4Gamer interview with Kazumasa Habu on Digimon Survive

(Original title: Digimon Survive interview: We asked Producer Habu about the development process and setting behind the “mysterious story” that depicts the mental growth of both humans and Digimon”)

A translation of this 4Gamer article from July 28, 2022, featuring an interview with producer Kazumasa “Habumon” Habu about the video game Digimon Survive.

Today (July 28, 2022) Bandai Namco Entertainment released Digimon Survive (PS4/Switch1, hereinafter “Survive“).

This is the first Digimon game to be released since the last one five years ago in 2017, Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth: Hacker’s Memory (PS4/PS Vita), and is in a genre that’s unusual for a Digimon game: a visual novel combined with strategy RPG. It has a system that determines both the story’s ending and the Digimon partners’ evolution routes are determined by the player’s accumulated choices, and Digimon are treated as gods in folktales passed down in the local region, and there are many ways it has a different sense from other Digimon works.

Today, we at 4Gamer have conducted an online interview with Kazumasa Habu, the producer for this game, and asked about its development process, its basic system, its worldbuilding concepts, and the future of Digimon games.

A new kind of Digimon game with a deeper storyline through a visual novel

4Gamer: Thank you for your time today. Firstly, please tell us about what led to the development of Survive.

Digimon Survive producer Kazumasa Habu

Kazumasa Habu (hereinafter, Habu): There are mainly two main pillars for Digimon games, the Digimon Story series and the Digimon World series, but as we moved onto the current generation of consoles, their development period was extended. For that reason, we started development on Survive in order to take on a new challenge and have a somewhat smaller project so that we could provide more content on a regular basis.
But we ran into trouble during development and had to remake the game over again, and development ended up considerably delayed from our initial announcement. I truly apologize for keeping the fans waiting for so long.

4Gamer: As you said, this seems to be a new challenge for you. It’s both a visual novel and a strategy RPG, which we’ve never seen before in Digimon games.

Habu: For Cyber Sleuth and Hacker’s Memory, we wanted to “lay out Digimon background lore and depict a new kind of Digimon story through video games”, and for this game, we decided to try doing a visual novel because we wanted to do the same thing but with a different approach.
In the introduction for Cyber Sleuth and Hacker’s Memory, it’s revealed that the “Digimon” hackers use are not actually computer programs, and people are starting to realize that they’re living beings from a different world that appear in this one through computer networks.
By having them change in perception from “a computer program” to “a lifeform from another world”, it’s the game’s way of expressing the history of Digimon itself and how it’s expanded through the anime, and the fans received it very well.

4Gamer: You mentioned that in an earlier interview about Hacker’s Memory.

Habu: I did. For Survive, we were thinking of approaching it as a game focused more on story while also “laying out Digimon background lore and depict a new kind of Digimon story through the games”, so we decided on having it be a visual novel from the very beginning.

4Gamer: This game has a system that determins the protagonists’ Digimon partners’ evolutionary routes and the story ending based on the actions taken and choices made by the protagonist during the course of the visual novel. This seems to also be something that hasn’t been in Digimon games before.

Habu: I was already considering the idea of having this kind of system back when we were working on Hacker’s Memory. In Digimon video games, Digimon evolve by increasing numerical values like stats, but in the anime, Digimon partner’s are depicted as “half of a human, a reflection of themselves, that evolves in response to the human’s heart”. I thought about how to incorporate that into the game experience, and it resulted in the system we made here.
In “Survive”, the “karma” value changes depending on the protagonist’s choices, and his Digimon partner’s evolutionary route branches into three, as does the story. Those three branches are “Moral”, “Harmony”, and “Wrathful”, and they correspond to the three Digimon attributes, “Vaccine”, “Data”, and “Virus”.

4Gamer: Besides the Digimon partner evolutionary lines, what differences are there in each route?

Habu: The biggest one is that each route may make your friends turn against you. For example, the “Wrathful” route is based on the idea of “acting on your emotions”, but you’ll end up fighting with people who can’t work with that.
I think each player will feel differently about them, but in development, we didn’t define any distinction between the three routes as being “happy” or “bad” endings; instead, we regard them as simply being individual story branches. When you play with a New Game+, the “backstage route” will open up, and this route will approach the core of the story further.

4Gamer: How about the strategy RPG? This is also a genre that conventional Digimon games don’t usually do.

Habu: The system itself is a fairly orthodox one, with a turn-based system in which the order of actions is determined by speed. Like with most fundamental strategy RPG systems, each unit differs in how far they can travel or whether they can climb, and damage is calculated based on things like size, unit orientation, and how the monster’s species and the attack’s attribute interact.

4Gamer: How does evolution during battle work?

Habu: Evolution is a command you can activate at any time during battle. When your Digimon evolves, their stats will increase and they can use powerful techniques, but they’ll consume points called “SP” every turn, and once SP reaches 0, they’ll return to Child level. When they’re at Child level, SP recovers little by little every turn, and you can also recover SP when you use items or use a command to speak with friends. SP management is the key to victory.

