Indie games have been surprising us for the most part of the last decade, with amazing titles that can face others from huge companies that make huge numbers as well. Although the initial idea of these games being «too simple» has also changed with the evolution of this ramification of the video game industry, the «mainstream» perception seems to be unaltered for the most part of the population. So, when a game like Black Book pops up on Kickstarter, with such a unique premise, offering a nice battle system, deck-building approach, interesting story and lots and lots of mythological, historical and anthropological research, you can immediately understand that some things are changing. For the best. Whatever kind of audience or player you may belong to.
If you are already mesmerized by this game, here you have the link for its Prologue on Steam (100% free).
Morteshka is a Russian indie studio that has presented the already mentioned Black Book on Kickstarter, with a pretty nice campaign that still has some more days to be supported. Although this team has made a great work to put all the necessary information together for any possible backer interested in their game, we have been brave enough to contact them and ask them a few different questions and clarify some doubts that we have. And not only about their game, but about their creative process, the developing situation or that huge research for Black Book they have done so far.
The members of Morteshka have been really kind and easy to speak to, honouring us with a very detailed interview, talking about everything we may have asked them. So, without any further ado, here you have our interview with this great indie studio about Black Book. Enjoy!
Si prefieres leer la entrevista en nuestra traducción a español, échale un vistazo a este enlace 😉
1. At the moment of writing this interview, you have completely funded your game through its Kickstarter campaign. In fact, you have overcome the 300% mark. Congratulations!! How is the journey going so far?
Thank you! It is incredible to see such support for our work, we are very grateful for all our backers and players of Prologue, who believes in our project. We hope that the full game will be as interesting to everyone as the introduction chapter.
2. As we can see in the information you have posted on the Kickstarter campaign, the system for Black Book is quite interesting. Apart from being a turn-based, action RPG, you have also included a deck-building element to fight against enemies. How did you “discover” that that was the key element for your game? How difficult was the process of implementing it within the other features of Black Book, such as the RPG situation or the story?
Well, we are not on the frontier of deckbuilding singleplayer RPGs at the moment. The battle system was inspired by two astonishing games: Slay the Spire! and Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards. When we’ve started working on the game we’ve imagined it more like a JRPG, traditional party and similar battle system. It could work, but then we had an idea of having a Black Book, a legendary artefact that holds all the spells of Koldun, a sorcerer. So the deck fits really well – you have a book full of different spells that you use to demolish your opponent. The other ingredient is the Zagovor panel, you weave you spell with several cards-words, which reflect the traditional Russian zagovor structure. In folklore these magic spells have Zachin (introduction), Prikaz (or order, the meaningful, middle part) and Klyuch (the key, the ending), and we’ve tried to convey that in gameplay.
3. As you have established, the deck-building feature of Black Book has two different characteristics to make it even more interesting. On the first hand, they are going to be customizable for the player to create their own deck. On the other hand, we are going to be able to create combos while using the deck, to increase its power, making the customizable trait even more meaningful for the final result. How does this system really work, both on the playability level and the development one? Are the decks and the combos going to be extended with more content after launching the game?
Yes, in the Prologue you can see only the small part of all the cards that are going to be in the game. There are seven chapters in the game and each chapter you unlock a new set of cards with new mechanics. We are planning to do a gameplay test of the battle system to polish all these elements, there is still a lot of work to be done, even though we have a solid foundation from which we can quickly make different cards with different gameplay effects.
4. Apart from these two elements of customizable decks and combos, you have also talked about different companions that might join our party, and even different demons that can become helpers of our main character. How is this feature integrated within the already mentioned characteristics? How are they going to be implemented in Black Book, in terms of game development?
Companions are mostly a story wise element. When you take them along on your journey, they can affect some events or have special phrases. But they participate in battle as well: each has his own ability – a card, that you can order him to use once in several rounds. We have reached a loyalty quest stretch goal, so we will do a special quest for each character, and by completing it your companion will receive an upgraded ability.
5. One Stretch Goal that made us curious at the second we knew about it, and that has just been unlocked, is the Battle Mode, which is, as you have established, “a roguelike mode, in a style similar to Slay the Spire!” and where you have to “Defeat enemies while unlocking cards and equipment!”. This Mode could potentially create a totally different game, with almost unlimited hours to play. On this regard, we would like to ask you about how you have planned it for it to be as enduring as possible, and how different, if so, it is going to be from the “normal” Mode.
