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Atlas Wept – ChatBot Interview

This time on Chatbot I sat down with Robbie from Kbojisoft to talk about their brilliant game Atlas Wept Enjoy the interview and their amazingly creative ideas about Atlas Wept right here!

Where did the inspiration for Atlas Wept come from?

The story in Atlas Wept is actually from a novel I wrote a while back. I never published it because I wanted to wait until the game was out first. It’s kind of an unusual development I suppose, I was originally wanting to make the novel and game side by side but it turns out writing a book takes a lot less time than making a game does, especially when I was working a full-time job at the time. As for the story itself, I wouldn’t say there is any one inspiration but rather it’s a sort of reflection on the feelings I’ve had over my life about our world and the underlying ideologies that pop up in it. While this story takes place on a new planet, one that may appear much sillier than ours, these are still humans with the same core experiences that we have. My hope is that by observing the absurdities of their world from an outside perspective, we can think more clearly about the absurdity of our own world. I wanted to make a story that could explore some of the heavier aspects of life but still maintain a lighter, more childlike perspective. I asked myself, how would a child from another world view our culture, our rituals and behaviour? I really enjoy the place that line of thought brought me to, hopefully, others will find it entertaining as well.

Were there any specific types of game inspiration for Atlas Wept? I get a sense of old-school Final Fantasy games along with Undertale and other Toby Fox titles!

For sure the Mother series is a major inspiration, as ‘Mother-likes’ has basically become its own genre at this point. I know for a lot of people Earthbound / Mother 2 is their favourite of the Mother games, but for me, 3 is the one I’ve actually always connected with the most. Aside from the extra polish and design, I think Mother 3’s extra emphasis on fleshing out its characters and their stories is something that really elevates it, it feels like a much more personal story that way, and that’s something I love about it. I’ve always been more interested in character-driven stories.

I have always enjoyed the adventure aspect of the old-school RPG games like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy but I was never too big on the more technical aspects like managing equipment or grinding enemies, I think a lot of the design choices I’ve made with ‘Atlas Wept’ have been in the interest of wanting to make something with that same feeling of adventure but with a combat system that’s less about preparation and stats and more about about the players in-battle choices and reactions.

When it comes to the battles I was actually much more influenced by modern games like Undertale and Nier Automata than anything retro. Funnily enough, the earliest development of this project actually started before I was even aware of Undertale, going all the way back to around 2012 I believe. Of course, Undertale is still a big inspiration, especially for how I approached combat in the game. I always wanted battles to have a more skill-based system but originally it was something closer to the old Paper Mario games with timed prompts and QTE. But that system lacked the depth I wanted, and my implementation was a lot clunkier. Undertale provided a much cleaner and more consistent frame of reference on how to present something like a dodging mini-game in a nice clean box containing a cursor freely moving about, and I think it also allowed me to open up a bit with how abstract I could allow myself to be in terms of what and how the attacks are represented in-game.

Playing Nier: Automata gave me the confidence to really lean into the bullet hell side of things. I’ve always loved space shooters and bullet hell games, and I’ve always wanted to incorporate their mechanics into something more story-focused, but never really had a good idea on how to make that work until I saw the way that game seamlessly shifts into it’s ‘hacker mode’ in combat, basically pausing the action to do a little twin-stick space shooter segment that then directly impacts the overall battle, it just felt right to me and I wanted to do something like that in my game. It just kind of fit and so once I started implementing it I never looked back.

How have you approached the narrative aspects of the game?

I have always been interested in the different strengths that different mediums have over each other when it comes to storytelling, and I feel the interactive nature of video games gives them a unique ability to really emphasize empathy and connection with a character in ways that you can’t fully achieve with a book or a movie, so I really wanted to use that to get the player experience these different character’s stories.

I know for a lot of games in the RPG genre the emphasis tends to be to place the player as the stand in for the lead, with the story happening around a more blank slate self-insert. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, it’s popular for a reason, but I wanted to have a more defined cast with personalities and goals that allowed the player to be a more omniscient observer of the different perspectives at play, all while playing with the fact that, as an outsider, they themselves bring a context that none of the characters has individually.

This is ultimately a story about perspective and the power that it has, I want to explore that in ways that are unique to video games.

When designing the game, how did you manage the two different cast’s narratives and how much overlap is there between the two stories?

