INTERVIEW: Christopher Chancey & Anthony Vaucheret from Manavoid
Hot off the release of Rainbow Billy: Curse of the Leviathan, Manvoid founder Christopher Chancey and Art Director / Character Designer Anthony Vaucheret have taken the time to sit down with PLAY. The game is a “really fun puzzle-platformer-RPG with really nuanced writing and beautiful presentation”, according to our review from yours truly.
I am joined today by Christopher Chancey and Anthony Vaucheret of Manavoid, the developers of the recently released Rainbow Billy: Curse of the Leviathan. So first up, I want to ask: how are you two today?
Chris: *Chuckles*. I’m doing very well! It’s been a crazy few weeks, but we managed to land the project and ship on all platforms and everyone seems to enjoy the game, so it’s good times.
Anthony: It has been a crazy week. We love reading all the tweets and the reviews that we’ve had, so it’s been a cool week.
Yeah, I can imagine. Anyhow, jumping right into it: throughout the game, you’re playing as this character, Billy, who is referred to as “they,” clearly indicating that they are non-binary. And the game is then also about showing your true colors and being accepted for who you are. Is there some real world inspiration behind this?
Chris: There is. And I think Anthony might be the best person to talk about it, because it was his original idea, honestly.
Anthony: Yeah, so there is something special about Billy that, you know, we wanted a character that’s living through more modern questions about identity. And it was inspired a little bit by a backstory that, well… the Leviathan is his father. And he is black and white—he doesn’t really understand the nuances of the rainbow colors. He understands black and white, that it’s easier to understand. Either things are black or white. Billy is more in a phase where you have all the colors that are available to you, to be whatever he wants to be. He doesn’t have all the societal pressures that tell him “You know, you have to play with these toys, you have to dress like this, you shouldn’t wear makeup.”
Anthony (Cont’d): When I was younger, my father came out as homosexual. And I lived with my mother who’s Latino, and who has very Catholic ideas, and a very old school raising style. So this meant that she felt my father was very problematic, like, “It’s not good, it’s evil,” and all that stuff. So I grew up with a deformed image of my father, until I was 18 years old when I was able to just see him and see that there’s nothing “abnormal” about being different, and I think that’s why it was important for me to make a game where things can be deformed if you don’t go deep enough into the meaning of somebody. Because when I did that introspection about the story that I had and the stuff my mother said about my father being homosexual, there wasn’t really a bad guy. My mother was raised with a certain point of view, and my father was discovering himself. And at the end, my mother just tried to protect us, but in a very wrong way. My father didn’t communicate enough about what he was living, and all that stuff. And I think that’s the thing that’s important in this game; if you take the time to listen, to talk, to see what the real colors of a person are, you can have more empathy and understand more about the person’s real colors. And I think also, when I was younger, I used to play with pulley buckets, the toys, and people used to tell me, “Those are not toys for boys, those are toys for girls, you should play with other stuff.” And I think it’s important to break up those stereotypes.
Chris: And just to complete also, Anthony is an insane artist for cartoon-related imagery. So for us starting out, I remember Anthony had this idea that he wanted to make a game completely in black and white, really inspired by 1930s cartoons. Obviously Cuphead had popularized it, and we were also inspired by Bendy and the Ink Machine, which is also in that aesthetic. We wanted to make an adventure RPG that would use the cartoon art style. But then me and Anthony used to argue because I really wanted it to be in color, while he wanted it to be in black and white, and so we compromised and said it’d start out in black and white and then merge into color. Then as we started brainstorming ideas behind the backstory of this stuff, Anthony started explaining his story and we thought that when you think about it, black and white is very binary, it’s good and evil, there’s no nuance in the middle. And for us, we kind of wanted to highlight keeping colors and being able to understand people and celebrate what’s making everyone unique. And so with that in mind, the Leviathan being a patriarchal figure, and then Billy being a character that has all these colors and all this positivity and wants to understand the world, and so the decision to make the character non-binary was built as we were developing the game. Inspired by Anthony’s story, we really wanted to anchor the character in, first of all, representations that you rarely see in games, because there are not enough diverse characters out there. And second of all, making sure that any child, any parent, any player can see themselves in this character in some way. So there’s a lot of universal themes that go throughout the game, and seeing the game through the eyes of a child makes it easier to understand, I find.
Yeah. And this does bring us nicely onto my next question: The game aims to discuss anxiety and acceptance and insecurities. Is it hard to portray those sorts of things in a nuanced way that’s still digestible for younger audiences?