This is a challenge for our team that we are happy to take. This mode will be mostly based on content from a singleplayer campaign, and it will be completely separate from the singleplayer. There will be the same monsters and most of the cards, that are present in singleplayer. We are planning to do a special random generated map for each run of the battle mode and several special ingame events, that are unique to the roguelike mode. Also this mode will most probably have a different character progression, as compared to the singleplayer mode, and different inventory management system.
6. One element that can be easily found in your game, even before taking into account the playability that we have already mentioned, is the high influence of Mythology. In fact, the Slavic Mythology is huge in Black Book, both in the story and the playable perspective as well. We know you are not strangers to that mythology, mainly for being the one you know since childhood, but also because of your Past as game devs. However, this story is completely new, so we would like to know how difficult it was to integrate all the mythological elements you wanted to show with the story you planned to portray.
When we’ve started working on our game based on Slavic Mythology it turned out that there is huge amount of ethnographic research on the topic, so we’ve started diving into this literature. We’ve also asked professional scientists to help us, as we’ve did with our previous project The Mooseman. While working on Black Book we’ve made an acquaintance with Konstantin Shumov, famous folklorist who collected Bailichkas and written several works on this topic. He helped us with the research and also he is an author of an ingame encyclopedia and tales collection. So in a way each player can familiarize himself with authentic folklore of Northern Russia. We are excited to bring all these stories to life, because now they slowly turn to the dust and even our compatriots are not completely familiar with authentic lore of past.
7. The cinematic intro for Black Book is really nice, with quite beautiful visual imagery and well-done animation, for a fluid and pretty result. How was it made? How long did it take to be completed? Will we see more of that in the final game?
Thank you! We’ve worked on the introduction with our publisher for several months. It is made not in the game engine, so the only way to integrate it into the game is to make a video. We are hoping nonetheless to improve the introduction inside the game with something similar.
8. Continuing with the visual elements of the game, we have realised that you are going to use not one, but two different styles for the game itself. One is going to be used for situations with “movement”, and the other one for dialogues. This, by the way, makes us think about other RPGs such as Fire Emblem, for example. Why did you choose that double system for the visual elements? What are your influences on that matter?
We’ve chosen a stylized lowpoly style for the game to make quick, but full environment, the characters are low poly as well, allowing our team to spend less time on modelling and environment design. First iterations of Dialogue system used this 3d models of the characters. Our Art director was not happy with the result: 3d models were not detailed enough and did not convey properly emotions of our characters. We hope that they do now, while being 2d, especially with the planned voiceover.
9. We have mentioned previously that there is a huge influence of Slavic Mythology in Black Book but we haven’t said how that is included yet. We have seen large amounts of creatures and stories from the folklore of your land just in the trailer so far, and we can understand that the number of both is going to be even higher in the final version of the game. How many creatures are you going to include (that are, at least, in your plans up to this moment)? Although comparisons are odious, can The Witcher’s fans find the feeling of living folklore from that series in your game (or maybe a similar one)?
Well, we plan to do more than 50 different enemies in the game. They will be inspired by Slavic as well as Finno-Ugric mythology, because the game takes place in Perm region, where the indigenous people were Komi-Permians and Mansi tribes. We will explore the mixture of christian and paganistic beliefs in our game as well. The Witcher fans will find several familiar enemies in our game as well, for example we will have Kikimora and Drowners.
10. The high number of references to creatures and stories from the Slavic folklore can only find match with the high number of references to real elements, such as old portraits, illustrations and even cities. You have even been consulting with historians and anthropologists to get all the facts right. How can a small team like yours manage all this work? Is there a limit for “too much” content/care for detail in Black Book?
We strive for authentic portrayal of the locations that you visit in the game: some buildings are depicted from their historical counterparts. In our game it is not a coincidence, the game is based on Bailichkas, short stories about meetings with spirits and demons that allegedly took place in real life. Usually the premise of such a story is the reference to a real person, that met the devil, or a depiction of a real place. We do the same: our game takes place in a specific moment of time in a specific place, we want to follow the same tradition. We’ve visited Perm museum of local lore for old maps of Cherdyn’ region, and the maps that you see in game are an artistic renditions of such maps. Many buildings and scenery can be seen today in Cherdyn’. That said, we still have artistic freedom: for example the windmill that you see in the Prologue is situated in the North of Perm region, even though historically it was situated in the South. We think that this way we can depict most interesting parts of XIXth century Perm region, while still keeping a good amount of authenticity.
