The adventure horror genre has largely been picked up by indie developers to create new experiences for fans. However, I feel like unique classics such as Clock Tower and Fatal Frame definitely have potential that goes untapped.
Luckily for us, developer SUZAKU has formed to create a cyberpunk mystery, Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story, full of horror and waifus, which definitely has our attention. We had the opportunity to speak with the founder of SUZAKU studio Benjamin W. to get an idea of the game’s direction and learn more about the developer.
Azario Lopez: Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story is the first developed title from SUZAKU, how did the team form and where did the idea of Sense originally steam from?
Benjamin W: SUZAKU was formed when I was let go from a long term contract in the industry and found myself without any real job opportunities in the game industry. My girlfriend Kay, now wife, suggested during one of my long rants about the problems with the game industry that I put my money where my mouth is and make my own game. “Show them how it’s done” as it were. I’d been crafting the “Shirotech” IP for around 4 years at that point, and I knew that I wanted to fix problems I saw with the wider survival horror genre at that point.
Fatal Frame is one of my favorite series of all time and I wanted to recreate what I thought Tecmo did perfectly, So I started working on a cyberpunk Japan ghost story. After about 3 months of testing and experimenting in Unity, Kay suggested that I change the setting of the horror title to Hong Kong and use Cantonese culture as the starting point since she could guide the cultural authenticity better (she’s from Hong Kong originally), and since this culture is so unexplored in games.
That’s where SUZAKU came from; we named our studio after the mythological phoenix for the obvious symbolism as it relates to our situation. This studio is kind of a rebirth for me and Kay, but I want it to be more than that. I want to help re-light the fire in the game industry. I feel like it has stagnated and gone for low-creativity cash grabs on the AAA side or very specific and safe “arthouse” “experiences” from the indie side (which is increasingly less independent and more corporate influenced). We were glad to be able to find a publisher (Top Hat Studios) which who was more than happy to work with us on Sense and help us with its development as well.
AL: Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story launched a crowdfunding page through Kickstarter, how was your experience using the platform?
BW: Kickstarter was a great learning experience. We failed in our first attempt because we weren’t really ready and didn’t have enough to show in order to prove that the game was real; I had a date in mind I wanted to launch on, and I realize now that sometimes dates should come after certain amounts of progress, not before. That failure, however, gave us the tools and feedback we needed to succeed with 600% funding a few months later.
I don’t know if I would use KS again, to be honest though, especially if I can avoid it; this is primarily due to the month of stress and anxiety it can cause, haha. It really is an exhausting process, but I love the idea of being able to bring an idea to the public directly, and it was really uplifting to see over 1000 people that believe in what we are trying to do.
AL: The premise of Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story features some horror and supernatural themes, with inspirations like Clock Tower and Fatal Frame, how has your experience been creating a game in this particular genre? Is it easier or harder than you thought it would be?
BW: I actually had about 4 years of experience doing horror games under the Big Fish Games umbrella. Of course, those tend to be very sanitized for a more family-friendly audience in most cases, and I did feel very stifled creatively at times. But I’ve been obsessed with ghosts since I was a little kid and writing ghost stories is kind of a hobby for me. I view my time at a studio under Big Fish as “cutting my teeth” and gaining the necessary skillsets to build Sense. Oddly enough survival horror, or more specifically puzzle horror is probably the easiest type of game for me to develop. The hard part is just the amount of work on my shoulders alone as the only 2d artist, writer, game designer, and “manager”.
There is so much to do and get done on my own, luckily my wife helps with 2d stuff and has taken over all the 3d modeling tasks, Andi (the composer and sound guy) also helps with social media, and our publisher, Top Hat Studios, is incredibly supportive and helpful. We are a very small team right now, but being this close-knit means we all pull together when it’s most important.
AL: Since its Kickstarter’s end in July 2018, how has Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story changed and what new features would you like fans to be aware of?
BW: Many things have shifted, some things expanded and others cut back. For example, While I made a few of the main ghosts have deeper and longer stories, we actually had to cut back on how we were handling voice acting because the amount of necessary voice lines would have put us in dangerous territory for costs. We opted to go with the key phrases and lines style instead of every word on screen. Further, some gameplay elements were adjusted or refined while others just never felt right and were removed. The Steam demo is a very fair representation of what final gameplay will be like, but there are many surprises the final build will have for everyone.
