The return of Grasshopper Manufacture has been long overdue. Goichi Suda's punk-spirited studio has kept a mostly low profile since 2013's Killer Is Dead, a game which flaunted its colour-bursting arterial spray while only dressed in the fashion of what had lately become Grasshopper's expected action template.
Whether or not it's been widely admitted, studio inference in the intervening years clearly had an impact on the unbridled creativity of the game director long-nicknamed Suda51. Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, Suda's producer on 2011's Shadows of the Damned, said that the EA-published shooter ended up so far removed from what Suda had originally envisioned – an adventure game playing with the idea of light and darkness inspired by Kafka's 1926 novel The Castle – that it broke his heart.
With the succession of Shadows, Lollipop Chainsaw and Killer Is Dead, not to mention the successful No More Heroes and its sequel for the Wii, it wasn't hard to feel like any future Grasshopper projects would likely only find funding if they were made in the same style: action titles that attempted to titillate as they hacked and slashed. That may well have been the case if GungHo Online hadn't swooped in to acquire Grasshopper, cancelled the then-early-in-development No More Heroes-like Lily Bergamo, and allowed it to be reborn as something entirely new.
The result is Let It Die, an asynchronously online, post-apocalyptic journey where players must fight their way to the top of the mysterious "Tower of Barbs" after a cataclysmic earthquake – a nod to the manga Violence Jack – destroys Tokyo. Let It Die plays like the deranged lovechild of FromSoft's fiendish Souls series and a survival game in the style of Rust, albeit one still slicked and writhing in bloody orthopteran afterbirth (sorry).
In other words, it seems exactly like what a proper comeback for Suda and his team should be. I spoke to the studio's frontman at this year's E3 – accompanied by Let It Die's director Hideyuki Shin and GungHo's CEO Kazuki Morishita – about how this beautiful union came to be.
'Let It Die', 2016 teaser trailer
VICE: Suda, how did Let It Die evolve into what it is from Lily Bergamo?
Suda: Usually Grasshopper titles are always story driven, so the story comes first, then gameplay follows. With Let It Die, we talked about gameplay first, even during Lily Bergamo meetings. Lily Bergamo already had a story, but when figured out the groove of roguelike hack-and-slash gameplay we realised we needed to change the story element as well. Which shifted the game towards what it Let It Die is now.
So it was because of the design that it became something new?
The concept of a survival game, which Let It Die is being described as, isn't fun – the genre tends to be challenging and stressful. But Grasshopper games are often the opposite: high-energy, stylised, crazy. How do you reconcile these two kind of opposing ideas?
Morishita: With the core concept of survival, yeah, I think we're definitely all in agreement that for some people it's fun, but sometimes it does get tedious and stressful. But when we were designing Let It Die, we wanted to make sure the survival part was what was fun.
So while we were considering that, my inspiration came from watching a late-night variety TV show that was sort of a survival program. Not necessarily like Survivor, but very similar to the TV shows on the Discovery Channel. Basically, in the TV show, the host goes to places like forests, deserts and the ocean. And he's supposed to survive in that environment without anything, finding all his equipment and whatever he needs to stay alive – food as well. And that whole concept was very interesting, so I wanted to make something similar. That was sort of where the idea came from to make a "fun" survival game.
So one day I mentioned the show – and apparently Shin-san was watching it too. So we started thinking of how the concept could be fun, and how these elements are fun in the show. And, also, if you look at Shin-san's face he looks like someone who might be a mountain climber. He's someone who might say, "Hey, I'm going to go climb Mount Everest." And that whole mountain climbing aspect was also pulled into the game, since you have to climb the tower.
Shin, are you a mountain climber?
Shin: Yes, of course! (Laughs) I actually live in the mountains.
Suda: Yeah, see how tanned he looks? (Laughs)
Suda: It's also called golf. (Laughs)
Suda, how did you fit into these conversations with Morishita and Shin watching this survival show?
Suda: I was there when they were first were talking about it. I sometimes watch it but not as much as the other two. They were watching it every week! (Laughs) It's late night, so it's too late for me. But it's a good show.
What's the name of the show?
Suda:I am Boken Shonen ("I am An Adventure Boy"). Another TV show is Crazy Journey – that's also good. And there's another one, ItteQ!, which is in many parts similar to a survival show. There's a lot of these TV shows in Japan, sort of like reality TV.
I'm surprised they were such a big inspiration.
Suda: Yeah, some people have said, "Is it really that good?" (Laughs) Late night means it's not the best primetime TV, but we really enjoy it.
Shin: I actually play a lot of survival games, too. But in my opinion, if you make those elements into a system that's basically parameters and numbers, then sooner or later you get tired of it, because it's always hounding you. So with Let It Die I wanted to make sure that wouldn't happen. So, if you want to restore your health, I felt like just picking up medicine would take away from the world. Since this is a post-apocalyptic world, if you want to survive, you're going to have to find food. If you want to find food, you're going to have to catch animals, which is why they're in the game. You need to be careful so they don't run away. So, you have to creep up to them, pick them up and then eat them raw.
Morishita: In I am Boken Shonen, the guy will grab frogs and spiders and cook them together and eat them, because he needs protein. But then he'll just puke it all out because it tastes terrible. (Laughs) So, we have that in the game as well.
Suda, what about a survival TV show concept fits in with a world like Violence Jack?
