Paradise Killer, the first title from Kaizen Game Works, is a game that immediately invites comparisons to other titles, and yet somehow feels entirely unique at the same time.
With its island setting, and a murder-mystery plotline populated by out of this world characters, the immediate comparison is to Danganronpa series, or the Phoenix Wright games to a lesser extent – particularly in the game’s final trial, where the player is tasked to explain whodunnit.
But this familiar groundwork does nothing to help the player get a foothold in this bizarre world. Paradise Killer is an open-world murder mystery game, yes. But it’s a weird one – profoundly and gloriously strange – filled with mysterious goat gods, human sacrifice and the warm mechanical arms of a sexpot called Dr Doom Jazz.
The player steps into the shoes of Lady Love Dies, who is recalled from a three million day-exile from Paradise Island for one last job. Paradise’s ruling council have been massacred, and it’s Lady Love Dies’ job to find out how.
It’s… certainly a lot to take in. But much like the mysterious murder at the game’s core, the world around it is also best left to be experienced than explained.
EXPERIENCE, DON’T TELL
Paradise Killer may wear its influences on its sleeve, but it’s not afraid to break with the traditions left by its predecessors and move in a new direction.
As technical director Phil Crabtree and creative director Oli Clarke Smith explain, the pair aimed to use both the genre’s history and their own experience in the industry to tell a new kind of detective story – making use of the game’s open world to give the player the freedom to investigate however they wanted.
“The Danganronpa connection was definitely intentional,” Clarke Smith begins. “I love games like Danganronpa, Flower, Sun and Rain and Silver Case. That was the kind of direction that I wanted to take it in.
“Both Phil and I are both very into very heavy world-building games, and exploration based games. I’ve previously worked on Until Dawn, which is kind of a non-linear drama, but not as freeform and as open as we wanted to do with this.
“I thought: ‘there’s a different way of doing interactive stories. What if we just blow the whole thing wide open, and just let the player tackle it in any order under their own direction?’ I love Danganronpa, but it’s so linear, You go to a crime scene, and you’re only allowed to leave once you’ve found every bit of evidence and you’ve spoken to every character. And then when you go to trial, if you don’t get the correct answer, you fail and retry it.
“So what we came to was: ‘what if we just don’t care about whether the player uncovers the whole truth? What if we just care that the players found something that is meaningful to them?’”
MAKE YOUR MIND UP
This break with the more linear storytelling of Danganronpa and Phoenix Wright was actually much more severe in early versions of the game. Originally, the game was never planned to reveal any truth behind the mystery at all, with the end-game trials being added much later to allow the player to decide how they think it all went down.
Still, this nonlinear approach was an important one to the team.
“We wanted people to ask themselves, ‘well, is this the right answer?’” adds Crabtree. “And then they’d go and talk to friends and other people playing the game, and they could all have a slightly different experience or a slightly different understanding.
“We never wanted to force our beliefs and our stories on you. Make your own one up! There’s so much more power in the imagination. We provided you the framework to decide what happened, but you can interpret it how you want.”
To Crabtree and Clarke Smith, it was important to ensure that the player feels like a detective, and isn’t just pushing through to progress the story. It’s a point that makes Paradise Killer feel distinctly different to the more visual-novel style offerings of Phoenix Wright.
“We definitely wanted to make you feel like an investigator,” says Clarke Smith, “and allow you to jump to conclusions or let your own biases affect your view of the mystery, and let you fail by missing evidence or not getting the right testimony.”
This focus on finding the evidence, not just pushing through a story is behind one of the more interesting aspects of the game – You can begin the end-game trial whenever you like. But if you haven’t prepared your case, it’s not going to go well for you.
“We’re not asking you to jump through a hoop to progress the game,” Clarke Smith continues, “we’re asking you to feel confident enough that you’ve got enough evidence. So if you do make the logic leap early and figure out the mystery, you can go to trial. But in court, you still need evidence, even if the detective has worked it out, you still need evidence to get you the conviction. So that is where the thrust of our game is,
in finding the evidence in order to prove it, rather than just getting through to the end.”
A GROWING CONSPIRACY
Still, setting a murder mystery in an open world isn’t without its risks. The pair acknowledge that it was a “fear and a challenge” that players could stumble upon a case-breaking clue right at the start of the game – though they acknowledge that it was ultimately a positive for the player experience, and it was something they just had to embrace.
A larger problem that plagued development was the ever-expanding scope of the game. Originally, Paradise Killer was intended as a walking simulator in the vein of The Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture – though they had prototyped plenty of other genres too. From a top down shooter to a Crazy Taxi homage.
“We tended to move quite quickly on stuff,” says Clarke Smith, “especially since we were using Unreal. It’s so easy to put stuff in, try it and abandon it or work it up. So we had a few ideas pretty quickly, and eventually settled on this one.”
This creative process of trying to define the kind of game they want to make may have been a useful one – but it added significant time to development.
