Nintendo Life: Congratulations! Sea of Stars is done and it’s nearly out!
Thierry Boulanger, Creative Director of Sea of Stars: Yes! We can’t touch it anymore. It’s actually really weird. We’ve been obsessing forever, and now it’s out of our hands. The behind-the-scenes of that is that you send your bill to certification and then Nintendo puts it live at midnight or whatever on the day of release but you’re so used to waking up and thinking “What do we tweak, what do we polish, what do we do today?” and you wake up and it’s like “Well there’s nothing I could do even if I did find something that I might want to do.”
So there’s a weird feeling of… I don’t want to say emptiness but like something’s missing because you just have that phantom memory of working on it and caring about it and all its little details. But that will be filled with everyone playing it and telling us what they found and everything. So we’re just in this vacuum right now and looking forward to the release.
Yeah, I bet. It’s been, gosh, what, three years since you announced Sea of Stars? Development started pretty much a few months after The Messenger came out, right?
So, the initial pitch to the team was in October 2018, so it was about six weeks after The Messenger launched. It was pitched as “Hey, this is what we’re doing next, along with the DLC for Messenger.” We kicked off these two things because we don’t want to lay people off. Those dev cycles are real. You can’t have your entire studio working the first couple of weeks of a new idea, that doesn’t work; you need a smaller team. So we had the bulk of the team working on a DLC because that’s already established.
You can’t have your entire studio working the first couple of weeks of a new idea, that doesn’t work; you need a smaller team.
Meanwhile, we do the groundwork for the next big thing, and then DLC comes out, and then we can bring everyone onto the next project. But yes, by the time the game releases, it will have been five years almost. So, yeah, it’s been a journey for sure.
So when did you first come up with the idea for Sea of Stars? When did you know, “Oh, I want to make an RPG for our next game?”
I was playing ‘Solstice Warriors’ in elementary school (laughs). So for me, it’s a fantasy world that I’ve been building. Because all of our games are connected, right? They’re all in the same universe. For The Messenger, there’s been a flood, there’s only one island left, and then you play the ninja on that one island.
Sea of Stars is set way in the past — it’s prior to that flood, and so it’s in an archipelago. It really ties in well with when you get your boat to sail around, and seeing these smaller islands, it means we get these pockets. You get a village, you get a couple of dungeons — you never have this big continent that you’re just walking over with grass then mountains then forests. It allowed for a more distilled and shorter experience in the sense that you always get to vary the biomes and the things that you visit faster.
Regarding Sea of Stars’ development, you’ve talked multiple times about inspiration from Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, and Illusion of Gaia. But with those classics, is there anything you’re conscious about not doing?
Absolutely. The main thing I try to avoid is I don’t want to copy something. In my mind, it’s okay to pay homage, it’s okay to borrow, but the ticket is you want to make sure that you elevate. And what that means is you don’t pick directly what something did, but you honor the essence of what was done there.
You mentioned Illusion of Gaia, which I still feel is underrated! But those who know, they really get it, right? And so you start in class and the first thing that I did was go on the roof, I met the big face that was talking, and you get to jump down off the roof — and in just that moment, it felt like, “I’ve never done that.” I’ve played platformers, and I’ve played games that are more action, but for some reason, there was something that felt as though that game wasn’t supposed to be able to do that. The way that it presented the jump with the type of story and the gameplay that it promised, it always felt as if it was doing something more That was a really big click moment for me. So, for example, playing Chrono Trigger, — which is my number one of all time and why I do this for a living — I wished there could have been something else to that world, a sense where I’m touching the world just a little bit more.
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All of that under the big umbrella of what we call traversal in production for Sea of Stars –hoisting up, jumping off of ledges, the climbing, the tightrope walking, how it’s seamless in and out of water — all of that came from the spark, the click moment from jumping off that roof in Illusion of Gaia. I was looking for more similar interactions and how they could be fleshed out even more. For me, there was a big — I don’t wanna say opportunity in terms of business, but creatively in terms of providing an experience that feels fresh for people who fondly remember that flavor of games.
Going back to Chrono Trigger specifically, how terrifying is it to be compared to that game?
