Suda 51 on originality, videogame sexism and next gen development

Over 20 years in the game industry, Goichi Suda, AKA Suda 51, has defined his career with original and often absurd design. An early role as a scenario writer at Human Entertainment saw him strike Super Fire Pro Wrestling Special’s player character with a bout of depression, motivating the character to commit suicide in the final act. Suda’s other protagonists have all found themselves subject to character traits and personality flaws uncommon in games, and defined by exaggerated eccentricities.

No More Heroes’ Travis Touchdown was an otaku manchild and 11th-best killer in the world, while Lollipop Chainsaw’s Juliet Starling was a softcore fantasy cheerleader with quirks enough to spawn a thousand cosplay imitators. Suda’s next title, Killer Is Dead, stars Mondo Zappa, his take on James Bond: a conduit to explore sex, violence and dysfunctional personalities from another angle. Suda does so via a series of bloodbath swordfights and relationship minigames where Mondo attempts to charm the game’s female cast. We talk to the Grasshopper chief about his defiance of industry standards, next-generation consoles and Killer Is Dead’s Gigolo mode.

Your games have always been unlike others on the market. Why do you place such value on uniqueness?

So I think videogames are becoming an important, and a dominant, form of entertainment worldwide. And in that landscape, I truly feel that our shooters, racers and our mainstream games have been covered, checked off and done well. To really push games into the realm of culture and art, I feel that only doing realistic mainstream games won’t be enough; we need to pursue new frontiers and new horizons with what we do, and the process of creation shouldn’t be contained. Therefore, I feel at Grasshopper one of our obligations – our duties – to the videogame world is to create revolutionary titles that really push the status quo.

While you’ve worked on everything from RPGs to survival horror, you keep returning to action games.

I most enjoy playing action games. I prefer them, regardless of their size, budget and where [they’re] made, and I have a special attachment to sidescrolling action games; I guess it’s because the retro, arcadey type of games remind me of my childhood. I get inspired by movies, comic books, novels and others as well as videogames, but I often get the foundation of my ideas from contemporary art.

Can you be as free with your own influences when working on other people’s properties, such as Project Zero or Samurai Champloo?

When I work with someone’s property, such as existing animes, I need to take a completely different stance from working on my own. I need to have the utmost respect for the original creator and investigate who the fans are, because they may be different to our own. I need to be very analytical at all times, but by doing so I can judge whether something unique is required or not, and you take control of your ideas this way. I pay a lot of attention to the original work, but still try to make something original.

As we approach the end of a console generation, it’s growing increasingly difficult to sell anything besides the biggest of blockbusters. Do you feel that originality is something consumers are interested in rewarding?

I agree, right now the environment kind of demands and desires standardised games. And what we at Grasshopper need to pursue is pushing the status quo, but also still cater to our fans and our community, our customers, because they are the ones who are going to ultimately end up supporting us. Our community is already so strong, and by reaching out to them we can reach out to more [people and] expand upon the community that we’ve created to help raise the level of enlightenment, so to speak.

Suda’s next game, Killer Is Dead.

Do you think there’s a danger that Killer Is Dead’s Gigolo levels will alienate female players?

I’m actually not that concerned, because I think women can have just as much fun with that mode; that’s certainly the case in Japan anyway. I don’t know about North America or Europe. We haven’t done any focus tests for this mode specifically, but I did have the publishers – both European and North American, Deep Silver and Xseed – give us their feedback on the mode, and give us what they thought was wrong. And they also seemed to feel that it’s a mode that would be palatable for audiences local to Europe and North America. I’m not as concerned as you might think.

So what part do Mondo girls levels play in the overall structure of Killer Is Dead?

So taking into consideration that this a very fast-paced, adrenaline-pumping action game, we needed there to be some moments of rest where Mondo will take a step back from all the killing and kind of relax and unwind. Originally, I wanted to include the Gigolo mode in Shadows Of The Damned, but it didn’t quite make it into the final cut, so I’ve kind of reinstated that mode here. Killer Is Dead offered the perfect platform to do that.

There’s an ongoing debate regarding the depiction of women in games. You see that encouraging players to ogle women via X-ray specs will be controversial, right?

We try to create a world that doesn’t really trace or depict what is considered ‘real’, but what I like to consider a ‘hyper-real’ world. And when you take examples in other pop-culture media… James Bond, especially, which is a big inspiration for Mondo girls – ‘Mondo girl’ is a play on the Japanese pronunciation of Bond girl, in fact. James Bond, after he does a mission, there’s always going to be a Bond girl who will, in between, offer him a moment of relief and relaxation. So I’m depicting something similar here, and I feel that the implementation of it will give the players a kind of beat, a type of rest.

Of course, the role of Bond girls is often debated, too, and the way such characters are depicted in the films has evolved over time…

It’s not that we depict the women in any derogatory way, so I’m not extremely concerned about the depiction of these characters. I think if you play this mode for yourself, [then] you will be able to understand the context. There is punishment if Mondo tries to do anything that crosses the line with these women, too, so he could very well get slapped if he does anything that would be considered not classy or uncool. I think there’s a proper amount of punishment and reward.

Why do so few game developers consider sexuality as a defining character trait, and why is it such an important trait for so many of your protagonists?

I don’t pay attention to sexuality at all, but when I write I think about how I can create an attractive protagonist, rather than just creating a character. The fact that each of my characters breathes and lives in his or her world may be the reason they are seen to have sexuality as a trait. I especially love drama showing human lives. In videogames, having a good depiction of human beings is always important to me, and [that] has never changed…

Lollipop Chainsaw.

You managed to sell Juliet Starling from Lollipop Chainsaw in a market largely indifferent to female protagonists and original brands. Is your method of character creation responsible, do you think?

All of us at Grasshopper, Warner Bros and Kadokawa Games worked together to make Juliet a star in the game industry. We needed to show the players how attractive she was, so we put her at the centre of all our marketing, showing her battles against zombies using her chainsaw and her acrobatic movement, and we showed she was a strong and capable girl. I also believe having Jessica Nigri, a charismatic cosplayer, helped a great deal to make Juliet appealing to gamers by putting a real face to the character.

Could you imagine yourself making a game with a female protagonist who isn’t overwhelmingly sexy?

Yes, I can imagine and I can create her. We would need to work hard to get the recognition from many gamers.

What will define the next generation for Grasshopper?

I feel like the two consoles are really converging on a single point almost. Whether it’s hardware spec-wise or in the firstparties’ philosophies, we’re really seeing these consoles become an avenue into your living room. And in doing so, what I really want to push and emphasise at Grasshopper is not which platform we choose, but which kind of engine we choose. We’re developing on Unreal 3 for Killer Is Dead, but moving forward this is probably the last Unreal 3 game we’ll develop before we explore Unreal 4 and a variety of other engines, and see which will allow us to do what we want.

Do either of the two new platforms offer you a specific advantage for the games you want to make?

I wouldn’t really want to restrict ourselves to a single platform, and of course the engines will have support for multiple platforms… I feel there’s a sort of desire from players to see games on multiple platforms, in a variety of packages, in a variety of different forms. So we really want to tax the engines in this next generation. The platforms will be pulled along by the engines, I want to say.

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