I love anthropomorphic stories, and I’m glad the world seems to agree. From Beastars to Zootopia, creators and audiences can’t seem to get enough of stories where animals take the spotlight. Even this year’s LudoNarraCon showcased a couple of games with anthropomorphic casts: The Flower Collectors and Backbone. (On top of that, they also share a noir tone.)
Developed by EggNut and published by Raw Fury, Backbone follows Howard Lotor, a raccoon working as a P.I. in a dystopian Vancouver. (According to an interview with Unreal Engine, his name is a nod to Procyon lotor, the common raccoon’s scientific name.) Rendered in pixel art that seems to glow and feels reminiscent of Octavi Navarro’s work, EggNut’s debut game looks stunning. Featuring “doom jazz” music, Backbone also promises another soundscape to get lost in while tracking down clues.
In the days surrounding LudoNarraCon, Unwinnable chatted with a few members of EggNut over Discord and email — Aleksandra Korabelnikova, co-founder of EggNut who also works in narrative design, writing and marketing for Backbone; Nikita Danshin, composer and dev lead of Backbone and co-founder of EggNut; and Danny Wadeson, Backbone’s narrative designer.
Alyssa Wejebe: What are your hopes and plans for LudoNarraCon?
Aleksandra Korabelnikova: It’s the first time we’re participating in LudoNarraCon, and I’m super excited! I was following it closely last year and [I’m] happy we got to participate this year. It’s great that there is a separate platform like this for narrative games, especially with the audience reach as huge as Steam’s main page. I believe that narrative games are for everyone — humans live and breathe stories, and seeing the genre getting more representation for the wider audience really warms my heart.
We hope to reach more people with the playable Prologue of Backbone that we have on Steam — it’s a great taster for what the full game in 2021 will try to achieve. Players convert to wishlists, and these help our small studio during the full game release. We also recorded a playthrough of the Prologue with commentary from our writing, art and dev team for the LudoNarraCon stream. Then we went through our archives and tried to get to the bottom of how this project started, what difficulties we experienced as first-time devs. I hope that people aspiring to make their own narrative games will find it useful!
People were able to watch the Backbone demo during this year’s LudoNarraCon.
A.W.: The last time Backbone was featured on Unwinnable, you felt more studios should try working remotely like EggNut. What are your thoughts on more game developers doing that now in response to COVID-19?
A.K.: Well, it sucks that they are forced to do that, rather than decide. No one knows what will happen tomorrow, there’s no sense of stability, and it can be very scary and stressful. I just hope that people find time and resources to be kind to themselves. You can’t really expect from yourself or your colleagues to be productive during a global pandemic. It’s ok to be tired, anxious, sad. Our team is managing pretty well, but that’s because we’ve been at this remote lifestyle for three years, and it’s been really tough when we were just starting to adjust to it during Kickstarter and Prologue release. There were periods of major doubt — “Am I working enough? I’m not. Then why am I so tired?”, and then there was burnout. Please, be kind to yourself, you are wonderful and enough! And get a nice chair if you can.
A.W.: So you and your team have been doing all right during this current situation? Has the development of Backbone been affected in any way, or has the pace remained normal?
A.K.: The development has been affected slightly, but all the really bad stuff was mitigated by us hiring a dedicated project manager, Ishani Birch. She helps us structure our days, schedule tasks, make plans. We’ve started using sprints, and, thanks to her work, we are doing better than ever.
Of course, living situation has changed for some of us — our co-founder Nikita Danshin has a small child, and it’s not easy during quarantine. We just try really hard to take extra care of each other, talk daily, and make sure nobody is working too much. It’s easy to overwork when you’re stuck at home.
A.W.: What do you mean by “sprints?”
A.K.: Sprints are very cool — they’re a list of tasks for us to all work on during two-week chunks. We first estimate tasks in difficulty points, so we have tasks that are short and easy, and some are complex and need more time. Then we select which ones have higher priorities, so something urgent or essential for the game comes first, and all the “nice-to-haves” come last. After each sprint is complete, we begin to understand much better how different people work, how many tasks we can complete as a team, and how much work is really left. This allows us to plan better. Game development is so incredibly complex, with many variables, unknowns and stressors. Always knowing what to do next and what everyone is working on is priceless.
