At this year's Penny Arcade Expo, there were more games than ever to check out on the exhibition floor, but more than the others, one stood out as something to keep a close eye on: Rise of the Argonauts from Liquid Entertainment. After a dynamite walk-through and presentation from Liquid’s Andrew Rubino, I was absolutely convinced that this game was on the right track. Currently scheduled for a December 16th release, Andrew took time out of his extremely hectic pre-release schedule to answer a few questions:
Your website's mission states that Liquid's philosophy is: Through the creation of rich characters and universes, and by creating technology that tightens the player's emotional experience, liquid hopes to distill the most enjoyable elements of any given genre and create the best games out there. How does this apply to Rise of the Argonauts, and what particular niche do you see this game filling?
At Liquid, we believe that the best games provide the player with an emotional experience, one that sticks with him after he’s done playing the game. Everything we created for Rise of the Argonauts was created with that goal in mind. We want players to feel Jason’s anger when his wife is taken from him and then feel his despair when he realizes she may be gone forever. We want players to feel like they are truly part of an epic myth.
When we looked at a lot of RPG conventions, however, we realized that they worked against the feeling of immersion we were striving for. Things like menus, complex stats, inventory management; they all have their merits, but they also break the illusion we’re trying to create. So, we streamlined a lot of the RPG elements. Menus are designed to be fast, Jason’s upgrades are clear without being confusing, the player doesn’t have to worry about money, etc. Doing this allows players to spend more time exploring the world, making meaningful decisions, and slaying cool enemies.
By focusing on creating an emotional experience without sacrificing the action, we think that Rise of the Argonauts will appeal to a variety of gamers. If you are looking to really experience a true action/RPG, or if you love the world of mythological Greece, then we think you will love Rise of the Argonauts.
What are the core concepts in this particular game's design? Would you say that it's heavier on the action, or on the RPG? And why?
The core concept was to immerse the player in the world of Greek myth. As such, we first thought about how best we could bring that world to life, and then worked from there. We didn’t worry about genre constraints, but instead focused on choosing the right feature in each instance to suit the game we were making.
The design grew out of that desire to recreate the mythological world. For example, we knew we had to capture the sense that the gods are always watching, and that they play a key role in the world. From there, the Favor system was developed, which governs Jason’s progression. When you read descriptions of combat in the Iliad, there are hundreds of descriptions of bones being hewn, limbs severed, and skilled combatants killing each other in some pretty graphic ways. So we knew that our combat had to represent that, which meant it needed to be real time, and it needed to feel lethal.
As far as the mix of action and RPG, we wanted to really deliver on both halves of that promise, in terms of both quality and time spent, so players can expect a 50/50 split. But again, this split came from our desire to bring the myths to life. Just like the heroes of Ancient Greece you've read about, Jason will spend much of his time exploring new lands and interacting with unique, legendary characters. Whether it’s amidst the haunted ruins of Kythra or the exotic wilds of Saria, danger lurks around every corner, and Jason will frequently find himself locking horns with some of the most powerful monsters in the mythological world.
How much choice will a player have over the game in terms of story events, recruiting characters, the ending, and so on? Along the same lines, what sorts of sidequests or bonus content will be available for players who want it?
The player can make many choices over the course of the game that will affect the story in a tangible way, such as whether they can protect the merchant Pytheas in the arena on Mycenae, or if Medusa, cursed by Athena for her arrogance, is worthy of redemption. In both of these choices, Jason’s actions will determine whether the character lives or dies, which will not only have an impact on what events are unlocked, but also, in Medusa’s case, will partially dictate who joins the Argonauts. Needless to say, players will definitely be able to shape the story as they play.
We also have plenty of optional events for players to discover. We’ve taken great care to make sure that none of these sidequests feel like busywork, but instead feel like side stories that branch off the main plot. For example, if Pytheas dies, his wife Zosime is left alone with no one to care for her. Jason can help Zosime find a new life somewhere else, and even encourage her to adopt the orphan Bolo, who has turned to theft to survive. Back on Iolcus, Jason can hear the petitions of his people before he sets out on his journey, deciding who will replace the veteran Captain Idas, or what to do with the bodies of the invading Ionians. On Saria, Jason can speak with the spirits of the dead, and can judge how they lived their lives before sending them to the Underworld. These quests aren’t merely “go here and do this”, but ask the player to make a choice about how each event develops and will be resolved.
These choices will change the path that players travel to reach the games finale, but there is only one ending. We wanted to stay true to the character of Jason, and his goal is to bring back his wife, whatever it takes. Furthermore, we wanted the players’ choices to be reflected throughout the game, not just near the end. Players will see the impact of their choices from the very start of the game through the very end, so every player will have a unique experience.
