Ravenlok's wonderful '80s inspirations and voxel evolution
The next voxel masterpiece from the team behind Echo Generation pulls from a slew of inspirations, not just Alice in Wonderland.
“I have been revisiting a lot of the classics - Labyrinth, The Neverending Story and The Chronicles of Narnia,” Ravenlok game director Vanessa Chia told Epic Games Store in a recent interview. “The works of Studio Ghibli are a wonderful source of inspiration, especially My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away. These stories tug at the heartstrings and bring you on an unforgettable adventure, which we hope to capture in Ravenlok.”
Ravenlok, which was announced during the Xbox and Bethesda Showcase this summer, is the third and final game in Cococucumber’s Voxel Trilogy. Its trailer, which shows a girl falling through a mirror into a fantasy world packed with outlandish characters including a rabbit and queen decked out in red, drew some comparisons to both Alice in Wonderland and American McGee’s own, darker take on Lewis Carroll’s work.
“Alice in Wonderland is often the first thing people think about when they see Ravenlok, and is of course one of our inspirations,” Chia said. “It’s impossible to outmatch the Disney animation, or Tim Burton’s films, so from the start we wanted to make it clear that ours is its own thing. In terms of the structure, we’re sticking to the formula of ‘Girl falls into a magical world and goes on a journey to discover who she is’ but using it as a way to tell a story that is meaningful to us.
“An inspiration for me is exploring the idea of identity, in particular Asian identity. It is not explicit that Kira is Asian, but reimagining a story about how a girl with this background who goes through this journey into a magical world adds another layer. Why can’t an Asian girl be a hero in this topsy-turvy world?”
Chia added that while the comparison to American McGee’s own take on the subject is interesting, she sees it more as the reflection for the appetite for a new game from the auteur developer.
“There may be elements of horror in Ravenlok, but I think the approach that we take and the process is very different,” she said. “We want to break free from the confines of what Alice in Wonderland is, and re-define it for ourselves. I hope that we’ll be putting our mark on it so to speak, with some magical pixie dust.”
While Ravenlok may not exactly be a dive through Carroll’s looking glass or a follow-up to an American McGee classic, it is a game that comes with its own pedigree of development as part of what the studio calls its Voxel Trilogy.
( Cococucumber's first game in the Voxel Trilogy: Riverbond )
The first in the trilogy was 2019’s Riverbond. That was followed by last year’s Echo Generation. All three games–including Ravenlok–make evolving use of 3D pixel art. Chia said that the studio’s approach to this particular style of art continues to improve and change. So much so, she said, some may not even recognize the aesthetic anymore in the upcoming title.
“We’re at the stage where the aesthetic in Ravenlok is pushing the boundaries of what could be accepted as voxel,” she noted. “It’s maybe even confusing some people when they see the Ravenlok trailer, ‘Is it voxel? Not voxel? What’s going on here?’ Perhaps we should read into the whole head scratching as a sign that it is art, and art should be challenging.
“What it really comes down to though is we are using the voxel aesthetic as one of the many ways we can execute our creative vision. Over the course of making these games, our team’s skills have improved and naturally we would want to take on something more ambitious, pushing more into the territory of stylized realism with this 3D pixel art style.”
Ravenlok’s evolved look is essentially the latest in a team’s own evolution and growth as a studio. In essence, Chia said, she feels that the studio has found its creative voice over the three titles.
“Our first voxel game is Riverbond - an arcade dungeon crawler with co-op. It’s bright and blocky with feel-good fun. As we progressed to Echo Generation and Ravenlok, the narrative complexity increased, and so we had to evolve many aspects to suit the tone. These games are a celebration of the imagination of our childhoods.
( Cococucumber's second game in the Voxel Trilogy: Echo Generation)
“Echo Generation is set in the ‘90s and draws a lot from Martin (Waltz’s) background growing up in a small town in the countryside. Underneath the surface lies mysteries and dangers, and the visual style reflects this with a more limited but saturated color palette. There is a mash-up of styles and techniques, but with a graded progression.
“Ravenlok is about escaping into a fantasy world in order to resolve problems that seem insurmountable. We are exploring some universal themes of family, identity and finding your home in the structure of a coming-of-age story. As the genre fantasy, there is a toy box of fables and fairy tales to play with in a wonderfully trippy world.”
The three games of this trilogy moved across three genres, something Chia said was a by-product of the studio’s growth and curiosity.
