Kickstarter Interview: Ghost Song: A Journey of Hope is a hardcore update to the Metroidvania genre

Super Metroid is a pretty freaking classic game – one of my favorites of all time, actually. The definitive game in the creation of the Metroidvania genre, it rewards exploration, does gear gating right, and has large-scale boss fights. While plot is present, the story is really narrated by the environment and the tasks you'll complete there.

What if you could add more to it though? What if Super Metroid had stats, crits, armor, inventory, pets, and more? This is the very basis to Ghost Song.

What originated as a dream and as a Flash game, Ghost Song grew too large in both actual size and capabilities. Highly influenced by Super Metroid, Dark Souls, and The Last of UsGhost Song looks to push the boundaries of the Metroidvania genre. Throw these games together and you get a non-hand-holding, difficult, mysterious, exploration-heavy emotional rollercoaster. The storytelling alone will require work on the player’s end. To get the most out of Ghost Song you’ll have to earn it – I friggin love that.

My strong bias says this game will be amazing, a hypothesis that's supported by how passionate the game's creator is about the influences I love.

I reached out to Matt White to ask him some questions about Ghost Song. The full interview can be found below. I strongly suggested you check out it. While you’re at it, check out the official Ghost Song Kickstarter page, and, most importantly, if you like what you see, donate to the cause. Also check out the bottom of the interview for a demo.

What exactly is Ghost Song: A Journey of Hope? Where did the idea for Ghost Song stem from? How long have you had a project like this in mind?

Ghost Song is a game that started as a love letter to 2D Metroid, which has been MIA since 2003, and, over the past year, evolved into its own thing all together. It still resembles Metroid in many superficial ways, but includes many features that no 2D Metroid has ever had. Stats, crits, armor, inventory, even a pet system. In addition, my time playing Dark Souls and the Last of Us — two of my favorite games for very different reasons — [has] really opened my eyes about what is okay to do in game design (Dark Souls) and that video games can tell an incredibly believable, emotionally resonant story (The Last of Us).

This is a game that seeks to capture everything that I find fascinating about video games. Isolation, ambience, requiring a player to be self-motivated and solve problems on his own rather than being instructed or led along a linear path. 

Incidentally, the game began as a flash game, and the build of the game being shown publically is, in fact, the Flash game. At some point I realized Flash wasn't going to cut it for all the big ideas I had. That's the motivation behind the Kickstarter. Rebuilding bigger and better.

What games inspired you for this project?

There are chiefly three games that were the most formative for me as a gamer designer. First, Super Metroid. This is basically the perfect game, a conquest in 2D game design from every angle. The artistry and gameplay still hold up rather well today. I was playing the game (the physical cartridge in my actual SNES!) just the other day and I remain in awe of just how cool it is. At the same time, I feel like there's more that can be done in modern times. It's a shame that Nintendo isn't doing anything with it; I'd love to see how a modern 2D Metroid would play.

Second: Dark Souls. I know people probably get tired of this game being name dropped. People get tired of hearing it in general. I'm not a bandwagoner — I was eagerly awaiting this game's release back in 2011, and I played the living hell out of it over the next months and years. I've played this game hundreds of hours, I own it on three platforms, and I generally just can't get enough. I've memorized the world, more or less. I know almost everything there is to know about this game. What is significant about this is how incredibly rare it is that I'm so involved in any new game release… Most games don't challenge me or fascinate me. 

Modern game design, in general, is too safe and boring. Dark Souls was an utterly formative experience because it taught me that a whole bunch of things that most would consider game design are actually not only okay, but can add to a game immensely. It's not just specific stuff — Though there are specifics, like the entrance to the Great Hollow. It's the general tenor of the game, its core nature, its unwillingness to necessarily provide easy gameplay or easy solutions in every situation. The way it restrains itself when it comes to cutscenes and dialogue and requires the user to proactively study his surroundings, item descriptions, and the cryptic words of the world's inhabitants to piece things together. This game is a masterpiece, and the most important and influential game to come out of this generation — In my opinion.

Third: The Last of Us. I know it might sound odd to hear me talk about a Naughty Dog game after raining praise on Dark Souls — But, here I am. I never even liked Uncharted. The Last Of Us came out around the time I was deciding, for certain, that I didn't want to continue making Ghost Song as a flash game. I played through TLOU and realized that although addressing identifiable emotional themes was already a goal and my story and characters were already largely in place, TLOU made me realize that I wasn't doing enough. This was the point when I decided I absolutely must have full voiceover, and it's also when I decided to significantly expand some of the story components of the game, particularly the opening act, which is when the setting, character motivations, and emotional heart of the game are established.

