In our next installment of developer interviews, we were pleased to sit down with Kidalang, creators of An Octave Higher, as well as their upcoming prequel, One Small Fire At a Time, as they talk about their past, their present and their future.
1. To start with, could you please introduce yourself for those who are reading this?
We’re just a small game development team that specializes in storytelling. There are three of us: Yohan Alexander, the main artist; Yusdi Saliman, the writer and programmer; and Richard Imam, who helps with non-technical stuff. Some friends help us with the production of art assets, music, etc, but Kidalang is just the three of us.
(Since the rest of the questions are related to the game’s story, the following answers are Yusdi’s, unless noted otherwise.)
2. To start with, I’d like to ask, what gave you the idea to create An Octave Higher?
An Octave Higher is the result of combining two unrelated ideas. First, Yohan had an idea to make a story in a world where magic is so commonplace that it has lost all of its mysticism and is treated just like another piece of technology. At the same time I also had an idea to make a fantasy world that visually looks like 19th century European cities. So we combined them to create the city of Overture.
We then wondered about what a society built around magic would be like and the implication of having such a society, such as the kind of societal norms that would have to be set in place to prevent people from randomly “kamehameha-ing” each other in the street. The idea to write the story around class struggle only came later after we thought about the technological aspect of this fantasy world and decided that this world would have magic machines. Machines, 19th century Europe—it was inevitable that industrial revolution would become the main story theme, and the story would revolve around the social baggage that came with it.
But the societal problems that we brought up in An Octave Higher were actually only loosely based on the social conflict that led Karl Marx to write Das Kapitaland The Communist Manifesto. I don’t even know what life was like for the proletariat during the European industrial revolution. Instead, the depiction of factory work in the game was based on reports of Chinese factory workers being—allegedly—forced to work long hours every day doing repetitive boring tasks to produce the iPhones and Android phones and other devices that you and I use.
Ultimately, though, An Octave Higher is the story of a girl who wants to fix a broken piano with magic and a man who helps her in that endeavor. All the social issues and magical science and revolution and whatnot serve only one purpose: to set up the stage for the final scene between them.
3. The magical system used in An Octave Higher is rather complicated, what inspired you to come up with it?
The idea of pairing magical attributes with personality traits certainly isn’t new, but I think what you’re interested in is the part where each spell can be represented by something that vaguely resembles mathematical equations. I had toyed with the idea of “magical science” even before working on An Octave Higher, but never really managed to figure out how it would work.
My first thought was to base it on chemistry—because, you know, elements—but there was a big problem with that approach: I know next to nothing about chemistry! So I turned to what I did know, which was computer science (I’m a computer engineer, but know at least quite a bit about the science part as well), hence the similarity between the notation for magical ability invocations in An Octave Higher and function calls in many programming languages, and why magic system diagrams look suspiciously a lot like flowcharts.
Magical science is also similar to computer science in other ways. For example, at one point Franz quips that many students go into magical science hoping to learn magic spells only to be surprised by how much math they have to study. I think a lot of computer science students can relate to that.
I also took inspirations from other sciences. For example, it’s mentioned (though only in passing in one of the endings) that there are three branches of magical science: theoretical magics, experimental magics, and applied magics. They mirror the branches of physics in our real world.
If you don’t mind me going a little off-topic, I’d also like to point out that what I consider important about magic in this game isn’t the system itself, but how it’s used. It often baffles me to watch or read a fantasy story with a magic school in it because in many of these stories, magic is mainly taught as a tool for battle. And that doesn’t make sense to me because it would be like teaching all our schoolchildren how to use assault rifles. I have no doubt that if magic existed we’d make weapons out of it, and there would be military schools that specialized in magic combat, but unless the country was in an extremely dire state of war, would you really give all ordinary students combat training?
So in the world of An Octave Higher magic is studied for its practical applications and how it can be used to make life easier, just like how we use science and technology in our own world.
