Plants vs. Zombies composer Laura Shigihara released the debut trailer for her upcoming adventure game Rakuen earlier this month, and it looks absolutely fantastic! For those who don’t Laura, she is best known for composing the song “Everything’s Alright” in the cult-hit indie title To The Moon – one of my all-time favourite games.
Needless to say, I was very interested to learn more about Rakuen, so I reached out to Laura to talk about it:
As an independent developer, could you tell us a bit more about your previous work?
Laura: Sure! I’ve spent most of my time in the video game industry as a composer, creating audio for over 25 published video game titles (most notably, the soundtrack for Plants vs. Zombies, though also contributing music and voice work for games like To the Moon, World of Warcraft, and Surviving High School).
What would you say was the driving inspiration behind your new game, Rakuen?
Laura: I wrote a song several years back called, “Jump,” but I didn’t end up arranging/producing it until I was asked to submit a track for the “Play for Japan” album Akira Yamaoka organized after the Tohoku earthquake.
When I wrote the song, I thought about two things: I thought about how in life, we often have to go forward and hope for the best, even though we don’t know how things will turn out… Whether it’s a new job, a new relationship, an illness, anything, really… Sometimes the only thing we can do is hope for the best, and jump. I also thought about how we all have a child inside of us that just wants to be told that everything is going to be alright… Sometimes when your Mom says, “don’t worry, everything’s gonna be alright,” she can’t explain how or why it will be… but just hearing it makes you feel better. That’s what the song is about.
And that’s kind of what Rakuen is about, too. I imagined a little Boy living in the hospital, coming to terms with his problems by helping others… Perhaps people who don’t have anyone, or who don’t know how to ask for help. The Boy’s Mom gives him the gift of hope, and through his adventures, he’s able to pass that on to those around him. Each of the patients have their own stories; many of which were based on people who are or were close to me, as well as my own experiences.
How would you best explain your game to someone who hasn’t heard about it before?
Laura: Rakuen is a story-based adventure game about a little Boy living in the hospital who asks his mother to escort him to the fantasy world from his favorite storybook. Tasked with helping his fellow patients by interacting with their alter-egos in the fantasy world, the Boy quickly learns that each of them have their own secrets and struggles that are tied to the mysterious hospital in which they all live.
Is the game mostly narrative-focused, or will there be other mechanics such as puzzles?
Laura: While Rakuen is story-centric, there are definitely other gameplay mechanics. I would say that Rakuen plays a lot like Maniac Mansion in that you have to solve puzzles that revolve around exploration and gathering/using items (though, without an arsenal of verbs at your disposal). There are also some room escape elements, puzzles that require you to remember information given to you through dialogue and hidden messages, and areas that are laid out in a similar fashion to the kinds of dungeons you would see in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (though without battles or fighting).
The art-style of the game almost looks 16-bit, but not quite. Could you tell us about it?
Laura: I’ve always loved SNES games and their art style. I grew up playing games such as Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Yoshi’s Island, etc. I remember saving particular issues of Nintendo Power so that I could keep the artwork to decorate my room. I really wanted Rakuen to have a mix of complimentary styles… Matt’s tilesets and my sprites are remniscent of SNES pixel art; Matt’s backgrounds are inspired by the hand painted look from games like Legend of Mana, and there’s also a fair amount of high resolution character art that was created by Emmy. I’m really happy and thankful for the chance to work with friends like Emmy and Matt, I think they’re both so talented and passionate about what they do!
As an experienced music artist, how did you approach the soundtrack for Rakuen?
Laura: Hmm… well, I started with Jump and went from there! For the background music, sometimes I would create the gameplay/locations first, play through those areas, and compose based off of whatever music would pop into my head during the gameplay sessions. Other times, I would compose the music first, and build around it (this was especially helpful for cutscenes that needed to convey a lot of emotion). And sometimes I’d go back and forth; creating a bit of music which inspired dialogue, which then inspired more music.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge working on the game so far?
Laura: Creating the final cutscene for the segment of the game that was inspired by my Grandpa was very difficult for me. I think I had to get into a particular state of mind in order to tell the story correctly, which ended up taking a lot out of me. I think the biggest challenge was making sure this segment was meaningful to the other person it was inspired by.
In the end, what would you most like to see players take away from the experience?
Laura: That no matter who you are, you have worth and meaning. You don’t have to do something big to be a hero; sometimes doing something as simple as listening and empathizing can change a person’s whole life for the better. It’s never too late; whether you have 80 more years or 8 more days, you have time.
What is the estimated release date, and what platforms will the game be available on?
Laura: We’re hoping to release Rakuen by the end of 2014. It will be available for PC first; depending on how things go, we’d like to release it on other platforms afterwards.
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