"...the idea of people living on the back of an animal, or the earth beneath our feet being alive, is as ancient as the space whale the Peeps decide to settle on."
Four months ago, we announced our new game, code-named Project Charlie. As always with a game announcement, we were excited and nervous. Would people dig the concept art? Get excited with us? Or be entirely disinterested?
Much to our relief, the reception was, and has been, good so far. One thing has consistently popped up, though - a comparison to a lovely Swiss city builder called The Wandering Village. Given it's critical reception and success, it's a pretty flattering comparison!
If I’m honest with you all, none of us at the studio were particularly surprised. Heck, we even expected it. We heard about The Wandering Village and realised people would see the similarity between it and our future sequel plans. That was an anxious meeting, let me tell you.
Sam (our creative director) nipped any problems in the bud by reaching out to Stray Fawn, the creators of The Wandering Village, to make sure we knew about each other and we weren't copying each other. It’s important to avoid treading on people’s toes in such a close-knit industry.
But despite our quiet efforts, the comparisons came. They’re fair - it’s a big coincidence that several games that are set on the back of a giant animal are in development. After seeing a debate about this very topic on the Before We Leave Steam forums, I felt indignant but also curious - where did the idea of civilisation being on the backs of enormous, lumbering animals come from?
Being a person who loves getting to the bottom of things, I got to researching.
Now, before I tell you my findings, I want to talk about where our idea for a civilisation on the back of a space whale came from.
Some of you have heard this story before, but I wanted to recap it for the newcomers.
It’s June 2016, and definitely-not-a-full-time-game-developer-yet Sam heads to the Midwinter Carnival in Dunedin, a celebration full of lights and lanterns and merriment. He sees a lantern of a whale with a city on its back.
Have you ever seen something that has planted an idea in your mind? It’s an addictive feeling. Letting the idea grow in your mind, discussing the intricacies of it with the people close to you, wanting nothing more than to work on your idea and see it become a reality - it’s the fuel that powers the people who throw themselves into the arena of creativity. It often keeps us going through the arduous time of crafting, of developing.
But I digress! This awesome lantern inspired Sam to make a game on the back of a whale floating through space. Unfortunately, due to the level of difficulty something like this presented to an unfunded and temporarily inexperienced game developer, Sam went with an alternate version of his space whale civilisation idea - thus Before We Leave was born. Now that we're an established studio with staff, resources and funding, we can make the game that Sam initially envisioned.
AS OLD AS US
Aside from a lovely lantern, what other examples of civilisations nestled on the backs of huge animals are there?
Honestly, there are so many. There’s the Jörmungandr, or World Serpent, in Norse mythology. There’s the great Polynesian hero Māui - his most well-known story is how he slowed down the sun, but here in Aotearoa we hear Māori legend of how Māui caught a giant fish which would become the North Island of New Zealand, or Te Ika-a-Māui.
For the Balancing Monkey Games crew, the most influential example of this is the World Turtle, thanks to Sam and Anna bringing the influence of the Discworld series by Terry Prachett to the studio. If you look carefully, you can see sprinkles of its influence through Before We Leave.
The Great A'Tuin, a huge turtle who carries the world on his back, pulls influence from Hindu mythology. World Turtles also pop up in Chinese mythology, and Native American mythology too, specifically the Lenape and Iroquois peoples. World turtles are also found in games - World of Warcraft being the example that first springs into my mind.
My point here is, the idea of people living on the back of an animal, or the earth beneath our feet being alive, is as ancient as the space whale the Peeps decide to settle on. The cultures I have touched on here are rich and ancient, full of their own stories, ideas and influences. We share these ideas, these stories, and slowly but surely they spread worldover and have marched their way out of antiquity and into modern times alongside humanity.
Us game developers are no different to our story-telling ancestors. Consciously or subconsciously, we’re influenced by the things around us. Every single person in the studio is drawing on the media they love, their expertise, their life experiences. The beauty of this is, because we’re all unique, we’re making something unique too. For myself, as the narrative designer for this project, I can wholeheartedly say I'm being influenced by many things that I've lived and loved. I am remixing the things I find cool - the media people make will never exist in isolation.
GET BACK TO WORK!
“But Emily” you say, “aren’t you meant to be working on the game rather than writing a big ol’ essay?!”
Okay. Listen. Listen. This is work! Part of my process as narrative designer is understanding the source of our influences and our ideas. It also helps us avoid things like cultural appropriation - something we’d quite like to avoid. I’m sure I’ll dive deeper into this in a dev blog at some point.
WRAPPING IT UP
So are we copying a successful game to make a quick buck? I hope by now you’ve understood that the answer is, no! Absolutely not. The games industry is a small place - who would want to sour the reception of a game by blatantly ripping off another project? Not us. That sounds like a truly bad time. That said, asking people to put their skepticism aside is a big ask.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration of where inspirations can come from - I genuinely find it fascinating, and I could talk about it all day. Aside from the fact you can learn about a game or book or movie you've never heard of, you can often learn something about the person too.
Any thoughts, questions or comments? Come and talk to me and the team in Discord - I’d love to know your thoughts.
Until next time!