The propellers spin down, and I step off the puddle-jumper plane onto the tarmac of the tiniest airport I’ve ever visited. Instantly, I’m overcome by the scent of greenery – lush and humid, with a hint of maybe mint. This runway is surrounded by jungle. And I’m here, of all things, to see a video game.
But first, I must explore a place on the other side of the world I hadn’t even heard of a month earlier – a narrow island called Lifou, part of a French territory known as New Caledonia, which sits some 750 miles east of Australia. I’m meeting a small team of game developers who have chosen to find inspiration for their new game in this remote locale. The team is toying with a big idea: Craft a game that’s rewarding in its own right but simultaneously introduces players of the world to a place most of them have never seen.
Phil Crifo and Thierry Boura grew up together in New Caledonia. Their childhood best friends, Phil Crifo and Thierry Boura were co-founders at Awaceb. The two then moved to France for work in games. It’s clear their childhood home left an impression. When determining a direction for the team’s debut game, vague allusions to their island home weren’t going to be enough. Tchia became a love letter for their home, and that’s how Tchia came to be.
Tchia, an indie title that explores the boundaries of what that term can be applied to, has ambition and scope that exceeds the limited team size. Tchia is the title role. She’s a young girl that lives alone on an idyllic island paradise with her father. Tchia finds herself in a situation where a supernaturally-powered being has taken her father and disrupts their peace. Tchia sets out to find him.
At first glance, it’s easy to see why Tchia has drawn comparisons to Nintendo’s Zelda franchise. It is clear that the game has a lot of mechanical inspiration. Tchia’s actions, like climbing mountains and gliding down from high vantage points, are governed by a stamina meter, like in Breath of the Wild. Tchia is a ukulele player with magic tunes that can alter the environment. She also sails freely between islands aboard a boat in sequences that recall Wind Waker. Phil Crifo, the creative director of Creative Director Phil Crifo believes that the real inspiration is in their shared goals.
“Miyamoto once said that he was inspired by exploring caves when he was a kid,” Crifo says. “And what we’re doing is trying to show what it was like exploring New Caledonia when we were kids.”
At the same time, after diving into hands-on time with the game, it’s clear that Tchia’s journey of discovery also veers from Link’s adventures in Hyrule in crucial ways. Tchia’s focus is much less on combat. It’s a frequently quieter game punctuated by moments of childlike whimsy and action – diving from a cliffside into seawater far below or tumbling headlong down a hill at breakneck speeds. Even with elements of magic and wonder, it’s a game that feels rooted in a real place and authentic people.
I meet members of Awaceb’s development team on Lifou Island. They take me along in their cars rental as we explore the island. Here, the roads are narrow and sometimes covered in dirt. On each side of you is jungle. From the streets, pedestrians greet each other in friendly gestures. Broken family homes are a sign of a break in the wilderness. They often create small spaces that can be used for eating and sitting. Sometimes, there may also be small buildings with modern features nearby.
You wouldn’t call Lifou heavily developed. While the native people don’t appear to be living affluently, there’s a clear sense of community, interconnection, and shared joy in living intimately within a bountiful nature while relying on one another.
Lifou serves as an important cultural center for native Kanak culture and is also a sanctuary from New Caledonia’s more urbanized island. The area hosts dozens of native languages, but the most common here is Drehu, a beautiful, vowel-rich, and flowing tongue that’s fascinating to listen to, even though I don’t speak a word. It is especially fascinating to see how some people can effortlessly switch between French and Drehu, allowing them to be comfortable with both languages.
Tchia uses the same combination of Drehu French and French to express this duality, no matter where it might be played in the future. Awaceb spent a lot of time trying to locate fluent actors who could speak Drehu to make the sections sound correct. The language’s overall fluency averages in the low tens of thousands according to most. “It was super hard,” Crifo says. “There were no professional actors. It was wild guessing. Anyone know of anyone who’s done commercials before? Sure. And you find them and have lunch with them, and you go to their place, and sometimes they have no idea what a video game is.”
You can expect amazingly good vocal performances, which are supported by a powerful musical score. The game feels grounded by the unconventional language decision, furthering the sense that you’re visiting a place you’ve never been.
Awaceb’s entire development team made it to New Caledonia. A few members of the team are missing as they visit Montreal, far away from their studio relocation. This trip has multiple benefits for those who have been there. It’s a chance for individuals to see and experience the place they’ve been building a game around for years. It’s a reward for that hard work. But it’s also meant to serve that essential task of showing the game to local residents who helped inspire it and affirming their approval.