Suda: When you're making a survival game, you might think the design should be as close to reality as possible. So initially we were thinking about sleep maintenance or using the bathroom. But like Shin said, once you put a system like that in, it becomes tedious. It's repetitive. The fun is gone because it's like you're doing a job – it feels like work.
So we were trying to figure out how to mitigate that, and started cutting out anything that might become a pain in the ass later on. And we quickly realised if the world can't be reality, it should be a separate one. I came up with the Tower of Barbs and started thinking about what kinds of scenarios that could exist in that world. That's when Violence Jack popped into my head. Have you read it?
Suda: Basically there's a huge event called the Kanto District Hellish Earthquake (rough translation), this disaster that disrupts the entire Kanto region of Japan, all of the surrounding area outside of Tokyo. Let It Die is set there too, and that idea is where the inspiration comes from.
What's the significance of mentioning that the game is set seven years after the Tokyo Olympics, in 2027?
Suda: That's inspired by Akira, after it takes place. I think a lot of Akira fans feel like past 2020 the world will start deteriorating slowly, and that we'll begin to mirror Neo-Tokyo. So I think that'll be something easy to pick up on in the game for people who are familiar with it.
Morishita: Probably just for one or two people. (Laughs)
In a behind-the-scenes promo video for the game, you said you wanted the amount of blood in Let It Die to "fill Madison Square Garden three times over". Do you think Grasshopper should be synonymous with violence and gore? How do you see the studio's reputation?
Suda: When it comes to Grasshopper's image, I think it's sort of too late. (Laughs) Like, if we toned down the amount of violence, fans would be sort of surprised and taken aback by that. So I feel like keeping it in that style is fine. And also, even though I said three times, I think I meant more like 300.
But seriously, I don't think Grasshopper games necessarily need to be violent. It makes sense with Let It Die's setting and the environment. But for our next game? Who knows? It really depends on what it is. So we don't necessarily feel married to violence.
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But you still have to think about what the balance is going to look like when it's displayed on screen.
Morishita: In the past, Grasshopper has been an indie developer, but for Let It Die we're pretty much the same entity [as a mainstream, triple-A game] now. So we're able to talk on a regular basis to figure out if something is meant for kids or more violent or whatever. For a post-apocalyptic world like this one, violence does make sense.
But it's not all just kill-kill, death-death. With the design it meshes into a cohesive world. And in terms of how the story unfolds, there's violence involved but that's because it makes sense for the setting, not just because we wanted to include it [gratuitously].
Killer Is Dead also used extreme over-the-top violence, but it did so to draw attention to the art – what Suda called a "hyper contrast shader". Anything you would call the look in Let It Die?
Suda: Ah, well, if I try to go with the game's lingo – maybe barb shader! (Laughs)
Grasshopper's last few games have all been a similar type of third-person action style. Have you thought about any ideas that break away from that?
Suda: I think Grasshopper's always bound to change. Morishita and I are always talking about how to bring new experiences to the studio's fans – that's our core concept, we always want to be fresh with what we create. We're not necessarily married to either our older kind of games or what we're currently known for. Also, Shadows of the Damned, Lollipop Chainsaw, Killer Is Dead – those were kind of a trilogy project. The next direction I want to take is a completely new challenge.
What's a genre that you'd like to tackle that you haven't yet?
Suda: Hmm. I think something we've never tried to do... maybe games for kids? (Laughs)
That would certainly be interesting. Speaking of concepts, can you explain the philosophy behind Let It Die's death system?
Morishita: Basically, when you die, you get thrown into another player's game [as an enemy NPC], but you can also choose to throw your character into another person's game as well, as an enemy (similar to Dark Souls). And what are truly scary in the game is the enemies from other players' games – so I guess that also connects to the idea of survival.
Either you live or you die, you kill or be killed – it's a dog-eat-dog type world. So you might have multiple players arriving in your game and it's just chaos. Also the game will have some online components where one community of players is fighting another, so you have these back-and-forth battles.
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Right, just like you'd have different groups of people fighting each other after an apocalypse.
Morishita: Yeah, that's pretty much right. We want players to be interacting, sometimes even when you don't realise it. We want a lot of variables.
Suda-san, is there any wrestling in the game?
Suda: Just a little bit. Not too much, because then it would be too jokey and the survival part would kind of ruined. Sometimes you can drop-kick characters and their heads will explode. But it's tough, because enemies turn around every so often when patrolling, so it's hard to sneak up behind them. But if you can, you can do a suplex.
How do you feel about the free-to-play model versus a retail release?
Suda: I don't feel like there's a big difference in terms of the what-ifs and the have-nots. You always have the same problems no matter the release format. I don't think the team has noticed a big difference between them.
Okay, I've always wondered this: what does the Grasshopper logo mean? Is there any significance to the image itself?
Suda: (Laughs) Not really. There's not a lot of meaning behind the logo. Initially we wanted to make it a grasshopper but it just doesn't balance out well. So we changed it into a butterfly [done internally by the designer who did Killer 7's UI]. And when the design was finished I thought, hey, it looks good.
So the face is just a random face?
Suda: Yeah. It's not me or another staff member. It's definitely not Shin.
Shin: But if you look closely, it could be me.
Let It Die is released later in 2016, using a free-to-play model, for PlayStation 4. Find more information at the game's official website.
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