Suda51 on Sports, Serial Killers, and 'The Silver Case'

Grasshopper Manufacture's head opens up about his past work.

Grasshopper Manufacture

There are trademark aesthetic strains that run through the early work of Grasshopper Manufacture head Goichi “Suda51” Suda. In terms of narrative, they’re typically couched in an atmospheric surrealism and often stitched together through disjointed, Lynchian dialogue and story beats, their visuals on a stylistic override. Between overseeing other games and coming up with ideas for new projects, that earlier creator who made those imaginative visions is one we haven’t fully seen in years.

That seems likely to change after Grasshopper’s HD remaster of The Silver Case, their 1999 PlayStation debut, was released this month on Steam after never receiving a Western localization. As Suda’s first game after leaving Human Entertainment, Silver Case marked a transition into always striving for the kind of bold, weird ideas which would become Grasshopper’s calling card.

Goichi "Suda51" Suda is always serious in photos. Well, this photo, at least.

Grasshopper Manufacture

For those that might not know, Suda’s something of a cult figure in the gaming industry. He and Grasshopper Manufacture are known for slightly off-kilter games like Killer 7, Lollipop Chainsaw, and No More Heroes that combine tropes and stylistic flourishes in abnormal ways that sometimes border on absurd. Every Grasshopper game is, arguably, an experience unlike any other game — even its own.

Suda’s not usually one to opine about the past, though The Silver Case has seemingly galvanized Suda’s imagination for the future. To delve deeper into what drove his earlier work, and how Grasshopper’s maiden game influenced it, I spoke with him last month in Seattle.

Grasshopper Manufacture

The Silver Case happened a long time ago. What spurred your idea to say, “Hey, let’s remake this?”

It was made back in 1999 and was Grasshopper Manufacture’s first title, and up until now it had only ever gotten a Japanese release, so players overseas were never able to play it. And then just last year, Playism approached me and said, “Hey, we’d like to port Silver Case. We’d like to publish it, and put it on Steam.” So I began talking with them. That’s how it started.

Had you thought of revisiting it before they approached you? There was the Japanese DS version that was cancelled some years ago.

Actually, yeah, I’d been wanting to re-release it for a Western audience for a long time. But the DS version was just a straight port, nothing had been remastered. And there were problems with the translation, so that ended up getting scrapped.

Text adventures were popular in Japan when Silver Case was first released. I know that Grasshopper wanted to do something different that was more visually interesting than the norm. Aside from its aesthetic, what were some of your original intentions to make it stand out?

At the time, Grasshopper was really small, like a true indie developer. We had a core team of about five people, and we were just like anyone you’d see [at an indie trade show], just a few people getting together, doing what we could to make games. So, we had to figure out what kind of game could we make. What can we do with the people and skills we have? And Silver Case is what we came up with.

Grasshopper Manufacture

What about narratively? Why choose a detective story murder mystery?

While doing these interviews, there’s been a lot of stuff I’ve remembered suddenly — one of those things is working on Moonlight Syndrome at Human, before we started Grasshopper. So a kind of strange thing happened while I was working on the game ‘ it was known as the Sakakibara murders [or the Kobe Child Murders]. Basically a young guy in Japan murdered a bunch of little kids, cut their heads off, did some really fucked up stuff.

It was a huge deal in Japan. So because of that, my games and games in general had a bunch of government [censorship] limitations placed on them. It wasn’t just games, but general entertainment, too, TV shows, and movies, all of a sudden they had all these limits — “oh, you can’t do that, you can’t touch on that.” So after that I wasn’t able to make Moonlight Syndrome, the game I originally intended.

Given all the government restrictions back then, I decided I wanted to delve into the themes of serial killers, how people can end up like that. You know, like what creates a serial killer.

Is it because of something in their DNA? Is it because of their family or their environment? Or where they live, their schools or the government? What pushes a person to do something like that? So after a lot of thinking and putting stories together, I came up with Silver Case’s character.

Grasshopper Manufacture

Aside from what had happened in Japan, were you influenced by any particular books or movies for Silver Case?

There was a movie called Henry. It has that actor who was in Guardians of the Galaxy — Michael Rooker. It was based on an actual American serial killer and kind of follows the story of this guy, showing how he killed people but also how he lived his life and came to be so fucked up. When I saw that movie it was just ‘ it was stupid scary.

And I thought, “oh, this is what real serial killers must actually be like.” It kind of shocked me. I guess that put me in the right mood.

With regards to the censorship that was placed on Moonlight Syndrome, what changed when it came time to make Silver Case? How were you able to more freely explore that subject matter?