A.W.: While LudoNarraCon started as a digital event last year, a lot more events are going digital due to COVID-19. What do you think of this rise in virtual events?
A.K.: I think it’s a great trend. Virtual workspaces and events tend to be more inclusive, have better representation and a bigger variety of voices. It’s a vital change game development needs right now. We could have never made Backbone if we only hired people in Vancouver. Going to events is not safe, not cheap, and outright impossible for the majority of gamedevs, so seeing more opportunities to showcase your work online is honestly great.
A.W.: Yeah, I like the greater access that virtual work and events can offer.
A.K.: For sure! There are terrible and good things all happening together. The change is what matters.
A.W.: Let’s take a break from COVID-19. Unwinnable previously shared Backbone’s origin story with real-life raccoons, which was charming. Did the team research raccoons and other animals for Backbone?
A.K.: We didn’t really! In Backbone, differences between species and characters are purely sociological, so we didn’t use any real-life animal behavioral patterns in our design. We had to make decisions about which species are anthropomorphic, and this was usually dictated by whether they’re native to British Columbia or not.
A.W.: Interesting! So there are some species that won’t be anthropomorphic?
A.K.: It’s a secret! Haha.
A.W.: It sounds like something to look forward to. I always find it interesting when anthropomorphic stories don’t make every species sentient. For example, I think Zootopia did that — the insects weren’t sentient, so carnivores could eat them.
A.K.: Yep! There are so many ways to build anthropomorphic worlds, and we created our specific approach for Backbone. Hopefully we’ll publish an article telling all about it soon!
A.W.: Awesome, I would love to read that later! One of the things that drew me to Backbone was the anthropomorphic cast. I just love nonhuman characters.
A.K.: They are a wonderful tool to put enough distance between the players and the game world and still tell realistic, believable human stories.
A.W.: While anthropomorphic characters have potential for stories, characterization, and metaphor, does using them also hold visual appeal for you?
A.K.: For sure! There are so many variables to play with while creating the character design. All species come with preconceived notions, and we want players to study and deconstruct them. Visual design is another, very important layer of narrative. Our character artist Kristina Dashevskaya and animator Kirill Simonenko do a lot of research into movement, fashion, and poses for each character to stand out as an individual.
A.W.: Have you noticed The Flower Collectors at LudoNarraCon? It also has an anthropomorphic cast with a noir tone.
A.K.: Yeah, it looks great! The limitation to one room and a street view sounds very exciting.
A.W.: You mentioned narrative design and writing before. What’s the difference between the two?
Danny Wadeson: This is a great question, and it deserves a whole discussion. I’ll try to summarise. A writer deals with story, characters, and sentences — and often with how a conversation flows, and branches. They should think about [the] character’s tone of voice, conveying information, emotion, and they should do so in as efficient a way as possible.
A narrative designer is ideally a nexus of storytelling within a team. Whatever the exact hierarchy — whether the narrative designer is coming up with the story, or taking direction from a game/creative director — they are responsible for working with the other departments to convey, champion, and implement that vision. However, they should also be listening to each department’s production concerns, in case a simple narrative tweak can solve production roadblocks.
Of course there are often overlaps, but those are the main differences. A writer is a storyteller, first and foremost. A narrative designer is a technically minded vision holder and communicator.
A.W.: How have you approached story and characterization in Backbone?
D.W.: The short answer is that, the story hinges on a subject close to both their hearts — that of entrenched power structures and the oppression that stems from them.
We have a few different narrative design pillars, some of which are spoilery, but the thing that unifies our approach, the lens we look at everything through, is: what is this character’s velocity? How has their struggle with/in society informed who they are, what they want, and where they’re going?