Ghost Song Ship

How big a role will your pet “Dizzy” have?

Dizzy is a little floating droid — sort of like a familiar. You acquire him pretty early in the game and he grants a few things that many games provide arbitrarily: mapping, "damage analyses" (floating damage numbers). He provides stat boosts in some situation, but other than that, most of what he does in the current game [is] story-based. 

That said, I always really wanted to do something more with him. Right from the start, I envisioned almost a Phantasy Star Online style of pet, whereby you can feed him any item and he will level up and evolve and potentially achieve new forms and grant new boosts or even special powers. The idea that different players would end up with rather different Dizzies — and that they might compare notes — is really cool to me. We'd even have some rare forms.

To do this properly would be a significant diversion from all the other stuff in the game. As such, I set it as a stretch goal. I think we're on track, as of today, to meet that goal. So I'm feeling optimistic that we'll have a real, legit virtual pet system in the game.

Is Charlene Koy the main protagonist? What can you tell us about her?

Charlene (or Charley, as I usually call her) is the character you play as in the first act of the game. She is First Officer aboard a small cargo ship and part of a tight knit crew — Think sorta a Firefly-type dynamic. They find themselves marooned on this really dangerous moon. We follow their struggles.

This act establishes the characters and introduces us to the world with its relative talkiness, and it also establishes, by its end, a great emotional longing and feeling of urgency in the player. And this sets the stage for the main portion of the game from the perspective of the Deadsuit (what I call the suit the player controls through the bulk of the game). It's hard to give details about the main portion of the game and who's in the suit, because this will likely be something of a mystery to most players when they initially play the game. I don't want to spoil the mystery. Different players will figure out what's going on at a different pace. There'll be clues throughout and a blatant reveal at the end. And, hell, some people will figure it out from the get-go, I'm sure.

What roll will spirits and ghost trees play?

The game takes place on a mysterious moon named Lorian V. It's a treacherous place, and those who die here become trapped as ghosts while their bodies roam as — I call them mutants, but really, most people would understand them to be zombies. The ghosts are tethered to the place so long as their bodies roam. Destroying the bodies frees the ghosts. The Ghost Tree is a specific place in the game — and, in a specific story event, we see a specific ghost bring it to life. This occurs not long after you freed her by destroying her body, which, in this particular case, was a powerful spell-caster. In the game, some mutants are generic enemies; others are more powerful and individual and are bosses or mini-bosses.

Freeing spirits will be one of the principle motivations of the player character, but to get more specific than that would, again, unravel some of the mystery prematurely. 

Will there be different endings? Perhaps based on speed of game completion?

I'm against the idea of different story outcomes and branching canons. I want one thing to be THE canon. THIS is what happened. Whether we have some extra goodies or a cooler ending (sort of like how Samus takes off more of her suit if you did better) — I would love to.

Ghost Song Underground

Overtime mode sounds pretty awesome from a storytelling aspect. How long have you had an idea for adding more content with extra characters and will they handle differently?  

I've had the idea for Overtime mode for a very long time, and would be thrilled to meet this stretch goal so we have the necessary security to work on the game longer. In Overtime Mode, you will play during a certain event of the game as a very different type of character — a child — and the gameplay will be more based on speed and avoidance. We will see things, in this mode, that cast new light on the events we saw in the main game. It'll be just one more way of bringing everything full-circle. 

I'm conflicted when it comes to answering story or setting-type questions. I just don't know how to convey the coolness of the ideas without giving stuff away. It's a fine line to walk, but for the most part I've decided to be cautious about blabbing.

Have you looked into Steam Greenlight for Ghost Song?

We have some strong options to get the game onto Steam, and I would expect us to make it based on what I now know. My reluctance to participate in Greenlight is based on my understanding that games who list on Greenlight are subsequently ineligible to be published onto Steam in any way other than the voting process. We have plans that don't involve that.

I can't promise we'll be on Steam (yet), but I can tell you there's very good reason to be optimistic about it. 

Update 8/19/2013:

Check out this 7 minute walkthrough demo that went up today. Watching the game in action really displays the challenge and difficulty you'll find in Ghost Song. In this video alone, Matt displays that certain foes will have specific weaknesses they you’ll have to learn and remember to be successful.

Historian, teacher, writer, gamer, cheat master, and tech guru: follow on Twitter @AndrewC_GZ