More than anything, what struck me about YIIK: A Postmodern RPG was its tone. I felt it every second playing the game, from its hilarious dark humour-leaning writing, to its playful and surprising combat mechanics, to its music and visual style. Naturally, I was eager to speak to the team behind the game. Busy at work for their tentative early summer release, Ackk Studios couldn’t make it in person to London, where I played the game at the indie convention EGX Rezzed. Still, I was keen to talk to them somehow, so I chatted with Andrew Allanson, Y2K’s co-director and lead composer, as well as one of the two co-founders of Ackk, on Skype a few days ago.
“I think the story can be a bit heavy handed at times so the comedic elements help it not get laid down in its own pretentiousness”, Allanson said of finding the perfect tone of the game. This was certainly clear playing the demo at EGX, where the several minor characters I met had their own stories to tell, stories that reflected the state of the world through a distorted, comedic lens. Taking place in a rundown trailer park town called Wind Town, I met (and fought) an “underpaid cashier”, a “hook-handed jock” and a child-aged “wannabe cop”. The hook-handed jock, I was later told by his younger sibling on the playground, had a scholarship to a respected university before ending up in a horrible accident.
The main story, though, of the slice that I saw, is certainly a lot darker. Y2K (set before Y2K, in 1999) tells the story of Alex, a post-collegiate hipster dude who, while in between jobs, sees a video on an internet conspiracy theory message board of a mysterious girl who disappears into an elevator. Naturally, Alex then goes on a hunt for this girl. At the end of the demo that I played, the game takes a darker tone as we meet this girl’s brother, and the meat of the story, that which was incredibly gripping, became apparent. However, nestled with its often playful comedy, Y2K struck a nice middle ground. “Earthbound really set the rules for telling a really screwed up story, without ever making the player feel gross.”
The process of that fusion between the heavy and the light exists elsewhere in the game’s design, namely its American setting and Japanese gameplay roots. The multiple-member party, turn-based combat is a staple of old-school JRPG’s (Japanese Role Playing Games), but instead of monsters of any kind, we fight mundane archetypes of Americana, whether it’s a goth or a jock. Likewise, instead of swords and spells, the three characters I played with had decidedly postmodern attack moves. Alex, our hero, fights by throwing LPs at his enemies, Vella, one of Alex’s friends, and a member of my party in the demo, fights by throwing an amp at enemies or playing her keytar, while Michael, my third party-member, takes photographs of the enemy. Each has you play a brief mini-game: drawing a square, hitting the sweet spot of a record as it spins round a turntable, etc.
In fact, Alex’s conception came from a desire to fit the mundane reality of daily life within the epic and grand nature of any RPG quest. “I thought about who the hell has time to go on a 40 hour quest when he’s 25…I realized the only person who could would need to have well-off parents, and be in between jobs, so that’s where Alex’s background came from.” This itself seemed to come from Persona 4’s treatment of its characters as characters, not just abstract vehicles of destruction. “The biggest game changer for me was Persona 4,” Allanson said, talking of modern game inspirations. “I started it 6 months [into development of Y2K] and it made me me rethink my approach to making the game feel like it takes place during a normal person’s life. Sometimes your party member can’t join you, because she has a shift at work, for example.”
The inspiration, of course, goes well beyond Persona 4 and Earthbound. In the game, there are 6 dungeons, “each inspired by a different JRPG.” This idea reflects the tongue-in-cheek title of the game, which proclaims itself a ‘postmodern RPG’. The different themed dungeons varies in its degree of homage to its inspiration. Some are obvious, such as the Zelda-style dungeon, while others are more subtle.
Indeed, inspirations go beyond videogames themselves, despite the fact that this is very much a videogame inspired by videogames. That mysterious plot point, of the girl being terrorized by an elevator, the video that Alex sees online and sets off his quest and the game, didn’t come out of nowhere. “We picked an elevator because it was Elisa Lam’s last known location before she died in the water tower.” Lam died in February 2013, her body found in a water tank on top of a hotel in Los Angeles. In the video of her, in that now infamous elevator, she can be seen peering outside the elevator, going in and out of it, hiding in it, and gesturing and talking in the corridor outside.
And that was her last known location. “After she died and the video of her in the elevator surfaced I couldn’t go into one without thinking about her. Made me really anxious for a while. So, I picked it as her death inspired the game in a way.”
YIIK: A Postmodern RPG is out this summer, for PS4, PS Vita, Wii U and PC.