Remi Draincourt, GM and R&D engineer at Square Enix Japan’s advanced technology division

Virtual reality and comic books are enjoying a very close relationship as companies such as Madefire bring the two together through its app and Oculus publishing a Marvel VR game. With the massive success of superhero-themed movies, it makes sense that fans will want to further immerse themselves into these fantastic worlds. But Square Enix Japan is taking a decidedly unique approach to VR with Project Hikari, which is designed to promote the company’s extensive library of Japanese manga titles worldwide.

With the massive success of superhero-themed movies, it makes sense that fans will want to further immerse themselves into these fantastic worlds. But Square Enix Japan is taking a decidedly unique approach to VR with Project Hikari, which is designed to promote the company’s extensive library of Japanese manga titles worldwide.

Hikari means “light” in Japanese, and the new experience is a synergy between two of Square Enix Japan’s different brands. Much of the world knows Square Enix as a video game publisher that’s behind the Final Fantasy and Tomb Raider franchises among others. However, the company also operates arcades and publishes manga books in Japan. With Project Hikari, users take part in a relatively passive experience, where the comic book panels are animated using video game graphics—complete with voice acting and music—and users are free to view the scenes from different angles.

Speaking with AListDaily, Remi Draincourt, general manager and research and development engineer at Square Enix Japan’s advanced technology division, explained that the project began almost two years ago. The platform, which is expected to launch in the early half of 2018, made its official debut at the New York Comic Con with the manga title Tales of the Wedding Rings, a romantic comedy about a young couple who must brave a fantasy world of demons and monsters before they can be married.

“What we’re trying to do is take the stories and visuals of manga, with its distinctive black and white look, and see how we can bring that into VR,” said Draincourt, explaining why Square Enix Japan chose to use VR to promote its manga titles instead of creating a straightforward game.

“We want users to actually enter the world of manga,” he continued. “With the paper format, users are free to flip through pages and looking at a traditional screen would be kind of the same experience. We could add some animation, maybe some AI, but the format would still be 2D. With VR, we can have true 3D. When you stand up, lean to the side or otherwise move, you can see details that wouldn’t be present on a manga page.”

However, there are still a lot of unanswered questions at this stage. Although Draincourt made it clear that the plan was to launch Project Hikari in 2018, he didn’t know what form that would take. Although there will be three or four episodes of Tales of the Wedding Ring to start, the development team is still deciding on whether it will be a standalone app or as part of a larger Hikari platform alongside other titles. Additionally, the team is still considering monetization options, what other titles to bring on board and whether it will create all original VR content for Hikari.

“Everything is on the table,” Draincourt explained. “It’s a new project, and the VR market isn’t that big yet, so the first goal for us is to see what we can do with existing Square Enix IPs. But we can extend that to all the IPs, including different products that aren’t necessarily Square Enix. Personally, I’d love to do a European, French-style comic book, or one day have an American superhero story with colors.”

Although Project Hikari is starting with episodic manga-inspired content, Draincourt said that there was room to expand the platform beyond comic books.

“Depending on the IP or client, we could also be talking about B2B,” he said, “with shorter and more intense experiences like VR rides, for example.”

Draincourt said that ideally, the team wants Hikari to be a new VR platform with different experiences and books slotted into it. As for why Tales of the Wedding Rings was chosen as the debut title, he said, “We had to start somewhere, and the creators of this IP were very open to the idea of VR and high-end technology. For us, it was the easiest way to start. VR isn’t that big of a market—it’s a high-risk area. So, we started with a creator that was willing to go with it.”

He also added Project Hikari is featuring manga instead of a Western IP such as Tomb Raider because it wanted to promote the platform using a distinctly Japanese-style property, considering that the publisher is Square Enix Japan. However, more action-oriented Western properties certainly weren’t off the table.

“There aren’t that many people who own VR devices and are into manga,” Draincourt admitted, “but we believe that this could be a new chance to grow manga. We released a prototype of the project at the Tokyo Game Show, and what was interesting to see was that a lot of non-gamers really liked our approach. In spite of it being VR, it is slow paced and very passive. You don’t have to be knowledgeable about game controls. So, it has a wider appeal than we originally thought.”

Tales of the Wedding Rings manga cover

The Tales of the Wedding Rings demo was shown at New York Comic Con using Oculus Rift headsets, but Draincourt said that it also works for the HTC Vive with a PlayStation VR version currently in development. He also said that Square Enix was interested in bringing the experience to mobile VR platforms like the Samsung Gear VR at some point, but the graphics—despite being in black and white—are quite sophisticated and will need to be optimized for mobile devices.

Additionally, the Project Hikari team is aiming for deeper interaction with the launch product. Draincourt explained that the Comic Con version had its interactive features stripped out to create a consistently timed experience to service people who were waiting on a line.

“Looking at the manga [in VR] won’t be playing a game, but they’ll be able to control the timeline by flipping the pages or staying on a specific frame longer,” said Draincourt. “That interaction is going to be in our product. We want users to be able to freely navigate and control the time. Deeper interaction like shooting or grabbing objects is also something we’re looking into, but this is a romantic comedy, so we don’t think it’s necessary for this type of storytelling. But we might include more interactive components for an action or horror type of manga.”

For the time being, it looks like a stripped-down version of the platform will be the main way people will first experience Project Hikari.

“We face the same problem as other VR titles, which is that it is hard to convey the experience on a screen or paper,” Draincourt said. “We need users to actually experience the game to understand how it feels. So, we’re going to look into more interactive ways for users to experience it. Maybe more demos or events, where the public can put the helmet on and try it.

“It’s a new experience for us and it’s quite experimental—taking the content from a 2D medium into VR. So, I hope the press and the public is going to enjoy it.”