Interview with the Developers of A Credible Tale of Yokai, Robots, and the Lunar Tourist

Interview with the Developers of A Credible Tale of Yokai, Robots, and the Lunar Tourist

Inspired by a love of Japanese mythology and SNES RPGs, Overclocked Games the developer behind A Credible Tale of Yokai, Robots and the Lunar Tourist have turned to Kickstarter to get their labor of love off the ground. Blending a hand drawn art style with top down action RPG style mechanics and an optional mode that helps you study Japanese, the game looks to be of interest to retro gamers and Japanese language students alike.

The guys at Overclocked Games were kind enough to grant me an interview to chat all things Yokai and detail how A Credible Tale of Yokai will help aid gamers in learning Japanese. If the game catches your interest you can currently download an alpha demo of the game on their Kickstarter page.

Yokai have long been popular in Japan thanks to the efforts of authors such as Shigeru Mizuki, but acknowledgement of them in the West is quite a new thing. How did each of you first come across yokai?

PETER: I think the first Yokai I ever came across was the Mottai Nai Obake through these PSA ads growing up in Japan.  I was also very lucky as a kid to share a room with my grandmother who told me mukashi banashi to put me to sleep and occasionally some of the stories were scary.  Unfortunately, I don’t remember most of them, however the one that terrified me was the Yamanba who would invite weary travelers in, only to sharpen her knife to try to eat them at night.

I also watched Ge ge ge no Kitaro, which wasn’t nearly as scary and actually was tailored for a younger audience.  I always looked forward to opportunities to play the famicom game when ever I went to a friend’s house since I didn’t own a famicom at the time.  Like most kids my age, we tried kick launching our shoes at each other like Kitaro does with his Geta and pretended to shoot hair projectiles at each other.  Mizuki Shigeru’s work served as a quick overview and drilled the yokai names into me so that I could recognize and appreciate such things when I came across them elsewhere in everyday life.

Speaking of Mizuki Shigeru, my wife is from Shimane, which shares a border with Mizuki’s home Tottori, both always in competition, ranking number 1 and 2 as the prefectures with fastest declining populations in Japan.  I am sure you are familiar with Mizuki Shigeru Road in Sakai Minato sandwiched between the two.   There is so much under leveraged Yokai related tourism infrastructure there that it is would be a shame if we could not use this Yokai Boom on the horizon to drive foreign tourists that way to bring vigor and liveliness back to these more rural areas.  My last trip to Japan, I went to Kitaro airport and to any yokai fan flying in, they will have fun the moment they pickup their baggage at the baggage claim.  We see the same potential in the Tohoku area too which has seen its rapid depopulation only exacerbated by 3/11.   Local yokai / oni like Namahage might be able to be leveraged to reverse this trend, and that is one of the big end goals of our game project.

CHRIS: As a kid I was introduced to yokai in many forms through video games and anime way before I knew what the word meant. The first time I remember hearing the word “yokai” it was associated with Kappa, and after reading about them I was instantly hooked. The idea that they would sneak up behind you under water to suck the shirikodama out of your anus was bizarre, hilarious, and horrifying all at once!  I started reading more kaidan after that and began to notice all the connections I had previously been exposed to like the Oni and Enma-Ou in Dragonball Z, several references in Pokemon, and various enemies from a ton of video games.


Concept art of Rokurokubi from A Credible Tale of Yokai, Robots, and the Lunar Tourist.

You mention on your kickstarter that you’re including elements from popular Japanese stories such as Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. Do you plan to draw inspiration from popular kaidan such as Yotsuya Kaidan or Botan Doro?

PETER: Our game’s visual style solves a great many technical and design problems for us, but it handicaps us when trying to instill fear into our players.  We will probably never be able to match the terror that can be conveyed in these popular works you have mentioned, however we do plan to lean heavily on our talented composer / musician Sam Jones who can set the mood by sampling Biwa and other sounds to paint an authentic soundscape to carry the mood of quiet Japanese horror.    We definitely would like to draw more inspiration from Kaidan if we can prove to ourselves that we create a fitting atmosphere in the game that would compliment these works.  Even if not terrifying, at least create an uneasiness for the player.

Even if we can’t achieve this, we would still like to draw inspiration from horror stories to serve as new points of entry for the casual player into another rich layer of Japanese culture that they may have previously not known.  Hopefully, it will serve as yet another one of the many rabbit holes that Japanese culture has to offer.  For example, we may be able to introduce a new group of people to Okiku, the tragic character from Bancho Sarayashiki who also was a level boss in the Ganbare Goemon series on SNES.  It wasn’t terrifying, but after seeing Okiku, people might be interested in seeing Sarayashiki at the Kabukiza theater if it happens to be playing when they visit Japan.  They may choose to  or they may simply stop on an old Shimura Ken skit rerun involving Okiku and breaking lots of plates while channel surfing on their hotel TV.  They may want to go see the well Okiku was in at Himeji Castle while touring there, and it may even turn them into fans of Japanese horror literature.  You never know.