I’m standing outside one of Lifou’s cultural hubs, a meeting hall for significant events for the Kanak people. Tchia has now been immortalized in posters and other artwork throughout the interior. An extended trailer for the game has been shown on a monitor that was raised. Local children can use tables to create art projects.
Outside, Phil Crifo is anxious; he says he’s more nervous to do what comes next than when he presented Tchia at Gamescom. Along with the steadily growing crowd of Kanak families, officials from the Kanak community have made their way to Crifo’s presentation and Tchia. Crifo is scheduled to participate in the Coutume. This ritual, which serves as a sign of respect for host or help, involves the exchange of gifts and mutual appreciation. It’s fair to presume that, in this instance, ignorance of the tradition would not be a good look for the studio or the game.
Unexpectedly, there has been a flood of children who have flooded the art tables laughing, painting, and even playing. The monitor is being viewed by a small group of curly-haired girls who sit on rugs in front. They’re watching the curly-haired girl on the video go on a thrilling adventure in a place that looks much like where they live. They follow the video on repeat and are captivated.
Crifo enters the Coutume as the main hall becomes quieter for the ritual. After saying his part, Kanak representatives respond in kind, thanking him and recognizing the developer’s work. Crifo appears confused and like he has messed up. However, the Kanak elders he spoke to seemed happy. Tchia has presented elements inspired from their homeland and everyone seems happy about it.
Smaller, more intimate instances of the ritual follow in subsequent days – in a high school classroom, at a hosted dinner for the team, and so on. Even if you don’t have the ability to read the words properly, the ritual is a sincere, even formal expression of appreciation and gratitude. Humility and gratefulness are highly valued characteristics in Kanak society. This observation is refreshing to me and very welcoming.
A similar importance is attached to the Coutume ceremonies in the game. Tchia, who is often tasked to choose the appropriate gift to give to Coutumes, sees the filmtic versions of the ritual played out. In one instance, the game’s chief villain appears to be perverting the Coutume by simply using it to get richer and get the gifts he wants; the message is clear that he has entirely missed the point.
In my hours playing Tchia, it’s clear that the messages of the Coutume and the attitudes of the Kanak people extend to broader themes in the game. Tchia is an eloquent, quiet hero who has a timid smile and a joyful spirit. “She’s very curious and a bit naïve because she’s discovering the world as we go,” Crifo says. “She’s lived all her life on a small island and is now sent on this adventure without being really prepared for it.” The missions she undertakes are often about bringing people together – like two villages that are each convinced the other hates them, but Tchia helps break those walls down. She’s joyful as she sails along coral reefs and explores shady forests, interacting with the natural world as she goes.
That sense of harmonious reciprocity extends into the game’s most prominent supernatural mechanic – soul-jumping. Tchia is able to transfer her consciousness to animals and other objects, including birds and rocks. She can also see the world as they see it, which allows her to act and move in new ways. “Like pretty much everything we design in the game, we cross-reference it to cultural stuff from New Caledonia,” Crifo says. “A lot of local folklore is about shapeshifting, like animals and people taking the forms of trees, rocks, snakes, and things like that. So, first and foremost, it was a gameplay mechanic, but it was shaped by the culture.”
Thoane, a man from Tennessee is the most interesting and unusual person that I met on my travels. He’s immediately welcoming and friendly, with deep smile lines around his eyes and a jovial nature that invites conversation. A native Kanak who lives here on Lifou, he’s pulling multiple duties in his involvement with the Awaceb development team. Thoane acts as chief cultural consultant and helps ensure team members present authentic aspects of Kanak culture. Tchia’s family friend Tre is Thoane’s voice actor. He sings and speaks as Tre. And for this trip, he’s our guide on Lifou, taking us on expeditions into the wilderness and even welcoming us to his home for traditional meals.
Thoane took us for a walk into the jungle the day following the Coutume ceremony. He’s barefoot despite the rough terrain and carries a machete to chop back overgrowth as we go. He pauses from time to time to share ancient Kanak mythology with the development team – stories of creation and life birthed from trees and islands that spring from cakes of earth thrown into the sea. The path leads us down a steep, winding road over roots and past banyans until we reach a secret bay at the tip of Lifou. Here are temporary shelters which serve as home bases for popular snorkeling destinations. The coral reefs are beautiful, but it’s a windy day on the water; I manage to get thoroughly scraped up against sharp rocks and coral while I swim. Thoane calmly gathers several leaves from the rainforest as I walk up to the shore, bleeding from many cuts. The fire is lit and Thoane motions me to cover my injuries with the leaves. The bleeding ceases. The bleeding stops. I am able to talk with him afterwards, listening to the sea waves from nearby beaches.
