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Interview: Beautiful, Creative  El Shaddai  Is Daring To Be Weird
Interview: Beautiful, Creative El Shaddai Is Daring To Be Weird
May 17, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

May 17, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing

After years in games journalism, Shane Bettenhausen made the decision to join Ignition Entertainment as business development director primarily because of one game: El Shaddai, an upcoming action genre mash-up that seems actually proud to be the kind of game the market would call a creative risk.

"Way too many games are designed by committee," Bettenhausen tells us. "You end up with everyone making the same game, and people can only buy one or two of that. I'd rather work on something that's unique, disruptive and actually artistic."

Not only does El Shaddai -- the name of which features the secondary title Ascension of the Metatron -- feature a variety of gameplay types and level styles, but it borrows from a number of aesthetic influences.

These'll be familiar to fans of popular Japanese anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion ("if you've seen Eva you're already halfway to being the potential audience for this game," Bettenhausen says), Gundam and the films of studio Ghibli.

True to form for cult Japanese media, El Shaddai incorporates Biblical narrative elements and Judeo-Christian iconography with fantasy elements: "We definitely had fun with the Biblical text; it definitely isn't like playing a Wisdom Tree Bible game," Bettenhausen says. On the other hand, "I don't think it will offend people who do want it to be religious; the basic storyline is close to the Book of Enoch."

What's most interesting about El Shaddai as a project is that it's not the fairly typical story of a Western company (Ignition is based in the UK) tasked with trying to figure out how to make a distinctly Japanese-looking game "work" for a wide market -- in fact, that the concept ended up in the hands of a Japanese team led by former Okami and Devil May Cry character artist Takeyasu Sawaki was entirely on purpose.

"When we were forming the team to make this game, we picked [Sawaki] because we loved Okami so much," says Bettenhausen. "It really stood out. It wasn't Gears of War, but it did well enough to find an audience, be successful and get a lot of critical acclaim."

The aim was to make a game where art, narrative and music led the entire creation process, he continues. "Fundamentally, for me, the art, the atmosphere, the story and the music are in some ways more important than the gameplay -- it still has to have good gameplay; I think El Shaddai delivers both."

The unique and arresting TV series and films that have stylistic influences in common with the game have had enduring long-term impact on their fans, and Bettenhausen thinks El Shaddai can have that same resonant permanence for people. Having Japanese people interpreting Western religious stories lends a new perspective: "Appropriating other people's cultures, the Japanese creators have a unique way of viewing things," he suggests.

In a game market where Japanese developers seem to be hustling to shed traditional tonal markers and aesthetic approaches in the aim to be more sellable in the West, Bettenhausen's ineffable enthusiasm about combining anime with Bible stories -- plus gameplay that differs among levels so that it's hard to "type" -- is certainly unusual.

This he knows: "When you see this game, you either like the way it looks, you like the characters; or, you're like 'what is that,'" he laughs. "You're either confused and scared, or you automatically think, 'oh, that looks fresh and different and quirky and neat."

Even Bettenhausen admits it's surprising that it's possible for El Shaddai to be made. But the team is in a bit of a fortunate spot: Ignition's parent company, UTV, is a huge Bollywood film studio based in India, and is such a somewhat unusual contender for the global gaming market. The company's never participated in the current approach to marketability or genre in the industry. When Ignition earned the latitude to develop its own games from scratch, it was also free to take El Shaddai's premise and hand it off to a team of its own favorite Eastern creatives.

El Shaddai launched in Japan late in April and is already building a fan following -- in fact, it's been gathering buzz since its Tokyo Game Show trailer unveil last year. "As the game slowly got closer to release in Japan, we saw people going nuts making fan art, fanfiction," Bettenhausen says. At the Comiket independent fan comics market, doujinshi based on El Shaddai had its entire own showcase six months before the game had ever even reached shelves.

Also on sale in Japan: A line of designer jeans based on what the game's fallen angels wear. Three production runs of the $300 jeans have sold out -- "that showed us that the IP has value outside this game," says Bettenhausen. Other merchandise, like a Square Enix-published artbook and soundtrack and Namco figurine sets are also already in the marketplace; most of the profits from these tie-ins have been going to support earthquake relief in Japan.

"There's also the manga that's just started in Square's monthly shojo anthology," he adds. "And it's cool because if the manga takes off, there's always room for an anime. These characters are really unique and likeable -- there are lots of places to go with the story. El Shaddai could be this huge... 'polymorphic content' kind of thing, although of course it's really all about the game."

And from what Bettenhausen observes, the addressable audience for El Shaddai is quite broad and diverse -- for example, there seem to be more female players interested in the title than normally appear drawn to action games. "I think people are actually responding to it being a change of pace aesthetically," he says. "The character action genre... [has been] kind of making the same game over and over again."