Chris: It was extremely difficult. You know, we were very conscious about what we know and what we don’t know, and so we hired consultants to help us maneuver those waters. So we had a diversity consultant to help us with understanding what transgender kids go through, we had the leading specialist in Canada collaborate on the game with us, and she got us to see what it’s like at that age when you’re questioning your identity and figuring yourself out. And that really brought out some new opportunities narratively. And then for all the characters you meet in the game that are going through some kind of issue, for us it was about keeping that subject matter while seeing it through the eyes of a kid—and being able to see it through the eyes of a kid sometimes means talking like a kid. So we had a consultant on our publisher, Skybound Games’, side that worked with us. He really helped us, because he had worked with children’s literature in the past, so he helped us understand which terms to use, what’s acceptable and not acceptable to say, and so we had to rewrite a large section of the game just to make sure it was digestible. It was important to really get that right.
We also consulted with an organization called Rise Above the Disorder (RAD), who are basically a group of gamers and content creators that have banded together to fight mental health issues in the video game industry, and to help people with mental health issues get the resources they need. And so they were extremely helpful in proofreading everything that we had to make sure that we weren’t using trigger words and that we were being respectful of the different issues that we were tackling. So it was a very ambitious game in that sense. I think that a lot of what we’re showing of in this game, a lot of developers would shy away from or be afraid to talk about. But we thought it was important to break that taboo and make sure that people understand that you can talk about these things. But to do this I think you do need to surround yourself with people who can tell you what’s the right thing to say and what’s the wrong thing to say, and so we got the help that we needed to do that.
Whenever these issues are discussed throughout the game, it’s done through meeting and trying to befriend these wacky creatures. From what I’ve read, there are over 60 of these. Are these all that you came up with, or did some end up on the cutting room floor?
Chris: *exhales thoughtfully* I think… art-wise, Tony, how many did we have, like total that we made?
Anthony: Oh, I think we went through… more than a hundred. And the way we created the concept of the characters is we had sheets of the characters and we wanted to select them well, to express their personality and their character well, so we needed to choose them wisely. So we went through our colleagues and made some polls to see which were their favorites. And then through that selection we narrowed it down to the characters that were chosen, and then John Rumsby, who’s the writer, did an amazing job going through the characters and created all these personalities that are incredible. So yeah, we had a lot of creatures. I remember the Kickstarter wanted more, but we preferred to do quality over quantity. So that way we take each creature and give them their own personality, their own problems that they are trying to figure out.
Chris: Yeah, and a lot of the characters are inspired by real life stories from the dev team. When we were brainstorming about what the character looks like they’re going through, we would look to the other team ask what they think, and then everyone would kind of pitch in and say like, “Oh, I went through this when I was a kid,” or, “I know someone who’s going through this right now,” and so that would kind of give us the juices to kind of be able to figure out what we wanted the character to become. Because as you level up, the characters you discover them even more, so there’s also that aspect of the game where it starts out that there’s an issue, but then you get past the issue and get to know the person a bit more behind the scenes. So it was really important to have a really unique character for all of the 60+ characters that we had. I think our writer split his personality into 60 different sections, and he did a really great job with giving everyone that unique perspective. But yeah, it was basically a process of elimination where the artists would come up with all these concepts, we would then validate these concepts with the dev team, and we would should half of them, and then send them to the writers and animators so they could be integrated into the game. So about half is what you see in the game.
As you run into these creatures that you need to help out, you first have to face them in these confrontations that are clearly inspired by all these classic, turn-based RPGs, with Paper Mario probably coming to mind the most for me. Is it tricky trying to recontextualize these types of battles into something non-violent?
Chris: It is, and you know, it stems from an article that came out in 2019 on gamesindustry.biz that said only 17% of games at E3 that year were non-violent. And we thought that was extremely low, so we decided at that point that we wanted to show that you could make a non-violent game in any genre. The video game as a medium has traditionally recycled a lot of things we’ve seen before, and we wanted to showcase something new. And so that’s why we leaned into the non-violent aspect of it. I think when you look at turn-based RPGs, they’ve pretty much always been violent. If you look at the old Final Fantasies or even Paper Mario as you mentioned, it’s violent, you’re always hitting people with hammers and stuff. So we just wanted to kind of show that you could do things in a new way. And so we were inspired by games like Paper Mario, Undertale, and various indie games that are pushing boundaries in different ways, showcasing that through dialogue or non-violence.