As for the overall story, we take pains to ensure that the motivation of Howard, our protagonist, is highly believable and logical. That is not to say it’s predictable. We try hard to ensure that Howard and the player’s motivations align — and though the story may be surprising, it should feel somewhat inevitable. We want to tell a story that is powerful and unapologetic — the kind of story that only our game and our team can tell. It may not always be pretty, but it will feel authentic.
We also agonised for a long time over the ending. Many games — indeed, media in general — forget that a bad ending can tarnish everything that led up to it. A great ending must not trick the player; it must irrevocably alter their perspective, and show them what effect their actions have — or have not — had on the world around them. And it must offer both closure and a glimpse into the future — what great work is yet to be done?
A.W.: What about worldbuilding and lore?
D.W.: As above, mostly. Worldbuilding and lore crafting are often asked and debated questions, and rightly so. In some genres of game, such as open world RPGs, or fantasy/sci-fi settings, worldbuilding is more important as you do not have the schemas of ‘the real world’ to fall back on. [But] we’re telling a story that, although is obviously not realistic, still functions on realistic rules. The setting is an authentic (but again, not slavishly realistic) version of Vancouver. Our lore is political, and socio-economical. Our lore is the recent history of character relationships and class struggle.
To put it another way — we want this game to create compelling lore for the franchise. But of course, there are secrets to our universe to be uncovered as you play, some of which may have obliquely set events of the game in motion.
A.W.: Does Backbone’s art ever inspire the writing or narrative design? Or do writing and narrative design normally wrap up before art is made?
D.W.: It’s an iterative process. We find our artists function best when they have some narrative guidance, but we’re lucky enough that they’re so incredible, their designs often then influence how we think about that character’s tone of voice or motivation. So of course there needs to be a critical mass of narrative before art is started, but as much as possible we intertwine the two — this helps create a virtuous cycle and hopefully cements the cohesiveness of our storytelling.
It also leads to some unexpected eureka moments, which is always refreshing!
Sample from presentation about Backbone’s pixel art at Unreal Indie Dev Days 2019.
A.W.: What about music? Did that inspire writing and narrative design in the game? Or maybe the other way around?
Nikita Danshin: I’d say that it goes both ways. The song that you hear in the main menu of the Prologue was one of the first things that I created as a part of the concept, to set the general tone for the game. I personally believe that the soundscapes that I create for the levels help other team members to move into one or another direction, because it’s an effective way of representing the mood.
On the other hand, we have scenes that are already pre-defined by narrative, before I start working on the music. In this case I would need to see what fits into this part of the story. A lot of times it takes resources to simply find the instrument or sound that reflects the feeling we are looking for.
Also, a good thing to consider is that making games is a very iterative process, and our team tries their best to make every little element perfect and fit into a bigger picture.
So the music shapes the visuals and the atmosphere, but I also always shape the music around existing elements or if something changes along the way.
A.W.: How did Raw Fury get involved? Did you pitch your game to them, or did they reach out to you?
A.K.: Callum Underwood was scouting games for Raw Fury back in 2018, and he was the first one to notice Backbone when we posted our first ever scheenshot on Twitter. We had a wonderful chat, but the timing was wrong — there was no playable prototype and our vision was just starting to evolve into what became Backbone. We proceeded to crowdfund the game through Kickstarter in April 2018, and then worked for a year to release the playable Prologue in 2019. After it was out and we had some positive reviews that showed the game had potential, we got in touch with Raw Fury again. We also messaged around 60 other publishers just to be safe, but they’ve been on the top of our list since day one. They are genuinely good people who believe in our team and vision, let us do whatever we want, and we’ve built a very equal and fair relationship with them. From the countless stories about horrible publishers floating around, I know how incredibly lucky we are to have partners who want to shake shit up and change the industry to be more inclusive as much as we do.
A.W.: You told Unwinnable before that Blacksad and Zootopia have influenced Backbone. Is there anything else that inspired the game?
A.K.: Growing up and experiencing identity crisis in [the] dystopian state of modern Russia. Mostly that, yeah.
It’s all on Howard’s to-do list.