This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
En Garde! is a game of swashbuckling swordplay, tasking players with using environments, acrobatics, and taunts, as well as their blade, to overcome hordes of enemies in chaotic melees.
Gamasutra spoke with Adrien Poncet and the team behind the Best Student Game-nominated En Garde! to talk about the thoughts that go into turning combat into a theater-like spectacle, how they drew from film and literature to create their swashbuckling swordplay, and the challenges they faced as students taking on such an ambitious project.
A team of swashbucklers
We are a team of Students from Supinfogame Rubika, France. En Garde! was our graduation project and we worked on it for a whole school year.
We were 4 designers, 3 artists, and 1 programmer, but we all had very versatile and complementary profiles, so we were able to split the tasks efficiently. In the end, the team was very well balanced and everyone participated in almost all aspects of the project in one way or another.
Our school is specialized in video game design, art, and development. So, most of our game development background came from our school projects, personal projects and game jams made during our student years. While we don’t have much professional experience, we’ve all been born craving for creativity, and some of us have been creating games and universes our whole lives. You can check out our portfolios if you’re curious about the kind of projects we developed before En Garde!.
In regards to our game-making careers, most of the real deal is happening right now - as our work on En Garde! opened doors to jobs in several amazing game companies like Ubisoft, Amplitude, Sloclap, and Darewise.
However, we’ve made a promise to try to make En Garde! into a full game one day. We are looking for the right moment and opportunity to do that, because it would be a pretty big project.
De cape et d'épée inspirations
Every student had to come up with a concept for our graduation games. Those concepts went through a selection process and we formed teams to actually develop a few selected ones.
Adrien Poncet (game director) is really driven by strong player fantasies in his creative process. Video games have been exploring most of the classic fantasies from fictional works. Western, medieval, space opera, cyberpunk, you name it. But he realized one day that there was no proper “musketeer” video game. There are pirate games, sure, but no classic swashbuckler experiences in the vein of The Three Musketeers. This kind of universe is really underrepresented in video games, which is a shame, as it has potential to make really fun and interesting gameplay.
To be honest, we were far from being experts on swashbuckler films and literature before starting to work on En Garde!. We just happened to find them cool and stylish. That’s one thing that’s great about it: swashbuckler tropes are deeply rooted in popular imagination. Everybody knows this image of a dashing swordsman in fancy clothing, jumping on a chandelier to escape from dozens of guards.
In France, swashbuckling is called "de cape et d'épée" (of cape and sword), and it has a long heritage, from old chivalric tales to genre-defining works like The Three Musketeers. It has an important legacy in the USA as well. During Hollywood’s golden age, in the first half of the 20th century, swashbuckling was one of the big things alongside Westerns, especially with Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn movies. Nowadays, the genre can seem a bit cheesy and old-fashioned (something which has its own appeal). However, the spirit of swashbuckling continues to exist in many works.
We realized during development that our biggest reference was definitely Zorro. Don Diego has everything to make the perfect swashbuckler hero: panache, trickery, crazy acrobatics, a sense of intrigue and of repartee, ridiculous opponents to humiliate and dangerous foes to rival with.
So, the main goal of our project was to pay homage to this legacy by recreating it in a new interactive form: through the video game medium. We wanted to create the ultimate interactive swashbuckler fantasy. We also tried to add modern twists on the genre. For example, by having a female protagonist (which was very rare back in the old days of swashbuckler films and media), or by having a meta approach on the notion of spectacle.
We chose the title En Garde! from the very beginning, before we even knew we’d set the story in 17th century Spain. This French expression is well-known and exists in every language since it’s an official competitive fencing term. It is sort of a generic title, but that’s also because our game is meant to be a tribute to swashbuckling as a whole. We later found out that it was maybe a bit too generic - En Garde! is also the name of a board game, a roleplaying game, AND a wargame!
An adventurer's tools
We used Unreal Engine 4. Working with UE4 has been a blast - everyone could easily participate in many of the project’s parts, as the majority of our work was mostly done within UE4. We actually scripted most of the game in Blueprints, which gave us a flexible and easy-to-edit programming pipeline. We’ll be writing a technical post-mortem for Epic Games soon, talking in-depth about our work with UE4. Stay tuned!
For the modeling, we used Maya and 3ds Max, as well as the incredible Substance Suite for our materials. Marvelous Designer was also a great help to recreate the complex clothing of the 17th century.
On making the player feel like a swashbuckler
Saying we wanted to make the player feel like a swashbuckler is a bit cliché, but that was actually our main objective.
We have an adjective in French that perfectly describes what we were aiming to deliver: “Rocambolesque”. This funny word is roughly used to qualify incredible adventures with funny & surprising action, full of implausible twists. Creating a rocambolesque adventure was one of our main guidelines for the whole project. We wanted every second of the game to bring something fresh and new, be it through gameplay, game systems, navigation in the level, mood, or dialogues.
