Building Paradise: The Philosophy Behind Paradise Killer

We chat with the leads on one of the most fascinating detective games.

Paradise Killer, the first project from independent development studio Kaizen Game Works, is one of the most confident games I’ve ever played. And yet, when I ask its developers about what part of Paradise Killer they felt most confident about leading up to its release, they struggle to name anything at all.

“…The music?” hesitates Oli Clarke Smith, the creative director who essentially wrote the entirety of this dense game filled with constantly unfolding mysteries and riveting characters.

“The trailer was pretty good, right?” asks Phil Crabtree, who programmed every system in this intricate, open-world thriller. He adds that, if you told him what Paradise Killer was going to be two years ago, he would’ve thought he couldn’t make it.

Eventually, both devs staunchly agree on one thing: the drop from the Idle Lands, one of the very first moments in the game.

After being notified she’s free to waltz out of a three million day exile for trusting a demon, protagonist Lady Love Dies drops from her isolated tower into civilization below from thousands of feet in the air. Her long fall, accentuated by loud saxophone flares in the game’s main theme song, culminates in a late title card. It’s a dramatic and thrilling moment full of personality and flair — one of my favorite title sequences in recent memory.

“If you only play for 15 minutes, you can have a bit of a good time!” Crabtree laughs.

Judging from the love Paradise Killer received in the midst of a tumultuous year busy with memorable releases, many people played for much longer than that, and had more than just a good time. Much like a real paradise, I still thinking about Paradise Killer long after I left it. It’s hard not to think about an experience as eccentric and captivating as this one.

Paradise Killer puts you in the stylish boots of Lady Love Dies, an “investigation freak” who emerges from exile to solve “the crime to end all crimes.” The Council, an elite theocratic body that governs Paradise, has been murdered. And it happens just after preparing Perfect 25: the latest in the string of cyclical, synthetic heavens that make up Paradise.

Henry Division, a demonically possessed mortal, is the obvious suspect. Yet it’s clear the evidence adds up to something much deeper. Members of The Syndicate, the governmental body that enacts the Council’s will, and helps usher in new eras of Paradise, seems too eager to pin the heinous crime on someone quickly. Henry is himself a Citizen: a human being kidnapped from the real world, perpetually oppressed under a discriminatory system, meant to be sacrificed to alien gods worshipped by the Syndicate. As Lady Love Dies, it’s up to you to bring justice by convicting whoever among group is responsible for the destruction of Paradise’s corrupted order.

Paradise Killer is unique from other mystery games. You can end your investigation and head to trial with whatever evidence you gather — or don’t gather — any time you wish. While there’s no particular motivation to do this, the game allows you to choose when you want to end.

“What we both wanted was for people to come away feeling that they had made some tough choices, but were happy with the consequences,” explains Smith. “And they didn’t reload their save, didn’t do something differently. They lived with that consequence. Because it’s all too easy in life, I think, to not take responsibility for your own actions and to blame others. Video games are a very low-pressure way of confronting that and taking the responsibility on.”

When reflecting on the most difficult part of making such an ambitious game, Crabtree says that, more than anything, it was testing. “Because how on earth do you test a game that you could play in 1,000 different ways?”

Making it completely freeform was the biggest risk. “It was a real challenge to make the ending worthwhile and satisfying,” Smith adds. “And I was expecting a lot more negativity around that in reviews and from players. What we’ve seen is that because people have become so invested in the characters and the story, when it comes time to do the ending trials, where you might not have much traditional linear drama, players are still very satisfied and engrossed in it. Because of the journey.”

“I always wanted to make a game that was, like, the journey was more important than the destination,” he elaborates. “But I think a lot of people still worry about the destination and still want a strong ending. So I’m proud that we managed to get that to work well for the majority of people. Some people have said the ending is weak. And I understand why. Would we do things differently next time? Possibly. But I’m very happy with where we got to.”

The game owes much to those vibrant characters — excellently designed by Gigalithic. Alongside the heroes of another indie game you might know (Hades) the cast of Paradise Killer has received much attention this year for being, frankly, really hot. And this was, much to the joy of this bisexual, absolutely deliberate.

“A few years ago, I got into Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure,” explains Smith. “It is so striking in its character designs, and so brave especially in how it depicts male characters. Very fashionable; sexual, but not necessarily sexualized. And I wanted to do that because other people aren’t doing that. I also really love how big the characters are in Danganronpa. You can remember all of them, and they’re all very much larger than life.”

Marry those ideas together and infuse them with avant garde, 80s and 90s high fashion, and you get the formula for the visual makeup of this crew. One that was always intended to be as diverse as it is eccentric.

