I knew Guildlings was special because, despite being a fantasy game, I wasn’t fighting typical enemies like orcs, goblins, or dragons. Actually, I wasn’t really doing “combat” at all ... not in the usual way we think about it, anyway. The point of encounters in Guildlings isn’t to attack and defeat your enemy — it’s to manage the moods of your party members.
All you have to do is survive a confrontation for long enough, and you’ll come out the other end. But how you come out of it is up in the air. Maybe the giant cobweb you got caught in made everyone in your party feel gross. This is a problem, because in order to solve the next puzzle, your healer needs to feel cool and capable enough to do it. Getting the right mood sometimes requires you to sacrifice the game’s equivalent of hit points to get everyone in the right mindset.
Guildlings uses the RPG frameworks we’re all familiar with, and refashions them to give them a new life. Your “attacks” aren’t outright violent — one special move harnessed by a teenager in the game, for example, is basically snide remarks against your target. And your target might be, like, a bag of trash that’s standing in your way.
“We didn’t really love the idea of the main activity [for] these kids along the way being [or] finding things to kill so that they could get stronger,” Jamie Antonisse, creative director of Guildlings, told Polygon in an interview. In our conversation, he explicitly likened the scenario-building to what Undertale does, in the sense that the developer, Sirvo Studios, wanted to make challenges that “weren’t about an explicit fight.”
Released in late 2019 for Apple Arcade, Guildlings places you in a world that’s teeming with history. Coda, the pre-teen protagonist who you control, lives in a town that sits atop ancient ruins where heroes once roamed. Nobody gives a shit about that, though — it was a long time ago, for one, but you also get the sense that the community is worn and tired of the dangers that come with adventure and magic. Most people around you just want to lead a normal, quiet life. You, however, are a curious kid. When you stumble across an old phone that lets you form a heroic party, you jump at the chance. “Guildlings,” we are told, are meant to complete important quests. Antonisse says that Sirvo Studios thought of it as “wizards and wifi.”
But what does an important quest look like for a bunch of kids? It’s not to save the world, that kind of goal is too huge. Instead, your missions range from get out of the house despite being grounded to things like help your big sister get to her date on time. The stakes are as adorable as they are realistic for what the characters could actually do. That happy-go-lucky tone, along with an optimistic vibe, and subtle world-building is reminiscent of Steven Universe, which Antonisse says was definitely an influence. Webcomic Homestuck also formed part of Guildlings’ scaffolding, which may explain why the game feels like it’s in the same wavelength as Undertale — Toby Fox contributed to both.
I found myself getting really attached to Guildlings’ terrific characters, and it all comes down to the writing and presentation. Dialogue is reflected as if it were a group chat, a detail which allows the game to better capture each character’s personality and inner world. Characters will keyboard smash, they’ll make funny spelling mistakes, they’ll quadruple text when they’re excited. Sometimes, characters will even take selfies of funny or important moments — and the focus, framing, or angles will be hilarious.
These conversations can also affect everyone’s mood. If you learn something scary, some team members might go into the next encounter feeling unsettled. Occasionally, the game gives you dialogue choices which, depending on your answer, will not only change everyone’s dispositions, they will also deepen your relationship with any given character. If you react to things with excitement, for instance, Coda’s hyperactive best friend might feel thrilled, allowing him to eventually gain more stamina in battle ... but your sister, who is over it, might get mad at what you said.
“The reason that we ended up using moods was because it allowed us to unite our systems in a way that we just hadn’t seen very often in games,” Antonisse says. That unification feels sophisticated now, but getting to that point wasn’t easy. The game technically started development back in 2013 as a paper prototype that worked much differently than what we get to play today. Jamie Antonisse and Asher Vollmer (of Threes fame) shelved the project, but ended up coming back to it over and over again.
The game makers knew that they wanted to have technology as a theme, and even played with concepts like hashtags — but those early ideas didn’t quite come together. It wasn’t until the team doubled down on thinking about what made sense for teenagers that they settled on the concept of emoji. That’s basically what the moods are, emoji, but as a game mechanic. It’s brilliant.
Guildlings ends on a major cliffhanger, but Antonisse tells Polygon that the game will update with more of the story, free of charge for all players, sometime in summer 2020 — so you’ve got a few months to catch up.