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The Humans Are Dead, Long Live the Beast

Tokyo Jungle game director Yohei Kataoka reflects on what just might be 2012's most surprising game, and how the reaction of fans completely changed it.

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One way or the other, Tokyo Jungle was destined for success.

It would have earned fans based on its premise alone, in which players control animals released into a post-human apocalypse, and fight for dominance on the streets of Tokyo. But few would have predicted Tokyo Jungle as one of better playing games this year. With its tight, interconnected survival systems and fair but brutal learning curve, Tokyo Jungle is equal parts good and goofy. Read my review for more details on what all that means. In short: it's rad.

Such balance is found everywhere in the game, including its ability to make positively savage confrontations between groups of animals (like a tiny but vicious Pomeranian "attacking" a velociraptor) something you can laugh at, too.

Tokyo Jungle requires careful calculation on the part of the player, with every risky remove having a potential reward...and a potentially swift death.
Tokyo Jungle requires careful calculation on the part of the player, with every risky remove having a potential reward...and a potentially swift death.

“We needed to represent sweetness and the harsh realities at the same time,” said game director Yohei Kataoka, who prefers to play his game as a pack of predatory chickens, in an email interview.

And though Tokyo Jungle seemingly came out of nowhere here in the United States, it was a quiet three-year collaboration between external developer Crispy’s through PlayStation C.A.M.P. (Creator Audition Mash Up Project). In C.A.M.P., everyday Japanese citizens were allowed to pitch projects to Sony. Tokyo Jungle was one of them, and while 26 developers worked on the game at the height of its development, it started with humbler beginnings: two people.

Tokyo Jungle and Resident Evil 6 were released around the same time in September, and the contrast between the two stuck out like a sore thumb. Resident Evil 6 came across as a game made for all people, aimed at pleasing a worldwide audience, and, thus, lacked a distinct vision. Tokyo Jungle was the opposite. It knew what it was.

“It’s not that we developed this game for Japanese users, but we focused on developing a game that ‘we’ genuinely think is interesting and fun,” said Kataoka. “I believe that this mind-set led to the positive feedback we received from Japan as well as overseas. From the beginning of development, at least at Crispy's, we were never that conscious about the marketing. Of course, we develop games based on what the Japanese users would find fun, so the game may appear more as a novelty for the overseas users, like how the Ukiyo-e [Japanese woodblock paintings] were a long time ago.”

Though Tokyo Jungle was released in Japan on a Blu-ray disc at retail, it started life as a PlayStation Network exclusive, which is how it was eventually released in the rest of the world. Conceived as a downloadable game, however, the game’s scope was understandably limited, which is what originally lead the game to be side-scrolling in nature. That earlier version of Tokyo Jungle was shown at Tokyo Game Show 2010, and got a huge reaction.

“As we did not have much budget allocated for this project, we tried to develop a 2D scrolling action game to keep the budget under control, but the replayable gameplay did not work so well,” said Kataoka.

Tokyo Jungle is an example of a game where the reaction shifted the game design. Positive responses from players and media exposed to Tokyo Jungle (I remember 8-4 Play really getting behind it early) prompted Sony to appropriate a bigger budget to it, and Kataoka’s team was able to build a fully 3D space for players and animals to run around in.

Coming to grips with Tokyo Jungle’s first few hours can be brutal. It’s not an easy game, but it’s one that rewards players who patiently learn its systems. Even then, success is not guaranteed. Kataoka cited a surprising influence on Tokyo Jungle: Capcom’s Steel Battalion. The original one, mind you, not the abomination made for Kinect.

“This game utilizes more than 40 buttons to operate a vertical tank to battle and when you fail to push the escape button when trying to escape the tank, all your save data gets deleted,” he said. “I was very impressed with its concept of going above and beyond the traditional life-and-death perspective in video games. Now that I think about it, I believe this concept of ‘death equals the end’ contributed to the game characteristic of Tokyo Jungle.”

(I had to ask Kataoka about the game’s ending, so prepare for spoilers, Tokyo Jungle newcomers.)

Even though it ruins some of the surprise, I’ve felt compelled to inform people Tokyo Jungle has a narrative justification for its madness, including why dinosaurs are running around. Though survival mode is where the meat of the game is, there’s a story mode unlocked by picking up collectibles. Tokyo Jungle's current lack of men and women involves time manipulation, mass discrepancies across time and space, and stupid, stupid humans.

Crispy’s didn’t start developing the explanation until after the game’s systems were in place, but it’s a piece of the Tokyo Jungle puzzle, one that weaves a dark tale, and Kataoka clearly took it seriously.

In this ending, you've chosen to let humanity rot in another time period, and the animals reign.
In this ending, you've chosen to let humanity rot in another time period, and the animals reign.

There are two possible endings in Tokyo Jungle. Upon learning humanity has abandoned the current time period, robotic dogs left by the humans are tasked with bringing them back. You don’t have to. If you choose to bring the humans back (the “bad” ending), the game fades to black. If you choose to leave them stranded in another time, it’s unclear what happens to the humans, and animals are Earth's master. It’s not really evident what happens, and Kataoka didn’t exactly jump at the chance to make it clearer.

“We decided to not leave a specific message and focused on natural providence,” he said. “If the population keeps increasing at the current pace, we imagined that it will be impossible for everyone to have a prosperous life with the current civilization level, in the First World countries. In both endings, we depicted our imagination of the future into the game.”

He did speculate on what might have happened to the stranded humans in the “good” ending, though.

“Hmmm,” he said. “I'm not sure. However, I will imagine that if they survive, they will live on making mistakes.”


And what about a sequel, you ask? It hasn't been ruled out, but it's too early to say.

Patrick Klepek on Google+