Mainstream media seems to have this strange desire to discredit and in some cases, even demonize video games. While some people may never accept this genre as art, many developers, especially Ubisoft, are producing captivating pieces of work that simply make it impossible to ignore the importance and artistic merit of video games.
Child of Light is an incredibly remarkable game filled with beautiful characters and environments. Recently I was given the opportunity to talk with the project’s lead programmer Brianna Code about her experience developing the game and her passionate thoughts on the medium as a legitimate form of art.
Everything we’ve seen developed with the UbiArt engine so far has been beautiful, especially Child of Light. What was your experience with this engine going into this project as Lead Programmer? What puts the “art” in UbiArt?
“Thank you! I was so excited when I heard about Child of Light. I was wrapping up AC3 and I had been working 5 years on Assassin’s Creed games at that point, and 10 years in AAA. I wanted to do something very different. In AAA we have huge teams and huge budgets, and I think this leads us to innovate in safe areas: mostly, in graphical realism. I’m more interested in creative expression.
This UbiArt Framework was developed for Rayman Origins and is designed from the ground up to empower illustrators: the concept art is the game art. So the art team has the freedom to create a game world of expressive illustrations with very few dependencies on programmers. As well, UbiArt is a very light and flexible and highly data-driven engine, which allows for quick prototyping of new systems. With a fast prototyping loop, designers and programmers have the time to experiment, iterating toward gameplay systems that feel right for the mood and story of the game. So I saw a lot of potential in the UbiArt Framework to create more experimental games. I wanted to get to know this engine, and Child of Light was a perfect opportunity. And now that I know it, I have lots of ideas for what we could do in the future…”
A topic that seems to be getting a great deal of focus lately is the validity of video games as a legitimate art form. What are your thoughts and opinions on the matter?
“I think art is about conveying an idea in reaction to and in the context of the larger culture and hopefully with a fresh perspective or approach. And at its best, it can change the larger culture. Video games, as any medium, has the opportunity to be art. And since the video game medium brings a higher degree of interactivity to the table than most other media, what an interesting opportunity it is.
And what a challenging opportunity it is as well. One thing that Child of Light’s creative director, Patrick Plourde, said once that has really stuck with me is that with fantasy you can create whatever you want. It’s not just elves in the forest. And with video games, we really can create anything. Each game engine is just code, and code can be anything. In video games, we haven’t set many conventions yet. Imagine making a painting where you first had to design and build exactly what kind of brush you wanted to use—where any type of brush was possible and some probably had no name yet—and then design and create exactly what paints you wanted to use—thinking about colour, thickness, drying time, and basically any variable you can think of, where some of these variables probably had no names yet—etc. Every tool is up for design. And then what process do you want to use to lay the paint on the canvas? The process is also up for design. And the last and final question concern what you actually want to represent in the painting. And your choice of answer to each of these questions would inform the choice of answers to the others. And now imagine that it’s actually a team of people making the painting, and different members of the team have different ideas of what they want to achieve, or of what kind of paintbrush is necessary. And all of this is very expensive. This is where video games is at. It’s hard.
But there is also a responsibility to think of video games as art. Video games reflect the culture they are created in, and any representation contains bias. When you design a simulation or a gameplay system, it is a set of rules that models real life but is not real life. And there is a responsibility to examine the biases written into these representative systems. When your characters are all the same race or gender because it requires less development time or uses less processing power, what are you saying? When your relationship simulator does not allow same sex relationships, what are you saying? When your city simulation favours sprawl before density, what are you saying?
If we think about it from this perspective, we can develop gameplay systems that convey more sophisticated, purposeful ideas than just implicit biases. This is one way games can be art.”
In what ways did you and your team ensure that Child of Light would be represented as a passionate work of art?
“Child of Light was created in reaction to our previous experience as AAA game devs. It was a team of mostly seniors who wanted to try something different, to push ourselves in new directions. The first choice we made was to keep the team small. With a small team, each team member can contribute creatively without derailing the vision of the game. It becomes a collaboration, and it’s easier for each team member to feel passionately the project.
And it was also a playful experiment. At Ubisoft Montreal we know how to make big games. Could we use our experience and the existing frameworks and processes at Ubisoft to make a small game? Coming from big teams, each of us were quite specialized in one area. Could we work in a small team where each person would cover many topics? (For example, one of the gameplay programmers also did the audio programming, and one of the AI programmers did the network programming and owned on of the platforms.) And we didn’t have experience with 2D, with RPGs, with child protagonists, etc.
We wanted to create a game where the core gameplay mechanics and the narrative inspired each other. The core idea we wanted to convey is one of coming-of-age, which is represented in RPG gameplay systems and in the narrative. We also wanted to create a playable poem with a strong mood set by the world, characters, and story. And we wanted the protagonist to not be a stereotype. These goals all came from the passions of the team members and I think they kept us all motivated and excited even through the most challenging stages of development.”
Captivating storytelling plays a huge role in the way the game unfolds. At what point did you fall in love with the story when you first began reading it?
“Jeffrey, the writer of Child of Light, is a good friend of mine but we had never worked closely together before. With regards to video game culture we’re interested in the same things, and so working together was so fun! Jeffrey was all about fairy tales and poetry while working on Child of Light, and we spent many lunches and dinners discussing either these topics or the characters and what he wanted to do with them.
