Trek to Yomi is almost upon us. The adventure published by Devolver Digital has attracted the attention of the public thanks to its style and distinctly independent character. We have already played it in preview, but not happy we have bothered the creator of the project, asking him about ten questions. Ready to discover some details and background in this one interview with game designer Leonard Menchiari?
In the maze of feudal Japan
The love for a certain type of Japanese cinematography is the basis of the style of Trek to Yomi. Where does this passion come from and how did it fit into the creative process of the work?
Decidedly! Having grown up with Sergio Leone’s masterpieces, strongly inspired by the works of Akira Kurosawa, the cinematic style struck me from the first time I saw one of the films of the time, The Seven Samurai. The idea of being able to go on an adventure in the shoes of a samurai-inspired character of the time was an idea that has always fascinated me, and also for this reason I decided to carry out this project.
Trek to Yomi is a bit of a coming-of-age novel, a bit of a hero’s journey. How did you approach the narration of such a classic archetype, but at the same time looking for originality?
The initial idea started with a journey through the world of the dead to get to face an evil antagonist and get revenge to protect a loved one. Being a story inspired by Japanese cinema, I tried to keep a very traditional structure, without deviating too much from a plot present in the typical samurai narrative of the time. Evolution went on almost on its own once I joined forces with Alec Meer, one of the writers of epic games such as Warhammer. Thus was born the idea of a world of the dead united with the symbolism of Mitama souls, the number Seven used as a reference in each level, the path of a hero in search of his own inner balance, these were all main aspects that we kept in mind, and that the player will travel along the path of this story.
The gameplay of Trek to Yomi is at the service of the stylistic code of the game, but this does not mean that it puts aside quality and a pinch of depth. How difficult was it to match the videogame needs with those of the staging?
The biggest challenge was communicating with the remote design team, and how to transfer ideas to them during the entire period of the pandemic. In terms of gameplay, the ludo-narrative dissonance it was a very tough aspect to keep at bay, having to communicate with a team with well-defined and decidedly disconnected sections. Considering all these obstacles not easy to overcome, the game presents a balanced rhythm between moments of exploration and others of “focus”, which lead to a good direct and dynamic experience.
Playing with design
Choosing to create the work with this particular style that mixes two-dimensional and three-dimensional advancement is it only a choice derived from budget needs, or on the contrary, did the whole creative phase start from this desire?
Initially the idea I had in mind would heavily cut the amount of work; it was also for this reason that I decided to create this style. The fixed camera, the side shots, were all tricks to be able to focus attention on something specific, without having to reproduce every single detail in the scene. Like on a movie set, this made building the world a lot easier and made it possible to reduce the budget not a little! The dynamics of the two-dimensional advancement were more of a limitation of the development team and the game design team, which had not yet developed the technical skills to obtain three-dimensional movement in the time we had available, despite the use of these tricks. Eventually working through these limits, we were able to balance the style with what we had available, and achieve a direct and linear experience (with alternative endings).
Are there other video games released in the past that you consider real inspirations for Trek to Yomi?
Probably Limbo and Inside, and perhaps some of the first Prince of Persia would be the games most similar to the final result of this project. It is difficult to answer this question because rather than being inspired by games per se, we have focused a lot of attention on Japanese samurai films from the 1950s and 1960s as a reference. The decision not to be able to jump like in the typical platformers we made consciously to maintain more realism, for example. Despite the gameplay structure is very similar to an indie platform without obstacles, the game that came out as a result is more of a result similar to those films rather than other games.
Feudal Japan is a big trend in recent years. How much competition can be good or bad for those who try to make their mark in this “genre”?
Honestly, this aspect has never touched me personally. The moment we started developing this game, eight months after creating the demo, writing everything and creating pre-production, “Kurosawa Mode” was added to Ghost of Tsushima, which brought in a lot of people. to think that I had directly copied the idea rather than thinking about it myself. Even when we decided to use Toshiro Mifune as a character in the game, a distinguished film actor of those years, we were denied permission because another samurai game was using his image. I can say that it is not easy to leave a mark, but that was never our goal. The development team and I immediately aimed to push as hard as possible to create a high quality project and evoke powerful sensations rather than focusing on this specific “genre”.
Past, present and future
Can we consider Trek to Yomi an isolated case, or is there scope to carry on the universe you have created?
Currently I have no intention of continuing this project with a sequel: the project started as a tribute to Akira Kurosawa’s films; developing another project related to this is not something I intend to do at the moment.
Choices are important in Trek to Yomi, certainly from an emotional point of view. In addition to the four different endings, does choosing one path rather than another also change the events and sections of the game?
The game differences are very subtle, they are not something the player will necessarily notice. The music, some dialogues, small events, are all aspects that will lead to a slightly different emotional path, calibrated more for the first time that the player will complete the game rather than noticing the difference in the various narrative strands. THE endings they will be very different and, in my opinion, all equally valid. The choices of the players will never be right or wrong, only the most suitable for them.
How did the transition from the initial prototype go, to arrive at the choice of producing a complete game?
This question is not easy to rattle off in a few lines, but I will try to give the idea with a sequence of events: I start with the idea and create a prototype with a friend while I learn to use Unreal Engine 4. A month later I finish the prototype – a boss level – and send the footage to the publishers. Publishers show interest and ask to wait while they make a decision. During the months of waiting I prepare a production chart with levels, budgets, assets, etc. Publishers accept and entrust me with a writer and development team to help. In the months of waiting while the contracts are coordinated, I dedicate myself to developing the story in detail together with the writer. Contracts continue to be signed as I develop storyboards, characters, settings, and world map designs. The project starts eight or nine months after the demo. The first months are dedicated to pre-production (sketch, concept, design, etc). A couple of months to create another demo with the assigned team. At that point the project is officially accepted and production starts with a calendar. I lead the team during the pandemic through chat and video calls, even remotely directed motion capture with actors through webcams and cell phones.
The first version of the game is finalized with basic gameplay and levels without details. Then it is the turn of the beta version of the game which is finished with details in the levels, cinematics, dubbing in Japanese, more balanced gameplay and everything you need. It starts with testing, then more testing, bugfixing, more bugfixing and finally the marketing phase. I have clearly skipped a lot of details, but I hope at least this short list has given the process a little idea of what was behind such a project.
Would you like the possibility of expanding the universe of Trek to Yomi even outside the video game, perhaps with some graphic novel or an animated series?
I’ve never thought about it, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea at all! If anyone is interested in cooperating, do not hesitate to contact me! I’ve always had a passion for graphic novels, films, and animation, and despite having other projects in the pipeline at the moment, I would definitely be willing to reproduce this adventure using another art form, besides video games.