The Wanyudo fight in the demo changed up the way the game was played in a way that I wasn’t expecting. Will the other yokai similarly have unique mechanics tied to their boss fights?

PETER: Most yokai won’t be bosses, but yes, we do plan to feature their individual quirks and traits so that a player is rewarded for learning more and using their knowledge to affect them.  A lot of traditional  yokai  aren’t necessarily evil, but are out of this world explanations for phenomenon medieval people didn’t understand and in the stories they usually have their own motivations driving their actions unrelated to people.  Thus we think people will find it fun to become a Crocodile Dundee in the yokai wilderness.

CHRIS: As Peter mentioned, there will be a ton of yokai that are not bosses and they will range from friendly, to neutral, to hostile. Each of them will have their own interests too – things that attract or repel them, or things that might cause them to attack or lend aid. Our goal is to have each yokai you encounter feel very unique, and for your interactions with them to give the opportunity to learn about the yokai. For instance, Kappa enemies will be very tough and hardy, but if you use an attack with a knockback effect on them, or cause them to fall into a hole, you will see the water on their heads spill and they will lose their power. We hope to convey some key defining trait of each yokai through the gameplay mechanics like this. For the bosses specifically, our goal is to make every one of them feel like a puzzle with a  unique solution. Many modern games distinguish bosses only by changing the music and giving them very large health bars – what many people would call a “gear check” fight. If your level and equipment match up to the challenge, you win. We’ve drawn our inspiration for bosses from Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, where each boss did have a unique mechanic and winning was more about learning to understand how the boss worked and exploit its weakness than it was about having the right level and gear.

The Wanyudo Boss Fight From A Credible Tale of Yokai's Alpha.

Wanyudo boss fight from The A Credible Tale of Yokai alpha.

The art style of the game is quite distinctive for a top down game of this type. What games were the biggest influence in terms of the aesthetics? Were you influenced by any ukiyoe or more modern yokai artists in the design of the game?

PETER: Okami and the old Cartoon series Nihon Mukashi Banashi were the most influential aesthetically.  When drawing our own version of these yokai, we made sure to look at everything available thanks to the internet age.  We definitely want to  source as many traditional sources as possible so that we don’t miss out on valuable iconic props and features that must be included.  But we also make sure to see all the other modern interpretations that are out there in the form of anime and games to see what has been cut or abbreviated and or exaggerated in the yokai’s design.   We try to figure out why those changes were made and how it benefits what ever medium that design modification was made for.  We then consider if our game shares that need or if it is different in anyway.  Once we are comfortable making a cut, abbreviation, or exaggeration  that makes sense, we go back to “adding” trying to imagine a secondary use for an item of feature, and mull over the potential for any combo use a player could have if using this prop / item / feature.  Then we extenuate and over exaggerate with this in mind.  When stuck, we also ask team member spouses to try drawing the yokai after hearing a description , and then iterate and build off of that.

So how long have you been working on the game so far? Having played the alpha I was surprised by how well it conveys what you hope to achieve with the full game already.

CHRIS: First off, thank you! We really enjoyed making the demo and only wish it could have all the remaining features in it already. The game has gone through a few iterations to get where it is now. We initially came up with the concept about two and a half years ago, but as a new studio it took us some time to really get rolling. We wrote our own engine first, threw it away and wrote a new one, then threw that one away and moved to Unity. We learned a lot in the process, and ultimately our design and our code are far better for it. The current version of the demo showcases about 9 months of active work from us.

One of the things that most caught my eye reading your Kickstarter was your goal to use the game as a learning tool for those that wish it to be that. When I first started learning Japanese I attempted to play Pokemon in Japanese but surprisingly it was much too difficult due to the amount of jargon in the games. But yokai work perfectly. Taking a yokai like Kasa Obake and then teaching players the kanji and the way the word breaks down just makes sense. What gave you the idea to have the game double up as a tool for learning Japanese?

PETER: We have many friends who took a year or two of Japanese in College and we ourselves know the frustration of having your abilities slowly deteriorate over time since life does a great job of robbing time to study.  Yet I see people on the bus everyday playing the same puzzle game over and over.  I see people memorize unique symbol shapes for magic spells in Castlevania DS games and Ni no kuni.  I do see a lot of small wins where time is ripe for reclaiming or re purposing as study time.  We just need to make a game environment people enjoy staying in that can convert these small packets of time into tasks that have both an ingame purpose strictly for fun but also grows a real world skill.

