Originally from New Caledonia, Phil Crifo is the co-founder and creative director of Awaceb, an indie studio founded alongside childhood friend Thierry Boura. Currently based in Bordeaux, France, Awaceb is a 12-person team working on Tchia, a game inspired by New Caledonia.
Tchia became a delightful surprise when it was revealed at The Game Awards 2020. The game drew comparisons to entertainment juggernauts like Zelda, Mario, and Moana. What makes it really unique is that it offers a tropical open-world adventure based on the small island of New Caledonia, where the founders of indie studio Awaceb are from.
While the game incorporates magical and fictitious elements, Tchia boldly features New Caledonian culture, music, and voice talent that creates an authentic experience. This is all wrapped up in a vivid and extremely lush art style coupled with a physics-driven sandbox that facilitates numerous locomotion methods including climbing, gliding, swimming, sailing, and more.
Epic Games was so impressed with Awaceb's early efforts that the team was awarded an Unreal Dev Grant. To see how the highly-anticipated title is progressing, we interviewed studio creative director Phil Crifo. The co-founder shares how the team is creating the visual elements behind the game, designing Tchia’s world, and elaborates on what it has been like transitioning to Unreal.
Considering Tchia's setting is based on New Caledonia and injects the territory's folklore, music, sounds, and voice actors, how important was it for the studio to shed light on the region's culture with the project?
More than anything. I think we are very lucky to be able to tap into that incredibly rich well to build our game world and story. If that sparks some interest in players and makes them want to learn more about the country, that would be fantastic, of course, but it’s not what the game itself is about. We want any player to be able to enjoy the game and story whether they are familiar with New Caledonia or not. I'm a big fan of Studio Ghibli's way of infusing their stories with Japanese culture while remaining universal. That is something we strive for.
Tchia has been compared to Wind Waker, Breath of the Wild, Mario Odyssey, Moana, and more. What would you say are some of its biggest influences?
The main inspiration for Tchia is simply childhood. More than any specific game or franchise, the goal is to emulate that feeling of being a child on an adventure. In game design terms, that translates to free-flowing traversal, and a very physical approach to every mechanic, giving the game that "toy-box" feeling where everything moves and reacts to the player. Zelda definitely shares some of that DNA and Breath of the Wild was a great confirmation for us that the formula could work in an open-world game. Moana is an obvious (though flattering!) comparison because it is pretty much the only mainstream work based on Polynesian/Melanesian culture; hopefully, we get a lot more in the future!
People are curious to know more about the game's narrative premise. Can you provide any additional insight into Tchia's story?
Even though the game is inspired by New Caledonia, Tchia takes place in a fictional world. This means we took the liberty to include some magical and fantastical elements in the story. That said, the story of Tchia remains very human and intimate, dealing with themes such as family, childhood friendships, love, and growing up. A violent incident forces Tchia to leave her home island for the first time, and the player will get to explore and discover the game world alongside her.
Considering Tchia has a special ability that allows her to inhabit any animal or object in the game to traverse the world and progress the story, can you share where this unique idea came from?
Early on, we knew we wanted Tchia to have a special ability, but the mechanic evolved a lot during our prototyping phase, where we figured out what was fun. It started as a simple telekinesis ability, where Tchia was able to move objects around her. That evolved into a possessing ability where she remained static while controlling the subject, and it finally became the Soul Jumping ability she has now, where she physically warps into the animal or object, allowing for fun and dynamic combo-driven traversal. Super Mario Odyssey is sometimes mentioned, but we are taking a much more sandbox-y approach, where you can literally control any rock laying around, and not everything is designed around a specific puzzle or challenge — sometimes it's just fun to roll down a hill!
In Tchia, players have access to a wide variety of movement systems that include climbing, gliding, swimming, sailing, and more. Can you talk about the work that went into creating these vastly different traversal methods?
As a game focused on exploration, it was incredibly important for us that the traversal felt smooth and that roaming around the game world was fun in and of itself. This proved a challenge on the animation front, but also for our programmers, who had to build movement mechanics from scratch (Unreal Engine's character movement was a strong foundation, but we had to push the boundaries of what the engine offered by default) and made sure that they flowed together well. We are always fine-tuning the mechanics to make them interesting and to balance their use (adding a stamina bar, etc...).
Tchia features very vivid and highly saturated colors coupled with a cartoon-like art style. Can you talk about how you approached the visual design of the game?
The core of our art style was defined fairly early in production. I wanted a style that would honor the vivid colors of New Caledonia's landscapes, and that would echo our design principles: fun, lighthearted, and toy-like. Because we are a very small team, we had to be smart with content creation, and having stylized shapes and colors definitely helps in that regard. We use a custom triplanar material for a lot of the game world assets that allows for quick iteration and saves us time with UV unwrapping and texture baking. For the rendering, we dabbled with cel-shading but ultimately went with a regular shading scheme that allowed for more nuance in our lighting. We shared a lot of very bright, saturated footage so far, but the game has a lot of nuances and more toned-down, moody atmospheres as well.
