NAIRI is a cute point-and-click adventure that caught my eye because of its adorable art style, and promise of a strong narrative and puzzle experience. The game has been greenlit on Steam and recently been successfully funded through Kickstarter although you can still back it until 2 November.
We caught up with Joshua van Kuilenburg of HomeBearStudio, the 2-person indie studio behind the game.
Hello! Can you introduce HomeBearStudio?
Sure! I’m Joshua van Kuilenburg, the ‘project lead’. I do all the programming, design, that sort of stuff. You Miichi is the art magician – anything visual is her work.
I’m Dutch, she’s Japanese, we’re both game design graduates and are now working on our passion project ‘NAIRI’, a graphic adventure which feels as a sort of blend of our perspectives and preferences, design and art-wise.
Where did the inspiration for NAIRI come from?
NAIRI was inspired by the experience we wanted to convey, and by works we felt conveyed that experience nicely. Narratively, we want players to experience mature themes and solid character development. Visually, we wanted it to be family-friendly, enforcing ourselves to tell an impactful story while keeping the tone light and colorful. As such, good sources of inspiration to us were works like The Last Airbender and Spirited Away, as well as a number of Pixar movies, stuff like that.
Can you tell me a little bit about Nairi and Rex?
Sure. Nairi is the daughter of an upper-class family. She lives a sheltered life, being raised, for the most part, by her tutor. Then, something spoilery happens, and suddenly she’s in the lower-district of Shirin, desperate trying to find her way back, which is easier said than done. The character of Nairi focuses on the skepticism, naiveté and frustration someone would feel in her predicament – she feels proud and knowledgeable, yet knows very little of the world outside of her upper-class bubble. Rex, on the other hand, was raised in the slums. First, he grew up to become a notorious criminal. Later, he became obsessively interested in the history of Shirin. No one knows why, but his scholarly knowledge only increased his notoriety. You can see how Nairi and Rex cooperating would lead to some interesting perspectives and conflicts.
The characters are directly influenced by the culture that surrounds them, so we wanted to go about the worldbuilding before anything else.
Can you tell me a little bit about the City of Shirin? How has it been considering the location of the game as a separate living and breathing character, and balancing that without taking away from the quirky fantasy setting?
Shirin was created first. The characters are directly influenced by the culture that surrounds them, so we wanted to go about the worldbuilding before anything else. The location of Shirin was mostly an artistic decision – we wanted warm colors, with an exotic flavor to it. Shirin’s history is detailed, riddled with conflicts, even stuff like religion, but visually we focus on the cute inhabitants – we try to keep darker themes subtle, and not push it through anyone’s throat.
Has it been difficult to strike a balance between the story you want to tell, the themes you want to explore and the overall family-friendly aesthetic of the game?
A little! The worldbuilding is like the ‘bass’ of storytelling. It’s super important and it defines the harmony, but it’s in the background, not screaming in your face like a guitar solo. Because you know it’s important, it’s hard to push back on it sometimes, because you want people to notice stuff, you know? But that kind of on-the-nose exposition is the devil, haha. What helps me is to always keep the focus on the characters. Any of the more serious stuff like religion and whatnot, it’s in the background, weaved into Shirin’s culture, silently waiting to be uncovered by the player.
Who are other characters we should look out for? Do you have any particular favourites?
Difficult question – all the spoilers, haha! My favorite is Nairi, due to her growth during the game, but another character follows closely. He/she/it is this very ambiguous antagonist, with goals and childhood events I think people will emphasize with. I tend to like characters whose actions conflict with their own state of happiness, even though they are blind to it.
We are big fans of intellectual fulfillment over, say, pure dexterity or trial-and-error scenarios.
You list The Last Airbender, Toy Story and Spirited Away as influences, and I can definitely see those in NAIRI. But videogame wise, what have been your influences? Are you big point-and-click adventurers?
We are big fans of intellectual fulfillment over, say, pure dexterity or trial-and-error scenarios. I wouldn’t call myself an ‘adventure game aficionado’ per se. I’m fan of good game design in general, and as long the mechanics serve the experience we’re aiming for, I think we’re solid. Games that inspired NAIRI in terms of gameplay are The Legend of Zelda in how it separates logical thinking from lateral thinking through the ‘dungeon concept’. We also look at games like Metroid and even Dark Souls in terms of how they internalize the concept of interconnectivity, ‘dynamic difficulty’ and intrinsic game design. We also use adventure games as inspiration, of course. We actually looked at Freddi Fish and loved some of its environmental puzzles, old as it is. It’s cute!
