Like just about everything that comes from Grasshopper Manufacture, Let It Die is a strange beast. It looks, and, on its surface, acts like the studio’s take on From Software’s notorious Souls series; its post-apocalyptic Tokyo is also beset with “death data” NPCs made from other players dying in its continuous online world, similar to Koei Tecmo’s Nioh to make things even more punishing. But it’s more than that.

Particularly for a free-to-play PS4 game, Let It Die is full of weird concepts and offbeat moments. Once you, say, catch and devour a frog, raw, with your bare hands, or use a sawblade melee weapon to gruesomely finish off an opponent in a spray of grindhouse-y glory, it gets a little easier to see that Let It Die is very much its own flavor. To get a better taste of its origins at PAX West, I went straight to the source – not Suda51 (he is just overseeing the project), but Hideyuki Shin, Let It Die’s director who previously headed up Grasshopper’s stylized and euphorically chromatic Killer Is Dead.

So, Let It Die is your baby. You’ve told me about some inspiration from Japanese survival TV shows. What are some other design aspects of the game you thought about early on?

Theres the death data, for example. There have been some similarities to other games there, but as an action game, we really wanted to make it as if the AI that controls it is so smart that it feels like its actually being controlled by another player. So things like that – the tuning of that to keep that balance, was really difficult but really interesting, and I’m glad we were able to implement it.

Where did that idea come from?

So, we talked about survival TV shows before – usually survival means you’re alone, by yourself. How are you going to live? In these shows there are others trying to survive. So you can’t tell when you meet them if they’re going to be a friend or an enemy. And that feeling of not being able to trust – or wondering what’s going on in their mind and how you should approach them that’s something that I wanted to have in Let It Die, because it was so interesting. Even when you meet other death data, they’re in an I’m-trying-to-survive mode, so they’re going to kill things – it’s not necessarily going be you. They might go after other enemies.

So it might look like maybe one is helping you out, but actually he’s just going to kill everything so he can survive on his own. Is he going to come after you? Probably. Will he only go after you? Maybe not. So you don’t know what’s going on, and that kind of mystery of [that situation] – it’s not really fear, but the nervousness you get approaching something like that when you’re both trying to survive is something we wanted to put in the game. I thought it would be interesting.

It changes it, yeah. So what’s interesting about this kind of design vs. more of a straight-up action game without survival elements, like Killer Is Dead?

Well, in Killer Is Dead, the action was very heavily based on scenario, of course. I guess the thing is when there are story elements that do come into play, it has this effect on gameplay it kind of changes it, basically.

If you see a death data character in your game, and you’re far away, and he doesn’t see you, can you just observe what he does and there’s a chance you might be able to sneak by him or something like that?

I guess yeah, if you can them notice from afar, there’s a pretty good chance that when you see death data, they’re going to be decked out very different compared to all of the other enemies that you see. Of course, when you get closer then you’ll start seeing the dead [players] user name – and when you see it you can kind of tell if it’s strong or weak, so you’ll [maybe] know you if can take it or not.

They are difficult to defeat, usually – if they’re strong, they’re going to be really hard and you’re probably going to end up dying, so based on their appearance close up, seeing what level they’re at and what they’re armed with, you can kind of tell if you can beat them or not.

So if you think you can beat them, you’ll go in and try to take them out with whatever your equipped with. Or maybe you can distract them by throwing something like mushrooms that are bombs or poison, or attract other enemies and have them start getting [the death data]’s HP down before you attack. So you can usually build a strategy by getting a look at them. You can kind of tell what they are from far off.

Have you been playing any particular kinds of games that working on this has inspired you to play? Has working on this inspired you to play any particular kinds of games for reference?

It’s not really for so much reference for this game in general, but for example, Fallout 4, because I know that there’s a lot of freedom in the game. That doesn’t mean because the game’s map is wide and vast means it’s going to give players a lot of freedom [itself] – there’s something else in the design that gives you that feeling. That was kind of interesting to figure out and see how the game makes players see that, too. So, stuff like that. It might not be entirely related to Let It Die, but systems like that are very interesting.

Can you think of any specific examples there?

Yeah, so lots of times in games when you talk to other characters, you can’t do anything until you finish talking to them. But In Fallout 4, you can talk to someone, then walk away [mid-conversation] and go talk to someone else – there are a lot things that players aren’t limited by in that sense, and that’s an interesting aspect. You know, the control is really in the hands of the player.

