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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Vietnamese Myth and Magic Come Alive in 'Hoa'

The announcement trailer for Hoa shows off the game’s Studio Ghibli–inspired art style and Vietnamese cultural influences. However, game director Son Cao Tung says that the Vietnamese influence is applied on a much grander scale than any specific part of the game’s look or point in the storyline. Growing up in Vietnam, one of the most popular stories for kids was about the adventure of a young cricket.

This young cricket grows up and decides to go on an adventure to see other insects and animals. While the story only takes place in a small countryside, the tiny size of the cricket makes the setting feel like a whole fantasy world. These stories are meant to inspire a love for nature.

Tung says, “I guess that a lot of us, when we grow up, that joy and our love for nature is forgotten. So by creating Hoa, we just hope to remind people, and also remind ourselves, about the feeling to be a kid whenever we can.”

The game’s art director, Son Tra Le, added that there is an element of animism in Vietnamese culture and religion. Essentially, there’s a belief that people, places, and animals have a distinct spiritual essence and that there’s significance to every little thing around us. The culture draws meaning from its relationship with nature, and the people try to live harmoniously with their surroundings.

“The Vietnamese have sort of an inner ease that allows us to be calm and content. Also we have a sort of silent resilience that helps us find our way around the most challenging things,” Le explained.

Hoa is a puzzle platformer game that follows the main character, Hoa, who belongs to a tribe of fairies with the power of nurturing flora and fauna. Hoa is sent away as a baby after a tragic event, and she ends up with no memories of who she is or what happened. The game starts as Hoa comes back to her homeland after being away for many years. Throughout the game, she uses her magical powers to bring life back to her home. As she progresses through her journey, she discovers more about herself and her past. The game is currently set to release in July.

In early 2019, Hoa’s development team, Skrollcat Studio, consisted of graduates from universities in Singapore. At the time, there were four members: 2 artists and 2 programmers. They all had full-time jobs and worked on Hoa in their spare time. The situation has changed quite a bit since then. In late 2019, Tung quit his job and moved back to Vietnam in order to commit to Hoa full time. Le had also just graduated from her university in 2019 as well.

The two other programmers on the original team still remain in Singapore while supporting the game part time. Skrollcat also formed a partnership with Kyx, another studio based in Vietnam. As the scope of the game became too big for the original team, Tung and Le started looking for more help. They wanted to find a partner with the same mindset and vision, and Kyx lined up perfectly with those aspects. Kyx is a full stack development studio, so they covered every position in the production pipeline, thus providing a boost in the progress of Hoa’s development.

Luckily for Skrollkat, Kyx also caught on to their idea and vision for Hoa very, very fast, “So we complement each other very well. And we make up for what the other is missing,” says Tung. Hoa was finally unveiled to the public in May 2020 at the “Wholesome Direct—Indie Game Showcase.”

The Skrollcat team released a gameplay trailer last month showcasing the forest and nature setting of Hoa. In the game, there are various enemies such as insect larvae and rhinoceros beetles, but also robots. The robots play a more hostile part in the game’s peaceful narrative. They represent chaos and conflict, with the player and with nature. As Hoa progresses further into her adventure, she’ll learn more about why the robots are in the world, and what role they play in how she got separated from her homeland.

The gameplay trailer also shows that the game is nonviolent, relying on puzzles to move bosses and obstacles out of the way. Tung and Le find more enjoyment in games that aren’t centered around violence, such as Journey and Unravel. The decision to not include any combat or violence wasn’t set from the very beginning. However, as they started working on the game’s narrative, it was clear that violence was never going to be a way to solve problems.

“We just can't imagine Hoa, something that adorable, destroying her enemies. It just doesn't feel right for us,” explains Tung. “As mentioned, Hoa is about channeling the inner child in you. It's about being curious and observant and falling in love with the small things. So I guess for us, there is no place for violence in there.”

For Hoa’s overall art style, the studio was looking for three criteria: First, it had to be beautiful and expressive so players would enjoy spending time in the game’s world. Secondly, it had to be technically possible. Lastly but most importantly, the character has to feel at home in the style. The character, Hoa, was already made with a very defined personality. The studio experimented a bit with drag-and-drops, where the character would be put into various backdrops and styles to see if everything fit. Then, the world could be built from there.

