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Crafting the folk lore-steeped action of The Legend of Tianding

"Our goal was to promote a folk story based on Taiwan through an interesting game...where players enjoy not just a wonderful combat experience and a lovely comic book art style, but also a look at Taipei in the 20th century."

The Legend of Tianding takes players to the streets of Taipei in the early 20th century, having them take on the role of Liao Tianding, a Taiwanese outlaw fighting against colonial Japanese rule. Using acrobatic combat (involving a grappling hook and weaponized waist sash), players will strike out into this vision of that time in history, fighting against cruel villains as they take in the games, places, and stories of Taiwan of the 1900’s.

Game Developer sat down with the developers at Creative Games Computer Graphics Corporation, creators of the historical beat ‘em up, to talk about the long journey to bring this Taiwanese folk hero to digital life, the work that went into capturing the look and feel of 1900’s Dadaocheng for the game, and the importance they placed on sharing places, activities, and stories from Taiwan with the world.

Game Developer: What interested you in telling the story of Liao Tianding? In turning it into a beat 'em up?

The story began in 2003 when Maso Lin studied for a master's degree in multimedia. He tried to develop a Flash engine action game about Taiwan. However, due to a lack of time and manpower, he only finished a prototype that nevertheless attracted a lot of attention.

Development on this project was put on hold until April 2019, when PP Wang built a team and invited his former colleague, Maso, to start this project. All members of the team had a passion for 2D platformer games and wanted to share a folk story about Taiwan with the world. With that, Liao Tianding became an ideal main character of a 2D platformer game for his distinctive personal style, such as kung fu with a red waist sash and dagger, as well as his legendary exploits in Taiwan during the colonial period.

On the technical side, the 2D platformer game is also a great fit for porting to different console platforms and make for great gameplay experiences with controllers.

Liao Tianding dashes through a city street.

What thoughts went into the creation of the game's comic book-like art style? What made it feel right for the experience you were creating?

As a classic 2D platformer game, we did not find much room for innovative design. What we focused on instead was crafting unique and eye-catching art. After trying several tries, we decided to adopt a comic style for the visual design that would replicate the experience of reading a comic book while playing the game.

Given that the market is already full of American and Japanese comic-style works, the team tried to go for something different. So, we took Taiwan and Hong Kong traditional comics as a reference and finally shaped our own style. The concept of comic-style design was applied not only to the visual art in the game, but also the UI, cutscenes, battle sounds, and so on.

What research went into capturing the look of Taipei in the early 1900's for the game? Into getting the fashion right for your characters?

Maso collected various materials about Taiwan, such as books and photographs. The clothing for NPCs, even passers-by, all refer to relevant literature. For instance, the scene of Eiraku Chō in the game uses the famous painting Festival on South Street by artist Kuo Hsueh-Hu as a reference. Besides this, the main character’s story references many historical events like Tie Guo Mountain and the Yunlin Massacre.

As for the architectural design, we tried to recreate the look of Dadaocheng, Taipei during the colonial era. Therefore, most buildings we designed in the game have used the architecture of that era’s buildings as models, such as Siahai Chenghuang Temple, Mitsui Warehouse, and Taipei City North Gate, etc. Although some buildings, like Jiangshan Lou and the Old Taipei Train Station, aren’t around anymore, we hope players can appreciate their style and features through playing the game, just like how Assassin’s Creed steeps people in history.

Some references:

How did your research affect and shape the combat of the game? What thoughts helped craft Liao's acrobatic moveset?

According to unofficial history, Liao Tianding was a powerful and resourceful man. He always used his tanto and waist sash to escape the clutches of the Japanese police.

As a 2D platform action game, The Legend of Tianding was designed with a smooth and cheerful combat rhythm inspired by Guacamelee!. For example, players can use the dagger to inflict a three-hit basic attack, while a special attack would be a combination of mobility and kung fu moves. For the equipment, the waist sash is aimed to keep the “steal from your enemy” trick from the original Flash prototype, and other weapons also have their own distinct animation and functions. In addition, we learned from modern games and added a “perfect dodge” mechanic which enabled Liao Tianding to cast Shadow Clone or Shadow Vanish and truly enrich the battle experience.

A tense showdown in a warehouse.

How did your combat style affect the enemies you created and how they behaved/fought? How did it affect the fight locations, number of enemies fought at once, and other battle elements?

Modern action games are divided into two categories: one is Souls-likes, the other is hack and slash. Initially, we made The Legend of Tianding a Souls-like game, with every minion needing to be dealt with carefully. However, we found the step-by-step combat pace of a Souls-like was not the one we wanted to share with players. Learning that, we modified it to a more straightforward version and ended up reorganizing each mandatory battle, including terrain, traps, and enemy types. The difficulty level of minions was lowered and we left all the challenge in the boss battles. There are three kinds of minions we set in the game: vagrants, the police, and the soldiers. Each kind of minion has a specific array of weapons. For instance, vagrants would use stones, staffs, and iron axes, while the police use pistols, batons, and sabres, etc.

The Legend of Tianding features many over-the-top battles for its bosses. What thoughts went into the creation of some of these wild fights? How much did the folklore and history affect these setpiece battles?

We hope our players can reflect on the past and have a unique experience, but our priority for the game was to make it fun, so we focused a little more on gameplay over historical accuracy. For example, the first boss battle occurs in the profiteer Wang’s vault, but players have to fight through an incredibly huge sewer to enter the vault, and there is no such sewer in reality. However, we believe this excites the individual imagination and makes the game more interesting. Although there are some discrepancies between this comic-style game and reality, it gave us the creative space we needed to truly innovate our design.

A game of four color cards.

What drew you to add the board game as well? What do you think this added to the feel of the game?

In our opinion, after intense battles and challenging tasks, a mini-game with a slow pace can relax players' minds and enable them to enjoy it as leisure time. We also wanted to add more local culture to the game, so that’s why we chose the traditional table game Four Color Cards to be added into The Legend of Tianding.

It was serendipity that we decided to add it. On a spring festival, PP Wang would always play Four Color Cards with their family. After some discussion, we found that although Four Color Cards is a traditional game in Taiwan, less and less people are learning how to play it. So, we realized that adding this card game could be a chance to let more people know about the local culture. And to our surprise, the charm of Four Color Cards turned out even better than our expectations. There are even players spending several hours playing it!

What did you hope to make the player feel by creating an action game from this tale of a Taiwanese folk hero?

Our goal was to promote a folk story based on Taiwan through an interesting game. For people who are not familiar with the local history, The Legend of Tianding would thus act as a narrative-driven action game with a brand-new story, where players enjoy not just a wonderful combat experience and a lovely comic book art style, but also a look at Taipei in the 20th century.

What’s more, we added some hidden collectibles for history-lovers. For example, the NPC selling red bean soup on the street of Eiraku Chō is the founder of Kuang Chuan Milk, and the Taipei North Police Station is now the Memorial Hall of Taiwan's New Culture Movement.

Compared to making up a completely original story, making a plot so deeply involved with real history was a little more difficult to design. We believed, however that these elements of real history would improve the game and provide a more immersive experience. As an action game, the pacing of combat is important to players. Thus, we tried to set an appropriate pace and avoided making long, boring cutscenes so that players could focus on the experience of playing as Liao Tianding handing out his own brand of rough justice in the Dadaocheng area.

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