Most definitely cute. But Dark Souls is known to be especially ‘hardcore’ and perhaps some of the other games you’ve listed as inspiration are more lengthy adventures rather than aimed at a casual gamer market. Do you see yourselves aiming at ‘hardcore’ or ‘casual’ gamers, or do you see your game appealing to all?
Let’s talk about ‘hardcore’ and ‘casual’. I personally think ‘hardcore’ doesn’t necessarily mean difficult or lengthy. I’d consider Inside, for instance, a hardcore game. With hardcore games, developers count on a more significant mental investment on the player’s end – be it when it comes to patience, suspension of disbelief, physical skill, unraveling the narrative, and so on. I regard casual games as ‘short-term satisfaction machines’. There’s no long-term payoff, but it is immediately accessible and satisfying. No investment required.
NAIRI tries to serve both extremes of the spectrum. Hardcore gamers are served difficult puzzles and intricate worldbuilding – stuff worth investing in. Casual players can enjoy the art style and puzzles immediately, but skip cutscenes and request help for puzzles in case they don’t feel up for it.
How has it been balancing the difficulty of the puzzles with potential expectations of the audience, without sacrificing the overall experience of the game?
The trick is to let players do the balancing themselves. We’ll never be able to perfectly match the desires of a target audience that’s as wide at what we’re aiming for. When trying to please everyone, you could go for difficulty options, but I prefer ‘dynamic difficulty’. To go back to Dark Souls: players can alter the level of challenge tremendously by means of upgrades, co-op, armor, spells, exploiting weaknesses, shortcuts, healing upgrades. Me personally, I prefer to play solo, for instance – so I’m making things a little harder for myself. With NAIRI, it’s similar.
Next to contextual clues, there’s Rex’s journal to take hints from (no direct solutions) – but no one’s forcing you to. The journal records data based on what players interact with, so they can decide on a case-by-case basis, for every puzzle, if they want to lower the challenge or not.
You’re a small and cozy indie studio, how have you found the experience of developing NAIRI?
Everything was fine and dandy right up to the point where we had to market the concept. Marketing is much more of a full-time job than I thought it would be. Now things are going better, though, and it’s awesome to see people liking what we’re aiming to do with NAIRI. People have been so positive; it’s really awesome.
What about developing the game has been the most fun so far?
I have a personal fondness for programming and composing music. I’ve had a ton of fun composing NAIRI’s music! The artist, You, always loves drawing characters in particular. The GUI, environment, it’s all great, but anytime she draws cute characters, that’s her favorite activity!
In contrast, what has been the most difficult so far?
Again, marketing. That was the only thing we haven’t had any real experience with. We tried our best, but eventually had to get professional help to create some more awareness. Now that we’ve got a few more eyes on NAIRI, it’s been a lot better!
It was relieving to see the numbers resonating with our concept, not to mention the positive comments.
What has it been like, going through Steam Greenlight and Kickstarter?
Greenlight has been surprising to me. I expected to be in ‘Greenlight limbo’ for a while, what with us being completely unknown and making a somewhat ‘niche’ product. Instead, we had a really high ‘yes’ percentage, much higher than expected. We got ‘greenlit’ in about two weeks. It was relieving to see the numbers resonating with our concept, not to mention the positive comments. Kickstarter-wise, it’s more complicated. It’s one thing to get positive feedback, but it’s different when you need to convince people to donate. It requires more than a good product and transparent communication – it’s even more of a marketing thing than Greenlight, I feel. And I admit that marketing is not really my thing. I love talking to people interested in NAIRI, about game development, that sort of thing… But I’m not a great PR guy, haha.
That said, when we got funded recently, that’s a bigger ‘high’ than even our Steam Greenlight approval. So many people are excited enough to put their trust in us, and now we can officially go all-out on content development. I’m super hyped for it all. It’s amazing.
What advice would you give to any aspiring indie developers?
Aside from my typical ‘advice’ (fail fast, learn from mistakes and work hard), I’d tell game designers to always focus on the experience they want to convey. It’s easy to focus on mechanics first, without thinking about what it is, exactly, that you want to achieve, and for what target audience. Also, take programming as seriously as possible – the more flexible and robust the source code, the less time you will waste on fixing bugs or reconstructing stuff to serve design changes.