Well, The Silver Case is about chasing a serial killer ‘ trying to catch him. But for Moonlight Syndrome, the main character is actually just a psychopath. And one of the main problems he was cutting people’s heads off, exactly what happened with the Sakakibara murders, so there were a lot of things that were just too close to real life. That’s why we weren’t able to make it the way they wanted to. We didn’t have that problem with Silver Case.

Silver Case shares the same dense, surreal narrative style and the darker themes which defined your earlier work. Where do you think that voice comes from?

Way back in the day, I didn’t have as much freedom to write whatever I wanted. With The Silver Case I was finally completely free from restraints, but it’s not like I studied how to write like that. It just kind of slowly developed on its own. I guess being in that type of environment helped me develop my creativity in general. You know, after years and years of that.

Another thing ‘ it’s not exactly related to my writing style, but something that’s kind of a recurring theme for me is I always want to do things that other people haven’t done or couldn’t do. I don’t want to make games that are similar to other games or do things that are similar to what other people are doing. So I try to make sure there’s something new in everything I make.

Grasshopper Manufacture

Parts of The Silver Case’s script, much like a lot of your other earlier work, just feel like a fever dream. It’s hard to do that with just with words.

It’s really mysterious, right? It’s funny, coming back to the game again after 17 years, getting close to it after so long, feels really strange. It’s like I’m not looking at the Suda51 I am now, but just some dude named Goichi Suda who’s making indie games.

I feel like I’m looking at something that guy made. And I’m thinking, “wow, this guy made this awesome game, this is really weird!” Even going back and playing it now, it’s like, these are some really interesting scenarios. But looking at your old work, some of it’s really embarrassing, some of it you don’t know how you wrote; it’s kind of crazy that way.

Let’s talk about Silver Case’s aesthetic a little bit. The visual design and the UI itself grabs you even though primarily it’s just a narrative adventure. The horizontal and vertical lines that mark scene transitions, white boxes that animate text or highlight who’s speaking, the way everything is laid out on a grid and has an early digital feel to it. It holds your attention on something that could have been much more mundane.

Since we had a small team when we started Grasshopper — me, two programmers, a background artist, and an illustrator — we only had two people who were able to work on art. We had to figure out how to fill up an entire screen without just using backgrounds, since that would be too much work for one guy. At the same time, not having enough imagery would make it feel kind of empty, so after messing around we came up with this “film window” system, where you’ve different windows showing text or a picture and things in the background as well.

So we tried different things, like switching the windows around, changing positions and sizes, until we figured it out.

Grasshopper Manufacture

And the background elements balance that out visually?

That’s exactly right; they kind of complement the mood a bit. And one of the things I was really unsatisfied with in most text adventure games was that the screen is usually static the whole time. You might have changes in background, but generally it just kind of sits there. I really didn’t like that.

In one way or another I wanted to have the screen constantly moving to keep in interesting. It wasn’t just the background images, but the complementing aspects and even the sounds ‘ I wanted everything to fit together like one big working machine.

Why choose geometric shapes and patterns, then? If the intent was to always have activity on the screen, it could have been anything.

I really like the kind of geometric art programmers sometimes make, and one of the guys I was working with happened to be good at that kind of thing. Even if it’s something really simple like shapes and patterns, when it’s dynamic it’s really cool. So I wanted to take the images I had in my head and express them on-screen [with geometry]. I felt that fit the most.

Grasshopper’s always been very attentive to artistic visual presentation and graphic design. More than most developers.

I worked as a graphic designer for a while too, and I really like artists like Peter Saville. I don’t do Grasshopper’s graphic design anymore, but I’ve always had really strict personal rules for what I do and don’t like, and what I want my games to look like. So when I’m in charge of a project, I get really proactive about checking the design and the visuals of the game, making sure it looks just right.

I was replaying a bit of [Silver Case quasi-sequel] Flower Sun and Rain recently on the DS, and it has very similar visual design motifs to Silver Case’s.

That’s exactly right.

I’ve always liked Flower Sun and Rain. And it’s really interesting in that it stars one of Silver Case’s detectives, so technically it’s a sequel, but it’s a completely different kind of game. And one of the most interesting takes on adventure game design I’ve ever seen.

Ah, wow. I’m really happy to hear that.

Where did the idea of using a numerical system to solve every puzzle come from?

I put a lot of puzzles into Silver Case, and they’re pretty varied, with a lot of different types and systems. And when I started making FSR, I knew I wanted puzzles too. But I thought Silver Case overdid it a bit. I feel like I made players go through too much.

With FSR, I wanted to break things down into something more simple. Instead of doing all these different puzzles that are unrelated thematically, it would have the same type of puzzle throughout the game. So I went with a numerical system for that instead.

And numbers just made sense for that kind of thing?

I decided to tie the design together with Sumio. He’s got Catherine, this coding system he keeps in a briefcase that he always carries with him. That was just an idea that popped into my head, but I thought, “okay, this really fits with who Sumio is, what kind of a guy he is.” Numbers just made sense to work with that.