It’s actually a lot of fun to tell a story in this kind of alternating POV format. In some ways it’s more freeing to be able to explore different ideas at once, but it’s also been quite a challenge to balance the two so that the characters and events remain in sync at the right moments. It’s a challenge, but one I find very rewarding and I hope shines through to the players as well. I don’t want to give too much away, as it’s a pretty big part of the story, but I will say that I hope it will be fun for the players to try and piece things together as the adventures move closer and closer together throughout the game.

Where did the “Why not just smile” tagline for the game come from?

I think it’s a great way to boil down into a few simple words, the underlying sinisterness of the antagonists and the threat they pose to the characters. It’s something that might seem well-meaning at a glance, but there is malice hidden beneath it. It’s extremely dismissive of the very real and valid concerns and feelings one may have, a way of discouraging us from seeking anything more substantial, dissuading us from working to improve ourselves or from taking notice of the suffering of others, or even masking our own pain from the sake of false comfort. To ‘just smile’ is the very definition of surface level, a bandaid meant to mask our problems and make us more comfortable with not actually confronting them. As humans, we are hardwired to see faces in everything due to how vital reading expressions is to our survival, that’s why an insincere smile is so disturbing to us. To smile is a universal yet uniquely human thing, and when it’s sincere it’s one of the most beautiful things we can do. But to ‘just’ smile is something different, something much more dangerous.

Where did the ideas for the level designs come from and are they inspired by anywhere specific?

It’s a mix of things really. Since so much of this story is from the perspective of kids exploring and discovering a sort of lost history of their world, a lot of locations just kind of came about as natural points of interest to serve that goal. This is a whole other planet from ours, so what might they find there? What would be a neat place to discover?

I also just wanted to include some places that were fun to imagine adventuring to as a kid. I remember when I first rode a subway, getting out in a hub to link up with another train, it made me imagine an underground city reachable only by train that sort of existed deep below us, possibly somehow long abandoned and forgotten, waiting to be rediscovered. Little thoughts like that ended up finding their way into the game. As a solo indie dev there is a limit to how many of the locations I was able to include, but I think I was able to get a pretty decent line up of them into the game. The world is as much a character as the main cast is, perhaps more so here than in most stories, so I hope I was able to do it justice.

How did you come up with the ideas for the evil smiley faces and how do these link to the game’s overall narrative?

I think in a lot of ways the grins are just the culmination of what scares me in life. They certainly make for some creepy antagonists, and if the feedback so far is to be believed then they’ve certainly been doing their job well. They are the main antagonists, so it’s important that they have an impact. The friends and family who’ve read the novel version of this story all have their own ideas of what the grings are meant to represent from our world, but I prefer not to think of them any one specific real-world group or ideology but rather an underlying core that serves as a sort of connective thread between a lot of negative forces in our world. A set of perspectives and traits, a way of looking at the world that can lead to our more dark outcomes.

I have always been drawn to cold and calculating antagonists, the type that are so sure and self-satisfied in the sanctity of their own aspirations that they are incapable of even considering the morality of their actions. I wanted to boil down that supreme smugness and condensation into an almost elemental force. I could go on about them for hours if I wanted, but if I were to put it simply I’d just say this: The grins may be nice, but they are NOT kind.

How did you approach the variety in the different biomes and areas within the game?

I more or less come up with stuff as I go along in that regard. As I build out new locations I just kind of fill them with stuff that I think would be fun to see or interact with. There is a mine cart segment in one of the locations that were never part of my original plan but it just felt like a fun thing to do so I wanted to see how it would play and I ended up loving it. Sometimes this can lead to some wasted time on segments that ended up feeling too unrelated or out of place, but I think it’s worth it to experiment and see what fits.

When it comes to enemies I tend to just sprinkle in whatever I feel might fit. With something like the grins, they can basically be anything so I more or less was able to just let my imagination go wild. If I can come up with a fun pun for a name then that’s for sure going to make it into the game as well, enemy names in a game like this don’t all need to be anything dramatic outside of a few key characters, and it’s a lot of fun to include a bit of humour in their bios as well.

How did you manage the implementation and development processes for the semi-turned-based combat and bullet-hell-esque mechanics?

