At PAX East 2020, OnlySP had the opportunity to speak with Jo Gauthier, the art director of Spiritfarer at Thunder Lotus. We asked about her career, the art direction of the game and its themes, as well as what the studio plans on doing next.
OnlySP: So you’ve been with Thunder Lotus almost from the very beginning. You’ve worked on Jotun, Sundered, and now Spiritfarer. Can you tell me about what you learned from working on Jotun and Sundered that helped you work on Spiritfarer?
Gauthier: We definitely learned that having someone as the lead who always knows what needs to be done and on the same level, helps a project more than any other role. So much of a project is about communication and that person being in charge is key to any production at all. I think that’s the main takeaway that we really embedded into Spiritfarer.
OnlySP: What are some of your biggest inspirations when it comes to your artstyle?
Gauthier: My art style at home is different than Spiritfarer’s. For Spiritfarer, a lot of [the inspiration] is Yoshida Hiroshi, who is a block painter. I have his book! He’s a landscape artist who traveled the world and sat nature and just painted what he saw. To me, you can see that he loved what he was looking at. He loves nature and he wanted to be where he was. We tried to convey that in the game. We wanted to make the player want to travel and see the world, as well as feel great doing so. It’s basically taking the trip into a painting or a book. You travel the world that’s been laid out for you.
OnlySP: You’ve worked with various production companies in the past, and you have a background in both 2D. How did your experience get you involved with Thunder Lotus in the first place?
Gauthier: Actually, my boss was working at another company before Thunder Lotus. He called me one day and was like “hey I have this idea for a game, and I wanted to make a Kickstarter. I was like “sure..why not?”. We met up at a cafe and explained the viking idea, a women carrying a huge axe, and battling 15 story high building monsters. We did a couple of art pieces and then the kickstarter with a few other artists. The production started right after the Kickstarter and I’ve been there ever since!
OnlySP: The game is about death, but it takes a more lighthearted and optimistic approach to the concept. Given the stereotypical depictions of death, like skulls and blood, in terms of the art direction, were there any challenges when it came to balancing that tone?
Gauthier: Absolutely! It was a challenge in terms of making people understand what it looks like, that it’s a children’s game. The optimization that shines through Spiritfarer is there to balance the gravity of the topics that we were discussing. We were trying to portray characters as 3D as possible. We don’t have them to be caricatures of themselves. Some of them have complex likes and dislikes and mental illnesses. We’re trying to tackle that in the most humane way possible, but that’s a very heavy subject for a lot of people, rightfully so. Having Spiritfarer be bright and bubbly gives back that hope to me. MY goal was to feel at ease to make the player feel that death is not the end of the world. Yes it is sad, it’s okay to mourn, but the people who have passed have had an impact on you and the impact that should be positive.
OnlySP: Jotun and Sundered were both funded on Kickstarter, but Spirtfarer isn’t. Can you discuss the difference between working on a Kickstarter-backed game rather than a non-Kickstarter-backed game?
Gauthier: We were lucky with Jotun because we had a good base with Kickstarter, but then we also had the Canadian media fund that helped fund Jotun and then Sundered later on. On a Kickstarter project, you can’t go for very long unless you have a massively successful one. Our was, but our goal was so small that even if we quadrupled it, it was not still not enough for a whole nother year of production. Jotun only lasted a year in production, and Sundered took about a year and half. Spiritfarer is going on about two and half and we had to have other means of funding. We were getting to become a sizeable team, between 10-15 people. You can’t pay all these people with just Kickstarter money.
OnlySP: So Kowloon Nights, a video game investment fund, is helping fund this game. Thunder Lotus also gets to publish the game as well. Do you think that being able to self publish the game affects your role as the art director or the direction where the game goes?
Gauthier: I can elaborate a little, but publishing isn’t my job. From what I understand, self publishing has advantages in terms that you have more freedom in what you do, but a lot of publishing companies are pretty lenient and from what I gather, a lot of them are pretty ok with letting the studio do their own thing. But there are definitely more controlling than others. There are investors, so you can’t do anything that goes against their values. You’re not trying to step on toes, but at the same time, we’re not really looking at them as restrictions because we don’t feel like they are. If we were making a game meant to provoke, we could run into problems, but we’re not looking for that. The business side is a healthy relationship for us.
OnlySP: Spiritfarer was first shown off at Microsoft’s E3 press conference. Jotun and Sundered were not. What was the response and feedback being debut on Microsoft’s platform?
Gauthier: I can’t talk about that without mentioning that we came right after Cyberpunk 2077 and Keanu Reeves. The feedback we got immediately after E3 was that [our presentation] was a whiplash. Cyberpunk was really in your face and super grungy and cool. Then you have Keanu Reeves riling up the crowd. And then you have this pause, “Microsoft presents”, and then the softest bells coming in. You have a boat and really colorful pictures. Everything is super calm. It’s a 2D type game, and visually very little action. We saw it in the chat, “what’s going on?” and “What’s happening?”. The feedback that we got afterwards was that people remembered the game, so we benefited from that. It was such a stark contrast to the one that came before, so people remembered both games. Personally, I think that helped us stand out.
OnlySP: So after Spiritfarer is released, what will Thunder Lotus be doing next?
Gauthier: We already have another game in the works. I can’t talk about it, but we’re certainly looking forward to announcing it. Everyone is working really hard on the project and it’s going to be great!
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