Recently, I had the opportunity to have an interview with the creator of To Ash, Kyle Ballentine. Having played and reviewed To Ash, I had some additional questions rattling around in my brain, and Kyle was kind enough to answer them, as well as give some more insights about his game.
DT: So let’s get started with some warm up questions so people can understand your background a little better. As a fan of classic JRPGs, were there any games in particular that inspired you while you were creating To Ash?
KB: I’ve been a huge fan of JRPGs since I was young, so many of them influenced me. (Albert Odyssey on Sega Saturn was one of my favorites). FF13 Lightning Returns helped me think of the risk/reward in the game. In that game, you have a time limit toward the end of the world, so every side quest you do takes up a precious resources. So in my game, I want people to think twice about exploring every corner and fighting everything, because it will add up and weaken you eventually. I tried to make the treasures worthwhile too. The Golden Sun series I think does an excellent job of dungeon and treasure design, it always felt exciting to find new equipment after solving puzzles in that game.
The ‘Tales of’ series was an influence as well, for the dungeon design. Many old Tales games like Tales of Destiny had really interesting puzzles, obstacles, and gimmicks in the areas. I wanted to make sure the player is rarely ever just walking through corridors, as so many modern games and RPGs do. I also get tired of block pushing puzzles and finding a simple key. There’s a little bit of that, but I tried to put in action elements to the gimmicks. In the first cave you have to push things around but also escape ghostly figures, and later on you have to find a boss among identical-looking slimes. I think many old-school JRPGs like the Tales games, Lufia, Chrono Trigger, Dragon Quests, etc had very fun dungeons, where exploring is just as interesting as fighting.
The Dragon Quest and Shin Megami Tensei games helped me think of interesting boss battles when using a basic turn-based system. Some of the names of weapons came from Castlevania as well.
DT: I read that you’re a therapist, is that correct? Did this have a hand in inspiring you in the creation of your game?
KB: I’ll combine this with the next question since it’s related.
DT: Let’s talk a little bit about the themes of To Ash. After playing the game, I could tell that the story revolves heavily around death, and the acceptance of it. What made you decide to have a game focus on these issues?
KB: The original idea was to have an RPG where you play someone who weakened over time. I thought of that maybe 3 or 4 years ago. So when I set out to actually start developing that idea, I thought “acceptance” could be a major theme. By that time I started working with more adults. The ages at my current work are all over, but mostly older clients, 50 years old and up. I run a lot of groups, and slowly started realizing that practicing acceptance was a good coping skill for many symptoms. Death and the afterlife is something I’ve always been interested in and try to learn about. There are so many different philosophies on it, and it’s extremely important to everyone, because it will happen to all of us. So some people are able to go in peace, but many don’t really think about death until very late, (if they get the luxury of living a while). I think it’s a very necessary, existential question for us. If you can accept the fact that you will be gone, it tends to help you let go of things in life that you may dwell on, or appreciate what’s around you. This can lead to less anxiety and depression. So I tried to infuse some of the lessons from therapy into the writing. It also helped me come up with all kinds of responses to various kinds of loss that you get to choose through dialogue.
With all that in mind, I started thinking of the main character and what the goal of the game should be. So instead of simply “save the world one more time,” it’s “save the world, but also face reality.” I decided to make him an older, weathered hero and thought that would be perfect to have the player see him make that journey while slowly accepting what will happen. What I love about games though, are the choices/sense of control, so the story could make more of an impact if the choices you make affect the ending. I hoped the player would identify with and guide the character to a place of acceptance, rather than just witness his reactions to things.
DT: What is your goal with introducing the themes of death, aging and acceptance in your game? What is it that you’re hoping people will take away from their experience?
DT: Do you think that the themes are the most important aspect of the game? It’s a traditional JRPG, which makes it very accessible to many gamers. Did you make it a JRPG because it is such a familiar format, and that makes it easier for players to experience and explore these themes?
KB: As I said above, I think it’s very important for everyone to accept death, no matter what you believe happens after. What I love about games is that they let you get into the head of a character, much more so than a movie or show. So I’m hoping people identify with Demitri and see how their attitudes toward acceptance affect them. Some think that grief and loss is only for people dying, but you can grieve the loss of a job, a relationship, an identity. That’s why I put in other examples of loss in the game and tried to show how various characters reacted to it. I really hope this game can help someone through a difficult event or at least get them thinking about how to deal with death.