Le says she remembers some notable art styles they tried, most of them geared toward re-creating the feel of traditional materials, including an inked comic style like Valiant Hearts and a friendly watercolor look, similar to the work of Ira Sluyterman van Langeweyde, which reminds her of cozy children’s book illustrations. Another option had consistent outlines and a simplified texture, close to what Shedworks’s Sable pulled off, inspired by the French comic artist Moebius. Apart from these, several stylized 3D looks were attempted as well.

She also says that her degree in digital animation allowed her to have a firm grasp of the full pipeline of filmmaking for animated features, which overlapped with the game-making pipeline. She had to learn everything from preproduction to actually animating in 2D and 3D. That knowledge came in handy when she started working on Hoa.

When Tung came to her with the idea, she didn’t have much experience in gaming at all. That was one of her greatest challenges, she says, but also presented her with a unique opportunity to contribute to Hoa and its artwork.

“I would sometimes be driven by the visual flow or suggest ideas that gamers wouldn’t think of. Sometimes it would be just completely technically impossible,” says Le. “But other times, after work and experimentation, it becomes something that is part of how Hoa is different from other games.”

The development team’s fifth and most recent member, Johannes Johansson, composes the music for Hoa. The Skrollcat team discovered him in early 2019 when they were looking for a composer. When Tra heard Johansson's demos, she knew that he had to be involved with the game. At each stage of the production, the team would send a visual, a gameplay section, or a story beat to Johansson, and he would provide samples inspired by those materials.


As the level design and visuals progress, the music does as well. Many times, the music also informed the development team of how the game could take shape, and helped them visualize certain areas better if they were stuck. Johansson and the rest of the team went back and forth until a full composition formed. Lauri Koivisto is the sound designer and handles the orchestration. After Lauri’s contribution, Simon Paldanius mixed and mastered.

“We did like recording with an orchestra. Throughout all the stages, the team was really proactive. We go back and forth a lot until we are happy with everything. It’s just the ideal creative teamwork process, I guess. I think we are really lucky to have them, truly,” explains Le.

Michael Yum, president of PM Studios, Hoa’s publisher, says that he found out about the game through a friend. He saw the trailer debut and he and his entire team were enamored by it. So Yum looked up the website for the game and reached out to Skrollcat. Yum believed that he was late to the party, that the studio may have already been talking with other parties and missed the boat on publishing Hoa.

“I just kept persuading them that, you know, we were a developer too,” adds Yum. “So we understand everything. ‘We can help you.’ It took a long time, but we convinced them that we can help bring their vision to life and bring the right partnerships.”

Hoa was originally announced for Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam. As a publisher, one of the most important aspects is getting the game into as many hands as possible. The most obvious audience were PC players, and then Switch owners. Both platforms help indie games thrive, so PM Studios knew that having Hoa available on both was a no-brainer. In late March, PM Studios made an announcement that the game was also coming to PlayStation 4 and 5, as well as Xbox One and Series X|S, with physical copies available for the PlayStation and Switch versions.

Hoa was originally planned for a 2020 launch, but like many other releases, the pandemic affected the game’s timeline. Yum says that he really wanted others to have hands-on experience with the game at events and shows. It would have also brought valuable feedback for the development team. Additionally, PM Studios is known for physical distribution of the games it publishes. Its manufacturing plant is in Texas, so getting materials shipped has been a challenge, especially with material shortages. However, the pandemic didn’t affect the publishing side as much as it did the development side.

Tung states that the pandemic played a major role in the launch delay. Skrollcat still had to go through a social distancing period of two months in early 2020 before the members could even resume production collaboratively. Luckily for Skrollkat, the team was invited to Wholesome Direct, and that gave Hoa an enormous amount of exposure to the gaming community and publishers, which resulted in the partnership with PM Studios.

Hoa started out as nothing serious or super ambitious, but as Skrollkat kept working on the game, the team knew they had something special. “Before you know it, the character Hoa is out there for people to see and everybody is loving her. For me, her walking around the forest playing with her friends is already everything,” says Tung.

Le agrees that the team didn’t really think about the meaning of the game at the beginning, but says that the meaning of Hoa is just the idea itself. As long as the team follows through and sees the development process to the end, Hoa will speak for itself. She concluded, “We had a lot of fun doing it and we learned a lot from the journey. We hope that everyone has the same joy that we had making the game while they’re playing it.”

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