The Writing and Localization of Ghost of a Tale - Part 1/2: Of Mice and Men
What makes a good tale? Memorable characters you can relate to? Check! Thrilling adventures? Check! A world brimming with stories and legends? Check! SeithCG's Ghost of a Tale has it all, and it's no wonder the game has gained critical acclaim for its writing from gamers and game critics alike. But how do you create a fantasy world so rich and immersive with a team that can be counted on the fingers of one hand? And how do you make sure your story reaches its audience across multiple international borders? After all, great tales are famous because most people have heard of them... In this two-part interview with Lionel Gallat and Paul Gardner, we dive into the writing and localization process of Ghost of a Tale, a stealth-RPG in which players follow Tilo, a mouse minstrel on a quest to find his beloved. From early drafts to last-minute font issues, the two creative minds behind the game’s impressive lore look back on a 5-year journey and share their experience writing and localizing Ghost of a Tale.
Lionel Gallat Lionel Gallat, also known online as Seith, currently lives in the south of France. His professional background is in animation. Lionel worked many years for DreamWorks on their first 2D (The Prince of Egypt, The Road to Eldorado, Spirit, etc…) and then 3D movies (Sharktale, Flushed Away). He was also the animation director for movies like Despicable Me and The Lorax (for Universal this time). And then one day he thought, “Hey, why don’t I make a game?” Paul Gardner With Lionel, Paul was responsible for the writing and game design of Ghost of a Tale. Paul has been writing and designing for games for almost 20 years now, and he has worked on games like Crash Twinsanity for Traveller's Tales, Afro Samurai and Splatterhouse for Namco, and Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite for Capcom. He's currently based in the Bay Area in California.
"In the beginning was the Green Flame..."
Hi, Lionel! Thanks a lot for accepting to tell us about the writing of your game. I know you started working on Ghost of a Tale’s artistic assets back in 2013, but when did you actually start working on the game’s story, world, and characters?
Lionel Gallat I’d been thinking about this world and this story for many years while I was working on all those animated features. But the creation process of Ghost of a Tale is a very holistic one. The art I was creating, the models I was rigging, the technical tests I was doing, all of these were aimed at creating a sort of cushion for what the game would become. I had even written a script several years ago with a friend of mine in hope of maybe pitching it to a movie studio. However, ironically, when I started developing Ghost of a Tale on my own, as a game, the whole story changed and characters disappeared. Only Tilo remained. In older drafts he was younger and not quite the main protagonist. Of course, all of this evolved as Paul got involved in the project.
Hi, Paul! So tell us, how did you get to work with Lionel?
Lionel and I were introduced by Mike Evans, a mutual friend. Mike and I had worked together at Namco, and one day he told me about this guy who was making a game by himself. We met with Lionel on Skype, and we ended up talking for around three hours – it was a really good conversation. I was just really fascinated by his concept, and what he was trying to do. I promised I'd help in whatever way I could. Initially it was just casual, giving feedback on design and story ideas or whatever, but later Lionel asked me if I would help out with writing and design on a more formal basis. Still, we didn't meet in person for more than a year.
"The game is obviously inspired by older animated movies from Disney. It touches upon several themes, like casual racism, prejudices, and loss."
Pangeia, the fictional world in which Ghost of a Tale takes place, has a pretty tangible past and hosts myriad animal species. It’s also a relatively dark world, which contrasts with its rather cute inhabitants (for the most part). Where does Ghost of a Tale draw its inspiration from, and what is it fundamentally about?
The game is obviously inspired by older animated movies from Disney, and particularly by The Secret of NIMH (both the book and the movie). It touches upon several themes, like casual racism, prejudices, and loss, but at the same time it does so very organically, through humor and empathy. We’re not preaching anything: the animals that are the characters in this story are but a mirror to us human beings. And through them we talk about what it means to know the past.
"History is built upon the ruins of the truth." Tilo is told this by one of the characters he meets in the keep, and for me it summarizes one of the most interesting themes of the game. The decision to make the protagonist a mouse really profoundly influenced the design of the game. It gave us a vulnerable protagonist, not physically strong, which meant he wouldn't be using combat as his primary way of interacting with the world. Every other design and story decision started from there. Using animals to tell the story helped us in a lot of ways. It makes what otherwise might be a pretty grim story much more accessible. The established relationships between creatures, the hierarchy between them – who's predator and who's prey, for example – gave us something to work with, or subvert. There's also a level of abstraction that comes from using animal characters, so any parallels between our history and Pangeia's history are made less directly. We can write about subjects and themes allegorically, without straying too close to real world events.