Something very important to us was to also have a light-hearted tone, overall. In a classic swashbuckler film fashion, our story could be dramatic or even tragic, but the situations had to be quirky and humorous. We wanted our character (and our player) to always fight with pride and positivity.
As En Garde! takes inspiration from a lot of classic references, we also wanted the game’s world and tone to feel familiar to the player. It’s important that our players can identify familiar tropes, if we want them to live the classic swashbuckler fantasy. Again, we relied on popular imagination. The game had to make them remember good old references with nostalgia - after playing the game, our players mentioned Zorro, The Princess Bride, Queen of Swords, and even Assassin’s Creed 2!
A lot of swashbuckler films target a large audience, as does our game, which is accessible and easy to play. Anyone picking the game up should be able to feel heroic. While you get to learn the game and use complex environmental tricks, the feeling of mastery reinforces the fantasy even more, and makes every melee feel like a spectacle.
We also hesitated on whether we should create only 1v1 sword duels, or fights against multiple opponents. First, we thought of doing only one of those two things, but we knew we had to make both if we wanted our swashbuckling experience to feel complete. A swashbuckling hero needs to have hordes of foolish guards to humiliate, before facing a real challenge against a worthy opponent.
The guard’s behavior is very important for the fantasy. Our heroine really shines when compared to her opponents’ clumsiness. Through their actions and barks, we show how inferior they are to you, and how they are made to be humiliated. Some of them will even flee the fight after being taunted by the player. A big reference for them were the guards from Zorro or Disney’s Aladdin.
Turning every fight into a spectacle
It’s about creating impressive choreography, action pieces made of acrobatics and tricks, as well as a lot of dialogues and taunting during the fight. We determined that our fantasy relies on 3 pillars: swordsmanship, panache, and a sense of trickery/improvisation. We used those as a guideline through our whole development process.
We were fascinated by the idea of combining swordplay with wordplay. We were inspired by the French classic Cyrano de Bergerac, where the hero makes an eloquent demonstration of poetic taunting while fighting in front of an amused crowd.
We wanted to have that notion of spectacle both on a meta level (the player making gameplay into a spectacle) and at an in-game, narrative level. That’s why we added crowds of NPCs watching the fight from balconies and cheering in response to the player’s actions. We would have liked to give them more importance, maybe make them part of the scene and useful in gameplay, but it would have been quite hard to pull off in our production context.
Creating spectacle without overscoping
We evaluated each idea through several criteria. How does it fulfill our swashbuckler fantasy? How complex is it to implement with our production constraints? How systemic and reusable is it?
We couldn’t afford doing unique, Uncharted-like action set pieces that you encounter only once in the playthrough. With the kind of movie-like experience we were looking for, it would have been awesome to have those, and we had a ton of ideas (dueling on wooden beams while the palace is on fire, fighting standing on horses or on rolling barrels going down a slope, etc). But, of course, we couldn’t do that kind of stuff without terribly impacting our game’s scope.
We needed to be smart and to produce as much reusable content as possible. Most of us on the team are also really fond of systemic games - we took a lot of inspiration from Immersive Sim design in our creative process. Then, we wanted our content to also have potential for systemic gameplay, to create a variety of unique situations, so that our thrilling swashbuckling experience would emerge from game systems and would be different for each player.
As an example, for the environmental interactions, we worked with generic object classes: pushable objects like tables, objects that can be knocked over (large or thin), and small projectiles that can be kicked. Those objects would then be made into several variations. This also allows the gameplay to be clearer, as objects with similar shapes will always work in the same fashion.
Some unique objects, like the rotating training dummy or the big chandeliers exist, in only one form in the game, but their potential was great enough, and they were simple enough to implement that we made them anyway.
Encouraging players to fight with panache
It was one of the big challenges of the project. On the very first week of the project, we made a workshop to refine our creative vision and to settle our design objectives.
We wanted the player to always be surrounded by many opponents, but to always have several ways to overcome the challenges. We tried to encourage the player to play creatively, to experiment with all of the environmental interactions, and to constantly adapt to new situations by using the surroundings.
We worked a lot on level design variety and we tried to introduce several enemy variations. Some of them are harder to defeat, which encourages players to figure out tricks to defeat them more efficiently.
The combat system was made so that the player can fight while surrounded by enemies, but can only attack one enemy at a time, which makes it less efficient when there are too many of them.
At any moment, the player can use Adalia’s acrobatics abilities to flee from the fight, to disperse the opponents and to come back in the fight with more advantageous conditions.
By opposition to the sword combat, we purposely made the environmental interactions overpowered. They allow players to hit multiple opponents at once, most of them instantly defeat opponents they strike, and some of them can even be used without limitations.
