Hannah and Joe don’t seem real. They could be the protagonists in a romcom pandering to Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts, a movie that ends with the happy couple getting married and founding an indie game studio in Seattle that crafts old-school RPGs for those hardcore enough to get them. But Joe and Hannah are very real, and have in fact founded Whalenought Studios, which recently released its first game: the excellent, tough, and intricate Serpent in the Staglands. I contacted these two (incredibly nice) human beings to ask them some questions. We spoke about villainy, Romanian mythos, and Escape from New York.
TEG: This line in the game manual immediately drew my attention: “You’re not a hero saving hamlets or even in a position to care about the mortals you come across.” Why is it important for you to shirk the classic fairytale narrative, and what draws you to nihilism and open-ended role-playing in your world and character designs?
Hannah & Joe: Because the protagonist you role-play is a god with a reputation for being somewhat indifferent to the affairs of mortals, it didn’t seem right to encourage the player to embrace the woes and hardships of everyone they meet. RPGs often phone that in, the “hero character” premise, to make sure everyone you talk to has something important to tell you, or a mission to send you on, which can become a tired affair after a while. A more interesting premise, or at least a slightly fresher concept, is a game world in which most people ignore or dislike you, and in which you happen to be traveling undercover to avoid drawing attention to yourself.
Moral ambiguity is established very quickly in SitS, and the game world is certainly structured around it. The title itself, Serpent in the Staglands, implies that the main character might even be the game’s villain. We wanted the player to shed their pre-conceptions and make up their own minds about their character and his or her purpose. A lot of design decisions were made to get players back in the driver’s seat of their RPG, which includes the experience of getting mauled by introductory wildlife — it’s a trial-by-fire experience that encourages the player to pay attention.
TEG: Serpent in the Staglands is rooted in Eastern European history. I find their literature and folklore usually steer clear of emotional manipulation and stereotyping. Did this portrayal of morality play a role in your choice of setting?
H&J: One of the main themes we lifted from our research of Eastern Europe is the spirit of self-preservation that seems to permeate the culture. From what we’ve read about the Witcher games, they do a wonderful job of portraying a world in which everyone has their own interests at heart, and situations often end in chaos even when the player decides to be helpful. Similarly, many of the characters you encounter in Serpent in the Staglands (SitS) begin downtrodden and fall to even greater depths after their contact with the Moon Lord.
Really, we’re interested in turning fantasy game stereotypes on their head. For instance, in an early area you’re given the choice to help a group of Ieles, a type of fire-nymph present in Romanian mythology. They wish to move to a less guarded settlement to survive, and if you help them do so, you’re rewarded with some crucial early-game experience points. But if you return to this new settlement later on, you’ll find it abandoned and overrun with wildlife, bandits and hostile Iele.
The game’s multiple endings range from bleak to morally bankrupt by anyone’s standards, and the most neutral ending possible is also the hardest to achieve. Nonetheless it was important for us to present this all in an understated, lighthearted manner. The texts we wrote never focus on the disturbing things happening, instead providing relevant information in a matter-of-fact way. We did this to eliminate any kind of shallow shock-value. We think there’s a lot of room for games to reflect on the nuances of human nature without forcing the player see it through the eyes of the “good guy” or subjecting them to a morality meter. Playing in the “gray” area is much more interesting than just portraying black and white.
TEG: What does “success” mean within the framework of Serpent in the Staglands? Do you find that playing an RPG alters your perception of success in everyday life?
H&J: In terms of structure, SitS is very open-ended, and success can be measured in terms of a variety of different discoveries and victories. Since there aren’t notifications or quest check-lists to narrow the experience, we designed mysteries large and small to keep the game engaging. These can include figuring out a method to kill a nearly indestructible Harvester, uncovering a key character’s motivations by reading their journals, or deciphering a Native language to complete a puzzle. We wanted to encourage folks to get out that pen & paper, to earn their successes through their own intuition and reflexive capacities, not just by completing a checklist that tells them they’re winning. We feel it’s more rewarding that way.
It’s always an interesting mental exercise to inhabit a character’s personality and indulge their interests when you’re role-playing, either within a CRPG or a tabletop game. One quickly begins to understand that people have wildly differing concepts of success.
TEG: What are the games you’ve been the most addicted to in your life, and what kept you coming back?
H&J: I think we return to playing the Myst games, Fallout 1 & 2, Baldur’s Gate (multiplayer!), and Diablo 2 when we get the time, though to be honest we haven’t had too much free time since founding Whalenought.
I think each of those games represents something we love and find unique, and the familiarity makes them easy to return to. Starting up the first Fallout feels like coming home (or more precisely, like burst-firing an SMG into a raider’s eyeball). The systems, structure, and world-building in that game are especially terrific. We started replaying Riven recently and it’s remarkable how much is done just so profoundly well in that game, the nuances of story crafted within the world are unparalleled. Really neat stuff.
We’re often trying to play games to gather inspiration from, rather than just returning to ground well-trodden. We recently got Realms of Arkania 2, which has been super fun. We’ve also been sporadically replaying Syndicate (classic) on our DOS emulator, which is always an adventure.
TEG: With Serpent in the Staglands you have created a world where meaning and purpose are often opaque and difficult to discern. Is part of a good RPG to “fetch” these intangible concepts for yourself?
H&J: That’s the idea — deciphering these concepts is definitely part of the what’s supposed to push the player forward. While there are many enjoyable RPGs that are more transparent, and not every RPG needs revolve around mystery and plotting, we found that it worked better in SitS to let the player unravel the plot at his or her own pace. Often people indulge in fantasy to escape the routine of their present, and immersing yourself in a world of questions that beg to be answered — that can be very exciting.
TEG: Other than games and history, where do you find yourself drawing artistic inspiration?
H&J: We take a lot of concepts from literature. The design of our magic system was inspired by the fact that most spell casting, in literature, doesn’t have any limitations related to action / mana points. Instead magic comes from the will of the caster — emanating like waves of energy that cycle until stopped, or cycle once (a one-time “proc”). That style of “one-note” casting was a really fun mechanic to develop spells with, if at times limiting.
TEG: What’s next for Serpent in the Staglands? Seems there’s an expansion coming?
H&J: That’s right, there’s an expansion coming in the next year that will be free to anyone who owns the game. We’re still working out the details, but there will be plenty of puzzles and new reasons to keep your journal handy! We’d like to continue making games set in the world of Vol, especially in the native lands of some of the races featured in the game. We had so much unused lore that ended up in the side-notes or was only briefly mentioned in the racial descriptions, and we’d love to fully flesh it out in another game. While the Staglands proper is a reflection of the Ameythevian and Varuchov racial and territorial disputes, the other parts of the mainland and islands are much more racially isolated and have some fun events taking place on them. The Ameythevians have a resident god whom they refer to as the Jolly Fish God, and we feel compelled to have this character reappear at some point in the future.
TEG: Any idea what’s next after Serpent in the Staglands?
H&J: We’re well into R&D for our next project, and are currently building tech and rulesets for it. We look forward to working with a wonderful community as we hone the design. We’ve been having fun and seeking inspiration for our next setting by watching movies and listening to audiobooks — in fact we just watched Escape From New York as research.
We find ourselves in a fortuitous position as a company after the release of SitS. While the sales have been modest, they were sufficient to continue catering to a respectable community, which in turn allows us to create games that we love without being forced to dumb them down or have to worry about mass appeal. Our next project, while still a Party & Play inspired CRPG, has a very different combat system and visuals than SitS. We’re excited to explore these new elements and hope to bring something really unique to the genre. More information on our next game will be released later this year.