By Nathan Grayson on September 13th, 2013 at 7:00 pm.
Ubisoft is making an art game. Or at least, Child of Light is as close to an art game as any major publisher is likely to get for quite some time. It’s being put together by a tiny team (headed up by Far Cry 3‘s directors, of all people, because we are living in Bizarro Land) with incredibly little in the way of bellowing blasts from Ubisoft brass. The result? A gorgeously painterly JRPG Metroidvania with a story that takes the form of a 120-page epic poem. The yarn itself, meanwhile, is a highly metaphorical spin on a young girl’s struggles growing up. I sat down with creative director Patrick Plourde and lead writer Jeffrey Yohalem to discuss poetry, influence from both JRPGs and classic PC adventure games, creating a female character who’s not defined by her search for a “Prince Charming,” choices that cut off large chunks of content, and more.
RPS: Why the poetry angle? What greater purpose does that serve in terms of the themes you’re trying to express in the game?
The point of being modern is that women don’t need a guy. I don’t want an ending where she’s going to fall in love.
Yohalem: It’s a nostalgic game, one that’s rich in fairy tale culture. I think that poetry hearkens back to epic fairy tale things like the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which is about this enchanted bird that dooms the sailor to the sea. It felt like something new that we could do in this genre that also fit with the genre.
Plourde: I think there’s also something about beauty and art. The reference for the art is the golden age of illustration, like Arthur Rackham, John Bauer, and Edmund Dulac. The music, the piano pieces… It’s a chance to create something that uses the best of all art. For me, it’s an interesting angle.
Yohalem: One of the battle scenes was inspired by an opera set – the spotlight and the mist and that kind of stuff. Opera was another thing we had in mind.
Plourde: I think that there’s something operatic, to me, in the battles. It’s theatrical. JRPGs are theatrical, because the guys are all on one side. When you get into a battle, it’s like a stage. It’s not like a tactical RPG. Then the characters change places, and they’re on this side or that side. I was saying, I’d like to have a Cirque de Soleil battle, a staged battle that feels both visceral and theatrical.
RPS: What are the main JRPGs that you’re drawing influence from? For you especially, which ones did you play growing up?
Plourde: Growing up, I didn’t play that many JRPGs, because I could only speak French. Everything about the stories, in English, I didn’t understand. I only started learning English at 18 or 19. Before that, it was just action games. You don’t have to speak anything to play Mario. There’s no language. Now that there are more versions that are translated, I think that’ll be good for other people in other languages.
But I started to be able to be fluent in English, and I started with Final Fantasy VII. Then, after that, Grandia II. Vagrant Story. Ogre Battle. Ogre Battle 64 was good. After that, Final Fantasy Tactics. Then I switched to Fire Emblem. Chrono Trigger. I played that on the DS.
RPS: Blasphemy! But that’s actually a really good version.
Plourde: Yeah. But that era, from 1997 to 2001, the stuff that was coming out… I remember the summer where you had Chrono Chross, Threads of Fate, and Legend of Mana, and then Final Fantasy IX in September or October of that year. On the launch day for the Dreamcast, you had Final Fantasy VIII. After that, 2001 started, and it ended with Halo and GTA. And then suddenly it was like… I started playing older games, like Vandal Hearts. A lot of PS1 RPGs.
The last six-seven years, in the last generation, now you can count on one hand the number of JRPGs that have come out. There’s Blue Dragon and stuff like that. One of the four JRPGs we got this generation. I want to return to the feeling of that era.
Yohalem: To build on that, growing up, I didn’t have consoles. My parents wouldn’t let me have one, so I was playing everything on PC. I got everything that I could possibly buy on PC. I played a lot of adventure games, like Longest Journey and Syberia and Monkey Island. Space Quest and Quest for Glory. Everything that I could play that had a rich storyline.
We married that into this game. You have that sensibility of a mysterious, secret world, and this character who grows and changes. Characters who seem to be one thing turn out to be another. All these interesting plot twist marry with this JRPG sense.
RPS: So you’re positioning Child of Light as a fairy tale. What makes it a fairly tale versus just another fantasy story?
Plourde: The thing I liked about fairy tales, it’s the simplicity of form. There’s one theme that is explored. It’s not about saving the world. It’s Little Red Riding Hood in the forest. It has to be pure. It’s not about mixing up, “Oh, there’s a meteorite coming.” Meteorites don’t arrive in real life. It’s a theme that mixes… Let’s take the fairy tale angle of the story of one girl growing up, and mix it with an RPG that’s about starting as someone small and weak and then growing up.