For each kind of environmental interaction, we also tried to have some subtleties and variations in the ways the player could use the objects. For example, you can push a floor chandelier onto an enemy, but they will also trip over it when it’s on the ground. To make it even more interesting, we also added a lot of control to the physics, so the objects would follow the behaviors we designed. If an item is pushed in contact with a wall, it will always sway before falling in the opposite direction, allowing even furniture on walls to fall on enemies.
We added several hidden rules so that the objects feel intuitive and easy to use. For example, if you kick a small projectile, it will always auto-aim and strike the closest guard right in the head. The guards will often stay close to potential threats so that you can trick them more easily - It also suggests their stupidity.
However, we didn’t implement anything to prevent the player from abusing any of the systems. So it’s possible to beat the entire game by spamming the attack button or by only relying on perfect parries. It’s clearly one of the design aspects we would try to improve if we ever get to work on En Garde! again.
Capturing a look and feel of adventure
We wanted to use history as a basis to build our universe and art direction. And what better setting for a story about travels, conspiracies, and swords fights than the Spanish golden age?
Although our story takes place in a fantasized vision of this famous period, we took a lot of inspiration from the city of Seville at the beginning of the 17th century. En Garde!’s architecture is a stylized version of what is called the Mudejar style: a blend of European renaissance and Moorish influence which can be found in Andalusia.
However, our world is seen from the romantic lens of literature, cinema and theater, so our art style needed to reflect that. We went for dream-like and colorful environments, subtly stylized shapes, and a dramatic lighting. We took inspiration from artists from the golden age of illustration like N. C. Wyeth, as well as more recent creators like Richard Daskas.
Details were used to remind the player of this idea that the fight is a spectacle, and to suggest that the characters could be actors performing a play. The applauding public at balconies, the red curtains everywhere, the defeated guards actually faking death, the tone of the voice acting...
As we wanted strong, caricatural characters. We spent some time thinking about their personality and backstory. Adalia, for example, had to personify the swashbuckler archetype, but we wanted to make her more than that. Giving her a strong and consistent personality was a crucial point to help us define her costume design, her animations and her catchphrases.
For the main characters designs and their families’ heraldry, we referenced the fable “The Fox and the Crow” - our villain Don Villano being the Fox and the Volador’s family being the Crow.
Dubbing the dialogues of such expansive characters was not an easy task. Fortunately, our main voice actress Ilse Zamarripa, had exactly the playful voice and the acting skills we needed for Adalia, while Adrien Poncet and Julien Fenoglio had a lot of fun trying many voices for the different enemies. Given the tone of the game, we could allow ourselves some cheesiness and over-the-top acting, which helped us to produce our voice content rather easily once we found the right tone for each character.
For the game’s music, we wanted epic, movie-like compositions with Spanish colors, in the style of the Mask of Zorro. Fortunately our composer, Ludwig Wu, was used to doing this kind of orchestral music.
The first thing he did was to look at progression chords used in Spanish traditional music. He selected instruments like guitar, as well as Spanish percussions (castanets, guiro, maracas...). He had to find a great rhythm, as it’s a very important part of Spanish music, and it had to underline the rhythm of the game. He was working externally from the team, but Poncet documented him very well about the game, and it was not so difficult for him to imagine the pacing of the experience. Furthermore, we went back & forth with advice and feedback, which allowed us to iterate on the music until we reached the exact sensations we were looking for.
Wu first created the main theme, which was a very complex and epic orchestral track, with a lot of layers. Then, most of the music in the game was made from variations of this main track, which allowed us not only to save time, but also to implement a system of evolutive music in the gameplay.
The challenges of taking on such an ambitious project
As you might have understood, we were so passionate about making the encapsulation of a complete swashbuckling experience, with a compilation of all the tropes we could think of, that it was really difficult for us to cut anything out of our game’s scope and features.
Some features suffered from this way of thinking. Our final boss is not as good as we wanted him to be, because we hadn't given ourselves enough time to make properly interesting 1v1 duels. Our combat and navigation are still clunky at times. The project also made some of our team members go through a big crunch. It’s not a huge deal when one’s passionate about their work, but we wouldn’t want to relive this in a professional context.
We learned that it’s impossible to plan and predict everything in advance. We tried to design as much of the game on paper, but there were so many things we simply hadn’t thought about until we had to prototype the feature in question. We would have saved a lot of time in pre-production by diving into prototyping earlier.
We were figuring out how to make the architecture of a complex project like this as we were creating it. Our combat system went through four iterations, both on the tech side and on the design side.
In fact, most of our core systems were fundamentally complex to implement for students. Creating Assassin’s Creed-like combat with 2 programmers and 1 animator can be complicated at times. We also created a fairly advanced free-running system - that is unfortunately underused in our level design.
But in the end, we are glad that we reached this level of quality without having to cut any of the fundamental features we wanted to have, and we managed to deliver on our promise.