IAN: I am still Ian Adams, and I’m still a writer and content designer on Moonrise.
ANDY: And I remain Andy Collins, lead writer on Moonrise.
Last week, I shared some details of my process of world-building for this new Undead Labs/Kabam game. This week, Ian leads a discussion about the inspirations that we drew on for building the story of Moonrise, as well as some key themes that our story explores.
IAN: If we’re going to do an article on the inspirations and themes of Moonrise, there’s an elephant in the room we should just address right off the bat. We are, of course, heavily inspired by the “Mutant Massacre” storyline from Uncanny X-Men.
ANDY: Including a surprise guest appearance by Power Pack in the middle of our game! Hey Ian, would it be weird for me to mention here that at one time I owned every issue of Power Pack?
IAN: Is that counting relaunches and miniseries, or just the original run?
ANDY: Naw dude, nothing but classic Pack for this Marvel Zombie! Did you know that miniseries had them wearing MASKS? What’s up with that? But I digress...
IAN: Oh, we should probably also touch on Pokémon. We owe an obvious mechanical debt to Pokémon, but in terms of theme and story, I can’t say it was much of a factor. If anything, we’ve consciously avoided certain elements of their story and world. The last thing we want to do is set up a potentially unflattering comparison.
So what sources (besides Uncanny X-Men issues #210 – 213) are we drawing from? In no particular order...Chrono Trigger. Final Fantasy 6 (3). Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.
ANDY: The fact that you append “Indiana Jones and the” to the title of this movie is a distressing reminder of the brainwashing perpetrated upon young people who grew up in the 90s.
IAN: Our Kind by Dr. Marvin Harris. The novels, short stories and essays of Donald Barthelme. Stories my friend Katy told me about working in Antarctica.
ANDY: The films and illustrations of Hayao Miyazaki. Marvel comics in general.
IAN: Run the Jewels.
ANDY: Avatar: the Last Airbender and Legend of Korra.
IAN: Brian Michael Bendis (not his work, just as a guy).
ANDY: Also, anything by Joss Whedon. I mean, how can any writer in the fantasy/scifi genres NOT feel at least somewhat influenced by this guy?
IAN: So what does that mean? I mean, great, Andy and I have awesome taste and we’re both very well-read and smart and handsome, how do these influences actually impact the game?
First, it can directly inspire the foundation of the project. When you walk out of Pacific Rim and decide to design a game about kaiju fighting giant robots, that’s a direct inspiration.
On the other hand, influences can also show up later in the process, as you’re trying to flesh out the details of your project. To use an example from Moonrise, when the artists were crafting the look and feel of Gateway, the first town explored in the game, they decided to draw on the quasi-European feel of the towns you see in some of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, such as Kiki’s Delivery Service.
In either case, though, it’s not simply about grabbing something you like and shoving it into your game. Instead, you look for ways to extract aspects of your influences. For example...
- Dialog styles
- Story tone and pacing
- Story tropes
- Character motivations
- Naming conventions
- Color palettes
- Architectural styles
And so on.
IAN: We knew from early on that we were wanted something that had a similar feel to a classic JRPG, and also that trying to slavishly mimic a JRPG on the phone was doomed to failure. So we talked about the aspects of a JRPG that really stuck with us. Things like a silent protagonist; a large, colorful supporting cast; a wide variety of locations, each with their own local flavor; and a guy in one place who is like “I miss my wife. I want to go home.” and then a lady in some town who is like “I hope my husband comes back from the war.” and you’re like “oh man, that’s that guy’s wife!” (which is to say: a sense that the world exists beyond the boundaries of the story you’re seeing).
ANDY: When I crafted my original world proposals for Moonrise (you DID read last week’s column, right?), I used Miyazaki films and Legend of Korra as touchstones. Not because I wanted a world that felt just like one of these, but because the tone and the sense of “what’s at stake” in those worlds felt appropriate.
For example, in Howl’s Moving Castle, the story is mostly about the characters getting to know one another (and themselves). However, you can tell that there’s a big world outside the door, and periodically the events of that world intrude on the primary storyline of personal discovery. Totally swiped that approach.
In Spirited Away, the protagonist deals with the very serious issue of being trapped in a fantasy world while she tries to rescue her parents...but there’s still always a slightly whimsical feeling to the challenges she faces. Ooh, I want that!
And in Season 2 of Legend of Korra, the stakes are quite high, but we still have time for fun supporting characters and humorous side stories. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching Joss Whedon’s shows and movies, it’s that you should always populate your dramatic stories with moments of humor.
IAN:Now that we had an idea of how we wanted our story to feel, we decided to talk about what kind of themes we wanted to address in the game. My two central pitches were job scarcity and the militarization of local peacekeeping forces. And I’m pretty good at talking people into things, so that’s actually what we’re doing.
It’s not our goal to draw constant parallels to real life, to use the game as a soapbox, or to put a thin veneer of Serious Subject Matter on top of a story that would work without it.
ANDY: I mean, we’d hate for somebody to accidentally broaden their mind while playing a game.
IAN:We use these themes as sources of story and conflict so that when a character reacts to an event, the player can actually understand where they’re coming from. Most of our players don’t know what it’s like to have to save a city built into the side of a tree from an invasion of rampaging four-legged mushroom creatures (if you DO know what that’s like, please get ahold of me, I have some questions to run by you). A whole LOT of our players can easily put themselves in the shoes of someone who has to deal with a bummed-out friend who finished school and can’t find a job. When we give you the anchor of of a frustrated former classmate, it helps ground the attack of the mushroom monsters as well.
ANDY: Kind of like how not many people understand what it’s like to have super powers, but when you portray your superheroes as part of a disenfranchised minority, people will just eat it up with a spoon.
Hey Ian, did you just notice how I came full circle with that reference? IT’S ABOUT THE X-MEN, IAN! ‘Cause mutants are super-powered heroes sworn to protect a world that hates and fears them? Get it? Ian? Ian? IAN!!!!
IAN:Crafting a callback like that will make a writer feel good about themselves for between 14 and 48 hours.
Building a game world is always, at least in part, about taking bits and pieces—tone from here, a feeling from here, a character trait from there—taking inspiration from all that you’ve read, watched, seen, or experienced, and reassembling it, Frankenstein-like, into something new. Finding themes you want to explore are, to belabor this metaphor, the lightning that gives your assemblage life. The great thing is, when you’re lucky, and you do it correctly, it works. The world you built makes sense, and creating the rest of it feels less like making things up and more like figuring out what’s already there. Less like writing, and more like exploring. Moonrise has been like that, and I’m excited to share what we’ve found.