“When the Astral Empire disintegrated into civil war, thousands of worlds were cut off from one another. One such world, Ma’abtik, fell into a medieval dark age.
A thousand years later, rumours that the long dormant empire is stirring are confirmed as an army wielding devastating weapons from the ancient past marches across Ma’abtik. Tahira, the last princess of a small kingdom called Avestan, finds herself tasked with leading the remnants of her people to safety as they attempt to escape the devastation to find a new home.”
Say hello to Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire, a character and story-driven RTS and RPG game with a classic art style that looks as if you’ve just opened up a comic book and BAM, it’s come to life! I got the chance to speak with and interview writer and producer of the game, Peter Castle, Director from Whale Hammer Games in Canberra, Australia, who was more than happy to discuss the game in further detail. But before we jump right into the interview, here’s a bit more information you need to know:
In Tahira, you fight turn-based tactics battles that mix tactical decision making with a range of strategic scenarios inspired by Blizzard’s RTS games. As you progress, you are given choices to upgrade your forces, letting you match them to your play-style. You also talk to a large and eclectic cast who travel with you through multiple episodes. You can influence them and discover their history and the history of the world they live in.
The game is inspired by my travels through Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Nepal and India. It’s the story of Tahira, a princess struggling with anxiety, who ran away from her kingdom and responsibilities. The episodes follow her struggle to come to terms with the responsibilities of her birthright as she leads the remnants of her people across a world that has been plunged into a medieval dark age after the collapse of the galaxy-spanning Astral Empire.
Tahira is first and foremost a game that tells a story. The combat gameplay is balanced with equally important narrative scenes in which you’ll have the opportunity to engage with the people following Tahira.
The combat itself doesn’t rely on the classic ‘we all move, then you all move’ formula of turn-based tactics games. Instead, unit turn order is determined based on each unit’s speed. The player can then further manipulate turn order by jumping one of their units to the front of the turn queue — for a cost.
- A character-driven story in which you travel with and talk to a large cast that includes a swaggering mercenary power couple and a bitter exile wrapped in mystery and a cloak
- Turn-based tactics battles that take place in a range of scenarios inspired by contemporary RTS games
- A ruined world where sci-fi mixes with medieval fantasy
- An upgrade system that lets you customise your forces to fit your play-style
- Hand-painted environments showcasing the bittersweet beauty of a dying world
- A modern twist on classic turn-based tactics incorporating unit fatigue and a dynamic turn queue
- Scenarios ranging from scrappy fights between a couple of soldiers to epic sieges where the player must manage multiple fronts
- Rotoscoped character animations, creating a realistic, hand-drawn appearance
- An atmospheric score composed by Brendan Holyland
- An atmospheric soundtrack composed by Max LL that incorporates the sounds and textures of Central Asia and the Middle East.
Tahira definitely peaked my interest. It’s different, it’s fresh, it’s artistic and its story is quite intriguing. But what makes it even more interesting is that it’s an episodic journey where your decisions will affect your gameplay. To get an even more in-depth feel to the game, I spoke with Peter and asked him the following questions to which he happily responded to:
So, Peter, tell us a bit about yourself and the team you are working with:
I usually describe myself as a writer. I love travelling and have spent time in the Middle East, including Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Israel and more recently, I spent five months in Nepal and India. Both of those trips have contributed greatly to my work on Tahira. I studied writing and cultural studies at university and then 3D animation.
There are two other people I work with at Whale Hammer Games. We’ve got Tom, who’s an old school friend of mine: he’s our programmer and game designer. And just to make things nice and confusing, we have another Peter who’s our artist. Pete worked as a graphic designer and illustrator for 10 years before moving on to publish a book (Practical Anatomy for Artists). I met him while we were both studying 3D animation and we hit it off.
We also work with Brendan Holyland who’s our sound designer, and we’ve just started working with Max LL who’s our composer. Brendan lives interstate and Max lives in Canada, so there’s plenty of Skyping. We’re a small team, but everyone works their asses off and so far it’s working really well.
