There’s an archaic school of thought within gaming which suggests that story is both “unnecessary” (Shigeru Miyamoto), and also “not that important” (John Carmack). And whilst this might have been true in an age when computers were incredibly simple, and were therefore capable of only providing simple gameplay experiences (such as Pong and Tetris), it could be argued that with computers having become much more powerful since, gaming audiences now expect a lot more from games in terms of their narrative content.

Certainly, we wouldn’t have famed gaming franchises like Half Life, The Last Of Us, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, and The Walking Dead if game designers had decided to co-opt the rather narrow-minded views of Shigeru Miyamoto and John Carmack. At the same time however, it could also be argued that these franchises would be deemed as being incredibly boring once gamers had gotten past their initial gameplay loop. After all, the lack of a compelling storyline is certainly one of the major reasons as to why I quickly tire of Nintendo games, as there’s only so many times that one can endure seeing a grown mustachioed man jump. And in a world where modern gamers are obsessed with how long a typical game is, and wouldn’t be inclined to buy it unless it spanned over a dozen hours, then their attitude really does speak volumes in terms of how crucial a story is within a game – otherwise there will be nothing of any substantive weight that will impel a gamer into wanting to trudge past the first opening level.

As the narrative designer on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge, Yannick Belzil is well aware of how important story is within a game, and his role (as part of the game development team) is to develop a compelling storyline that integrates seamlessly with the gameplay. This can be challenging for some individuals as narrative designers need to work with several teams in different fields (such as sound design, art, and programming) and therefore need to be expert team players whilst also having a basic understanding of all areas that they interact with. At the same time, narrative designers also need to work towards delivering fun gameplay experiences that are consistent with the overall game world and genre framework conventions.

I spoke to Yannick Belzil about the challenges which he faced in being a narrative designer on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge, and got to ask him as to how he was able to navigate the restrictions placed upon him by the IP rights holder whilst also staying true to his own sensibilities as a gamer and fan of the franchise. At the same time, I was able to ask him a little bit about his game studio (Tribute Games) and what else the indie game studio has up its sleeve going forward. Enjoy!

Yannick, your role is narrative designer. How did you come to assume the role of a narrative designer, how long have you been in the industry, and how did you come to be associated with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge?

I’ve been in the industry for roughly 10 years. I first got in as a 2D artist back in the pre-smartphone cell-phone game era. So I was working at Gameloft and I was working on games with pixel art graphics, and later on I moved on to working as a freelance illustrator. And then I got hired at Tribute Games at first to do some narrative design and some social media at the time. The company was co-founded by my cousin, and he knew that I was on Twitter and he was like, “oh, you’re used to writing our 140 characters? Well, we have 300 guns in our new game, Mercenary Kings, and we only have 300 characters for each description of weapons, so we need someone who can write with limited characters”. So that’s how I started out as a narrative designer, and ever since then, I’ve been doing the narrative design for games at Tribute Games. We developed Shredder’s Revenge, and that’s how I came to work on the Ninja Turtles game.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is obviously a licensed game where you have to be beholden to a certain IP with its narrative conventions. What sort of parameters did you have to work with when it came to not only flexing your own narrative muscles, but also having to conform to the expectations of the rights holder and the players, but also putting all of that in the context of a beat-em-up which, let’s face it… those type of games aren’t exactly renowned for being very deep?

No, no, they’re not… Beat-em-ups are essentially like action sequences, they’re chase scenes. So story-wise, what we all came up with, and what I would really think about, is obstacles that are in the way of the fight path. And sometimes the obstacles are funny animations or funny enemy spawns, but sometimes they will be like a new bus appearing, or stuff like that. And when it comes to a bus appearance, then it’s maybe about trying to create something that will be a memorable entrance or stuff like that. So these are sort of things where you can put some story, or at least some character, in a beat-em-up game that’s not strictly concerned about the fighting part of it.

As for the conventions of the world and the license, I’ve been a fan of the Turtles ever since I was a kid. Specifically the cartoons which I watched over and over again. So I had a really solid idea of what the characters were about and what the type of action or humor is appropriate for that world. So we never had any problems or issues, and we never experienced any pushback or stuff like that. The actual trickier part was, as already mentioned, building the exciting “beat-em-up” part of it. That was sort of an art and a technical challenge at the same time.

You’ve done a few DLC characters. Is there any scope for a sequel, or even a new DLC episode, when it comes to the Turtles?

