Profile: Hidetaka Miyazaki

How the man behind Dark Souls rose to prominence – and why his next project might be his best yet

Dark Souls’ pendant says as much about Hidetaka Miyazaki himself as his unique approach to game design. As players of From Software’s classic will know, whenever you start a new game in Dark Souls you’re invited to choose from a selection of gifts to take with you on your journey. Each item has some kind of purpose, including a pair of binoculars that allows to scope out distant threats, to a divine blessing that restores HP and clears negative status effects, as well as a master key that can unlock any door.

Dark Souls 2 was directed by Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura, with Miyazaki in a supervisory role.

Then there’s the pendant. “Trinket,” its in-game description reads. “No effect, but fond memories comfort travelers.” Fans debated its significance in the weeks and months after the game’s release, curious as to its true meaning or worth – partly after Miyazaki, in an interview with Famitsu magazine, claimed that his choice would be the pendant. Over a year passed, before he admitted it was a double bluff; that the description was entirely honest. “No effect” really did mean no effect, but Miyazaki knew that fans would assume misdirection, and would attempt to discover a secret that never really existed.

Such a playful touch is typical of the output of a designer whose success saw him appointed to the position of president of From Software in May of this year. Miyazaki has been at From for around a decade, starting out as a planner on 2005’s Armored Core: Last Raven, before going on to direct Armored Core 4, released a year later, and 2008 follow-up Armored Core: For Answer. The mech shooter series is a cult favourite in Japan, but has been criticised in the west for its steep learning curve, with oblique systems that players are forced to learn through experimentation – ironically, the very same design tenets that his next game would be roundly praised for. It was 2009’s Demon's Souls with which Miyazaki started to attract the attention of a wider audience – and the world’s critics. Released only in eastern territories, it began to generate strong word-of-mouth appeal among importers of the Asian version. The buzz steadily grew until it could no longer be ignored: Atlus saw its potential, and gained publishing rights for the North American market – after the game had been passed on by Sony, which had published the game in Japan. Eight months later it was a hit across the US, and a further eight months on it was finally released in Europe, courtesy of Namco Bandai, on each occasion earning wild critical praise and steadily growing its audience of converts.

Miyazaki was genuinely surprised by the reaction. “We never thought that we would receive so many awards,” he told Eurogamer in an interview. “We are incredibly happy and deeply grateful for all the support we have received.” And yet it shouldn’t be surprised that Miyazaki’s back-to-basics approach should win the favour of so many. Its lineage can be traced back to From Software’s own King’s Field games, a similarly grim, tough-edged action-RPG series conceived on the original PlayStation. Both games shares a similarly sharp difficulty gradient – but more significantly, both games have a deep respect for their players, trusting them to figure out their intricacies, their idiosyncrasies.

“The deliberate ambiguities of Demon’s Souls were inspired by Miyazaki’s experiences with western literature.”

And it’s no shock that it should enjoy such success overseas, particularly given its western sensibilities and aesthetic, inspired by the fantasy novels Miyazaki read as a youngster. Indeed, the deliberate ambiguities of Demon’s Souls were directly inspired by his experiences with western literature; Miyazaki wanted to convey the same sense of awestruck incomprehension he had felt while reading these books. Just as much of these stories remained a mystery to the young Miyazaki, so too did the elaborate systems of Demon’s Souls. Those gaps are intentional; the game wants you to fill them.

There’s a strong European influence to both Demon’s Souls and spiritual successor Dark Souls, both games similarly inspired by Miyazaki’s love of western myths and legends. He cites the likes of King Arthur, Beowulf and the Nibelungen as key influences, because “they show the good and evil in the human psyche…you're made to breathe the unvarnished stench of humanity.” It’s an idea that ties into the bleak worlds of the games, of course, but also features strongly in their multiplayer components, where other online players can become friend or foe, helping or hindering in combat, or by leaving messages to assist or mislead. Those who’ve been invaded by a higher-level player will certainly have experienced that unvarnished stench for themselves.

Bloodborne leans a little more towards Gothic horror than the Souls games. It’s darker, bloodier, more violent.

The success of Dark Souls in particular, as well as its follow-up, which Miyazaki supervised, were undoubtedly a key factor in his rise through the company ranks. He’s still a designer first and foremost, however, currently busy working on Bloodborne, which if anything looks even darker and more harrowing than the Souls games. Still, one wonders if recent allusions to a more accessible games are borne out of commercial concerns. Making games for eighth-generation hardware isn’t cheap, after all, and so producer Masaaki Yamagiwa’s suggestion that “we do want more people to share in this experience” left some players uneasy that their new favourite game-maker was going soft on them.

And yet people should know by now to trust Miyazaki, because it’s evident from early time with Bloodborne that decreasing the game’s difficulty simply isn’t an option. Instead, it’s about streamlining processes that should allow players to tackle its combat at a different pace to the Souls games. Health-replenishing items can be accessed immediately via the DualShock 4’s triangle button, which means players can save the rest for an increased range of offensive options. Meanwhile, a new health recovery mechanic incentivises offensive play: each blow received can be refilled by a precision counter-attack. Enemies will still have weaknesses which must be teased out; players will still be encouraged to experiment and exploit. The only difference is that you won’t be backing off from danger, but instead forced onto the front foot. Bloodborne is classic Miyazaki: bleak and dark, but wonderfully, deeply human. It’s further evidence of a designer operating at the peak of his powers, and as a PlayStation 4 exclusive, it’s a real coup for Sony. The publisher that passed on Demon’s Souls has belatedly recognised Hidetaka Miyazaki’s genius: by early 2015, it might just be time for the rest of the gaming world to follow suit.

“Bloodborne is classic Miyazaki: bleak and dark, but wonderfully, deeply human.”

Dark Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki revealed that he won't be directly involved in the production of Dark Souls 2. We knew he'd handed of the directing reins to Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura, and that Miyazaki would be hanging around in a supervisor position, but it was unclear what exactly that entailed. In a recent interview with Edge, Miyazaki clarified that he would hardly be involved in the game's development at all. "I will not be involved in the actual development of Dark Souls 2," he said. "I want to clarify that I will be a supervisor, not the actual director or producer." Miyazaki's resignation as series director was "a company decision," according to Namco Bandai producer Takeshi Miyazoe. "Miyazaki worked on Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, but for the IP to evolve and provide a new experience within the Dark Souls world the new wind from directors Shibuya and Tanimura is key to providing players with [a] brand new Dark Souls experience. In order to maintain the expectations and satisfaction and the rewards that players experience, this was the right time to bring in the new characteristics and taste[s of the directors] for this series to continue on evolving."