Greg Lobanov was kind enough to meet with me at PAX and discuss his upcoming game, Wandersong, and let me bother him with lots of other questions.
The video game world needs this.
By this, I mean a fun game with endless amounts of charm and joyfulness.
In days gone by, video games were thought of as a children’s toy. It was lots of brightly colored dots on a screen, and moving made a “bleep-bloop” noise, and only children could be bothered with this silliness. Adults were much too important to be distracted with such things; they had wood to chop, or shoes to mend. As video games became an accepted part of adulthood, adulthood slowly crept into video games to the point where we now aim for the most realistic shoe model or most accurate wood chopping physics engine.
That is to say, fun is not always the primary goal of games anymore; joyfulness has ceded to realism and accuracy.
In the words of it’s creator, Greg Lobanov, Wandersong is -
“....a musical adventure game about a bard. You travel around the world, sing to people, use your music to solve people's problems and solve puzzles.”
Yes, finally, a game that lets the Bard play the leading role, with you in control of all of his fantastic power. Wandersong is a side scrolling adventure game where your ability is the wonder of music. As you roam the bright, pastel colored world, you spread your gift of song and use it to interact with the characters and environment around you. Jump and sing your way around, over, and through whatever the universe throws your way. Have a ledge that’s too tall? Sing a little harmony with a birdie friend to get a lift. Need to exorcise a few ghosts? Sing a little duet to put their souls to rest.
The game exudes charm and whimsy, with a seemingly endless amount of optimism. The inspiration behind all of this?
“...in Oct of 2014 - Oct to March so it was a 5 month trip - I biked down the east coast, across the south, and up the west coast, and that was a really big inspiration for this.
The things that the trip really left with me was - the trip was a different way of living life - going on a journey and it exposed me to a lot of people, and a lot of people's kindness and generosity. I just met lots of different people across the country and was really overcome with appreciation for how nice people tend to be when you get down to it. So a game about meeting strangers and loving people and going on a journey and enjoying life.
I wanted to do a game that was kind of inspired by that. The first things I did were (games) about biking, and they were really literal, but they felt like they actually were kind of missing the spirit of the trip. It was about biking, but not what the trip felt like. This game is not about biking, but it really captures the feeling that I kind of had from it. It's kind of a really hippy, dopey, joyful rainbow message - I just wanted to make a game about that and like that. There just wasn't a game like that that I could think of and I was just so inspired.”
The enthusiasm that Greg has for, and instilled in the game, is genuine. The inspiration he speaks of really does shine through and the enthusiasm and positivity portrayed in Wandersong feels that way too. You never get the feeling that it's corny or overly naive or forced in any way.
In my prep for PAX, I described this game as part Windwaker, part Paper Mario, and part Dance Dance Revolution. It has the flat design of Paper Mario or Windwaker, the directionally controlled music a la Windwaker's baton, and matching the music to certain patterns and rhythms as one would have done with DDR.
I was 0/3 on guessing which inspirations Greg noted he may have taken from, instead citing Earthbound, Over the Garden Wall, and Totoro as spiritual influences;
“All of my other games, I would say i'm taking pieces from this game and this game and putting it together; on this particular game, those things are more spiritual guides. The story of those things, and the feel of those things is kind of essentially different than mine, but I try to answer questions the same way they would answer questions, so if Over the Garden Wall was gonna do this, “how would they solve this problem?” is the way I’m approaching it.
I really love all those pieces so much, the spirit of them, the feeling of them are so cool, and I’m trying - in an abstract way - understand what makes them so good and how we can evoke the same spirit.
A lot of the problems we solve and a lot of this games comes from that seed of you’re a person who’s singing and trying to solve problems with that, and from moment to moment, every problem we solve, there isn’t really a “oh I’ve seen a game like this, let’s see if we can do that,” it's more like “let’s look at these 5 things we like, how did they do that, and what’s our version going to be?”
Kirby’s Epic Yarn is probably the biggest visual inspiration. I just love the look of that game and I want more game that have that really physical feeling.”
The demo at PAX was around 15 minutes of gameplay; it had me smiling the entire time and was full of clever puzzles and game mechanics that all felt cohesive. That cohesiveness is easy to understand when you realize that Greg is a one-man show when it comes to programming.
“...an important thing that I have to be mindful of is that I’m the only person doing art and animation and everything for the game, and so I need something that I could make a lot of easily. Like if I want to add a new character or new setting, I need to be able to make it and get it done and then move on with the game. So a lot of the style was a carefully managed design of something that looks really appealing but wasn’t super complicated to add more into, and there’s a level editor where I can draw the shapes that go into the game. So the way the game art happens is really organic - let’s do a scene with a tree and a hill and it’s already in the game with the collision and stuff.