“The fact that the game has Drehu in it is very special,” Thoane says through translation. “The project has a vision that projects beyond what is happening on the island to reach a worldwide audience. The Kanak culture values unity and respect. I take big pride that the world gets to experience some of that culture through the game.” Thoane also seems especially keen on how the game can speak to a younger generation in the Kanak culture. “I’m hopeful that this project will spark young folks from the island to go ahead and create stuff inspired by this culture as well.”
His perspective may not be representative of all Kanaks, but it would be wrong to assume that it is. But as an individual, there’s a genuine joy in how Thoane talks about Tchia and how it surfaces his cultural background to people who may have never encountered it.
He unabashedly performs a quiet, almost lullaby-like rendition of the song his character sings when I inquire about his role as a voice actor and his singing abilities in the game. His accompaniment is the sound of nearby birds chirping and lapping waves. A long silence descends as his hypnotic acapella ends. Some of his Awaceb colleagues are displaying tears of joy.
Tchia is influenced heavily by the Kanak culture as well the wider New Caledonian lands, French culture, and broader lands. Although the spoken language, and certain rituals are reminiscent of those locations, Awaceb carefully created a world all its own. A city locale might be inspired by the urban capital of Nouméa on the main island, but it won’t carry that name in the game. Like it is for the Kanak people, yams and fish are staples of Tchia’s diet, but she won’t be eating fish drawn from a real-life seaside or yams from a real farm. Tchia’s world is a sort-of condensed and exaggerated take on New Caledonia, with its pink sunsets coloring the ocean, and heavy mists rising in the mornings. It’s been less than one week since I visited the real place and it is clear how Crifo looked back at his childhood in order to preserve what made this home special.
After several hours wandering the game, I’m struck by how much Tchia seems to reject many accepted pillars of modern gameplay convention. These objective markers are very rare. The map offers a “where am I?” function, but Tchia simply circles a general area on her map and declares that she’s “probably somewhere around here.” If I need to find a pearl to give to someone, it’s up to me to figure out that I need to dive into the nearby ocean and find a clam.
Minions are a bunch of strangely animated cloth strips called Maano. They are found in tiny camps similar to the Bokoblin groups in Breath of the Wild. Clever power manipulation can take them out – like soul-jumping into an oil lamp and setting them alight. It’s a flash of combat excitement in an otherwise relatively peaceful playthrough.
Exploring is my favorite part of Tchia. There are many activities on multiple islands, including treasure hunting and races. While I wait, I take a break to shoot slingshot targets from the range. I reach for my analogue camera and take some pictures. My sailing boat is cruising along the seas, and I often jump into the deep blue waters to uncover a treasure trove of goodies. New costumes, ship decorations, and other cosmetic options open as rewards almost constantly, giving me new ways to style Tchia’s hair or clothes.
Although the story moves slowly, long sentences are very rare. Many characters seem more comfortable sharing their emotions and using music as a way to convey emotion than relying on lengthy dialogue. When Tchia meets a girl at a rancher’s village, few words pass between them, but they meet on a nearby mountaintop and sing together to cement their friendship. The game relies on an easy but fun rhythm mechanic that allows Tchia to use her ukulele as well as strum various chords in order to perform with other musicians or singers.
“You cannot lose; you’re not scored; we want them to be like mood setters,” Crifo says. These interactive musical events can be skipped and you can watch them as films. It’s purely there to get you into the right frame of mind and relaxed into a slower pace of play. Tchia as a game requires you to take your time, and not rush for the finish. Multiple times when things run a bit late during my trip to Lifou, someone reminds me that everyone is on “island time.” Tchia is a bit like an extended contemplation of the concept; everything moves at its own pace.
On my last night in New Caledonia, we’re back on the main island, and Awaceb is hosting a party for local talent who participated in the game. Thoane is joined by his partner, and another talented local musician who has music in the game. This is an occasion to celebrate.
After the meeting, many of the musicians and team members gather at an outdoor bar. It’s late and dark, but there’s no hesitation as the musicians pull out their guitars and mandolins and start an impromptu jam session. They’re delighted when they learn I know some English songs they recognize, and I find myself in the surreal circumstance of singing lead on some Beatles tunes as the talented professionals back me up and play along.
The evening drags on, and as the drinks and music make things hazy, my thoughts shift back to the memories of the girls who attended the cultural hall. They were all fascinated by the lead videogame that looked like them. It’s an enduring image that sticks with me on the long flight home over subsequent days. There’s something special about this little game from a little studio about a little girl on a big adventure. This has to do with the way that those children saw and recognized something in their fantasy. The developer can also create their own fantasy, looking back at their childhood to find something that is equally authentic to include in the mix.
Original publication: Issue 351 Game Informer.
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