Didn’t get your acceptance letter to Hogwarts? Good. Forget that magical school with the house divisions and all those white, straight students. Charmixy: Witch Academy is the mobile game currently up on Kickstarter that you’ve been waiting for since you turned eleven. When funded, Charmixy will be a completely free multiplayer puzzle-combat game with a single player story option for those of you overachieving witches out there. There’s delightfully charming pixel art, challenging duels with equipped charms, customizable characters to suit the inner magical friend we all know you’re hiding in there, and so much more to discover. Perhaps the most important aspect of this mobile game is that the team is making every effort to be inclusive: whether through the wide scope of available romance options to the accessible controls, they want everyone to feel accepted at this Academy. I don’t know about you, but I’m packing my broom as we speak.
It was super lucky that I got the chance to
geek out interview the self-proclaimed “scheming, slinky, green-faced ghoul” and head witch, Tess Young, on her incredible project and the team behind Charmixy. Ever wondered what goes into building a magic school from the ground up? This is your cheat sheet, students.
J: You have quite the team listed on your Kickstarter page. (A giant mech and warlock musician, impressive!) Can you tell us a little bit about how you all came together?
Tess: It couldn’t have happened without an insane helping of luck, that’s for sure. The seed of the group has been Salty Justice and me. We’ve been working on games together for many years now; I bet we will continue to do so for a long time. He is brilliant programmer with no eye for art, and I am an artist who couldn’t program her way out of a paper bag, and we’re both game designers. These days making a game is as easy as pitching to each other, and then it’s like, “Okay, I guess I’ll go work on that.” A great partnership like that is rare, and I’m so grateful to have it!
Marionette and RJ, our writer and musician, are also good friends of Salty and I who we’ve worked with in the past. They’re up and comers in their fields, and good at what they do, so they were my go-to for this project. We’re working extra hard so that they have something spectacular to put on their resume.
As for Leila Wilson and Kamu, also our musicians, I was turned onto their work after discovering this amazing game called Freedom Planet. It’s now one of my top 10 all-time favorite games, and part of that was because of the beautiful soundtrack. I shot them an email as we were getting ready to make the Kickstarter, and they were on board! I was so stoked.
J: Just watching your Kickstarter video instantly brought me back to middle school when I’d watch reruns of The Worst Witch, desperately wishing I, too, could be “whisked away to an enchanted place.” I think many of us can relate. What inspired Charmixy for you personally?
Tess: Charmixy started out with a much more generic RPG fantasy theme, like Chrono Trigger or Secret of Mana. The idea was I wanted to have some kind of game that you could play on your mobile phone live against another friend. I had an old DS in middle school and the most fun I ever had was linking up with my buddies to play Mario Kart or challenge them to a Pokémon battle. Local multiplayer games have so much potential, but getting in a play session is tough because you either have to gather all your friends in front of a TV, or everyone has to own the game and the portable console, which is expensive! But most people have a smartphone of some kind, and so this would be easy to do on that platform. So I played around with a bunch of ideas and prototypes about how these duels would take place, it went through much iteration, until I started using a system with these “charms” that you could equip and use as spells. And the charms had this naturally cute, gem-like quality and I thought, what if you wore them on your wrist like a cute accessory? So then the game started stepping away from generic fantasy and became much more magical-girl themed.
When I was growing up, I remember being frustrated with myself for liking girly things. I was ashamed of my femininity and I would try to hide it all the time because I thought people would think of me as a weak person. Like on TV and in video games, the heroes were these tough guys and if there was a girl hero, she was always trying to set herself apart from other girls, she was always fighting to fit in with guys. Then my friend introduced me to this show called Sailor Moon, and it was like this whole new world opened up to me, like, “Oh, you can totally have frills and sparkles and drool over cute boys and that doesn’t make you a pushover, you can absolutely be a hero.” As I started making video games, I wanted to take the magical girl approach. I want to just fill my games with sweet, bright, and sparkly things because that’s what I like, and I want the game to be fleshed out and challenging and not portray the femininity as ironic, but just as a different approach to success.
J: What’s really interesting to me is that Edelwhite Academy is “the premiere school for witches.” Usually, magic schools distinguish their co-ed student body as ‘wizards,’ which is assumed to be gender-neutral. Why did you choose to make this new distinction?
Tess: Everyone is probably most familiar with wizards from the Series About the Boy Who Lived Who Shall Not Be Named, which illustrates a particular type of human who is born with magical powers and is destined to become the savior of the world. Everyone who attends wizard schools have magic which is hereditary or which otherwise manifests itself in “muggle” families through some kind of mutation (maybe it’s some kind of gland). In short, if you aren’t born with magical talent, you miss out on all the fun.
Not so with witches, though! Witches derive all their power from Mother Nature, calling forth the energy and transforming it for spells. Nobody is “chosen” to be a witch, and it’s up to you whether or not you want to use your powers for good or evil. Furthermore, witches have the ability to store nature’s energy in fabulous charms for on-the-go magic, instead of having to wave around a dirty tree branch like wizards do.
J: With everything else going on in your puzzle-combat game, you still make time to establish what seems to be a mystery plot. Can you tell us a little bit more about the “trouble brewing” in Charmixy? Is your game mostly focused on the school, or does this plot expand more as you progress in the single player campaign?
