13AM’s new 2.5D animated brawler, set to release early this year, is a story-driven, co-operative monster mashup that lets players collaborate to destroy an alien horde and save the planet.
In 2015, a group of creatives from the advertising, civil engineering, film, writing, graphic design and programming industries came together to release 13AM Games first title, Runbow, one of the biggest local multiplayer, and award-winning, experiences ever brought to the Wii U. Four years later, the independent video game studio in Toronto released their second game, Double Cross, an inter-dimensional, single-player, action-adventure game for the Nintendo Switch, PC and Xbox One.
Now, 13AM is looking to expand their gaming genre reach even further with their 2.5D-animated Dawn of the Monsters, the company’s first official kaiju project set to release in early 2022.
“It’s an idea our creative director Alex Rushdy has had for a while,” said art director Takashi. “He’s a huge kaiju fan, as are many of us in the office. And at the end of Double Cross, we saw this opportunity to revisit and evolve this idea that had just been sitting on the shelves or the backburner of 13AM.”
What started out as a simple concept for a player-versus-player brawling game, transformed into a co-operative, story-driven, monster mash-up.
Dawn of the Monsters takes place a few decades into the future, where Nephalem – a horde of creatures dedicated to destroying the planet – have shown up on earth and started wreaking havoc. As different countries try to fight these threats, a DAWN (Defense Alliance Worldwide Network) organization is created to establish a worldwide alliance to take down the invaders. The goal of the game is to liberate four major metropolitan areas – from Cairo to Toronto and, of course, Tokyo – while playing as “either a mecha or superhero” kaiju character, as Takashi puts it.
Players can choose between taking on the Nephalem as a Megadon, Ganira, Aegis Prime, or Tempest Galahad. Published by WayForward, Dawn of the Monsters’ kaiju designs are created by legendary Godzilla character designer Shiji Nishikawa – known for works such as Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) – “Godzilla” comic book artist Matt Frank and include artwork by renowned illustrator EJ Su of Transformers and Rise of Ultraman fame.
“When we were first putting the game together, Alex organized movie nights so we could all get on the same page with the tone and the mood that he wanted,” explains Takashi. “We watched everything from 1954’s Godzilla to the Gamera Trilogy and Patlabor’s OVAs.”
What the team discovered as they unpacked kaiju stories and influences, was that the term and understanding of the genre had been increasingly oversimplified throughout the years. And it was a misunderstanding they wanted to remedy with Dawn of the Monsters.
“Especially in North America, the term ‘kaiju,’ only started to resurface in the past few years with stuff like Pacific Rim, which got so popular and was such a success that people started realizing the term ‘kaiju’ was a thing,” notes Takashi. “Even when I was growing up, I watched the 1998 Godzilla and, for me, it was just about these giant monsters and that was pretty much it. But there's this huge culture of kaiju that is still pretty unknown to a lot of people.”
He continues, “Speaking about the original Godzilla, it's a drama piece that’s a metaphor for the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the terror that created. Kaiju wasn’t really about monsters; it was about a phenomenon or something that would happen that you can't control or fight against. All you can do is deal with the consequences that come after.”
Originally designed to address social, environmental and political criticism through entertaining films of larger-than-life beasts, Takashi believes the oversimplification of kaiju comes from drawing attention to the exciting action and fighting between these monsters, which are more and more humanized in modern media, rather than showcasing all the destruction and terror.
“We had many discussions on where we wanted our game to land,” says Takashi. “Even though it's a game, I think it’d be a lost opportunity if we only approached it purely for the sake of brainless entertainment. There are games that accomplish that and it's perfectly fine. But when you're creating media – a game, a comic, or animation – I think it's important to have a message behind it. It gives more of a soul to the project.”
And, for Takashi and the 13AM Games team, the soul of Dawn of the Monsters is players working together – granted, as large, ready-to-fight monsters – to take down a common enemy and save the planet.
“It’s still a video game and we wanted to make it fun,” he continues. “The gameplay is very over the top and you're bashing kaiju characters through buildings. Since there are so many ways to portray kaiju, we chose to portray the serious, metaphorical part in the narrative while the gameplay is pretty much just like the action-focused media we’ve come to know because that's what the fans like to see.”
As is often the case with video games, seeing is believing. And to make the fans believe in the powerful message and attractive gameplay potential of Dawn of the Monsters, Takashi and 13AM’s animator Mike Lambert knew they needed to create a visual style that was as captivating as it was effective in serving the game’s narrative.
“I grew up watching anime and a lot of Tokusatsu and Power Rangers and Ultraman, so my influence for the game’s style came from there first,” explains Takashi. “And as Mike and Alex and I talked, we figured everything needed to be visually exaggerated. We're talking about giant monsters, so we want everything to be very big. We decided to go for an aesthetic that is very contrastive and has very strong lighting and silhouettes.”
Wanting to “emphasize a sense of strength” in the game’s visuals, Takashi says the team became heavily influenced by the illustrations of Hellboy’s creator Mike Mignola.
“His work is phenomenal,” says Takashi. “It’s gorgeous and it had that same impact and same sense of drama that we wanted. It was a perfect reference for what we were looking for. Every scene of the game, we wanted it to feel like a comic book scene.”
Though the game is 2.5D animated, Takashi says he and the team have taken great pride in the fact that many people believe the game to be 3D at first glance. “We developed this dynamic lighting system that lights up our character sprites, and almost everybody that sees the trailer thinks that this is a 3D game,” he says. “It’s nice to know the trick is working.”
Takashi also borrowed inspiration from manga works, aiming to build a bridge between Mignola’s style and the original kaiju source material from Japan. It’s taken assembling “a lot of little pieces of inspiration” according to Takashi, to create the look of Dawn of the Monsters, but on top of spotlighting the history of kaiju, the art director says it’s been a dream getting to have the time to create a narrative and visual look that is rare to gaming.
“The most rewarding part of this has been creating this challenging visual style,” he shares. “In games today, there's a lot of super realistic stuff and there's a lot of anime-looking projects. I think the gaming industry lacks variety a lot of times and, as an art director, you want to find something that is different and that is your own. Especially coming from Double Cross, which was a much more common art style, we challenged ourselves much more in this project. And even though it made our lives much more complicated, it's rewarding to see that we managed to pull it off.”