11. Although Black Book is a fantasy game, there seem to be a clear division between fantasy perse and reality/elements from the real world. How have you managed to create that division? And how, on reverse, have you managed to make it all feel like just one world?
Bailichkas are founded on contrast: this is the second reason of using reality elements. You have to have a real elements in the story about demons to make an especially meaningful moment of appearance of the unknown.
12. Black Book is not your first game. Previously, you worked on the already mentioned The Mooseman, a game with an, also, deep focus on folklore. What is about Slavic mythology that has taken your heart? What differences can we find from that title to your most recent one?
The Mooseman was founded on Finno-Ugric lore, the basis of the game are artefacts of so-called Permian bronze casts. These were religious artefacts of indigenous tribes, and the mythology that is depicted on those items is nowadays mostly forgotten, there is not a very big amount of research on that topic. In The Mooseman we’ve attempted an artistic reconstruction of those myths, we’ve also worked with ethnographers and literature to do at least a bit faithful reconstruction of these myths. In Black Book we are working with Russian myths, that exist even to this day. Because of that there is huge amount of works researching Russian mythology and in this case it is a challenge to do everything right, even to us, who is familiar with this lore since childhood.
13. We can clearly see that mythology has influenced you all as a team and as individuals as well. Taking your work but, also, other titles like the already mentioned The Witcher series, we can see a pattern that is evolving and growing within different mythologies, folklores and cultures on the eastern part of Europe. Do you think there is a revival, as such enjoyed during the Renaissance and the Romanticism, of mythologies in general, and the Slavic one in particular, mainly throughout the development of video games, in Russia and other former members of the USSR?
Since 80s there was a steady amount of projects based on Slavic mythology in Eastern Europe, as well as other European countries. I’ve made a research on this matter and found that there were nearly hundred projects based on Slavic myth, and each year the amount of such projects increases. It is hard to tell whether this increase is connected to a Renaissance, or is just a correlation to the overall growth of the gaming industry. My hope is that local lore from all over the world could find its way in gaming industry. The developers from former members of USSR may also be trying to find their own penmanship in the gaming industry, trying to make something different from most popular settings, we in Morteshka certainly do.
14. There is no doubt that your small team is capable of a lot, mainly after checking all the great features that we can already find in “Black Book” on its current version. You have such huge goals to reach, and we can’t help asking how you manage to do it all and what the future of Morteshka could be like in terms of game development.
This project is certainly a challenge for our team, and we are indeed quite small. We have a lot of previous experience and a big love for gaming, so we hope to achieve everything that is planned. After completing the Black Book we hope to strive for bigger goals, maybe we will be capable of starting even more ambitious project, but right now we are focused on Black Book, we want to make this game as good as we possibly can.
15. And to finish with this interview, we would like to ask you about how game development works in Russia, your motherland, and if there has been any improvement of the industry over there in the last years, both from the private sector and the governmental perspective.
There is a lot of game development companies in Russia right now, a lot of very talented indie studios and also big companies, especially Russia is good in mobile development right now. There are publishers that support new teams, and I could say that game development industry in Russia is trying hard to make better games right now. Players fondly remember some great projects of 90s and 00s and are hoping on new achievements of their compatriot developers as well. Government is planning to do a special program to support local game developers, but as far as I know this program is still in the works.
And here you have our interview with Morteshka about Black Book. If you like the premise they propose, you still have some more days to support this project on Kickstarter, through their campaign on this crowdfunding platform. Apart from this, we would love for you to send them a message of support through their Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, or just tagging them if you share their game with your friends.
We would like to thank Morteshka for answering all of our questions with great detail. We hope that, during the last days of your campaign, there is nothing but more great news, and that your studio and your game keep on growing.
If you like this interview, you can read the others that we have made so far, and published on our Magazine, through this link, to check our conversations with lots of different video game studios. If you would like to see us talking with a specific studio, just leave us a comment and we’ll work on it.