Alek Wasilewski Interview (Tsioque)

Tsioque
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Princesses have been around in video games for almost as long as the medium has existed, but unfortunately they (and sadly many other female game characters) are still to this day often relegated to the tired old damsel in distress role. It’s refreshing then to get to play as a princess who actually gets to do the adventuring for a change.

Tsioque (pronounced /tsIɒk/) is the upcoming point and click adventure game from OhNoo Studio & animator Alek Wasilewski; the game places you into the small triangular brown shoes of the eponymous princess as she navigates her way through an imp-infested castle to thwart the plans of an evil wizard (who incidentally rocks a fantastic combusting coiffure I might add) who has usurped her mother’s throne. It’s already successfully been accepted onto the Steam Greenlight program, and the team are currently midway through an ongoing Kickstarter campaign to get the project crowdfunded, so if you want to help a virtual princess out, then you know where to go.

Having particularly loved OhNoo’s previous work, Tormentum: Dark Sorrow, I was only too keen to check out their new project and see what it’s all about. I got the chance to talk with Alek, the game’s writer, director and animator, about his career in animation and filmmaking, what his early video game influences were and how collaborating with OhNoo has allowed him to make the ultimate game that he’s always wanted to make. So, just what exactly makes Tsioque tick…or should that be tick Tsioque? Let’s find out.

What made you want to be an animator, and what were your early inspirations as a filmmaker?

Oh man, a big question to start with. I guess it started very early. Like every kid out there, I was left in front of cartoons by parents who wanted a moment of peace. Disney, Hanna-Barbera, obscure Polish cartoons, whatever was currently on. I guess what made the difference in my case was that as I grew up I didn’t dismiss ‘cartoons’ as an inferior art form to, say, film or literature, which then helped me to seriously consider the dream of becoming an animation filmmaker.

I consider myself a storyteller – I’ve been making stuff up and drawing comics since I was four – and I still feel the same joy that comes from telling stories in my adult life. I chose animation because I thought that of all mediums film works the strongest and most directly, and while I didn’t have professional film equipment and trucks full of actors and crew, I had a computer and could draw more or less.

You’ve worked as an animator for twelve years – what made you want to make Tsioque as a game rather than a film? What was important about making the project an interactive experience?

In addition to all mediums I’ve already mentioned – film, animation, books, comics – another one which ranked very high on my inspiration list was games. Next to animation, it’s another previously dismissed art that only now seems to be getting more credit, mostly thanks to people who grew up playing them and recognized their true potential as a means of expression and an art form.

I spent a fair amount of my childhood playing videogames, and by no means I’d call that time wasted – I had a great time, and some experiences were truly unforgettable. It was only natural I wanted to try to make a game myself someday, so as a kid I messed around with modding tools and made a couple of maps for Quake and Half-Life. Then, as time passed and various life choices were made, I didn’t think I’d have much of a chance to make my own game anymore. Until now.

Having already worked on Tsioque for two years previously to launching the Kickstarter, how did you come across OhNoo Studio, and what made you want to collaborate with them?

OhNoo Studio contacted me with some minor Flash-related issue, as both of us frequently work in Flash. They seemed like okay guys, both professional and with the right mindset, I offhandedly suggested making a game together and they said “Okay”. It was only then that I got to work on Tsioque. I had a story in mind that I thought could work for a game, but I would never have started to really work on it if I hadn’t talked with OhNoo first. I already wear too many hats in filmmaking and to put on yet another and try to program the whole game myself would be suicide! They’ve made games, I haven’t, so I trusted their experience. The two years following this talk I spent working on the game mostly solo, occasionally dragging OhNoo away from Tormentum, the project they were doing at the same time.

What prompted the shift to go from independent solo project to a crowdfunding collaboration?

The idea to crowdfund the game came hesitantly, as we initially tried to finish Tsioque on our own. It was only after I kept animating day and night with hardly any sleep, even with help from part-time assistant animators later on, and work still wasn’t going fast enough, that we decided we would need help if we wanted to finish the game anytime this decade.

