The next generation of video games has arrived with the release of the PlayStation 4 (and the release of the Xbox One later this week). It is by measurable metrics a success so far – Sony reported over one million units sold in the first twenty-four hours – and the future looks bright for the new consoles. At Sony’s launch event for the PS4, the company brought several first and third party games to showcase, including both launch titles (which we’ve been steadily going through) and upcoming games for 2014.
While we’re very excited for the next chapter of Metal Gear Solid and inFAMOUS, amongst a myriad of other games on both platforms, there was one real standout as a unique gaming experience coming next year: Ubisoft’s Child of Light.
Child of Light is, at its heart, a platforming role-playing game – you navigate through a 2.5D world, then engage in classic turn-based JRPG style battles. Your party is powered attacks, gains health from potions, spells, and with the help of your firefly, controlled by the right thumbstick, and if you’ve ever played any JRPG before, you’ll feel right at home in this environment.
What makes the game especially notable, however, is the presentation and the story-telling method. The game itself looks visually stunning. Everything from the backgrounds to the characters look hand-drawn, like some in-motion mix of colored pencils and water color paints - which, incidentally, it actually wound up being. Screenshots really don’t do it justice – as you play, there are moments of awe around every corner.
The game takes place in a fantastic version of 1895, where Aurora, a young girl from Austria and daughter of a Duke finds herself in a lost continent full of fairy tale creatures called Lemuria.
“She’s trying to get home to her father, and the Sun, Moon, and the stars have been stolen by an evil queen,” Child of Light lead writer and co-creator Jeffrey Yohalem told Newsarama during a demo. As she learns more about the world in her quest to restore the light and find her way home, “what she learns about the world changes her objectives.”
The JRPG mechanics for the battle gameplay aren’t the only thing he considers gameplay, however.
“One of the things very important to me for every game I work on is that the story is the mechanic, that you’re experiencing a story, not just seeing the story. That’s what makes games for me, that’s what I love about them,” Yohalem said.
Auroroa’s coming-of-age story has been central to Child of Light’s development from the very beginning. As she develops throughout the telling of her tale, so her abilities too develop via the RPG gameplay.
“It always starts with what is the game going to make me feel, and what does the gameplay say intellectually,” Yohalem explained. “Both of those things have to be aligned at the center of the story.”
The story itself plays out in a unique way: as a rhyming ballad. That story choice informed everything about the game, from the art design to combat and the story’s twists and turns. The art of this “playable poem” as Yohalem describes it is inspired by Arthur Rackham, a turn-of-the-century illustrator whose fairytale art has inspired generations of stories. The hand-drawn art of the team at Ubisoft Montreal goes directly into the game via the UbiArt Framework engine – everything you see in the background and in the animation was drawn by their team of artists and imported with no alteration. An orchestrated score based on classic RPG flare with choral arrangements gives a “modern take” on the genre.
“That’s kind of been the whole thing. We want to tell a modern coming-of-age story that’s inspired by the Eastern European classics,” Yohalem said. “It’s not saccharine, it’s not false. We don’t want to hide the truth that life is hard, bad things happen, and we have to live with it, but at the same time we want to bring joy to people. So it’s dark, but joyful.”
The ballad form of the writing came early for Yohalem, but he did create the story’s basic points before jumping into that unique challenge.
“Probably no one will ever see this, but I wrote an old-fashioned fairy tale, about five or six pages with illustrations, of the original story with the Creative Director Patrick Plourde (we did Far Cry 3 together).
“So we have this book, and we created it for the company to show them, ‘this is what we want to do.’ It’s a storybook, and that story is complete, it feels like something you’d find in a fairy tale compilation book.”
After that demonstration book, Yohalem started with the section of story we played in the demo, and about halfway through the scene realized he wanted to do the story directly as a poem.
“I had to think long and hard about it, but the challenge was too good to pass up. When else can you take a poem and make it pop? Make it livable? Not antiquated or for an elite audience, but make it for everyone, make it accessible.”
There was very little hesitation from the team at Ubisoft to Yohalem’s idea, and he credits them for taking a chance.
“I knew from the get go that when I decided to do this, the challenge I had to set for myself was to first, not make it annoying. I had to make sure it wasn’t too sing-songy or too rhyming, not kid-like. It had to also work affectively for the story. I tested it with this demo, where I rewrote what I’d written into a rhyme. I chose ballad form because when you read something like Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, you can read it, and you don’t get tired of the way the rhymes work. They propel it forward and add drama to the narrative, it feels like waves.
“Anything that rhymes too much starts to sound too much like Dr. Seuss, or too little you won’t catch it. So I did that from the demo, then the rest I wrote from the short outline. It was a huge undertaking, the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Yohalem said he had to be very measured in his approach. “You can’t just do forty pages in one night. It’s like creating a crossword puzzle in narrative writing. It was a lot of fun, but it was exhausting.” He teased some sonnets hidden in the game, too, and praised the “great poets,” saying he hopes his work falls somewhere in the broad conversational range with them.
The focus on the story first, and integrating the gameplay into it, is something Yohalem and the team at Ubisoft Montreal thinks will open up greatly in the new generation of gaming. He hopes that this game and others like it find a “middle ground between AAA games and indie games,” exploiting the desire for stories that make you think and feel.
“It’s an experience. The more we can get into creating experiences that make you say ‘wow’ the better. The better the hardware is and the more tools we have to do something like that, we learn a language.
“Interactivity is a very young language, which we are creating little by little. We learn how games are compelling, we learn how they do and don’t work. As the hardware gets better, we have more and more experiments, and hopefully more ways to wow you with gaming.”
Yohalem loves video games, and thinks they’re an ultimate expression of art, something he hopes to get across with Child of Light.
“As human beings, storytelling is at the heart of what we are. That’s art. When you look at paintings, each one is conveying an idea, and ideas come together to create stories. The greatest stories are a series of parables or ideas. I feel like as human beings, that’s how we memorize thing, that’s how we learn. The video game, an interactive story, is a new way to feel and learn ideas.”
Child of Light is coming from Ubisoft in 2014 to the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, as well as PC and PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii U.