Interview: Beautiful, Creative El Shaddai Is Daring To Be Weird
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."