Roleplaying project Winter Voices from independent studio Inner Seas is not really well known in the Internet, but it has got our attention. With a knowledge of the first season, we decided to talk with Kévin Lehénaff to know what we may expect from sequel.
Winter Voices looks very conceptual. Could you tell us what has triggered the beginning of the development?
Back in 2008, I was hired by Beyondthepillars to design and shape the first project of the company, a social MMO with some important notion of meta-gaming. I worked on this project (codenamed LNW) from fall 2008 to fall 2009. As the lead game designer, and later art director, I recruited a team based on strong multiplayers skills and network technologies. We spent our time designing the universe and laying the fundamentals of a strong and optimized client-server infrastructure - which is like, rocket science.
We had very little experience as a company and we lacked important proficiencies in project management. The progress was slow and Guy Lévi-Bochi, the CEO of Inner Seas, wanted to "train" the team on a "smaller project". It would also be used to demonstrate investors what we were able to deliver. I was asked to bring a few projects concept to him in early 2010 (I think it was February 2010).
I designed a few very different projects: social website, philosophical RPG, facebook app… They were all in a 2 months development range. There was good ideas in them all, but the S&R projects was especially eye-catching. The S&R project synopsis was simple: a woman lost her father and began a long journey to take his ashes in a place where he can rest at peace. It was a small, episodic, poetic-focused RPG. Guy — maybe because he is a cultivated and art-lover man — chose this one. I don't know if it was the best idea ever — in fact I'm sure it was the worst possible choice. But it sure was the most interesting one.
Anyway, I entered a "creative frenzy" state and designed the whole game over a week-end, without sleeping or eating much. I took the dozen of concept pages to the office the Monday and we began planning the development.
But there are other themes in Winter Voices besides that of taking the ashes of girl's father to the place where he can rest in peace. Was the sexual harassment and violence against the main character embedded in the script initially or was it added later?
These themes were added later. While developing the story and complexing the characters, it went naturally along the way. It's not something we tried to put — it's more like something that happened logically while creating the story and the universe. It was necessary and it made sense. This is something that will likely be a lot more clear for the players when they'll play the Season 2. Season 2 explains and reveals a lot of important things. It revolves around family — the father is a very important figure in Season 2. The quests for burying the father is the center of Season 2; violence and sexual harassment will be practically absent. Season 1 was as messy as the heroine's head. I think it did a good job at laying the bases of a great story in season 2.
While we're on the subject of the second season — you promised to start the Kickstarter-campaign at the beginning of the year, but it was delayed somehow. Were there any unforeseen problems?
Yes, quite a lot of problems! Starting a kickstarter when you are in France (or any country other than USA and UK) is a real pain, as you need to either create a company in the USA, or ask someone to handle the kickstarter for you there. Things are progressing very slowly and there is a lot of legal concern to be taken care of. Right now the production of Winter Voices 2 is on hold. We finished pre-production in January. We will begin the production once we have a set schedule. In the meanwhile, we are working on different things, like the kickstarter prizes. Some of them are actually a lot of work! The book of the Season 1 for example will be something like 200-250 pages long, 50% of it being reworked texts of winter voices, the other 50% are original texts. For all this to work as a real book, I need to rethink a lot of things — which is taking longer than expected.
Since the visual style of the first season is just great, it's really a wonderful news about the paintings and artbooks! So, will the working team on the second season be the same as on the first one (we're talking about the artist and composer in particular)?
To clear things up, there is no artbook planned currently. (but that is something we can think of actually) When I mentioned "books", I was talking about novels.
The composer, Sinto, will still work on Season 2. As for the artists, I can't say for sure right now, it will depend on different things : their schedule and availability, our needs, etc. At least a part of the team will change. Rest assured, I won't just recruit anybody to work on this game. Winter Voices is an artistic-oriented game and I'll make sure the artistic quality improve, as well as everything else.
We heard that the second episode will be based on the same technologу (Adobe Air) as the first one. Is this decision final or are you still considering it? What pros and cons of using Adobe Air have you encountered during the development of the first season? Were your creative ideas limited by the capabilities of this technology?
