2020 has been full of surprises, but one of the more pleasant plot twists has been the unexpected arrival of Paradise Killer. At first glance, it seems like a riff on the death game, a la Danganronpa, where groups are put in situations where murder is rampant and the task is to figure out who's responsible. That "who" here includes a talking skeleton, and everything takes place on an island where folks are ritually murdered to please some cosmic gods.
Pretty normal, right?
And upon further inspection, you see a lot of Phoenix Wright and other bits from detective adventures. But soon, it becomes increasingly hard to pigeonhole the influences that add up to Paradise Killer, and it merely reveals how unique the game is.
"I’ve also been frustrated with the obsession with storytelling in games as a whole," said designer Oliver Clarke-Smith in a recent interview with VICE Games. "Why do so many people working in an interactive medium always fixate on telling you a story rather than letting you interact with it? In narrative games you’re seemingly always having to jump through narrative hoops to make the story progress."
Paradise Killer is technically a linear story about trying to find a murderer, but because the beats and clues are sprawled throughout the massive island, there's more opportunity to do what you want. And crucially, at any point and at any time, you can begin the endgame "trial" phase, if you think you have enough evidence to prove what happened. Do you know who the killer is? Remember, you can accuse anyone. The question is whether you're right.
This setup inherently invites the player to play fast and loose with truth, depending on their inclination. It's also led some players to feel anxiety over how the game handles mystery.
"I have absolutely 0 interest in playing a mystery game without an actual answer to the mystery," wrote one person on the game's Steam forum, "and it seems like this game's whole thing is that exact concept. Does the "accuse anybody" come back around in any satisfying conculsion [sic], or is it just some ♥♥♥♥♥♥ mechanic to encourage replays?"
I didn't show Smith this particular complaint, but my guess is he doesn't even necessarily disagree with it; part of what Paradise Killer is trying to accomplish is ambiguity. Underneath the ambiguity, however, is a team that's thought long and hard about what it all really means.
"There must always be an immutable truth to the game’s fiction," said Smith. "Everything needs to be explained or justified, either in game or at least within our own heads. If that truth exists, the player can trust the game. The history and the method of the crime never changes, just your interpretation and path to the truth. […] For us, the narrative truth is sacred and can never be hand waved away. We reworked a lot over the course of the project to make sure that inconsistencies or plot holes were fixed or explained."
Paradise Killer is the first game from brand-new developer Kaizen Game Works, but the studio settling on this type of game isn't wholly surprising; Smith most recently spent time as a lead creative on Until Dawn and The Dark Pictures from Supermassive Games. Both games focus intensely on player choice, branching paths, and divergent endings. When the player takes an action, it needs to have a consequence. Every moment takes on weight.
"Until Dawn and Dark Pictures are great examples of interactive drama," said Smith. "They’re very intense experiences because the goal was to create drama at all times. With Paradise Killer we intentionally disregarded a lot of the lessons I learned on those games because we wanted a much more chill, player’s own pace game."
This allows players to, in Smith's words, "soak in the dialogue" and avoid worrying about what happens next. Asking a question isn't a seismic event, it's just part of a dialogue tree.
Until Dawn and Dark Pictures most directly impacted Paradise Killer because they were narrative projects Smith had worked on immediately prior, but Smith also worked on another equally important title in game canon: 50 Cent : Blood in the Sand. However unlikely, Smith said working on the game made in collaboration with the rapper had ripple effects, as well.
"You may notice that we have very few stairs, they’re all “big ass ramps," said Smith. "The actual answer is to lean into what you’re doing with no compromise. BOTS [Blood on the Sand] didn’t do this enough. The directors would always talk about wanting it to look and feel like a music video but nothing ever materialised to make that happen. During the development of Paradise Killer we realised that we wanted to make an eldritch city pop nightmare so we really went for it. No compromises."
Before Kaizen Game Works decided to work on Paradise Killer, Smith said they kicked around a few ideas, including one dubbed "Gone Home X Crazy Taxi." But Smith had just finished playing the cyberpunk bartender game VA11-HALL-A and was transfixed. The studio decided to take their nostalgia for the hazy look of games from the Dreamcast era, of Japanese games that took chances with their design, and mash it with new era storytelling.
Rather than leaning on something existing, like "adventure" or "death game." The developers have labeled Paradise Killer something wholly different: open world exploration investigation.
"I really liked it when Capcom coined the 'survival horror' and 'stylish hard action' genres," said Smith. "They give an immediate flavour of what the game is better than '3rd person action.' One of the problems we had marketing Paradise Killer is explaining what it is. In one screenshot it looks like a visual novel. In another it looks like a walking simulator. Giving it a genre name helps create an image in the audience’s head, either giving them a good idea of what the game is, or sparking ideas of possibilities that could be in the game."
Though much of this COVID-driven year has been strange and different, one constant has been the meteoric rise of video games, as people use the medium as a source of comfort and social bonding. It's resulted in lots of games that might otherwise have floated past without notice to blow up and capture the zeitgeist. Why not Paradise Killer, then, too?
"We both expected to be sending out CVs [resumes] once release was done," said Smith.
The release got off to a bumpy start when the tool that was supposed to send codes for critics, reporters, and influencers to play the game just didn't work. Many people didn't receive codes, and so they didn't play the game. Though glowing reviews are no guarantee of anything, it was a cursed way for things to start in a cursed year, and Smith already wasn't sure what people were going to think of it. Prior to release, they'd found it hard to stand out.
Fortunately, the game did find an audience—one that really dug it. No resumes are being sent out yet. Paradise Killer isn't exactly the second coming of Among Us, but it's enough.
"My favourite games are ones that are intoxicatingly otherworldly like Flower, Sun and Rain," said Smith. "These games take you away, they become part of your life and leave an indelible impression. We tried to make something otherworldly and enrapturing and one of the benefits is that we have made an impression on people and they want to tell other people about it."