Fossil Echo: An Interview With Game Director Phil Crifo

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Fossil Echo, an upcoming 2D platforming adventure game, recently came to my attention. It sparked my imagination, then promptly ran away with it.

The game introduces us to a young boy, and we journey with him up a massive tower in the middle of the sea. The why and the how will be answered along the way. And, for those up to the challenge, there are eight more temples for a deeper dive into the lore of the story.

Citing inspiration from both Studio Ghibli films as well as Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, I had to know more. Game director Phil Crifo made time to answer a few of my questions, and I’m pleased to share the experience here.

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What is your favorite gaming memory?

If I had to choose a single one, it’d be getting out of Rupture Farms in Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee for the PS1. This is easily the game that had the biggest impact on me and the main reason why is the sense of wonder and scale of its world. The game starts in a very gritty, industrial meat factory and that particular moment when you actually escape and discover that there is a hundred times more to this world than this factory, it felt so big and real, like you set foot on a living, breathing world where everything made sense; I was there. This probably had a lot to do with the fact that back then, we weren’t as informed about the games we played so the surprises and twists had a lot more impact. Aside from that I’d say experiencing the openness of GTA3 for the first time; I was a fan since the very first game but the switch to 3D and being given the freedom to explore this super detailed world was simply mind blowing for me at the time. I have so many I could write an essay, but long sessions of the clunky 2 player mode in GTA San Andreas for the PS2, all-nighters of immersion into Metal Gear Solid 3, discovering Minecraft really blew my mind too…

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What led you to game design?

I have been making stuff my whole life, from comics to short films, you name it. I eventually focused on animation and short films as I felt it was the most “complete” art form I could manage. So I made a few short films, some were very well-received, locally (I come from New Caledonia), and when the time came to chose what I would study, it was kind of obvious I’d continue in this field. So I flew to France where I studied and made animated short films for 3 years, and it was great and all, but by the end of it, I realized that what I really wanted to do, what all my inspirations came from and pushed me towards, was video games. And the only reason I was making short films is that I lacked the technical programming skills to actually make a game. So when the time came to assess the future, I asked my childhood friend (you know those long sessions of the clunky 2 player mode in GTA San Andreas? He was player 2) Thierry Boura, who had conveniently been studying programming all this time, if he wanted to join forces and make a game. I had the visual and storytelling skills, and he had the programming skills, but neither of us had actually made a game before. Oh and he said yes, obviously!

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How long has Fossil Echo been in development? How has having a small team affected the game?

Fossil Echo, as it is now, has been in development for a little over two years. Before that, we prototyped for a few months on a 3D game with the same base storyline, themes and characters. This leads me to answering the second part of the question; I was planning on making a game of much bigger scope. First of all it was 3D, and was supposed to be much more open, but the overall structure wasn’t very similar. In the end we had to be realistic and I rethought the project to what it is now. In the end I think the current Fossil Echo is much stronger than what I had in mind at the beginning. It is no secret that sometimes, limitations can be a blessing for a project; I think it was in our case, forcing us to take what made our idea good at the core and make it a reality by scraping anything superfluous. Even though we had the artistic and visual skills, we still lacked the musical and audio knowledge to bring this world to life, so we had John Robert Matz and Gordon McGladdery join us to work on those parts; what is great about the indie community is that they didn’t ask twice about any legal or business details, they liked what they saw and agreed to work with us even if we couldn’t pay them upfront. Their trust in the project was very gratifying, but very scary at the same time. Now we HAD to deliver!

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How did it feel to get Greenlit on Steam?

I really want to say that it felt good, but more than anything it felt weird. I actually wrote a blog post on the matter where I detailed our experience with Steam Greenlight and what you can expect. Basically you have no idea what’s going on, there are no clear numbers to reach to ensure being Greenlit, nor are there any real conditions. Games are Greenlit by Valve, by hand. This is not an automated process; people think that it’s solely based on number of votes but it’s not the case at all, which makes it arguably pointless. The votes probably help Valve figure out what games stand out a bit so they can check them out and choose to Greenlight them or not, but in the end the votes don’t really matter. I don’t want to sound too ungrateful, because I’m really glad we got Greenlit (pretty quick too, 9 days), and really grateful to the people who voted and, ultimately, to the person at Valve who clicked our Greenlight button, but I think the system is really flawed and can sometimes be unfair to developers. People have been asking for a revamp for a while now and I’m looking forward to how Valve handles it.

