Interview: Martin Brouard, executive producer of the game Chariot

Until February 14th, The Geek Anthropologist is conducting a reader survey  and we are giving participants a chance to win a copy of the game Chariot for the platform of their choice. We are delighted to have the opportunity to share this magnificent and funny game with our readers. It was developed by Frima Studios, the biggest independent video games studio in Canada, located in Quebec city.

Martin Brouard, Chariot‘s executive producer, generously took the time to answer a few questions about the game. Here, he discusses the creative process of the team which developed the game, representations of diversity in video games and the choice to feature a female main character in Chariot.

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MPR: What is your role within Frima and the team behind Chariot?

MB: I have been an executive producer with Frima Studios for nearly 7 years. I am responsible, among other things, for the game Chariot. I imagine that the role of executive producer is different everywhere, but in my case, I am at the heart of initiating new projects. I work for Frima Originals, a department of Frima Studios which creates our own products, our own brands and intellectual property. My work consists in identifying interesting projects: either I come up with such projects, or colleagues suggest them through our Frimagination program or during brainstorm sessions. Once a project is identified, my job is to put together funding requests. Frima presents most of its requests for funding to the Canada Media Fund, more precisely the experimental stream of the Canada Media Fund. Once funding is obtained, I must oversee the production of the game. I supervise projects managers and all team members. I make sure I have ”both hands in it”: I am very implicated on the creative level as well as the financial level.

I consider myself to be very intensely geeky. All the clichés about geeks apply quite well to me, I think. I used to work as a filmmaker. I worked for a film festival, among other things. I have an extensive popular culture (general culture). I have always been of the opinion that it is important to have cultural knowledge which goes beyond video games in order to create good games, or that it takes more than knowledge about cinema to make good films. I have a lot of  knowledge on popular culture whether it’s about graphic novels, comic books, theater, literature or cinema and I try to bring this into the video games I produce.

So I contribute on the creative level, but I am also the client. In Frima, we often work with clients and I act as an internal client. I do work with my colleagues of course, but it’s a little bit like I am a client asking Frima to create the game I have in mind.

In Chariot’s case, the idea of the game came from Philippe Dion, a programmer who works with us and who is very, very creative. He had a vision of a game mechanic. Actually, his idea was more than a mechanic. He wanted to create an exploration game based on the use of physics and real cooperation. This was something he was looking for: he was looking for games in which players really have to cooperate and he couldn’t find any in the last few years. He came to me with this idea and I found it exciting. I freed some budget so he could create a prototype. When we tried the prototype, we tought ”we are going to have fun playing this is a game for sure!”

So Philippe came up with this idea and he carried the ball during this entire project. He was the equivalent of the director. It was his vision that we were bringing to life. I participated a lot in defining the story, certain game mechanics, etc., so we really worked together. But in the end, Chariot was his baby in my opinion.

We worked this way and it worked well. We are very happy with the results. We were truly successful in creating the game that we had envisioned. Honestly, looking back, there are some things we would like to change, of course. We had wondered about some elements, if we should include them or not, but eventually we had to take decisions and move ahead. There are certain things I would like to change, but they are minor details. In general, the game is exactly what we wanted it to be.

MPR: So the starting point was a game mechanic?

MB: Yes, everything really started with a mechanic. The idea of a cooperative game came to Philippe and he came to me with the idea to have characters who pull a chariot which is entirely physicalised by using ropes which allow them to give it momentum and to  change its inertia. This idea was really at the core of the game. As I was saying before, once we tested the prototype, we saw immediately that it had a unique potential, as no other game uses this mechanic. So we started with a mechanic and then we had to find ideas to put it in context, because that was not an easy thing to do.

GloriousChariot

MPR: How did you come up with the idea of a princess pulling her father’s coffin?