AL: Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story features some pretty attractive characters, is this something you implemented as a fan of waifus or as a way to get people to check out the game?
BW: I don’t personally believe in using “sex sells” as a reason to design a character a certain way. Sure, some of it is my own personal affinity for waifus and sexy characters, but a bigger part is that I feel like the old standard, beautiful women and awesome dudes, is being intentionally scrubbed away very aggressively in western development. I want to push back at what I see as an attack on the idea of the traditional heroic ideal. I look back fondly on the late 80s and early 90s when I was growing up where you could very easily find some type of Greek mythology style of person to look up to or aspire to be. Even the “normal” guys like Gibson and Glover in Lethal Weapon were larger than life.
I think of Stallone as that heroic male archetype and Meiko Kaji or Angelina Jolie as a perfect example of the female equivalent. No one is saying that less attractive or overweight people (I’ve moved into that category since 2016, haha) have no value or can’t be heroes, but I personally prefer to use art to show an exaggerated ideal regardless of how “realistic” it is. I think it’s more exciting and fun that way and people have responded positively to those ideals for thousands of years.
When it comes to the horror of Sense, and why Mei-Lin is deliberately designed the way she is, I can simplify it down a bit more. There is a very good reason that attractive women are main characters in so many of the best horror movies – and who doesn’t like attractive women? The clash of sexiness to genuine horror is something which has always existed in the genre. Look back to many of the most influential horror movies – the two go hand in hand.
AL: Because of these character designs do you receive requests for 18+ DLC? Do you have plans to feature any 18+ content in the future or is that something that doesn’t really work for this title?
BW: All the time. While I personally have no issue with 18+ developers or content, and I’ve put some money into that side of things myself, it just isn’t what I want to do with Sense or SUZAKU. I DO want to make a few things on the “ecchi” side, like a beach volleyball game, or a dating sim but SUZAKU will never develop anything pornographic. Sense will always be a serious horror title, and anything “lewd” that SUZAKU makes is going to be in that cheeky harem anime fan-service sweet spot.
AL: What does the future of the Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story series look like? Would you like it to become a series?
BW: Sense is absolutely a series. Sense 1 will focus on just one part of the main story in a much larger world. Because I’ve been at this for a while, in the past I’ve already started drafting Sense 2 as an indirect sequel that will evolve the gameplay to what I had actually envisioned, but had no ability to create on my own. Things like full 3D characters and environments, fixed camera angles, and even more cyberpunk.
This is years away for anyone that just got really excited, and Sense 1 will obviously have to do well enough to start funding our studio so we can hire the necessary expansion of employees. This in no way means that Sense 1 is “not good enough” or “not what I wanted”, but sometimes you have to pull back your dreams or expectations to reality and say “how can I make this the best version possible”. We didn’t want to get caught in a development trap and end never delivering the game, or constantly being held back by small imitations.
I think doing that with the first game forced me to focus on really important aspects like world-building, design, and a strong narrative. It will also be really cool for players to see an evolution of sorts when that day comes. They should also look forward to all the new waifus I am designing for the next game though, haha.
AL: You have a demo of Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story available on PC right now, are you also accepting feedback from those playing to possibly implement into the game?
BW: Yes! Feedback is hugely important to us, so if possible please hop into the steam community and be as harsh as possible! Feel free to join our publisher’s Discord as well, we have a channel there. There’s a link on their website.
AL: As a developer, are there any other genres you’d like to explore?
BW: I said above that I want to do a dating sim and a volleyball game, but the genre I most want to try between Sense 1 and 2 is a classic beat-em-up. I’ve been studying the genre more seriously over the last few months, and I’ve always been a fan of Streets of Rage and Dreamcast classics like Dynamite Deka or Zombie Revenge. I really want to do something nostalgic but fresh with the genre, I’ve even put a hint about what that is in Sense for those willing to explore enough!
AL: Is there anything you’d like to say to those awaiting the release of Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story and for those hearing about it for the first time?
BW: I’m sure that people see the promos and the character designs and think “how is this scary”, but the internal motto for the game is “Look Deeper”. If all you saw was 2B’s ass would you know that Nier Automata is a brilliant action game with a deep combo system? We’ve only fully shown 1 main ghost from a cast of over a dozen; the most important part of good horror is holding back the scare until the last possible moment. The second most important part of horror is subverting expectations.
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