, it's obviously a game based on war inside and out. It's primarily a battlefield story, but we were quite adamant that Capcom would not really have to make a war game that is cool, more heroic, or glorious. That's not really our style.

"Your crew member can easily die, and they just die in a flash. You turn right or turn left and they could be dead. And we wanted to say that these abrupt things can happen. They die in pain, they cry for their mother, they say it's painful, and this drama and interaction between people we thought was a very interesting topic.

"All these things are happening, but you get together with whoever are still surviving and live your life. You're not going to go smoothly, and at the end of the day you probably barely finish the game in terms of everyone surviving, but we didn't want to over-glorify war. You could be injured, half-dead, and live on. That's life."