When Tale of Ronin was first announced back in March, it caught the eye of many with its beautiful Sumie art style. Of course, people also like mostly anything Samurai related. And when you top that off with the RPG genre, a sprinkling of story choices and one-on-one sword-fighting, you have an appealing pitch.
Since that initial reveal, Texas-based developer Dead Mage has gone rather quiet on the game. But recently, we sat down with studio lead and designer, Amir Fassihi, to chat about Samurai culture and the lack of Samurai games, as well as further flesh out the game’s story, combat, dialogue choices, and more.
The following interview was conducted via e-mail.
Tyler Fischer: What made you want to make a game about Samurai? And what is it about Samurai culture that you think lends itself to not only making an interesting game, but to tell an interesting story?
Amir Fassihi: I have always been fascinated by the Samurai and their culture. Maybe it has roots in me going to elementary school in Japan. I’ve been watching Samurai movies and anime, reading comics and books since the eighties when I lived there. Their code of honor, mental strength and truthfulness all based on the concepts of zen has always amazed me. My passion for samurai was amplified, and the project kicked off when I found a great coder and a fantastic artist that shared this interest.
Samurai action and katana are an obvious choice for most games, but in this case we are trying to focus on another aspect of these warriors that hasn’t been explored in games very much, their human side. Their internal struggles between being an obedient servant and following duty or listening to their conscience. This is especially visible when a samurai loses its master and becomes a ronin. Tale of Ronin will include combat, but it will also have an adventure system where we are trying to explore these ideas about the samurai as a human being. We believe this aspect can contain interesting stories, many of which have already been shown in classic samurai movies, also known as chambara movies.
TF: The word “Samurai” is always an eye catcher. People like Samurai. That being said, in video games in particular, medieval Europe gets far more love than medieval Japan. We really don’t get a great deal of games within the umbrella of Samurai culture anymore. Why do you think that is?
AF: Can we blame Lord of the Rings and the original Dungeons and Dragons systems? That is a good point, maybe developers are concerned about not being able to show the culture properly? The samurai culture as other people see it is probably still very much integrated, but maybe a lot of variations of medieval Europe has been created so developers are more comfortable in that setting? It is an interesting question to think about however. Another culture that I am interested in but don’t see almost any games about is the Native Americans.
TF: The game’s narrative is said to focus on a more personal story: about the human side of Samurai, as well as about camaraderie and betrayal, war and peace, and honor. Can you tell us more about the game’s story (its characters and world), as well what drove you to craft a personal story about Samurai where many may go for the classic grand and broad Samurai tale?
AF: This game will not have one main story, it will be a world so that gamers can experience their own stories. You will control a ronin and make decisions for him that actually do matter in your progress, but if this ronin dies, then there is no way to re-play, and you will be assigned a new ronin to control, the world will stay, the ronin will go. Whatever effect your previous ronin had on the world will persist. You might even control a ronin that was an NPC in your previous runs. We hope various mini-stories will be experienced by gamers in this world.
The human side is very important when a samurai loses the master and becomes a ronin. Now for the first time, at least while he is a ronin, he needs to decide on his own and not necessarily follow orders. What will he do? What does ethics mean for him? How loyal will he remain to the code of the samurai? How will he deal with the conflicts arising between his human desires and the way he lived before? This is where we really believe interesting things can happen, and it is a very important philosophical question in general that is not just related to the samurai. The samurai practiced zen, and this was used to make them become fierce warriors and not be afraid to die while following orders, however, nowhere does zen tell them they have to follow any orders from anyone and kill other human beings, and this conflict is hidden from most of them, overshadowed by Bushido, their rules to follow which have roots in confucianism. Some of them will get a chance to rethink their values when they become ronin. Some ronin will never become a samurai again, some will take their lives, some will join other masters. The idea is for the player to decide about these matters.
The great comic writer and film director Frank Miller has a very interesting quote about this, he says:
“The aspect of the samurai that intrigues me most is the ronin, the masterless samurai, the fallen warrior..… This entire project comes from my feelings that we, modern men, are ronin. We’re kind of cut loose. I don’t get the feeling from the people I know, the people I see on the street, that they have something greater than themselves to believe in. Patriotism, religion, whatever — they’ve all lost their meaning for us.”
TF: How much time has the team spent researching Samurai culture in preparation of this game?