Is there a game or story in particular that inspired you and your team to develop Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire?
I can remember sitting in class while I was studying 3D animation and seeing The Banner Saga pop up on Kickstarter. I was so excited to see someone try and combine a really well written narrative and turn-based tactics with all the trappings of a modern game. I’ve always thought those two things go well together.
The first kernel of an idea that formed the story of Tahira, was an image that came to me while I was trekking in the Himalayas. I saw a princess high up on a mountain-side looking down at a burning city: her kingdom. That image stuck with me, and by the time I got back to Australia, I’d written a rough outline of what would become Tahira.
Some of the other big influences for us are the works of Hayao Miyazaki, in particular Nausicaa: The Valley of the Wind, Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Serpent War Saga by Raymond E Feist, and the Earthsea series by Ursula LeGuin.
Are there any games you could compare your game to in terms of gameplay?
Tahira’s gameplay is in a lot of ways our tribute to the Game Boy Advance games of the genre that Tom (our programmer) and I grew up playing: Advance Wars, Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy: Tactics. There are a lot of more modern influences as well, though. Our level design takes its cues from Blizzard’s more recent RTS games, particularly Starcraft 2, in that the levels are really varied. A problem that turn-based tactics games sometimes suffer from is all their combat seeming kind of samey after a while. The focus on narrative really helps with this because the plot is always throwing up new scenarios we can design.
It’s interesting that you’ve made the protagonist, princess Tahira, struggle with anxiety. Is there a reason behind this? And will her anxiety come into play throughout the story and have any effect when it comes to combat and decision-making?
When I started developing the image of the princess looking down on her burning kingdom, I had to ask myself, why isn’t she with her people? I played around with the idea that she had been off on a quest or completing a task of some kind, but I thought it would be more interesting if it was because of anxiety. Anxiety is something I have experience with and it’s not something you see explored in video games all that often.
It’s not built into the gameplay in any way, though. You won’t be suddenly unable to control your units due to Tahira having an anxiety attack in the middle of combat or anything like that. As much as such a system would have been a great way to convey what anxiety issues can be like, it would also be really frustrating for the player. I’d love to try something like that some time, but I think that would have to be on a smaller game where it was the core mechanic, rather than in something as big as Tahira.
That said, you will see it manifest in a number of different ways. Tahira will be making decisions and saying things purely because of this underlying anxiety throughout the game, and trying to overcome it will play a big role in her personal story. I can’t get too specific, but her mental health is tied to her ability to use the staff she wields and the staff itself is not necessarily having a positive effect on her mind.
On the topic of combat, what type of weapons can players expect to use? Will there be any form/use of magic or abilities?
Tahira’s a game where you’ll predominantly see swords, axes and bows. After the collapse of space faring civilisation, the world Tahira is set on fell into a dark age, leaving its inhabitants (except a special few) with medieval-era technology. Your characters will still have special abilities, but they’ll be things like a vicious flurry of attacks from a mercenary, or a shoulder-barge from a bulky knight. The one notable exception to this is Tahira herself. Well, more specifically Tahira’s staff: it’s an artefact from the past, which only she can use, and it can unleash powerful energy attacks. As the story progresses, there’s every chance you’ll encounter others who’ve learnt to use technology from the past as well.
During the game, is the player able to explore/free roam and collect loot (whether it being weapons, health, treasures)?
There’s no looting, it’s really not that sort of RPG. Having our players manage an inventory and switch out items between characters would add a lot of dead time to the game without having any great benefit from a gameplay perspective. There are areas in which you’ll have the chance to take control of Tahira and wander around, and these will serve to let you talk to the supporting cast. We want to create that same sort of feel that Bioware’s games do really well, where you get to know the people you’re fighting with quite well and the game’s world gets fleshed out through them.
How many episodes are we to expect when the first releases?
At this stage we have two episodes planned for Season One. We have a draft outline of the story for Season Two, but it’s quite loose. I expect it will have two or three episodes.
Is there going to be a second Tahira if the game does well?