In terms of the semi-turned-based aspect, I’ve never been the biggest fan of making selections for the whole team and then watching things play out until your next turn. I’ve always enjoyed ATB systems a bit more as it allows the speed of a character to have a bit more of an impact than just ‘strikes first’, I really like the idea of ‘fast’ characters being able to make more moves and actions than slower, heavier hitting ones. As for the dodging mechanics, it’s honestly been a lot of fun coming up with all the enemy attacks and how the player dodges/interacts with them. To me, the fun of a lot of the old-school turn-based battle systems like the Dragon Warrior and Mother games is being able to let your imagination fill in the action and I think the little pop-up dodging mini-games in this are just an extra layer of that. Whether the cursor is dodging fireballs or shooting down attackers space shooter-style, I like the way the abstraction is able to tell a miniature story that still leaves a lot of the action up to the player’s imagination, more so than what can be achieved with just a line of flavour text alone.

It also allows for more unique interactions to occur that would otherwise not be possible, you’re not always just dodging, sometimes you’re shooting back, sometimes you’re solving a puzzle and your actions can have an unexpected impact on the battle and maybe even turn the enemy’s attack against themselves. It opens up a lot of potential and freedom for how the characters are interacting with the obstacles before them and makes every move a part of the narrative. I’m really excited for some of the things the game has in store for the player, I think combat can be as much a part of the narrative as cutscenes can and I wanted to really explore that as best I can.

How important was the development of the sound and audio in the game?

I am fairly proud of my ability to draw and code but when it comes to music I have zero ability whatsoever. I am extremely lucky in that one of my old friends from high school is a musical genius and was willing to do the music for the game. I am blown away by the tracks he’s been able to come up with. I truly feel his work elevates the game into something real. I just show him gameplay and he sends me the perfect songs for it, I couldn’t ask for a better composer.

How did you implement the audio into the game, and were there any parts of the audio/music that presented a challenge?

As for sound effects in general, I actually just use sound generation software like SFXr. I know nothing about what any of the dials or terms mean, I just play around until it makes something I think is neat and I save it into a folder of sounds to pick from later. I don’t actually make any sounds with gameplay in mind, kind of the opposite really, if something sounds cool I think of an enemy attack or move that might be neat to go with it. So far it’s worked out pretty well.

What have been some of the challenges during the development of the game?

Time is of course the biggest one. When I first started this project I was working full-time as a software engineer and was just pecking away at it here and there on the weekends, and it could get pretty demoralizing to look back on years of work and feel I had so little to show for it. Now that I’m working on it full-time, I am pretty pleased with how quickly I’ve been able to make progress and it feels amazing just to have all the time I want to devote to it. I’m finally getting to watch this little idea come to life and I couldn’t be happier.

With the bullet hell elements, balancing difficulty was a bit of a concern early on as well, but I think the addition of being able to change difficulty settings at any time with no penalty has really helped with that a lot. I get used to the way things play, especially in the early sections, and it's easy to lose track of how challenging something might be for a new player. I want ‘Atlas Wept’ to be the kind of game that anyone can get through but be a satisfying challenge to those that are already good at this kind of stuff should they choose for it to be.

But as for what's been the 'hardest part,' I would probably say some of the story scenes in the game. There are some scenes that get pretty emotional and I have to find a good balance both in order to keep the tone balanced for the game overall and also just to keep my own emotional weight ok, there are some heavy things in the game, some that have only become more relevant with current events, so it can be a delicate process to work with them. I want the game to be meaningful but never traumatic. I don't want to ignore the realities of life and how our world reflects with the games, but I also want to keep it clear that it’s possible to overcome these things, or at the very least I hope we can survive them.

What’s next in terms of both Atlas Wept and future projects?

I want to say a lot actually, I really feel this world is just too big for any one story to contain. In terms of the books, I can say I have a lot already written and planned out, and I’m excited to write more. I actually have a pretty wide range of stories and ideas that all take place in this same universe, so I would love to continue to explore all of that, be it in the form of games or comics or novels or anything else I can bring myself to create.

That said, I’m not really interested in the whole ‘franchise’ approach, these ideas may all exist in the same setting and be able to borrow mechanics and ideas from each other but I imagine everything as its own stand-alone story with its own characters and themes. I’d say to think more like how Steven King’s stories tend to exist in a shared reality than the way Disney does MCU movies if that makes any sense. I want all my works to be able to exist for their own sakes, and if they exist in a connected universe I would rather it feel more incidental than vital. But I do have other games in mind that I’d love to get the chance to work on next, even if they are not a direct sequel to ‘Atlas Wept’. Hopefully, this game will do well enough that I can keep going, creating from the heart is so much more rewarding to me than working for a major company. Unfortunately, I don’t suspect my landlord would agree.

You can find Robbie over on Twitter @KbojiS

Their Ko-FI.

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