“We don’t like to be restricted by what we have done, what we should do or what everyone else is doing,” she said. “In fact, for Echo Generation’s turn-based combat, we took a bit of a gamble since it’s a niche style of combat, so we’re relieved and grateful that it’s been well received.
“Moving into third-person, real-time combat in Ravenlok gives us a new challenge. It’s inspiring to be constantly learning and trying to improve. We are building upon the things we have learned through the process of designing combat in our past games and taking what works, like the boss designs in Echo Generation, and evolving that in Ravenlok.”
All of this–the aesthetic, the genre, gameplay, dialog, level design–come together when a studio successfully creates something and, combined with mood and atmosphere, delivers a magical experience.
“We want to capture the experience fully, of being present in a moment,” Chia said. “There is a sense of wonder when discovering the world that we are building, like in Echo Generation where there are flashes of beauty in the ordinary.
“Now for Ravenlok, there are so many more opportunities for these kinds of moments - a secret garden, a melancholic bunny playing the piano, a reflective golem sitting outside the gates of a castle, looking out over the labyrinth in a cotton candy sunset. These are all moods that make our games shine.”
With different genres, unique themes, and an evolving approach to voxel graphics, it does make one wonder why the studio decided to pack the three games as a trilogy. What, if anything, beyond the voxel look of the titles, holds them together?
“The connective tissue between the games really comes down to the team,” Chia said. “The process of making games for us is personal and an expression of how we see the world. We have grown up through making games, leveled up our game-making skills and found our creative voice.
“Another thing that I have been reflecting on is how our players are carrying through from game to game. Riverbond was made for all the family to enjoy. We’ve heard about many parents bonding while playing Riverbond with their kids, essentially their first co-op experience together. What surprised us was that these kids are really young, maybe 4 to 8 years old.
“In Echo Generation and Ravenlok, both our players and the main characters in the game are growing up. It goes from middle school around 10-12 years old in Echo Generation to the wild teenage years of 14 and 15 in Ravenlok. Thematically, the voxel trilogy reflects a coming of age, and at its heart it’s about not losing the spark of our inner child.”
Part of that process also means revisiting what went right and what went wrong in previous titles. For instance, Chia said the team is well aware that some felt Echo Generation has a grinding difficulty and they’re hoping to improve that, both for Ravenlok and Echo.
“This feedback is something that we hear. Maybe we went too far with the nostalgia of how games used to be more difficult. We’re considering patching that, perhaps by adding difficulty options,” she said. “We plan to approach balancing Ravenlok with a gentler curve when it comes to the difficulty, especially at the beginning, so that it is accessible to more players. We’re not making a game of souls-like difficulty here, it’s meant to be played by all.”
On the flip side, the team really nailed the look and variety in Echo Generation’s clever enemy design. The trailer for Ravenlok seems packed with potential enemy encounters, so we asked Chia if she could walk us through some of what we were seeing in that minute-and-a-half.
“In the reveal trailer, we see the Weeping Fungi, an early boss that is corrupted by the darkness. The shots of him standing up are from the intro animatic to build up anticipation before entering into combat,” she said. “During an encounter, the player will be transported into an arena. This is similar to Echo Generation where there is an overworld and encounters that draws you into combat, though rather than being turn-based, Ravenlok will take on real-time battles. She will fight enemies with the classic sword and shield, as well as magic skills. After the fight, it’s back to the overworld for more exploration and quests.
“As for the Mecha Eagle, we see this boss in the Clock Tower about midway through the game. I am trying not to spoil too much because a lot of what makes our bosses work is the character themselves, how they fit into the story and that element of surprise.”
With Ravenlok, due out in 2023, wrapping up the studio’s Voxel Trilogy, it leaves open the question of not just what Cococucumber’s next game will be, but whether they’re done with voxel-art projects.
“There are so many ideas for what to do next,” Chia said. “Coming from a visual background, the art style is of course a consideration and sometimes even the starting point for a new game idea. However, we are open to anything when starting a new game and inspiration comes from many sources. I draw a lot from books, movies, music, TV shows in a variety of genres… It’s really fascinating how two people can view the same show, for example, and come out having very different takeaways and opinions about it. Maybe I should not be surprised with the current state of divisiveness in our society but it’s interesting to think about.
“We would like to thank everyone for coming on this journey with us. It’s not always easy to be creators working on original games, opening up our worlds, and putting out things out there for everyone to play and judge. However, the trust and patience shown to us by our fans have been phenomenal.”