Interview – Rakuen with Laura Shigihara

I had the chance to interview Laura Shigihara, who recently released her game Rakuen via Steam. Enjoy!

Markus: Hey Laura, to someone who has never heard of Rakuen – what would you tell him/her?

Laura: Rakuen is a story-based adventure about a little Boy who lives in the hospital. One day he asks his Mom to escort him to the fantasy world from his favorite storybook, so that he can ask for a wish from the Guardian of the Forest. In order to receive his wish, the Boy must undergo a series of challenges that revolve around helping his neighbors in the hospital come to terms with their unfinished business. He does this by interacting with their alter-egos in the fantasy world.

Rakuen is a mix between a point-and-click adventure and a story-based RPG. The game starts off with room escape puzzles, dialogue based mysteries, a dungeon that resembles something you might find in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past… but then it gradually transitions to using more exposition once you’ve gotten to know the characters better (I went that route because I personally like more gameplay upfront, but then I want more story once I’m invested, hehe). There is a lot of Japanese culture throughout the game, a lot of music (the soundtrack has 52 tracks, including 10 lyrical songs), and an art style that is remniscent of Secret of Mana crossed with a Miyazaki film.

Markus: What kind of games did inspire Rakuen or in other words – why did you decide to go with the RPG Maker style ? Did To the Moon play a role here?

Laura: Actually, despite the fact that both games were made using RPG Maker, Rakuen’s art style/story/design were not inspired by To the Moon. I grew up playing a lot of jrpgs and adventure games (Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana being two of my favorites), and I’ve always wanted to make a game with a similar audio and visual style. I love the look of SNES games; they’re able to do so much with with so little, and the art style ages very well in my opinion. I also loved the organic and hand-painted style of the art in Legend of Mana for the original Playstation (as well as the large living tree and rock creatures), so there was definitely some inspiration from that for the world of Morizora’s Forest. This is reflected in the curvy Leeble vegetable huts, the hand-painted look of Morizora and his grove, the large animated water dragon, etc.

In terms of game design, some of my biggest inspirations were old point-and-click adventures like Maniac Mansion (as well as a modern indie game called Fleuret Blanc); adventure games like The Legend of  Zelda: A Link to the Past; and games that had a lot of interesting character dialogue like the Animal Crossing series or Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year-Door. I was also inspired by the movie Life is Beautiful (specifically, how the father built a special world for his son in order to shield him from the terrible things happening around them), and the bleeding together of fantasy and reality in films like Spirited Away.

Markus: In what kind of perspective does Rakuen reflect your own life? Are you telling personal stories, that you’ve experienced yourself?

Laura: There are many things I’ve personally experienced that influenced Rakuen’s story, and many of the characters in the game are either friends or family members. 

Markus: Why didn’t you name the boy and his mum?

Laura: Going along with the theme that anyone can be a hero (and sometimes being a hero to someone can mean something as simple as listening to them, empathizing with them, or even just being there for them), I wanted to emphasize that the two protagonists could be anyone.

Markus: I imagine Rakuen like a puzzle from the start of. How did you start to put the pieces together and what was there from the beginning  and what came in  afterwards?

Laura: A while back, I wrote a song for the Play for Japan  album (the charity album organized by Akira Yamaoka after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami). This song is called „Jump“ and while I was writing it, I imagined the story of a Boy living in the hospital. His Mom helps him to escape to a fantasy world by braiding together bed sheets in order to climb out the window. The two of them ride on a train to a fantasy world where they go on a great journey, the ending being the same as in the game. My friend Emmy (who is the lead artist on the game) and I decided it would be fun to make a music video for this song (using that story)… However, when we met up, she showed me some concept art that inspired me so much that I said, „we shouldn’t just make a music video… let’s turn this into a game!“

From there, I worked on coming up with the Boy’s specific challenges in the fantasy world, the various characters in the hospital and how their fantasy alter-egos would be represented, Boy and Mom’s specific circumstances, and how the gameplay would function (since I wanted Rakuen to have actual gameplay and not just be a „walking simulator“). Some of the things that existed early on were the original concept of Boy and Mom escaping to a fantasy world in order to complete challenges to receive the Boy’s specific wish, the underlying challenges faced by the hospital that relate to real world events, Leeble Village and its residents (the game actually started as a crafting game, where each Leeble represented a character who would help you craft tools), several of the main characters and their backstories, the final scene, etc. Some things that came later on were Monsieur Bud’s tea house, a more elaborate set of cutscenes explaining Kisaburo and Sue’s backgrounds, and the implementation of the Patient Lounge (though the idea of improving the hospital atmosphere existed from early on).

Markus: There are a lot of cultural references in this game (mostly japanese and korean ones) –  you read about specific  events, but also see a snowglobe from  Switzerland for example. Can you tell us a bit about this?

Laura: The reason you can see a snowglobe from Switzerland in Tony’s house is because he’s a former pilot who traveled frequently and brought back souvenirs from around the world. As for the Japanese and Korean references; I chose to include them because of my own personal experiences. The game’s story also revolves around some specific events that occured in Japan. How those events relate to the hospital and its residents is gradually revealed throughout the game.

Markus: There might be  a lot of players, who try Rakuen after they have played To the Moon. Me included, but in this case – I didn’t really have the expectations to cry – I was just excited to see what this story is about. I have to say, that I felt happy because the jokes and humour are brilliant. I love Sugarbaby! There is really something for everyone in this game and I admit, I teared up three times. My point is, do you think the players approach your game with expectations to be prepared for an emotional, sad story? And did you try to deliver it to them?