Tess: I wanted there to be some form of overarching story from the get-go, just so players didn’t feel like they had to go from duel to duel without any context. From a development perspective, we simply didn’t have the resources to make an entire world and large environmental changes, so we designed everything players could need in a typical RPG in this sort of enclosed community in a valley. Edelwhite, the school where players interact with NPCs, would overlook the town where players could buy goods, and the mountain underneath Edelwhite was for dungeons and leveling up. Since players are spending so much time here, I thought a good story would relate to the history of the valley and the school itself—without spoiling too much, secrets about Edelwhite’s past will open up as the player becomes a stronger witch and interacts with characters, ultimately giving them the knowledge to defeat the final boss of the game.
J: I won’t ask you to go too in-depth regarding the romance options in the game, but can you give us some non-spoilery hints? How did you approach this feature while keeping diversity and inclusivity in mind?
Tess: The romance subplots of the game are fairly straightforward, I will say they are similar to the kind of romance you might find in a visual novel or otome-style game. NPCs warm up to you the more you talk to them and spend time with them, and depending on what you say to them, they will react differently. I did want to step away from the “say the right thing and buy them nice stuff” mechanic though, because I always found those game interactions to be superficial. Instead, every NPC has a sort of background and personal conflict that unfolds during your time at the school, and the more you get to know them, you can guide them to one resolution or another. Taking that journey with them is what builds attraction.
Working inclusivity into this means we allow every player to be able to romance every character, no matter what avatar they chose for themselves. This might not exactly reflect reality, but I mean, in most games if I want to romance a character but he doesn’t like the character I made for myself, I will still find a way to romance him! I’ll switch characters or pick dialogue options I don’t like because damn it, I want to see the booty. In Charmixy, I preferred just letting players develop relationships with the NPCs without worrying about who they are or having to jump through pointless hoops. It’s much more fun that way.
J: This will be a free mobile game if funded, and you say that you want it to be “accessible to lots of people.” Why is this important to you? What is it about Charmixy that you want all players to have the chance to experience?
Tess: I call myself a game evangelist. I think games are the new frontier and they’re gonna change a lot of lives and minds. But as I’ve entered into and experienced the game industry, I’ve learned about all the people video games have kept away through various means. Not only are many genders, races, and sexual orientations overlooked, stereotyped, or objectified in games, which deters them from playing, but some games are completely unplayable for people because they have a disability or they can’t afford to pay for a game or console. The silliest part is, this is stupidly easy to fix—any developer can take steps to invite a new audience to play their game, and it doesn’t make it any less fun. It drives me crazy knowing out there are folks whose lives could be changed by this magnificent art form (it certainly changed mine), who could even someday help improve it, but won’t simply because of the hand they were dealt. I’m in a position right now where I can change that at least a tiny bit and I have almost nothing to lose, so that’s why Charmixy is what it is.
The primary goal of most game designers is for players to have fun—it’s just as true for Charmixy! I’d like them to pull the game up on their phone when they’re bored to pass the time, or because they can’t wait to find out what happens next, or when they’re depressed to take their mind off the pain. I’d like them to be able to use the game to meet new people or strengthen friendships through a mutual experience. As a secondary objective, I hope that the story of the game encourages them to feel more self-confident about solving real-world problems they see around them. In Charmixy, there is no “chosen one.” When there’s trouble, the characters in the game will lament that there’s no one they can turn to or rely on. It is up to the player to elect themselves as the hero.
J: The pixel art is absolutely breathtaking. What were some of your directions during the art development process? How did Edelwhite Academy come to life?
Tess: It’s funny, at the beginning of this project, I was just the worst at pixel art. I’ve been a digital artist for years but making pixel art requires an entirely different set of tools and tricks. It’s as different from drawing as throwing clay pots! Despite this, we chose pixel art because it would save a lot of space on the game—actually, most of the art and design of the game focused on compressing a large amount of content into as small a space as possible. It’s practical, but we got fantastic ideas from that creative confinement.
As I’ve said before, we designed the whole game to take place in the valley. Originally, everything was organized horizontally; you’d go to the left and there was the town, and to the right was a forest (the original dungeon). It was around that time that I was watching a Ghibli marathon. Those movies were just lousy with these vertical environments that were spectacular. The next time I sat down at the computer I immediately cut the school out and put it way above the town, and the map instantly had character. After sketching everything out, I got to work. I looked at pixel art in other games that had a look that I liked, and using that as a reference, I started to pixel in the environment. It took me about three days, but when I was done I pretty much knew how to pixel great.
J: You have some impressive stretch goals on your Kickstarter campaign (omg animal raising). What can our community do to help you with that? Where can we share the shit out of your awesome game?
Tess: One place I’d love to spread the game but have been unable to really infiltrate (am I already too old? Oh dear) is Tumblr. I see lots of users there who share and talk about things that have inspired Charmixy in so many ways, but I can’t send the game to them directly like I can on Twitter or with an email. But honestly, it doesn’t matter where you spread the word, as long as it finds its way to someone who is willing to back the project! I’m already so grateful to everyone who has shared the KS with their friends and circles. It makes me super happy to be working on something that gets people so excited they want to show it around!
J: It’s a tradition here! What’s your go-to breakfast food on a rainy, lazy Sunday?
Tess: The best kind of Sunday breakfast food is a cold pizza. I only order pizzas for parties and special occasions, so I know if I’m having pizza Sunday morning, I’ll be thinking about all the great memories I made Saturday evening!