Laura Shigihara has become a rising star on the video game composing scene. Raised in both the U.S. and Japan, educated in music in America, she turned down contracts on the Japanese pop music scene to pursue a career with her passion for video games instead.
Since making this decision, titles like Plants vs Zombies, where she composed and performed both the English and Japanese scores, Minecraft, To The Moon, and even World of Warcraft highlight an ever expanding list of impressive credits.
She's even contributed to the Play for Japan album intended for the Tohoku Earthquake victims alongside Chrono Trigger composer Yasunori Mituda and the one and only Nobuo Uematsu of Final Fantasy fame.
Her music career already on the rise, Shigihara has taken her interest one step further by creating her own game from the ground up. I asked Shigihara a few questions about her interest and history in game development and all about her beautiful new RPG, Rakuen.
Classic Tale of Boys Will Be Boys
Rakuen tells the story of a young boy who lives in a hospital. Trapped by his cramped surroundings and unable to venture beyond its walls, he turns to his favorite books to create his own fantasy world right within his facility. While adventuring, he learns the importance of empathizing with others and begins to explore the minds of people he otherwise might not.
"I guess with Rakuen, a pretty big emphasis is placed on building relationships with other patients in the hospital. Even the 'dungeons' are built around each patient's story. As you solve puzzles and figure out how to escape from rooms, you're also uncovering mysteries about each patient's life and empathizing with their struggles," Shigihara explains about the lack of focus on violence in Rakuen.
"So instead of fighting your way to victory, you figure out how to help them in sort of unconventional ways. Instead of leveling up your stats and equipment, you're subtly improving the world around you. I suppose I just wanted to show that even mundane actions can be incredibly meaningful."
Beyond just the relationships with other patients, the young boy's mother is also deeply involved in the story. Her duty, giving her son hope for a future where he can exist beyond the hospital. However, neither character has been given a name.
"I think I wanted them to feel more universal. Even though the Boy and Mom have their own backgrounds, unlike the other patients, their stories in Rakuen are not so much about the specific events leading up to their lives in the hospital. The questions they have to ask themselves, and the challenges they face are very universal, so I didn't want them to have specific names."
The game's bright and approachable art direction also plays in with the mother character. "The reason I went with a more lighthearted and whimsical look was because I wanted there to be a really big contrast between the Boy's situation, and the world his mother helps him to create."
She adds, "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. So as you play through the game, you can observe changes in the art style, the music, and even the way the characters will talk with you."
Shigihara also confirmed that the game does have an antagonist for the boy to confront, but didn't provide any information on the character.
Japan, Ghibli and Other Inspirations
The problems the young boy and his mother face are universal ones encountered everywhere in the world, but despite that, much of Rakuen's influence comes from Japan. Spirited Away and the works of Hayao Miyazaki have been cited as one of the biggest influences on the game, and a great deal of Japanese lore has also cropped up in "a few characters whose designs were inspired by Japanese mythology (like the old Hangyojin couple for example.)"
Shigihara's lighthearted aesthetic and several of her character and monster designs, specifically the "Leeble" characters, carry over from her first indie RPG, Melolune. The character designs are all from her or her co-creator, Emmy's, imagination.
The inspiration for the central themes of hope and the special relationship between a parent and child comes from a different source well beyond the borders of Japan.
"In terms of movies, I was really inspired by the relationship between the main character and his son in the movie Life is Beautiful. That father was so positive and full of love, and despite all of the horrible things going on around them, he still managed to protect his son by creating this whimsical world for his child," Shigihara states when I asked about inspiration beyond Ghibli.
"I really wanted to focus on that almost 'magical' ability a parent or caretaker has to create a safe space for their child, which I believe is especially important during difficult times."
Rakuen's soundtrack also features her single "Jump," featured on the Tohoku Earthquake album Sing for Japan, which has carried over into the game's message. "Yes, there were certain things related to the Tohoku Earthquake that influenced parts of the story."
Remixing a Recurring Theme
Much like Melolune, and Shigihara's other famous indie RPG project To the Moon, which she composed, some of the gameplay will revolve around her musical background. For those who have not played either title, both have central musical themes which gradually change and remix themselves as the events unfold, and it is a gameplay mechanic that Shigihara will carry over into Rakuen.
"There are a few things about the music in Rakuen that I'm really excited about sharing. One of these is related to the Boy's main goal throughout the game: to meet and help his neighbors in the hospital. Throughout your interactions, each person will teach you a song that represents something that is very dear to them."
"Each of these individual songs combine together to make a separate song that you will need to know in order to reach the final part of the game. It was a unique challenge composing several individual songs (about very different topics) that combined to form a pleasant sounding harmony. It was also difficult for me to write lyrics from the perspective of people like my Grandpa (who very much inspired one of the main characters)… but I'm really happy with how it turned out."
"And since I can't do male vocals myself, I'm thankful to have help from Andy Hull and Dale North for that part"
Where Fantasy Meets Reality
Beyond placing pieces of music together to see a complete song, Rakuen is also a game about discovery and seeing a very fine point in the world where fantasy meets reality.
"While some aspects of reality and fantasy within Rakuen are not clearly defined, there are two distinct worlds that the game takes place in," Shigihara says. "There are special passageways between the hospital and Morizora's Forest (the fantasy world from the Boy's book), which allow them to travel between the two worlds."
While journeying between these two different realms, the young boy must uncover lost secrets about his roommates at the hospital, done so through a more traditional RPG exploration style.
"Some [ puzzles ] are based around learning about patients through finding hidden clues and speaking to NPCs, some are based around physical puzzles that need to be solved before you can escape from a particular place."
Hidden passages and rooms, puzzles that will have effects in the other realm. The game can take anywhere from six to 12 hours to complete depending on how thorough the player wishes to be at uncovering everything.
"There are also dungeon puzzles similar in layout to something you'd see in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Changing things in one world often changes things in the other; there are times where you have to figure out what needs to be altered in order to move forward."
History Not Unlike Your Own
As for her history in gaming, Shigihara grew up just like any gamer in her generation and was inspired by the blossoming new medium. Her story might not be too far removed from your own.
"Well, I think I've always been interested in creating games. When I was little, I used to design 'alternate' Mega Man levels and re-draw the comics that came with the Capcom newsletter. The comics weren't very long, so I'd add new adventures and robot masters," she says about her inspirations on game creation."
"I was really inspired by issue 77 of Nintendo Power because it had this great article about Shigeru Miyamoto. I think that might have been the first time I'd learned about him, and since I came from an area that was very rigid about 'acceptable careers,' it was incredibly inspiring to read about someone whose career was to make video games."
Mega Man, Nintendo Power, Shigeru Miyamoto. Her background and interest in game design comes from the same place most seem to have take up the mantle. Shigihara just put her skills to work.
"So even though I ended up majoring in something completely different in college, I 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), 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 icebreakers or at a parties; variations on Mafia, murder mysteries, treasure hunts, etc."
"So I guess you could say that I was always sort of thinking about it. It ended up becoming a big hobby of mine while I was working as a video game composer."
Rakuen has been in development for over a year, and Shigihara has been working diligently to finish it. Be sure to check it out on the game's official webpage for any and all information on this exciting indie project.