Laura: First of all, thank-you so much for the kind words 🙂 I never know whether or not people are gonna get my strange sense of humor, but I’m always happy when they do. And if players are able to relate to the characters and empathize with them then I’m glad for this as well, since one of my goals is to highlight the importance of empathy… Especially when someone’s suffering may be more latent (like with Mom, who hides her struggles so well). I tried my best to create real characters with relatable struggles. I hope that the player will be able to experience the feeling of building friendships with them, and that they’ll see the importance of their kindness in their lives. I wanted there to be highs and lows; silliness, sadness, adventure, joy, loss, and everything in between, because all these are a part of life. I suppose crying is a part of life, too 🙂 

Markus: 4-5 years in development – what were the hardest parts  in this process and for anyone else who is interested in creating a game – can you give any advice to them?

Laura: One of the most difficult things for me during development was sticking with the project for so many years! Working on the emotionally weighted sections was also difficult at times. In order to write the dialogue, I would really try to empathize with the characters in order to imagine what they would say, or how they’d react. I was basically forcing myself to be sad for long periods of time so that I could write realistic dialogue. Combined with listening to the music, and reflecting on personal experiences or people I was close to… this was definitely not easy! I also ran into a number of technical issues during development (both with my music software, as well as random rpg maker issues). I think anytime there’s a roadblock to getting something creative out of your head before it flies away (music, story ideas, puzzles, etc.), it’s going to be frustrating 🙂 

My advice for those who are interested in creating a game:

1.) Don’t listen to your negative thoughts! At times you’re going to feel overwhelmed, tired, and you might hit a creative block. Perhaps it’s late at night, perhaps you’re sick (and these things will only make the negative thoughts more convincing). You might feel bad about your project, and about yourself. During these times, you have to remind yourself that there was a good reason you started this project… And a lot of times, being in those „down“ moods is largely chemical. Get a good night’s rest, eat a healthy meal, go for a walk or do some exercise, and come back to your project with a fresh mind. Remind yourself that it’s just chemical, and chances are, you’re going to feel better about things later on. This is so important because negative thoughts can be so powerful sometimes; they can convince us that there’s no meaning or purpose behind what we do! So you have to keep your head in the right place and take care of yourself.

2.) Prototype your game, and use placeholder assets. A lot of companies will invest tons of money in creating a game before they even know if the concept is fun. They’ll make a ton of art only to realize that the game design just doesn’t work, and everything gets scrapped. Do whatever you can to get your idea up and running first, even if that means using a bunch of placeholder art and music and SFX. Then once you know it works, you can go back and replace everything. In the beginning, Rakuen started as a crafting game… then became a jrpg… then finally found its footing with the current point-and-click adventure style. Had I prepared all the art and music for the first iteration, we would have wasted a lot of time and energy!

3.) Make lists. In fact, keep a notebook around that’s solely dedicated to your game. Game development requires wearing multiple hats, and handling SO many little details, so it’s really easy to lose track of what you’re doing. If you write it down, or make little checkboxes, you’ll have a better chance of getting around to everything 🙂

Markus: Do you have any fun facts to share? Is there something that you still laugh about today or something that you’ll never forget?

Laura: I play a lot of Animal Crossing: New Leaf  and at some point I wrote myself a letter (since you can send your „future self“ a letter in that game). I basically asked myself if I had finished Rakuen yet. When it was mailed to me, I hadn’t finished the game yet (and was in fact very confused about the game’s direction, and not feeling confident that it was going to get finished). So I kept the letter in my inventory, and had completely forgotten about it until recently (at a time when the game was finished, and we were doing a huge polish pass on the game’s art):

Markus: Any easter eggs out of the game you want to tell us about?

Laura: Haha! There are all sorts of references hidden within Boy and Mom’s exchanges (you can press „Q“ to talk to Mom or get a hint from her, and her dialogue will slowly change and expland throughout the game). 

Markus: Do you have any further plans with Rakuen?

Laura: I would love to release Rakuen on other platforms once I have more time! I’m hoping to do some research on this later on. Same goes for merchandise… I would love love love to have Leeble or Cave Bud plushies, amongst other things 🙂

Markus: Any comment on upcoming projects that you would like to do or already started?

Laura: Over the last 5 years I’ve actually written a lot of songs that I never did anything with, so I’m hoping to release an album and possibly work on music videos for those songs 🙂 I’m also slated to create music for an upcoming game as well as an animated series. I do have ideas for future games I’d like to make, but I’m definitely going to need a break from development first! Beyond that, I’d really like to learn how to make delicious cakes (strawberry cream, and matcha chiffon).

Markus: Something else that you want to share with the readers? The stage is yours!

Laura: Thank-you so much for reading if you got this far! I hope that if you get the chance to play Rakuen, that you enjoy it and are able to walk away with something positive ^__^ For updates, you can find me on Twitter  and Facebook  and I post original music and video game remixes on my Youtube Channel 🙂

Markus: Thanks again for your time and all your answers! Make sure to invite me to the next Snowman Dance Party.

Laura: Thank-you for interviewing me! I had a wonderful time ^__^ And don’t worry, I won’t forget to send you an invitation to the next Snowman Dance Party 🙂  

Laura was so kind to provide us two copies of Rakuen for a giveaway – you can participate on our Giveaway page.

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