Pretty much any game that comes out like this now is going to be inevitably compared to Dark Souls or the Souls series. How do you figure out what the game’s personality is compared to them, given the comparison is unavoidable?

It’s nice that people would compare it to something so popular. The combat, it feels kind of Souls-y, but if you play the final version with all the mechanics in place, you’ll notice that Let It Die is not very much not like Dark Souls, there’s a lot more to the game – a lot of things that you see here that you wouldn’t see in a lot of other games like that.

Did you play a lot of the Souls games when you were starting to figure out how to make your version of this design?

[laughs] I haven’t played Dark Souls really since the very first one came out, and that was only just a bit of it. I haven’t really played it since – I haven’t even had a chance to play Bloodborne. [laughs] I really want to play all of them, but I just haven’t had time because I’ve been so busy making this game!

So when people bring up the Souls comparison, it’s not like we meant it to be that way. So for me its like, “oh, really? Okay.” I haven’t really been played much besides Fallout 4 and Metal Gear, so. [laughs] So I guess maybe with Let It Die the comparison is just by chance, in that sense.

When we talked at E3, you mentioned eating raw animals and how consuming the wrong things will make you vomit. Is there anything else in the game you’re particularly happy with?

I guess the biggest thing is eating. So, of course in a survival show you need to eat [to continue], so even if that means you have to eat a frog raw then so be it – but the thinking [for the gameplay] was, well, if I eat a raw frog, maybe it’s better to eat a raw rat or something instead.

And what if I eat this mushroom, will that be good? But if I eat this one, maybe my stomach will get sore or full of poison and I’ll have to puke. The whole system of what happens based on what you’re eating in the game is something I think is really well done. [laughs] I hope you enjoy it!

Is there more things to it than just getting sick or getting poisoned, things like that?

Yeah, so you know that only some mushrooms give you recovery, while some might poison you or explode in your face – but there are other things, like one makes you do yoga. Or one might make you be a little more ninja-esque. There are various other effects that could be positive, negative or [just] hilarious.

Grasshopper has a history of making games that are kind of goofy – especially compared to a grim series like Dark Souls.

Basically, we were pretty serious in making a game with survival elements, like this person has to survive – that part’s really serious. But we added a lot of things that take it away from reality. When you kill something or hit someone, a ton of blood comes out. It’s a little over the top. So all seriousness in that sense we take things a little far, it just happens that people laugh because they think it’s funny.

But we also didn’t want to be too real like for example, we cut people in half sometimes, but we dont want their guts to actually be falling out and everything – you know, that’s just really horrible.

So when you cut someone in half, guts go flying and there’s blood everywhere, and you actually end up laughing at it because it’s so ridiculous, like we go a little too far here to the point of ridiculousness. And if people laugh, then actually that’s a good thing. I think we’re doing something good there.

Games are usually more violent in the west in general. How much do you worry about Japans rating board cracking down on stuff like that?

We’ve actually done everything as much as we can without [worrying]. Basically its like, “I think it’s acceptable even at this level I think we can get away with it.” So we’re just putting everything into it and hoping for the best. It’s just going to be up to the ratings board, but that’s a different story.

So theres never any concern over something getting rated CERO Z compared to CERO D? [*Ed. note: Think of this like the Japanese version of the ESRB's M.*]

[Draws Z in air with hand] If it’s a Z, so be it. We’re not afraid of that. [laughs]

[laughs] That’s good! So, with this kind of game – whatever you want to call something that feels like Dark Souls – the design seems inherently Japanese. Do you think there’s something specifically eastern about it?

Let It Die’s development staff is mostly Japanese, so that might be something, but we weren’t looking to make a game that would be only for the Japanese audience. It’s just what a Japanese development studio thinks the world would enjoy. Of course, there’s a lot of Japanese culture in the game. The game does take place in Tokyo. A very different, twisted Tokyo, but it’s still Tokyo. So there are a lot of still Japanese cultural elements, but it’s not just for Japan.

Photos via GungHo Online Entertainment, Grasshopper Manufacture

Steve Haske is a Seattle-based writer and sometimes a creator of stupid art. His work can be found on VICE and Playboy. Iain Glen is his Virgil.