Once the characters and environments were alpha and the narrative was integrated, and I did my first playthrough, I was enthused to see that the game really evoked the team for me. The story told through these elements reflected the talents and ideas of each team member. And since I loved this team so much I really loved the story. The determination in the animation of Aurora swinging her heavy sword, the freedom you can feel in the flying mechanic once she gets her wings, the sweetness in the couplet “Aurora, what is love know by?/When it hurts to say goodbye”… I love what all of this stuff means for the story.
And then to see some of those lunch and dinner conversations with Jeffrey translated into rhyme and written into the game, that was super fun to discover. My favourite conversation is a quick one that Rubella has with the Golem about makeup as a tool of oppression or freedom. Before Child of Light I never really expected to see that kind of feminist topic discussed in a game I was working on, and certainly never expected to see it discussed so succinctly and in rhyme. It made me smile. A lot.”
The combat system is one fans of classic JRPG’s will immediately be familiar with, but some modern tweaks add a unique level of depth and excitement to battles. What was the approach to this modified version of the classic formula?
“It was really important to us to get the battle system right. We worked on various prototypes and iterations through the whole duration of the production. Our goal was to create a fight system that was true to classic JRPGs while being something you could play with your kids.
One of our game designers worked closely throughout the project with one of our programmers to experiment with different prototypes. Turn-based battle fit nicely both with our goals and with our constraints: team size, time budget, animation budget, etc. We tried a few different styles of action turn-based battle, and did a lot of playtesting both within the team and in the Playtest Lab.
We almost had a different battle system. At one point we had a system nailed down, and no time left in the schedule on it, when playtests results came back that the players were confused and not having fun. I was reluctant to revisit the system and throw off the schedule, and I took a lot of convincing from the devs involved. In the end, it’s so great we did revisit it, because the final battle system is another level of fun! We settled on a system inspired by Grandia 2. Although it is turned-based, there is a timing element to the strategy. Depending on timing, either the player characters or the enemies may lose their turn. And a second player playing co-op, or a skilled single player controlling both player characters, can influence this timing. I think this evolution on the Grandia 2 system is a great contribution to the RPG genre and gives us a bit of cred.”
When the phrase “platforming, turn-based, RPG” was first used to describe Child of Light, I was immediately excited. What was the inspiration for this style of gameplay and how do you feel it performed in the game?
“The original inspiration for Child of Light was a sort of Limbo meets Final Fantasy meets Rayman Legends. Our goal was to create something with the same level of moodiness and strong art direction as Limbo, with gameplay like Final Fantasy, and using the UbiArt Framework engine which was developed for Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends.
Pat Plourde had the idea while he was finishing Far Cry 3. It had always been a dream of his to create a love letter to the JRPGs he loved growing up. And the UbiArt engine looked very intriguing to try using for this. What I like about the idea for Child of Light as a platformer and a turn-based RPG is that it can be very accessible to new gamers while at the same time interesting to hardcore JRPG fans. 2D platforming is not intimidating to pick up, and turn-based battles are not intimidating to figure out, while still providing depth and strategic challenges for the seasoned gamer.
There were many surprises along the way. We were a smaller team with a smaller budget than we were used to, creating a style of game we hadn’t created, with an engine we didn’t know yet. For example, one thing we hadn’t anticipated about designing a 2D platformer was that it is actually pretty easy to get lost in 2D space. In a 3D game, you can just rotate the camera around until you recognize some landmarks, and you’re set. In 2D, you see only what is on the screen surrounding your character. And we didn’t have enough UI programmers to develop a minimap. So we had to experiment with different ways of orienting the player, like changing landscapes, parallax backgrounds, and fast travel.
Another issue that came up with this platforming turn-based RPG style of gameplay was that the gentle mood that we wanted to create that was supported by the smooth flying behaviour and Coeur de Pirate’s relaxing music was not so well supported by getting sucked into battle. Pacing was hard to get right. The battles felt too abrupt. We tried to even this out by placing fewer enemies, adding smoother transitions to battle, and modifying the battle music to match the desired tone.
In the end I’m very happy with the game. My personal measure for success on this project was that I wanted two certain people to play and like the game: One is a very dear friend of mine who is not a gamer but has the same taste in art, film, music, and fashion as I have, and one is a very experienced development tester at Ubisoft who is a big JRPG fan. I think they both liked it.”
Many fans would love to see this idea expanded into a full retail release. Is this something your team would be interested in pursuing in the future?
“I’m afraid I can’t comment on any potential future releases right now. I’ll just say that we hope to reach as many fans as possible. If people like this game, maybe we’ll see more like it. And I would love to see that.”
A huge thanks to Brie for taking the time to share her experience with Child of Light. She is a passionate and genuinely inspiring force in the gaming industry, and we wish her the best of luck with all future endeavors.
Brie is originally from Vancouver where she started in the games industry at Relic Entertainment in 2003, where she worked on Company of Heroes as a gameplay and AI programmer. After a brief stint at Pandemic Australia, she moved to Montreal to work at Ubisoft in 2008. Before Child of Light, she led AI programmers on Assassin’s Creed 2, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, and Assassin’s Creed 3. Her favourite games are Gone Home, Skyrim, and Colonel’s Bequest. If you’re a fan of engaging game related news and insight, be sure to follow Brie on Twitter @BrieCode.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on video games as art as well. Be sure to share in the comment section below.
Miles Dompier is the chief editor and founder of What’s Your Tag?. He is a Seattle native who recently moved to the sweltering heat of Los Angeles to pursue his dream of becoming a composer/voice actor. When he’s not up writing until his eyes bleed, he likes to play a Prince level of instruments and listen to terrible death metal. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter and be sure to join our gaming community; TEAM XBRO.