Besides the obvious Greek myths, what are some influences behind the game? Film, books, other games, and so on. (…And will there be any appearances from stop-motion skeletons as homage?)
Film was a large influence on us. Film has developed its own language for telling stories, one that that we all understand because we’ve grown up watching movies. Thus, we spent a lot of time studying everything from camera techniques and framing, to pacing and character development—we wanted Rise of the Argonauts to have a very cinematic feel.
We also looked at movies when designing the combat system. Movies are generally very WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get). If a guy gets run through with a sword in a movie, the audience knows he’s dead because that’s how real life works. But in games, that same guy might get up two seconds later without breaking a sweat, and that just doesn’t make any sense. It breaks people out of the experience and reminds them that they are playing a game, which keeps them from getting involved with the story and characters. It's the same reason we've turned off the HUD; we don't want anything, even something as simple as a health meter, breaking the immersion for the player.
So a big part of the design was simply doing what would make sense. Every time Jason strikes an enemy, that foe is either dead or seriously injured, dropping their shield and limping around the battlefield. Jason doesn’t carry 45 weapons that magically appear when he wants to use them; he carries his weapons on his back so that are visible at all times. Jason is the king of Iolcus; he doesn’t need money, and he’s already bought the best gear, so the equipment he collects is all legendary and epic.
These may seem like small changes, but added together they equal immersion. The player isn’t constantly reminded that he’s playing a game, and instead he can stay engaged.
Speaking of other games, Rise of the Argonauts has been compared to BioWare's Mass Effect several times in the media, and having seen it at PAX, I'd say that there are similarities. How does the Argonauts team feel about these comparisons, and in what ways will the game diverge from the formula that BioWare's established?
It’s flattering to be compared to Mass Effect. It is a great game and we have a lot of respect for the team at Bioware.
That said, we’ve done a number of things in Rise of the Argonauts that really makes the game stand out on its own. We’ve created an immersive interpretation of mythological Greece that players can truly lose themselves in. We have fast and brutal melee combat where you fight alongside the greatest heroes of mythology, like Hercules and Achilles. We’ve also streamlined the RPG aspects of the game, making sure that the effects of Jason’s Aspects and equipment are immediately noticeable in combat, rather than requiring players to look up their stats to see how they’ve improved.
We’ve also strived to make all of the choices the player makes significant and important. Almost every choice Jason can make is aligned with one of his four patron gods (Apollo, Ares, Athena, and Hermes), and each choice reflects the ethos of that god. Additionally, when making a choice, Jason gains Favor with that god, which he can use to purchase new abilities for himself. In this way, players can craft the Jason in terms of abilities and disposition.
Overall, we’re very proud of what we’ve made in Rise of the Argonauts. We feel we’ve made a unique game that stands on its own alongside other great RPGs.
With the company's previous experience in PC games, how much of a transition was it to develop for consoles? Any particular challenges or highlights?
Working the Unreal engine in our transition to console development, gave us a solid foundation to build upon, and allowed us to really focus our attention on creating great content and gameplay.
How, if at all, did making Desperate Housewives influence or inform the development of Rise of the Argonauts?
You know, there was a surprising amount of lessons we learned from Desperate Housewives that were applicable with Argonauts. Part of why Desperate Housewives was successful because it let players feel like they were really on Wisteria Lane and gave them the opportunity to really interact with all of the characters they had grown to love from the TV show. So when we sat down to make Rise of the Argonauts, we spent a lot of time thinking about how we could make players feel immersed within the world of mythological Greece, and give them great opportunities to have cool interactions with many of the legendary characters that inhabit that world. In all of Liquid’s games, immersion in a compelling, consistent world is key.
One other specific thing that I’d like to mention is that Desperate Housewives did a fantastic job of letting the player make whatever crazy choices they wanted without punishing them. This is another lesson we brought to Argonauts. While there are always consequences, there are no "wrong" choices. We’ll never punish you for choosing option A instead of B, because otherwise you won’t make decisions based on what you want to do, you’ll make them based on what you think we (the developers) want you to do, and that’s no fun.
So, yes, Desperate Housewives definitely had an impact on the development on Argo, despite being a very different game with a very different audience.
Considering the wealth of characters and stories in Greek mythology, are there plans for more adventures of a similar theme if Argonauts sails successfully?
Mythology if filled with fantastical stories and compelling characters. The world we’ve created for Rise of the Argonauts still has plenty of stories left to tell. No one but Apollo can predict what the future holds, but we’d love to work on more games that draw from mythological roots in the future.
Extreme thanks to Andrew Rubino and Liquid Entertainment. If you’d like to know more about Rise of the Argonauts or the company itself, click here. And once again, keep your eyes peeled on December 16, when the game hits store shelves.
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