Chris (Cont’d): And so those things kind of shift the experience. We also feel that a lot of turn-based RPGs have a lot of downtime between turns. That’s also why we wanted to have the QTE system, so you’re making decisions and you have some form of strategy to where you’re recoloring and when. But after that, you still need to have an execution phase where you need to time your moves the right way so you can recolor the creature in front of you. And so that keeps people engaged throughout, always keeping you involved with what’s going on, which was important to us as well.
Anthony: We had like ten versions of combat that we went through, prototyping, going through so many different kinds of confrontation. We went through prototyping almost six versions of one confrontation before we found the good one. So it was a lot of work.
Chris: At some point there was a “match 3” system in the confrontations where you had to match three of a color to have mana so you could use spells to recolor the creature. *starts chuckling* It was so complicated, so we ended up taking that one out. I would love to re-explore that some time though, I think it could work, just not in this game.
Even as someone who loves and is content with classic turn-based RPG systems, I must say that I found this style you guys came up with quite refreshing and engaging. So you definitely succeed when creating that.
Chris & Anthony: Thank you.
Jumping back a bit to the inclusivity stuff we mentioned before, we’ve of course seen more inclusivity in games in recent years when it comes to portrayals of LGBTQ+, mental health, and such. But do you think there are steps game developers can take to further increase inclusivity and diversity?
Chris: I think so. You know, I think it starts with surrounding yourself with diverse people. It starts in the studio with who you’re hiring and who you surround yourself with. Because those different points of view bubble up and kind of get into the game. It’s important to also not be afraid to tackle these kinds of topics, with the #MeToo movement and the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of people are afraid to touch these subjects, and I think that’s very bad for the industry because it means that people are not telling the right kinds of stories, or people are afraid of showcasing certain kinds of characters. And I think that’s not the point. The point is we’ve been telling “White male dude violent stories” for a long time, and now it’s time to showcase something else. But yeah, hiring people, I think not being afraid to tell stories you know nothing about—like, I hear people sometimes say, “Oh, I’m not a homosexual, so I don’t wanna put a homosexual in my game, because I’m afraid that I’m not gonna be able to write it well or not represent it well.” And I think it comes from the right place—you definitely don’t want to be showcasing a community of people the wrong way. But at the same time, there are so many consultants out there and so many people out there who can help you showcase it in the right way. If the decision is to cut the character, then you’re harming the industry because you’re ruining representation for whatever community you wanted to put into the game. So I think there’s an aspect to it of understanding that you need to surround yourself with the right people who can help tell you what you need to do to be able to do it right way. And just overall understanding that the world is a very vast and diverse place, and that there needs to be more and more representation. Just in non-binary characters, I can count on one hand the number of non-binary characters I’ve seen in games. There is more representation nowadays, and I think that’s great, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.
Going slightly more fluffy with the topics, do you have any favorites among the many creatures you meet throughout the game?
Chris: I think you could ask everyone on the team, and they’d all have a different favorite. I have favorites that didn’t even make it into the game. That’s a really good question, no one’s asked us that yet. Tony, I don’t know if you wanna go first?
Anthony: Well, it’s tough because while working on them, you kind of get attached to all of them. But I think that if we talk about aesthetic and a bit of story, I think for me it’s Eggins, the second creature that you encounter. Because, well, I love dinosaurs, and he’s kind of a dinosaur in an egg shell, so that’s kinda humorous for me. But also, I think because he doesn’t want his shell to be broken, and he wants people to understand that he needs his space. I like him, he’s one of my favorites that came out.
Anthony (Cont’d): Of course there’s Giro, the first creature that you get. It’s Billy’s dog, I really like him. I think it’s one of the creatures that I designed that stayed, as all the other creatures were designed by other artists. He’s kind of weird because he’s got one eye, a flower head. I don’t know, I think Eggins and Giro are my two favorites, personally.
Chris: Yeah, I think for me… visually, the bosses are clearly the ones that excite me the most. But in terms of character backstory, I would probably say Vruu, who is like a lazy character and is judged because of his laziness. I would love to be able to be lazy in life, but I don’t have that luxury. But yeah, I think that character is like an interesting read when you start reading the backstory, so I would say that one.
After this creature question, I thanked Chris and Anthony for sitting down with me, and they thanked me for taking the time to talk in depth about this little game of theirs. Overall it was a nice, wholesome end to a very nice chat.
Rainbow Billy: Curse of the Leviathan is available to play right now on PS4, XBOX ONE, PC, and Nintendo Switch.