Nostalgia from a New Caledonia childhood shaped Tchia

By Brian Crecente

 Tchia is one of the more interesting indie games we’ve seen this year. The colorful adventure game drops players in a tropical world inspired by the tiny Pacific island of New Caledonia.

You can free climb, glide, sail, and swim your way through the tropical paradise, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Tchia also features the ability to “soul jump”, inhabiting animals and inanimate objects to move around and solve puzzles.

And did I mention that the game features a fully playable ukulele?

To find out a bit more about the game, which hits early next year, we chatted with Phil Crifo, game director at developer Awaceb, about how his New Caledonia childhood and personal journey helped shape Tchia and what players can expect from the title when it hits.
Tchia Folks

The game is clearly shaped by New Caledonia. What drove your decision to focus on the island and how that shaped the game's early development?

Crifo: When you are born and have lived your whole youth on a remote island, you usually end up hating the place at some point (I'm pretty sure it's similar in small towns). When I turned 18, the only thing on my mind was leaving New Caledonia for Europe to experience something different, bigger. Then a few years later, you realize that this setting for a childhood was actually pretty special! I think getting away from the island for a bunch of years definitely helped me take a step back and build a new, different appreciation for it. Add childhood nostalgia to that and you build a cocktail of inspiration and stories to tell. For me this arrived right when we started brainstorming our next project, around 2018, and it just felt right. New Caledonia is in our DNA and has shaped who we are, it has incredibly rich cultures, landscapes, folklore that are pretty much unseen in any media. It felt fresh, real, and authentic, and it felt like the type of project we wanted to build Awaceb around. That decision was pivotal for the game, because every artistic and design decision we made from then had to be thought out through the prism of that cultural inspiration. Far from a constraint, this proved to be an incredible framework to build on, because for every challenge and question, we had real, tangible things to look at as reference and inspiration.
Tchia Fish

The ability to soul jump into more than 30 playable animals and hundreds of objects is amazing. How did that level of open gameplay in an open world impact your design?

Crifo: From the outset, I designed the game as a toy box. I wanted the world to feel as physical and tactile as possible and the mechanics to feel wholesome, generous and meaty! With that as the groundwork for the game, we then had to go all in when designing every mechanic. Tchia's soul-jumping ability couldn't have been constrained to a coconut and a couple animals, that's not how a toy box works! So we went with a "if you see it, you can possess it" approach, which generated a lot of animation and movement design work, but in the end creates a level of freedom that I think is really rewarding. It allows players to control the flow of the experience, too. Want a slower, more contemplative exploration? Just stay on foot and roam around. But if that cliff looks too tall and you can't be bothered to climb all the way up, just soul-jump into a bird and give yourself a lift! For us it was not about tailoring and authoring the pacing as much as it was about giving players the options to make up their own pace. Not to say that we don't have scenes and sequences that are more directed and contained, but for the open world gameplay we very much opened the doors as wide as possible.

Can you talk a little bit about the work you put into shaping the biomes and weather of Tchia?

Crifo: Like I said earlier, the decision to base the game off of New Caledonia was an amazing framework to build upon. This directly applied to the way we built the archipelago in the game. The idea was to honor all the aspects of NC, and that includes the (very) varied types of landscapes and climates. When you think of an island in the Pacific you think white sand and coconut trees, and that's fair, we have a lot of those! But NC is also coastal swamps, crazy coral cliff sides, mountain ranges, martian-red dirt planes, dry savannahs, tropical forests, and also more urban areas like factories and cities. The idea was to take all of those and condense them into an archipelago that was fun to explore and where players would regularly be rewarded by new atmospheres and moods by just exploring. We also recreated some iconic landmarks, some very faithful and some with a little more artistic freedom, it was a really fun process. For the weather, we had to have those bright orange tropical sunsets of course, but also the very moody, foggy mornings and the heavy tropical rains were important to recreate as they can completely change the mood of any one place in the game.
Tchia Ukulele

I love that you can play the in-game's ukulele. How important is that to the core gameplay? What made you decide to include that neat feature and how did you design it?

Crifo: We knew music had to play an important role in the game, just because it is a main part of New Caledonian culture, so having a playable instrument in the game made a lot of sense. Making it fully playable (with picking, strumming, bending, and such) in the open world was a big technical challenge, but we couldn't stick to just having rhythm segments! Giving the ukulele an impact on the open world was a no-brainer given the sandbox we were building, and giving players the freedom to just take it out and jam at any time is, again, part of the "toy-box" design approach. I think it is a really neat virtual instrument and I look forward to seeing what players are able to do with it! 

What is it you hope to achieve with Tchia?

Crifo: I know New Caledonia gets mentioned a lot, and rightfully so, but I hope it doesn't overshadow the fact that we are making a cool game first and foremost. From the start, we decided to make a game and to tell a story that is universal and can be enjoyed by anyone around the world, regardless of if they are familiar with NC or not. That was very important and it has been a fine line to walk between honoring our cultural inspirations and creating a product with a broad appeal, but I'm very confident we succeeded to find that sweet spot (this is the reason why the world of Tchia is entirely fictional and doesn't use real names, topography, and such). If Tchia strikes an interest for NC in some players, that would be amazing, but first and foremost I simply hope people will have a good time and that the story, themes and gameplay will resonate with players.