Trusting the Sword: An Interview with Neon Child’s Robert Aguilar
Imagine yourself back in your childhood home. You’re sitting down in front of your fresh, new gaming console playing your favorite game. Today you won’t need to worry about your mother telling you to go outside and play, because there’s a big storm brewing on the horizon. Time slips away, and now the storm is just outside your window. You keep playing your games. You’re safe inside your house. What could there be to worry about? But, suddenly you find yourself waking up. You’re not in your room anymore. You look around and find yourself deep in forgotten woods, a glowing crystal in the grass beside you. This is the world of Robert Aguilar’s Neon Child.
I sat down with the Barcelona-born developer this past week to talk about Neon Child, an action RPG in the early stages of development. From my first moments talking to him, I was immediately blown away by his passion about the game. There was an infectious zeal that permeated my conversation with Robert. He radiated excitement, and was more than happy to get into the minutia of Neon Child and pour over all the little details of the world he’s built. It was difficult to not get a feeling of manifest destiny when hearing him talk about the development of the game.
“I know it’s an ambitious project, but it can happen, you know? It’s something that… I want it to happen, and even if I have to work on other projects prior to this one, this one will happen.”
Neon Child is branded as a mix between Twin Peaks and The Legend of Zelda, two things I originally thought would’ve been too disparate to combine properly, but Robert convinced me otherwise, and he has the evidence to back it up.
“Mixing Twin Peaks and Zelda is nothing new,” says Aguilar. “Nintendo already did it. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is based on Twin Peaks. Not many people know that, but it’s inspired by Twin Peaks. It has these kind of characters where you wonder if they’re friendly or enemies, and they have these weird conversations with you – and back then in the 90s, Twin Peaks was a big thing in Japan. Link’s Awakening has been my favorite Zelda since I was a kid.”
Aguilar already has his whole Lynchian-Miyamotoian world fleshed-out. He plans to bring that same ambiguity surrounding the NPCs in Link’s Awakening to the characters of Neon Child.
“When you play through the tutorial to get out of the woods you’ll start talking to people. They’re really weird because this place is filled with a weird, eerie aura. You know that something is dodgy, but you don’t really know what’s going on,” says Aguilar. “It’s a mature storyline, even though it might look childish or cartoon-ish. It’s actually really dark. Somehow the child Robert and the mature Robert are making a game together. The kid side is pointing and saying, ‘You need to do this,’ but my older side saying, ‘Yeah, but this needs to be twisted.'”
But the twists and ambiguity of Neon Child won’t be restricted to just the story or characters. They’ll also affect how you’ll interact with the world itself.
“It’s about the environment telling you the story. You need to read and understand the world, because while you might be defeating bosses in shrines, those bosses might be important to the ecosystem of the world, and something might have changed in a place you already visited. There’s that freedom of choice. It’s kind of an open world in that way, not Breath of the Wild open world, but open world in a way.
“You don’t necessarily need to visit the first dungeon or the second. You can visit the last dungeon first – whatever order you want. Maybe you can’t get to the end of the dungeon because you don’t have the proper tool, but you can acquire that tool without visiting dungeons. I’m trying to make every tool in the game, everything you need to use in each dungeon achievable without visiting the dungeon before.”
Additionally, Neon Child won’t subscribe to your typical “slay the bad guy, save the princess” formula. Aguilar says it’ll be much more nuanced than that.
“So, Koh, the main character is actually from the 90s, but he gets transported to these other worlds. You start in the woods, testing your sword, and the sword tells you what to do. Something is guiding you, and you’re believing it, which is a really bad thing to do in this kind of game.
“You start believing some magic sword telling you to do something and you think that’s good. It might not be good. It might be trying to make you do things you don’t really need to do. Maybe it’s trying to take advantage of you. Maybe not. But you won’t know because you’re a kid. And the heroes in your games always believe the sword because the sword is magic and it’s sacred. But maybe not. I think that’s the part that makes this game different from others.”
AN IMPETUS FOR CREATION
One thing I always ask developers is, “Why this game, why right now?” I’m always fascinated by their responses, learning what triggers that initial thought in a person’s mind that drives them to craft a game.
“So, a year and a half ago I re-released a game that I developed with a team from a while ago. It was a runner game. It was retro and really difficult to play, but at the same time kind of casual. That’s a mix that’s a bit hard to get right. When we released it for Steam we actually sold a lot of copies, but the feedback wasn’t great because a lot of casual players were attracted to it, and it’s actually really difficult to play.
“Since it was runner it attracted an audience that wasn’t really into hardcore games. The tutorial was really brief – there’s no explanation. It’s like when Mega Man drops you in the game and you die and you die and you die again and again and again. Sometimes the environment kills you, and sometimes something you think won’t kill you kills you. It’s trial and error. In the end, people got frustrated and we got bad reviews. So on the team we all got frustrated, and we all kind of said, ‘Okay – we need detox time.’
“So we parted ways, and we started working on different projects. I spent nine months without making commercial games, but I still made games. I made my own things. I can’t stop making them. It’s a problem. It’s kind of an addiction.
“I started working on a project with Voxel art, by myself entirely. I started saving money, and I saved for four months. Everything started to get into shape and I thought, ‘Okay, this is something good and this is something I can actually play with.’ I kept saving money and then in October [of 2016] I hired a 3D modeler [Rudiansyah Wijaya]. When I pitched him the project and asked him to join the team he joined really fast. We needed to work a bit on the art and work it again and figure out together how the game was going to work. The art all got reworked a couple of times, but everything got into shape really fast from there.”
Since that time, the development of Neon Child has been slow going. In addition to Wijaya’s work, The Last Door and Blasphemous composer Carlos Viola was brought on board to craft the score for Neon Child. Even with these additional team members, Aguilar’s progress has been restricted to his own financial means. But these delays have served to let the project mature even more. As the game’s development steadily advances, Aguilar is learning more and more about the world he’s creating and the story he’s hoping to tell. The moments between developments have allowed for a special kind of introspection about Neon Child.
“What’s pushing me to finish this project is that I really want to show the world that the old style of gaming is not dead, even thought it might look like it is – it’s not. I’m always letting my nostalgic side drive me. I don’t want to let those worlds I grew up with die. That’s why I want this game to happen. And why not? It’s something that people will like, I think.
“So far the feedback from the game – from my friends and close colleagues – is really good. It’s all ‘Come on, keep on going and keep pushing.’ But you know, money is not easy to get, and this requires money and time. And I work elsewhere. It’s difficult. It’s been a months of work, then a month of waiting for material, than a month waiting for money, then funding again, then waiting.
“I think that I’m really attached to this project because it became a part of me without me knowing. I’m putting my childhood into this game. Somehow I ended up putting myself into the character, Koh. Even the name of the character is based on the island Koholint from Link’s Awakening. I’m trying to put into a game what I was feeling when I was playing Zelda as a kid. I’ve been kind of porting the experience I had when I was eleven playing Link’s Awakening into Neon Child. I started this project as a killing-time project, and without knowing it it ended up involving all of me.”
After an hour of talking to Robert, I was more than sold on the concept of Neon Child. His passion and enthusiasm has worked its way into every detail of Neon Child, from the story and the aesthetic to all that’s going on under the hood. Aguilar has plans for a Kickstarter sometime summer 2017, with plans for release in quarter one of 2018.
Keep an eye on Neon Child for yourself by following Aguilar on Twitter.