Serenity Forge Talks About Its Upcoming Game, Influences, Social Media, and Founding an Indie Developer

Land Of Screens will be released in time for Christmas 2021, and is the next in a long line of games from developer Serenity Forge that seek to make its players think and reflect. Its creator and the founder of Serenity Forge, Zhenghua “Z” Yang, discussed the game in a recent interview with Game Rant, as well as Serenity Forge’s design philosophy and its remarkable beginnings as an indie developer.

The game is a point-and-click adventure with a unique art style where players take control of Holland, an editor who has recently split up with her long-term boyfriend, and decides to go on a road trip. But in a world dominated by social media, she has forgotten her phone charger and will need to learn to somehow disconnect. Land Of Screens seeks to make players reflect on their social media usage and remind them that it’s okay to switch off sometimes. The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Q: Serenity Forge has a fantastic array of titles and games; I’m really impressed!

A: Thank you so much! Serenity Forge is really about narrative-driven, emotionally impactful titles. All of our games are very focused on making sure, after you’re done playing it, that you’re leaving with expanded horizons; you’re carrying a story for the rest of your life. That’s the kind of game we focus on.

Q: A lot of developers are in the industry to produce titles with standard gameplay mechanics and familiar stories, which is totally valid, but it sounds like one of your driving principles is to do things that are a bit different?

A: I think one of the key driving values for our team is that, nowadays, it’s so much easier for a kid to pick up a video game and play it, as opposed to reading a book or doing their homework. So for us, as developers, it feels like we have an inherent obligation to inject value or meaning into the games we create. As creators, every day we think about “if overnight this game becomes the most successful game in the world, what kind of impact would it have on society, and are we proud of that impact?”

Q: You are the founder of Serenity Forge – did it begin life as a one-person studio and then grow into something bigger?

A: The story is actually quite long, but a condensed version of it is that I’ve always been a gamer, enjoying all sorts of games. When I was eighteen years old, I was diagnosed with a near-fatal illness that caused me to be hospitalized for two years. During those years it was really difficult for me: I had to go through chemotherapy, wasn’t really able to get out of my bed, and had to drop out of university. During that time I played a lot of games, a lot of single-player games that made me feel like I was the hero, going out and saving the world like Final Fantasy or Chrono Trigger. I also played a lot of multiplayer games, games like Minecraft, League Of Legends, and World Of Warcraft.

These games made me feel connected to the rest of the world, where otherwise in real life I wasn’t really connected. I started making all sorts of friends online, people that weren’t even American, some of whom didn’t speak English, from all over the world. But they would check up on me, make sure I was taking my medicine and getting the proper amount of rest. I even met some medical researchers who introduced me to a hematologist who ended up giving me the advice to keep me alive. It’s just phenomenal what video games did for me during those years.

Eventually, I was very lucky to have survived that, and after about two years I was able to transfer back into college to continue my education. However, during my first year in school, I couldn’t help but think to myself that these games, like League Of Legends, weren’t designed to help me, but in the end, they saved my life. What if I start making games with the intention of helping other people? What kind of power can we unlock there?

So that’s how Serenity Forge was born: I started making games by myself in my freshman year of college, sitting on classes that taught me C++, trying to write my own game engines, picking up digital art and music composition. Eventually, I dragged some friends into working on games as well, and by the time we finished college we were able to keep on doing it!

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Q: Your newest project is a game called Land Of Screens – can you elaborate a little bit more on what the game is?

A: Of course! Land Of Screens is a short narrative adventure, very similar to games like Broken Age or old-school Monkey Island-type games. It’s a short, wholesome, sweet commentary about our modern society being controlled by social media. You play as Holland, who is a budding editor starting in her career, and she goes on a road trip; the problem is she ended up forgetting her phone charger. In the modern millennial life, if you don’t have your phone charger, you can imagine going on a road trip and meeting your friends and meeting your family is turned into a totally different experience.

It becomes a narrative for Holland to first be very frustrated about the situation because you feel like a major part of your life was lost. Another part of the story is that she just went through a very serious breakup, which was very difficult to deal with, and of course, that plays a major role due to social media as well. As the story goes on, she starts to learn the value of disconnecting herself from social media and from technology, and also starts to realize she is able to promote others to do so as well, and to add more value and more meaning to everyday life.

Q: Does the game give you a chance to explore some of your own thoughts on social media, and where that might be taking us as a society?

A: Of course… especially working in video games! There are some tangential elements, a certain part of the game where she goes to a convention and is certainly a lot of information from our first GDCs or E3s we’ve been to. One of the really interesting things about being a millennial is that, when you were growing up, you didn’t actually have this technology. You can think back to your early teenage years, your first experience with the internet, and how that felt. Nowadays, that’s the norm, that’s everyday life – it’s how we’re communicating with each other right now!

Also, you realize that that’s not actually the case for a newer generation. Kids nowadays grow up with the internet as the norm, like how we grew up with color TV as the norm; we assume that’s always been around because we don’t know what life was like without it. I think part of the story is observing how an older audience interacts with technology – like how your mom uses a phone to play Words With Friends.

