East meets west in Chucklefish's next epic, Eastward
We find out how Shanghai's hustle and bustle has inspired a touching post-apocalyptic story comparable with the likes of Zelda and EarthBound.
London-based publishers Chucklefish are on something of a roll right now. The incredible success of Eric 'ConcernedApe' Barone's farming sim Stardew Valley has elevated the company to a whole new level of fame, and their internal projects – such as Wargroove and Witchbrook – have gained an incredible degree of attention as a result. However, Chucklefish aren't ready to turn their back on publishing just yet, and are working with Shanghai-based studio Pixpil on Eastward, a 2D role-playing adventure three years in the making which takes inspiration from Japanese anime, The Legend of Zelda and EarthBound, and combines all of these elements with a riveting sci-fi storyline.
"It started with Hong, our Lead Artist, who drew some sketches about a weird monster dormitory building, resembling Hong Kong's Kowloon Walled City," explains Pixpil co-founder and designer, Feng Ye. "We really liked the sketch, and were inspired to make a game out of it. In the beginning we brainstormed several ideas including a mobile puzzle game, but in the end we thought a story-rich action JRPG was what we all wanted. Tommo, the founder of the studio, also coined the name 'Eastward' with a few key concepts that defined the world. I think it was on that day that marked the true beginning of Eastward."
Pixpil began life as a compact three-man team, but have since swelled to a dozen staffers as work on Eastward has progressed; the company's office is located within a busy Shanghai shopping mall, surrounded by furniture stores. It's tempting to believe that this "small and sneaky" location (Ye's words, not ours) has had some kind of influence on the game's bleak post-apocalyptic storyline, where entire cities have been ravaged and remain under attack from unknown forces. It's into this grim world that the player is thrust, charged with guiding an unlikely yet charming pair of adventurers.
"The main characters are John and Sam," Ye explains. "A tough, hard-working guy, and a long white fluffy-haired girl respectively, who start their journey in a mysterious underground place isolated from the rest of the world. In the outside world, the human population has shrunk to an all-time low, and strange creatures are beginning to descend on the cities. After leaving their small underground village, John and Sam are about to discover what has made the world become so dangerous and what destiny awaits them."
Like all of the best JRPGs, Eastward is positively packed with characters, despite the diminished state of mankind in the game's setting. "There's a really quirky cast with oodles of personality," adds Chucklefish Marketing Strategist Katy Ellis. "Throughout their journey, John and Sam will meet lots of weird and wonderful townsfolk; for example, there's a gentleman merchant character called William, who has an adopted robot-boy assistant, undergoing surgery to become a real boy." This is just one of the ways in which Eastward references classic literature and gives it a sci-fi spin.
Dynamic switch between characters
Eastward is a single-player experience, but you'll need to switch control between the two protagonists and use their skills to solve puzzles. "It's a challenging yet interesting part of the design," says Pixpil producer and coder Tommo Zhou. "Although the gameplay will focus more on John, we still want Sam to play an active and important role. The gameplay will focus on one leading character, whilst the other will be following; players can then switch the leading one to use his/her characteristic ability to solve different kinds of problems. Of course, there are many cases where you will have to separate the pair to deal with obstacles. It's fair to say that this mechanic obviously adds both possibilities and complexities to the gameplay, which we hope people will enjoy."
The title is notable for the way it combines 2D art with 3D effects, a process which has been achieved by fusing a homebrew engine made by Pixpil with the open-source development system MOAI. "We borrowed a few ideas from the world of 3D graphics, so the processing power on modern hardware won't be wasted," says Ye. "The lighting is basically general deferred shading, which enables our designer to put more lights into the level, and therefore can tweak ambient tones to affect the mood. There's some extra pipeline work to do, like post process and more generic sprite work; the material, in 3D graphics terms. We also utilise smart placing and orientation of the sprite to make it look like 3D, which still retains the aesthetic of 2D games. We're very glad to hear that people like this visual effect."
Eastward's visual allure is one of the key reasons that Chucklefish got involved, according to producer Rosie Ball. "From the moment we saw Eastward we absolutely fell in love with the art style, and we just wanted to find out more! After we spoke to the Pixpil team and got hands-on with the game, we were so happy to discover that it's not just a pretty game. It's also really interesting from a technological point of view, with what it's doing creatively with pixel art. The Pixpil team are being very innovative with their techniques, and that's something that really excites us at Chucklefish."
This isn't a case of Pixpil putting all of their eggs in one basket, though – the studio is working hard to ensure that the audio side of things is just as compelling and has chosen to outsource the work to Joel Corelitz (The Unfinished Swan, Gorogoa, Tumbleseed) and Hyperduck Soundworks (Dust:An Elysian Tail, The Adventure Pals).
"It's hard to find a local composer who can understand our game language," replies Ye when asked why this element isn't being handled in-house. "Another reason is, although we fully understand the importance of the audio part of a game, the industry de facto makes it hard to hire a full-timer on an indie team to design music and sound."
Zhou explains that Pixpil have been working with Corelitz and Hyperduck closely to ensure that the soundtrack fits the game perfectly. "The benefit of working with experienced talents like Joel Corelitz and Hyperduck is that they understand the game's needs very well. The beginning was a relatively long process of testing out and mixing ideas. As the production came along, we soon began to understand each other much more easily. Now all I need to do is just provide a description of our needs, reference media or demos, and then wait for surprises to happen."
As Eastward moves towards completion, it's the perfect time for the team at Pixpil to take stock of what they've achieved so far. "At the moment we're pretty proud of the art, music and atmosphere of the game," says Ye. "And as the game develops and later releases, we hope we can also be proud of other aspects, like the story, level designs, and sales!"
Ye adds that the relationship with Chucklefish has been enormously helpful. "They are a modern, agile publishers, so we don't usually write emails but rather chat on a messaging app," he continues. "Things get done quickly and professionally. They seems to have a deep understanding of what indie developers really need, which helps things go smoothly." It seems that the feeling is mutual. "Pixpil are an absolute pleasure to work with," says Chucklefish product manager Tom Katkus. "They're a really dedicated, passionate team, amazingly creative and genuinely nice folks too."
At the moment, Eastward is only confirmed for release on PC and Mac, but Pixpil is open to the idea of it coming to other platforms at a later date. "It's possible – maybe even a Linux version," says Ye. "We're focusing on the PC and Mac release at the moment, and then all being well, we will be considering consoles and other platforms." As for future projects, Ye says that the studio's focus is solely on Eastward at the moment and that no serious consideration has been taken for what comes after; however, Chucklefish are of the opinion that this is the start of not only a beautiful relationship, but a new and exciting studio. "We believe Pixpil have the potential to become a celebrated name in the indie space," Ball concludes. "So of course we're really excited to see what they come up with in the future."
Eastward will be hitting PC and Mac, but currently has no release date.