The musical mind behind Plants vs. Zombies spins Miyazaki and Zelda into a whimsical adventure

Above: A poster for Shigihara's upcoming breakout game, Rakuen.

Image Credit: Emmy Toyonaga

PopCap’s tower-defense game Plants vs. Zombies has relished more than one success, including the popular end-credits song “There’s a Zombie on Your Lawn.” Its creator, singer, and composer, Laura Shigihara, has since left the trampled grass and smiling sunflowers behind, departing publisher Electronic Arts to make her own game, which is just as quirky.

It all started with a song — and no, not the one you’re thinking of.

Rakuen (pronounced “Rah-coo-ehn”) borrows elements from games as different from each other as The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Ron Gilbert’s graphic adventure Maniac Mansion. It’s due in early 2014 for PC (and possibly other platforms later) and follows a young hospitalized boy who embarks on a fantasy adventure with his mother. Shigihara is handling just about everything: the programming, audio and music (of course), design, pixel art, and writing. Her friend and fellow former EA employee, Emmy Toyonaga, created the concept art.

Shigihara explained how her many influences — Minecraft, Miyazaki, and more — come together in Rakuen and how music can inspire an entire game.

Jumping from music to game design

Full-blown game design might sound out of a composer’s league, but Shigihara isn’t new to the process.

“I think I’ve always kind of wanted to get into game development since I was little,” Shigihara told GamesBeat in a phone call. “And when I was in college, I tried to take courses and learn things that would go in that direction even though I didn’t major in anything game-related or music-related. I taught myself how to program, I took some classes, I tried to learn about pixel art, and I was always composing on the side.”

Rakuen boy

Above: The boy, Rakuen’s main character, in his Japanese Kabuto Boshi hat.

Image Credit: Emmy Toyonaga

Rakuen (about 6-10 hours long) is for her a short, much-needed break from the larger “hobbyist” project she’s been working on, a role-playing game called Melolune, which so far consists of 20 hours of content. Although Shigihara has dabbled in design before, creating Rakuen and Melolune has been a whole new undertaking.

“I think one of the things I found that was really different from composing was just that there’s so many variables you have to keep track of,” Shigihara said. “The music is one thing, and implementing it and doing the sound design and everything, and then there’s the writing and making sure the cutscenes make sense and lining everybody up properly and balancing all of the different stats. [Rakuen] doesn’t have the same stats and whatnot, but [Melolune] had a whole battle system and equipment that you could get.”

Shigihara’s knowledge of music has shaped Rakuen’s design and vice versa. Her song “Jump,” which she originally recorded for former Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka’s Play for Japan charity album, which helped victims of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, inspired a short animated music video that gave way to Rakuen. That song grew into Rakuen’s story and encouraged its other aspects — like five melodies that converge into one big song, “Mori no Kokoro,” (“The Heart of the Forest”) that the character has to perform at the end. (Rakuen’s soundtrack is available on Bandcamp.)

“Since [Rakuen] started with a song, a lot of things were more interwoven than I think they normally are,” she said. “A lot of times if I was stuck on a certain part of the story, I would just sit at the piano and play for a while, and then go like, ‘Oh, now I have an idea.’ And then that would become the background track.”

Rakuen Minimori

Above: Minimori, one of the creatures in Rakuen.

Image Credit: Emmy Toyonaga

Overall, the process has been a lot easier. “In my experience, there’s a disconnect between the developer and the composer, and a lot of times it takes a few iterations before they’ll reach their goal with the music,” said Shigihara. “Because sometimes the developers might know what they want, but they’re not quite sure how to explain it because they’re not audio people.

“With this, there’s no middle man because I know what I want. So I think having that makes it a lot easier to kind of build the game around those sorts of things. Like I can say I want the mood to be like this, and you know, what do I feel about that. And that sort of drives the background music. And I can work on the two concurrently so that I feel like they’re more synchronized.”

Minecraft to The Legend of Zelda

Rakuen doctor

Above: A doctor in the game’s main hospital.

Image Credit: Emmy Toyonaga

Rakuen is completely free of battles and fighting, which is refreshing as so many other games focus on combat. Shigihara said the gameplay underwent several iterations before it felt balanced with the story. Rakuen started as a crafting game similar to Minecraft and then began to resemble a Japanese role-playing game. The result is something more.

