How Paradise Killer went from “Crazy Taxi meets Gone Home” to a modern indie classic

For both player and developer, the story of Paradise Killer begins with a bold leap into the unknown. The game opens with disgraced investigator Lady Love Dies finding out her eternal exile to the luxurious Idle Lands isn’t quite forever after all: after three million days, she’s called to investigate the murder of the titular island’s ruling council. But there’s only one way back, and that’s down.

After unlocking the gate separating her from the world beyond, it’s time, as she puts it, “to fall into a pit of crime”. And so, to the strains of Barry Topping’s glorious city-pop score, she steps off. Cue title screen.

It took similar courage for Kaizen Game Works’ technical director Phil Crabtree and creative director Oli Clarke Smith to kick off their studio’s own adventure. This pair of old schoolfriends had been working separately in the game industry for some time, with several mobile and triple-A games under their belts. The two made bullet-hell endless runner Wonton 51 (under the moniker Quarter Circle Punch) as a hobby project in 2011, and ever since had had the urge to make something bigger and more involved as a duo.

“I liked my jobs, and I’d worked on some really high-end mobile games,” Crabtree says, “but they just weren’t what I wanted to do.” Clarke Smith, project lead on Halo Wars 2 and designer on Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn and Man Of Medan, felt the same way. And so they decided it was time to take the plunge and make a new game together.

There was no specific idea in place at the time, but both knew the style of game they wanted to make. The genesis of the Paradise universe began not with Lady Love Dies but with the island’s ferrywoman, Lydia Day Break. “We started kicking around some ideas for a narrative game that was like Crazy Taxi meets Gone Home,” Clarke Smith tells us. Rather than investigate a multiple homicide case, you’d drive around picking people up at the end of an island cycle, gradually learning about its past through your conversations with passengers. “There wasn’t a mystery,” Clarke Smith says. “It was just like: go and chill and vibe, and find some weird history.”

Though that idea didn’t pan out, Paradise was very much at the forefront of the pair’s minds for their next concept. This time, it was a top-down shooter with a slower, more deliberate pace and an interlocking, Dark Souls-style world – an idea that brought the character of Akiko to life. “I really like Castlevania: Rondo Of Blood’s combat, where each fight feels like a little duel,” Clarke Smith says. “So we were trying to do that. At the time, a lot of people were hyped for that Ruiner game – and then it came out and didn’t do very much, and it seemed like the world was maybe done with top-down shooters.” For the amount of time and budget they’d set themselves, it seemed like too much work, too.

The setting stayed, but everything was pared back to a simpler, walking-simulator-style game: you’d pick up pieces of story about the island and its inhabitants, and end the game when you wanted. “But, as we started making that, we realised we wanted more and more investigation and detective and dialogue mechanics, and it became Paradise Killer.”

Paradise Killer

How the game evolved from there is a combination of pragmatism and creative ingenuity. The studio knew it wanted an open world to explore, but would struggle to populate it with pedestrians and traffic with the time, money and skillsets at its disposal. Thus came the concept of an island’s end: the moment before its rebirth when its citizens are no more. Meanwhile, the concept of the Syndicate – a group of immortals that can move between island sequences – allowed Kaizen Game Works to develop around a dozen key characters. The place itself may be a bit of a sprawl, but the central cast couldn’t get too unwieldy.

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