MB: Through a long period of trial and error. In the beginning, the game was the story of a tough ex-prisoner and his dodgy friend who was a sort of anthropomorphic magician frog. They worked for a guild of charioteers and they were trying to amass treasures to support their kingdom’s war effort. We tried many things, then we realized that the whole back story about the kingdom was not essential. We cut this entire aspect of the game. Later on, we concluded that our characters were not as interesting as we had hoped. We held brainstorm session with people from our team but also with people who not working on the project. We spent an entire day picking our brains to determine what ideas we wanted to convey with this game. We clarified a lot of things working this way.

At a certain point, I felt the desire to explore the idea of a father daughter relation. I have three daughters and I often play video games with them. I thought it would be interesting to focus on a father daughter relation and it is not something we often see in video games. Furthermore, there is a nice movement towards diversity and inclusion in the video game industry right now, as well a an effort to move away from usual reflexes that we generally see creatives teams follow. Different studios are making these efforts and I want us to make them as well. In the beginning I tought the king and the princess could explore the caverns while transporting a box and gathering treasures. The game would have focused on their relation as they got to know each other on this journey. But it still didn’t fix one problem: why would they be carrying the box? It’s really then that I suggested that the chariot be the king’s coffin and that he be a very annoying ghost. He is a type of irritating father figure, kind of like the grumpy person that I am. These are ideas that came out just like that, but looking back I think about it and it makes me laugh.

Then, we thought we could bring in another character and we tought of created a fiancé rather than a brother or a prince because we thought it would be funny if the king acted as a type of chaperon in this experience that the princess and her fiancé are sharing. We felt the absurdity of this concept was really over the top, and it is indeed one of the things that people enjoy the most about the game. According to the reviews of the game that were done, the thing that people enjoy unanimously is the craziness of this story which makes no sense, but which is so funny at the same time. Of course, had the game been created with realistic graphics, it would have been quite grim, but it is very humorous on the contrary.

This is where our ideas came from. Different brainstorming sessions finally gave this result. But it took a lot of time. We scratched our heads over this game for a long time. In the end we decided that the chariot is what attracts the treasures, not the characters, and everything fell into place. We found our current concept and we thought: ”this works. It’s absurd, but it is perfect.” And we created Chariot this way!

MPR: So you found inspiration in your relation with your daughters?

MB: A little. I projected the fact that I have daughters and that I am a father into the game and I played with it. Perhaps the idea came from that, but I didn’t think ”I have daughters so we’ll do this”. Looking back, I imagine that the idea came from my daughters for sure. I am like everyone, I try to do a good job as a parent, but I can be grumpy or complain. I won’t necessarily be the coolest father in law if the person who chooses my daughter is not my type. I’ll test that person! All fathers who have daughters think that! I thought bringing this type of personality to the king could be fun.

In any case, we wanted to create an atmosphere game, an exploration game in which there are long moments of silence, in which we really spend time admiring, and marvelling at the beauty of the decor. And from time to time, there is a little humour, a comic relief: it’s the king who says something silly.

We didn’t want to make the characters of the princess and her fiancé speak because it would have been complex to create different interactions between these characters and the king depending on whether players play alone and choose one of the other. It was also a matter of budget and we didn’t want to make Chariot into a game with characters who speak constantly. The skeleton and the king speak, they are non-playable characters and they bring a dose of humour. The king in particular help to make the narrative progress because he is never satisfied with the place where he will be put to rest. That was also the idea, the idea of ”Your princess is in another castle”. We wanted to keep the same principle and make a humoristic reference to it: the king’s tomb is not here, its further. It’s the idea of pushing back death. The king is already dead, but he is fighting against death anyway.

MPR: In other words, the idea of having a female main characters was directly linked with the will to explore a father daughter relation?

MB: Yes, very much. I tought it was important. We had two male characters in the game for a long time. Eventually, two girls from our company asked us ”why don’t you add a female character?” This brought on a debate and to some people it didn’t make any sense. But why not? I quickly sided with this idea: why not? We need to ask ourselves that question. By default, we create male characters, like everyone else. I felt that the debate was coming to life at that time in the industry as well. Actually, we had taken the decision to have a female character before the debates started and things exploded within the industry. I was very happy that we had taken this decision because we were relatively avant-garde in this movement. I have daughters, they greatly enjoy video games and they select female characters when they play. I also often select female characters, which might be strange, but many men choose female characters when they game. There are also a lot of women who choose male characters. So, why not give the choice to people. Why not?