This is a final decision. We tried different routes but ended up preferring Adobe Air as the technology for the second season. Adobe Air did limit our creative capabilities and will still limit them in the future. It has no access to a lot of core features of your computer. It's not a good technology for developing complex games. We can't change the screen size, we are limited in the size of our maps, the non-friendly design of the tech leads to some very nasty bugs on animations for example, and to some performance problem… All this is mainly technical though - we are not really limited in our artistic options. The main artistic problem is the size of the map — something we plan to correct on Season 2 with some serious and complex modification to the engine. (provided we get enough money our of the kickstarter to do it)
Why did we chose Adobe AIR for Season 2, then ? The reason is simple: it's way easier to improve the existing than to build something from 0. Adobe Air might be a poor technology, but Season 1 and Season 2 will share something like 80% of their engine code. And Season 1 engine was a lot of work! We could spend 12 months creating a new engine, with no certitude of it being better than this one. Or we could spend 3 months fixing our current engine to be up to our standards, then 3 others months adding features that we would otherwise not have added because of lack of time. In the end, even if the technology is not ideal, we can do a way better game in a lot less time if we stick with it.
The first episode was mostly about psychological scars and tantrums of the protagonist and about her attempts to cope with it. Will the heroine continue to fight against her fears or will there be other enemies? And will we know more about the game world that were only a schematic background in the first season?
Season 2 will be different. I think it will be very different, in fact. While the first season was indeed about pain and turmoil, the second season will be more about family, mourning and accomplishment — which is the true subject of winter voices.
It should be a lot more peaceful. You will learn a lot more about the game world in the second season as you will travel in places that are a lot more linked to the history of the three rivers kingdom.
As the main topic of the game slightly changes, so will the gameplay. We will add some exciting new mechanics and we are thinking of changing some very core gameplay choices of the S1 — but this is a difficult work and we are still on it.
The new gameplay will also emphasize on the world a little more. To put it simply, Season 1 is about introversion and pain, while Season 2 is about extraversion and change.
Will there be any companions in the game and, if so, will there be any improvement in their impact on the plot or maybe extended interaction with them?
I am very unhappy about the state companions are in, in the first season, so I plan to improve their overall interest and design a lot in the second season.
It is currently planned to have 6 to 9 different companions (depending on kickstarter raising funds). You will only be able to take 3 with you at a time. Three of them are Chichi, Ven and the Crow. There will be a slight improvement in their impact on the main plot, but overall they will remain with nearly no impact on it. Among the 6 companions that are new, there are at least 2 of them that you already encountered before as regular NPCs.
Due to some new gameplay mechanics, they will all unlock side quests, and far better rewards than in Season 1. So while they won't affect the main plots, they should have a far greater impact on your game experience.
At some moment we have assumed that the companions in the first season were only figments of heroine's imagination, by the way. So, we heard that you are planning to implement the transfer of save files to the second season. Do you still cling to this plan? What will depend on the transfer, how and to what degree will it affect the game in the season two?
Yes, you will be able to import your saves as long as you finished the first season. The import will automatically keep most of your informations and transfer them. Among these informations, there's a few of them you will only be able to obtain this way. This won't be a game changer but it will open some choices in the gameplay and in the scenario. This will also give you some advantage early in the game, allowing you to have some things you wouldn't be able to obtain until late otherwise. If you finish the game with an imported save, you will also have a special achievement.
We would like to ask one more question, about the Norns. What can you say about this mystic theme — is it one of the main threads of the story or is it just a bonus of some kind, not related to the big picture? And if the former is true, will you continue this line in the second season?
Among all the myths and stories that you can read and learn about in the Land of the Three Rivers, the Norns are the most widely accepted and known. Everyone there knows about the Norns.
By the way, the name "Winter Voices" comes from the title of a book the heroine might find in the game, in the season 2. This is a strange book of legends, and Norns are the core of it.
A lot of characters in the game are actually faces of different Norns. For example, the black maid is most likely a figure of Skuld. The black maid is, in my opinion, the most important character in the whole kingdom, in the whole century. You will learn a little more about her in the second season.
In the end, I suppose that Winter Voices couldn't exist without the Norns, as they are litterally *everywhere* in the game.
Kevin, thank you very much for your detailed and informative answers. We wish you good luck and we look forward to the start of your Kickstarter campaign!