Yohalem: Yeah, because it’s really important that the gameplay matches the narrative. You feel it through playing it.
Plourde: For me, it was an interesting angle. It’s important that, when you start playing something, you find some angle or subject that you can latch on to. “That’s an itch I can scratch.” It makes it more straightforward in the presentation of the story. Talking about the struggle of the population, it was really centered on Aurora. For me, that was a good thing to know how younger gamers may start applying it and attempting the different narration.
RPS: What aspects of growing up are you dealing with?
Plourde: Personally, the character in the demo, she’s really young. That’s going to change throughout. We’re going to see her perspective on life and what she’s fighting for and her relationship with other people evolve. That pure narrative is great. Physically, she’s also going to evolve.
RPS: So she’s actually going to grow up over the course of the game?
Plourde: Yes. We can’t show what we have planned, but the idea is to start small and finish with her around 20 years old. The idea is to go 5, 10, 15, 20…
Yohalem: For me, I feel like growing up is getting out of your own head. You have all these fantasies about life where you think, “Everything works like this.” Because you’re telling yourself that in your head. If you can get out of your head and see reality for what it is and relate to other people instead of the people in your head, then you grow up. It’s that story of the loss of innocence, I guess?
Plourde: For me, the story starts with daddy’s little girl. As a parent, you want your child to someday become an adult, someone who’s independent and can do good for the world. If you can contribute, you’re an adult. If you can contribute to the life of other people and make a positive change with your own power, you can do something in this world.
That’s the journey of Aurora. That’s the choice. We’re going to let the player decide what ending they want, but that’s the angle. Are you going to stay daddy’s little girl, or are you going to make a sacrifice and say, “I can do good, because I have the power to make a change, a power that other people don’t necessarily have”? That’s that angle, about growing up. I hope that letting people make those choices and see the different endings will let them feel that.
RPS: Obviously, growing up for boys and girls is pretty different. There are a lot of different things to go through – many different expectations. You made the daddy’s little girl reference, but that strikes me as a really narrow, weirdly patriarchal view. I mean, if nothing else, what about her mom?
Plourde: The thing is, in this case, her mother is dead. But the villain… hm, we haven’t revealed that.
Yohalem: All of these issues, in a fairy tale… Everything kind of becomes metaphorical. The enemy that she’s facing can be seen in many different ways, and we’ve included that so you feel that struggle in her world.
Plourde: I’m going to say that if you analyze pretty much every fairy tale, the villain there, that’s our villain. Go watch Sleeping Beauty. [laughs] We’re going to have that as a thematic element.
One thing we wanted is that it’s not about finding Price Charming. That’s the thing that I think makes us more modern. Most of the traditional fairy tales are about, “You know what? You’re going to have your period. Soon you’re going to become a woman. The world is dangerous. So find a man to protect you.” That’s why it always ends with finding Prince Charming. Like, in Sleeping Beauty, the first time you spill blood at 16 years old…?
Yohalem: That’s a bit of a metaphor there, yeah.
Plourde: Because then you’ve become changed. That’s a drastic change there. They kind of played with that. For me, I was explaining that to my senior producer. I was explaining that fairy tales have that meaning, about growing up. Right now it’s not necessarily… In the west, I think it’s more about the knowledge that you’re physically changing and becoming a physical woman.
But there’s also a thing about… It’s really difficult to not be a child. There’s a point where you’re growing up and you say, “But I really like being in that innocent world where there’s no responsibility. I just want to stay that person. It’s a dangerous world out there.” There’s a link between the lessons that we learn from those old tales. It’s not necessarily one to one representative of today when it’s like, “Be careful going into the woods because you’re going to get raped.”
But I want to make sure that the empowerment doesn’t come from another person or a guy or somebody who’s going to come and save her. That’s the worst right now, the problem of infantilization. There’s still that dream of, “At some point somebody’s going to come to my house with a camera and I’m going to become a star and get rich.” That magic thing…
Yohalem: That kind of deus ex machina just doesn’t happen.
Plourde: It’s the specification of growing up that becomes the target of this kind of fairy tale where the angle is, “You know what? The fairy godmother is going to come for a ride and erase all your problems.”