Furthermore, I found that creating a female character brought a more interesting relation into the game. Our character of the fiancé is not a douche bag either such as the kind we sometimes see in princess movies. Our character is an ok guy, he’s full of good will. It’s not that he’s not afraid of anything: the princess isn’t afraid of anything, he’s rather unconscious of danger and he doesn’t have a problem with anything. He’s having a good time with his girlfriend, quite simply. He would do anything to make her happy and he’s always in a good mood.

In fact, even when our characters are suspended over lava, they have great big smiles on their face. They are always happy, whatever happens…Except when they reach a tomb to take a moment of silence and the king isn’t happy. Then they are a little bit discouraged. They are looking forward to being alone!

MPR: So in the beginning you had created two male characters, and two women from your team suggested that you add a female character and this brought up some debates. What sort of debates were these?

MB: I was not always present but I know that there were some intense discussions on the topic. Of course, at the time, our characters were very far from what they are currently. So, while the idea of a female character was interesting, we had to find how to bring this idea to life, what the context would be. During a brainstorming session, however, we quickly decided to have a female character and a male character and to develop the story later on.

At first, we tought to create the characters of the princess and her father and I thought exploring the father daughter relation would really be the interesting aspect about having a female character. But yes, the spark was the fact that a marketing executive and a graphic designer who threw that our way. They suggested this to the team because the graphic designer had just joined our company and the marketing executive was touring our offices with her to introduce the team. I think they simply said ”you should create a girl instead”. These were random conversations, but in the end it created a spark.

Why reject this right off the bat? Overall, the basic reflex, and, sadly, I think it’s the same in most video games companies, when someone says ”why don’t we create an afro-american, female or LGBT character?” people will say ”oh no! That makes no sense!” It’s one thing if someone from marketing thinks this will affect sales. Then we can talk with this person and mention the fact that about 50% of people are women, that many afro-americans or LGBT persons are part of our clients and that they will probably be very happy to see such characters in our games. So the marketing argument doesn’t hold the line in my opinion.

But what I find sad is when people have such a reflex on the creative level. It is not ill will. Generally, it’s simply that it’s always the same thing: we play video games and we are being served the same things since a long time ago, so we don’t tend to experiment. In my opinion, it is still quite early in the history of video games. I am a great fan of literature, cinema, comic books, as I was saying earlier, and I think we arent’ far along in the evolution of video games. We talk about video games such as The Last of Us and Uncharted as being great masterpieces. These are great games and I adore them, but on the narrative level, they don’t compare with the great films of the history of cinema. If we want to compare them to a movie, they are the equivalent of Indiana Jones: it’s awesome, it’s a good action movie! Have we already created games which are the equivalent of a really strong masterpiece? No, nothing that compares to films by (Ingmar) Bergman, (Andrei) Tarkovsky, and many more masterpieces which blow our minds away. There is no equivalent of Inception in video games. We are still at the level of superhero movies and big entertainment.

Slowly, with indie games, there is currently very beautiful things being produced. It is the equivalent of the New Wave in France, I think, a moment when the politics of the authors started to make clear sense. This is what fascinates me, what interests me. It’s what interests me in cinema and comic book, it’s what interests me in video games. I think it’s fun to see all that, but it’s not yet fully into place. But there are independent games which are successful financially, and when people see that they realise there is potential there. But there is still a lot to learn and a lot to do.

MPR: Could you help situate us in time? You say you made the decision to create a female character before the start of the debates regarding representations of women in video games started. When did you and your team start working on Chariot?

