By Nathan Grayson on September 14th, 2013 at 4:00 pm.
I’m quite fascinated by Ubisoft’s epic poem JRPG melting pot of madness Child of Light, and I think you should be too. It’s an entirely bonkers concept, and – good or bad – it at least promises to be a thunderous step off the beaten path for a fee-fi-fo-fummingly gigantic publisher. I recently had the chance to chat with creative director Patrick Plourde and lead writer Jeffrey Yohalem, and you can find the first part of our conversation here. Today we pick up right where we left off: with guns and shootymen. Actually, that’s not where we left off at all, but sometimes natural transitions are hard. So read on to see what Plourde and Yohalem learned from creating Far Cry 3, fielding controversy that arose from it, and now, working within constraints more commonly associated with indie developers.
RPS: You guys went from Far Cry 3 to making this. That is something of a leap, to put it lightly.
I think that as an artist, you have to seek out the dangerous territory. That’s where interesting stuff happens. That’s where power happens.
Plourde: The angle, for me, is that if I only play the same kind of thing, I get bored really fast. You make a game, you have to play that game every day for eight hours over two years. You look at that game at the end and you want to puke. That’s really my angle, trying to just do something completely different. If you have, what, 20 or 30 years of career, if you make a game that takes five years to make, you’ll only have six games come out in your whole career.
A lot of people think like that, and that’s great for them, that they’re going to take that one thing and bring it to perfection. But I’m really just a curiosity killed the cat guy. I want to explore. I want to do the opposite of that. It feels good to have no safety net. There’s a point where you start building a formula. “You know what, that worked last time. That’s now part of it.” You have that formula.
Yohalem: I think that because we’re on the cutting edge of where art is going, and we’re kind of in the wilderness, there are all these things that games haven’t done yet. To be able to say, “Let’s try all these things,” I think that’s a privilege of being out there trying to do something new. With film, you can’t do that, because everything’s been done. So then you end up with genre. The Coen brothers manage to switch genres all the time, but there are still certain things that the public wants. We’re free of that obligation, because no one knows what they want yet.
RPS: What did you learn from making Far Cry 3 that, first off, drove you to create this – of all things – and second, that maybe feeds directly into it?
Plourde: I had this weird intuition or weird idea that really affects me. If I’m making a more happy game, I’m going to be more happy. Shooters are more angry. I find that it affects my personality. That’s one thing that went into this. If I try something else, how is it going to affect my mood, making it? That comes with the stress of… We’re doing stuff, and we don’t always know what’s going to come out. It’s impossible to know. Far Cry was tough. It was a hard decision, to try and make something so radically different.
Yohalem: We’ve worked in this big machine making Far Cry, where you have this incredible power to make things happen, but at the same time, changing the course of the ship takes a very long time. It often doesn’t work. You’re constantly patching up the holes that spring up behind you and then more holes spring up behind you along the way. It’s kind of like this race to make sure everything works as well as possible.
Plourde: I want to make sure it’s clear that I helped create that machine. So it’s not a problem for me. We were making things that would be impossible to make with fewer people. It’s magical. There’s a point where the team can start moving mountains, when everybody is aligned in that direction. It’s amazing what you can do. The thing is, I’ve done it.
Then it’s the other direction. Go and make a game by yourself. For me, though, I can’t code, so that’s never going to happen. I can’t do that. You have other guys, like in an independent, about 10 people. So then you look at… Okay, you’ve tried that big team experience, and it works pretty good for me [but now I want to try something else].
Yohalem: Me too.
Plourde: Then what’s next is to remove the net and try… Can I swim in the same waters as a guy that has other constraints? There’s a question of, am I lazy? Do I make a difference when there are 600 of us? Can they make the game anyway? Can I make a bigger difference on a smaller team? That’s the kind of challenge that Child of Light made super interesting.
Yohalem: It was the same thing with me and dialogue. I was very familiar with writing dialogue that has a major impact, where you’re doing all kinds of reversals and you’re turning a scene in an interesting way and you have subtext under the lines. In this case, it’s text-based. The rhymes… I’ve written poetry before, but never like this. Never a 100-page poem. So I didn’t know if I could do it. That excites me. That steering into unknown waters. I don’t think I could ever be flying the same route over and over again. I’d just go crazy. I need to explore new places. If I hit rocks, I hit rocks.
