Few things point to the continued health of the gaming industry like the success of independent titles over the last couple of years. One such game hoping to catch the attention of action/RPG fans with its beautifully rendered landscapes and thought-provoking story is To the Moon by Ken Gao, recently released for PC. I had the chance to talk to Gao via email about his new game, its inspirations, and the lack of hair gel vendors in most JRPGs.
How long has this game been in development, and where did the idea come from?
Kan Gao: It's been in development for a bit over a year and a half, though it hasn't always been full time. The idea came from various events that happened at the time. What started the base concept was my grandfather falling ill. Fortunately he recovered, though it made me think about the day when I'd be in his shoes and whether I'd look back at my life and regret anything.
How far is this from the dream game you’ve always wanted to make?
KG: 23 centimeters.
Do you have concerns about the story being too “heavy” for some people? It is fairly existential in tone….
KG: A bit, but that’s unfounded because the execution of the story isn't actually that heavy at all. Despite being a serious story overall, the journey there doesn't always take itself that seriously. In fact, a large portion of the game can almost be categorized as a tragicomedy rather than melodrama. The second trailer tried to show a bit of that other side of it.
Basically, I want to make the audience laugh. And laugh. And laugh. And then get utterly destroyed.
No, but really, it's not a depressing game and you come out feeling hopeful rather than sad.
What language are you programming it in, and did you pick this engine/language for a specific reason? For example, did it lend itself to the particular art style you were going for?
KG: It's actually developed with RPG Maker XP, a Ruby-based engine that's typically used to make medieval RPGs. I've always loved the classic 2D RPG look and how attached I was to the stories they told, and this engine made the foundations readily available — so I figured I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, (allowing me to) devote all my time to the game's actual content instead.
Is there something you hate about RPGs/JRPGs that you’re avoiding with this game?
KG: There are a lot of RPG/JRPG elements being avoided in To the Moon — in fact it's more or less an adventure game with the RPG visual style. But the things I avoided aren't necessarily what I hate; they are just elements that don't fit with the particular experience I want to deliver in this specific case.
Though what I actually sort of hate is pretty typical — random battles and grinding. Also, a strange lack of hair gel vendors in JRPGs; though that's not a matter of hatred but more of curiosity. It would just make the whole experience more logically consistent, that's all.
What do you love about the genre that you’re hoping you’ve captured?
KG: The immersion of the storytelling without the reliance on state-of-the-art graphics. And despite being fairly linear, there's still that sense of involvement that makes the whole experience a lot more satisfying at the end.
What do you think about the recent revival of games like this invading the iOS platform?
KG: More power to 'em, I say! Although, I'd imagine that games on iPhones and such are more frequently being played in shorter intervals, which might not work as well for games of this nature. I'm no expert on that, though. If people like it enough, there will be people making them and everyone will hopefully be happy.
Music is pretty big for you, am I correct? Who are some composers who inspire you?
KG: Aye, I love writing music to fit the scenes and stories of my games! Sometimes when I got stuck at developing a part, I'd go finish the background music for it first and the scene would immediately write itself. It's like a buffer between what I see in my head and what actually gets materialized.
Some of my favorite composers are Thomas Newman, Joe Hisaishi, Alan Silvestri, and of course Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda. They all have this fantastic balance between melody and atmosphere that makes each piece meld with the scenes seamlessly, and stay memorable at the same time.
Top five games of all time…go!
KG: Perhaps not what one might expect from someone making something like To the Moon, but:
Tun Town (an old foreign RPG), Diablo 2, Age of Empires 2, The Sims, Dragon Age: Origins.
I'd like to add Chrono Trigger too, but I haven't gotten a chance to finish it yet (lost the copy before I could). I’ll get my hands on another (copy) after To the Moon is done, and it'd probably make it onto the list.
You can learn more about To the Moon and purchase your own copy to get lost in over at the Freebird Games website.