Your Kickstarter places great emphasis on the fact that the hand-drawn animation required for the game is a huge part of the project, and that this is the area where the majority of the funding will go. Can you go into what sort of creative challenges animating a project on this scale actually entails?

It’s a pure matter of workload. 2D, frame-by-frame animation is a tedious, time-consuming task; it’s well justified why gaming doesn’t take this direction anymore. There are new, cheaper and more streamlined processes that don’t require so many skilful hands to do the job. Still, the effect just isn’t the same, and there is simply nothing like watching hand-drawn characters move – they have real soul.

The creative challenge will be to keep the scale within its realistic limits – high enough to deliver the aforementioned soulful feel of quality animation, and low enough for it to still be within budget. I find it a more managerial task if you ask me, the line is blurry. A lot of it will most likely require me still doing most of the animation work myself.

Caught

The cute art style of Tsioque is a big aesthetic departure from OhNoo’s previous game, Tormentum. Can you talk about how Tsioque‘s look came about, and was it a challenge to find an artistic middle ground between OhNoo’s style, Michał Urbański’s and your own?

OhNoo’s Piotr Ruszkowski was responsible for all art in Tormentum, whereas in Tsioque it’s me who looks after the art and general integrity of the vision. I find it quite funny that the art style in Tsioque is regarded as ‘cute’. My work has usually been called the exact opposite – dark, disturbing maybe, but not cute. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition next to the hyperdark metal Beksinski-esque art of Tormentum that makes Tsioque’s art look sweet and well-behaved, but I don’t mind. I actually find it a relief because I did have some concerns if Tsioque’s art style still isn’t a bit dark after all… totally unjustified, great!

Making artistic sense out of unifying many talents in not easy, but my experience from filmmaking makes me think I have it under control. I’m not sure if it’s about finding a middle ground, I find it more about projecting your vision to other people so they can get as close to it as possible… which later they don’t really do, but very often it leads to explorations so interesting they actually enhance the vision rather than diminish it.

In describing the game’s art direction, you point out that you’re not going for a ‘pseudo-retro pixel art’ look.

Games of old went out of their way to overcome the technological limitations of the era they were made in – often in great, innovative ways. It was a challenge to tackle. Resolution and color palette no longer limit us – but many developers still choose to make pixel-styled games. It’s an artistic choice, a reference, pining back to the good old days. Sometimes the results are great and you get awesome stuff like Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP and Shovel Knight. Other times, however, it just seems like a cheap shot at nostalgia. While, admittedly, we also take a lot from nostalgia, our artistic choice was not to purposely limit ourselves with false barriers. We’re making our game like the old games were made – using available resources and technology the best way we can.

Day of the Tentacle, Heart of Darkness and King’s Quest are listed as some of the key game design influences behind Tsioque – what is it about those classic adventure games that influenced you as both a player and a designer?

The influences of those games were mostly unconscious for me as I grew up playing them! I’ll never forget the thrill of watching the awesome animations that I’d get in reward for solving complex puzzles in Day of the Tentacle, the glistening disc of my first ever CD-ROM game King’s Quest V… I never got very far in the latter but it wasn’t important. It was magic. It wasn’t so much about recreating that same magic feeling, but more about using what I learnt from playing these games to tell my own story, and to be able to evoke in other people the similar emotions I felt when playing these classic adventure games as a kid.

From a game design perspective, what felt important to achieve was that extra care in animation rewarding you for your progress, smooth, well-paced gameplay, and the possibility of death. There was a reason why point and clicks stopped including fail states in games, and it was the same reason why I never got very far in King’s Quest V. It was frustrating having to restart all the way to your last save point just for just trying something, where trying anything to work with anything is (unfortunately) pretty much the epitome of the whole genre.

Still, years passed, the games started to be thoroughly tested, both the players and developers learned a lot. I thought it was possible to re-introduce the death/failure mechanism in a way that doesn’t punish you that much and allows for more immersion – you’re a prisoner in a monster-infested castle; if you’re careless something can happen to you! In fact, a good failure animation can be rewarding as well – I dream of making Tsioque complex enough to have people try to do wrong things on purpose just to see the mess it causes. This requires a certain stretch goal to be achieved, however, and for the moment chances of reaching that goal seem distant. Having said all that, all of the above would of course mean nothing without a proper story.