RPS: How big is the team?
Plourde: 30 people.
RPS: What other limitations do you have? Compared to the normal budget that you would get, what are you on for this?
Yohalem: We have like no marketing budget.
Plourde: Yeah. The thing is, on a big game, you work on like 30 features, and if five of them are not super good, then you can kind of bury them. Like, “Oh, you know what? We’re pulling the plug on that.” Here, we have to be very precise. After that, there’s that one shot. If we make a bad call, we’re kind of doomed. We can try to change the game, but the impact is bigger.
The other thing is that it’s slower, the process of everything taking shape, because instead of having 20 people on a feature, you have two. There’s a point where it’s a different rhythm. At first, you’re going a little crazy. Generally, on a big team, you have five or 10 features that are developed at the same time. You can actually review a new feature each day or a big change every week. It keeps you busy. Here, we just have to stick with the direction. It’s shaping up. I just need to shut up and let it take its form. It’s a different rhythm.
This game would have been impossible in 3D. The choice of engine makes the game. To be in 3D would be impossible. It takes two weeks to rig a 3D character. Three weeks to model and texture. When you have 40 characters – when you want to make a game with 40 enemies and make it in a year – we would have needed an army. Because we’re 2D, and we can go straight from drawing to animation… You draw a character, it’s in the game, and we’re playing it and seeing it in the fight scenes. Everything is super quick. Because of that pipeline, the limitations aren’t there.
We also don’t have to tune the camera. That was the biggest thing for me as a game designer, about the 2D games. For the last five years, I’ve gotten used to open world games, where if you wanted to attract somebody to go somewhere, you would just put a tower there, and you’d move the camera. “Okay, where am I?” Move the camera. “Okay, I’m going over there.” Now we start with this, and I can’t move the camera. The landmarks are not on the screen. They don’t exist in 2D. So I’m like, “Aaaaagh!” That was a huge mental shift for me. I started having an appreciation for the old-school designers that did all of their games in 2D. You can’t cheat by putting a tower or something somewhere and training the camera. Everything needs to be done precisely.
RPS: There was some controversy surrounding certain scenes in Far Cry. We’ve talked about that at length already. But having a situation like that occur, did that change the way you approach things when you write them? Did it make you at all want to seek out more opinions – make sure you’re depicting things accurately and in a way that drives home your point?
Yohalem: The short answer would be, no, it didn’t change that, because I think that as an artist, you have to seek out the dangerous territory. That’s where interesting stuff happens. That’s where power happens. If you stray away from that, you become neutered. You’re doing your own PR, which is bad. You need to speak what you feel needs to be said, not what you think people want you to say.
At the same time, I’ve always collaborated on stuff. When I was writing Far Cry, Pat and I were bouncing things off each other all the time. There was another guy, JS, who was involved in it too. And so all of that was very important. In this case, I bounced stuff off Pat all the time. And also Brianna Code, who’s the lead programmer. I would ask her, “What do you think about this part? How does this part make you feel?” She was instrumental in helping me craft everything and see it from different perspectives.
That’s always been a part of my work. I’ve never tackled anything like, “It’s my way and no one else can say anything.” You have to see it from as many perspectives as possible. I would say that it hasn’t really changed anything… Maybe it changed me, in that it was a traumatic experience in my life. I think what I have to say now may be different because I’ve experienced that.
RPS: When it happened, you stood behind what you did in the game pretty resolutely. But for you personally, what was it like?
Yohalem: It’s just tough. It’s tough, because when you get up on a table and you say something to the room… The funny thing is, most of the feedback was incredibly positive. But you fixate on the negative feedback. I find this is true with other creatives, too. [Naughty Dog's] Amy Hennig talked about it. The one comment or two comments out of 60 comments, those are the ones that drive you crazy. It taught me to have a thicker skin, because otherwise you’re not going to be able to do it anymore. If you don’t trust this close circle of people, [you'll second-guess everything].
What’s important to me, for example, is that if Brianna said to me, “I think that what you wrote here is inappropriate,” that would affect me much more, or it should affect me more. That kind of comment from someone on the internet should not affect me. But it does anyway. It’s hard to shut yourself off from that. So I’ve gotten better at that, but it’s really tough. I really admire people who go out and face off against what the mainstream culture wants at a particular moment. I think that takes a lot of guts. You end up with a lot of sleepless nights. If you didn’t, I don’t think you would make it. I don’t think that people who don’t feel that end up making meaningful work.
