Interviews

Ascent and Survival: A chat with the developers of Suda51’s Let It Die

During this year’s E3, I was lucky enough to get some face time with the lead creators behind the next upcoming title from Grasshopper Manufacture Inc., including Goichi Suda (aka Suda51).

Having spent some time with the early demo of the game on the expo floor, and even managing to play it to completion, I can say Let It Die looked like it was going to deliver exactly what it was advertising- a dark and challenging dungeon crawler with a punk twist.

My journey leading to this conclusion, however, came in two parts.

In the mouth of madness
I had some time before the interview was scheduled, and happened upon the demo booth quite by accident while shambling about floor and in between other attendees. After observing the game for a little while, I joined the press line to spend some time with it.

The Let It Die demo itself was relatively straightforward.

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I honestly can’t decide if heading into battle in just my briefs is a sign of my hardcoreness, or a psychotic break.

My character began his journey at the mouth the dungeon we’re about to explore, which in this case also happens to be a dilapidated amusement park festering with murderous fellow survivors.

A quick search around the immediate area reveals a few pieces of starting gear to armor and arm myself against the threats to come. Now dressed in a waist-length jacket,bikini briefs, and holding a pair of chipped and bloodied baseball bats, I’m not feeling (or looking) particularly ready to face down whatever dangers lie ahead, but trust I have the skills to make up the difference.  A few paces further inside and my bravado is put to the test as I’m immediately set upon by what looks like other survivalists seeking to pillage my corpse.

The battle that follows is moderately challenging but highly functional. I find myself quickly getting in sync with the controls and feeling confident I can make my character do what I need them to do- when I need them to do it. Unlike the majority of other survival-adventure games, where part of the current trend is making it so controlling your avatar is just as much part of the challenge as overcoming the threats you’ll face, Let It Die feels light and snappy.

After a few evasive rolls, side-steps, and baseball bat bludgeons, I am the last man standing.Victorious, I quickly set to the task of looting the bodies of those who intended to do the same to me.

As I continue onward, my additional encounters reward me with a new jacket, military slacks, a multi-bladed scythe, and other goodies. The wake of my unbroken trail of success has elevated me from feeling like a disoriented vagabond to a psychotic (yet effectual) champion of this ruined world.

However, there’s one thing that is bugging me, almost distractedly so.

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This yet unnamed figure who guides us through our journey is far from as menacing as you’d expect. Despite his ghastly visage, his narrative visits are actually quite pleasant. So far…

The entire time I am wandering through the bloodstained and bizarrely decorated pathways of the amusement park, I am being snarkely cheered on by… I don’t know who or what it is.

It looks like a skellington wearing a reaper’s cloak, so the obvious assumption would be the grim reaper, of course. But, the spiral-painted shades it’s wearing,  skateboard it’s riding, and the cheerful way it spouts the Japanese honorific “senpai” (loosely translated as ‘my superior’) whenever it refers to me strongly indicates otherwise- right?

When I ask the exhibitor at the games terminal what this character is all about they vaguely reply to me that it’s something to be revealed when the game actually comes out, and for now just to consider it “my guide.”

It’s not much of an answer, but no less than I was expecting, and after shooting down my final opponent with a modified nail gun I proceed to the level-boss’s chamber.

The location is underground, beneath what had before looked like a merry-go-round. It’s a large, circular, room with a pair of partitions breaking it into three or four different areas. On either end and across from one another there are escalators leading down-and-in and up-and-out.  The white,tiled, decor give me the impression it might be a bathroom, but I don’t examine it closely enough to decided for sure.  

It is dirty looking though, and covered in a crusted brown grime. But considering everything I’ve  seen so far it may also be the cleanest location I’ve encountered yet. If this was a bathroom, and the contrast is intentional, it doesn’t lack for irony.

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Covered in either manikins or corpses, the boss I faced in the Let It Die demo was by far the most otherworldly encounter that I had.

It’s about at this time that the boss emerges, and in the fight that follows much of my touted confidence is slapped into shambles.  

The level boss is the largest creature I’ve encountered yet, and I say creature with some reservation because up until this point the enemies I’ve been facing definitely seemed like men, albeit malformed and crazed ones.

Whatever it really is, the beast is wearing bodies like a type of macabre armor, broken torsos and severed limbs covering every inch of it’s bulk. It’s weapons are of an identical nature-corpses- and it lunges at me with shocking speed and accuracy swings them like clubs.