DT: One of the themes is acceptance. You modeled the cities in the game after the five stages of grief, correct? As you explore the world and progress towards the end, did you plan to put them in a particular order, to tie in with the progression of the game?
KB: Yes, I had an idea to show the stages of grief within the areas of the game. One of the first things I made was the world map, so I laid it out and started thinking of how to make towns based on those concepts. The “bartering” one was more of a stretch in the concept, but I think all the others fit very well. It actually helped me create each area too. I thought an “anger” town could be in the midst of a civil war, and then tied it into the idea of losing their leader. I wanted to put them in the actual order as well, in order to exemplify how people react to loss and then have Demitri/the player react to that.
DT: Let’s talk about the actual creation of the game itself for a moment. This game was made using RPG Maker MV. Was this your first experience with that medium?
KB: I had the old RPGmaker back on Playstation 1, but it was very cumbersome to actually make anything. Last year I bought a bundle including more recent versions, so I discovered they had been making new versions all the way up until now! Now that I’m older and could actually plan out a whole game, I played with the program for a few days.
DT: What was it that drew you to using RPG Maker to bring your idea to life?
KB: As I was just playing around with that RPGmaker, I was reading about the different versions and started realizing that I may be able to work with it. They claim that you don’t need much programming knowledge, and that’s mostly true. I was able to customize things with my limited knowledge of the technical stuff.
Overall I was very excited to focus on the things I think I’m good at; writing, plot, character design, level design. It was a ton of work to plan out and create skills, monsters, equipment, items, etc. In addition, balancing statistics, but I think I was able to make a very solid and challenging battle system. Again, I saw that this program may not be super malleable, but that is an amazing tool for making RPGs specifically. I understood that my game wouldn’t look super unique, but I could absolutely execute the concept, and that was really exciting as someone doing this on the side.
DT: Do you feel that RPG Maker may have limited your creative vision in any way? That is to say, was there anything you wish you could have implemented in the game that the software prevented you from doing?
KB: Yes, there were plenty of limits. But I think having limits is good for almost anything creative. If possibilities are endless, most people tend to go in too many directions or just freeze up because of all the choices. One thing I wanted to include was a way to recover health outside the battle based on your performance or something. Another thing that they have made available now is weapon durability. That would’ve been interesting to implement.
The limits led to some major parts of the game actually! For example, I didn’t originally plan the shield character, Gallium. I was trying to find a way to do something unique with the battles, because as I said I don’t know how to completely customize everything. Since you mainly control Demitri, I wanted him to basically choose 2 actions every turn, (one action, and also go into a stance). I’m sure there’s a way to do it, but I couldn’t figure out a way to give him 2 turns while limiting the actions. So after talking with my wife I thought it would work to make an essentially invisible party member. That became Gallium! And that idea ended up helping me give exposition when needed, along with some nice juxtaposition. I could have an immortal character and a mortal character understanding, arguing, and supporting each other.
DT: Do you have any advice for people who are trying to create their own games using RPG Maker?
KB: Not too much, but what I think worked well for me was the order that I made things. After a concept, I started with the world map. Then I was able to just think, “What would I expect to find over here?” and at least a few ideas would pop up. Also, just to utilize the community on the forums and stuff. There were many helpful people to test and answer questions. Just keep working at it if you really want to make something, do a little every day.
DT: Do you have any plans on creating other games in the future?
KB: I love RPGs and it’s exciting to see new plugins and features get added. So yeah, I want to start thinking of other games. So far I want to make a story about animals in some way. Kind of a “Homeward Bound” or “Bolt” type story where you’ll be a group of animals trying to get back home or something. Some of my clients had suggestions for other therapy-themed games too. For example a game about hallucinations in Schizophrenia, or something about people’s delusions.
DT: I really appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions. Is there anything else you might like to say to anybody who may read this interview?
KB: Thank you for the time and interest! I just would like to say that I hope people playing enjoy the game and take something away from it. Even if the deeper themes don’t resonate, hopefully I was able to make something fun. Thank you so much for reading this, I’m very thankful to have been able to make a game with all these tools!