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Rule of Rose is an unusual type of horror game, developed by Punchline, with very nice looking CG work from graphics house Shirogumi, published by Sony in Japan, and Atlus in the U.S. The story surrounds a group of young girls who exist on their own terms, living in a dilapidated orphanage called Rose Garden, which is dominated by a group of girls who call themselves the Aristocracy of the Red Crayon. As the protagonist, Jennifer, you and your canine companion must find a way to survive the wrath of the other girls, as well as the adults that exist in the area. The game has a rather sadistic bent, but also a somewhat erotic one, especially in the game’s lush CG scenes, which might raise a few eyebrows upon release.
Gamasutra spoke with Punchline CG and game director Shuji Ishikawa, and Sony assistant producer Yuya Takayama, asking them difficult questions about the game’s erotic bent, how they researched children (curiously enough, they rounded up a bunch of western kids), and why Sony chose not to release the game in the U.S. Neither of them were very fond of me by the end of the interview, but it makes for an interesting read, to be certain.
Gamasutra: Why did you call yourselves Punchline?
Shuji Ishikawa: Well, a punchline is the payoff of a joke. But we’re a gang of developers, basically.
GS: How does that work?
SI: We’re a company that makes unusual types of games, I guess.
GS: Oh, so you don’t mean like a collective.
SI: Oh no. We’re a normal developer, though we do try to collect very creative people.
GS: What other games have been made by the Rule of Rose team?
SI: Well, there’s a game called Chulip [a game in which you kiss people at the lowest point of their lives to make them feel happy, currently planned for a U.S. release in October, 2006 by Natsume], and then I myself worked on Arc the Lad, with Sony.
GS: How did you come up with the theme for Rule of Rose?
Yuya Takayama: Well basically we wanted to make a new type of horror game, one which wasn’t the usual zombie, ghost and slasher type.
GS: But yet it wound up looking a lot like Capcom’s Demento/Haunting Ground, with a girl that uses a dog as a companion.
YT: Well that’s true, even in Japan people have made the comparison. But I think as soon as you play it you’ll find it’s very different. In Capcom’s game they used the dog for a lot of more action-based things, like attacking, but we use it in pretty different ways. In this game the dog is more of a partner for solving mysteries and puzzles.
GS: What was the inspiration for using the sexuality of prepubescent girls as a theme in the game?
YT: We wanted to depict the darker side of children. Not really dark, per se, but if you really think about kids, they aren’t really afraid of the same things that adults are, and often aren’t aware of the consequences. Something that may seem benign to them may seem wrong or frightening to adults, but it’s really just a form of innocence.
SI: We sort of wanted to show not only how scary adults can be from a child’s perspective, because that’s been touched on many times, but also how scary children can be from an adult’s perspective. We want to see that contrast.
GS: That makes sense. We didn’t really get into the sexuality there, though.
YT: Ok, sure. This is rather delicate, but the theme is supposed to be one of intimate familiarity.
SI: If we look at it through the eyes of adults, when girls play with each other in this way it may be considered somewhat erotic, but with kids, I…really don’t think they’d see it that way. It’s more genuine, not lustful. It may appear so because these are things kids actually do, but we don’t want to see.
YT: Yes, it’s children being children without the filter of guilt or sin.
GS: Do you anticipate a backlash from parents? Will you be toning it down at all for the U.S.?
YT: First of all, we’re not worried in the least. If you play the game to completion, even if parents do, I’m sure they’ll see that this game has value, and is very much from the heart. The main theme is really about trust and fealty.
SI: Right, the erotic aspect you mentioned earlier isn’t supposed to be the main theme. There are definitely erotic parts to it, and some things that might make people uncomfortable, but it’s not the focus. It shouldn’t be a problem. It’s about intimate relationships between all people, not just children, not just girls. There will be people who don’t understand it, but others will.
And it won’t be toned down for the west.
GS: That’s good, there’s no sense in making something risky only to dull its edges later. For the theme, did you take some inspiration from Lord of the Flies?