MB: We have been working on Chariot for three years. First, Philippe Dion came to me to explain his idea. Then, it took a few weeks to create a prototype. Requesting funding and waiting for feedback on this matter took about six months. Once we obtained funding, we needed more time to bring our team together and to start working. After six months of production, which were a bit messy, we went back to the drawing board. We made a few adjustments to our team, because things we not always working well. There were a lot of uncertainties. Chariot was not a project that started out very well. It was hard at first. Then, we produced this game in part using our own engine, which works well but which was not yet ready to answer all of our needs. At first, we had planned to make Chariot available only on WiiU but we realised soon enough that it was not possible to make a game only for this platform. At the time, the WiiU was a failure in terms of sales, but when we started our project it had not yet been released and we couldn’t know how things would turn out.

So, when the WiiU came out, we decided to try to develop our game on all platforms (PS4, Steam, XBOX ONE et WiiU). We decided to work with our own engine which is excellent but which was not ready at the time. We took a break for a period of 6 or 7 months and stopped our project completely so that our R & D (research and development) team would have the time to modify the engine in a way that would allow us to work without always waiting after the necessary technology. The R & D team kept working closely with us through production to support us and always be up to date. All this represents a period of a little more than three years from start to finish. From the moment when we started working again, to rebuild our team and develop our current characters, that lasted for about the last year and half before the release of the game.

I remember last year at the Game Developer Conference (GDC) I went to see a conference by my friend Manveer Heir who is a developer at Bioware. He is from the United States and his family is originally from India, and he has a big mouth. He is known in the industry and he is a social justice warrior. He is really someone who will always say ”seriously, we need to open up to diversity, we need to defend women”. He is truly someone with whom I share many philosophical opinion in this regard. At the GDC last year, in March 2014, he gave a conference about this and he was on fire. It was a huge success and many articles were published about it later on.

I was proud because before he gave this conference, a few months before, we had already decided to feature a female character in Chariot. We didn’t change the world, but we took an important decision of saying ”for us, it’s important to have a female character which is the main character”. Even if both characters are playable and if people can choose between either if they play alone, by default, the princess is the main character. In everything we have said about the game, in all the interviews we have given, it has always been clear that the princess is the main character. So I was very proud after Heir’s conference. A few weeks later, Anita Sarkeesian released a Tropes versus Women in Video Games which wasn’t her first but which was the one which really created a spark with everything that followed. 2014 was a big year and following everything that happened was pretty terrible. But I am proud to have opted in favor of diversity a long time ago and to continue to defend it.

I am currently working on a new project and we decided from the very start to allow players to choose between a male and a female character, just like in Mass Effect. So it’ll be the equivalent of Shepard and FemShepard, but we decided to make a completely different game. One of the character has dark skin and there is no explicit reason for that to be the case as the game is set in a fantastic, medieval setting and that, according to popular imagination, the medieval era only included humans with a light skin color. Which in itself is ridiculous. But I agree with the notion of ”why not?”. To the question ”why?” I answer ”Why not?”. Generally, no one can give me good reasons. If anyone tells me ‘’there were no black people in the medieval era’’ I can answer ”I don’t know and I don’t care because there weren’t any dragons and goblins either!”. So we might as well forget about that and have fun with it. And this is something I try to promote with concept artists I work with. By default, some of them always represent white characters. I always ask them ‘’could you please try something else? Have some fun with your sketches! Characters can have asian or afro-american features, etc.’’ We may not select them and the goal isn’t to check some things off a list, but if we don’t do this exercise and we don’t make it a habit to do this, we will continue to repeat the same clichés all the time. And I think that right now things are moving and I will continue to push in this direction.

It’s not a simple thing because we are in Quebec city and there is, what, 1% of people here who are not white and Francophones in our city? The percentage has increased in the last few years, but it is still small. So, it remains a habit: we cross paths with people at work, in the bus, at school, everywhere else, and who are these people? White people. So, particularly in Quebec, the reflex to represent what we see around us is natural, I imagine. But Frima creates games intended for the whole world. In any city in the United States, the population is not as homogenous as it is here. Elsewhere in Canada, in Montreal, Vancouver or Toronto, the population is not homogenous. Why should we always create homogenous representations all the time? And even in games which are produced in studios located in bigger cities, this is what we usually find. We often find a homogeneity which is not representative of the places where video games are developed.

