One thing you'll quickly learn upon spending time around Japanese game developers is that they almost universally wear an common uniform at press events: Graphic tee, blazer, jeans. Yet within this template, they manage to get across a great deal of individual expression. Older, more established developers tend to go with a primarily black palette, while younger, more "maverick" devs add quirky or flamboyant touches. Goichi Suda likes to pair his outfits with obscenely expensive jeans and shoes, while Square Enix's Naoki Yoshida (the man chosen to rescue Final Fantasy XIV from itself) favors a huge, colorful silk scarf with his. In short, you can tell a lot about a Japanese game designer's personality by how he wears his industry-standard uniform.
So when I met Masayuki Doi, the art director for Shin Megami Tensei IV, I knew he'd be interesting at a glance. His powder-blue blazer featured broad peak lapels, but rather than looking stuffy or dated it was just rumpled and slim-fitting enough to look rakishly casual. Beneath it, he wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a black-and-white silkscreened photo of a beautiful woman whose unbuttoned blouse revealed her breasts -- definitely a first in all the years I've been interviewing people who make video games. That shirt may have been an unfortunate choice in light of all the recent discussion here in America surrounding the games industry's hostility and contempt toward women, but nevertheless it didn't come off as trashy; the formal lighting and staging of the image gave an impression of something plucked from an art gallery.
Besides, I figure designing SMT's sometimes grotesque, sometimes erotic (and sometimes both) characters and demons probably requires a person to shrug their shoulders at decorum. After all, Doi's work follows in the footsteps of Kazuma Kaneko, whose demon designs include everything from Todomeki, a long-haired woman baring most of her body to reveal hundreds of sinister eyes, to traditional nude succubi, to the infamous Mara.
As it turns out, Doi knows fashion quite well, having studied it before joining on to draw various demonic obscenities. "I’m an avid gamer," he told me. "One of my favorite companies was Atlus. Around when I joined Atlus, they were making Persona 2. I thought that the best way to form my identity as an artist, the best way to express myself, would be to try to join Atlus and be involved in one of their games. When I joined up, it seemed like a match made in heaven.
"I actually was studying in school for fashion design. I was this close to going that way for a career. But my heart wasn’t really in it. My long-time dream was always to work in the video game industry. I thought I might as well send an application to Atlus anyway, and they somehow accepted me. Ever since then, this is what I’ve done."
When I first tried out the English version of SMT4 a few months ago, I was struck by the caste system stratifying the game's society. Rather than "plebians," "proletarians," or "bourgeois," the world is divided into the Luxurors and the Casualries, names which seem to denote taste in clothing more than it does wealth. Perhaps that's no coincidence, as Doi has taken a lead role not only in designing the game's characters and new demons, but also its expansive array of clothing. SMT4 allows players to customize their protagonist with gear whose appearance is reflected on their in-game avatar.
"Of course, as the character designer, I’ve created all the main character designs," he said. "But on top of that, I’ve worked on about half of all the costumes in the game. I’ve always had the protagonist’s design in mind as I’ve designed all this equipment. I think there’s a coherence between the character himself and the costume that he wears."
While the protagonist can adopt any appearance the player likes, the default art for the hero actually places him in the same uniform as his peers. Again, Doi's fashion school sensibilities have helped distinguish the lead and support characters despite their common attire.
Pointing to a poster of the main cast, Doi said, "The three side characters here, they’re all samurai, the same as the player. As such, they do all have to wear the same uniform. But each individual character has their own position, their personality, and their role in the game that I had to think about and find a way to express visually. That’s how I determined the style for each one.
"Here are a couple of examples. The protagonist wears a white scarf on his neck. The protagonist is the avatar, the double of the player himself, and as such, they pretty much determine the course of the story. One player may decide to play the game as a totally evil guy, or try to stay along the middle path. That’s why I picked white – having no color, it tells you that the player can dye it with their own personal color.
"That’s as opposed to Jonathan, who is the embodiment of Law in the game. We wanted to give him a sense of purity or light. That’s why his scarf is yellow. There are other things like that, different qualities that are signified by the color a character wears. I took all those into account when I was designing each character."
Being someone who intended to study art but ended up writing, I can certainly appreciate how plans go awry; video games spoil even the best-laid plans. Nevertheless, it seems Doi has found an ideal niche for his training and design sensibilities -- one that even holds true to the work that's come before him.
"Kazuma Kaneko -- who’s done the major demon designs at Atlus for years -- his approach to design is not about just replicating these demonic creatures, but more about looking at their origins in mythology and seeing how he can modernize those beings into something that fits in our real world," he said. "He uses a lot of modern fashion design techniques to shape those designs. It’s a mix of both the new and the old. That’s something I felt very close to.
"It may seem like fashion design and demon design are completely opposite or different, but the way Atlus does things, they’re actually very close to each other."