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You’ve cited games by Team Ico and films by Studio Ghibli as inspiration, but what games have had the biggest impact on you?

I kind of answered this in my first answer (sorry!) but Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee is definitely the game that influenced me the most. When I look back at it, I understand what I liked about the game (and why) more than I used to. Strangely, the gameplay really isn’t my cup of tea, and what stuck with me from the game is the story and the world. Even if I didn’t realize it at the time, it was the first time I experienced a game that brought up themes like capitalism, consumerism and ecology and it gave the world so much depth and credibility (I hadn’t played FF7 at the time!). You know, as much as I love it, it wasn’t Mario, where everything feels like it is there for a gameplay reason, and it doesn’t feel like a lot is happening in this world beyond what the player experiences. Oddworld feels “real.” You really get the sense that what you experience in the game is a tiny, minuscule portion of what actually exists in this universe, much like Star Wars, and that’s what I love about fictional worlds. Rant over about Oddworld, go play it! Gameplay wise, GTA3 had the biggest impact on me because it made me realize that video games weren’t just interactive movies where you had only one way of moving forward. The sense of freedom it created is a milestone for video games and it is clearly one of the most important video games ever.

Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, I played later on in my life and they also had a huge impact on the way I see games as a way to tell stories. They use core mechanics as storytelling and it is very powerful. When I think about it (not all of this directly applies to Fossil Echo), that is what is awesome about video games: they don’t have to follow specific rules to be good. What I like as a player may not be what I actually want to make as a game creator, and so far people are very positive on Fossil Echo, which I’m thrilled about. Unfortunately, I’ll never be able to experience it for the first time as a player; I guess that’s the game maker’s curse.

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Which milestones in the development of Fossil Echo have been surprisingly meaningful?

The first time we showed the game in public. It was at Radius Festival in London after only a few months of development. It was BRUTAL for us; overall response was good but we really didn’t expect what we saw. When you work on a game, you know it inside and out, so well that you feel like the mechanics are spot on, but that is because you play it “right.” When you actually hand the controller to a stranger, you find out they may have different play styles, different gaming habits, making your mechanics troublesome or awkward. While people liked the game, it was really valuable to see them play. We took tons of notes and made changes that made the game a lot better as a result. This, in a certain way, pretty much applied every time we showed the game, but nothing compares to that very first time. Other milestones include having John Robert and Gordon join us. It made our small garage project instantly so much more “real.” By then we really had no other choice than to go the whole length, as we had outside people providing work and trusting us on this project. Being Greenlit, while confusing, was also a big morale booster. Every big press article is also really awesome; not on Game Informer yet (get on it guys!).

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What are you most looking forward to between now and the release of the game?

We’re showing the game in many events before release and I’m always excited about those. Meeting people, talking to them and having them react to our work is the best. You get to travel the world to show your work; I’m going to Singapore, Atlanta… coming from New Caledonia, this is crazy and awesome to me! I’m also looking forward to being 100% done with the game! As much as I love it, I am DONE with it and the last few touches are always the hardest. I’m looking forward to some rest, but it doesn’t seem like I’ll be getting a lot of that for a while!

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We “met” because of a shared interest, so I have to ask: what is your favorite Super Replay?

My favourite Super Replay is definitely Illbleed. It has it all, the dream team, the perfect game in terms of tone and story. It’s just… I don’t know, Monkiller, Cork goes to Hell, need I say more?! Raw Danger is also a personal favourite. The game is more grounded and that makes dumb situations even funnier. In the end, I realized that what I loved about Super Replays, and I believe I’m in the majority here, isn’t the games but the editors and their personalities; it really feels like playing a game with a bunch of friends and you eventually grow fond of them. While it’s always sad to see people leave (Dan, Tim…), I love to see new faces (Tack, Shea, JV…), discover who they are, and see them bring their own thing to Replay, keeping it fresh.

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What are your top ten games? Why?

For the French readers out there (I can’t be the only one, right?) I actually did a video interview answering this exact question, but here it is in English!

#10: Bully
For its tone, lighthearted (well, kinda) story and characters, and the sense of wonder you get when you first discover you have a whole city to explore! Its intelligent use of pop culture clichés, and gosh, that music.

#9: Red Dead Redemption
Another Rockstar title, the best game of last generation for me, hands down. The story hits the right notes, and is subtle but intense. The gameplay is perfect; there is really nothing more to be said about that game. That ending…

#8: The Secret of Monkey Island
While I’m not big on point and clicks, Monkey Island is the exception. The visuals (I actually love the remastered edition, unlike most people) are just so wonderful, the lightheartedness of the story and its characters, the music. It makes for a Disney-like world that holds up so well. It’s funny, beautiful, and magical.