Yohalem: I also think there’s a problem that everyone stays attached to their parents nowadays, because of digital media. It’s so easy to live with your parents without actually living with them. And so I think our fear… It’s scary to let go of being a kid. It’s getting easier and easier not to.
Plourde: The point of being modern is that women don’t need a guy. I don’t want an ending where she’s going to fall in love. That could be interesting at another time, maybe even with the same character some time later. But that’s another angle to take. This one, I wanted it to be about becoming an adult and how that’s something you do by yourself.
Yohalem: It was exciting to write that kind of a story. It was very exciting. Love is an easy way out for a writer. Everyone feels it. It’s this universally felt thing. It’s easy to play into a love story. Not having that safety net makes you really stretch.
RPS: When you say that a lot of it is metaphorical, how much is it a metaphor for just general themes of growing up versus ones that are specific to the modern day? Or maybe even specifically a woman in the modern day?
Yohalem: It’s definitely a modern fairy tale. I think it’s relatable whether you’re male or female. There are common things that we all go through. Definitely, there are some things that Aurora goes through specifically that only some people will identify with, but it’s really about the struggle of growing up in general in the modern world.
Plourde: There’s no technology, so it’s difficult to showcase things that are literally modern. Like, “Ah, my friends stopped following me on Twitter!” That’s why it’s played as metaphorical. But the situations, like if you’re going to help somebody or not, you can re-apply that situation one to one. Say you could stay home and watch TV, or go and help somebody move their fridge. Technically, it’s better to stay home. But if you understand the principle of, “You know what, I’m going to sacrifice my afternoon to help you. We’re doing stuff together. We’re becoming friends.” That’s how people are going to notice the thing about, like, sacrificing stuff, time… And then, after that, it’s a drama. So everything is abstracted. There’s less life and death in a normal week.
Yohalem: The neat thing is that it’s really going to be up to the player, what they want to do throughout, in that way. How you want to spend your time.
RPS: How varied will that be? When you say I can choose to not do anything, what do you mean?
Plourde: That means you can finish the game with no partners.
RPS: Oh? How does that work?
Plourde: It will maybe make your fights tougher, but maybe you’re going to be more optimized and stronger and you can do it all by yourself if you’re really good. That’s a choice we want to have. Someone is going to ask you for help, and you can say yes or no. That’s the creative freedom of not being a big triple-A game. It’s not as important if people are missing two cutscenes in our game. It’s the meaning of that that’s important. Every choice that we’re going to propose, as much as possible, will affect the direction of the game. You can choose to say yes or no.
RPS: What’s the other side of that choice, though? Why would players choose to not have more party members – more tools, essentially? In real life, yes, it would be inconvenient to go and help your friend move their refrigerator or whatever, but in a game there’s always a very tangible reward for something like that. You get a party member. That’s a big deal. You’re willing to take that small inconvenience because this character is going to benefit you for the rest of the game. But on the opposite side of that choice, if you just say, “No, I’m going to go off on my own way,” is there a benefit that makes that tempting?
Yohalem: Yes. You’ll probably feel like, if you got all the way through the game on your own, that that proves something. That’s what’s so fascinating about this, because I think it’s true in real life too. People who stay on their own – and you read about this in books, the “lone wolf” ideal – there’s the idea that I’m agile on my own, that I speak faster on my own, and if I succeed, I gain more of a reward because I did it all myself. The game does not punish that. That was very important to me, that the game is not an attack… There’s no right or wrong. It’s just an exploration of how you would feel in miniature.
Plourde: I think that probably, most people are going to say yes to everything. But there are going to be some stubborn people who say, “I’m going to try and see what it’s like to say no all the time.” They’re going to feel like that.
RPS: As opposed to most games, where you say no and the dialogue kind of leads you back into where you essentially said yes.
Yohalem: Yeah. It needs to be a real choice. That’s what’s so exciting about this. It’s a model in miniature of something you can feel in real life.
Plourde: There are guys on the team who say, “No, you can’t do that! What if I don’t have s0-and-so?” Well, then you don’t have them. But they get all worried. I want to embrace that direction.
Check back soon for part two, in which we discuss lessons learned from Far Cry 3 (it still feels weird to write that), what exactly makes Child of Light non-triple-A, the increasing need for big publishers to experiment and diversify, and tons more.