Suda51 interview: Punk's Undead

Sitting in a leather jacket, covered in sparkles and with “Love Will Tear Us Apart” emblazoned down one arm, Goichi Suda looks every bit the Japanese punk auteur he’s renowned to be. I get the feeling that unlike many people, this isn’t just a persona, that if the man who calls himself Suda51 wasn’t working behind-the-scenes at Grasshopper Manufacture, that he’d be rockin’ out in a band, probably playing bass (maybe drums), and still having just as much fun as he is today.

When I discussed this with friend of mine, he surmises that a more likely alternate career path for Suda would be an assassin – but it still comes as a surprise to learn the young developer was initially employed as an undertaker before jumping into the games industry in the mid-90s.

Suda51 and Rie in Sydney

Suda51 and Rie in Sydney

We were hunkered down in a basement venue decorated with skeletons and chains, bare red bulbs hanging from the ceiling. GhM was celebrating the impending launch of its latest game, Shadows of the Damned. Or, as Suda himself refers to it in heavily-accented English: Shadows of the Damned… damned… damned….

The game puts demon hunter Garcia Hotspur in what would traditionally be the “hot seat”, thrown into the depths of Hell where he must battle evil to save his true love, Paula. Sounds traditional – historical, even – but Suda’s interpretation isn’t actually that hot. The punk version of Hell in DMD is blue. Why blue? “Why not!” Suda replies, setting the tone for the rest of the conversation.

“Red is too ordinary, we wanted a change. The biggest thing is that this Hell actually has a society with demons, light and dark, and you can see – or feel – daily life.

“I think we usually envision Hell as really chaotic, but this Hell, it’s more orderly, and rather organised.”

Orderly? Organised? That doesn’t sound particularly punk there, Suda!

“I think, for me, the definition of ‘punk’ is to follow your initial instinct, and I think that it is really important to follow the initial instinct straight and directly. That’s why I created this original Hell that’s not really the idea that’s perceived in Western Europe, nor Eastern.”

In this Hell that Suda has created, not only are demons – and demon hunters – running amok, but shapeshifters lurk just around the corner. That is, if they’re allowed to stay there. We’re not sure quite what a shapeshifting demon has to do wrong to be expelled from the demon world, but that’s what happened to Johnson.

[img_big]center,5054,2011-05-11/,Garcia and Johnson[/img_big]

Johnson was actually with us in the basement, taking the form of a large black motorcycle parked behind Suda. He appears in the game, too, as Garcia’s primary choice of weapon – a club for melee action, or as a large, expandable firearm.

“Johnson – the gun that is actually Johnson – he’s a shapeshifter, and he has a lot of different abilities. When he was expelled from the demon world, his power was encased – closed in – so becoming a gun is his way of trying to break that cycle.

“That’s why all these weapons are completely different to what you see in real life. You might use bones as your bullets, or have really powerful guns, or all kinds of guns with different features.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. I’d checked out some of the gameplay earlier, and while it does shy away from traditional “Hell” motifs, the world is a detailed, dynamic place. Golden goat-heads are used to ward off demons, Garcia drinks tequila to regain his strength, and strawberries are used to unlock doors. Suda explains that the choice of fruit is actually “post-punk”, by the way.

[img_big]center,5054,2011-04-21/sotd_138a_jpg_jpgcopy.jpg,This is not Blue Heaven[/img_big]

Speaking through his translator Rie, Suda explained how the game’s soundtrack had been embellished through a collaboration with The Damned – and even though he’s a big fan, it wasn’t initially his idea.

“After the title announcement they contacted us! They really wanted to work with us, and we were like Sure! Absolutely!”

As a huge fan of 70s-era music, this was a great opportunity for Suda, and his sound designer, Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka. Albums from The Damned sit alongside The Stranglers, The Buzzcocks and Television in Suda’s record collection, battling for space next to offerings from New Order and Joy Division. “Those are the best bands!” he exclaims.

“I listen to them all the time,” gesturing to the graffiti-style slogans on his arms. “Punk’s Not Dead” proclaims his left.

These influences have shone through in Suda’s work, too.

“When I write my scenario, I listened to Joy Division a lot, so I think – when I imagine things – some elements from the music will come out as my language.”

I laugh, observing that Joy Division, a band whose leader killed himself in 1980, would explain why DMD didn’t seem a particularly “happy” game.

Suda agrees, describing it as “a little more serious and intense” than his earlier works. That’s not to say it’s not funny. The game – full of phallic references and less-than-subtle innuendo – manages to intersperse adult content and some truly terrifying moments with chuckles and genuine belly laughs. Apparently this wasn’t intentional, but in a game with a weapon known as the Big Boner, it was inevitable.

Suda51 and the rest of the Grasshopper Manufacture crew are based in Japan, but if Suda had his way, he would move to Sydney in a heartbeat. Unfortunately language difficulties form a pretty sizeable barrier, and there’s only so much that his translator Rie can do for him.

This trip was all-too brief, a mere two days in the land Down Under with a flight home the morning after our chat, but he really does love it here.

“I’ll be back,” he says in English.

In the meantime, he will continue to communicate with the world via his [surl=]Twitter[/surl] account, posting pictures of food, photographs of interesting buildings, and reaching out to his fanbase. “It’s a great opportunity to connect to people worldwide,” he says.

[img_big]center,5054,2011-03-08/paula.jpg,Love interest Paula[/img_big]

There is one thing he’s not so fond of about my country though – our censorship laws. With a game as violent, scary and over-the-top as Shadows of the Damned, both GhM and publisher EA were a little concerned it might not squeak through as being suitable for 15 year olds (the current highest rating in Australia, which lacks an adults-only category). The companies decided to play it cautious, and push the game through the Classification Board early, under the codename [surl=]Project Blue[/surl].

Fortunately, it was granted an MA15+ rating, and Suda was able to bring his new game to Australia, The local response has been phenomenal. “It’s been fantastic,” he smiles.

“I’m sorry that the veteran title Mortal Kombat, that you can’t release that here.” Suda51 pauses for a moment, “But we’re here – and for that we’re very happy!”

Shadows of the Damned is due for worldwide release on June 21st, for Xbox 360 and PS3.

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