But you also observe how a newer generation interacts with technology, how being connected on social media and texting each other is the norm for their communication. And how as a millennial you’re kind of stuck in between the two, and you’re navigating that conversation with the people you meet.

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Q: You mentioned that the game is a point-and-click adventure; was there some inspiration from classic old titles like Monkey Island and Day Of The Tentacle?

A: I think Day Of The Tentacle is a really good example; it’s a “North Star” for a lot of our design philosophies. It has a lot of very strong educational elements; they’re able to teach history and science, and it’s really that old-school nineties PC game design philosophy that you don’t see very often nowadays because it’s so focused on engagement, entertainment, clicks, revenues, and loot boxes. We wanted to bring that old-school value back: you’re making a video game, it’s going to be played by people who have lives, and we need to be responsible for them taking something away from spending time and money on something that we’re selling them.

In addition, some major inspirations would be more modern games like Night In The Woods, the visual style especially, and Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends is also a really good example of something that we care about and value a lot in terms of art style. It’s a very digestible, diverse, and accepting art style, and you can come from any walk of life and immediately connect with these characters and their facial expressions.

We took a lot of inspiration also from the “toon” version of Zelda – toon Link, the Windwaker art style – with its big, very large expressions, because we wanted these characters to be instantly recognizable so you can connect with them as a player. Those were some of the inspirations for us in how we dove into the design.

Q: You mentioned that one of your motivations is for people to take something away from your games. Do you have any specific aspirations for this game in particular?

A: I think Land Of Screens is not a game that’s going to change the world, but it’s certainly a game that’s going to make you think; it’s going to plant a seed in your brain a little bit. It’s a piece for a player to be able to take a step back and examine ourselves and the people around us. As Socrates said, in one of his famous quotes which I love: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

I think Land Of Screens is a piece for us to examine ourselves, especially for millennials going through this change throughout our lives, from where technology was cool and exciting, to where technology is necessary for survival. It’s a very interesting dynamic which kind of crept up on us, and we never really made that conscious choice; but we went from no phone to flip phone to smartphone, and now we live on the smartphone pretty much throughout the last couple of decades.

So Land Of Screens talks about how our relationship is with our smartphones, how our relationship is with social media, how we are dependent on it, how it changes how we interact and see each other. There is a scene in the game where two forum trolls are brought together in person and actually meet each other, and they realize, “I’m Yussef, and it’s nice to meet you I guess.” Now they’re just two people, and they’re actually fans of something, and they actually have a lot in common!

A lot of these things, I think we’re so disconnected from humanity through technology, and we just wanted people to play this game and think about it: “Maybe next time I send a toxic comment to someone, there’s actually a person that’s just sitting there with their phone and reading it.” I think that’s the ultimate goal: it’s not going to make the world a completely different place, but it’s certainly going to help the people who pick up the game to examine it.

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Q: When is the game going to be released?

A: We’re actually launching the game on Christmas this year. So it will be a Christmas miracle! We’ll be launching the game on Steam and Nintendo Switch.

Q: Are there plans for other console ports to follow in the future?

A: We don’t currently have any plans for other platforms, but with a smaller team we always have to budget our resources a little bit.

Q: Is it difficult to anticipate how successful or otherwise certain games are going to be?

A: In the games industry, you don’t really know what to expect… and even the people who know what to expect are blindsided all the time anyway! We do the best we can to use the analytics that we have, we look for comparables, but some comparables you can’t really use because they’re such huge outliers. So many games are renditions of Dear Esther or Gone Home, but end up doing much worse. Games could be a rendition of Night In The Woods, but would not perform the same way, because it’s a different story, a different time of year when it’s released, or it’s releasing on different platforms.

I think for us, ultimately, in addition to doing the things we do when we release a game, we just focus on making sure the game has a strong message, has a strong quality, has something that is very close to our hearts and very meaningful, and that we’re proud of. At the end of the day, for a small development team, that’s the most you can do. The free market will balance itself in some regard one way or another, and no human being ever has control over it, so we do the best we can.

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Q: Is there any title in your repertoire, not necessarily the most commercially successful, that you’re particularly proud of?

A: There are many titles that personally I’m extremely proud of. To start off, one of the proudest projects I’ve been personally involved in was Where The Water Tastes Like Wine, which came out a few years ago. Where The Water Tastes Like Wine is an American folklore adventure that took place in the Dust Bowl era of the 1900s, and it was a very interesting narrative. The way it was developed was very different from the rest of our games: we had a lot of different writers and a lot of different artists, from all walks of life, to create their own versions of America while working on the game. This was an experimental narrative in creating America because America is such a mixed bag of different cultures and races and backgrounds.

That was very meaningful for me personally. I wrote a number of Asian American stories, about for example immigration policies in the Dust Bowl era, about interracial marriage. My wife is white, and something like that wouldn’t be legal 100 years ago in America. I wrote stories about the invention of chop suey, and the xenophobia that’s embedded into Asian cuisine. So a lot of these stories are very meaningful and very personal to who I am as an Asian American, and I’m extremely proud of being able to inject these narratives into the video game world.