The awkward shape of the room makes the fight claustrophobic and cumbersome, and it takes twice as much effort to clear the monster’s charges and attacks as compared to minions that guarded him. This, in addition to it’s predictably massive heath bar, makes the fight a task of attrition.

Eventually the creature’s weakness is revealed, and with a few well timed swipes of my scythe and a bunch of patience he falls-and explodes. A lot.

I’m not normally the kind of guy who finds humor in the grotesque, depending on the context of course. But when I say that this boss explodes, I mean like a watermelon packed with strawberry pie filling and wrapped in corned beef. Blood and gore oozes all over the floor, splatters the walls, and volcanoes from the boss’ remains for a good five or ten seconds after the fight has already concluded.   

I find a chuckle has escaped my lips even before I’ve accepted the fact I think the scene’s hilarious.

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My strange, skeletal, associate appears on my screen cheering “omedetou” [congratulations], and I ascend the jammed escalator leading to my escape, and the demo’s completion.

From what time I had with it, Let it Die was an entertaining game. It was fun, a bit challenging when it needed to be, and played really well. But perhaps most importantly, it was intuitive.

When you are surrounded by all manner of games you can imagine, along with the unhampered spectacle that is E3, some of the best memories you wind up having are with the games you just felt immediate connection with. Let It Die was definitely amongst that number for me, and I left the terminal truly curious what the final product would be like.

More than anything else though, I had questions. So shortly after my time with the game itself I was off to meet minds behind it.

Three kings

No two of my interviews during E3 were alike, so it didn’t take long for me stop having expectations and just go with the flow. However, the one thing they all did have in common was that they felt relaxed and surprisingly comfortable, and my meeting with Grasshopper manufacture inc was no exception.

I entered the meeting room to the smiling faces of Hideyuki Shin (Creative Director), Kazuki Morishita (President and CEO of GungHo Online Entertainment), and the man himself, Goichi Suda (aka Suda51 and CEO of Grasshopper Manufacture). The air is thick with the scent of a recently finished lunch and the Grasshopper Manufacture reps are fast to apologize for the odor. I make a joke about how there’s nothing to apologize for, other than perhaps taunting my mostly empty stomach, and after a quick English-to-Japanese translation for a portion of the room we all share a friendly laugh. As I make my way across the room, Shin-san, Morishita-san and Suda-san all take a moment to remark on my Gundam 0079 t-shirt.

I only have about twenty-five minutes to ask my questions, so I quickly sit down and begin arranging my tablet and keyboard to start taking my notes. As I do, I start off by asking about what inspired Let It Die, and what informs its setting?

I didn’t direct the question to anyone in particular, but all heads to turn to Suda51. After a pause, he responds to me with a question of his own, inquiring whether I meant the gameplay or the story?

I suggest we begin with the story.

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Goichi Suda (aka Suda51) CEO of Grasshopper Manufacture inc.

Suda51: The story is set in a post-apocalyptic world, within Tokyo, in the year 2027. So it’s starting seven years after the Tokyo Olympics which are scheduled to be held there.

At this point the translator takes a moment and asks if I’m familiar with the anime Akira, to which I respond with a wry smile and give the front of my shirt a tug.

“Dude…” I tease with a chuckle. The room has another round of laughter and the translator smiles, commenting on how easy this is going to be.

Suda51: So this is taking place in a post Akira-like world. But the biggest inspiration is taken from manga, most notably Go Nagai’s Violence Jack.

I nod my head in understanding, once again citing my personal familiarity with the reference. In what I am sure was an unintentional act of flattery Suda-san sighs out an audible ‘wow’ in response.

My next question is in regards to creating our own protagonist and what exactly is this situation that we’re getting involved in?

Akira_Boom

The cyber-punk anime classic Akira both opens and closes with city-leveling explosions created by supernatural means, and is one of the two noted inspirations cited by Suda51 when imagining Let It Die.

Suda51: This is a roguelike, hack’n slash action game- where you start off in your underwear…. *laughter* But the further inspiration comes from a late night Japanese game show, which focuses on survival, which I guess would be similar to the U.S. series SurvivorSo watching that TV show inspired me to create a survival video game. Later, while talking to Shin-san, we realized that the kind of character we were imaging would have the visual look of a mountain climber. Someone who would be climbing mount Everest, for example. We then realized, while talking about the subject of mountain climbing, that the concept of mountain climbing is somewhat rogue-like. In the game, everything you get and use you have to find around you in the city. In comparison to a mountain, a climber has nothing. The mountain is your obstacle and your tool.