(laughs) Yeah, I mean… where it’s not so intimidating is that we didn’t lead with that in terms of marketing. Often when we talk to other indies, one of the first pieces of advice that we try to give is don’t lead with “Oh it’s Zelda meets Pokémon” because everyone understands that you don’t have any of these brands and that you are very unlikely to get any of them right to that degree.
…so what we should do is create something that is as good as our memories of those games.
If you show up with the essence of something, then people notice it, and then they mention it, then great because that means that the game speaks for itself. You’re trying to propose something else and then people are starting to appropriate because they can find a reference, then you’re in a really strong position. As a writer, I’ll never come up to someone and say “You should play this. It’s really funny. There’s a lot of great jokes, and they’re all from a great writer!” You just do your best. You let people judge it. And then if any positive comments come from someone else then it has sort of credibility because it’s not you trying to sell something.
So to your question, is it intimidating? Absolutely. We understand the mandate that people decided was on us now, which is, “Give me, make me feel that way again.” And part of that challenge is what I can’t do is make you be nine years old again. (laughs) We don’t have those ingredients so what we should do is create something that is as good as our memories of those games.
Looking at Chrono Trigger, outside of combat, your character (Crono) has sprites and animations for up, down, left, right, walking, running, and then climbing a ladder at a single angle. So that’s, if we’re generous, we get eight walking and running animations and one climbing one, so that’s nine total. So [Sea of Stars] has eight angles instead of four: we can climb in multiple directions; there’s all the jumping at different heights; jumping down; all the swinging and everything else. We probably have about 60 navigation animations per character. When you cross-reference all the use cases, when people play [Sea of Stars], they don’t go, “Oh wow, this is way richer than what the other one did.” They just go, “Yeah, that feels right.” That’s the amount of effort that it takes for it to compensate and be as good as what you remember.
With the main cast, how do you give them personality and differentiate them from the two main characters?
Where I’m really lucky is that I’ve genuinely been building this world and these characters in my head for 30 years. I have a very deep understanding of every single character — anyone who has a portrait when they talk. They’re characters that I’ve personally been very close to for a very long time, and I understand their backstory, their motivations, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. You’re exposed to a tiny bit of their motivations in-game, and in the little subtleties and the way that they talk, they are consistent to an actual core that you won’t necessarily see but it still makes them consistent. If we ever get to tell someone’s backstory, it’s not going to be, “Oh wait, how do I make something up because we want more, because people overwhelmingly wanted to gather around a certain character and now we want to provide the backstory.” I actually have it. I’m not telling you more than 30% of what I know about any of the characters that you meet in the game, except for Valere and Zale, your two main characters.
I try to avoid being too descriptive. You can just have a free-flowing conversation where you yourself pick up on some cues. I think that also has more replay value because if you have a character that gives you a “…” as a response, then maybe you learn something in the later parts of the game that if you replay it, you get what they were worried about all along, which was a thing that was revealed for you later.
Speaking of Valere and Zale, they don’t necessarily evoke the silent protagonist trope, but they definitely feel like easy characters to impress yourself and your feelings onto. They bounce off of each other really well, too. Zale’s a little bit more excitable but Valere is the thinker, the doer.
In terms of their personalities, I don’t want it to be too on the nose but they’re a continuity of the sun and the moon. So one may be burning bright (Zale) with the other one being more balanced and reflective (Valere). They balance each other out and need each other’s power to reach their full might. You mentioned the silent protagonist, and I did sort of have a challenge with that, because the character that you control, [the player] should be able to, to a degree, self-insert. That’s a big thing for this kind of game. But then if we have two, then the one that’s your follower… you’re not going to have two silent protagonists.
I’ve genuinely been building this world and these characters in my head for 30 years.
I don’t want to say it was a thin line, but it was a balancing act for sure; they do have personalities and I wanted them to have personalities. Their personalities needed to be just enough that you can get invested, and it’s not something that you can reject either. Everyone is going to have their favorite side character or playable character.
It’s been an incredible year for RPGs so far. What do you think it is about RPGs at the moment that have really captured people’s interest and how do you feel that Sea of Stars is going to fit into that?
