Most games involve people dying, but it's usually because you made a mistake—missed a jump, failed to dodge an attack. Death is used as a punishment for incorrect player behavior, and thus, largely trivialized. But death and the act of dying is at the heart of many games written and designed by Kotaro Uchikoshi (999_, Virtue's Last Reward_) and Kazutaka Kodaka (Danganronpa), where characters find themselves trapped and fighting for their lives.
These stories fall into the "death game" genre because escape and survival is often predicated on winning a game that, in most ways, has been rigged against the participants.
Uchikoshi and Kodaka have become associated with video games' take on the death game format. In both 999 and Danganronpa, adventure game motifs are mashed into a visual novel, as players spend their time split between talking and getting to know a lineup of different characters before they split off to investigate mysteries and solve puzzles. The end result of these investigations is, inevitably, the death of someone. Most people don't make it.
For years, these two creatives have been making their own mark, but with World's End Club, which launched on Apple Arcade last week and comes to Switch next year, they've teamed up. In World's End Club, the setup is obviously boring and stale: a class of school children get in an accident and when they wake up, they're stuck in an amusement park with a clown telling them to play a bunch of games—or die. Oh, and, uh, the park is trapped underwater!
You know, just standard video game stuff. The usual.
The lively personalities of both Uchikoshi and Kodaka shine brightly through their games, and so I couldn't pass up an opportunity to speak with them as part of a joint interview. If you saw my tweet last week, this interview went to some...well, let's call it interesting places.
Our conversation runs the spectrum, including learning about Uchikoshi being trapped in a dungeon and pleading for his life, experiencing a global pandemic after writing a game about a global pandemic, what influence Stephen King had on World's End Club, and much more.
VICE Games: All of your games involve people getting kidnapped and forced into life-or-death situations. What do you find so compelling about that format, and why do you keep returning to it?
Kodaka: Obviously I hate it when people die in the real world, but I think it’s a completely different thing when it comes to games. As a player, I love playing loads of games that feature people dying. Because games are an active media, the death of a character in-game is an experience you can’t reproduce in other media. It’s a sublimation into a different kind of entertainment. I feel that there are still depths to explore in video game “death”, including ways of tying the concept in with the kind of gimmicks that are unique to games. I’m interested in exploring this avenue.
Uchikoshi: In truth, I don’t want to write stories that deal with death. I want to write happy, peaceful stories where no one dies. Things like Toy Story, or My Neighbor Totoro, or Bridget Jones's Diary. But Too Kyo Games CEO, Kodaka-san, won’t let me get away with things like that. He’s—and this is strictly between you and me—he’s actually a Satanist. He goes on about how “death is the moment in which life shines its brightest,” and whenever someone dies in a game he’s always cackling with laughter as if he’s gobbling up their souls. I just do exactly as he tells me, hence why I write all these death-filled scenarios.
How much about what the characters do in these extraordinary situations reflect your own thoughts on the subject? What would you both do if you were suddenly in a death game?
Kodaka: I think characters should have their own characteristic thoughts and ideology, as well as a principle guiding their actions. So the characters I create don’t necessarily reflect my own ideas, nor do I think they should. Even if the characters think differently from me, giving vivid form to those differences is what gives characters their individuality. If I got caught up in a death game I’d either plead for my life with all my heart, or seek out a painless death.
Uchikoshi: I have a feeling you’re not going to believe me, but I’m right in the middle of a death game as we speak. I’m locked up in a dungeon. It’s a gloomy, damp room, and it reeks of mold. The only other living things are the rats that occasionally scuttle past, and a buxom nurse who sometimes brings me food. Apart from them, there’s absolutely no sign of life. Kodaka-san is the one who locked me in here. He threatened me saying “write me a story exactly how I want it and I’ll set you free.” Someone help me!
Can you talk a little bit about life under COVID-19? What's changed in your personal and professional lives since much of the world started dealing with a pandemic?
Kodaka: Our company has been working remotely from the outset, so in that regard there hasn’t been a significant change. Meetings with other companies are now all conducted online, so communication has gotten slightly more difficult. That’s about it, though. There have been less opportunities to go out and take your mind off things, but most of us at Too Kyo games are pretty indoorsy types anyway, so nothing much has changed there either. One thing I do feel, however, is that living in this atomized era, I’ve been placing importance on scenarios featuring interpersonal connections.
Uchikoshi: I’m currently trapped in a dungeon, so I don’t know what’s going on in the world. But I offer my sincere condolences to all the victims, and I hope that everyone currently suffering due to the virus can recover as soon as possible. All I can do at the moment is make interesting games… and with those games provide hope to as many people as I can.
Uchikoshi-san, part of the mythology in the 999 series involves a deadly virus eradicating much of humanity. Obviously, COVID-19 is not as deadly as Radical 6, but it's been a frightening experience to live through. Has COVID-19 caused you to reflect on that story?
Uchikoshi: Allow me to speak seriously for a moment. It’s certainly true that one of the themes I dealt with in Ever17 and the Zero Escape series was viruses. That was because viruses are something we cannot see. Monsters that appear in physical form are not truly frightening. It’s invisible things that are the most terrifying. For example, information itself falls into that category. Is the world not currently being completely led around by information? That seems like a much more frightening prospect than any monster we can see with our eyes.
I've read that the two of you are longtime friends. How did you first meet, and what prompted the friendship? What did you see in one another?
