When Tchia first caught our eye, it was at September’s PlayStation Showcase. And given that context, it seemed all too fitting that the game’s trailer should open with a bout of ukulele plucking that, for many, recalled Ellie’s guitar playing in The Last Of Us Part 2. But, as Awaceb co-founder and game director Phil Crifo points out, that idea was already in place in 2018, when development on Tchia began in earnest – and he has the receipts.
“I don’t think they showed it before release, so we basically all discovered it when playing the game at launch,” he says. Was that a galling moment, or a validating one? “It was actually more of a confirmation that, OK, this system works. This makes sense. If the designers at Naughty Dog came up with a similar UX solution, it must mean that we did our job right.”
Besides, here it’s deployed for more than occasional character beats and creative expression during moments of downtime. “We do have some of those in the game, but we also have more involved rhythm sections and actual gameplay impact with the ukulele,” Crifo says. “You have magical melodies you can play to attract animals or trigger rainfall and stuff like that.”
We sense players will be strumming that animal-attracting tune quite a bit. One of Tchia’s most captivating mechanics is ‘soul jumping’, which lets its young protagonist inhabit passing creatures. The first example is a gull, which – in combination with the game’s island setting – reminds us of a similar idea in The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. But you can also inhabit dogs, crabs, turtles, and even become a coconut, rolling around on the beach. It’s almost like David OReilly’s Everything minus the existential musings.
Into the unknown
You won’t be able to use the power endlessly, Crifo says – it’s no surprise that you can roll around plenty in coconut form, while the boost in locomotion you gain as a bird drains your magic quicker – but promises the time you’re given to spend in non-human form “won’t make players feel like they’re missing out” at the start, and will be more generous still by the end.
You can shift between different forms, too, which promises plenty of exciting opportunities for traversal trickery. “Yeah, you can be a deer and then go super fast and jump off a cliff, warp out of it, then warp to a bird and continue flying,” Crifo nods, with scant concern for the poor ruminant’s wellbeing. “Stuff like that opens up a lot of emergent moments that are really cool.”
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Tchia will be firmly story-driven, Crifo says, with “high production value” cutscenes and voices for all characters: “I don’t like the term ‘cinematic’, but I guess it kind of defines what we want.” The main quest line, however, will take structural inspiration from earlier Rockstar games, “where the missions were pretty freeform – you have an objective, but you can go about solving it any way you want to”.
The big difference – aside from the fact that Tchia is considerably less violent, at least if you don’t count those poor deer – is the setting. Today, Crifo and his studio are based in Bordeaux, but he and Awaceb co-founder Thierry Boura grew up together on the south Pacific island of New Caledonia. After the pair completed finished development on their first game, Fossil Echo, it was thinking about their homeland which provided “the spark that ignited the whole thing” for the next project.
“Our sensibilities have always been towards open-world exploration, and there came a point where we asked ourselves: what makes us stand out? And it was pretty obvious that it was our origins, because there are zero videogames set in New Caledonia.” Crifo describes an experience that’s no doubt familiar to players across the world: “you’re [playing a game] and you’re like, ‘Can you imagine if GTA took place in our town? That would be crazy’. And that’s basically what we’re making.”
Well, sort of. Crifo is keen to clarify that Tchia isn’t actually set in New Caledonia, but rather a fantastical place rooted deeply in its culture. “It’s like Ghibli movies where they are strongly infused by Japan, and you get that essence and sense of place”, he says. “It’s not autobiographical, but to stand out you have to find that specificity, to show that you have a unique story to tell.”
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