Kan Gao, founder of Freebird Games, has been making indie games and publishing them for free on his website for the last five years. Since then, he and his team have created games with a decidedly throwback-to-’90s-RPGs look to them; games that stretch the definition of the term “RPG” to include a primary focus on story. He himself calls his games “a familiar yet alternative take to the classical RPG experience.”
As Kan is busy putting the finishing touches on his new game To the Moon, due to release 1 November, he took a breather to sit down with us and answer some questions about the upcoming game.
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Bits ‘n’ Bytes: Kan, your games have been classified (on your own website, among other places) as ranging from traditional 2D RPG to short, abstract experiences, even to non-interactive visual stories. How would you classify your upcoming game, To the Moon?
Kan Gao: I like to think of it as a hybrid between an adventure game, a RPG, and a pixel movie.
BnB: Tell us a little bit about To the Moon’s development process. Did you work mostly by yourself or are you employing the aid of a team of collaborators? Were there any personal themes involved in the conception of the game?
KG: There are some really talented people that I’ve had the good fortune to work with to produce the assets for the game, but I am the only “full time” working on it.
The base concept behind the project was conceived when my grandfather fell ill a couple of years ago. Fortunately, he had a successful surgery and recovered, but it reminded me of the natural inevitability of death, and made me wonder if I’d regret anything when my day comes. As it began, it was shaped by more events from my life and others, as well as numerous films like Eternal Sunshine and Memento.
BnB: As you’ve previously stated, To the Moon will be your first commercially marketed game. What led you to this decision?
KG: I’m at the age where I need to start a career, and I’d love nothing more than to be able to devote myself to telling stories through games and writing music. To the Moon is my attempt at making what I love to do what I live to do; I don’t know if I’d succeed, but I’m going to try – and now’s the time to start.
BnB: Once it comes out, will you be marketing this game exclusively from your website, or will you also be using other venues?
KG: It’s reminiscent to the classical 2D RPGs that I grew up with, and I think with good aesthetic, it can do great things. Of course, being a small team, the fact that it is relatively inexpensive to achieve great results helps tremendously too.
BnB: Does this mean we’ll never see Freebird Games go 3D?
KG: It’s not impossible, but I think I’m comfortable with the 2D style for the moment. There’s something cozy about it that gives a feel of escapism, rather than ultra-realistic with a reminder of the real world.
BnB; Based on the trailer, it looks like To the Moon resembles a classic RPG in graphics and style only, and that there is neither combat nor leveling. What led you to favoring story and plot over – and sometimes to the complete exclusion of – other RPG design staples in your games?
KG: I’ve always been fond the storytelling in classic RPGs, and often found myself eager to get over all the battles and grinding so I can progress the story. So now that I have the chance, I just made what I wanted to play. It’s a tricky, though, since battles have their role as a resistor to make progressions more satisfying – but through careful pacing, I think this can be overcome.
BnB: I can’t help but see some similarities between what you’re describing and classic adventure games. Would you consider your games more akin to these plot-heavy games rather than RPGs?
KG: Perhaps so! But to be honest, I haven’t played a good amount of adventure games to judge.
BnB: You mentioned growing up with RPGs. When you’re not working on your own games, what do you take the time to play yourself?
KG: Back in the days, it was classic 2D RPGs (though many of them foreign). But for the past few years, I’ve been playing things like Diablo 2 and Age of Empires 2 more, and even had my share of WoW phase (funny enough, the addiction was broken by making my own games). I recently had the opportunity to finish Dragon Age: Origins, albeit late – it’s one of the first modern RPGs I’ve ever played, and I loved how well it handled its storytelling.
BnB: What was it that finally led you from playing games to making them? What were some of your early influences?
KG: Oddly, it was actually initially an attempt to turn some scripts for a story I was writing into a visual and audio experience. As you’d imagine, with such a goal, the interactivity and the overall experience was rather clunky. But over the years, I think I’ve developed a better handling of the balance. While To the Moon is still quite narrative-heavy, it is paced according to its own style rather than a set category, unlike some of our previous projects.
BnB: Let’s talk about the music of To the Moon. As is apparent from the game’s trailer, the musical score will play a big part in developing the drama of the game. How important a role did the music play during the design phase?
KG: It acts as a buffer between the scenes I have in my head and what gets materialized. Quite frequently, when I get stuck on writing a scene, I’d work on the background music for it first – and as soon as that is done, I keep it on loop as I go back to work on the actual scene, and everything starts to flow.
BnB: This isn’t your first collaboration with Laura Shigihara. Will future Freebird games feature Ms. Shigihara’s compositions as well?
KG: I’d certainly be honoured if that’d be the case! Laura’s like a musical mentor to me; her work is fantastic with a unique flare, and she has taught me a lot both directly and indirectly. I’d love to work with her again if given the chance.
Though to avoid misunderstandings, To the Moon’s soundtrack is not entirely composed by Laura; it features her work in the form of a special song named “Everything’s Alright”, as well as the vocals for the trailer theme. I am responsible for the other tracks in the OST, as well as the instrumental composition for the theme in the trailer.
BnB: Speaking of future projects: Not to jump the gun or anything, but after To the Moon releases, what’s on the horizon for Freebird Games?
KG: The base concept around To the Moon is actually planned to be a series, if things go well. That doesn’t mean that there would be any cheap cliff hangers, though – each “episode” is its own story about a particular patient, and finishes what it starts. For example, To the Moon is the story about Johnny. All the episodes would be connected by the two main doctors, who will have an over-arching story themselves to develop throughout the series.
BnB: Kan, thanks for taking the time to chat a bit! We wish you all the best of luck with To the Moon (we look forward to playing it ourselves!)
KG: Thank you for the opportunity, Pascal! Here’s hoping To the Moon will be the best project from Freebird Games yet.