Everything’s gonna be alright

Laura Shigihara is probably best known to gamers as the musician behind “Zombies On Your Lawn,” the award-winning (and wickedly infectious) theme song from the mega-hit Plants vs. Zombies. But these days she’s hard at work on something of a more personal project: Rakuen, a story-based adventure about a sick little boy living in a hospital. Every day his mother reads to him from his favorite book, about a child in a far-away world who embarks upon a great adventure to be reunited with his tribe. Tired of his hospital life, he asks his mother to take him on the same quest, and so they set off together to discover the Forest Guardian of the story, an adventure that will lead them to learn more about the other patients in the hospital and the secrets and struggles that tie them to it.

Rakuen’s story actually grew out of a song that I wrote called ‘Jump,'” Shigihara recently explained. “I wrote it a few years back but didn’t end up arranging/producing it until I was asked to submit a track for the Play for Japan album Akira Yamaoka organized after the Tohoku earthquake. When I wrote the song, I thought about two things: I thought about how in life, we often have to go forward and hope for the best, even though we don’t know how things will turn out; we don’t know if we’ll fly or fall. Sometimes we can’t do anything at all but hope for the best, and jump. I also thought about how we all have a child inside of us that just wants to be told that everything is going to be alright. Sometimes when your Mom says, ‘Don’t worry, everything’s gonna be alright,’ she can’t explain how or why it will be, but just hearing it makes you feel better. That’s what this song is about.

Rakuen

“That’s kind of what Rakuen is about, too. I imagined a little boy living in the hospital, coming to terms with his problems by helping others,” she continued. “Perhaps others who are too old to have a Mom, or who are carrying too much on their shoulders to ask someone to be there for them. The boy’s Mom gives him the gift of hope, and through his adventures, he’s able to pass that on to those around him. Through his actions, he’s able to tell them, ‘Everything’s gonna be alright,’ so that they don’t have to be afraid to jump.”

Shigihara took a jump herself, from the famed PopCap studio behind Plants vs. Zombies and many other hits to the less-certain world of indie game development, although it’s not entirely uncharted territory. She spent most of her career prior to joining the studio, including her time working on the original Plants vs. Zombies, as an independent composer. Somewhat surprisingly given the popularity of crowdfunding these days, she doesn’t have any interest in Kickstarter, saying she saved up as much as she could so she’d be able to work on the game independently, and Rakuen is most definitely an independent effort. Emmy Toyonaga, a freelance illustrator who’s worked for companies including EA and Midway, is creating concept art for the game; but otherwise Shigihara is handling pretty much everything on her own.

Rakuen

“Back in college, I wasn’t yet sure what I wanted to do. I was double majoring in International Relations and Business, but at the same time, I had a love for all things creative. Ever since I was little, I enjoyed writing stories, drawing comics that were centered around inside jokes my friends and I had, designing puzzles and ‘alternate’ Mega Man levels, etc. I’ve always loved video games,” she said. “So even though such a career seemed far-fetched at the time, I still spent a lot of effort learning about things I felt might contribute to being able to make a game. I learned how to program (both on my own, and by taking computer science classes in college), I followed pixel art tutorials, I composed ‘alternate’ level music for games that I liked, etc. I also created games that you could play as an ice breaker or at a party; variations on Mafia, murder mysteries, treasure hunts, etc. It’s funny to me, to think that those kinds of games actually influenced a lot of the gameplay in Rakuen.”

As you might expect from a game about a boy seeking escape from the drudgery of life in a hospital, Rakuen will serve up some “heavy, ‘tear-jerker’ moments,” but the overall atmosphere will have a “whimsical and adventurous” air about it. Nonetheless, Shigihara said some of the themes it touches on will be bittersweet, highlighted by the sharp contrast between the real world and the fantasy realm into which they escape.

“One of the major themes is about how the child’s mother helps him deal with his situation by somehow bringing this wonderful world from his book to life,” she said. “The way she encourages him, the attainable goals she helps him set, the adventurous and hopeful outlook she shows him; all of these things drastically change how he looks at what’s going on in his life. I’ve always found it amazing how parents can do this for their children.

Rakuen

“I’ve always believed that empathy is very important; and one of the best ways to empathize with someone is just to learn about them and listen to what they have to say. I lost my last grandparent this year, and while I felt very sad, I was so thankful to have been able to spend time with her recently. She had such an interesting life and perspective,” she continued. “In my opinion, one of the biggest and most significant things that we can do to ‘leave a legacy’ is to positively affect someone else. Even if it’s just one person. I wanted there to be an aspect of Rakuen that showed how fulfilling it could be to do such a seemingly mundane thing as empathize with someone, help a person figure out how to talk to a loved one they grew apart from, or just be there for somebody. So a major inspiration for making this kind of game was to explore that… I’m hoping it is sincere. It is very personal to me.”

Shigihara hopes to have Rakuen ready for release in early 2014. Until then, you can read more about the game at the Rakuen website and listen to samples of the soundtrack (which, by the way, are excellent) at Bandcamp.