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Q&A: Smaller is better for Child of Light writer Jeffrey Yohalem

Now that development on Ubisoft Montreal's Child of Light is complete, Gamasutra caught up with lead writer Jeffrey Yohalem to learn more about what it's like to go from a big game (Far Cry 3) to a small one.

Alex Wawro, Contributor

April 8, 2014

20 Min Read

Jeffrey Yohalem has been working on major franchises at Ubisoft Montreal for years, starting with Rainbow Six Vegas 2 before moving on to work as a writer on Assassin's Creed II, Assassin's Creed Brotherhood and Far Cry 3. Throughout his time at the studio he's worked alongside Patrick Plourde, who served as creative director on Far Cry 3 and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood before pitching a new game for Ubisoft Montreal: Child of Light, a role playing game inspired by 20th century fairytale artists and 21st century JRPG design, and which features a young heroine that speaks entirely in rhyme. The whole game is written in verse, in fact -- Yohalem cites the epic poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" as inspiration. To hear Yohalem tell it, Child of Light is an effort by Plourde and his team to create something different from Ubisoft Montreal's typical fare -- a smaller game, made by a smaller team, using the Ubi-Art Framework, the company's proprietary 2D toolset. It was publicized as a means whereby small teams could quickly create artful 2D games -- like Rayman Origins, for example -- and Child of Light appears to be a deft exemplar. It's a sharp left turn for Yohalem, who regularly works with large teams on big-budget franchises like Far Cry. Now that development on Child of Light is complete, Gamasutra caught up with its lead writer to find out what he'd learned in the process. It's been about half a year since we last saw Child of Light, during Ubisoft's Developer Days event. Now that the game is out the door, how are you feeling? Jeffrey Yohalem: It’s been great, it all turned out the way we hoped it would turn out. Sounds too good to be true. No problems, no hurdles to overcome? The hurdles have been in making sure that everything gets done on time, obviously. We gave ourselves a limited amount of time to do this, and what always happens -- in every game I’ve ever worked on -- is that it’s too much stuff for the time you have. We had a pretty hard shipping deadline -- although we pushed our deadline by a couple of months, our own internal deadline, because we wanted it to be perfect. We went gold a few weeks ago, during GDC, and I was putting final touches on the menu stuff -- all the words in the game were written by me, with no editor -- and so I had to make sure everything was perfect. I played through the game like nine times in those final two weeks, and everything is the way that I needed it to be. I don’t feel out of control at all, which often happens in video games, where there are surprise last additions you might not have seen, or the game is too big to really look through the whole thing and do a final run-through while people are still adding things. Because, you know, as you’re playing a build, the next day’s build is already being prepared. When you’re on a triple-A game, there’s like hundreds of people who are doing things, so it's almost like people are putting holes in your boat while you’re trying to patch up holes on the front of the boat. It's odd that you use an analogy like holes in a boat, as though other people were taking things out -- most developers tend to stick with complaining that too many cooks in the kitchen muck up the mix. I think that’s a unique perspective that comes from a writer, or a story creator. I think that "cooks in the kitchen" thing is great in terms of adding more and more, if that’s what makes a good dish, but then the chef is left to figure out -- What is this? What do I call it? Does it make cohesive sense to call it a soup? I’ve never been in a nightmarish situation where a game has not come together generally the way I wanted it to come together, but I know writers who have; I know creators who have. There have been elements in some games that altered the fundamental ingredients of the game so much that the game is not what the creator intended anymore, and that is a nightmare. You have your name, your vision, on a thing that doesn’t have your vision in it anymore. It’s like you're trapped. I’ve never been in that situation, and -- knock on wood -- I hope never to be. It reminds me of what Brenda Romero has been talking about recently, that game designers can learn a lot from studying chefs. It sounds like you feel that writers share very similar responsibilities. I would argue that it is from the perspective of the creator, rather than writer, because when you have a story-based game that is strongly authored, it’s basically the same perspective. For me, there’s a big difference between story and writing. Writing is just one ingredient -- like the musical score, or the art direction. But the story stands above all else. I co-created the game with Patrick Plourde, the creative director. I say co-created because the world and the journey that Aurora is on is fundamentally the story of the game, along with the gameplay itself. Patrick believes very strongly that the story is something that you play and experience, and that the game design is one ingredient in creating that story. I think we’re all trying to create a story -- every content provider on this game is trying to create a story. The mood of the