SI: No, actually. The inspiration was primarily fairytale books, like the Brothers Grimm, and Edward Gorey.
GS: The original Grimm tales, or the more recent sterilized versions?
SI: The dark ones, of course.
GS: Why didn’t Sony pick up the game for the U.S.?
YT: Wow, that’s a rough question. How shall I say this…well, when Sony looked at the game, they felt it wasn’t really in sync with their corporate image. Their personal pride wanted it to be a bit tamer, if it were to have the Sony name in the U.S.
I personally appealed to them that it wasn’t that kind of game, but it didn’t quite work out for me.
GS: It seems like the game is pretty risky for Sony as a company to begin with.
YT: That’s right, it’s definitely challenging. Originality is always a risk, but it’s very important.
GS: Do either of you have children?
GS: Does anyone on the team have children?
GS: Did they contribute any extra kind of insight?
SI: Well we actually gathered a bunch of kids and watched them, and recorded their voices. And for the game’s textures and models, we took pictures of them. We also had them write down, or draw things that made them happy, or made them scared. We definitely did a lot of research.
GS: European children or Japanese children?
YT: European and American children. Of course the game isn’t about Japanese children, so… but of course for the motion capture we had to use Japanese kids.
GS: How did you manage to get American and European children? Did you have to collaborate with other regional Sony offices?
YT: Well we got some kids from Americans working in Japan…
SI: And we also contacted the Actor’s Guild. We also gathered Japanese school resources, like background files.
GS: So why make this game? What do you want to communicate?
YT: I’m sure we both have different reasons, so I’ll just talk about my own. In the past, I really liked action games. Action adventure, really, solving mysteries and things like that. I thought that sort of thing was really interesting, but a lot of people seem to have forgotten about that sort of gameplay. So with this I wanted to remind people of the enjoyment of watching a story unfold. I want people of today to value that.
SI: So we got a request from Sony to make a horror game. But that was all they said, it was a bit vague. We had a number of discussions with the Sony staff about what makes a horror game, and we at Punchline really didn’t want to make a game that was just like Biohazard [Resident Evil] and all of those, we wanted to create a different kind of fear. A very quiet horror…something that’s quite far from surprise- and shock-based horror. More of a psychological thriller. That wound up taking the shape of a game surrounding childhood and children. It’s the fear that comes out of children being genuine and without boundaries.
GS: Sony already has the Siren series, so from the Sony perspective, why make another [horror-themed franchise]?
YT: At the onset of the project, of course Siren was already out, but it’s a uniquely Japanese type of horror, Sony felt. So we wanted a more universal, foreign type of feeling, like closer to Biohazard or Silent Hill. Something that’s more of an action-adventure type.
GS: That’s a bit odd considering how both you and Ishikawa said that you distinctly didn’t want to make that sort of game.
YT: Right…well Punchline, as the company that made Chulip, is a very creative and unique type of company. They made a game about kissing, after all. And Shirogumi [the company that did all of the CG work] makes extremely nice imagery, so we wondered what would happen if we put the two together.
GS: Why is horror so important to Sony?
YT: Hmm. From Sony’s perspective, horror games and action adventure games tend to appeal to a wide, international audience, so we want to make use of that. For me personally, I wanted to use that to show our creativity to the world. It’s a matter of face.
GS: It’s funny that Sony wants to create something for a worldwide audience, but wouldn’t release it in the U.S.
GS: How many people work at Punchline?
SI: About 25 people. At Shirogumi maybe 60.
GS: Are they a game-related company, or are they general purpose CG?
SI: CG creation is the main point of the company, but this was their first foray into games. We worked together with them for the art direction, of the CG too.
GS: Ishikawa, are you satisfied with the game as it stands now?
SI: About 80% satisfied. If we had a little more time I’d liked to have fine-tuned it a bit more.
GS: How about Sony?
YT: Yeah. 100% satisfied.