Ubisoft's upcoming Child of Light is a beautiful, hand-painted role-playing game (RPG) starring a fairy princess with a magical giant sword. What's not to love?
When hearing the words "video games", for many people what comes to mind is Call of Duty (CoD), Grand Theft Auto (GTA), Gran Turismo and maybe Halo or Mass Effect. All fine games, to be sure; but to the non-gamer, it can look pretty intimidating and inaccessible.
One team at Ubisoft wants to cut right through all that. Creative director Patrick Plourde, whose previous work includes Assassin's Creed II, Rainbow Six: Vegas and Far Cry 3, and scriptwriter Jeffrey Yohalem, who worked on Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood and, more recently, was lead writer on Far Cry 3, are two of the minds behind upcoming title Child of Light.
When the trailer landed, Child of Light immediately caught our attention. Painted in an absolutely beautiful watercolour style, it stars Aurora, an Austrian duke's daughter who falls ill; instead of dying, she wakes up as a fairy princess in a magical world, wielding a sword to win back her kingdom from the Queen of Night. "She raised her sword and flew, for she feared not the race."
It's an unusual direction for Ubisoft, particularly for a team whose most recent work — Far Cry 3 — is on the much more brutal and gritty end of the spectrum. This is absolutely a deliberate choice — the team wanted to move towards, in Plourde's words, "something soft, poetic and feminine". Told in ballad-verse format, inspired by the worlds of fairytale and fable and built using Ubi Art — the engine used for Rayman Origins that allows hand-painted artwork to be ported directly into a game — it's a new experience for the developers and gamers alike.
The story was developed nearly a year ago, in October, starting with Aurora. "We imagined a young girl who could fly. Then I began developing her personality," Yohalem told CNET Australia. "Since all the dialogue in the game rhymes, I wanted her to speak using interesting diction, to have a broad lexicon. So, at that point, the daughter of a duke from 1895 Austria came into the mix. She's mischievous but grounded in her time, restrained but precocious, struggling to become something new. She's classic but evolving into something different. She has the aura of Jane Eyre as a young child: Jane at the beginning of the book."
For a world that's used to the fainting ladies of Perrault and Disney, who sit in the background waiting to be rescued, it's a refreshing twist — for those who might not understand the reference, one of the key parts of the character of Jane Eyre is her refusal to be subdued by those who would crush her and her absolute refusal to depend on anyone to make her destiny for her.
"I felt that Prince Charming saving the princess is an obsolete concept," Plourde explained. "I became really interested in making something that was a more modern take on fairy tales, one in which a girl doesn't need to wait to be rescued. In fact, I think that's one of the most dangerous things we are teaching children right now. It prevents them from learning that there will be difficult moments in life and that they need to face them and it's going to be OK. Instead, they end up hoping that somebody will arrive that will magically make them live happily ever after. It doesn't happen in real life. Finally, there's also a serious lack of female leads in games. So it's an angle that I felt was original and fun to explore."
Showing girls that they, too, can be the heroes of their own stories and that video games are a place they can do that alongside boys is an admirable goal, but the game isn't just for one particular demographic. Like the films of Studio Ghibli, which often feature a female protagonist, Plourde believes that Child of Light will have a more universal appeal, with its cooperative gameplay inspired by Super Mario Galaxy, adding an extra touch of accessibility.
"Maybe I'm an idealist, but I'm thinking about the game as something that can be interesting for both boys and girls. I want to make a game that is as inclusive as possible," Plourde said. "Looking at Miyazaki's movies, many have a young girl as the main character, and it's a non-issue. The appeal of the adventure and the magical world is universal. That's the type of experience I hope we'll be able to create with Child of Light."
Yohalem added that the game is intended to appeal to everyone — regardless of age or gender. "The goal was to try to make something new that would deliver a true, deep experience. This is not a cotton candy game, something light and fluffy. Like all the best stories, it contains the darkness of life," he said.
The game itself is sort of a "love letter" to the Japanese role-playing game (JRPG), built around three core gameplay elements. First, Aurora can fly, and the 2D world can be fully explored and discovered using this mechanic, with escaping traps an integral part. Second, there is a puzzle element based on light physics and objects in the environment. Thirdly, the combat is turn based, inspired by the style of Japanese RPGs such as Final Fantasy. It sounds like a richly varied experience; combined with its art and themes, it looks primed to be one of the most interesting mainstream titles for the coming year — particularly as it pertains to its exploration of fairy tales, one of the first ways children begin to explore and understand the world and their place in it.
Yohalem, drawing his inspiration from books he read in his childhood, such as His Dark Materials, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Wizard of Oz, Edward Eager and E Nesbit, as well as darker Disney films such as Bambi and Pinocchio, wants to explore the darker psychology of the fairy tale. "Fairy tales distil powerful rites of passage down to symbols, which speak to our dream minds. I feel like you have to understand those symbols in order to write one," he said.
"There's a quote from Yoshitaka Amano that states: 'You cannot paint fairies without entering their world and believing in them'. This resonated with me strongly as I was looking for what I would do for my next project. I wanted to believe in magic once again," Plourde said. "One of the most interesting things about fairy tales is their use of symbols to carry a meaning. There are multiple versions of Little Red Riding Hood, but each version carries a different meaning based on where and when it was put on paper. So you have these symbols that you can play with and that we have understood viscerally since we are kids. And I wanted to explore that world with Child of Light."
Child of Light is due out for Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 and Wii U in 2014.