piece, the art direction, the way the battles work, the way Aurora gains experience and grows older in the course of the game, that is the story of the game. The writing enhances that, the score enhances that, but the story is fundamentally told through gameplay. I gather you share Plourde's viewpoint. Yes. We’ve been working together since Rainbow Six Vegas 2, when he was a lead game designer and I was a lead writer, and from then on he became creative director on Far Cry 3, and I was the writer of Far Cry 3, and we love working together because we both believe that story is the center. He comes from a game design background, so he understands gameplay like no one I’ve ever met. When we created the JRPG parts of Child of Light, it was his vision. He saw how this could be a coming-of-age story and that’s how we approached it, even though he comes at everything from the mechanics side. I saw the possibilities of the world, to create this place called Lemuria that's based on a real idea. Like, at the turn of the century, there were scientists who thought there was this continent between India and Australia. I love that if you search for Lemuria there is a legit Wikipedia entry, and where Aurora is from is real, and the game is set during a real event [an earthquake that happened on Easter Sunday in 1895]. I love dancing between reality and fiction. Aurora collects wishes, and that stuff appeals to me because it’s taking a gameplay mechanic and putting it into the world, making it a part of the world. Like, creatures in that world tied wishes to bushes, and then you collect the manifestation of those wishes and the energy from those propel Aurora forward. So Pat will come and he’ll create something -- a set of companions, for example -- and then I see that and I say, "Okay, this needs to be a story about partnership, about being together versus being alone." You can play through the entire game without gathering other partners, but then the game gets incredibly difficult. So to me, that’s something you can act out that’s true to life -- if in life you don’t work with anyone else, if you’re a lone wolf, life will be incredibly difficult, but you can manage it. To me, that’s the kind of story a game can best tell. You’re playing out -- in micro -- vast performances that you will enact throughout your entire life. It reminds me of games like Dark Souls and Spelunky, games with thin narrative that give the player a stage to act out their own stories. So for me, as a creator, I’m not as interested in that. That kind of experience, to me, is like a Lego set -- I get that you can play pretend and build worlds, but I think I want to create something where you’re still an actor, and you’re acting out something like a performance that has been written for you. How you choose to act it out is up to you. There are thousands of productions of Hamlet, and every one of them is different. I don’t think [proscribed narrative] is restrictive -- I think it’s exciting to live such vast emotions. I’m interested in creating a space in which the player performs a work that has been crafted for them. But players have so much more freedom than actors. Actors can choose their timing and their tenor, but they can't choose to simply not interact with their companions. Hamlet can't ignore Laertes. But he can! Especially in a movie like Gosford Park, which was very much improvised within a framework, you’ll find that kind of thing. And if you look at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, that’s Tom Stoppard dancing around between the scenes of Hamlet. For me, what’s so exciting about video games is not recreating the experience of being an actor -- it’s that we’re developing a new language, just like early cinema. What I’m looking to create is performance, but reimagined. It’s not Sleep No More, and it’s not Gone Home. We’ve reached the point where we’re filming plays, figuratively -- in games like Gone Home and Dear Esther we’re explorers, just walking like a spirit through something and experiencing someone else’s story. We're spectators, not actors. Soon, we’re going to make something that jumps over that wall. I think that will be something more like Child of Light, a game where you’re using a compelling system and you’re an actor -- you’re acting out this story through the battles you carry out and the companions that you choose. All of that performance drives you to become more like Aurora. As she gains experience and you make her into the person she becomes, she ages with you and gains real experience -- experience that you are collecting. You have actions -- actors always talk about how they need a compelling action to do in order to tap into the emotion of their character. It’s about what they’re doing with their hands and what they’re imagining while they’re speaking, not what they’re saying. So those "things to do" is what we’re looking to create, and it’s a whole new language in games. That’s why someone like Pat is a genius -- he’s always searching for and discovering new verbs, new things to do that captivate our minds and generate emotions. My job, as a writer, is to look at that emotion and examine it, figure out a story that enhances it and allows it to take on the qualities of a performance. To be fair, experiences like Gone Home and Dear Esther -- what you call spectator games -- are relatively novel, I think. Myst! Myst is Gone Home. If Gone Home had come out a year after Myst, they would have called it a Myst clone with no puzzles. I thought that was hysterical -- that no