That's not to say the team is exactly expecting record-crushing sales when the game is released in the U.S. on a soon-to-be-announced date (an Xbox Live and PSN demo is likely to hit "around E3"): "We definitely have conservative estimates," he says. "It's a little more art-house. The first market are enthusiast gamers, people who have played Bayonetta or Okami, but also anime fans, which... people forget the popularity of things like Evangelion or Studio Ghibli. We do mainly want hardcore enthusiast gamers to find it first, but we do have an easy mode we think non-traditional gamers will like."

Success for El Shaddai would be a big win for new IP, Bettenhausen believes. "In this generation we haven't had a lot of new IP, and this is about as new as you can get. It's very daring; this game comes from a purely artistic place. Very few games are allowed to be formed like this."

"You can do something different and actually get recognized for it," he adds. "You don't actually have to do what you think people want you to do."

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Kamruz Moslemi
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I was very saddened by the disappointing albeit predictable low sales for El Shaddai in Japan. With all of the buzz going for it I was hoping it would at least do a respectable 500k, but instead it fell into the upper niche range.

I sincerely hope that when it is released in the overseas market it will sell enough copies to turn a healthy profit and encourage this sort of bold endeavour going forward, the gaming lords know that we need more of such behaviour in this day and age.

But please hurry and announce the release date as I am tempted to just import a copy like I did for Demon's Souls.

Hope to see more Japanese projects of this caliber in the future as these will always have my full and undivided interest.

Eric McVinney
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El Shaddai looks amazing and will most likely stay within my collection, be it imported or local.

Ben Lewis
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Well, it did debut as the #1 selling multiplatform game in Japan and as Shane mentioned, the IP seems to have legs outside of the core game (jeans, artbooks, toys, fan art, manga, soundtrack, partnerships with SquareEnix and Bandai, shirts, umbrellas, even its own café -- all well received). We'll see if it has a long tail as the reviews keep coming in.

Some who own the Japanese version are calling it GOTY so far, retweeted on the offical Twitter feed:

Daniel Gooding
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As Long as the Game doesn't lose money, what's the problem with being a niche market game?

If the game sold extremely well, then you would just get a bunch of crappy clones. Thus potentially ruining the style.

Christopher Enderle
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Exactly. He even said he's aiming more for Okami sales rather than Gears of War. The jeans look pretty cool too, though I'm not sure what's going on with the cinch on the back

John Polson
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Beat the game. Slight spoilers: The one true collectible element involved going to a platform-intensive Hades to retrieve shards. Players have one chance to get this shard. If you fall into the pits of Hades, you die, false credits roll, you reload the game and have to traverse back to the spot which transports you to Hades. Every time. Every. Time.

Talk about One Single Life.

I spent about an hour working on this post, that's how torn I am about this game. I have come to realize that maybe the platforming and the fighting DID attempt to innovate, but I won't bore you with my lack of game-design degree analysis. I was tripped up with how exponentially the game experiemented with the audio/visual medium, that the mechanics' experimentation seemed to pale in comparison. But it's all there. I suppose that's because the game's been sold so much on its "style" and not on its gameplay.

Where's the promo for the bike riding portion? It was another great throwback stylistically to anime (and to Akira IMO). "The art, the atmosphere, the story, and the music" really come through as being more important for me, too, in this experience. But the purification and constant weapon switching, button tapping to revive your character, and surrreal platforming stages are worth noting, as well. Hopefully, it will take time for people to decide whether El Shaddai offers "enough" to warrant GOTY (I certainly don't know that still), as El Shaddai offers a lot to debate! But, why hold back on revealing stuff that could possibly help sales?

If nothing else, please tell me why you made Hades such a hassle. This feels like risk/reward taken too far. But Kudos for going "too far" and making my brain hurt.

Barney Holmes
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Gasp ! At last ! I thought the games industry had disappeared up the barrel of it's latest FPS. From my initial examination of screenshots it looks like there is an appreciation of the artistic possibilities ... models, textures, sounds, movement ... that seem to have been the exclusive domain of indie/free/independent games up until now. I hope this is just the beginning.

Jose Talbott
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Yup, Yup I love FPS as much as any fun loving american but, Yes we need more titles like this can't wait to get it stateside hope it's has a cool CE edition!!!

Barney Holmes
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Yeah, I almost added that l love FPS's. Probably will always go back to Doom or whatever. But, I suspect we will see more of this kinda thing. Look at a recent film release ... ... appears to be the first edge of a kind of renaissance happening. Catch the wave game designers !