Stardew Valley has become one of indie gaming's biggest recent hits thanks to its superb combination of resource management, exploration, questing and dating, and has found critical and commercial success on both PC and console formats – a sign of a true classic. It also thrust its publishers, Chucklefish, into the public spotlight.
Founded by Finn Brice in 2011, the London-based team are unique in that they not only create their own content – such as Starbound, released in 2016 – but they've also helped other indies bring their own products to market, including Risk of Rain (2013) and Pocket Rumble (2017). Chucklefish's willingness to help other studios has paid off handsomely, as Stardew Valley's success has ensured that their next in-house project, Spellbound (now named WitchBrook), has plenty of pre-release attention.
"When publishing a game we set out to do whatever is required to support the developers, and ensure their vision comes to fruition," explains Brice when asked about Chucklefish's relationship with the indie studios it works with. "Whilst supporting developers to make that happen can sometimes have us working closely, we ensure we keep enough of a distance that the final product is all their own. Stardew Valley is a prime example of this, as the game was developed by solo developer Eric Barone. Chucklefish provided critical feedback and testing, but Eric was very much in control. Chucklefish continues to develop the multiplayer side of the game with Eric's direction."
The triumph of Stardew Valley has given Chucklefish the resource to create a title which they hope could be just as popular with players, if not more so. Boasting a similar 2D aesthetic, Spellbound is described as a "wizard-school sim" and is a concept that has instant, universal appeal. "Who doesn’t want to enroll in a magic school?" says Brice with a smile. The company's unique working environment was one of the key reasons the idea gathered enough momentum to become a fully-fledged project.
"Spellbound is an idea several people at Chucklefish had been kicking around for a long time," Brice continues. "Between projects every member of staff at Chucklefish is given the opportunity to pitch a game, and Spellbound was one of the big pitches. The team fell in love with the concept right away and here we are."
When you hear the phrase "wizard school", it's highly likely that the name Harry Potter flashes into your head like a magic spell, and Brice readily admits that the team was directly inspired by J.K. Rowling's iconic literary creation. "We're fans of Harry Potter, and after reading the series we were left longing to experience our own path through magical school life, where we could make our own best friends and develop our own identity in a magical world."
However, Brice explains that the game has been influenced by other key sources, too. "Spellbound is our exploration of that premise, but the magical world we're creating is very unlike Hogwarts. Magic in this world is very practical, taking inspiration from Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching series, Garth Nix's Old Kingdom Series, Studio Ghibli animations, and even the cartoon show Steven Universe at times." That's quite a mixture of inspirations, and should hopefully calm any fears people have of this being little more than Potter without the licence.
Like Harry and his school chums, the player will face a wide range of tasks when they enroll in Spellbound. "The game revolves around your path through school, the relationships you build, and your mastery of the several schools of magic at your disposal," Brice explains. "Players should expect to build up their magical proficiency by undertaking school projects. This might have them growing magical crops and creatures in herbology or taking on the denizens of the forest in elemental magic. School life is just as important as magic however; a lot of time will be spent meeting and befriending the varied cast of characters, taking on quests, awkward attempts at dating and a host of side activities."
Relationships were a key component of Stardew Valley, and Brice claims that they'll be one of the most surprising elements of Spellbound. "We're expecting players to be a little shocked the first time they get dumped," he says. "We're attempting to portray a gameworld in which the characters have their own motivations and desires. We want the player to feel as if they're part of an autonomous world rather than a world that revolves around their desires."
Needless to say, the whole dating game won't be the only part of Spellbound that causes some shocks, but Brice insists the team at Chucklefish are still aiming for the same casual-yet-addictive entertainment that Stardew Valley is famous for. "The game is jam-packed with little surprises and delights at every turn. We want to ensure the experience is wonderfully relaxing and charming moment to moment."
That's not to say that things won't become a little tense from time to time, of course. Spellbound isn't just going to be focused on your studies, and your relationships with other students – combat will also be a significant part of the game. Brice explains that it will take inspiration from one of the most famous fantasy series in gaming history. "Combat in Spellbound is very much reminiscent of Zelda-like retro action RPGs, with spellcasting taking the place of swords, bows and bombs. Players will be able to unlock and combine elements to activate new spells that they can then take into the game's forest dungeon, where all sorts of rewards await."
Despite only publishing the game, Chucklefish's connection with Stardew Valley is so strong that many are already directly comparing the farming sim with Spellbound. Rather than be frustrated with the constant comparisons, Brice reveals that he and his team are flattered that the two are being spoken of in the same breath. "Some of the initial inspiration for Spellbound came from the farm sims Harvest Moon and Rune Factory. Stardew Valley is an all-round shining example of the farm sim genre. We are all personally fans and avid players of the game here at Chucklefish."
One thing that Chucklefish are keen to stress with Spellbound is the openness of the whole experience. While your academic route through the school might seem linear, there's plenty of scope for replayability. "We want to tell lots of little character-centric stories so Spellbound won't have one big linear story arc," comments Brice. "It's going to be a game with lots of variety, and lots to explore and master. Like Stardew, we want it to be a game you can come back to time and again so we certainly see it as offering a similar length of playtime."
Spellbound is shaping up to be Chucklefish's magnum opus, but don't go expectantly marking your calendar just yet – the game still doesn't have a release date. "Spellbound is heavily in development," says Brice. "No release date just yet, but we'll be sharing more and more details as time goes by."
The target platform is PC, but given the success of Stardew Valley on consoles like the Nintendo Switch, Brice isn't ruling out other versions. "We're all massive fans of the Switch at Chucklefish, and would ideally see all of our major projects hitting the platform in the future."
Speaking of which, the studio is also hard at work on the tactical title Wargroove, which is expected to hit Switch this year. Chucklefish may be gearing up for one of its biggest years yet, and from what we've seen of Spellbound, it could well surpass Stardew Valley in terms of raw appeal and enjoyment.