one mentioned “Myst clone.” I was like “Wow, I must be really old!” [laughs] Myst is a whole world created for you to read other people’s books and look through other people’s stuff. Fair enough! Given your history, how did development of this game differ from larger Ubisoft productions, like Far Cry or Assassin's Creed? Pat is a great game director. He’s like Hitchcock, in some ways -- he really understands the system of how large companies work, and at the same time wants to dance within that system. He doesn’t want to destroy it or do something that attacks it -- he knows how to use the system to make beautiful things. He finished Far Cry 3 while I was still editing it, and he started exploring the paintings of John Bauer and other early 20th century fairytale artists. They have a very distinctive mood, it’s very melancholy and beautiful, and he decided he wanted to create something like that. So he started listening to music -- from Amelie, from Final Fantasy, and more -- and tried to create a fake album of what the game’s soundtrack should be like. Like a piece of musical concept art. It was! It was like, “Here’s how the game will feel -- like these images and this music.” And he came to me with that, along with the phrase “JRPG.” Immediately, I thought “this is my chance to create what I’ve always wanted to do since I was a kid,” which is to make a world in which a normal kid stumbles upon a gateway to a magical place. Those have been my favorite works, growing up: the Narnia books, the Oz books, His Dark Materials later on… If those were your favorite childhood experiences, why did it take you so long to work on something like that? Because you have to earn the ability to have freedom, especially within an existing system. The trick is to keep your soul through that process. Partially because of the newness of video games, and partially because of Ubisoft’s appreciation for creativity, I have managed to work on only things that I wanted to work on. I haven’t had to sell my soul for any of it -- in fact, they’ve given me a very wide degree of freedom in all the projects I’ve done. There are only a couple of instances I can point to where something didn’t turn out the way I intended it to turn out. But there are tons of frustrations in triple-A, that’s for sure. It’s very stressful, and there are all these moments where things don’t go quite the way you want them to go. If what you want to create is very important to you -- and for me, it has been my whole life -- you want to try many other things before you do the thing that really resonates with you. Because if you mess it up, it’s devastating. When you create the thing that is closest to your heart, if it’s bad -- POOF. That’s the only shot you will ever probably get to make that thing, and your heart looks terrible. It’s like looking in the mirror and seeing a skeleton -- you’re really horrified. That’s why I think its important, as an artist, to train. You should never jump on something that will kill you if you get it wrong as your first project. So... Pat and I put together a small storybook after sitting in a room alone together for about a month. I wrote out the story, and he put up illustrations from classical artists. He pitched the game to Ubi, said, “Here’s what I want to make, here’s what it will be,” and they said, basically, “Well, okay. You’ve had this track record of all these big hits, so we’ll trust you.” This is the first time I've seen Ubisoft Montreal field a small team. What's it been like to work in that environment, after serving on larger teams? Do you think you or Ubisoft will continue to work this way going forward? I think that, at least in terms of the process that we went through with Child of Light, it’s been wonderful and it’s just the tip of the iceberg of what we could do. Partially because I’m so used to working in big teams, and so I’m just getting a sense of the new scale. So working with a small team to create Child of Light was a more enjoyable experience? Coming back to what I said earlier, there’s no boat with holes to patch up. Working on Far Cry you’d think you knew what was happening in the game, and then there’d be this whole new part that had been added that you didn’t even know about, and then you had to figure out how to fix that part to make sure that it fit with what was going on, and then you turn to the next problem and the part that you fixed last week is suddenly completely different, and you know there’s pieces of the game that are in other countries and you’re on phone calls with people trying to describe what you want, and you’re not clear at all if they understand what you mean -- even if they say they do -- and so it’s just really like the whole boat is sinking, and you’re just trying to make sure that the boat stays a boat. But creatively, it was still just as free, on some level. You’re trying to figure out how to make that thing what you want it to be, and your limitation is the team size and the team’s speed itself. Child of Light was... Well, you know, nine times in the last few weeks, I got to polish that thing so that it was exactly what I wanted it to be. There isn’t an inch of it that I have not seen or don’t know about. I’m not worried about any of it transforming. That's just so powerful, because the difference between a moment that works, and a moment that doesn't work, is so miniscule. In games, the editing tools are so difficult to control -- it’s like trying to paint a moustache from across the room with six brushes attached to each other. As a result, in