“We always wanted a diverse cast, and to do something different with them,” Smith continues. “We are a small team making a small game for a small niche. Anything we can do to stand out is good and anything we can do to bring in people is good. Why be afraid and do ‘normal’ characters when we can have, you know, Crimson Acid with a goat head? Or Yuri, who’s barely got a top on. It was just fun.”

At the same time, there was a balance to strike. You won’t see my favorite character, Crimson Acid, in the character lineup present in some of the trailers. It’s not because she was created late in development, though. She existed in the game for quite a long time.

“There are a lot of sexualized visual novels on Steam. And, at first glance, Crimson appears to fall into that trap,” explains Smith. “So we didn’t want to put people off with that immediately. Because the reasons that she is sexualized are explained within the game, and they’re important reasons, rather than just being, you know, for the sake of it like some games are. It was a discussion we had with the marketing team. It was just like, what does this look like in 2020 or 2019? How does this represent us?”

One of the most prominent themes in Paradise Killer is the pursuit of perfection. On one hand, it came naturally as a result of making video games for a living. As developers, people like Smith always try to hone and perfect their craft. But Smith also wanted to touch on the potential in the modern world for us to create a perfect society — a potential he says “is beset on all sides by the many evils of capitalism and mankind.”

Thus, Smith wanted to play around with a cast of characters obsessed with a specific vision of divinity and perfection. He wanted to ask questions like, “What does perfection mean to this particular group of people? How does the player’s own view of a perfect society then match up with that? How does the story make them question that?”

But, as much as it is a game about achieving perfection, it’s also a mystery tale about the pursuit of justice. Love Dies is brought out of exile to deliver one form of justice, which, as the world is increasingly aware, doesn’t always align with achieving it.

“I think our notions of modern justice are very outdated,” begins Smith. “They’re very black and white. Bad guys go to jail, and jail is the right place for bad guys. I don’t necessarily believe that at all. Our justice system is incredibly corrupt and incredibly broken. Even more so in the States where it is a privatized jail system that racially targets entire communities for profit and justice. I think it needs more shades of gray, a more human perspective and understanding.”

“I don’t think Paradise Killer is a great philosophical work about all of that,” he adds. “But I think that it does present some themes to the player to think about, because the choice is put in your hands. And it’s not like other narrative games, where they say, this person is the bad guy. You solve the case, and the bad guy now gets that punishment. What it says is, who do you think should be punished? And once you’re in the trials, what do you think that punishment should be?”

Smith calls himself a pacifist. He doesn’t think people should be put to death for any crime. But perhaps you feel differently. And this is a game that provides the space to think about and explore that.

“What we didn’t want to do is make something that was very preachy,” he elaborates. “I think it’s better that we separate the story from the real world and give you a less pressured and more creative space to think about some of those problems. I think there are games that could do way better than we did on exploring the philosophy of a justice system. That isn’t what we set out to do. But to just let people think and choose their actions.”

“We’re not really equipped to write about that from a perspective where we know it. We’ve not got the experience,” says Crabtree. “So instead, we focus on choice and consequence.”

There is one character separate from the in-game aristocracy and its obsession with perfection. Nor is he interested in the trappings of the justice system. I’m talking about Shinji: a blue demon who pops up everywhere throughout the island to criticize The Syndicate, capitalism, and just about anything else. He functions like a collectible; find and talk to him to get a diatribe on anything ranging from insightful lore to weird bullshit. The reward is simply engaging with someone brutally honest, ridiculously witty, and a wonderful reprieve from the webs of truth and deceit you have to navigate in The Syndicate.

“His name was never supposed to be Shinji,” reveals Smith. “A lot of names go in as placeholders and I’m like, ‘I’ll get to changing that later.’ So I was like, okay, we need a name for this guy. I looked around, and I had an Evangelion figure on my desk. And I thought about Shinji from Evangelion.” He simply never changed it back.

“We thought we needed a mascot character to help sell people on the game,” he says. “We also needed someone to deliver some lore to the player and provide some comic relief because, although this is a game about mass murder, it’s also bright and sunny. It’s supposed to be somewhere you can go on holiday.” In the midst of the heaviness, Shinji provides consistent, ridiculous contrast.

“What I don’t think he does properly is become a mascot because no one is going to make a figure out of Shinji,” he laughs. “Think Monokuma from Danganronpa. There’s endless amounts of merchandise of the Kumas. But, for a good number of reasons, there probably won’t be of Shinji.”

