Ubisoft Montreal's Child of Light looks like a 2D side-scrolling platformer, and most of those games are all about mechanics; if there's a story, it's usually a static tale that doesn't have much to do with playing the game. But Child of Light lead writer told Polygon at PAX East 2014 that when he and creative director Patrick Plourde were designing the title's concept, they wanted story and gameplay to be deeply intertwined.
"I believe that gameplay is central to an interactive experience; otherwise, it should be a movie," said Yohalem. He explained that when Ubisoft greenlit the platformer, which is inspired by elements such as eastern European fairy tales and Japanese role-playing games, the publisher allowed him and Plourde full creative freedom. The duo decided to shy away from a modern trend in games toward ironic meta humor; they wanted to deliver "something ultra-sincere," said Yohalem.
They also aimed to make a game that sits between tiny indie titles, which Yohalem said are often "art pieces" intended for a particular audience, and AAA blockbusters. And with Ubisoft's backing, they had the ability to make design decisions like allowing players to bypass whole chunks of the experience. Co-op is built into Child of Light, but it's entirely possible to complete the game solo — at least, on difficulty settings below Hard. The player has the choice to pick up a variety of partners along the way, but that's completely optional, and Yohalem explained that if solo players decide not to interact with any of the side characters, they'll skip about one-third of the game. Yohalem believes that most publishers would never allow developers to design a AAA title that way.
"a story curates an experience"
That choice also sits at the heart of the story that Yohalem is trying to tell in Child of Light. It's a coming-of-age tale: The protagonist, a young girl named Aurora, grows up as she levels up over the course of the game. Co-op play is layered into both platforming and combat; as we fought one enemy in Child of Light's JRPG-like turn-based battle system, Yohalem provided assists like preventing the other enemy from attacking. Partners can also help Aurora solve puzzles to open up new areas, and collect orbs in the environment for her.
The decision, as Yohalem characterized it, is whether Aurora will go through life on her own, or seek the help of others along the way. That choice affects the story and the gameplay, which, according to Yohalem, is the way it should be.
"A story is not restrictive," said Yohalem. "A story curates an experience." Child of Light seeks a middle ground between a tightly controlled tale and an open-ended experience; Yohalem compared playing it to acting, where the player is the performer, and the way the play the game affects the nature of the art that is produced.
Child of Light launches April 30 for $14.99 on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Wii U, Windows PC, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.