most games you end up with moments that are ridiculously timed -- even if the moment might have actually been genuine or affecting, it's performed as though by people who don’t know the language and who are terrible actors. The way the camera is positioned, the way the whole scene can be positioned -- it’s a miracle if it even works at all. So with Child of Light, there are tons of subtle moments that are held exactly the length that they need to be held. They’re timed to that -- I would literally sit down with someone and say we need this to be eight seconds, and then try it, and then say, "Add a second. Add another second. Okay, that’s it!" So that part is wonderful. But at the same time there are all these ways I can see where if I did this again, how I would plan it out from the beginning would be completely different from what we did with Child of Light. Perversely, what you say gives me much more respect for large teams who are able to create affecting, cathartic experiences. Sure! And I will say that the way we fix that problem, the way that you “patch” it, is that you create technical solutions. Things like motion capture being incorporated into games is a godsend, because it means the timing is set by humans; the actors set the timing, and the team just puts that performance directly into the game. There’s no longer an animator that can add or subtract a second -- it creates a situation where someone can’t mess it up. As those kinds of techniques become more and more prevalent in big games, those kinds of awkward moments will drop away -- and are dropping away. Why do you feel so invested in this game, as compared to your previous works? Because those were compounded by concerns like, “I hope this is conveyed the right way,” you know? And all I could know is that it kind of is. I don’t like playing a game once it’s gone gold, because if I see mistakes then it’s just… Maddening? Yeah, because you can’t do anything! It’s just like, "Well, oops, there’s a mistake, there’s another mistake." They’re mistakes that you thought they had patched, or things you had sent instructions to be fixed but they weren’t fixed, or they’re new problems that people added in, like again with all the cooks in the kitchen, these things exist… Holes? Yeah, holes exist that are just going to hurt you. And they feel like gunshots when you’re trying to create a coherent world, because it’s kind of one hundred or zero. The minute you encounter something in a space that’s supposed to be real, and you push on it and it’s cardboard, it falls over... you’re done. The narrative trance is broken, the player knows this isn’t a real place, and it’s over. You just need one little mistake, and it’s so much more likely that one of those mistakes exists in one of those bigger productions. Would you prefer to keep working on smaller teams like this, or are you looking to get back on a larger project? Um… As a creator, I like working with limitations. That’s where new ideas come from -- if there were no limitations, then you would have everything and just be done. I love the challenges that Pat presents, so I love working with him. He’s a visionary, and he pushes me to write things I never would have written. He pushes me to overcome obstacles. So I hope we get to work on many things together in the future, even though I know we’ll probably do things apart too, because that’s how life is. Sometimes you move apart, you come together, and it’s not always up to you. The company has things that they want, and various other things. But with or without him, I hope we both continue to forward the expressive space of video games. The worst thing that can happen to someone in life is that they are numbed, that they are so cut off from expression that they end up unable to feel. The role of art is to open up those pathways again, and I think that we are in the youngest art form, and one of the most exciting art forms I’ve ever seen. We’re also in a very dark place, as an art form, both because it’s the beginning and because tech keeps developing as products that need demos. I mean, that’s what it literally becomes -- it’s not that we’re making art, it’s that we’re making a demo for a product, so you have reason to buy this product. I think that trend needs to reverse itself, and I think it’s in the process of reversing itself now, finally. The amount of new products coming out is slowing, and the pressure to make a compelling product that forces people to buy it is slowing, and at that point the content can grow. Speaking of new tech, how has working with the Ubi-Art framework affected your approach to design? Everyone on the team had the power to shape the experience. And they understood the direction we were going in, so I like to think that when you play the game you’re kind of seeing a bunch of hearts on the wall -- each belongs to a different person, and each person found their own solution for creating their part. It hearkens back to some of the best artistic experiences I had, in high school theater. As a theater troupe, there were 15-20 of us, and we would craft plays together. Our teacher would record the scenes, but they would be created through exercises we did together to flesh out a common subject and get at emotional truth. We would act out these scenes, then he would record these scenes and the script would ultimately become a reenactment of all the best of our improvisations. And that’s how we’re working now -- it’s like I’ve returned to that place.

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