SPOILER WARNING! Here you'll find lots of infos about MONSTERS OF KANJI. Figured that some of you might be interested in getting an idea about the deeper themes of the game. Can't really do that without spoiling some of its elements. If you want to experience MARTY's adventure without knowing anything beforehand (I'd recommend that of course :)), please turn around now. But I will only go into detail up until CHAPTER 3. After that you'll only get a general idea about what's going to happen.
I didn't go out marketing the game as "a story about fear". Mostly because I wanted people to find that out for themselves, but also
because most people expect a game about fear to be some kind of horror game. And MONSTERS OF KANJI isn't that.
But, yeah. It still is all about fear. And I'm not even subtle about it: The last chapter is even called "Fear..." Can't get any more blunt than that :)
If you've got some time to spare and if you're interested in MONSTERS OF KANJI but don't plan on playing it - OR if you're interested in the background of the game and don't mind spoilers, here's a summary of what the game has to offer and a little bit about my thought-process behind it:
In its core, MONSTERS OF KANJI is about the fear that comes from feeling out of place.
Not being able to get out of your head and reach others because of it.
But even more so it's about experiencing new things, learning interesting stuff about other cultures, unknown languages, meeting new people and seeing the wide, wide world, inspite of it.
MARTY lives with his two friends KET, a fox, and TOBI, a little mouse, in a small hut at the COZY CLIFFS. It's hinted at that he is always checking the surrounding area for any sign of danger - and when a strange lout noise comes from the nearby forest, the boy heads out to make sure everything is safe for him and his friends.
He encounters a big monster, is able to defeat it and returns to the hut. But sadly, his friends are gone. Only KET's whistle remains which MARTY takes with him on the journey ahead.
Now, MARTY needs to get out into the world to find his friends. We don't know his age, we don't know how long he's lived at the hut. We actually don't know anything about him or the world he's living in.
I wanted the game to get to the point pretty quickly, but I also wanted it to be HARD, at first. The tutorial area was way to difficult at that time. Friends and family all shared this opinion and I eventually changed up the difficulty. And I'm happy with the result. Because in that case, only looking at what I want to play for myself, could have lead to a very poorly paced intro section for newcomers to the game.
The story itself, at that point, is as ominous as it's supposed to be. You're not supposed to know how MARTY came to the COZY CLIFFS, you're not supposed to know his age or the amount of time he's spent with his friends. You need to know they're important to him and that the every day life of the trio is close to that of a family. And now they're gone.
However, one optional piece of story can already be found at STATION ISLAND, one of the many optional areas of the game.
It's an item called MEM.DAT - discs with short passages of text on them that can be found everywhere in the world. Who are they from? What will you be able to learn from them? Right now all you get is a single piece of text about some kind of "experiment"...
Did you notice? The soundeffect that plays when you enter a battle is the sound of a whistle :) More on that later.
MARTY comes across a strange sloth that seems to be partly mechanical (not that MARTY ever notices something like that). He helps the
little guy out and learns of HANGIN'DARE, the village of the sloths. It is here that he meets SCOTT, helps him save his village from a huge monster and is able to get a first hint on the location of
his lost friends: Some kind of building or mountain is acting up further east. There's a storm brewing and strange lights in the sky above that place.
Maybe it has something to do with the disappearance of KET and TOBI?
MARTY and SCOTT follow the advice of HANGIN'DARE's village chief: They head south towards the owl-town COHOOT. But just before reaching
the southern continent, they are attacked by a mysterious girl that claims she wants to "STOP MARTY"...
After she disappears, MARTY is left in confusion. He doesn't know what she means...
But soon after, Chapter 3 begins and we get the first hint that he does know SOMETHING...
The story is still more of a puzzle to figure out. You don't get a clear explanation what's going on. You're piecing it together, slowly. One of the reasons I did it that way was that I wanted to make a game that would be mostly gameplay, forward movement. Because for those people that actually use it to review vocabulary and improve their Japanese, an intricate story could be in the way of their progress.
If players get invested in the game and its world, however, they should have some kind of wrap up at the end. This is why most of the heavy story parts are found in the last quarter of the game. There is one big event in CHAPTER 3, but other than that, all of the real revelations only start happening once you reach the end of CHAPTERS 5 and 6.
Some of the gameplay-aspects work the same way. Using the ANCIENT ARCHIVE to review vocabulary or change your characters color-variation is optional so that players who aren't interested in learning Japanese, don't feel like they are forced to interact with the language in order to clear any kind of battle or quest.
Using the MECHANICAL MARKET, upgrading it to buy better items and gear, however, is pretty important to get further into the game. It's a central mechanic that I wanted in the game to create some kind of hub area. Combnined with the ANCIENT ARCHIVE, there is always this central part of the map where you can go back to and sort things out. There are also four helpful shortcuts looping back to these areas. They unlock later in the game and should give the player a feeling of the size of the world they have explored and also a feeling of interconnectedness.
Whenever you sleep at a camp, MARTY has a dream about KET. It takes way to long for the animation to pass, and impatient players might be annoyed by it pretty early on, but I couldn't bring myself to take this out of the game. So I implemented it into a later story scene to give the animation more weight.
