Crushing debt isn’t often funny or enjoyable, but with Hidetaka “Swery” Suehiro and his White Owls studio, there is a bright side to everything. Best known for campy survival horror game “Deadly Premonition,” he visited PAX West to show off a demo of his Kickstarter-funded “The Good Life” and its cheeky exploration of the unknown.
“The Good Life” stars Naomi, a photojournalist from New York who racks up too much debt and is grudgingly forced to move to rural England. She isn’t shy how upset she is about her circumstances and her disdain for the people she meets in Rainy Woods. Unfortunately for Naomi, she needs the odd jobs offered by the strange townsfolk to earn money and hopefully escape back to New York.
“There’s a story in my own life that fed into that and was the inspiration for making a game around that central theme,” Swery tells Variety. “That story starts in 2007, when I was making ‘Deadly Premonition.’ The producer who was assigned to that project gets reassigned to go to England for what was supposed to be a few months. It turned out that once he went over there, for work and professional reasons, he ended up being stuck there for almost four years. Something fascinating happened. When he started there, he wasn’t particularly thrilled about the fact that he was stuck in England. Over the four years he was there, his feelings toward his life in that country and his time there really changed. By the end, he didn’t really want to go home. That was a theme that resonated with me, that idea of being someplace and feeling a certain way about your circumstances and the place you are, and having that feeling change over time.”
Each of the three photography jobs in the demo includes light puzzle elements, like figuring out how to stop a truck so you can get the perfect shot. The humorous dialog helps drive things forward, but there wouldn’t be enough meat there to carry an entire game.
This is a Swery project, though. So the mundane is always mixed with a sense of wonder. Naomi will have to put her journalistic skills to the test and unravel a murder mystery.
“There are several themes that have recurred over my games,” Swery says. “One of the things that is important to me is that characters—not just the main character, but NPCs—are strong personalities and they are central to the game. I spend a lot of time building these things up. Additionally, you will find a heavy fascination with food.
“One other theme from me is—I describe it as ambivalence—a sort of bifurcated balance. If there is sadness in the game, there will be levity. If there is horror, there will be light. That balance is something I try to strive for on a more serious level, as far as game design is concerned.”
Balancing out the murder mystery is a second conundrum. Everyone in Rainy Woods turns into an animal at night, including Naomi. Eventually, she’ll even have access to an “optimized-for-dogs GoPro” that players can use to snap pictures while walking around on four legs.
Swery is thoughtful about the decision to turn villagers into animals. It’s an exploration of human nature and the social contract we have with one another.
“There are always places we have to hold back what we’re actually thinking or not do what we actually want to do,” Swery explains. “For me, the thought was about whether we would do those things if free from those constraints as animals. I think that as animals, those personalities can come to the forefront. They can be stronger and more true to themselves. It’s one of the things I’m looking at in designing character interaction and personalities. For instance, Naomi as a cat, how might she be able to act differently. When’s she’s a dog, how might she be able to act differently? That’s a thought that’s always in my head.”
In October 2017, things weren’t looking good for “The Good Life.” A crowdfunding campaign on Fig (a platform focused on investments rather than the traditional backer model) hadn’t even raised half its $1.5 million goal. Kickstarter culture has changed drastically for video game creators since Double Fine’s “Broken Age” raised $3.3 million in 2012.
“One of the things I noticed in Kickstarter is that when the program was at its inception if you had a name in the industry that was trusted and a concept you could pitch, that was enough to get people to open up their wallets,” Swery says. “Nowadays, that’s not so much the case. People are more reticent to throw down their cash without something more tangible being brought to the table during the Kickstarter process.”
He attributes naivete about crowdfunding to White Owl’s failure on Fig. At the time, there wasn’t enough of “The Good Life” to show. Swery and his time quickly educated themselves to give the project a better chance on Kickstarter.
“The core difference is that I had not yet versed myself in the right way to attempt a crowdfunding initiative,” he explained. “We took a real look ourselves and asked, ‘What do we need to differently? How can we fix the lack of confidence?’ Putting out a playable demo during the Kickstarter process, pushed it suddenly and aggressively toward our goal. It added a lot of fuel to the fire. Kickstarter recommends that you stream your game, stream interactivity with fans, communicate with the people who are trying to reach out to you who are already backers or could be backers. By doing these other things, we saw a big lift during the campaign. Along that same line, we did these Ask Me Anythings. In real-time, while we were streaming the AMAs, we could monitor the Kickstarter and we saw significant gains just over the course of the stream.”
“The Good Life” launched on Kickstarter with a ¥68 million ($612,000) goal (about $70,000 less than the game attracted on Fig). It raised ¥81 million ($730,000), with White Owls also securing a publisher. Sony Unties, an indie publishing label run by Sony Music Entertainment, is bringing the game to Windows PC and PlayStation 4 in late 2019.