Floating Cloud God Saves the Pilgrims is the sophomore adventure venture from the indie developer Dakko Dakko, the guys that last year delivered The 2D Adventures of Rotating Octopus Character. This is a refreshingly different scrolling shooter in which the player controls a God in the clouds and must shepherd a flock of ground-bound pilgrims through perilous plains dynamically splitting their attention between protecting and attacking – an attribute worthy of the coining of the new ‘custody’ genre. The gameworld is reminiscent of Japanese lore and beautifully imagined by Army of Trolls (aka Gary Lucken), the gameplay is fast and fun dotted with ‘awwww’ evoking elements of cute, balanced with a complex and occasionally punishing combo system that will keep the hardcore schump fan sated.
Floating Cloud God Saves the Pilgrims uses a ‘love’ feature, promotes a tenderness towards its in-game characters and comes from an altogether loving place. I had a chat with Dakko Dakko’s Rhodri Broadbent about love and videogames.
RB: I’ve long wanted to make a game about protecting a group of independently moving characters on a long journey, so a pilgrimage was a natural basis. As I was setting out to make a 2D game this time, the pilgrimage theme provided a clear idea for the landscape and the characters. From there it was a fairly natural jump for the game to take some gameplay cues from side-scrolling shooters, whilst shifting the focus away from staying alive, to instead keeping others alive.
The protection element was fundamental. The player must balance staying near to the pilgrims to be worshipped, whilst venturing forwards regularly to keep faster moving enemies at bay, and this was a cornerstone of the design from the beginning. Worship took many forms through development, morphing into devotion/love as the design progressed.
The game has got a lot of heart(s). This symbol of love is not unfamiliar to players. It is a long established representational convention sometimes signifying health, extra life, your girl friends affection, but generally this is a positive icon that we want lots of. Hearts mean ‘love’ in Floating Cloud God Saves the Pilgrims, you must earn them, collect them, grow strong for your flock.
RB: When thinking about how to raise and lower the player’s speed and strength, I wanted a subtle combo system which allowed skillful players to be rewarded quickly but which still allowed new players to feel lots of positive feedback as they play. I was keen to have the number of surviving pilgrims not just reflect a player’s performance, but also to visually affect the enjoyment of playing well.
Love, or devotion, fit what I wanted to achieve perfectly. The more the floating cloud god impresses the pilgrims, the more love they throw his way, and as he basks in that love he becomes stronger and more able to defend them. If he is hit, then they are unimpressed and he has to earn their devotion again.
Love works because when a player has a whole complement of pilgrims jumping and whooping along, hearts flying everywhere, it feels like triumph. The free-flowing love hearts grow larger with every hit, and float towards the player inviting him to soak them up. Conversely when there is just one pilgrim, still jumping and whooping but all by himself, the sense of achievement is mixed with a tinge of sadness at his lonely plight.
It was really exciting to explore how this cycle can be implemented – should the pilgrims love unconditionally, or should the god have to earn their devotion? Should pilgrims volunteer their love always and everywhere, or should the god have to request worship? Should fewer pilgrims give less love, or should a more desperate situation inspire stronger devotion and worship? As the game evolved we played with many variants, settling on a system which lets the player see the results of a good performance in real time, and to choose when to collect the love and when to let it build.
There is a more implicit love present in the game too. The oriental aesthetics and mythological monsters are all inspired by the years Broadbent spent living in Japan. Not only is the feel of the landscape much owed to personal experiences there but makes the game into something of an ode to stories and memories of time and place:
RB: I think it’s fair to say that every game I make will be in many ways influenced by Japan. Floating Cloud God as a character was born of my love of the nimble, cloud riding deities on display in ‘Byodo-in’, one of Japan’s most important temples. Our character doesn’t borrow their visual form at all, but the flowing hair and the undulating clouds were all dreamt up whilst staring at these gods.
Furthermore, for much of my time in Kyoto I lived near a street where every shop has its own home-made statue, each based on a different demon from Japanese folklore. These oddball creatures were, and remain, so intriguing and peculiar to me that it made great sense to have my pilgrims march along through their world.
Everything from the disembodied foot, to the one-legged umbrella, to the rolling ball of soil and the mudman all come from hearsay and stories I learned in Japan.
This is not Broadbent’s first flirtation with themes of love as a maker of games. The former Lionhead and Q designer has experience and an approach to love in games:
RB: I’m a ‘mechanics first, theme later’ sort of guy as both player and developer, so I’ve never set out to make a game about love (or any theme) as a priority. Despite that, there have been two interesting examples of involving love in games I’ve worked on. The implementations take very different forms, to very different ends.
In Fable, the game’s story is steeped in love, loss and revenge, all very serious and actually rather harshly presented. Yet outside of the main narrative, the gameplay uses the AI ‘renown’ system to create light-hearted, largely comical relationships between the player and the townsfolk. There’s an oddly effective juxtaposition between the superficial, entertaining relationships the player is able to strike up through their actions, and the unavoidable, painful plight of the player character in the scripted story.
At the other end of the spectrum, the largely-without-narrative PixelJunk Monsters sees the player protecting his ‘flock’ from the onslaught of creatures marching through the forests. The addition of dependents – of living things to ‘love’ – was absolutely fundamental to the success of Monsters. Tower Defence games are often about protecting abstract areas or bases, but by placing jumping babies outside the player character’s home, we not only provided an effective visual measure of player performance, but crucially a reason for the player to want to perform well. The flock at once provide motivation for the enemies, for the protagonist, and most importantly for the player.
(Incidentally, I designed for the player to be protecting sheep, at first. Thankfully for all, as the general theme of the game took shape the art lead had better visual ideas and they became obvious relatives of the player character. Though they still bounce a little bit like lambs, I think.)
I therefore feel that love can be a powerful weapon in a game designer’s arsenal, be it as a motivation, as a source of understandable logic or cohesion, as a visual aid or UI element, or as a stepping stone in the design process from which other crucial elements are born (without the addition of the ‘flock’ in PixelJunk Monsters, for example, there would be no ghosts, nor would the scoring system have developed into such a satisfying, rewarding structure).
Broadbent highlights that, from the design end at least, love in games is highly logical and deeply considered, things at odds with love as a human emotion. In Floating Cloud God Saves the Pilgrims the careful construction of love not only motivates the player to perform in the most effective ways through the levels but is implemented affectively also. Positioning players in a caring role, the game encourages attention as much to the status of the player character who is impervious as the fragile and adoring flock below. Their affection spurs you on and their absence is felt as more than a consequence of your error, it is quite emotional to lose your pilgrims because they literally haunt you as the ghosts of your felled followers appear on the end of level screen. Love isn’t just a theme between in-game characters, the game evokes an affectionate relationship between player and characters.
Floating Cloud God Saves the Pilgrims is available as free love for PlayStation Plus subscribers and in the PSN Store now!