A KojiPro veteran’s explosive career move
Konami’s Shinta Nojiri is taking a big risk with his latest title. The former Kojima Productions mainstay has finally ventured out on his own to craft an original property—and, just like NeverDead main character Bryce Boltzmann, he’s blowing up much of what he’s known over his decade-plus career in an effort to bring his vision for a devil-may-care protagonist’s search for revenge and resolution to life in the upcoming third-person shooter.
But it’s been all guns and guts from the get-go. You see, Nojiri’s longstanding dream to build his own universe came at a cost. Konami offered him the opportunity, but only if he’d uproot himself from his home in Japan to working hand-in-hand with Oxford, U.K.–based developer Rebellion. As Nojiri tells it, he gambled from the jump. “The first time my boss ordered me to make [a new] IP, he said they were looking for someone who could work with a Western developer and asked if I spoke any English. I lied and said ‘yes!’ because I was so interested in a new IP and my own title,” he recalls with a laugh. “They figured it out quickly, but I lied.”
It was a dicey move, to be certain, but this full-blown fib enabled Nojiri to make the move to Oxford, away from his family and Japanese coworkers in an effort to make the most of the rare opportunity—for which his passion’s undeniable.
“Personally, I think for a new IP, we need to provide a new experience for the player, and I wanted to do something unique.” Nojiri says. “‘Something new’ sounds strange sometimes, but it was a fundamental attitude taught by my ex-boss [Hideo Kojima of Kojima Productions]. He always pushed us to surprise him, and I’m using the same method, I guess. Something strange. Something surprising. Something new.”
To that end, Nojiri’s designed a novel protagonist in Bryce Boltzmann. A disgruntled immortal with a hazy, tragic past, our hero sits somewhere between two famous Bruces in terms of attitude (Campbell and Willis, to be exact), but with an important twist in how he handles a fight. “In other titles, the player needs to keep themselves in a safe place while defeating enemies,” says Nojiri, “but in NeverDead, the player needs to change his way of thinking, often putting himself in the middle of danger to win.”
This is facilitated by the fact that Bryce can, quite literally, blow himself to pieces, using these dismembered body parts in new and interesting ways. For example, Bryce’s exploded limbs can be used to distract doglike “puppies” to lure them toward an explosive canister that can be blow up by the limb itself thanks to the ability to fire even when disconnected from his body. This is but one of dozens of examples we saw in our recent playthrough, and each has specific implications to the game’s simple-yet-challenging gameplay systems, which are as much puzzles as they are firefights.
“It requires some brainwork,” says Nojiri, “but I’ve tried to introduce [the mechanics] by degrees. I think it works. If you’re a good player, you’ll find unique fun with it, in ways that can’t be found in other titles.”
In the same sense, Nojiri’s been forced to evaluate his own way of thinking while working with Rebellion. Used to the Kojima method (known in the States as “my way or the highway”), Nojiri’s endured a bit of an adjustment period with the team at Rebellion.
“It’s definitely different,” he admits. “Here, they like to have a lot of discussion before implementing a feature, but in Japan, the game director is responsible for everything, at least in the initial concepts. I’d tried to provide some unique features, but sometimes, they hate them. It’s a balance. For example, they hated [Bryce’s] rolling head, but finally, we went my way. Of course, sometimes I compromised, too.”
Given the game’s flair for emergent gameplay, the discussions were undoubtedly fierce. In addition to the core dismemberment mechanic, Bryce’s arsenal is bolstered by an extensive upgrade system that allows you to purchase over 60 new powers. These can be applied to 16 specific slots, allowing you to mix and match elements like the ability to detonate limbs, a bullet-time-ish power-up, rapid limb regeneration, and more, ensuring that no two playthroughs are the same.
This wasn’t always the intent, Nojiri says, but the results have added a considerable bit of mileage to the experience.
“The first game through, you can earn about half of [Bryce’s] abilities,” estimates Nojiri. “Abilities will change your gameplay, depending on your strategies. And now we know each player has a different way [of playing], even more than we expected. I planned it this way, but I was surprised when I played multiplayer. Using Sixth Sense and Explosive Limb, I like to blow up and damage them and it’s very effective for me, but another [member of the development team] is always kicking enemies into things, crushing walls to kill them. He thinks it’s the best way, and other guys use a totally different way.”
Speaking of multiplayer, NeverDead features a host of competitive and cooperative modes for up to four players separate from the primary campaign. All of these modes will allow players to earn XP toward the aforementioned upgrade system, which should help players get past the trickier puzzles by upgrading online and taking their new toys into the campaign.
As you can see, there’s a lot of layers in the onion that is NeverDead, but Nojiri hopes that, in the end, the experience will be worth it. “It’s so tough to be apart from my family.” he says. “I left behind a wife and daughter in Japan, and my English is not so good, making it difficult to work with [the team]. I’ve learned so much in terms of different ways of thinking. I’m not sure how much I’ve changed, but I’ve learned something here during development.”
The way this learning experience has translated to the screen is impressive, to say the least, as the game’s blend of creepy creatures, classic Konami design sensibilities, and Nojiri’s clear burden for pushing the envelope with distinct gameplay mechanics will definitely get gamers talking come the game’s late-January release. But even Nojiri’s unsure if the conversation will be enough.
“I’m not sure if it’s good gathering so many strange things for the player,” he says, “but we will provide something new.”
In the end, this is the main element NeverDead promises to deliver—and, as far as we’re concerned, that’s a great place to start.