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Road to the IGF: Damian Sommer and Emily Carroll's The Yawhg
January 29, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

January 29, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander
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Independent Games Festival finalist The Yawhg is a fascinating little game -- scratch that, it's a fascinating game that isn't so little as it looks. It's set in a threadbare village full of hidden wellsprings of magic, peppered with the sweat of hard work and long-suffering craftspeople, as the eponymous long-anticipated disaster creeps ever-closer.

The circumstance of tragedy is unavoidable. This game asks you who you are, and how you prepare. Will you and your colleagues be ready, through combinations of luck and careful study, to weather the inevitable and rebuild in its wake?

The Yawhg has up to four player roles, and while one player can operate one, all or anything in between, the game truly thrives when friends put heads together around its vivid village map and decide how they'll spend their days -- at work, at court, or burying their heads in a pint or two while they await the great end. No matter what choices the player makes, a haunting and winsome narrative stitches itself together, and varies from one playthrough to the next.

The art of illustrator and spooky-comics creator Emily Carroll helps make the game shine. Spiritedness and spite dance together in an infinite town ball, and a variety of luck and random elements create the feeling of a world that is speaking to you, playing with you.

The game is nominated for Excellence in Audio and Narrative, and has honorable mentions in multiple other categories. As part of Gamasutra's Road to the IGF series, we spoke with developer Damian Sommer about the game.

What's your background in making games?

I started making games when I was 10 years old, by simply Googling, "How to make games?" I found a program called the Games Factory, and in the one-month free trial, I'd churned out a bunch of small games. Some clever, others not so much. That's essentially still how I make games. I'm completely self-taught and my process has barely changed from when I was 10.

What development tools did you use to make The Yawhg?

I used Multimedia Fusion 2 to make The Yawhg. I've been using this software, in one version or another, for as long as I've been making games, so I'm really comfortable with it, and have come to accept it's terrible limitations.

How much time did you spend working on the game?

The largest amount of work was done in the span of six months as a side project for the both of us. This was to get the game ready for Comics vs. Games, which was an incubator by Miguel Sternberg and TIFF to get comic artists to work with game creators in an attempt to make awesome things happen. After Comics vs. Games, which happened in May 2012, Emily and I shelved the game and went our separate ways.

However, in the year that followed, I'd received multiple requests for how people could get the game. Emily and I had designed the game to only really be played in a festival setting, so I was uncomfortable showing it in any other light. However, the requests kept coming, and my friends and I had great experiences just sitting on a couch together, hanging out, playing the game. So, I decided to put a little more work into it, and in May 2013, the game was released.

Now I'm getting it all prettied up for its upcoming Steam launch. So, you could say that I've been working on this game for a year, broken up over the span of three years.

How did you come up with the concept?

When first recruited to be a part of the Comics vs. Games initiative, Emily and I were tossing a few ideas back and forth. At one point she said something along the lines of "Maybe we could do a multiplayer choose-your-own-adventure game? But how would that work?" and I said "I know exactly how that would work!"

Earlier that year I'd played a game called Dungeons of Fayte, which features a storytelling system similar to the Yawhg's. We decided that we'd strip DoF of all its other mechanics and focus entirely on writing and art. It all worked out, I think!

I think this game really shines when you play with a group of friends. What do you find most interesting about local co-op, and do you have any influences in that regard?

Local co-op games are great, and we need more of them. We're getting all these really fun, polished versus games, and they're a blast. I'm kind of known for my tendency to spontaneously start a tournament whenever a lot of us are playing games together. However, I think I prefer the interactions of a co-op game much more, because of how intimate it can get.

If you're taking a co-op game seriously, then you have to trust one another to play the game to the best of their ability and to have your back. Relying on someone to this degree opens you up to get hurt emotionally, in a way.

If you're not taking the game seriously, then it's also just a lot of fun to see what happens together. Playing Kirby Super Star with a buddy is fun, despite it being incredibly easy, because it's something you do together. Co-op games allow you to share experiences with people whose company you enjoy.

My biggest influence when I was first making co-op games was simply making something that my brother and I could play later and have fun with.

Emily's art plays such a strong role in creating the atmosphere. How did you come to work with her, and how did the tone of her comics and illustration influence the storytelling?

Miguel Sternberg is the one who introduced me to Emily. I wasn't at all familiar with her work before that point, but when I told people who I was working with, they'd be like "Woah you're working with Emily Carroll!?" I think it's good I didn't know her before, because I probably would have been extremely intimidated by her (I'm not afraid of you Emily, ahaha!)!

I read through a bunch of her comics the day we got paired up, and one that stuck out for me was The Prince & The Sea. In it, she uses the same backdrop for the entire comic but manages to tell this really neat story. When we were first coming up with the concept of The Yawhg, we used that as a basis for how we'd incorporate multiple characters in the game, art-wise. The background would be the same, but the characters would just be swapped out.

As far as themes, when I was writing all the events, I just wrote things that made me chuckle, ignoring what was happening with Emily's parts of art and story. The fact that there are lengthy events described only through text that can happen while the art has the character doing something completely irrelevant creates a sort of disconnect that I really like for some reason.

Each playthrough of the game ends up offering its own distinct narrative and sequence of events. How much text did you write for the game, and how many possible outcomes are there, roughly?

Oh god, there's a lot. There's over 50 unique endings, some more rare than others. There's not really any way to count the amount of text in the game easily, but let's just say there's 205 text files in The Yawhg, most with their own set of branching paths depending on if your character is capable enough, and depending on the choices you make. And I'm adding more for an update too. Oh boy.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've especially enjoyed?

Corrypt is probably my favorite game in existence. Papers, Please is marvelous, as is The Stanley Parable. Gorogoa is beautiful, Towerfall is a blast and Crypt of the Necrodancer is INCREDIBLE. I've been avoiding Jazzpunk after I got a small taste of it years ago, because I only want to play that game when it's completely done! I haven't yet played Samarost 3, but if it's anything like Amanita's other games, I'm sure I'd fall in love with it instantly. Being among all of these insanely talented folk is a huge honor.

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

Honestly, I don't think I'm in any position to be commenting on the indie scene. Besides random Twitter interactions, I don't really know most of the people out there personally, due to me rarely leaving home. The only people I really know outside of people in Toronto are developers who've come to Toronto. Most people I've met have been incredibly nice, and among the most fun and interesting people I've ever spoken to. They make me want to actually go out and meet everyone, which this IGF nomination has finally convinced (forced?) me to do!


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Mike Murray
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Nice meeting you at TGGJ, Damian!


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