Native to the Northwest Frontier: Interviewing DesertFox on ‘Over The Hills And Far Away’

[Image Courtesy of WarGirl Games]
[Image Courtesy of WarGirl Games]

Set during the oft-forgotten War of 1812, Over The Hills And Far Away is a stunning visual novel rich with an interactive environment and atmospheric soundtrack. This text-based video game will transport you back to America’s early history, dealing with the war within the scope of two very different characters on opposing sides of a larger conflict. What really caught me about this project was Mai (shown above), a young Native American from the Shawnee nation and one of the two main characters featured in the game. The story itself hinges on the developing respect and trust between Mai and William Aubrey, the British soldier seeking refuge in a world falling apart. It’s their story, one of changing perceptions and foregoing stereotypes, that really defines Over The Hills And Far Away as not only an intriguing gameplay experience, but also important to support.

Currently up on Kickstarter, the project has until May 1 to raise its funding goal. I strongly recommend you consider becoming a backer! The team also has a Facebook, Twitter, and website for you to check out in the meantime. Today, I’ll be sharing my interview with DesertFox, the lead developer on this project who was kind enough to answer my enthusiastic questions about the game.

J: Introduce me to your team! Who’s who and how did you all come together?

DesertFox: I’m DesertFox, lead writer, coder, and developer on the project. SpacePenguin is the artist, working on the backgrounds, sprites, and CGs, contracted through Singapore-based Collateral Damage Studios. Seycara Music and Arts are a Canadian group, producing the orchestral soundtrack for the game with Yuang Chen composing the tracks. As the main dev and writer, I first worked on the project alone creating the concept for the game. Eventually, I decided I wanted to expand and make this a real project, and contracted SpacePenguin once I had an initial script and build. I knew for this game that I wanted beautiful and highly detailed artwork, and so I felt I should go through a professional group. Collateral Damage Studios were perfect for the job and I admire the different styles of their artists and their work ethic. When it came to music, I approached Yuang Chen through the Hyperspace Forums community (of which I am an admin). After some initial discussion, he seemed excited to take the project on board and help to create the atmosphere of the 19th century Northwest Frontier.

J: Why did you choose to make this game a visual novel? What about the narrative lent itself to this type of text-based gameplay?

DesertFox: Visual novels are a brilliant medium, and can vary greatly dependent on how you develop them. Some are more game-based, with battle systems and minigames. Others can be more story-based experiences, with a focus on the writing, sound design, transitions, and artwork. They exist somewhere between books, art, games and film. Over The Hills And Far Away, in its initial concept, read more like a novel than a game, so in order to adapt it into its visual novel form, I decided I wanted to create a cinematic experience for the player. Beautiful artwork, orchestral music, high-quality sound design, unique characters. I wanted to transport the player to a particular world and have them engage with the story that way. I often think of it as a step up from books in some ways, in that the reader can self-insert themselves much more easily and visualize the scenarios.

J: You say, “The focus is mainly on the characters, atmosphere, and storyline, rather than any battle elements.” Tell me a little bit about how the concept for the game formed.

DesertFox: When I got some spare time, I started writing a short story as a side project over the course of a few weeks. I knew I wanted to write something about a mysterious girl on a rainy day, and went from there. Eventually it grew into the story we see in Over The Hills And Far Away. I’ve always been fascinated by the 18th and early 19th colonial era—redcoats, Napoleon, the New World, Trafalgar, Egypt, and of course, Sharpe’s Rifles. However, the War of 1812 was new territory for me. So I started researching and forming the story more with some historical knowledge, learning more about the conflict, the battles of the Northwest Frontier, Shawnee myths and culture, the American revolution and so on. Soon it formed into the story it is today, with Mai and Aubrey. After consulting some potential backers and supporters to see what they thought, I decided to push and make a kinetic novel from the story.

J: As Over The Hills And Far Away is set in 1812, I imagine a lot of research went in to establish the world. Where did you start your search for relevant information, and how did you find the process?

Luckily, we live in an age where there’s a wealth of information online, and there are a great number of documentaries, factual websites, and groups regarding the War of 1812. So to begin with, I started reading up and researching this way. As I expanded my reference base, I went to my local library to pick out some history books and read up in more detail. It was a bit of a struggle to find books on the War of 1812, often called a Forgotten War. Building on the resources available, I expanded and built on the initial groundwork and tried to blend it into the world without dumping historical facts on the reader. It also didn’t hurt to watch some films and TV shows set broadly around this general period and subject matter—Sharpe, The Patriot, The Last of the Mohicans, Poldark, etc. As a fictional work, it’s just as important to create a few recognizable traits as well as historical accuracy.

J: How did you approach writing an indigenous Shawnee character, given the way most games are inundated with racist portrayals? What pitfalls did you avoid?

DesertFox: Initially when I started with Mai’s character, I focused on her role simply as an ordinary young girl. On first appearances, she’s a bit of a tomboy, a quiet and mysterious character. What is she doing in a barn on a rainy day? Why is she alone? What has she been doing? I worked on these elements during the concept before deciding on a particular tribal or ethnic background. In the back of my mind, I had some inkling that she would end up a native character, but I tried to focus more on her personality first.