Castle

You suggest that Tsioque’s gameplay will occasionally feature moments that will “break the classic point and click mould”. What exactly do you mean by that rather intriguing statement, and what sorts of changes from the point and click norms should gamers expect to encounter?

If I was to put it down to one thing, it would be removing that reassuring feeling of always being safe. Still, this sentence is a bit of a tease since the ‘mould-breaking’ aspects in our game – the action elements, minigames, the possibility of death – are widely present in classic point-and-clicks. Take a game like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis for example, where you can fist-fight, run from guards and failure at every other puzzle results in your death. These sort of elements are just forgotten, and not regarded as part of the classic point-and-click formula anymore. Well, with Tsioque we’re bringing it back, but in a lighter, more forgiving manner, better adapted to the modern player.

Elle Kharitou and Edward Harrison are both on soundtrack duty for Tsioque. What is it about their musical stylings that made them the right fit for the game’s audio direction?

I knew Ed from our previous collaborations on animated shorts. He did a fantastic soundtrack for my short film Lucky Day Forever, as well as for a Splinter Cell short I did for Ubisoft. He’s a frighteningly talented musician with a growing track record of game and film soundtracks, and at the same time simply a nice guy to work with. He was my first choice for Tsioque’s soundtrack and I’m delighted he said yes. Elle came to the project through Ed’s personal recommendation. I didn’t know her work before, but I have total confidence in her talents and everything I heard from her so far seems to prove I was right to invite her to the project.

The music – as heard in the demo and the reveal trailer – works just the way I wanted it to, and beyond. The dynamic music system we’ve developed for Tsioque brings the experience to the whole new level that could never be achieved in a non-interactive medium, and I’m thrilled to watch it work. It really lets you sink deep into the narrative, where every little action you can possibly do has its own tightly fitting soundtrack. It not just compliments the rich in-game animation, it’s one of the key elements that make this special feeling of being inside an animated film truly work.

You’ve revealed that the game has an unexpected twist of sorts – are you not worried that announcing said twist beforehand might encourage players to approach the game with a mindset to concentrate on working out what the twist is, rather than just enjoying the game?

Good question. As a creator, I’d find it much more comfortable if I just shut up about it and have people experience and discover everything for themselves, without a clue what’s going to happen. As a self-marketer however, I have to at least suggest something is going to happen, because it’s one of the things that makes our game different, and we have to talk about what makes our product special or else nobody is going buy it. I hate this, as much as I hate soliciting my own work and having to convince people that what I do is really great. I’d rather they just find out themselves… but it’d need a finished game first. And I can’t finish it if I don’t convince everyone it’s going to be great. It’s a vicious circle.

I appreciate the fact that you want to tell a full, complete story, and not break it down into separate piecemeal parts to sell through a season pass. Do you think the episodic model of releasing games is starting to feel a bit tired by this point?

Long, episodic narratives for games are not a bad idea on their own; I couldn’t wait for the new season of The Walking Dead Game as much as I couldn’t wait for the new season of the TV series. That being said, it requires a lot of discipline, commitment and respect for the players on the part of the developer to not abuse this model, to not drag a story out forever and keep milking it with no end in sight. With Tsioque, we chose to be completely transparent and offer a clear deal – one complete game from start to finish, no more, no less. An experience you don’t have to wait 2 years from first pressing start and paying $60 to find out what happens in the end.

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’d like to thank everyone who lasted long enough to read to this point! Whether Tsioque gets made or not is now up to you.

Tower

The Tsioque demo is available to play now on PC and Mac and can be downloaded via the team’s Kickstarter page. At the time of writing the Kickstarter campaign is entering it’s final few days, so if like me you also really want to see the game get finished, then consider dropping by to back it and maybe even pick yourself up an imp plushie (or five). I for one definitely want to see and play more of Tsioque, so here’s to hoping the game makes its funding goals. Now what to do with all these plushies…

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