“I guess you could say it’s a bit of room escape, a bit of point-and-click adventure, but the way you interact with the world is like a JRPG in terms of navigating and talking to NPCs and stuff like that.”

Each area is different. Shigihara described one scenario where players talk to patients and solve hidden puzzles around the hospital where the boy is staying. Another is much weirder: Players go inside the mind of a patient and try to escape a creepy version of the hospital by finding keys and unlocking new areas.

“There are little puzzles scattered throughout the area, and as you get past each section, you get a little piece of what this person’s memory is,” she said.

Some of these locations are modeled after the dungeons layouts from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. “I like how in a lot of them, you go in and there’s sort of a centralized goal,” said Shigihara. “You can see the door to the boss right off the bat, and you’re like, ‘OK, that’s what I need to get to.’ But you’ll spend the rest of the time exploring the dungeon and uncovering all these different layers by solving puzzles and flipping switches.”

Maniac Mansion and To the Moon

Rakuen mom

Above: The boy’s mom helps him imagine a grand adventure.

Image Credit: Emmy Toyonaga

Adventure games like Lucasfilm’s Maniac Mansion and Freebird Games’ indie title To the Moon also inspired Rakuen. Shigihara wanted to replicate the feeling of exploration and curiosity from Maniac Mansion — and the humor, especially.

“One of the things about this game is that even though it seems like there are sad elements — and there definitely are, there are some bittersweet moments and whatnot — but the whole game itself feels more whimsical or adventurous, and there’s some weird, humorous moments in it,” she said.

The second game is primarily where the idea for a lack of battles came from. To the Moon features more of a slice-of-life story than a typical save-the-world JRPG.

“I think the thing that’s similar with Rakuen is that … a lot of the things that the boy is dealing with, a lot of the things that the other patients are dealing with, are things that happen to everybody,” said Shigihara. “They’re common. And the way that his mom helps him look at the world and the way he learns about other people, I think just being able to empathize with people and help them with what they’re dealing with when they can’t deal with it themselves — I wanted to show that that can be very significant and meaningful.”

Miyazaki and Japanese children’s culture

Slice-of-life stories are also evident in Hayao Miyazaki movies like Spirited Away, said Shigihara.

“[In those films], the way that the fantasy world and the real world seamlessly combine together and how the protagonist has to assimilate when she gets to the other place, it makes the world feel all the more real. I’m trying to do that,” she said. “That’s my goal.”

Rakuen incorporates other cultural facets from Japan, including the paper hat the boy wears, called a Kabuto Boshi, which looks like a samurai’s hat — as well as forest spirits and the Hangyojin, a fish creature like the character Zora from The Legend of Zelda.

Rakuen sketches

Above: Sketches of Rakuen characters — including the Hangyojin.

Image Credit: Emmy Toyonaga

But Rakuen diverges from traditional Japanese storytelling in a big way.

“One thing about it that I really like is the relationship between the mom and the boy,” said Shigihara. “A lot of games I’ve noticed are about the kids going off on their own. Like in Pokémon, for example, Ash leaves his mom when he’s 10 and goes on his own adventure. In a lot of things I read, the parent and the child are separate, and the adventure comes from being apart from the parent.

“But I think one thing I wanted to do is show that the mom is helping the little boy create this world. … There’s a lot of sequences in the game that flip back and forth in terms of lighting and the ambiance that it’ll be the same scene, but it’ll make you feel more scared or alone. Where if it’s looked at in a different way it feels more like a fun adventure. And I think that when you’re a little kid, a lot of how you look at the world is how your parents present things to you. … The tone of voice and the things they talk to you about make you look at things really differently. I think it’s the sort of thing where the boy and the mom go on this adventure together. They’re with each other throughout the whole game.”

That message of comfort and safety is exactly what Rakuen and its main song, “Jump,” is all about. We’ve all got a child inside us who just wants to know that things are going to turn out OK.

That, and moms are cool.

More information:

Electronic Arts Inc. (EA), headquartered in Redwood City, California, is a leading global interactive entertainment software company. Founded in 1982, the Company develops, publishes, and distributes interactive software worldwide for ... read more »

PopCap Games is the leading global developer, publisher and operator of casual video games: fun, easy-to-learn, captivating games that appeal to all ages across PC, mobile, social and other platforms. Based in Seattle, Washington, PopC... read more »

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