As I focused more on the setting, on the historical accuracy, I eventually decided on the Shawnee. The Shawnee have a particular connection to the War of 1812 through Tecumseh’s Confederacy, so I thought the parallels would be very interesting there. A girl from an allied tribe that has just been defeated by the Americans. I researched as much as I could about the Shawnee tribe, dialect and such, and this was incorporated into the character concept. The first draft was altered to get the historical references correct, as well as to incorporate elements of the Shawnee language. But I knew I wanted Mai to be more than just a native girl—I wanted her to have her own unique personality, regardless of her ethnicity. On first encountering the character, the player will probably assume what they can, as Aubrey does—that Mai most likely spends her days skinning hares, climbing trees, and doing all manner of ‘native things.’ However, once the two characters begin to talk a bit more and learn to trust one another, it’s at this point that they really come out of their shells and move past their stereotypes.

A large factor of the storyline is Aubrey learning to move past his misgivings about the Shawnee, as well as for Mai to look over Aubrey’s heritage as one of the British colonialists. It’s a story setup that has been used before many times—two people of opposing backgrounds work together despite their differences, no longer making judgments based on first appearances. I hope the player goes through this experience too, learning to get over any initial prejudices and support the characters. As a warning, the game does contain some slurs from other characters due to the period setting, but we know these to be wrong to use. And particularly by the end of the game, the player shouldn’t be looking at these characters at a skin-deep level.

J: Your Kickstarter page is a wealth of information. Where are you in the development process now? What are your goals for the game?

DesertFox: Currently, the game has a demo out, as well as our Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight pages. Further development of the game is dependent on the project being funded through Kickstarter, to fund further artwork and music. Should we reach our funding goal, potential stretch goals include a vocal song, voice acting, additional art, and a short prequel side-story based around Mai. We aim for the game to be a few hours long and we really want to create a gripping drama where the player feels an emotional connection to the characters. Recently, the game successfully passed Steam Greenlight.

[Image Courtesy of WarGirl Games]
[Image Courtesy of WarGirl Games]

J: What games inspired Over The Hills And Far Away? Any women characters who inspired/help shape Mai’s character?

DesertFox: The game Planetarian by Key was a particular inspiration for the project. The atmosphere, the characters, the setting—I think it’s a real gem of a game and it manages to avoid some of the pitfalls that some nakige games fall into. Set in a rainy post-apocalyptic city, the protagonist meets with a strange robotic girl in an abandoned planetarium. Over the course of the story, the two of them grow closer before a rather tragic ending. The attachment that grows between the player and the characters is well developed, and I knew I wanted to replicate this in my own game. Juniper’s Knot is also a slight inspiration, along with other Key titles such as Clannad. Due to the wordy nature of visual novels, it might help to mention that Jack London is a particular inspiration as a writer—both White Fang and The Call of the Wild are great books. The wild setting of the Yukon certainly influenced the wild setting of the Northwest Frontier and the native elements of the game.

Going through character development with Mai, I wanted to create some form of conflict between her and Aubrey. Initially, the relationship was more a banter between the two, and I took some inspiration from the character Holo of the Spice and Wolf series. Though Holo can sometimes appear weak in the story, she often teases and plays tricks on the series’ protagonist in a constant battle of one-upmanship. This element was drawn back upon with Mai simply because of her age, but you can still see it in her character. Kestrel Hath from The Wind Singer by William Nicholson also inspired Mai, mainly in that she is in a somewhat rebellious stage but not necessarily old enough to understand how she should rebel. Forced out into the world and separated, she will mature without the support of her family.

Beyond these two, I’m struggling to think of some particular characters that helped to shape Mai’s character. I’m sure there are other examples, but I have a rather vague idea of Mai as this young tomboyish girl who can think for herself and defend herself. She knows how to use a blade and talk her way in and out of a situation, but she’s a little young to come off as wise or dependable. She isn’t frail, but she also isn’t a kickass action hero—she’s simply a girl who needs to find her family and will do what she can to survive.

J: To the people considering developing their own game and using Kickstarter, what would you say to them? What advice should someone just starting out heed?

DesertFox: I’d recommend that you be honest and straightforward with your costs, and focus on the bare minimum that you need to for your assets and production. If you have an interesting concept, do everything you can to promote it and show it in a good light. Kickstarter is not only a fundraiser, but a big advert for your project and for you as a developer, so being professional, friendly, and creative is very important. Have a good video, good screenshots, and have a demo version of your game ready for potential backers to download and play. Make sure to try cross-promotion with other Kickstarters to help boost backers for both of your projects. Try out advertising on other websites (for a few hundred dollars, you can gain some decent exposure) as well as through social media. Don’t be afraid to reach out to be people and try to get your project seen by as many as possible. There are forums and bloggers out there that are desperate for content—give them something to talk about.

J: And, since it’s a tradition here at FemHype, what’s your favorite breakfast food?

DesertFox: Strawberry jam on toast and a cup of Ceylon tea :3


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