Kodaka: We first met at a get-together Uchikoshi-san had organized. It was a real honor to be invited to a get-together hosted by someone respected by all game creators across Japan. I’ve always been a huge fan of his, and hold him in higher regard than anyone else. He enjoys a drink, so we always end up having these strange drunken chats, but I absolutely love it. All his ideas are interesting, all of his scenarios are masterpieces. He often ends up sleeping at the office, and he’s slowly claiming more and more of the office as his own private space, but working alongside him makes me so happy. Sometimes we’ll be out having drinks with other well-known game creators, and Uchikoshi-san will just head home whenever he feels like it, which could be considered rude, but I love how he just does things at his own pace.
Uchikoshi: Don’t believe a word he says! Everything written above is a lie. That day, I’d finished work, and I was strolling along the street at night, when I was suddenly attacked by a man wearing a gas mask. He injected me with an anesthetic and bundled me into a Chevrolet Suburban, and whisked me away to the dungeon… That man was the satan-worshipping Kodaka-san himself!
How do you go about coming up with characters for World’s End Club ? Do you have a specific creative process? Could you walk us through how you came up with a character?
Kodaka: Basically, I leave it all up to Uchikoshi-san. Characters are the core of a scenario, and if I were to start meddling, that would ruin his plans, so I leave it up to him. For World’s End Club I made suggestions about things to change once I’d read the whole scenario, but when it came to the characters, for the most part I didn’t interfere. I think they’re all such wonderful characters!
Uchikoshi: The characters in World’s End Club are actually based on the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac. It’s a unique calendar type thing used in China and Japan, based on a twelve year cycle. Each year is represented by an animal. If you list them in order it goes like this: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig. In Japanese onomatopoeia, rats go “chu chu”. That’s why the character based on the Rat is called “Chuko”. Likewise, cows go “mow mow” in Japanese, and that’s where Mowchan gets his name from. Well, you get the picture… Each character’s personality is linked with their zodiac sign, with some adjustments made for overall balance.
Part of what's unique about World’s End Club is that it has action elements to balance out the story and puzzles. That wasn't the case in Danganronpa or 999 . How are you tackling building those action elements, and does it give you pause because it's not an expertise?
Kodaka: It was a real process of scrap and build with the developer, Grounding. In terms of whether to go with action elements or puzzle elements, we went back and forth over every little thing until we eventually firmed things up. We finally resolved to focus on action-puzzle elements that would help players further enjoy the story. We had all kinds of demands as to how things should be, but Grounding really went above and beyond in meeting our requests, which was so reassuring. I think even users who’re not really into action games won’t have any trouble with this title, so I hope all kinds of users will play the game!
Uchikoshi: That’s a pretty tough question, but basically, here at Too Kyo Games we made our requests along the lines of “these people are in this stage, the stage should be like this…” to Grounding, the developer. They in turn would reply, saying “well, if you did it this way, it would be even more interesting,” and so we’d revise the scenario and then Grounding would make adjustments to the action scenes to fit the revisions… It went on and on like that. To sum it up, this game is the product of the scrupulous exchange of information.
Can I ask if calling the group of 12-year-olds part of the "Losers Club" is a reference to Stephen King's It ? If so, that would make the villain being a clown make sense, too, right?
Kodaka: While it’s true that we referenced IT and the Goonies in our initial plans for the game, I think only Uchikoshi-san knows to what extent he had them in mind.
Uchikoshi: It’s certainly true that I had IT in mind when we first drew up plans for the game. But this is the first I’ve heard about the group of kids in World’s End Club, and the group in IT being called the “Losers Club”... In the Japanese version, the kids belong to the “Ganbare-gumi”. “Ganbare” means “Hang in there!" "Keep it up!" "Go for it!" "Never give up!", that kind of thing. That said, “Losers Club” is by no means incorrect. They’re a rag-tag bunch after all, so you get the jist.
Most of the writing I do is by myself, so I always find it interesting when writers work together. Can you talk about how your collaborative process works? Do you share computers? A Google doc? How do you work out ideas and differences with one another?
Kodaka: When it comes to group work, there are all sorts of ways to go about it, but I think the most important step is to first have a clear grasp of one another’s traits as a writer. If you do that, there shouldn’t be any issues. I think this is one of Too Kyo Games’ strengths—we each have different processes and ways of collaborating. There are occasions when we divide work up and take charge of different aspects of a project, but this time I was creative director and Uchikoshi-san was in charge of the scenario, so all the story details I left up to him. My involvement with the scenario was discussing together at the outset what kind of thing we would create, what kind of opening we’d go for, and after that, checking over the story and providing feedback.
Uchikoshi: Too Kyo Games is based in Tokyo, while the developer, Grounding, is based in Kyoto. So even before the coronavirus, our work was cloud-based, and we were making great use of co-authoring tools. I think as long as you have co-authoring tools, wherever staff are based around the world, it’s possible to work on development together. Games aren’t something you can make alone. World’s End Club is no exception. Kodaka-san is trying to beat around the bush in his reply, but without his spot-on ideas and merciless supervision, I don’t think we’d have been able to produce such a fantastic game.
The same goes for the staff at Grounding, the producer Umeda-san, and Nakazawa-san and Koizumi-san here at Too Kyo Games—everyone was indispensable in the making of World’s End Club. Supposing someone asked us why a certain aspect of the game was a certain way, I don’t think any of us could give a precise answer. That’s because each component part is the result of a whole range of ideas from many different staff members. World’s End Club is the crystallization of the entire staff’s wisdom and endeavour. I hope you all get to enjoy it before the world actually ends.
One last question: Why are the two of you so fascinated with death? Kodaka: This is a repeat of the first question, isn’t it? I guess you’re trying to coax a soundbite out of me, aren’t you? All right, I’ll bite. “Because death is the moment in which life shines its brightest. A character’s life is reflected in the manner of their death.”
Uchikoshi: See! I told you! That’s his pet phrase… Somebody get me outta here!