Ryan Phillips and Nick Doerr both worked for years at NIS America, working on a range of Japanese localizations for the company, before they broke off on their own to co-found Mr. Tired Media.
Now they’re hard at work on a passion project of theirs, Undead Darlings ~no cure for love~: a hybrid visual novel, first-person dungeon crawler, and turn-based battler. It’s a Japanese-style game made in the west about slogging through the “Funpocalypse,” getting to know undead girls, and convincing them that it’s for the best that the cure to the zombie plague be mass produced and distributed, as you are hoping to do.
Siliconera caught up with Phillips and Doerr to talk about what aspects of Japanese-developed games they’re looking to bring into Undead Darlings and to get further details about how each distinctive part of the game would play and interlock with the others.
You say that having worked at NIS America for a number of years has given you an understanding of the thought process behind the “Japanese-style narrative.” Could you explain specifically what you understand this particular Japanese-style of narrative is and how you’ve applied it to Undead Darlings?
From what we can understand after working on dozens of Japanese-developed titles, a few narrative trends became apparent and those trends are what we are applying to our game. First and foremost, the games we had worked on in the past were very much character-driven, with the overarching story taking a back seat to more personal interactions between key party members—in some games, NPCs got just as much screen time and interpersonal interaction with the player’s team as the team itself. Players grow close to and feel like the game’s characters are old friends of theirs!
Second, in English writing, one of the first things you are taught is “show, don’t tell.” In the Japanese games we’ve worked on, the opposite was true. Most things are told instead of shown, with both the narrative and dialogue feeding players information instead of using visual cues or letting the world setting tell its own story. Of course, this is not a universal rule; it seems to mainly come up in what are considered “budget” titles. We are adopting this style of storytelling because we are also on a pretty tight budget, so it’s a good fit for our first game.
It seems that it’s necessary, for story reasons, to ensure that one of the undead girls trusts you so that they may serve as a test subject. Is it possible to not become that friendly with any of them and avoid this or do you ensure that at least one trusts the player enough so the story can continue? In other words: how open is the conversation system?
It is absolutely possible to not grow close enough to any of the girls for them to be willing to volunteer as the initial recipient of an (in their circle) untested cure. The story is built to accommodate that potential outcome, and with the addition of a New Game + mode that keeps track of the choices you made in the previous playthrough, you can both learn more about the characters and continue to build a rapport with them between playthroughs. Growing close to all of them in this manner may also lead to a special ending!
Related to that last question, is there perhaps an element of tragedy under the humor, then, if the test subject is the girl that you have romanced? Or does it not matter if she’s already undead? In any case, what range of emotions are you hoping to bring out in players through the story and getting to know the characters?
Learning about the girls’ pasts and traumas is integral in getting them to trust you and open up to you. Her being undead is simply one of the traumas that you will need to help them move past—or in some cases, help them to see that becoming human again is the right course of action to take. We want to give players a wide range of emotional reactions throughout the game. Core story sequences will have humorous elements, while one-on-one talks with the girls will run into more emotional and tragic scenarios. Nick may have shed man-tears while writing some of these scenes, so hopefully that means they will bring out similar feelings in players.
Regarding mixing in RPG sections, is there not a risk of turning some players off who mainly enjoy visual novels with more complex mechanics such as this? How challenging do you want these sections to be and will there be any way to tweak the difficulty of them?
Creating a hybrid genre will always run the risk of alienating purists who prefer one type of game over another, and the only way to address this concern is to give both elements a unique spin. In our case, the visual novel portion has a spin in that it tells a story unlike any before it; creating a funpocalypse where being undead doesn’t stop you from having a good time and where the world is still capable of having a sense of humor. The RPG sections are designed like classic dungeon crawlers, but with a more traditional JRPG battle system. Without going into a massive diatribe examining the play mechanics across JRPG sub-genres, we wanted to create a system that entertains veterans of dungeon crawlers while also keeping the frustration and learning curve to newer dungeon crawler gamers to a minimum. We do this by having each girl represent a base “class” in battle, with a Skill tree that expands as they level up, and each with their own preferred weapon types. The challenge comes into play regarding the loot system and learning to properly exploit enemy weaknesses to deal significant damage.
What will players be able to do during the first-person dungeon crawling sections? Is it just loot point collecting (how does that work?) and entering battles? Or is there more to it such as puzzles, traps, or perhaps more storytelling elements such as through the environmental art?
During the first-person dungeon crawling sections, players will be exploring the maze-like environs to advance the main narrative. Loot collecting is important, since weapons come with durability ratings and rare drops will have special Skills attached to them. Making sure you have your party equipped for whatever may lie in wait ahead is always a good idea, after all. Battling and gaining experience is also a basic requirement to advance in most RPGs, and the same applies here.
Also in these dungeon crawling areas, there will be some traps and gimmicks to get through. These will not be as convoluted or widespread as in some other dungeon crawlers (for instance, “magic-canceling” zones are usually there just to force players to slog through their menus over and over to re-cast party buffs), but will help to make the maps more interesting to explore as well as increase the longevity of the game.