CHRIS: I have had exactly the same experience trying to play games in Japanese as a study tool. For me, the idea of making the game a study tool came from the interest in making exactly the game I personally wanted to play, instead of trying to build a game that we thought might appeal to some segment of the market. I studied Japanese formally for over seven years, but since leaving college I’ve watched my language skills slowly deteriorate. The first thing to go was my Kanji recognition. Thinking about these experiences in the early design phases we started talking about this idea of “passive learning”. We knew we didn’t want to make another game that is a classroom disguised as a game – those just are not very much fun to play. But we believe strongly that the fervor and passion that arises when someone plays a game they really enjoy can be channeled into valuable learning. From there, it was really just a matter of putting two and two together. We started brainstorming ways that we could mix studying techniques that have been effective for us into a proper game environment and after some light internal testing we really liked the in-game dialogue and study grinding mechanics. We are still doing more brainstorming and testing in this space, so there may yet be more to come in terms of study tools we add to the game.


The game isn’t all jigoku and scary stories.

Are you surprised that there aren’t more games that incorporate language learning in this way?

PETER: We saw the coming and going of Brainage.  And there seems to have been a big push for a while on TV for stuff like  I think many people have tried to make the brain games and have ended up with “If you run on this tread mill, you will get smarter”  In order to succeed we need our game to be “Soccer”.  Not everyone is interested, but for those who do, you don’t need to convince them to play, oh and playing makes you healthy too but that’s a bonus.  It’s a tall order and I don’t know if we will hit it, but that’s our goal.  Another key to success is for our players to feel they are improving, not within the game but outside too.  We want them to recognize new words when watching an anime episode they already have watched dozens of times.  We want them to be have new Ah Ha~~ moments relating to Japanese culture.  We want them to be that person that all of a sudden is so happy they took Latin after all because they can read the inscription on a Roman Ruin, and it feeling like a new Universe has opened up just for them.

To give readers an idea of how language learning will be incorporated in A Credible Tale of Yokai; how would you apply this concept to one of your favourite games? Say… Zelda: A Link To The Past or Chrono Trigger?

CHRIS: Absolutely, let’s reimagine Chrono Trigger as a learning tool. Imagine that when you began a new game in Chrono Trigger, you were asked about your Japanese proficiency level. For players who aren’t quite sure, there is a 10 question assessment you can take to have the game help suggest a level for you. For those with a high enough level, we would render all the game text in Japanese – but by holding SELECT on your game pad it will toggle back to English so you can quickly switch back and forth if you get stuck. Whenever you complete a battle, you will enter a bonus round in which you will be prompted with up to 5 kanji flashcards. These will be multiple choice and vary in content so that sometimes you are selecting the pronunciation of a kanji, other times its meaning, and others choosing which of several similar looking characters has the meaning the card asks for. For each one you answer correctly, you will get some bonus loot and experience and if you get one wrong the bonus round will end. The game remembers which kanji you got wrong, so the next time you encounter it, if you guess correctly you will get some extra fanfare and higher quality loot. Guessing all five correctly in a row will also yield some additional bonus, so you aren’t incentivized to try to game it by intentionally guessing incorrectly.

With just this system in place, we believe players would have a ton of opportunity to learn a lot of kanji. The key to success with kanji is repetition, and we believe that a system like this will give students exactly what they need to master their kanji.

Anything else you’d like to say to fans of Japanese horror, yokai and students of Japanese?

PETER: Yokai aren’t just scary tales, many of them are a very natural result of the stories a society tells itself when strapped for resources.  If yokai stories are a bi product of this Japanese mentality that birthed them,  it is equally fascinating to see the flip side of this coin that are still alive in Japanese culture.   Practices like Kintsugi, which are a result of cherishing belongings.

The haunted house at Disneyland is fun, but once you leave the air conditioning and step back out into the California sun, that experience is over.  But the same can not be said in Japan.  You can still see small mounds of salt outside of eateries even in the city.  You can turn a corner in an urban environment and find a tiny spooky shrine.  You can still see hints of this world everywhere.  And to make sure this never goes away, we want to make sure foreigners see value in it, because that’s one of the more effective ways to remind Japanese people that they have something special and that’s why it mustn’t be allowed to phase out as time goes on.

If you are interested in finding out more about A Credible Tale of Yokai, Robots and the Lunar Tourist or wish to pledge to their campaign, click here to visit their Kickstarter page.

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