Tchia presents players with a beautiful and highly physics-driven archipelago sandbox with different biomes. Can you talk about your approach to designing the game's world?
I wanted the game world to echo New Caledonia on multiple scales. On the macro scale, the islands' repartition is similar to New Caledonia, with an elongated main map and smaller islands clustered around. On the micro-scale, we took some very recognizable landmarks and scattered them around the game world, sometimes with our own twist on them. Those would be mostly recognizable by locals, but I'm confident they ultimately help create a cohesive and unique-looking world. We also tried to represent a majority of the biomes of New Caledonia (Tropical forests, sandy beaches, dry forests, savannah, swamps, red-dirt plains, city, and more), creating a very varied, condensed version of the island. On top of that, we added some fictional locations and landmarks for story purposes.
The game offers a beautiful day-to-night cycle with varying weather. How did you approach incorporating these dynamic elements?
We went for a fully dynamic lighting model to prevent baking time and asset tailoring for lightmaps. This was also very liberating when creating our sky and weather system. It is a fairly simple setup with a skydome and a directional light casting shadows. The clouds are hand-painted and all the material colors are driven by curves over a 0 to 1 range representing one full day. Rain is a simple particle effect following the player around, with some thicker clouds blending in the skydome material. It's a lot of smoke and mirrors but thankfully it works well with our cartoonish art style.
The game features surreal-looking water, both above and below the sea. Can you delve into how you created the look of the ocean?
Again, a lot of smoke and mirrors! There were many iterations of the water material but if I recall correctly, the turquoise lagoon look was created by plugging a color gradient into a DepthFade, but we also use the landscape's heightmap directly in the water material to control the color based on depth. We use world-aligned texture masks to control the color and transparency of the water (green-ish in rivers, brown and opaque in swamps, etc.). The very bright specs of light on the surface of the water are completely faked with some noise in the emissive.
The lighting in the game looks fantastic, particularly in regards to fire and other VFX. Can you share how you pulled off those visual elements?
As I stated earlier, our lighting setup is completely dynamic. We have to be careful with shadow casting for performance reasons, but overall, we are very happy with this setup. Apart from natural sunlight, we have a lot of torch and fire lighting, using simple light function flickering. We disabled brightness adjustment in our post-process to have complete control of the style and intensity of our lights (this is possible because of the stylized look of the game). In terms of particle effects, we only have a couple of Niagara systems (fish banks) but most of it is still done the old-school way, with Cascade. We only have a couple of basic texture shapes that we use in color/brightness variations for pretty much every effect in the game (again, this is possible thanks to our stylized art direction).
The game equips players with a ukulele, which they can use to progress the game or to simply jam out to real tunes on. Was there a lot of iteration to get this feeling right?
Definitely! The ukulele was also an early idea, tapping into the sandbox/toy-like feeling we wanted for the game. Designing a system that works for both keyboard and mouse as well as gamepad proved to be quite challenging, especially because our system is very complete (with chord quality switches, flats & sharps, note-bending, and more). Personally, I like to play on a gamepad. Learning songs has proven surprisingly similar to learning a real instrument (albeit much simpler!) and I can't wait to see what people come up with.
Being that this is your second game, what can you tell us about your studio, Awaceb, and how it's grown over time?
Awaceb was created in 2016 by two childhood friends from New Caledonia, myself and Thierry Boura. Fossil Echo was developed by that original two-person team, with some help on the music and sound-design fronts. For Tchia, we knew the game was too ambitious for such a small studio, so we worked on a prototype that allowed us to get funding from Kowloon Nights. This allowed us to grow the team up to 12 people. Awaceb is a New Caledonian slang that means "It's all good" or "No worries."
Considering this is Awaceb's first 3D title, why was Unreal Engine a good fit for the game?
Coming from a 3D animation background, I was already very familiar with the 3D pipeline (if not more than with 2D). Unreal is a very versatile and robust engine, and it is definitely reassuring to know how battle-tested it is, especially when working on a vast, expansive, systems-heavy project.
How has it been transitioning to Unreal Engine for Tchia's development?
Here’s a fun fact, we initially prototyped Fossil Echo as a 3D game in UDK before realizing it was too ambitious for a two-person team and switched to 2D. Coming back to 3D in Unreal was like reapproaching the initial vision for Fossil Echo in a way, and that felt really great.
Receiving an Unreal Dev Grant was an amazing moment for us. It happened fairly early in the prototyping phase and was a confirmation that we were on the right track with this project. It definitely helped us push the prototype as far as we could, and that ultimately played a major role in securing funding for the whole project.
Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Tchia and Awaceb?