We’d love to do more DLC, or maybe even a sequel, but that’s not something that’s on the cards right now. We’re a small team, so we’ve put all of our effort in the existing DLC. And it has to be successful for there to be a sequel, or even new DLC. And that’ll depend on the fan reaction, and of course the commercial success of the DLC. We’d love to do more of it, because we really love the Turtles, and fans seem to have enjoyed the game, and there’s still an appetite for the Turtles, so we’d love to keep working in that world. But again, that’ll depend on the fans.

Can you tell me a little bit about your studio, Tribute Games? Can I ask as to what the development history is of Tribute Games? What other games have you worked on in the past?

They’re all retro-inspired games that have classic pixel art, and are part of classic genres with new spins on them. Because we’re all from Montreal in Canada, and Montreal is one of the big videogame cities in North America, all of us grew up wanting to make videogames. And a lot of us ended up working in the big companies, but then got bored by it. So the company was founded so that we could make the type of games that the big companies, from like 12 years ago, would not make… pixel art games. And that just wouldn’t happen, but pixel art is what we love, and classic genres is what we love. So we made a bunch of games. We made a sort of a rogue-like platformer called Flinthook. We made a game called Panzer Paladin that we did before TMNTMercenary Kings, Curse N’ Chaos, Wizorb… So the company is roughly 12 to 13 years old, and we’ve been coming out with games that are pretty steady for like two and a half years, as in a new title every year.

So what titles are you working on next?

Right now we don’t really know, but the success of the game has opened a lot of fun doors for us, so there are people talking to us. I think some other licensees might want us to do a version of Shredder’s Revenge for their own characters, and that’s our first licensed game. We might just end up going back to original worlds and characters that we created for ourselves, because that’s how we started. So we don’t know which one it will be yet, but we’ll see.

Do you prefer working on licensed games or do you prefer working on your own original IP? I mean, money is obviously a big factor…

The thing is, with a license, you don’t have to sell the game to someone. They immediately know the characters, especially in the case of the Turtles, and they know the game genre immediately. And when you create new characters, that’s something that you have to work harder to sell as a new idea, where there’s maybe a different type of gameplay. But both are a lot of fun, and again, like I’ve already mentioned, I was a huge fan of the Turtles as a kid.

What would your dream project be when it comes to working on a licensed IP that you’d be able to have a hand in when it comes to narrative design?

I would love to figure out with a game designer what an exciting fun Doctor Who game would look like, because I feel like that’s something that would involve exploration, so figuring that out would be really cool. And I’m also a huge comic book fan, and I feel like figuring out a good exciting Superman game is a big challenge. It has not been done yet. There’s some parts of the old NES game that I really like, even though it’s not an accessible game at all. So yeah, a game based on a DC or Marvel comic would be really cool. DC wise especially, and trying to figure out Superman.

How long have you been with Tribute Games?

The company is 12-13 years old, and I’ve been there for like 11 years.

So you’re basically an early employee?

It’s my cousin’s and his co-workers, and one of them was my friend also. So I first started out as a freelancer and I was working in what was like a small office with three people at the time.

Where do you see Tribute Games going from here?

We’re really happy with what we did with this beat-em-up, so I feel like we’d like to do another beat-em-up. That would be a lot of fun, because now we feel like the engine has worked well and we can sort of build upon it.

Final Fight?

That would be cool. I don’t know if Capcom loans out its franchises like that. Final Fight could be cool, yes…

Nothing’s cooler than Final Fight

It’s really cool. I also really like Mighty Final Fight on the NES because of the sprites.

Yes, they’re super deformed and everything…

Yeah, and I think that one of our art strengths at Tribute Games is that we get into that more cartoony anime type of style. So I feel like it would be something not unlike Mighty Final Fight. But again, there’s a new Double Dragon game that’s out that’s sort of in that zone already, although it’s it’s more cartoony in a different sort of way. But we’ll see if Capcom comes knocking and we’ll see what they have to say. But Final Fight would be cool, and everyone loves Mike Haggar.

Any last words?

Last words… This game is a big work of passion for us at Tribute Games. We don’t see this as a command, or something that we can just cash in on. It’s something that’s really near and dear to us. And we really want to show that making a licensed game doesn’t have to be something that’s a soulless cash grab, and that it could instead be made with a lot of sincerity and detail. And we think that shines out from the game.

Thank you so much.

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