Making tools and making really expressive so that - I think honestly the best moments in the game are when I’m working on something - I have an outline of how i want the game to go, and I’m filling in the outline on the fly, so the best things in the game are when I have an idea and I think “what if this happened.” I have all the tools to sit down on that day and just make it. So I can say “what if there was this really nasty grandma, and you have to convince her to sing this song to you” and I just do it. I animate the grandma, I write this text and get the scene going and suddenly it’s in. This would not have been in the game, and suddenly it’s in the game just like that.
My favorite thing - that is maybe not that exciting, but i really like certain cut scenes where the bard has a song they’re singing, and the game prompts you to sing notes, and as you sing notes the bard says more words, so they're singing lyrics and music at the same time. I like it because it's one of those moments i feel like the narrative and the sound and the game play all merge really cohesively so that you’re like actually playing a pre written song note by note but also seeing words come up and getting the story as you go. When i had that idea, it solved all these problems at once and I really like things like that. This game is just a giant hodge podge of ideas and all this stuff. I love the things in this game that merge all those together all at once.”
Those animations, environments, characters designs; they all have a great sense of cohesion and wonderful creativity. The animations are really well done, and controls feel natural for the kind of game you’re playing. Greg noted that he has been into building games since he was a little one, and using the Game Maker engine for almost a decade now.
“When I was elementary school, I would draw board game and card games with markers and scissors or whatever. Then I actually made games with PowerPoint - and eventually I wanted to find a way to make digital versions of my board games - “that would be so cool” - so i found Game Maker and didn’t realize I could do actual video games instead with it and went nuts with it. That was 10 or more years ago and I'm still using it for this game.
I got into it (video games) a little bit later than most - when I was six I had my first game console, I know a lot of people, their parents had consoles when they were growing up - I wasn't born into it but I just fell in love with games the moment I found them. I've always loved making things - I was always making comics and stories and stuff - just making games too. As a kid it was just something I did for fun, not even realizing - now I look back and it was really significant that I was doing it. It totally became my entire life, but at the time it was stuff I was doing because it was fun. It was just something I was really passionate about - playing them, thinking about them, making them - it was just my life.
I did go to college for it (programming), but I had already been making games for like 8 years when I went to school for it so I actually was surprised - I was expecting to find lots of other people who had been doing the same thing as me, but I was surprised to find that people come to school knowing nothing and work from there. I felt like Ididn't get as much from school - I got things from school, but most of it was self taught and school gave me some technique to refine what I knew, but I don't think I would be doing what I'm doing if I didn't spend a lot of time just learning it on my own.”
And while Greg is a one man programming show, that isn’t to say he’s all alone; he’s also working with musician and fellow Vancouverite A Shell in the Pit for the game’s music.
“We had a lot of people coming in - we didn't even have open call for submissions because i had already 4 different musicians I was already talking to and looking at, but other people sent me stuff so I started considering more people, but in the long run A Shell in the Pit (Gordon) was someone I started talking to early on and I liked him a lot because he was local in Vancouver, and his music fit the game really really well. The sound, but also the way he makes music. He has a lot of live instruments and he doesn’t really - he kind of makes sounds and finds things that works well together and builds iteratively (the music). I really like that because it feels really hand made and feels really cobbled together (in a good way) really constructed. You feel that human touch in it. It's what I really love about it and it really fits the game. I really wanted him for the game.
I really like working on the game, so I’ve been blasting through it, and by the time he even signed on the first hour of the game was already playable so he’s kind of been catching up. For now, the way it works is we have all this game play done and he kind of comes in and I show him the game and give him an idea of the way I think things sound like, and we have a conversation. He makes the music, we adjust the game to make it fit with it, but we’re hoping he can catch up and we’ll be making it together so we can have the music inform the game play and vice versa.
But I’m always, even without music, designing the game very mindful of what the sound and music will be like because obviously that's very important. It's’ basically impossible not to think about it since the game mechanic is all about making sounds so its always relevant. But the way the works is the game play happens first and then the music, but I’d like to do some the other way when we get farther into it.”
The Kickstarter that originally got this project off the ground stated that a September 2017 release is the goal.
“It feels accurate - maybe a bit afterward. If it's not around then, it won't be 2018 because if you release in the holiday season it's just terrible. But we're aiming to get that fall. Were on pace right now and working our asses off, so as long as no one gets sick or anything, we should be good.”
I really, really want to convey to you all just how excited I am for this game’s release. I love original, unique takes on video games, and I especially love ones with beautiful designs and thoughtful, perfectly matched soundtracks - The Katamari Damacy series, Parappa the Rappa, Jet Set Radio. From what I've experienced, and after meeting the man behind it all, I put Wandersong on track to be right up there with some of my all time favorites.