Part of this is due to a comically offensive but memorable design. Specifically, Shinji is always throwing up double birds. His hands are pixelized to censor it, while an alien emoji covers his otherwise naked genitals as well, but it’s easy to tell what’s happening. Like many brilliant things, this was a spur of the moment decision.

“We did that a day before we demoed at EGX,” recalls Smith. “But we suddenly realized we weren’t in an 18-rated area; we were just out on the show floor pitching for funding. And we thought, ‘This probably isn’t good. So we need to put this filter in now.’ I think Shinji worked really well, but I don’t think he is the mascot that we thought he might be.”

But some brilliant things in Paradise Killer are purposefully vague. For example, Lady Love Dies spends three million days in exile wandering around the same square of marble. She has one book, one coffee percolator, and doesn’t even need to use bodily functions like eating and going to the bathroom. The game never explains how she manages to survive.

“We just wanted something that’s hard to comprehend,” explains Smith. “Like, Witness to the End, his entire job on each island – and each island lasts a few centuries – is to watch it end. What does he do the rest of the time? I think it’s nice to have that kind of thing.”

While I unequivocally adore Crimson Acid and Shinji, it’s not something I can say about every character — or even the majority of them. Paradise Killer’s colorful cast is interesting and complex. One reason for that is because they’re so often unlikable people. And yet, I can’t help but see them differently when Smith tells me that, “for every other fault that The Syndicate has, they are very accepting of other people’s identity and culture.”

For the developers, inclusiveness was a key aspect of Paradise Killer. “As much as this game is for us, it’s also important for us to make games for other people, and to provide something back to the world that’s good. That helps the world. And representation is very important in that. There are so many different types of people out there that just haven’t appeared in games. Everyone has their own wonderful story that they could bring to a game. It was important for me for a number of reasons to have Lady Love Dies be a larger lady, to have that kind of representation in the game. For the characters to have different accents … to make sure we had native speakers for almost all the characters so that there was a level of authenticity people could relate to.”

Ultimately, while Smith was the game’s one writer, he relied on Rachel Noy – who did some of the game’s 3D art and is now the studio’s Art Director – for help in this department. “Middle class white men can only do so much,” acknowledges Crabtree. “So getting more opinions in on it was really important to us.”

Another vital aspect of the game is accessibility. Sprinting is an action that you toggle instead of holding a button for. The game also implements open dyslexic font, and lets you turn off flickering lights. These and many more options are settings you can easily change.

“After Until Dawn came out, when I was at Supermassive Games, we got an email from someone saying they had very bad arthritis,” Smith recalls. “Because the game was so simple to control, it was actually a game they could play. It allowed them to escape from their pain for a bit. We wanted to make sure that we could do as much as possible with Paradise Killer.”

“We always said that we wanted to open this up to as many people as possible,” adds Crabtree. “I know it’s different for different games. But in reality, for us, it didn’t take long. And it felt like putting those things in just added massive value to so many people. It’s a bit of a no-brainer. We’ll do whatever we can, wherever we can. It’s just, at some point, it becomes extremely difficult with a small team to do that universally. But we’ve learned a lot of lessons from this one. We’d love to keep it going forward.”

Speaking of moving forward, I couldn’t help but impulsively ask about a sequel. I just love this game too much. At the time of this interview, Smith and Crabtree told me they had been discussing it and had plans, but nothing to announce (they have since announced a new project). To them, revisiting Paradise someday feels right.

“Whatever happens with the next game, I would like to go back to Paradise at some point in the future,” says Smith. “Who knows what that will be? What form it will take. I really like this cast of characters, the world, and the lore. And I would like to do something else with it.”

“We really don’t want to jump and do something quickly either,” says Crabtree. “But, yeah, thankfully Paradise Killer has gone well, so I think there will be a next thing. We’re just working out what that is.”

Paradise Killer is a supremely creative game, to the point that it’s often divisive (see: that ending). I can guess where it gets its inspiration, but there’s nothing quite like it. While it wasn’t easy to market a game that takes so many risks, much less as a studio’s debut game, the struggles were worth it for the developers.

“We’ve always known it’s divisive, and that’s one of the things we like about it,” says Crabtree. “In the very early days, we thought, well, people are going to love it or hate it. And that can be said of nearly any game. So why don’t we just really lean into what we love?”

“We had one shot at making a game,” he goes on to say. “If this game didn’t work out, then we’d have to go back and work for a studio. So we made something that we believed in and trusted other people would see it, too. I expected a few people to like it, but not at the same level we’ve seen. I’m blown away by that. It’s so hard to make a game and to have a vision. It’s so easy to change your vision. But we kept it strong. It’s nice to show that if you believe in something and give it a personality, other people will be attracted to it.”