Well, if you consider the at-least-four episodes I just talked about to be one game, then the answer is maybe. We’re tentatively planning to release one episode a year from the time that we launch the first one, meaning that if all goes to plan, it’ll be four years before we’re done with this first game. I have no idea what we’ll want to do in four years time. Tahira’s story will definitely be over at the end of Season Two and I think I’ll be ready to move onto something new, but there is plenty of scope within the setting for a sequel series.
What type of music will the game feature? Will it be slow and orchestral, heavy or upbeat, or a mixture?
It’s going to be a real mix. You can expect some parts to be orchestral and others to be a mix of ambient textures and some smaller instrumental pieces as well. It all depends on what’s happening in the game. We’re working with a fantastic composer called Max LL. He just returned from five months in central Asia and is looking to put those experiences into music. He scored the trailer for our Kickstarter campaign and the music in that is indicative of the mood and atmosphere we’re aiming for in the game.
Is there anything else you would like you mention or say about the game to those who are interested in playing it?
Only that I hope you’ll give the game a shot. We’re putting everything we can into the game and I think that it will really show in the final product. We’re on Kickstarter at the moment and we’d really appreciate you taking the time to have a look at our page. Thank you!
Tahira is now live on Kickstarter and its campaign will run through until March 19, 2015 (Western United States time) so if you’re interested and want to get behind and support the game, you can visit their Kickstarter campaign here. They are also running a Steam Greenlight campaign concurrently as well.
Tahira’s first episode is expected to release in January, 2016, on PC, Mac and Linux.
The Occupation Designer Reveals Game Length, Talks Design, Inspiration, and More
After a protracted development period, fixed-time thriller The Occupation is set to release in one month’s time. Between its retro aesthetic and immersive sim-inspired gameplay, the game is shaping up as one of 2019’s most unique titles.
In light of that, OnlySP recently spoke to Pete Bottomley, designer of The Occupation and co-founder of developer White Paper Games to find out more about the promising project.
OnlySP: I thought I’d start off with a fairly obvious question. Given the real-time nature of The Occupation, how long can players expect a single run through to last, and by how much can that time be shortened or prolonged by the player’s actions?
Bottomley: The core gameplay is designed around 4 hours of play. There are some sections that are untimed, whether it be for narrative impact or tutorialisation for the player. As we’re playing through the game as a team, it’s taking us around 6.5 hours to play through the game.
OnlySP: How many endings does the game have?
Bottomley: The game’s outcome is a reflection of the steps the player took through the game. I think when playing games, you always want the outcomes to reflect your approach and we’re massively inspired by how games such as Dishonored can tackle that. Our hope is that the ending you experience feels like it reflects their approach and actions.
OnlySP: Tied to that, approximately how many playthroughs would be required to see everything that the game has to offer?
Bottomley: Our intention wasn’t to design a game that required multiple playthroughs. I’m personally the type of player that plays through a narrative, gets an outcome, and that’s my story. That being said, we’ve tried to fill the world with a lot of content, and because of the real-time character simulating actions, hopefully with second and third playthroughs, players will uncover different ways to solve challenges or narrative threads they hadn’t picked up on before.
OnlySP: How did you come to settle on the politicised premise of an Act robbing citizens of civil liberties?
Bottomley: Since we invest so much of our lives into making games, you have to work on something you feel is meaningful and rewarding of your time. At the time of concepting The Occupation, there was a lot of friction between what was happening in the UK and abroad. It affects us all and we wanted to work on something that may put people’s views into perspective.
Our previous game Ether One dealt with the difficulties of seeing a family member suffering with dementia and our aim is to continue these important themes throughout all of our games.
OnlySP: Also, issues surrounding privacy and freedom of speech, among other civil liberties, are pertinent right now. How close to your mind were the modern concerns about the topic while you were concepting the game? And have real-world events impacted the story of The Occupation across the development period?
Bottomley: The world around us always inspires us, but we don’t really rely on specific events to drive any part of the game’s narrative. When you’re developing a game that tries to get its own narrative across but ground it in the real world, you have to try to distil them to focus on the story you’re trying to tell. In a sense, real world stories inspire us but it’s more of an observational thing rather than a particular event we want to depict faithfully. We tend to focus on the emotional and societal impact of the event itself.