RPS: Do you think, though, that there’s a danger… If you keep it entirely internal, if you keep it within a circle of people know, and you have a rough idea of what they like and will approve of, do you risk becoming tone deaf? If you don’t have wider perspectives – not necessarily random people on the internet, but maybe ones you know that are educated and that you know are intelligent, whose opinions you trust?
Yohalem: When I read a detailed analysis that really goes into the work and isn’t a personal attack on something, I definitely catalog that. It becomes part of my thinking in the future.
RPS: There were many like that on Far Cry. It wasn’t necessarily a personal thing. It was just, “Here’s what I saw and played and here’s how it affected me.” When those didn’t align with your view of what you wrote, how did that affect your perspective?
Yohalem: I loved that. I actually expected that. That kind of discussion, I was really excited about it. I was excited to have people say, “I don’t like these things because of X-Y-Z reasons.” I thought it was going to be an intellectual debate. I was super in love with that. It’s when it becomes a personal attack that it affects me negatively. I think the intellectual debate is part of it. If you’re going to write something meaningful, then hopefully people are going to debate it. If no one has anything to say about something, it means it’s boring.
I think if something touches a nerve, you’re going to hear from both sides. And in fact, I think it’s enjoyable for the people who don’t like it too, because it creates a discussion. Life is about understanding each other. That kind of thing, yes. That doesn’t affect me negatively at all.
RPS: For both of you, this game is obviously very different from what someone would expect of a company like Ubisoft. It’s a lot smaller. It’s more experimental. It’s about poetry. Do you think that having larger publishers make games like these is necessary for the triple-A side of the industry to keep evolving and growing? Do you think triple-A is even sustainable without that kind of smaller-scale innovation?
Plourde: Speaking for myself, what I’m seeing in the studio in Montreal is a lot of interest in the project. Even from people who work on triple-A. I think we have this thing where we’re working in a studio where anything can happen. It’s changed the mood. “Wow. We can make a JRPG here at Montreal. What could we do tomorrow, or maybe next year? What am I going to work on?” It’s exciting. Just for that, for the culture within our studio, it’s super beneficial. Everyone is saying, “Wow, I have the right to be creative, to go wild like this. At some point, we can experiment and take risks.”
In the entertainment world… We’re doing entertainment. And suddenly, the creativity… If it just changes the environment, for a publisher, for a big company, you’re getting way more than your dollar’s worth out of that. People are spending dollars on HR and making sure that people are well-catered-to. Myself, I really believe that it can come from doing projects that you like. Human beings, our number one motivator is knowing that we’re working on something that’s worth our time and our effort. By having some room for that in a company like this, I think it’s super positive.
The diversity is great for everybody. It’s going to attract a different audience. It’s going to attract new developers, different genres, different voices. In books, you don’t just have Lord of the Rings. You have all kinds of books, all kinds of movies. At some point, games are going to have to become like that as a medium. There need to be all kinds of games – not just grandmother games and hardcore games. I was talking about that when it comes to film. Someone can go watch Titanic, and then after that, Iron Man and The Tree of Life. The same person can enjoy all of those. Nobody judges someone by saying, “You’re an Iron Man guy!” or “You’re a Tree of Life guy!” At some point that barrier is going to fall. These different genres aren’t going to threaten each other. Just by having more stuff coming out, more creativity, it’s going to make the experience of everyone in games better.
Yohalem: I think our job is to bring experiences to people. Those experiences aren’t just experiences for the majority. It’s not just like, “This is what the majority likes, so we’re going to keep bringing that.” This is personal to me, maybe, but as an artist I feel like I’m supposed to be speaking for the minority, the people who don’t have voices. Especially the storyteller. I tell the stories of people who can’t tell their story, because they’re silent. That’s really important, I think. If we can bring those experiences to a bigger audience through interactivity, if I can live these new experiences, it’s going to be better for the industry as a whole. And especially what Pat’s talking about… The majority of players will suddenly feel like they have a voice, instead of like they’re being talked to by only one voice.
RPS: Thank you for your time.