Is Catherine being inside a silver case a winking nod to the first game?

Translator: He was trying to bullshit you at first, but I got him to admit that was actually a coincidence.

Suda: Yeah.

It wasn’t intentional?

It also does have a deeper meaning to it as well, though — the whole meaning of The Silver Case, and everything that happened in it are all kind of concentrated inside this case that Sumio carries around. So the color thing was a coincidence, but the case itself was intentional ‘ which is something I just thought of just now. So I guess I’m still kind of bullshitting.

Even though FSR is related to The Silver Case, it’s like one of those movie sequels where you take a character from an original film and place them in a completely different scenario, to the point where they’re almost not even the same person.

I’ve always been a fan of Osamu Tezuka’s “star system” from way back in the day, so I think I was really inspired by that.

Rock, one of Osamu Tezuka's numerous "star system" characters.

Star system?

Yeah, so Tezuka created the star system where he’d use one character in one manga and then have them come out in an entirely another unrelated one. He did it with a lot of his characters, who would all appear in completely different contexts. So a main character in one might be a good guy, and then he’d come out with another and they would be a villain. And then they’d be a minor character in another.

I really liked this character called Rock, who’d be a bad guy in one manga and a supporting character in another. In every manga they’d have the same face and general look, but they’d have different personalities and relationships. So Tezuka treated each of his characters more like actors than static beings.

I like doing that too — I feel like my characters are more like my children or my actors rather this basic creation who always play the same role or do the same thing. So I wanted to do that with Sumio in Silver Case and Flower Sun and Rain, giving him different motivations and internalizations and stuff like that.

It’s funny to see that manifest in FSR even watching Sumio in the intro, flying down this tropical highway in his Toyota. And he breaks the fourth wall, saying, “This baby’s a Toyota Celica,” and later stops the car with this outlandish handbrake maneuver. Very different from the buttoned-down detective in Silver Case.

Thanks! I’m really happy you mentioned that scene, actually. One of the reasons I put it in the game in the first place was for people who hadn’t played Silver Case. Obviously it’s a strange little game, and for most people that are playing it, if they hear the name Sumio, they don’t know who he is. So they’re just like, “okay, the characters called Sumio, whatever.”

But for people who know Silver Case, they hear the name Sumio and they’re like, “wait, what? Is that the same guy? Why’s he have the same name?” So I put that in there to kind of throw them off a bit ‘ both to refresh their memory of who Sumio was then and who he is now. And since the game’s setting is this weird island, I wanted to set it up with this scene where players would get ingrained into that place and getting into Sumio’s point of view.

'Flower Sun and Rain' used a bizarre puzzle system where every problem players faced had to be converted into a numerical answer. (The PS2 version shown never made it out of Japan.)

Grasshopper Manufacture

And by the same token, Silver Case is very dark, whereas FSR is just as surreal and bizarre, but also feels almost comedic.

Yeah, the reason Flower Sun and Rain is so [tonally different] is because I had to fully put myself into Silver Case’s world, which is dark and pretty fucked up. By the time I finished, with everything being so dark for so long, I kind of felt like I wanted to go to an island paradise or something.

And since I can’t actually swim, it would be pointless for me to actually go to a place like that, so I thought, “okay, I’ll make a game about it.” So basically it was something that was close to the opposite of Silver Case, something bright and kind of funny at times, like you said.

Sumio mentions that his Celica is named ‘Giggs’. What is that a reference to?

I’m a big fan of Ryan Giggs, from Manchester United.

Travis Touchdown performs a suplex in 'No More Heroes'.

Grasshopper Manufacture

Sports are a running theme throughout a lot of your games ‘ these references to soccer in FSR, wrestling in No More Heroes and Killer 7, the entire concept of Diabolical Pitch. What is it about sport that makes you interested in including it in Grasshopper projects?

It’s not actually so much sports in general. It’s mostly baseball. I’ve never really been into watching it that much, but I always loved playing it. And for my generation ‘ it wasn’t that baseball was the only sport we could play, but as far as when I was a kid, it was the only thing anyone really wanted to play.

Ever since the war ended, baseball’s been the number one sport in Japan, so that was pretty much what everyone played. Me and my friends, we’d get up and go to school, come home, get changed, grab our gloves and bats and play til it was dark outside. Sometimes we’d get up in the morning and play all day. So I guess baseball’s been ingrained in me. It’s always been special to me.

More generally, not just with baseball, but with pro-wrestling, I’ve always been really interested in the way that really good wrestlers and other athletes are able to do things that most people can’t do. Like, in baseball, there’s a really famous player named Sadaharu Oh — he’s kind of a legendary player in Japan. I always really looked up to him. I’d watch him bat and he’d hit these amazing shots.