“We originally set out to make this game in about 18 months,” says Clarke Smith, “and then it took about two and a half years. And thank you very much to our publisher [Fellow Traveller] for saving us on that!
“We set out to make something small, but when we started developing the concept, we didn’t arrive at the specifics of the concept early enough. If on day one of quitting our jobs and setting up home offices we’d said ‘we’re gonna make an open world murder mystery game, and you go to the trials at the end,’ we possibly could have shipped this thing in 18 months.
“We realised that the game needed to grow, to really realise its full potential and to become a game that would sell. We kind of hit on the concept late, and I think that that could have sunk it. Because if we shipped it on time when we originally planned to, it would be a shadow of what it is now and we would be applying for jobs.”
“It’s also exciting,” adds Crabtree, “because it’s our first game, we tried everything we thought might be cool. We didn’t always talk about it in advance, we’d just put it in and see what worked and what didn’t. So there’s probably quite a lot of – not necessarily wasted time, but we could have planned it a bit better had we thought more about it.”
ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE
The murder isn’t the only thing player has to investigate. The game starts in the middle of things, with Lady Love Dies returning to Paradise Island. While she’s been in exile for a while and needs to be caught up on a few things, she’s not exactly a fish out of water either.
Unlike the player, Lady Love Dies already knows the fundamentals of this world. She knows its characters, she knows about the human sacrifices and the ominous goat god. The player meanwhile is thrown into the deep end, and has to learn to swim in this new world – with nothing but their AI companion Starlight (think a talking Wikipedia that solves crimes) to help them.
It’s a lot of information to take in at first, but the game does an exceptional job of laying out its world for the player to discover. But it’s hard not to wonder if it was a nightmare to make sure players weren’t overwhelmed.
“We rewrote the intro to the game so many different times, because we were very concerned about that,” notes Clarke Smith. “It’s easier to do a stranger in a strange land style story, because you can have a navigation assistant, like Navi in Zelda, to explain stuff.
“But the way we wrote the story we really didn’t think about that, we just kind of wrote it. So then once we were in it, we were like, ‘well, this is difficult!’ So that’s why there’s so many lore collectibles to find, so that if you are feeling overwhelmed you can pick them up at your own pace and learn things on your own terms.
“Originally at the beginning of the game, we forced you into Starlight to read all the biographies for all the characters. And only once you read them all were you allowed out into the world. And it was a really, really
“So pretty late on we removed that, because it was bad. But we didn’t have another solution. And then pretty late on, I just copied and pasted all of the bio text into Starlight’s dialogue files, so that whenever you meet a character for the first time, Starlight will tell you a bit about them. But then we framed it as like, Starlight knows you haven’t done an investigation for three million days. So they’re reminding you, but every character comments on it. It’s a way of giving some up-front information, but then the characters can have a little bit of banter about it and kind of ease you in like that.”
GETTING TO KNOW YOU…
Outside of the investigation, perhaps the game’s biggest strength is in its characters. From the incredible high fashion of some of their designs, to their outlandish and distinct personalities, the game’s central cast will stick in player’s minds long after they’ve solved the case – as evidenced by the fan art the game has inspired.
“I’m glad people like the characters,” notes Crabtree. “When Oli was first pitching the game to me, it was very much about the characters. ‘It’s got to have these 80’s vogue-style poses and over the top characters,’ and I had some questions about if we should make them a bit more a bit more human and realistic, but the answer was ‘no, they need to be big, bright, bold characters to serve the game.’”
“Yeah, over the last two years, I’ve gotten really heavily into [the anime] JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure,” adds Clarke Smith. “It has these big, strange characters, they use a lot of high fashion and every one of them makes a big impression. It’s the same with Danganronpa. All of those characters are very much larger than life and make a big impression.
“I think you need that when you are thrust into this world, where you’re being asked to investigate a murder mystery and you need to remember who all the key players are. I wanted to do it for artistic reasons, because I didn’t want us to make a realistic game and I like big, weird characters. But also it’s very helpful for the player to have these strange names that they can latch on to and remember. As well as have very visually distinct characters that communicate something about the world, their personality and their motives, all with just a glance.”
It’s in no small part due to these characters – and the game’s incredible soundtrack – that Paradise Killer has been received as well as it has. The game has multiple Golden Joysticks nominations, including PC Game of the year. It’s a strong performance for a game that is, on paper at least, remarkably niche.
“We were, at least I was, incredibly nervous right before the release date,” says Crabtree. “I was scared about it getting panned, because it is divisive. We always knew you’d love it or hate it. So the first review dropped, and it was 9 out of 10… Yeah, I almost fell off my chair.”
“We always assumed this was going to be a one shot,” adds Clarke Smith. “We’d do this and then on the day of release we’d send out CVs and go back to the real world of game development in a studio. It has completely blown away all expectations.
“No one’s buying yachts off the back of this, but nor are we going back to working in a normal studio, so it is a big win for us.”