Developer Debrief: Chatting with the mind behind Sea of Stars
Sea of Stars released on August 29. The long-awaited Kickstarter-backed RPG now boasts over 250,000 copies sold within the first week, as well as being broadly available on Game Pass and PlayStation Plus. We recently sat down with Creative Director of Sabotage, Thierry Boulanger, to discuss what inspired him as a young gamer, question some game design elements, and what we can expect in the future from the game's greater universe.
Questions and responses may be edited for content and clarity, and please be aware this conversation contains spoilers for the ending(s) of Sea of Stars.
RPG Site: One of the first things I wanted to know: what were some of the first role-playing games that had an impact on you as a young gamer?
Thierry Boulanger: The very first one I played was Dragon Warrior/Dragon Queston NES. And I did not like it. I wouldn't see my character in combat. I prefer third-person to first-person if it comes to AAA titles. I like seeing my character doing the movement. I'm French in Canada, right? We didn't get games in French. And so an RPG that you don't understand a single word that's being told doesn't have a lot of value for you as the player. My best friend and I, we kind of wrote this off since we didn't know what an RPG was, we called it a game where you hit and the number appears, this is how we described them.
We rented Chrono Trigger, because we thought it was a co-op game because of the key art. Do you see the two characters doing a combo with this? Then we go back to my place, and it's a game where you hit and the number appears! So my friend left but I kept on playing. From there, I just took in the music and the mechanics and it really grew on me.
What I really like about its design is that it's so lean. It's so freeing to play even without understanding a single word, I still got tremendous value out of the game; the magic of that world still imprinted on me even though I had no idea what they were saying or what was going on. And that was a very formative moment in the game designer that I was going to become: you can communicate not only with words, right? So that was a really really big one.
[Other games of inspiration to Thierry included Super Mario RPG, Illusion of Gaia, and Lufia 2].
I was hoping to find a [game] that would have the seamlessness of entering combat like Chrono Trigger, with the active gameplay of Mario RPG while letting players touch the world like in Illusion of Gaia, and it seems like no game encapsulated all of that. So basically, kicking off Sea of Stars was like, "We're doing that." We're taking these elements, and we're going to try to elevate them and make them sing to create the most seamless world that we've seen with that kind of direction.
RPG Site: This is a game that takes disparate elements from those different games and blends them together into a complete package. It's a turn-based RPG, but it also has those puzzle and action elements. Were there some moments in classic games that really stuck with you? While you were making Sea of Stars, were there some memories that you have from particular games that you wanted to impress upon the player?
Boulanger: It comes from a very abstract feeling. For me, Chrono Trigger isn't, you know, a frog with a sword and time travel. For me, it's spending time with loved ones on a warm summer night where the sound carries...there's just that tingling in the air, and I just want to be there, I want to stay forever. In these moments it's like, how to have this feeling? How do we recreate a sense that you're going to let your inner child out? And you're gonna let it play for a little bit?
RPG Site: How did you go about determining how long or extensive the dungeons would be? They felt perfectly timed. How did you get that feel for that sweet spot?
Boulanger: One of the core tenets of the production was "everything is done before the player is." So it's thinking a bit to the notion of comedians, right? Where it's like "Oh, what's the distilled - what's the best I've got?" We kind of did that in terms of level design. We're removing, we're letting it boil, we're letting it like reduce as much as we can, so that all that's left is screen by screen, everything is engaging, and then it's over. The other thing too, is that it will always be a tiny bit shorter than what you're kind of used to. Because of the language of those games, right? Sometimes you're like, I'm gonna be here forever, you know, and we really wanted to avoid that tedium of where you take a mental note that says: I'm never replaying that game.
RPG Site: It seemed that Zale felt more emotionally attuned to himself than Valere. How did you go about crafting their personalities?
Boulanger: I was actually playing Solstice Warriors with my friend when we were kids. And she was the moon one and I was the sun warrior. And I think there's a bit of that in there. [Zale]'s more about that fire, right? He's more of a hypersensitive type. He burns bright. He may be a bit more impulsive, more quick to feeling his emotions where she's a monk, right. She's the moon and the moon reflects the sun. And so she's more stoic, I would say.
RPGSite: Do you have a favorite character?
Boulanger: Garl for sure.
RPG Site: Was it always the plan to have him come back?
Boulanger: It was the ultimate reward, but it was a thing where you have to really, really earn it for it not to feel cheap, you know. It's not like he dies, he comes back right away, or like, you just flick your wrist and it happens. It's like okay, a lot of players won't go for the side content or extra quests. We really wanted something where the reward for that is really meaningful.
Also, there's a tiny bit of replay value there because for example, when we meet B'st [the pink living glass character] when it gets created in that cutscene where Ra'shan is working on him. B'st says "How will I know when it's time?" And he's like, "No, you'll know. But remember that only the three of you can enter the portal," and it's like, you have no idea what that is. I really liked the idea of this type of interweaving.
RPG Site: [The game] leans into these tropes and then really subverts them. Sarai is probably my favorite character because you're like, "Okay, this icy badass ninja. I've seen her before." But then as you peel back those layers, you're like "Okay, I didn't even know that there were cyborgs in this game."
Boulanger: On that, I just want to say you have the same pick as Mitsuda. He read the script, and he said she was his favorite character. And so we gave him the theme for her.
RPG Site: Will we see Erlina or Brugaves again?
Boulanger: Gee, I wonder. *laughs*
RPG Site: You have all these different elements: you've got a fishing system, you've got a gathering system, you've got a cooking system, what I wasn't expecting when these are first introduced is that they were all going to interact. Players are rewarded for fishing and for hunting and gathering because they're able then to concoct these meals and take them in their limited inventory into battle. How were you able to develop this scheme that takes all these disparate systems and makes them something that the player really needs to engage in?
Boulanger: There was this philosophy around the little numbers, like having a low, little cap on money, things like that, so that you don't just get these big numbers that are meaningless. You're constantly aware of what it means to acquire what you just got, and how much you just spent, and the price of something. And there's really this push and pull on the wall that where it empties, you feel back up, you kind of empty it again. And so everything is kept on a tighter leash. It was making sure that there was resonance between all those systems. It's not only that fishing is just a self-contained thing. It allows me to do different things. Maybe I need money, maybe I need items. Maybe I need to pace myself a little bit in between my adventure beats. I have reasons to go there, and so that makes it makes sense. It's not just there because it's fun to have a thing there.
RPG Site: Will there be DLC?
There you have it. At the time of this writing, Sea of Stars is available on PC, Switch, Xbox, and PlayStation. Check out our review of the game as well.