Indie Developer Interview: Kaizen Game Works

Paradise Killer is a delightfully strange first-person detective game by the United Kingdom’s Kaizen Game Works that received rave reviews when it launched last year on Steam and Nintendo Switch. Creative Director Oli Clarke Smith joined me via email to discuss his studio’s 2020 cult classic for The Avocado.

Please tell us about your history in the game industry.

Phil [Crabtree, Technical Director] and I both worked in different parts of the games industry for years and years. We used to skateboard, play Dreamcast and drink at punk gigs together a lot in our teenage years. We were also in a punk band together. After moving apart due to Phil going to uni, I went into the games industry as a tester on a Tomb Raider game before bouncing around different studios as the PS360 era bankrupted a lot of smaller UK studios, working on games like 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, Rogue Warrior and Until Dawn. Phil moved into mobile and VR games like Drop Dead and Magic Mixup.

In 2011 we collaborated on an iOS game Wonton 51 in our spare time and from then on we knew we wanted to ditch the day job and form our own studio together. Phil and I are excellent friends and work extremely well together. They say you should never work with friends and family but I don’t think that’s true. Having been close friends for 18-ish years we can work very comfortably together and we couldn’t have made Paradise Killer as big as it is if we didn’t have that relationship.

For those unfamiliar with it, could you please give a brief description of Paradise Killer?

Paradise Killer is a first-person open-world murder mystery game set on the bizarre Paradise Island 24. Paradise is home to the Syndicate, a secret society of worshipers of long dead alien gods. The Paradise Islands always fail, corrupted by demons from beyond the stars. As one island dies, another is born and on the eve of the next island, the ruling Council is killed in a locked door murder mystery. The player assumes the role of Lady Love Dies, the Syndicate’s exiled investigator. She is summoned back to the island to solve the crime to end all crimes. The focus of Paradise Killer is the player’s investigation. The player can choose how they conduct their investigation, finding clues in any order and what to interrogate suspects about. The player constructs their own truth and accuses whoever they want in an end game trial. The game never tells the player that they got it wrong or they failed to get a true ending. It is up to the player to craft a truth that is meaningful to them.

What were your specific influences when designing its seemingly unprecedented setting?

We wanted Paradise Killer to feel like PS1/Dreamcast-era games where you never knew what was going to be in the game until you discovered it. That nostalgia for late ’90s games led us to vaporwave and city pop. We also both love exploring Japanese towns so we wanted to create a bizarre island steeped in ’90s Japan. We also knew we wanted it to be fantastical in nature and I’m a huge fan of cosmic horror, especially when it is married to mankind’s own ancient history. H.P. Lovecraft is a racist piece of shit but some of his stories conjure intense dread and mystery as they describe forbidden horrors from our own history. That all got smashed together with a dose of fashion inspired by JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and the fusion of architectural styles found in the Fist of the North Star manga.

Other murder mystery games like Ace Attorney and Danganronpa emphasize dialogue and feature little action. Why did you opt to include platforming and fully 3D exploration in your take on this genre?

We love exploring game worlds. We used to pass the controller on games like Code Veronica back in the day and the Resident Evil games feature amazing world building and senses of place. We wanted to do that kind of world design but make it bigger so that the player can chill in it. I like games that take me away to other places so I can escape the waking nightmare of the real world. We wanted Paradise Killer to achieve two things; have a player driven free-form investigation and take the player away from the real world and let them escape and chill in a world they can explore and discover at their own pace.

As well as that, we always want to surprise players with what is in our games. We included double jumps and air dashing because it enables gameplay mastery, discovery, exploration and surprise. Other murder mystery games are very preoccupied with the linear path and story exposition. We wanted to eschew all that and let the player do what they want, when they want. Platforming was part of that.

How long did it take to develop the game and what were the greatest or most surprising hurdles?

The game took about 2.5 years. The biggest design hurdle was the trials. We knew they’d be a nightmare to put together because of how much freedom we give the player but they were truly a monumental feature to put together. We were finding pretty severe branching dialogue bugs in the game 2 weeks before launch and I was ripping the trials apart and putting them back together right up until launch. The most surprising hurdle was the amount of production work we had to do. Managing contractors and voice actors takes a surprising amount of time, never underestimate it!

What was your process for designing Paradise Killer‘s narrative progression system, in which the player might conceivably ‘solve’ the case at any time using whatever evidence they’ve uncovered so far? Did you ever consider a more linear version of this mechanic?

The game started out as a more linear game but we soon realised it was clashing with our open-world design. For Paradise Killer we didn’t really believe in storytelling. Games are an interactive medium but designers seem obsessed with telling a non-interactive story and constraining the player. Most stories in games aren’t that good, so why are we obsessed with curtailing player exploration and agency to tell them? We wanted to put a flag in the sand and say “there is another way”.

In terms of process, the needs of the mystery drove everything. We wrote the structure of the mystery then designed characters that fulfilled the needs. We found that we needed a military character to provide the guards at the crime scene so Akiko was written in. By not having a preconceived story that we were precious about telling, it allowed us to view the murder mystery as a structural design for the game and the open world and everything would be added to the game in service of it.

So we built the skeleton of the mystery then found gaps in the story or contradictions and removed, changed or added new characters, world functions or background lore to facilitate it. It was constant iteration for two years, reworking and redesigning all aspects of the game to make the mystery make sense. After launch I saw a forum post that pointed out a plot hole and I wish we’d caught so the process wasn’t perfect!

What is your favorite character or area in the game?

My favourite character changes all the time but at the moment it is Shinji or Sam. I loved writing Shinji and his design captures a very specific moment of frustration I had during development. Sam’s art by our artist Giga is phenomenal and I love his design. Sam was designed to show the possibilities in our game world and push the player to realise how fantastical but grounded our world is. I love his backstory and his approach to making drinks.

Are there any gameplay mechanics or story sequences that didn’t make it into the finished game? If so, what caused them to be cut?

We tend to cut before we get too far into making something so there isn’t anything half finished that we removed. We did initially start with a blood sample matching minigame but that didn’t get anywhere past the initial prototype. We thought about including a pilotable boat so the player could explore the coast of the island more but it was too much work and we didn’t even start it. There was also a hot minute where we thought about including some kind of ghost shooting mechanic but it didn’t make any sense.

Do you anticipate producing a sequel or other console ports for Paradise Killer?

We definitely want to revisit Paradise at some point and have some ideas for prequels or games set in the universe. A sequel is kind of impossible because anyone of the cast could be alive or dead and us choosing canon characters to keep alive on the next island would completely undermine the player’s choices in the first game. That said, Lady Love Dies is very special to me and I want to do more with her. As for console ports, we have nothing to announce yet…

Paradise Killer is available now on Steam and Nintendo Switch. You can also follow @KaizenGameWorks on Twitter to keep up with all the latest on this game and future projects. If you’d like to see more from me, you can find me on Twitter under the handle @SinginBrakeman. Thanks for reading, and be sure to let everyone know what you think about Paradise Killer in the discussion below!