OnlySP: How present will those sorts of themes be within the average player’s experience? Or should players expect to be able to lose themselves entirely in the investigation without really leaning on the context?
Bottomley: We aim to put context on all of your actions in the world otherwise there’s not much meaning behind the choices being made. That being said, you can choose to follow certain narrative threads over others, which allows the player to follow the most interesting lead they come across.
OnlySP: Players take the role of a journalist in the game; how accurate would you say your portrayal is of the technologies and general aesthetic of late ‘80s Britain? How much research went into getting the language and atmosphere of the era right?
Bottomley: It’s interesting you raise that point as we’ve just been speaking about the world limitations in this game. In our previous game, Ether One, we aimed to deliver a grounded narrative that had certain sci-fi elements. With The Occupation, we wanted to go even more grounded and aim to deliver a world that belongs in the ’80s so any aesthetic and technological choices were always taken into consideration. Surrounding yourself with these limitations can create really cool gameplay mechanics such as our pager as a message delivery system, public payphones to update your objectives, and fax machines to deliver information.
OnlySP: The game has been delayed twice now, both times quite close to the scheduled release. Is there any chance you could shed some light on the causes of the delays?
Bottomley: Delaying a game is a gut wrenching decision. You’ve put a promise out there and you push yourself to deliver. We’ve aimed incredibly high on this game both technologically and in the game’s design. On top of this, we wanted to deliver the game in as many languages as we could along with sim-shipping on PC, XB1, & PS4 and doing a retail disc submission so that people could pick up the game in stores if they wanted to hold a physical representation of the game. Because of these platforms, the game has to be ready a couple of months in advance to help distribution and all the different regions to have the version of the game you intend for them. With complexity always come more bugs and since our last game shipped in a buggy state, we didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. We’ve QA’d the game for months and had support from our publishers in helping to identify the issues. As with any game, we’ll no doubt spot some issues on launch, but we’ve already put processes in place to address these as quickly as we can and hopefully the execution of the game will immerse people and keep players engaged so that nothing disrupts the experience.
OnlySP: I recall on Twitter that you once wrote that you were testing the possibility of a Switch port. How seriously have you looked at that possibility and what’s the likelihood?
Bottomley: Right now we have a Switch development kit frustratingly gathering dust in our studio. Since we’re a small team, it can be a tough choice trying to figure out where to best use your resources. We’d absolutely love to get the game onto Switch but we’ve not tested a build yet. It’s the first thing we’ll be moving onto in March so we should be able to update people as soon as we know how The Occupation runs on it. Thankfully using Unreal Engine makes this process a lot more straightforward and we’ve seen a lot of developer friends find success on the Switch so it’s a great opportunity to reach a larger audience.
OnlySP: How does it feel for you and the team to be just about ready to wrap development after four years of work?
Bottomley: It’s not quite set in yet. Although we’re done with the game and excited to see the reception it gets from people, it’s really only 50% of the work, especially when you’re in a small team. We’re currently planning all the marketing and PR opportunities along with reflecting on the development cycle and figuring out what we can do better (to hopefully not spend another 4 years on a game!).
OnlySP: Finally, do you have any closing comments for our readers or anything else you’d like to say about The Occupation?
Bottomley: The whole team has put an incredible amount of energy into The Occupation. If you look at our previous game compared to The Occupation, you can see how far we’ve come. It’s been a huge learning curve for the studio both technically and in production and we’re excited to move onto another game to push ourselves. We’re unable to do that without game sales. It sounds corny, but we really can’t develop games without our community’s support. We value each purchase and we want to grow and keep pushing to create more interesting games. We have a lot of goals and drive and we’re focusing on growing and creating more experiences for the player. If you’re reading this and have purchased any of our games, thank you. It absolutely means the world to be able to wake up in the morning and be excited to develop games. Thank you.
The Occupation is set to release on March 5, 2019 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
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