"Magpies alone possess a set of Codex Feathers, concealed beneath their wings, and preened in such a way as to function as a mnemonic system. It's said the Codex contains the knowledge of their forebears, and the history of all things."
Was the story clear in your mind from the start? How much did the lore, characters, and plot of the game change from your initial idea?
The heart of the game hasn't changed since the time Lionel and I first spoke. Tilo has always been a minstrel, searching for his family. We've just expanded on that core, sort of fleshed it out. I always really loved that we begin with a classic video game scenario – escape from jail, and rescue the princess – and then kind of subvert that over the course of the game. Because we were starting from such a strong foundation, there was actually not that much revision, which is really rare.
"Every line needs to be necessary or else it’s out. I personally hate it when, in an RPG, I get three pages of text for something that could have been expressed with two sentences."
This certainly explains why everything from the game’s world feels so genuine and coherent… Ghost of a Tale was unanimously praised for the richness of its lore and the quality of its writing. What’s your creative process like? How do you ensure everything meets high quality standards?
The first time Lionel and I met in person we spent a few days developing Tilo's story and the history of the world, and figuring out where our characters fit into it. From that we wrote a long, exhaustive timeline that became the foundation for everything else. Lionel and I talk through everything in a lot of detail – motivation, tone, meaning, etc. – before I start writing anything. I try to get the dialogue into a state where we can review it in-game as quickly as possible. Once I have a solid draft, Lionel will go through it, giving comments and feedback. It's an iterative process.
"We wrote biographies for each of the characters that we could always refer to, to make sure we were never straying too far from who the character was."
There’s a lot of humor and poetry in the game, which was both a challenge and a real pleasure for our team to localize, given the great quality of the original material. What’s your secret for writing a moving story and witty dialogue?
One thing I said to Paul at the beginning was: we’re treating the game dialogue the same way it would be written for a movie (or TV series) script. Every line needs to be necessary or else it’s out. I personally hate it when, in an RPG, I get three pages of text for something that could have been expressed with two sentences. Also, we paid a lot of attention to characters’ voices. The way they express themselves. Although there are no voice-overs in the game, we made sure the lines could be read aloud by an actor and not feel overly written or fake.
One of the first things we did when we were developing the story was map out a dialogue for Ravik, the Magpie. Looking at it now, it's pretty bad, but it let us quickly find out what did and didn't work, and helped us find the right tone. We realized brevity was really important to us – avoiding unnecessary dialogue and exposition as much as possible – so the player wouldn't be wading through pages of text. Actually the idea of writing footnotes to efficiently incorporate lore into the main text came from creating that first dialogue.
Players are given the choice of reading footnotes that provide further information on the lore.
Overall we worked hard to make sure the story remained honest, that the characters behaved in an internally consistent way, that things remained simple, and that the tone never got too melodramatic.
The jokes are almost all contextual, and come pretty naturally from understanding the characters, and how they'd respond and react to each other and their situation. We wrote biographies for each of the characters that we could always refer to, to make sure we were never straying too far from who the character was.
"Every voyage I took with a Mouse on board ended in tragedy--and there was always a Mouse on board." -Kerold Redwhiskers
I guess you don’t come up with a game like Ghost of a Tale that has such impressive lore and colorful characters with just a couple of days of writing and sketching. How long did it take to write all the game’s content?
We wrote and designed the game in parallel, as much as possible. Ideally the two disciplines should influence and inform each other. In that respect we were writing and designing pretty consistently for around three years. Lionel designed and implemented the dialogue system relatively early in production, which enabled us to start seeing the flow and structure of the dialogue in-game. We did a lot of planning of the game's structure and story, first on paper and later in flow diagrams. Every so often we'd stop for a reality check, and try and rein in our scope a bit. But I think almost everything we cut actually made it into the final game in some form or other. The game's content was locked not long before the game was released. Level Up Translation really helped us organize our schedule to give us as much time in test as possible.
In the next and last part of our interview with SeithCG, Paul and Lionel detail their localization process and why localizing Ghost of a Tale was key to their game's success.
"Localization is not an afterthought. Start thinking about it early, even if just at a high level."