Finally, there will be special sub-events in the dungeons that require specific party members to trigger. This is meant to do several things—keep players rotating their party lineup so that all the girls can remain at comparable levels with one another, and to balance out the Affection Points with the girls. If you notice that your points for, say, Summer are lagging behind the rest, it may be because you have not kept her in your active party when exploring dungeons, thereby missing any sub-events that require her presence to trigger. Keep changing your lineup and you’ll be rewarded, was the basic concept behind this.
As to the Exponential Exploitation system in the turn-based battles, is it possible for players to get really good at using it just by learning the weaknesses of enemies, or are there random elements to it that prevents them getting easy wins if they have the necessary knowledge already?
Memorizing enemy weaknesses is always a solid strategy in these types of games, and it’s a good way to increase the damage multiplier and make your way through dungeons. But there are a few things to keep in mind, which we hope will keep the difficulty stable throughout the game. First, Skills with attributes attached to them will cost a decent amount of what will be a limited MP pool, so picking and choosing the right time to take the advantage in battle is important. Second, the EE System is built around exploiting several weaknesses at once in order to dole out significant damage and boost the damage multiplier even faster. If an enemy is weak to Fire and Wind attacks, it is recommended to use a Linked Skill that uses both of those elements. This also mitigates the major MP loss that would be suffered by using individual Skills.
Experimenting with your party and their Skills is vital in unlocking Linked Skills, which are vital to progressing through the game like a boss. Also, rare loot drops will have Skills attached to them, which gives more flexibility when deciding which party members to take into the dungeon with you. Especially rare loot drops will have Linked Skills attached, which frees up an entire command slot in battle since one character can now use a move that would ordinarily require two—but on the flipside, the MP loss is now their burden alone.
You say that you can take a party of three with you. How is the party chosen, why would one girl be chosen over another, and does this choice any impact on the player’s relationship with certain characters?
Before entering any dungeons, the visual novel story sequence will take players to what will act as the “hub” area, where they can change party members and store any rare or favored items in Buck’s truck. His truck bed has limited space, but as you use weapons and drop their durability to zero—which turns them into scrap—these can be used to increase Buck’s storage space. So use your weapons! Break ‘em!
As discussed earlier, each girl represents a base “class” and has her own weapon and Skill preferences. Certain Linked Skills can only be accessed through certain party setups because of this, so your party selection should be tailored to the types of enemies in each area and their respective weaknesses. Also as previously discussed, sub-events in dungeons require specific party members to trigger, which can aid in increasing their Affection Points, especially if one member is lagging behind the others.
It seems you have more than just humans and the undead in Undead Darlings. In fact, some of the characters look completely bizarre. Could you tell us a little bit more about the world (the Funpocalypse?) and how these odd characters came to be?
There was one primary impetus to going into the bizarre with our enemy designs—the girls are zombies with human hearts, and they can use magic. In a world where zombies can use magic, we figured that the suspension of disbelief was already broken because of how ridiculous that alone is. That’s why we chose to have bizarre and unique enemies; as an interesting side-note, there is a story-related reason for them as well, but the depths of that rabbit hole are meant to be explored in a future installment if this formula is enjoyed by players!
Finally, will you continue to work on the game if the Kickstarter fails? Let’s presume that it won’t fail for now, what will you be prioritizing putting the money towards?
Absolutely. This has been a passion project for us since 2012—every expense has come out-of-pocket and has resulted in completely sacrificing any payment to ourselves. We are doing this because we love video games, we love anime, we love moe, and we love this industry. We’re not doing this to line our pockets—every cent of the Kickstarter goes straight into paying our team members, the game’s development, and the growth of Mr. Tired as a game studio.
The primary cost for the minimum funding goal goes to a few key things—a lead programmer, who will need to be on salary for several months in order to gel the separate sections of code (battle, 3D dungeons, visual novel) together into one cohesive game file; a lighting and object designer, who will add a ton of polish, detail, and depth to the currently barren and basic 3D dungeons; payment for the music score; and battle animations and even more animation for the UI and menus.
The jump to the partial voice acting tier is a pretty on-point cost, and we wanted to give players something to add value to the game before porting it to a different platform. Besides, Sony would appreciate the voicing and would be more willing to host our game on their consoles with that.
Additional stretch goals are also about paying our staff; especially in regard to porting the game to the PS Vita! The handheld is several years old, and memory allocation with that handheld is a very new process to our staff and will require several additional months of programming in order to get it running. We will need to down-res the art assets, reconfigure the 3D dungeons in terms of culling and possibly putting in a fog-of-war, etc etc. Also, we’re looking to do a Cross-buy and Cross-save feature with the PS4 version at that tier, meaning both versions will need to be developed simultaneously, which will either cause development to take longer or will require more staff members—both options would equate to a much higher cost! Essentially, the stretch goals are placed where they are at the costs they are at because that is literally what it will take for a young new team to educate themselves about putting games on platforms that have very different specs and use the memory in unique ways.