This is Part 1 of The Indie Toaster’s interview with Small Island Games about their upcoming game, Haiku Adventure. Stay tuned for Part 2 as we find out more about their exhibition, “Haiku Adventure: The Craft of Games” which is sponsored by the London Games Festival and runs at the William Morris Gallery until 15 September 2019.

The Art of Games

We seem to be in the midst of the blossoming of some of the most incredibly beautiful artwork to be seen in indie games around the world yet. From the atmospheric watercolours of Gris to the Studio Ghibli-influenced Hoa and the delicately inked The Collage Atlas, it’s not hard to see why video games should be taken seriously as a visual art form. The popularity of the V&A’s Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt exhibition is a clear affirmation of game art’s universal appeal.

Haiku Adventure, old man, bird, lake

A quick browse on the Steam store will remind you why the maxim, “bad artists copy, good artists steal” still exists; imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So what are we to make of Haiku Adventure, the brainchild of a pair of British twenty-first century indie game developers with a shared passion for ukiyo-e? Currently in development for cross-platform release, Haiku Adventure is a point-and-click game that invites players to step into the magical realist world of haiku and ukiyo-e; albeit one that has been lovingly hand-crafted in the digital age.

In April 2017, two friends who’d met as architecture students visited the William Morris Gallery to see an exhibition which featured a selection of ukiyo-e prints. It was the first time they had the chance to stand in front of original prints and imagine how an idea they had for a game would play out. The term ‘ukiyo-e’ refers to a particular Japanese style of genre painting and woodblock printing that began in the seventeenth century and lasted into the nineteenth century. Translated as “pictures of the floating world”, the term was originally associated with a Buddhist expression which connoted the ephemerality of mankind’s existence.

Haiku Adventure, ukiyo-e, art, archive

Fast forward to 2019 and the idea for the game has long since taken root and begun to bloom. Haiku Adventure is described by its developer, Small Island Games, as an “original adventure puzzle game with a distinctive visual style and magical realist narrative”. Small Island Games comprises Ceri Williams, an islander from Ynys Môn in North Wales, and James Morgan who hails from Jersey.

Williams had initially shared an idea that had been floating around his head for years with Morgan; an idea for a game themed around nature, which sparked a discussion about a game that explored the relationship between humankind and nature. While doing so, Morgan and Williams began their research on Japanese wildlife and nature which led them to consider ukiyo-e landscape prints as a device for framing nature. It also led them to haiku poetry which they saw as a device for interpreting nature.

“As the pieces started to fall into place, we realised that these elements of research should be central to the game as they allowed us to directly explore and tie together the themes we wanted to explore. We are both interested in developing games that push a visual identity and explore original narratives. As the first title by Small Island Games, we hope that Haiku Adventure will be the first of many games that develop this area of interest,” Williams explains.

“The exhibition visit was a really important moment in the game’s development as we realised that there was already so much dynamic and a sometimes magical quality to the art form that bringing it to life within a videogame would both suit our vision for the game and allow people to experience the medium of ukiyo-e in a way we hadn’t seen done quite like this before.”

Haiku Adventure, game design, sketch, Small Island Games

Research and Discovery

Their research continued with further examination of ukiyo-e prints at museums where they began to make copious amounts of notes and drawings. Williams also visited a woodblock printing workshop in Japan, and they both found the website and its thousands of prints to be an invaluable database.

When asked about Haiku Adventure’s early development process, Ceri recalls that right from the start Morgan pushed for innovative gameplay: “We had started to discuss the use of haiku as a narrative element in the game, as we loved finding out that apparently haiku should never be ‘written’ but instead ‘discovered’. We also loved that the poems are almost ‘magical realist’ in that they often describe a scene and make a simple juxtaposition that can totally change the interpreting of it. Gradually, haiku moved over into becoming the main gameplay itself.”

Morgan and Williams initially created a prototype that was showcased in the Leftfield Collection at EGX Rezzed 2018. In the demo, the player could explore beautifully illustrated landscapes while talking to several characters including birds. These natural surroundings inspired the game’s protagonist, an elderly poet, who stores away lines of haiku poetry for later recollection.