4Gamer: Wild Digimon appear as free monsters in this game, and you can even befriend them. What’s the difference between them and your Digimon partner?

Habu: Free monsters have slightly lower stats than your Digimon partner. But unlike your partner, who starts from Child level at the start of every battle, their evolutionary levels are fixed, so they can start off a battle as a Perfect or Ultimate from the very outset. You can also evolve them using “evolution items” that you can obtain as rewards for exploration and battle.
Depending on which branch of the story you’re on, your friends’ Digimon may all lean too much towards one type, so free monsters are also there to make up for the difference. That way, you can decide on evolutionary lines without worrying.

A true-to-life depiction of the bonds between humans and Digimon

4Gamer: Now, we’d like to ask you for more details about Survive‘s world. This game gives off an atmosphere as a Japanese-style tale of mysterious phenomena, in that Digimon are passed down as regional folktales as “Kemonogami”, and cybernetic stylistic depictions are as absent as they could be, so it has a very different atmosphere from previous Digimon games. Was this a deliberate focus?

Habu: The idea of giving it a different atmosphere from previous works was definitely a deliberate decision, but it’s fundamentally built upon concepts that have already been in the Digimon franchise before now.

4Gamer: In what way?

Habu: For example, the idea of Digimon being worshipped as “Kemonogami” came from hearing ideas from Hiroyuki Kakudou-san, who was the series director for Digimon Adventure.
Earlier, when I’d had an opportunity to speak with Kakudou-san, I asked him “what do you think Digimon are in the first place?” He told me “Digimon are spiritual presences that have been close to humans since ancient times, and depending on the era, they’ve appeared as youkai2 or shikigami3. But because they can be recognized via modern digital gadgets, they’re now called Digimon.”

4Gamer: There was a livestream in 2018 (relevant link) that covered this topic.

Habu: That’s right. Each medium has a different take on Digimon, and in the original LCD toys, which is where Digimon all started, they were computer viruses that evolved with AI, and hackers were using them in the Digital World of the network.
But the anime expanded its world, depicting partnerships between human and Digimon based on the idea that Digimon are not regarded simply as computer viruses, but rather as effectively life forms in another world.

4Gamer: Digimon Adventure certainly had many approaches to Digimon lore that differed from the original LCD toys.

Habu: Digital technology has become a much more common thing since 1997 when the original LCD toys were released, so as we’ve gained more knowledge, digital technology alone isn’t enough to justify the existence of Digimon.
So on that line of thought, I felt that Kakudou-san’s concept of treating Digimon as spiritual beings was a convincing way to explain how Digimon can exist. Because they’re spiritual beings, they were the kids’ one and only partners in Digimon Adventure, and since they were a part of their own being, they changed forms in response to their hearts.

4Gamer: I see.

Habu: Here in Survive, we’re providing a reinterpretation of the concept that “Digimon are spiritual presences that have been close to humans since ancient times” that originated from Digimon Adventure.
For this game, they’ll be initially regarded as “Kemonogami”, but one of the highlights of the game will be observing how they’re recognized by the world as the game progresses, and what kind of changes will occur in how the humans recognize and relate to them.

4Gamer: The parts about “being taken to another world while at extracurricular camp” and “being centered around eight children” are things it shares in common with Digimon Adventure. Was this part intentional?

Habu: Yes. As I mentioned earlier, Survive takes a lot of inspiration from Digimon Adventure, so it has many things in common with its introductory setup.
But I consider Digimon Adventure to be the story of chosen heroes. In Digimon Adventure, the kids who were sent to the other world mature as “Chosen Children” while still being relatively well-adjusted, but in Survive, we’re establishing a contrast by depicting what happens when more true-to-life children are sent to another world.

4Gamer: You’ve said that some of the group might initially deny or hurt their own Digimon partner.

Habu: When kids are in an environment of a dangerous alternate world where monsters run rampant, I think everyone’s individual natures and ego will naturally show themselves. Each person treats their own partner differently, and some of them can’t accept themselves and therefore hurt their partner, who can be said to also be themself.
And their mental development also impacts their Digimon’s evolutions, and some might go in a bad direction, some will go in a proper direction, and some may even lose their lives. That’s the kind of human drama this story depicts.

4Gamer: Both of them involve the same circumstances of being sent to a different world, but this time, it’s a darker story than the one shown in Digimon Adventure.

Habu: That’s right. Even if they’re both about being stranded, if Digimon Adventure is Two Years’ Vacation4, Survive may be more like Lord of the Flies. It’s a story with darker elements to it, so whether people like it or not will probably be a little more dependent on personal taste than usual.

4Gamer: How about the lineup of characters and Digimon? The protagonist is wearing goggles and his partner is Agumon, which feels very orthodox.

