Child of Light's Use of Poetry, Q&A with Ubisoft Montreal’s Jeffrey Yohalem

By Published April 18, 2014 at 1:45 pm
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Child of Light is one of 2014’s most eye-catching role-playing games. Developed by Ubisoft Montreal—the same team behind Far Cry 3—it features a water color-inspired art style, provides its own take on turn-based combat, and takes advantage of the unique UbiArt engine – used most notably in Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends. Gamers are already quite curious as to what they will uncover in the game’s story, but I found at PAX East that it’s the story behind the story that’s just as compelling.

Center: Jeffrey Yohalem, Lead Writer of Far Cry 3, AC: Brotherhood, and now Child of Light.

What is Child of Light?

Child of Light is Ubisoft's upcoming 2D, story-driven adventure RPG featuring a young heroine and her firefly companion. The game is more reminiscent in gameplay of Legend of the Seven Stars and Final Fantasy (older titles) than more modern RPGs, calling upon the staple overworld / battlefield scene transitions for its conflict resolution. Exploration, puzzle-solving, item crafting, and story advancement happen between battles. Battles take us to a separate screen, as in RPGs of this type, where timing elements and turn-based combat become the focus until the scene concludes. As we'll discuss below, the game stands out a bit from the crowd by making use of poetry as a story-telling device; specifically, the game's underlying story is written as a ballad (iambic pentameter) that players effectively journey through as the game progresses, learning about the world and solving puzzles in the process.

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On the Making of Child of Light, its Evolution as a Poem, and Artistic Direction

Jeffrey Yohalem was the Lead Writer for Far Cry 3 and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and shortly after finishing Jason Brody’s drug-infused island romp, he was approached by Creative Director Patrick Plourde with the basic idea for Child of Light. This is how he made their combined passions a poetic reality; you’ll see what I mean below.

The show floor was quite loud, but this is the most accurate transcription of the interview we could get.

Here’s how Child of Light became a project, as told by Yohalem: Far Cry 3 Creative Director Patrick Plourde had finished up his work on the FPS when he decided to satisfy a lifelong yearning – to make a role-playing game. Plourde was inspired by illustrations from John Bauer, Arthur Rackham, and other twentieth century fairytale authors, and so he envisioned a painted world as the game’s environment. Drawn to a particular Bauer work, he chose to call the game Child of Light and named the protagonist Aurora, which means “dawn” in Latin. He then approached Yohalem to write the story.

Gamers Nexus: And that’s pretty much all you had to start with? 

Jeffrey Yohalem: I sat with him for about a month writing the whole story, and we pitched a little storybook [to Ubisoft] saying this is what we want to make. [following Ubisoft’s initial approval] Then I went off and developed the backstory and the world for several months, and then wrote the script.

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Gamers Nexus: What influenced you in your story writing? 

Jeffrey Yohalem: I was very much influenced by things that I loved growing up, like the Oz books, Mathilda by Roald Dahl – his dark materials – the Neverending story. I love tales about children from our world that kind of fall into these abandoned cracks in another world – an idea that the pond behind your house or a door in your attic can lead to a whole other place. […] This was my chance to do that kind of story.

GN: The game uses the UbiArt engine. What was the process of getting that art style finalized and incorporated? 

JY: Actually it went through a whole evolution. We started out with the paintings of John Bauer and Arthur Rackham […] and an idea that [the game] was going to be a playful poem both visually and verbally. At first, we wanted to create this almost photo-realistic, more Pre-Raphaelite world. […] The idea was to get as close to realism as possible but with fantastical elements. So we created this kind of rich “video pitch” for the game that had this very realistic style. The feedback from the CEO of Ubisoft [Yves Guillmot] was, ‘I don’t feel like it’s distinctive enough.’ 

So we took that and we went back to the drawing board with the Art Director, and after several months, we kind of returned back to John Bauer and this idea of seeing the hand with the artist, and from there it became watercolor. In fact, if you look at Aurora and how she turned out, she is very evocative of this particular John Bauer painting of a little girl with an oversized crown and blonde hair, and it’s almost identical.

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GN: Tell us about the writing style and poetic meter. 

JY: It’s ballad form, so that means the end of the second line rhymes with the fourth line. […] It’s in iambic form, but part of ballad form is that the syllable becomes a sort of variable. Pentameter is 10 syllables, but iambic is seven or eight, so [it varies] between seven and ten syllables.

GN: What was your writing background? 

JY: I actually studied English literature at Yale, and the entire program is about poetry, so I took four years of classes about poetry. It’s basically something that I’ve kind of prepared my whole life, I guess.

GN: Did you ever produce any poetic works that gave you confidence going into Child of Light? 

JY: I actually never tried writing poetry in college. I wrote some poetry in high school, and then while I was studying poetry, it was just so complex. At the time, I wanted to write about video games, and so every time I had a writing assignment, I would write a script for a video game – every single time. Of course, if you’re thinking video game, you would never in your wildest dreams go, ‘I’m going to put a poem in there’ – although whenever I’d write a puzzle [usually there’s a hint for a puzzle like in Resident Evil 4 or Myst], I would write a small poem.

It’s like I created a reservoir where I had an ability to do this and I had never tried, and this was my chance to let all the water out […]. It was just so exciting because we had the idea that the game was going to be a playable poem, and then there was this moment where it clicked, where it’s like, ‘We should actually write the game as a poem.’ And then the audaciousness of that: It’s just so fantastic to me because poetry’s been so out of the mainstream for decades. […] To be able to take a video game, which is at the center of pop culture right now, and make a poem, it’s just a once in a lifetime opportunity.

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Child of Light releases multiplatform on April 30. We want to extend a big thank you to Yohalem for his story and enthusiasm behind what promises to be a gem in Ubisoft’s impressive library.

Learn more here: http://childoflight.ubi.com/col/en-US/the_game/index.aspx

- Editorial & Reporting: Nick "stuBEEF" Pinkerton.

- Interview support & photography: Paige "dino pillow" Spears.

Last modified on April 18, 2014 at 1:45 pm

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