I’m haunted by Paradise Killer.
At my day job, I’m a science writer covering everything, from nanotubes made of individual carbon atoms, to cosmic structures so big they break our understanding of the universe itself. Whether things are infinitely large or infinitesimally small, they challenge what our minds can even comprehend. Humans, and Earth itself, occupy a specific size range that is decidedly medium, with a long tail stretching away from us in either direction.
In this column, I hope to explore the ways games play with space. The word itself comes from Latin “spatium”, to stretch or reach, and I like the physicality and intimacy that suggests when it comes to how games are made. There’s nothing in a game that a person or team of people has not calculated and placed there, even when the code or art is generated from an algorithm. Nothing is truly infinite about games, even when the spaces are very, very large. And nothing about games is ever truly random. (Is anything random, though? Well, that’s a different column.)
Paradise Killer is a murder mystery set in a lore-stuffed open world adventure. It’s an isolated island in physical space as well as time and dimensionality itself, set at least 7,000 years in the future using Earth time. The island’s elite residents, known as the Syndicate, are immortal; and their shared vocation is to seek out interdimensional aliens they consider to be gods. The game is only 10-15 hours long, but its ideas stretch away in all directions.
To help me pull apart the world of Paradise Killer, I talked with the game’s creative director (and Kaizen Game Works cofounder) Oli Clarke Smith. Over the next several weeks, I’ll share some of his comments and insights as part of a larger discussion of how space works in the physical world, in ideas, in time, and more. And to start, I want to talk about how the Kaizen Game Works team scoped this game in order to make it doable at all.
“The initial pitch was the Yamanote mystery killer, so it was set round the Yamanote line in Tokyo and you’d explore different suburbs and streets to piece together this mystery,” Clarke Smith says. The Yamanote Line is a train loop about 20 miles long that stops in many of Tokyo’s busiest areas. Yakuza was made with a $21 million budget and rendered a fictional version of a Tokyo neighborhood that’s just over an eighth of a square mile – the real life Yamanote Line stops at a busy station there, along with 29 others. “The constraints started kicking in, and we realized we were never, ever going to render chunks of Tokyo. We needed to start abstracting this out to get to something we could ship but also something we controlled.”
There were also questions to ask and answer about the mechanics of the game. The game was set at the end of one segment in a cyclical world, making it make sense that almost no one was still on the island. They had the game start the moment after the murders were committed, so there could never be any wiggle room in the clues and the crime scene. And they even limited the nature of the investigation itself, after nixing an early idea of a Her Story-like text interface.
“We, once upon a time, had a system where you would obtain keywords and that would spit out records that would provide evidence,” Clarke Smith says. “All that evidence is still in the game but it got converted to be different evidence. We realized it was just scratching the surface of what the player would want to do. ‘Why can’t I put in any search terms? Why can’t I just search for all sorts of stuff?’ That system was going to explode out into a nightmare. There’s a lengthy piece of dialogue with [Doctor] Doom Jazz that went in, explaining why you can’t access the server on the moon.”
And, in maybe the biggest design decision of all, Kaizen Game Works had to decide what the game even was. In 2021, Clarke Smith told Edge that the game was sometimes imagined as a nonviolent Crazy Taxi, where Lydia Day Light, the ferrywoman to the next pocket dimension, just drove you around for fun in the island’s only car. Then they wondered about making a top-down shooter, but shied away from that after considering the market and the requirements in time and money. That left the idea of a walking simulator within a relatively small open world. But that also wasn’t enough.
“Everyone that works with us is very ‘gamey’ but a lot of the time gamey games involve some kind of combat. But what if we didn’t?” Clarke Smith says. “What if we could still make a systems-based ‘gamey game’ but we could get rid of all that combat and still make a compelling experience? Walking simulators are often not systems based enough — they’re about atmosphere, which is great — but could we do both? How do we apply that to other games, and make very gamey, engaging, systems games that don’t fall back on combat?”
While some describe Paradise Killer as an Ace Attorney-style adventure visual novel set in an open world – I did that myself, several paragraphs ago! – the gameplay came from a different direction. “I quite like the combat in Yakuza, but would it still be cool to roam around that city, and engage with other characters, but still have some kind of story based goal?” Clarke Smith says. “I love being drawn into a bigger world because I really like action games, but not [everyone wants] to engage with those games. Can we get rid of the combat, and have that more gentle and kind of vibe experience, but still gamey?”
And that’s where Paradise Killer found me: someone who had played countless visual novels but almost no 3D games apart from mainline Marios. I don’t want to fight in 3D, and I barely want to fight in 2D. Important open-world games like Breath of the Wild intrigue me, but that’s a lot of money when I know I’ve never liked a Zelda game in the past! My speed is more Firewatch, something I’ve written about in Unwinnable in the past. Paradise Killer drew me in with a mystery narrative and a cosmic horror mystery, then let me learn how to play an open-world game in peace. A lot of that is down to the design decisions Kaizen Game Works made from the start.
Caroline Delbert is a writer, avid reader, and enthusiast of just about everything. Her favorite topics include islands, narratives, cosmology, everyday math, and the philosophy of it all. She’s @aetataureate on Twitter.