Nine.com.au caught up with the game’s narrative director, Jeffrey Yohalem, whose team has been busy cheering on the game from home.
Jeffrey, thank you very much for your time. First of all, how are you doing on the other side of the world?
Working from home when you have an AAA degree that comes out in just a couple of days is crazy, but you’ve managed to do it. For people who may not be familiar with Immortal Fenyx RisingCan you give us a quick review?
There is this terrible titan named Typhon who breaks free from his chains in the underworld and rises to try to regain the throne of Olympus from the hands of the gods.
Meanwhile, there is this mortal, who has never seen battles, shipwrecks on the mysterious island and discovers a prophecy that tells of how you know there will be a mortal who will rise up to save the gods.
It is unclear if this mortal, Fenyx, is that special mortal, but he will do his best to do so.
I played the first few hours of the game, which is told in a hilarious back and forth between Zeus and his cousin Prometheus. Clearly, aren’t you taking yourself too seriously?
No, and in fact, the Greek myths themselves have a huge comic element that is often hidden under the rug in terms of doing something that is more serious.
The Greeks believed in balance: that we are dark and light; we are comedy and drama.
For them, the gods were their reality show. They were flawed individuals who make as many mistakes as they make, you know, heroic gestures. I really wanted to play at it.
We really wanted to give the players something that made them laugh, that was joyous.
You have worked on some games like Assassin’s creed 2 where you had to go so far in the history of Italy in that period of the Renaissance. How far have you taken it with Greek mythology?
It is very, very accurate.
Basically, there is this long lost poem that tells the story of the battle between the Titans and the gods. Nobody knows what was in that poem, because it has been lost.
The idea is that the story of Fenyx, this mortal, is contained in that.
All of the gods’ relationships with each other, including the island’s backstory, stem from mythology.
So if you are a huge mythology nerd, there are so many jokes and references that you like and enjoy in this game, and if you are new to mythology it welcomes you and begins to serve as a starting point. where you can go and do a lot of that research yourself.
Tell me a little about the main character of the game. You refer to her as “her”, but the character creation is really solid. I think my hero is a woman with blue skin, pink hair and a beard! How does she fit into this story?
Well again, you know, the Fenyx character is a vector for the player to explore this world.
I loved these stories growing up like The Wizard of Oz with Dorothy, Lucy and Narnia, where she is a normal person who reaches an extreme situation and has to adapt to that environment; who discovers that there is this magic that the world is bigger than they ever thought.
In this case, Fenyx comes from our world in the sense that she is ancient Greek, has seen nothing mystical, but believes in gods and is a passionate storyteller.
In the back of his mind, he’s like, ‘Is this real?’ Just as we question our own beliefs when we have not seen anything.
Once he is shipwrecked on this island, he discovers that all these stories are true. Realizing changes everything and is a great way to bring the player into that world and discover everything at the same time.
The weapons, everything up to the combat in this game is driven in some way, shape or form by that narrative. In the first hour, I finally find weapon after weapon after weapon that are all in some way, shape, or form connected to the gods. How much time did you spend researching?
I studied mythology when I was in high school and college and got involved with all the research on this.
We had a historian who was very well versed in the different texts and interpretations, you know, there are different versions of different stories.
A great deal of research was done. And actually an Australian colleague, Amie Kaufman, helped me edit. She wrote all these amazing New York Times teen bestsellers, so she’s also very well versed in mythology to lean on.
I remember when the game was revealed, not how Immortal Fenyx Rising but how Gods and monsters. Was there a game change there or was it just a title change?
It really was a reinvention of the direction of the game.
The mythological setting was in place, but it was early in development. We saw this potential to really make something stand out and the name change is symbolic of that change.
This is a story that not only addresses Greek mythology, but also mortality and what it means to be a god, what it means to be human. So we definitely changed things.
Fenyx, initially his motivation is the fact that his brother, this fantastic soldier, has been turned to stone. I’m interested in seeing how it unfolds as the story progresses, but clearly, the mythology not only serves as the foundation of a “world,” it also serves for character development.
For me as a writer, the focus of a story that’s going to be epic always revolves around the character, but there is a comic side to things.
I was thinking of stories like The princess Bride or Robin Hood, Men in Tightsor Naked gun, where this type of humor invades the entire world. At the same time, the stakes are high, such as Guardians of the Galaxy.
Zeus and Prometheus are fully interactive as storytellers in the sense that everything you are doing as a player is commented on. So you’re taking these kinds of funny storytellers from Strange Couples Who Used to Be Friends Before Prometheus stole fire to help humanity and Zeus chained to a mountain for all eternity and had his liver pecked by an eagle.
That relationship is very bitter, but Zeus needs the help of Prometheus to try to defeat Typhon. So it’s this, you know, “friend-foe” (friend-foe) situation.
You are the narrative director of the game, but I wanted to ask you how that also intertwines with the art style of the game. If you have this lighter, more bubbly interpretation of Greek mythology, it lets you lean towards that shadier cartoon look that’s not quite as photorealistic as something like Assassin’s creed.
That art direction came pretty quickly and was always Gods and monsters.
I have always treated the narrative as a support to the game.
Artists have a type and you play to the strengths of that artist. You are not trying to put the artist in a situation where they look awkward. So as you are so aptly pointing out, the art style was bright and colorful and the animation already had some antics. Taking it into the realm of comedy felt natural for that kind of art direction.
How involved are you with the animators in that process, given that you are writing the story and setting the tone?
Oh so much and due to COVID, we were unable to do motion capture!
Everything is animated by hand, which is incredibly beautiful. They did a great job.
So we recorded the entire game twice. I was working with the actors, through (Microsoft) Teams. We did a full rehearsal of the game where everything was recorded.
The animators encouraged that, while we were doing the final version with professional microphones.
In my first hours with the game, and I mean it simply as a compliment, it reminds me a lot of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on Nintendo Switch, which is my favorite game of all time.
There are many inspirations that made up this game and the games that we love that contributed, you know, to this final original work that we have created.
There are some assumptions that players make when they come in based on watching something and that’s great, because the same thing happens in a genre.
When you walk into a horror movie, you have some assumptions about what’s going to happen and that’s why we play with those assumptions. You think you know how the structure of this game is going to go or you think you can expect something that looks similar to something else, and playing with that is what makes the narrative fun.
There is already a plan for what comes next. The second expansion will take us to a completely different area, which is Asia. Can you tell me a little about that?
It’s a DLC (downloadable content), so it’s a taste of the world, but yeah, we went deep there a lot.
A Chinese team developed that game and it’s really cool DLC.
I don’t want to give away too much.
Immortal Fenyx Rising It’s rolling out on all consoles under the sun, plus Google Stadia and PC. In such a busy year, what would you say to people trying to decide what to play this Christmas?
We really wanted to bring joy and delight and give you something that feels like Christmas with your family in case you are not with your family this year.
Because it is a comedy, it felt like an opportunity to explore some of the pressure that exists in our modern lives.
There’s this pressure with social media where you want to have the perfect life, the perfect food, the perfect relationship on display, but all of that is so intensely curated.
At the same time, when you try to be perfect, everything is on video, so there are times when you fall short.
So there is the impossibility of being perfect and the pressure to be perfect.
The Greeks cared about balance. It was about seeing that heroism comes from jealousy, laziness sometimes comes from all our shortcomings, if you can take advantage of them forever.
It felt like the perfect way to talk about that pressure in our modern world and hopefully release some of it into history.
Immortal Fenyx Rising Releases December 3 for Xbox Series, Xbox One, PS5, PS4, Nintendo Switch, Google Stadia, and PC.