PLAYER'S PERCEPTION OF THE GAME:
There are many different types of players out there. And I wanted to create an experience that is fun for those that "only" aim for completing the story while also rewarding the ones looking for details and figuring out all the secrets. So I tried to put in some tutorials, but not too many. Giving visual clues but don't spell all of them out completly. Some of those work well, others just don't. But that's what you can learn from for future projects.
At the end of CHAPTER 2 a player could play a basic JRPG with almost no story. The player can reach the area of CHAPTER 3 without knowing about MOLE IDOLS, STYLE CHANGE, MARTY'S FIELD SKILL "SHOVEL MASTER" and other METROIDVANIA elements, TYR THE CROW, UPDATING THE MECHANICAL MARKET, KEY CARD DOORS and how to open them, or the fact that humanity had died out after the invention of some kind of robot.
The area around COHOOT is full of snow and red flowers. SCOTT is amazed by them, while MARTY seems to be irritated...
The duo meets ARVIN soon after arriving at SAMUI HARBOR. The little owl is on a quite unusual journey: He wants to find his friend at the TOWER OF KNOWLEDGE to change the color of his hull.
The thing is, ARVIN is white. But all of the other owls in COHOOT are red. It's camouflage to hide them beneath the leaves of the COHOOT tree. But after getting to ARVIN's friend and learning that he won't be able to change his color for quite a while, a strange cloud gathers in the west, above the COHOOT tree.
The group decides to go there and after a small rest at a camp and a strange nightmare, MARTY and his friends have to face a real threat at the top of COHOOT: It's a man or some kind of plant. Or both. And he seems to know MARTY. The group manages to drive off the enemy, but it's all a little too much for MARTY. He loses consciousness.
The next day, everyone gathers in front of the king of COHOOT. ARVIN decides to join MARTY on his journey and the trio heads out to the country of the moles. They need to reach the city NEW DIGGITY and ask the king for passage through THE GREAT TUNNEL. This tunnel can lead them to the eastern continent, where the strange building they're trying to reach, is located.
COHOOT is the first region of the game where things start getting way less linear. There are a lot of areas to unlock here.
But I decided to make some of the areas unaccessible or only partly accessible until after the big fight at COHOOT. After this battle, the players should have an idea that there is more to the story than just travelling the world and finding MEM.DATs. That's when the game starts getting way more open. They can visit a bunch of places, can try to clear some quests (which are mostly optional, only 4 of 37 are really required to finish the game) or try to move on to the areas of CHAPTER 4 and find out what's behind the evil guy that attacked COHOOT.
Once they arrive in NEW DIGGITY, CHAPTER 4 will require the players to finish some tasks in a non-linear order to make it even clearer that this game is all about the freedom to explore.
The owl on top of the TOWER OF KNOWLEDGE is called OWLAV. Most of the names are some kind of wordplay. Especially the area-names. Some I like a lot, others don't really hit the mark. Many of them are alliterations. Guess I spent a bit too much time with RAREWARE games growing up.
SAMUI HARBOR is the first area of CHAPTER 3 you visit. SAMUI (寒い) means "cold".
PLAYER'S PERCEPTION OF THE GAME:
At the end of CHAPTER 3 a player could play a basic JRPG with almost no story, exept for some big bad guy that tried to destroy COHOOT and seems to know something about MARTY. The player can reach the area of CHAPTER 4 without knowing about MOLE IDOLS, STYLE CHANGE, MARTY'S FIELD SKILL "SHOVEL MASTER" and other METROIDVANIA elements, TYR THE CROW, UPDATING THE MECHANICAL MARKET, KEY CARD DOORS and how to open them, or the fact that humanity had died out after the invention of some kind of robot.
The player could also not know about CARA, the secret fourth party member, or the KANJI ARCHIVE accompanying her.
STORY AND NOTES:
In CHAPTER 4 we get to know MO, the mole.
Then, finally the party will arrive at THE DOME, the final area of CHAPTER 5. Here, the player will meet ARTY, a mysterious robot.
By now, a lot of the world's history should have been explained through the MEM.DATs. If a player didn't care for them, most of the information will be explained once CHAPTER 6 ends.
There's a two-phase boss battle here, and some dramatic events that lead to the (temporary) destruction of one of MARTY's friends. The end of CHAPTER 6 marks the first step in a number of twists. Just after finding out the weight of MARTY's secret you will learn that the truth about the bad guy is something bigger than what the game made you believe. Understanding the real threat to MARTY's world is important to understanding where it inevitably leads to:
CHAPTER 7 - Finding KET and TOBI. Finding them, learning about their origins, taking a deep breath and holding on tight to the whistle.
Afterwards, in CHAPTER 8, you'll get tons of new areas to explore and the world will also be "slightly" different from before. Go out and collect all of the secrets or head for the final areas of the game and try to finish the fight! Your choice.
TRIVIA: The second final boss theme has elements of a lot of the other battle themes in it. Also, the third final boss theme is a faster version of the game's main title theme and it's called "LETTING GO".
After the credits, there is one more scene that is there to send a message to the player: Thanks for playing! Thanks for reaching the end. Thanks for thinking about all of this. Now think about what this one additional piece of information means for the future in Monsters of Kanji 2. I don't know how much of this I am actually able to convey, but making a game is a tough job, and sometimes you need to try your best and just hope it works :)
MONSTERS OF KANJI 2 is in development now. And I really hope I can improve on some of the flaws this first game of mine has. We'll see... :)