Some of the best coming-of-age stories take place in times of great upheaval: war, revolution, calamity…but graduating high school while contemplating your near-inevitable extinction at the hands of one of the greatest disasters to ever hit planet Earth? That’s kind of hard. Such is the setting of Goodbye Volcano High, a dramatic, narrative story of awkward proto-avian teenagers at a turning point where they should have the rest of their lives ahead of them, except they don’t..
Montreal-based indie studio KO_OP has been working on Goodbye Volcano High for a number of years, and its story of prehistoric high school life is set to release very soon on PS4 and PS5. We sat down with Game Director Kyle McKernan to delve into character writing, discuss narrative, and how to weave minigames into the fabric of a sprawling drama.
A drama for the Stone Age
“The central themes of Goodbye Volcano High are love, friendship, and youth facing what feels like an inevitable catastrophe,” says McKernan. “The game explores what it means to embrace family and find it in a time of crisis and the different ways people deal with impending disaster… One of our main focuses was how to reconcile all your wants, needs, goals and love when the time to get to the end has grown short.”
No matter what species you are, being a teenager isn’t easy, and Goodbye Volcano High’s narrative can often tackle some tough topics: love, facing the expectations of others, drug use, and the looming specter of an early death. “Crafting the narrative was challenging because it required us to research some serious and often difficult issues ourselves in order to translate them into our characters,” continues McKernan. “Dealing with mortality is not an easy thing to ponder, and especially not easy to focus on for years of development. Making sure that we honored those sentiments in our story was important to us and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do our best.”
Difficult situations sometimes mean making difficult decisions, and when faced with difficult decisions, you will be able to look directly into the mind of the protagonist Fang. “Our user interface can reflect Fang’s thoughts to the player. When the player makes decisions, he doesn’t just choose something, he sees what Fang thinks and what he is willing to do or say.”
The key to creating an engaging narrative is the characters that players love (or love to hate). Volcano High students include: Fang, an aspiring indie band vocalist; songwriter and guitarist Trish; drummer and dungeon master extraordinaire Reed; shy Student Council President Naomi; and the upright class president, Naser, who also happens to be Fang’s brother.
To help the narrative connect with the players, the KO_OP team took special care to flesh out the personalities of these central characters, along with the many other faces at Volcano High. “The key focus for us is to allow the player to see themselves in our characters in one way or another,” says McKernan. “In games, you have a lot more tools at your disposal to do that because the player is directly involved and influencing the game itself. We want the player to enter Fang’s mind and extract the experience that he naturally gains from it. Our cast of characters have a wide range of reactions to the end of the world; We hope we have provided a space for players to engage in their own internal struggles through our characters.”
The central cast went through quite a few iterations as development progressed, as McKernan tells us. “Our characters went through many revisions and refocuses as our overarching narrative and game mood fell into place. As our story threads evolved, the voices and personalities of the characters needed to match them and vice versa. It was a long process to make the internal struggles of the characters feel real and realized in the context of the game’s story. The push and pull of development requires a willingness to throw things out and break them down so you can reform them.”
Ultimately, McKernan hopes that players will connect with the gang. “We wanted the player to feel what our characters feel in the game. Not just fear and anxiety (of which we have an ample supply in the real world), but love, camaraderie, creativity, and amplified hope in the face of the immense crisis. Although the core of our narrative is difficult in many ways, we want the player to feel hopeful. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of ups and downs there, we hope you’ll all feel it deeply. For us, authentic characters are central to any narrative art, so it was extremely important to us that we feel like our characters have authenticity in their behavior, thoughts, and feelings, especially so that we feel a connection to our work.”
One of the main elements of the story is Fang and Trish’s band, VVORM DRAMA. The band isn’t just a piece of background information: there will be parts of the game where you need to play a rhythm minigame to play at the top of your lungs. As McKernan explains, these parts are just as emotionally charged as the rest of the game. “To allow moments of musical performance to shine through emotionally, it was important that we create a rhythm mechanic that allows the player to be a part of the music without being too challenging. We wanted the player to engage with Fang’s fantasy around music and let them know everything it means to the character.”
Not only will you alternate between making decisions and playing tunes, though, there are also bits of experiential gameplay that help set the stage for what’s currently happening. “We have moments in the game where you can look at people in the world and think about them, or take a look at their social media posts that help give a sense of place to the world our characters inhabit. We also have moments that show the emotions that specific characters are feeling and involve the player in them: moments like when the going gets tough or when the going gets tough, or when you play music for your friends and hope they like your song. Our minigames serve to develop the world on a larger scale and the relationships/characters on a smaller scale.”
This prehistoric story may have taken 66 million years to develop, but you won’t have to wait much longer to hang out with Fang and his friends. Goodbye Volcano High will be available digitally for PS5 and PS4 on August 29.