This rather unusual take of magic does make the game exposition heavy at times, which some people have complained about and perhaps could have been done better, but there is a very important reason why I decided that all that exposition was necessary, and that is…
(AN OCTAVE HIGHER’S MINOR SPOILER ALERT)
…to completely strip away the mysticism, to turn magic into something completely rational and completely logical, so that when Elise casts that final spell, it truly feels magical.
4. Would you be able to tell us what your favourite part of An Octave Higher is?
While the second half of the story is arguably more important, both Yohan’s and my favorite parts are in the first half, though for different reasons.
Yohan likes the scenes where the characters just walk around the city seeing ordinary things. He feels that those scenes really connect the players to the world in the game, showing what our own world could be like if things worked differently.
As for me, I love the silly things Elise and Aretha do. That’s why I like the first half of the story more than the second half where Elise is just depressed most of the time.
5. You recently told me that you are working on another Visual Novel, can you tell us a little about it?
The new visual novel is set in the same city where the story of An Octave Higher takes place, but 22 years earlier. Here’s the description:
In Overture, magic can cure all diseases, but not that of the mind. Society looks down on those whose illness is incurable by magic, and lunatics must stay in madhouses until they recover their sanity—if they ever do.
Thirteen-year-old Janis has been living in one such madhouse ever since she was abandoned by her parents for having the worst kind of madness known to man—worse than the depression that makes some people long for death, worse than the paranoia that makes its sufferers live in constant fear, worse than hallucinations and delusions—because in a city where everyone can use magic, Janis alone can’t.
Her disability makes Janis an easy target for bullying, but it never stops her from fighting back, even though she always loses. This catches the attention of Aiden Woolf, a powerful mage and police commander who is visiting the madhouse on an investigation.
In Woolf, Janis finds a father figure, but can their fateful meeting cure Janis of her madness?
That description will likely change before the game is released, but I hope it’s enough to give you some idea of what the story is about. If that sounds a little like An Octave Higher’s premise (limitation of healing magic), don’t worry—healing magic will only play a very minor role this time. And no, it’s not a someone-who-can’t-use-magic-learns-to-use-magic kind of story either.
If from that description you guessed that mental illness would be one of the story themes, you were right. But its role is similar to class struggle in An Octave Higher—it drives the plot, but ultimately it’s the characters that are more important.
The new visual novel will only be about half as long as An Octave Higher. Also, the story is written so that new players can jump right in without having to play the first game. For those who plan to play both, though, I recommend starting with An Octave Higher.
We haven’t decided on the game’s title, but I’ve been considering “One Small Fire at a Time,” which I’ve grown quite fond of so it will likely end up being the title.
6. Is there a reason as to why you have chosen to do a prequel and not a sequel?
Because I have nothing more to tell about An Octave Higher’s story after the true ending. Even if we were to make a sequel, it would be an unrelated story with new characters.
On the other hand, when you played An Octave Higher, did you get a feeling that some of the side characters seemed to have shared a history together? This is their story.
(One of several Kidalang work spaces; very relatable)
7. What is your dream?
Yohan said he wants to create works that aren’t just enjoyable but can also affect people’s lives.
I’ll just echo that and add that seeing an anime adaptation of something we make would be nice.
8. Do you have a PLAYISM game that you recommend/love?
My MacBook isn’t really a gaming computer so I don’t play a lot of games on it, not to mention having to use a virtual machine to run Windows games, but I tried Forget Me Not and it seemed interesting, though I haven’t gotten very far. I also tried Mitsurugi Kamui Hikae and quite liked it. I think I would’ve enjoyed it more if I had been able to get my PS3 controller to work on Windows on the virtual machine on OS X on the MacBook. I couldn’t.
9. Do you have a message for everyone reading this?
Yohan said, “Play An Octave Higher and experience something different. :)”
A huge thanks to Yusdi, Yohan and Richard for spending their time to answer these questions and give us insight into their works! Be sure to check out An Octave Higher on PLAYISM or on Steam. To learn more about One Small Fire, follow Kidalang on Twitter and check their website regularly!