#7: Jurassic Park: Trespasser
This one may surprise you, but I actually LOVE Trespasser. Despite the very clunky gameplay, I love the game for what it tried (and sometimes, failed, yes) to do. It is a crazy ambitious game, with physics based gameplay that brings a sense of presence that I really love (please someone make a VR port). I love the emergent gameplay that it offers and the situations you end up in (despite being sometimes ridiculous), can be super awesome. Most of all I love it because it is unlike anything else out there. Story-wise, it is very cool too, if you like Jurassic park.

#6: Tony Hawk’s Underground / Thrasher: Skate and Destroy
I couldn’t separate these two as they hit similar notes, while being very different. Obviously they are both skateboarding games, and what I love about them is the way they took the skateboarding culture and successfully ported it to the video game medium. This is something that has never been done right in movies, but for some reason video games regularly (but not always) hit it right (EA Skate is awesome at that, too). I don’t know why that is, maybe because video games started in garages and are closer to urban culture than Hollywood? While Tony Hawk’s Underground uses a more over the top approach to the themes and Thrasher goes for a gritty, dirty depiction of skateboarding, they both work and honour their inspirations.

#5: Minecraft
Minecraft blew my mind on two fronts. The first one being the way it was made and sold, bringing indie games to the forefront as an alternative to AAA and basically democratizing the early access model (done right). But it is also simply mind-blowing as a game. The sense of freedom I experienced with GTA3, I felt again when I launched Minecraft for the first time. Not a lot compares to discovering a hidden cave behind a waterfall and knowing you’re the very first person, ever, to see it. Procedural generation has been debated a lot and some people tend to prefer handcrafted environments. I love both, but I think it worked perfectly for Minecraft, and made it special.

#4: Metal Gear Solid 3
The best in the series, no doubt about that for me. The switch from very modern, sterile industrial environments to more open, 1960’s Russian jungle was crazy to me at the time. The characters are the strongest in the series, and there are so many memorable sequences I can’t even count them. This is probably the best game of the PS2 era.

#3: Ico / Shadow of the Colossus
I can’t separate those two either because I feel they are part of a whole. Those games have something magical about them, and the fandom surrounding them seems to confirm this. The stories are just the right kind of mysterious, leaving just enough for the player to imagine. Like Oddworld, there seems to be so much more in these worlds than what we as players experience. They also focus more on feelings and characters, making for very poetic stories. I also love how “tactile” and physics based the gameplay is; it always involves grabbing something by holding R1, sometimes the hand of a gentle girl, sometimes the hairy back of a giant monster!

#2: Grand Theft Auto 3
Nevermind, THIS is the best game of the PS2 era! I ranted about it way too much in previous answers already. But the freedom, the ambiances, the characters…

#1: Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee
You guessed it! Go play it NOW!

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For more information on Fossil Echo, you can visit the game’s official website, or follow them on Twitter. The game is set to release on PC, Mac, and Linux in 2016. You can also view the game’s Steam Greenlight trailer below.

 

16 replies »

  1. Awesome interview! I love the art style of the game, it’s just beautiful. I’d never heard about Fossil Echo but now it is definitely on my radar. Thanks for that!

    His inspirations and favorites have given me some new things to make sure I check out. Apparently I need to go play Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee.

    Like

  2. Awesome, this interview Rebecca! How cool is it to do this, alway such fun to talk to someone with a shared passion. Never heard of the game yet, thanks!

    Like

  3. Very nice! I consider myself up on most indie games – sites I frequent just tend to mention them a lot (Siliconera, for example), but have managed to somehow not hear about this yet. THANK YOU for fixing that! Congrats on being Greenlit – I’d help if I had heard of this sooner, but there’s no need now. I just Favorite’d and Followed Fossil Echo on Greenlight.

    This looks really beautiful! And just impressive all around – I am a fan of cinematic platformers, and anything else that’s good and evokes Heart of Darkness or Another World (or Oddworld, as mentioned here) is fantastic! Bring on more of these :D

    I can’t “like” this because I’m not a WordPress user, but I very much enjoyed this interview ;)

    Like

    • Thanks!

      For the record you can always message me privately, but I do appreciate the heads up. Writing as much as I do, as often as I do, the occasional typo will sneak in there. I am unperfect!

      Like

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