Launching between Baldur’s Gate 3 and Starfield is… Let’s just say that we’re glad we built a follower base (laughs) But I think there’s something evergreen about a retro-inspired game. It’s not something that you look at in two years and it feels dated. If it’s going to look dated, that’s already the case. So because it calls to that specific thing, I think it lives in a timeless place. In terms of marketing, I think most of the exposure we’re going to get is from players telling each other in smaller online spaces that, “You need to play this,” “It’s one of the…,” “If you like this one, maybe you’ll like this one”.
Before starting Sabotage eight years ago, while prototyping The Messenger, Sea of Stars was already planned and it was already something we wanted to do. We don’t do market research; we just make the games that we want to make. We find our crowd and then that’s it. Honestly, I don’t have a read on why… Because there does seem to be a resurgence. I’m seeing all the conversation around Baldur’s Gate 3. I don’t think what people have been missing is that there are 200 hours of things to do in the game, it’s just that you boot the game and everything is there; grab your sword and go hit something and just be in the game. So yeah, maybe there is a return to a different model.
There is a fear of getting buried, which I think is a healthy fear to have if you want to survive as a studio. But also there’s something to be said about if we just make it just enough, maybe when people look back on 2023 as that epic year where there were so many big games and big titles, it was such a bountiful year, maybe we’re in the list. I don’t know, we’ll see.
What do you think is the most important part, the essence, of an RPG from the Super Nintendo or 16-bit era? And what goes into Sea of Stars most, do you think?
Well, I mean, music is a very big one, for sure! But looking back… what you played and what you remembered is the distilled end result of a process, right? And so that’s the thing is, we’re looking at the process. If someone were to say, “I want to make a Chrono Trigger homage game” or whatever, but the key is not to have a frog with a sword. (laughs) Even though the frog with a sword is where they ended up
We tried to keep it more on a vibes and feels level rather than being precise about anything.
In my mind, the idea is not to redo the end result; it’s to undertake the journey for yourself and adapt any decisions that you make for it to be to your time what that one was to its time. And not like, “Oh yeah, look, we have portals and the eight-time periods” and that, because it did it really well you’re not gonna do it better. We all remember it and we don’t want just something that takes it takes us back for a little bit but then in five years we still only talk about the first one. You want to offer something more and you want to say “Look at that thing that you made.” I don’t know if that was [Square’s] idea but in my mind when that team got together, what they pulled off was a miracle. (laughs) But that should inspire.
We didn’t replay it to compare, “Oh, this is how we should do this or that.”; It was really just, does it feel right? Does it feel like it’s in continuity? We tried to keep it more on a vibes and feels level rather than being precise about anything.
I think one thing that stood out to me most, especially comparing it to The Messenger, is that there are a lot more serious moments. Most of that is done through Garl; he’s such a fun character. How difficult did you find it to balance the serious and the light-hearted tone?
Heroism and friendship have to be two big themes for it to work. In terms of Garl, this character is so special to me. Whenever he was in a scene, it was so easy to write and he cheered me up as I was making up what he needed to say. I’m a really emotional guy and I always to try to really connect. So when I write a scene, I try to visualize the emotion and whenever he comes in, I think, “Oh, what do I need relief from? What do you want to feel like for just a few moments?” And I would just insert that. It was so easy, by far the easiest to write of anything I’ve ever written.
Sometimes Sea of Stars gets really silly. If I’m taking myself too seriously, I get annoyed at myself. I knew I didn’t I didn’t want two big continents and the Empire versus whatever. It’s been done well a lot of times, but I personally prefer to have a more intimate story within a big world. I didn’t want something where the game starts and it’s like, “Okay, I need to learn all these factions” and then the game just drops something, and then “Oh, they went to the Mol’Vir.” Is it a river? Is it a religion? Is it a continent? Is it an event of the moon every third phase? Tolkien gets to do that, great, but I think our brains are full enough of name-drops and lore dumps.