Habu: The protagonist’s partner is Agumon because it’s a Digimon that a wide range of fans will easily accept. In our player survey, when we asked “which Digimon would you want as a partner?”, about 60% of our respondents answered that they wanted Agumon. Since you can’t change your partner in this game, I chose Agumon as the protagonist’s partner since it’s the most popular one.

4Gamer: The protagonist is orthodox, but the Digimon partners of his companions don’t seem to be only made up of mainstream popular ones.

Habu: As for the others, we tried to avoid picking Digimon that were already Digimon partners in the anime. Whenever we make a new Digimon game, one thing I always want to do is to “spotlight Digimon that haven’t been very prominent before now”. I think one appeal of video games is that we can depict dramatic individual stories for each Digimon and bring out the charm of their characters.

4Gamer: You’ve consistently been mentioning this since Hacker’s Memory.

Habu: Also, this time, we’re portraying Digimon from a folkloristic perspective, so we didn’t try to pick ones that feel “cyber” or look particularly heroic. We picked dogs, birds, insects, and Digimon with other motifs that wouldn’t feel out of place in a natural world.

4Gamer: How did you decide on the human and Digimon partner pairings?

Habu: For this part, we would first decide on the human character’s background, then pick a Digimon that fits them. This game has a basic concept that “the human mind influences the Digimon”, so we decided on the partners and their evolution lines based on how the characters will be behaving in the story and what emotional directions they’ll be taking.

4Gamer: So we’ll also be seeing the story of your companions’ partners evolving in relation to how they mature.

Habu: Right. For instance, Saki Kimishima is the kind of kid who doesn’t hesitate to say whatever she wants to say. Because of that, she sometimes ends up drawing ire from those around her, but she has the kind of personality where she does what she wants without worrying too much about that.
So if she’s like that, if her partner Floramon evolves one stage, what will it be…? It might be more fun if you try to predict the next evolution for each of them based on each character’s personality and mental growth.

4Gamer: Will you unlock evolutions for your companions’ Digimon as you naturally progress through the game?

Habu: They’ll unlock as you progress through the game, but also when you bond with each character by using your free actions in the game. On your first playthrough, you won’t be able to get all of the characters to reach Ultimate, but in multiple playthroughs, you can carry over the evolutions you’ve unlocked, and eventually everyone will be able ot reach Ultimate.
Also, since some of your companions’ Digimon will turn against you in certain routes, they’ll have different evolutionary branches based on when they’re your ally versus when they’re your enemy.

4Gamer: Incidentally, you haven’t revealed any completely new Digimon for this game, so are there any plans to have one?

Habu: As far as new Digimon go…I can’t give you a clear answer. I hope you can play through the story and see.

More Digimon games are currently in development. New projects of various sizes

4Gamer: Please tell us about the outlook for Digimon games in the future. You said in the past that the Digimon Story series will be getting another game, but is that still true?

Habu: Because Survive‘s development was delayed, we had some other projects that were delayed as well. As I said earlier, Digimon games as an IP normally are considered to have two pillars, the Digimon Story series and the Digimon World series, and Survive was a small-scale project that was intended to fill the gap between both series.
But due to issues with development, we basically had to almost completely remake the game from scratch, which led to a very huge delay. As a result, I had to focus all of my attention on it, which impacted our other projects.

4Gamer: Does that mean it’ll take more time for the next game to come out?

Habu: We’ve already added a new producer to our team and we already have a base system set up, so we expect to be announcing some new things from 2023 to 2025. We’re currently taking multiple projects into consideration, such as big ones like the Digimon Story series, to smaller ones like ports, to somewhat unusual side story-like games like Survive.

4Gamer: We’re looking forward to that. Incidentally, just out of curiosity, is there any particular theme that you would personally like to try?

Habu: Hmm…I don’t know if this can actually happen, but I’d like to try having someone in their thirties, from the same age group as Digimon fans, be a protagonist. If a Digimon appeared in front of a protagonist who’s already a full-fledged member of society, I think it’d be interesting to have that kind of story where the fans could easily project themselves onto that person and see how their life changes around them.

4Gamer: That definitely would be interesting to see (laughs). That feels like the kind of Digimon story we haven’t had before.

Habu: I think Digimon is a very good subject to consider different science fiction settings with. Of course, it’s a given that we need to develop orthodox games too, but I also want to use that as a firm base to start taking on other different challenges in order to expand the possibilities of its universe, so I hope you can keep an eye on future developments.

4Gamer: We have high expectations for future Digimon works. Thank you for your time today.

Translator's notes
  1. The PC and Xbox One versions of Survive were not released for the Japanese market. []
  2. Youkai = A type of spirit in Japanese folklore. []
  3. Shikigami = According to Japanese folklore, a spiritual being that’s usually summoned by a master. []
  4. Two Years’ Vacation = A French novel (Deux ans de vacances) by Jules Verne, a “survival story” about a group of young boys stranded on a deserted island. The novel has quite a bit of cultural clout in Japan, and has been cited multiple times by Adventure staff as being a major basis for its “stranded in another world” premise. []

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