AF: It has been something of an interest for us for years now, but serious and dedicated research has been going on in the past year and a half. We’re also working with a writer who is Japanese-American, and is very much knowledgeable in this field.
TF: As for gameplay, there is a “simultaneous turn-based system combat system that includes the details of Katana swordsmanship.” Can you perhaps elaborate a bit more on what this looks like in moment-to-moment gameplay, as well as type of features, RPG mechanics, and complexity one should expect?
AF: The high level game modes are adventuring and combat. Like most RPGs, you will encounter situations which will lead to combat, once the combat is resolved, you will resume your adventure. We’re still working on the details of the combat system, and will share its details as we proceed, but the general ideas are that the characters will engage in one-on-one sword fights where you get to select a few actions for your character and the opponent will select its actions and they will be resolved simultaneously. During every combat resolve sequence, one will attack while forcing the other to defend, and in case of an unsuccessful attack, the opponent will get a chance to perform its attack action and your character will defend. There are various attributes plus some chance that decide who will initiate the attack and whether the actions will land or not. Characters can select various combat stances and each stance will include its own moves so fight tactics and strategy will matter.
Unlike most RPGs where there is a long hitpoint bar and every successful hit will incur some damage, here the idea is to take advantage during combat with respect to certain attributes such as focus or energy, and then finish the enemy with one or two blows. For example, I can decide to reduce the enemies focus first with my attacks, and then try to slash his body.
TF: The game’s art style/design looks outstanding. Beyond just the broad umbrella of Samurai culture, what specifically inspired the game’s art style? And why was this particular hand-painted/drawn style chosen?
AF: We knew we wanted to have a unique look and feel from the start, and our artist, Kamyar, did a lot of studying about Sumie ink art and eastern art in general. He tried a lot of different ideas, and this was something that we felt can fit the game. We wanted an inky and minimalistic look and feel. The game is 2D, so we knew the only constraints are the artist’s imaginations. Although, we’ve had quite some challenges in adding the necessary vfx for this type of hand painted drawing. Trying to keep this paint and inky feel hasn’t been very easy.
TF: There is notably dialogue choices in the game. How much of an impact do these choices have on the game’s world and on the player’s journey? Are we talking a branching narrative with multiple endings, or merely a linear journey that can be personalized via choices?
AF: These choices will have impact on the game world and the other events you will experience. We are still working on this, but the idea is to have narrative modules that can be linked together in various ways. I think one game which has done a great job in such storytelling while being very minimalistic is FTL.
We haven’t finalized the decisions about the endings yet and that is another challenge.
TF: It is said the game treads the fine line between reality and fantasy. Can you elaborate a bit more on how this is?
AF: We are trying to have some fantasy elements in the game, mostly stuff inspired from eastern mythology, however, the game will not be based in a fantasy world. Most events are realistic. The fantasy elements are subtle and can let the gamer wonder and interpret by his or herself. For example you might engage in combat with a god-like creature that people had been talking about quite a lot, but at the end you are not sure whether that was a huge human being with masks or was it a actually a god? Kurosawa has always been a master in this area with his movies, a good example is Rashomon.
TF: Roughly speaking, how long do you anticipate an average playthrough of Tale of Ronin to take? Are there any implemented systems that encourage someone to play the game again once they beat it?
AF: We have not finalized this yet, we hope the game system lets the player spend a lot of time and enjoy living as a ronin in a dynamic world. Experiencing new things once you replay the game from the start after beating it should be a good motivation for playing again.
TF: You’ve now developed and released multiple titles: how does Tale of Ronin stack up in terms of ambition and scope compared to your previous projects?
AF: Tale of Ronin is an ambitious game with respect to a few gameplay systems and ideas. Mostly the dynamic narrative and unique combat system. The scope of the project, content-wise, is not very big, and the current core team is only five people.
TF: Tale of Ronin was announced right after the Nintendo Switch released. Seeing the success the Nintendo console is having, is there any consideration for a Switch version? Is it a platform you would like to bring Tale of Ronin to?
AF: My love for games comes from playing games on the first Nintendo console, Family Computer, during the 80’s in Japan and I’ve always admired the console. We’ll definitely think about it.
TF: I know a release date hasn’t been announced yet, but is there a vague release window at all? 2018 perhaps? 2019?
AF: We hope it will be 2018.
Tale of Ronin is aiming to release sometime in 2018 on PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, and Xbox One. For more information and media on it, be sure to check out its official website.