ViolenceJack

One of the other inspirations for Suda51’s concept for Let It Die was the hyper-violent, post-apocalyptic manga and anime series Violence Jack.

Me: The image we have of the character with the skateboard and the scythe, what is he, or she, and what do they represent?

Suda51: Yeah, he’s a character that guy… This character is kind of your navigator. He’s who supposed to lead you and guide you… And did you notice how he keeps calling you ‘sempai’? Are you familiar with the concept?

I nod in understanding.

Suda51: So yeah, he seems like he’s trying to help you and guide you. But, he’s also kind of annoying as well.

I give Suda-san an urging look to tell me more, but the small smile he responds to me with lets me know that’s likely all I am going to get for now.

Next I turn my attention to Shin-san, and ask about the level design and what inspired its creation.

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Hideyuki Shin- Creative Director at Grasshopper Manufacture.

Shin-san: So the key phrase of this game is survival. So since you are supposed to be climbing this tower, the core game loop is that you are supposed to ascending and descending. Go up as far as you can, then come back down, etcetera. In this build we are focusing only on the action part, but when the full build comes out we are expanding this world to something larger. You will have a base area to recuperate and look over what you have found and get ready for your next climb.

Me: So what is this larger image of the game?

Shin-san: In the build you just played you were only in this small part, but the main focus of this game is that you are trying to climb this tower which has sort of just appeared in the middle of Tokyo out of nowhere. So what you are trying to do is get up it while also trying to survive. But as you ascend it you will find caves, open spaces, and a lot of different places.

Me: So we have this goal of survival. Do we have any other, different, larger types of objectives? Are we trying to escape, or make a safer place within this area? Or will the whole game tell the tale of us just trying to survive this particular point in the event?

At this moment Shin-san looks to Suda-san for a description.

Suda51: So the point is that you are trying to get to the top of this tower. And your- I guess you might call him your kohai (a Japanese term for your junior, or a protege) keeps egging you on. He’s saying things like ‘hey, if you go to this place you’ll find something cool’, and we’re following his advice because we really don’t know what else to do.

At this point, I’m running out of time, and decide to broaden the scope of my questions a little bit. I ask about what each of these men has gotten from the project and what they are most proud of in it so far.

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Kazuki Morishita- President & CEO of GungHo Online Entertainment.

Morshita-san: There will be a sort of, disconnect, the game will make you feel at a certain point. It will take your character down an emotional roller coaster of sorts. Things will seems to make even less sense… 

Shin-San: When you were playing the demo, did you find a strange piece of paper with a design on it?

Me: Yes, I did.

Shin-san: In the final build you can take that back to your hideout, and there you can use it to build… stuff.   

Me: Stuff?

Shin-san throws up his palms with a shrug and we all share another laugh.

Morishita-san: We all spend a lot of evenings, late nights, and even some early mornings talking about all of these things, and don’t leave until we decide what want to do. We are all very invested in what we’re putting together. We really wish we could show you more of what we’ve done so far to more accurately answer your questions. But it’s not ready to be shared yet. We’ll all just need to wait until the final build is available.

The three men nod almost in unison after Morishita-san shares his sentiment about Grasshopper Manufacturer’s and GunHo Online Entertainment’s  unified approach to tackling this project, and there is palpable sense of pride that fills the room.   

Out of time, I ask if there anything anyone wants to add.

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This concept art for Let It Die has already been compared to some depictions of the legendary Tower of Babel. If these similarities are more than just aesthetic, Let It Die may have riveting narrative aspects.

Shin-san: Since the beginning, I think we were all focused on 60 fps. Historically, Grasshopper action games have run at 30 fps, so that was something we really wanted to accomplish.

Suda51: We really wanted to showcase the blood spills.

As I am typing, Suda-san echoes the translator and boastfully says “more-blood” deeply  in English. The outburst is so sudden that it makes me start off another bout of laughter embarrassingly loud.

Suda51: We want to spill enough blood to cover 300 times the size of Madison Square Garden!

Shin-san: Without dropping the frame-rate…

With that our time was up and I needed  to get back to the expo-floor for another meeting. As I am leaving the team let me know that although there is no set release date yet, Let It Die is expected to be bloodying our screens by the end of this year.
Even after my time with the game and the team, I have to admit that I still have a lot of questions. But one thing I know for sure is that there is a lot of honest passion behind this creation, and nothing about what I’ve experienced makes me doubt we will get exactly what the Let It Die godfathers have in mind.  

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