That’s why for every single town I tried to reduce it down to just one word that I felt carried the spirit of the place. For example, you go to the Cursed Woods — you don’t go to the Minar Forest. I’m close to my inner child — if it’s the volcano, you can call it Fire Mountain, why not? Have fun! I want Sea of Stars to feel like a summer vacation. That would be more of a Chrono Cross inspiration; you’re in a beautiful world, but you are the Ghostbusters, so sometimes you have to go below and take care of something hideous so that the rest of the people can keep just having this beautiful world. And the idea was to be able to feel this difference. Taking out the evil or the bad guys is more about feeling empowered, even if there are moments where it can be a bit darker while you have a struggle there.
You mentioned music earlier, and Eric W. Brown is back for Sea of Stars. How different was it for him working on an RPG compared to The Messenger and how did you guide him along?
Eric’s a very close friend. We’ve been working together full-time for over eight years at this point, so we’re kindred spirits. He’s ridiculously talented and so creative — I’m still starstruck on some level even though he calls me a friend! (laughs) So the vision was always really clear when it came to that. He got the pitch a month before the team because I wanted some music samples to help give a mood or a vibe for the pitch.
…you’re in a beautiful world, but you are the Ghostbusters, so sometimes you have to go below and take care of something hideous so that the rest of the people can keep just having this beautiful world.
For Sea of Stars, we wanted heavy Super Nintendo samples, but we wanted to layer just a tiny bit of real-life instruments. But the writing style had to stay retro. That’s something that [Yasunori] Mitsuda did as well; we wanted shorter loops, and we wanted to make sure there’s a hook in everything. So usually a song will start with an intro that’s catchy right away, and then you get two or three sections, and then it loops. Counting the jingles and counting day and night tracks as two separate tracks, Mitsuda did 12 tracks. We’re at 203 tracks total for the soundtrack, so it is a lot!
Eric is paid to work with us full-time, so it’s not like, “Hey, make 30 because here are 30 ideas for areas in the game.” You’re on all the time, so just do whatever makes sense, and let’s just get this to feel right. Eric’s free to publish and sell his own music, too. What that ensures is that we get his best ideas. All of that creates a sense that audio is not something that we just outsource or that we knock out an asset list: you’re a part of the team. He gets all the briefs, he’s in the meetings, he flies, and he spends time at the studio often. And so he’s a core part of everything that we do. That probably means we get five times as many tracks as we would otherwise because he would say, “Hey, I was playing last night and for this moment, I think I’d really like to make something bespoke to support this one-off conversation.”
With Mitsuda, that’s been a big draw for a lot of people, how did you approach him on the project? What was the conversation like?
What ended up happening is actually pretty anticlimactic — we wrote an email to his website and it went “Hey, we’re just a small team. Here’s a pitch deck.” And we got a reply from him. We have a point of contact — an English-speaking representative — and he has been such a treat to work with. One thing I was really wary of was not asking Mitsuda to do Chrono Trigger again because I wanted to be respectful. We’re just happy to have him on board.
And Tom (the representative) says, “I was talking with Mitsuda, and he was wondering, do you think he should channel his Super Famicom writing style for this? Because he feels it would make sense.” That’s the easiest yes I have ever given in this life. (laughs)
I want to wrap up this chat by looking ahead. With Sea of Stars so close to release, what do you want people to take away from it when they play it?
That would be the ultimate paycheck — for people to be like “Yeah, it belongs there.”
It’s been five years. You pour all your hopes and dreams and you just want to present something that people will say, “I connected with this.” You just hope that people will gather around it and they will agree that it was a worthwhile pursuit. Even though there’s no more pressure from production or from partners, now I’m in this moment where there’s nothing more I can do. I’m just waiting anxiously — I want to know is it a thumbs up or down. (laughs)
I want there to be a sense that the game belongs. If you played Lufia 2 and you enjoyed it, if you played Breath of Fire, if the essence of these games means something to you, I hope that when you play Sea of Stars, you will say, “Yes, I’m adding the commas and I’m happy to have this one in there”. That would be the ultimate paycheck — for people to be like “Yeah, it belongs there.”
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A huge thank you to Thierry Boulanger for speaking to us, and to Sabotage and Tinsley PR for arranging this interview.
Sea of Stars launches on the Switch eShop on 29th August 2023 for $34.99 / £29.50. A physical version will be launched in 2024. Are you excited to join the Solstice Warriors on 29th? Rise and shine in the comments.