Or Ryan Giggs, he’ll run in from the left with this special kick, and it’s like, only this guy can really pull that off. Even David Beckham, with that free kick of his, or how Usain Bolt runs. And wrestlers all have their special finishing moves. Everyone has their own kind of specific thing that only they can do.

Seeing people who are really good at athletics and moving their bodies in these really crazy ways who also have their own unique style I’ve always been really interested in that. I think it’s amazing. How I see it is what they can do and how they’re able to do it is like a form of art in itself. So it’s always been really important to me, thematically and visually.

Huh. I never thought about it that way.

Actually, I just realized that. Just now, after you asked me that question.

Grasshopper Manufacture

Wow. Did you watch the Olympics this year?

A little bit. I used to play badminton, so I thought it was really awesome that the Japanese doubles team got the gold medal. I watched them play and thought they were amazing. The way they play really is artistic.

What drew you to badminton?

When I was in school, I had to choose a sports club to join. And since you have to be in it for three years, I picked badminton because I thought it’d be the easiest one, but it turned out it was actually the hardest one. It’s surprisingly really hard. And every day I had to run probably at least 20 kilometers.

That sounds brutal.

Yeah. But it really toughened me up physically. It really is a hard sport. Watching those women in the Olympics, I understand how hard they must have worked and how tough it must be for them.

Are you looking forward to the Tokyo Olympics?

Kind of. We actually have a lot of problems in Japan that have happened, and are going to happen, because of the Olympics. It’s a complicated situation. Recently actually, and very luckily, the governor of Tokyo prefecture changed.

A woman was elected, actually the first female governor of Tokyo in history, but she seems like a really good governor, like she’s going to do a really good job, for the first time in a long time.

Hopefully she’ll be able to do a lot of good not just for Tokyo, but help make the Olympics a lot better than they probably would’ve been without her. One thing I want to say is that Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe coming out of the warp pipe at the Brazil closing ceremonies? That shouldn’t have been him. It should’ve been [Nintendo’s Shigeru] Miyamoto instead.

Abe’s not exactly the cleanest politician, either.

He’s got a lot of shit going on in the background, yeah. Seeing him was cold, which is a Japanese expression — like when something’s so awkward and cringeworthy you actually feel physically cold. Pretty much everyone felt that way.

Hopefully things will improve with the rest of the games.

Another fundamental problem is the Japanese media. They don’t really care so much about letting everyone know what’s actually going on or telling a good story, they care about viewership and ratings and stuff like that. So they don’t focus on anything positive, so like with the Olympics they’re only focusing on all the problems that have happened. So they don’t focus on things that need attention, they focus on things they think people want to watch.

It’s sort of a weird analogy, but how the Japanese news media works is kind of like using a nuclear weapon to kill one criminal. Like using all this energy to take care of this one problem when in doing so you’re causing all these other problems at the same time. It’s like that.

Grasshopper Manufacture

Games have become a lot more socially aware in the past several years, and able to talk about bigger societal issues. Is that something you’ve ever considered doing with Grasshopper? You obviously care a lot about what’s going in Japan.

I’ve definitely noticed the increased need for that kind of game. If I can think of the right way to handle it and the right subject to tackle, I’d definitely like to do something like that. Actually I did a bit of that with Silver Case — it’s not like a documentary, but it is kind of a reflection or an analysis of criminal elements, especially violent crime, like we were talking about earlier.

How does it occur and that sort of thing. That’s one of the major themes and one of the reasons why I made the game in the first place. I don’t have anything concrete in mind right now but it’s definitely something I’d like to do with Grasshopper in the future.

You could you address some of the concerns you have about the Olympics in something.

It might have been subconscious, but I put a bit of that kind of thing in Killer 7 as a background theme. Not exactly about sports, but what that goes on behind the scenes, kind of dirtier dealings.

Killer 7

Grasshopper Manufacture

There was a lot of unexpected political commentary in the background of this weird game about assassins. What was your thinking there at the time?

I was thinking a lot about the relationship between America and Japan. And at the beginning, [Shinji] Mikami came to me and said, “let’s make this game, it’s going to make it for overseas as opposed to just Japan.” So I started thinking that. It was like, “okay, I’m in Japan, the game’s based in America — I’ll make something about the relationship between Japan and America after the war.”

There’s the political agreement that America protects Japan and Japan doesn’t go to war, and I thought, “what if that agreement expired and America said we’re not going to help you out anymore? What would happen? How would Japan protect itself? Would they attack America? Would America attack us? Would they be able to create a new agreement?”

I wanted to touch on things like while we may be friends, at one time we did go to war. And America did drop the bomb on Japan. But I didn’t want to be super on the nose about it. So they ended up underlying themes.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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