MPR: How did the people who played Chariot react to the fact that the main character is female?

MB: In general, only in a positive way. A few persons have highlighted the fact that it’s really great, but generally people don’t mention it. They mention the absurdity of the story, the fact that they have to move a coffin with a corpse and a ghost inside. This is really what is most often talked about. And of course from time to time people mention that it’s very cool that the main character is female and that the princess is really great. But this is not something that clearly comes to light in what people say about the game.

MPR: Felicia Day gave you some great visibility!

MB: In fact, Felicia Day and her brother Ryon Day release an incredible Co-Optitude video via Geek & Sundry last week. Felicia Day loved our game since the moment she discovered it randomly at E3 and she and her brother are our number one fans. Of course, it’s great to have number one fans who have such a big audience. But I think that most people who have tried Chariot have loved it. To try it is to adopt it. What I find difficult is to see that most big websites of the industry have generally ignored Chariot or that they did not bother to review it and don’t understand why that is the case. I wonder ”if they ignore that game, what must I do?”. It’s pretty depressing.

MPR: Are there any elements which are never discussed in the interviews you gave to promote Chariot which you find interesting?

MB: It hasn’t happened a lot that people address what we have discussed about the female main character, our thought process about our characters, etc. I participated in a few written interviews I answered with short paragraphs in which I didn’t go into so many details as I did in this interview. These are not questions that we are often asked.

We often talk about the same things in interviews: the fact that Philippe Dion came up with the idea, our way of working, the fact that we worked on a project by a Frima employee, the creative process and the fact that we worked on several platforms. This is special actually. Some people thought it was a little crazy to make Chariot available on all platforms (XBOX ONE, Steam, PS4 et WiiU), and indeed it was a little dare-devil on our part.

People often ask us about our sources of inspiration for this game. They want us to name games which inspired us, but it’s hard to do so because we did not have a clear source of inspiration. We didn’t say ”we are going to create a game like this one”. Of course, Little Big Planet is a great physics platformer and it existed before we created Chariot, but we never thought we would create something similar in terms of budget or quality. In the end, I am happy because some people favorably compare Chariot to Little Big Planet, which is an honor. It is a magnificent game but we did not take inspiration from it because we wanted to create something different on many levels. Of course, there are certain similarities, for instance there are some parts of both games which must be played by two players. Actually, we decided to make sure it would be possible to successfully complete these parts even while alone in Chariot. Even if it’s practically impossible, technically it can be done. In Little Big Planet a single player absolutely cannot complete some parts of the game, it’s impossible, while in our game it’s not likely but it can be achieved by playing with gadgets and the laws of physics. The humour from Monkey Island was a source of inspiration but we didn’t try to imitate it. These were little influences and there really isn’t one game that we tried to reproduce. Our objective was to create something completely different.

Our project was a little crazy in the sense that people are currently incredibly tired of indie physics platformer. If you start to explain that your game is a physics platformer half the people leave before the end of your sentence. Alright, there have been several, but it’s a genre. One may get tired of car driving simulators of FPS (first person shooters) as well, but they are genres. Just like westerns. There will always be western films or science-fiction films and comedies: they are genres, they will always exist, it’s normal. But right now it’s like it’s trendy among gamers to say that they are tired of indie physics platformers. But most people say about our game ”but this game is truly unique and you should play it”. Most people who reviewed our game talked about this aspect and said ”not another indie physics platformer! But seriously, play this one! It’s incredible and unique!”. It’s nice to hear, even if I have trouble understanding why people are so tired of this genre. A good game is a good game!

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Sincere thanks to Martin Brouard for this great interview!

 All images are from the Official Chariot website.

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About Marie-Pierre Renaud

I am an anthropologist living in Quebec city, Canada. I specialize in native studies and anthropology of health. I am a geek. I founded and now co-manage The Geek Anthropologist blog. I am working on transforming my memoir into a book and journal articles. I like to knit while watching Star Trek. Reach out to me for collaborations! https://mariepierrerenaud.co/

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