In addition to that, the most recently released Doki Doki Literature Club Plus is a commentary about mental health, and we wanted to create this to do some good for society. It’s hard to talk about the game until you see it for yourself, so it’s hard for me to describe what it is – but it’s something we’re extremely proud of, it has a strong message, and we’re happy that fans love it and that it’s been widely well received.

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Q: What else is on the horizon for Serenity Forge? Any other projects in the pipeline?

A: We’re launching another smaller title pretty soon, called Date Night Bowling, which is an arcade bowling title that’s also a dating sim – it’s also a co-op, so you date your friend who’s playing with you! When I say “date”, it’s very loose – it doesn’t need to be romantic, you can just kind of hang out with another person as well.

The game is inspired by old-school Super Nintendo bowling games, where it’s less about motion controls and a little bit more about quick time events. We even added some small minigames inspired by WarioWare, where you’re like “it would really help the date if I grabbed the right plushy animal from the claw machine” or throw popcorn into your mouth and try to not miss, and a lot of these quirky date-esque minigames.

We also have Arcadian Atlas that’s lined up for next year, which is a tactical RPG very much inspired by deeper narratives. I argue that it’s a combination of Hamlet and Game Of Thrones; it’s very gruesome, it’s very heart-wrenching, and it’s definitely a sad story, without giving away too much. It is a tactical RPG inspired by Final Fantasy Tactics, and we’re really excited to be able to bring this game out next year. We have a couple of other projects, and a slew of physical games that we’re launching next year as well that are coming to retail, but most of these we haven’t announced yet.

Q: Your games certainly cover a wide mix of genres and styles! Have you got a favorite genre?

A: Personally, I think what draws me the most are deeply narrative games, which are very interesting to me. Some of the most inspirational games for me: I talk about Gone Home in two thirds of my conversations in life, so I just really love what Gone Home did to our industry and to the world.

I also really like tactical games, and games that make you calculate and think a little bit more, which is why Arcadian Atlas is so exciting for me. I grew up playing a lot of games like the Fire Emblem games and other tactical RPGs. Some of the most inspirational games for me as well are the Supergiant Games: Bastion, Transistor, the very successful Hades recently.

For us, it’s always about, at the end of the day, what kind of story are we telling? Is it something that’s timeless and could be told over and over again, and someone could play this and walk away with a meaningful expansion of their personal horizons, so they can become a better person in their own way? Those are the games that really excite us, and the projects we always focus on.

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Q: If you could change one thing about video games or the industry, what would you change?

A: This is going to sound stupid, because it’s not really easily changeable, but I wish video games were more accessible. There are a few barriers that have always plagued the game industry, from both technological to social aspects, and even regional and cultural aspects.

To start off, obviously the technical barriers are huge: being able to buy a video game costs money, and not everyone in the world can afford that, and not a lot of people have the financial freedom in order to be exposed to video games. There’s also the hardware that you need: you need a Nintendo Switch to play some stuff, you need a gaming PC, at the very least you need a smartphone, but smartphones also don’t have access to a lot of very valuable games out there, which could make a meaningful impact to society.

There’s obviously the cultural difference as well, language barriers; games that are written entirely in English by a small indie team probably can’t be translated into twenty different languages so that everyone in the world can play it. Similarly, Japanese games sometimes have a hard time coming to America. That creates a huge barrier, and it creates distance and segmentation of different game markets in a bad way, where people are communicating less and sharing interests less. So I’m not a huge fan of that either.

And then there are cultural barriers, especially in western countries. “Games are for kids, they’re toys for children”, they are babysitting tools where a parent would buy Call Of Duty for their eight-year-old so that they could be quiet in front of the TV as opposed to spending time with their family.

Growing up, my parents were gamers, and introduced me to games at a pretty young age. My mom always had a rule that whenever I played video games, she would be there to play with me. If it was a single player game, I’d be playing, and she’d be sitting next to me, and it would be a family moment. We would talk about it: I would do a certain thing and she’d say “how does that make you feel? Do you think that was a good thing to do, or do you feel like maybe you could have approached that a little differently?” And that became a bonding moment for me and my family, and it became an educational moment for me.

I know that’s not the norm; I know that’s not what American parents normally buy games for their kids for, and I wish we could make a meaningful change from the developer and publisher perspective in creating experiences that would facilitate that. Because once that accessibility and that educational component becomes the norm for video games, I feel like then we as an industry would be upholding civilization a little bit stronger; we would be contributing to a better future for all these children that play video games more than anything else in life.

So that’s my grand vision; very much a pipe dream but it’s going to take a lot of effort from a lot of people!

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t covered?

A: I think the most important thing to me is that change comes from the individual. Going back to this topic about seeking meaningful titles, ultimately people vote with their money. If you’re going to go out there and spend more money on skins or loot boxes, that’s what’s going to come out; it’s a slot machine, you put money in, and you’re going to get exactly what you pay for.

Money from the individual is what shapes our industry, and if you want to see a better future, if you want to see more meaningful content being created by these talented creators in the game space, then start spending money on this! Start buying it, start supporting them on social media, and other forms of support. I feel like that’s really the main thing I’d want to urge people to take some closer examination of.

[END]

Land Of Screens releases in December 2021 for PC and Switch.

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