After seven years on major Ubisoft franchises, Patrick Plourde finally got to pitch his own game. His boss, CEO Yves Guillemot, wondered why the proposed budget was so (relatively) small.
Plourde, creative director on Far Cry 3
and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood
, had been feeling a little uncertain of himself. How much genuine impact did he make, working on such large teams? "Am I a fake creative guy because I’m hiding behind 600 people? Can I be in the same league as [Thatgamecompany’s] Jenova Chen?”
Empowered by this uncertainty, Plourde and his team now have an opportunity to bring their triple-A experience to a smaller project, and show that they have what it takes to deliver something different from the standard fare.
Inspired by Japanese RPGs
The interview he gave us at Ubisoft’s Digital Days was uncommonly candid for a lead guy at a large press event, where often people in his position are shuttled quickly among writers to proffer the same talking points. Plourde spoke effervescently and continually, as if he’d been waiting a long time to be heard.
The project he eventually got permission to make, along with Far Cry 3
writer Jeffrey Yohalem and lead programmer Brianna Code, a former Brotherhood
colleague, is the intriguing Child of Light
, a roleplaying and adventure game starring a young girl hero. It’s being called a "JRPG" thanks to its Final Fantasy 6
-style battle system, light stat management and skill trees, but it’s really more a thing all its own, with environmental puzzle solving and an optional-but-encouraged two-player element.
Plourde says he hasn’t played triple-A games, the sort of which he’s been making in years, and instead was able to enjoy Japanese roleplaying games as a total departure from the world of his work. Though turned off by the repetitive anime tropes and "fan service" art style of later games, he speaks reverently of the summer the new millennium turned and Chrono Cross, Vagrant Story, Legend of Mana
and Final Fantasy IX
all released around the same time, exciting audiences with a world of fantasy and possibility.
Plourde found himself listening to "Beyond Zanarkand," a track from Final Fantasy X
and dreaming of heroic fantasy that drew on inspirations older than Tolkein.
"With fantasy you can create whatever you want, and, like, it’s always 'elves from the forest,'" Plourde laments.
Plourde and Yohalem cite a battalion of stylistic inspirations: Arthur Rackham, Yoshitaka Amano, Das Rheingold. With Ubi-art framework, the publisher’s new internal 2D art engine, Plourde saw an opportunity to make a game directly from concept art, rather than perpetuate the odd disconnect of seeing a stunning, painterly piece of concept art stripped of its character in a world of technical precision.
"We came from a place of intense minimalism,"says Yohalem. "Fairy tales always are about distilling to the minimalist, powerful elements of a story."
"The fairy game"
Plourde says thematically the game is an "opposition, or antithesis" of Far Cry 3
. At times, he says, working on FC3
was "difficult for me emotionally… there’s a lot of ugliness in it… that’s the reality of what the experience you’re creating is. I find it hard to believe that [the players] are just detached, and not invested."
But making such a massive left-turn, from first-person shooting in a war zone to a little girl child’s illustrated adventures, is a vulnerable experience for the Child of Light
team. Plourde says colleagues internally call his project "the fairy game," and says his own interest in the project seems "risky" to express.
"You’re kind of open to get laughed at by the frats," he shrugs. "But as the ‘typical game developer guy,’ I think it’s ridiculous not to do it. There are a lot of themes I want to talk about in games, but if you’re not starting to go where it’s uncomfortable… if we’re not starting those baby steps, it’s never going to happen.”
For his part, Yohalem decided there’d be no ‘love story’ arc for heroine Aurora. "Even just taking that out of the conversation was exciting," he says. "It’s telling a different story. We wanted to create a modern fairy tale.”
Plourde’s often studied the symbolism in fairy tales, and notes how most fairy tales about princesses -- take Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White -- are cautionary, warnings about loss of innocence, the importance of preserving beauty, the dangerous advent of sexual maturity, or the hazards of the wider world.
Yet JRPG-structured games have always been tales about maturation: most usually, a boy leaving his village to traverse the world, giving the player ownership over its traverses as the character gains in strength, eventually able to take on an ultimate, divine-level injustice.
What if a game could tell a story about a girl that lets her embrace the challenge of growing up, and enter the world without the chastisements of big bad wolves and prickly spindles, without the ultimate eventuality of a prince becoming the most important thing in her frame of vision?
And what if it let you, as a parent or role model, communicate that value to a younger or less-experienced player without being preachy or instructive? Child of Light
allows for a second player to take control of Aurora’s companion sprite, a luminous little wisp, who can illuminate the game world, fetch treasure from unreachable areas, or provide assists during combat.
You’d think Ni No Kuni
would be a family-friendly game, but its demanding single-player mode actually means people with families have to wait til some free time alone, suggests Plourde.
"I guess we want to spend time not interacting, so you wait until your kids go to sleep to play a Studio Ghibli game?" He shrugs. "I think it was an opportunity missed; there’s not enough bonding moments in games."
The three leads seem as invested in making games better, making the world better through games, as they are in finally seizing the opportunity to explore and challenge themselves creatively, to work with a small team on a unique vision. Though lead programmer Brianna Code long worked on Assassin’s Creed
, she grew up with adventure games and RPGs, and when she saw what Plourde was proposing, she couldn’t resist, even if it meant another winter in Montreal.
Her favorite aspect of Child of Light
is its artistic direction -- she points out that in craft and architecture, synthetic materials are most interesting when they‘re used to the advantage of their unique aspects, not used to imitate nature. "I’m not interested in making games that look just like reality,"she says. "And I’m bored of playing 35 year-old dudes."
"I cannot change who I am,"says Plourde. "But I think I am responsible for being open to diversity. It’s a shame we’re a really low-key team; we have more women than other teams [within Ubisoft]. We have an opportunity to change the culture, and I think it’s great."