The player then has to make a choice about a main moral dilemma in each level and assemble the collected lines to compose haiku poems. These poems have the magical power to resolve tricky situations such as calming a raging river or resolving a dispute amongst a flock of birds.

Haiku Adventure, river, old man, spirit, ukiyo-e, art

Morgan says, “We absolutely loved exhibiting in the Leftfield Collection in Rezzed. It was not just a chance to show off the game to an eager public but a great moment to connect to the wonderful world of indie game development. To be placed among such a talented bunch of people really gave us a confidence boost that encouraged us to push the game forward. We were delighted to see our game resonate with the crowds who were drawn to the idea of a game where you get to take on the role of a soulful poet travelling through a lush ukiyo-e inspired world.”

Following the early success and reception of the demo, the developers worked towards refining the final scope of the game; this included revising and testing the main gameplay mechanics and working on a revised system to allow for more simple and free exploration. Early testing showed the developers that it was important to focus on the things that players derived the most pleasure from; these appeared to be exploring the art, interacting with the scenes to collect poetic inspiration, and exercising their creative instincts to create poetry.

Haiku Adventure, haiku, poetry, lines, words, puzzle

Williams shares, “We wanted to address the level of challenge which we felt was inhibiting the exploratory gameplay experience. The original haiku mechanic offered some interesting opportunities but wasn’t balanced quite right. We started to acknowledge that because poems are a medium open to personal interpretation. It was tricky to force particular meanings onto the three-line haiku solutions that players could create in the demo. We’ve been addressing these concerns by developing new gameplay mechanics. Feature-creep is an issue that I’m sure a lot of developers face. Instead of cramming in all the ideas we’ve had, we’ve been refining the scope to keep only the core mechanics that are crucial to the experience we’re trying to create.”

Morgan says, “Our regular process begins with puzzle design and scene structure. Haikus are obviously key. We have to arm the player with the tools to create great poems but also satisfy the functional aspects of choice and consequence. From this we are able to then go into full art production which includes characters, environments and animation. After much experimentation with the various forms of hand-painted techniques, Ceri translated this knowledge to a form of digital content creation for achieving the all-important ukiyo-e aesthetic the game relies on. All of this content is then composed in Construct 3 – the versatile game development platform we have been using. In Construct, we have great control and real-time viewing of all the parallax and animated layers of each scene so that we can quickly iterate during development.”

Sketch, game design, river scenes

Development and Engagement

A new haiku composition system has now been developed to give the player more choice over the poem he or she composes in each level, thereby giving the player a level of authorship over the final phrasing.

According to Williams, “The choices made at the end of each level will have an impact at the game’s culmination, which asks you to reflect on what you have experienced so far. We are developing a system which allows for a huge variation of poems that can be created and players will form their own ‘unique’ collection of these completed haiku.”

To further engage with players and the public, the developers have been sharing their research findings via their blog and an Instagram gallery. Morgan and Williams invested a lot of faith and time in their discovery phase and say that research has been the driving factor behind Haiku Adventure’s development.

Williams says, “Given that we’re two British developers working on a game that has become heavily orientated around Japanese art and culture, it’s totally critical to make sure that we understand as much about the things we’re referencing as possible. At the very least, we need to be sensitive to the subjects we’re incorporated into the game and avoid misinterpretations. We hope that the game can suitably honour the mediums that we’ve found so fascinating to research and would love for it to prompt people to find out more for themselves.”

Old man, character study

While looking at different funding options, the developers found a consultant who will be advising them on the cultural and traditional references included in the game during development. They are currently in early talks with a Japanese publisher who has offered to provide cultural advice, and who would cover localisation for regions in East Asia, but this will be reassessed closer to the launch.

“We’ve had some great meetings with localisation teams who will help support translation and the creation of bespoke haiku wording to suit each territory. Translation is definitely a challenge for a game like this, but these early conversations are helping us to plan the localisation process into our production plan so with luck (and subject to funding!) we’ll be able to eventually launch in as many territories as possible,” says Williams.