Children of Morta | A Pixelated Masterpiece
Children of Morta is a roguelike dungeon crawler that stands out from the crowd thanks to its intricate pixel art and epic tale of family drawn together to combat Corruption. The pixel art in Children of Morta is particularly praiseworthy, feeling reminiscent of games like Hyper Light Drifter and Owlboy.
When I first sat down to play Children of Morta, I was immediately pulled in and impressed by how much detail the pixel art is able to convey. In the intro, you observe the old seer, Margaret, as she wakes up in a home full of warm colors that evoke feelings of safety.
Meanwhile, the color palette takes a sharp shift into cooler blue and green tones as Margaret steps outside and approaches the shrine of Rea-Dana. The focus then pulls out and the world expands around you, inviting you to stay a while and explore.
From this moment forward, I found it impossible to put Children of Morta down.
It truly exemplifies everything I love about indie games as you can tell a lot of love and time was put into its creation. Not just with the pixel art and aforementioned intro, but the narration as well.
I could honestly listen to the narrator’s smooth voice speak over hypnotizing pixel art cutscenes for the entire duration of the game and never grow tired. Of course – as with any compelling video game – there’s the promise of action. An opportunity to become an active player in the story and shape how things unfold.
In Children of Morta, this is done primarily through combat and roguelike dungeon exploration.
Now, I’ve played a lot of roguelikes over the years (my recent favorites being Hollow Knight and Dead Cells), and I can safely say that Children of Morta is as fun and addicting as any other title in the roguelike genre. If not more so in some regards.
Of course, it’s unfair to directly compare these games as each one offers something different, and each one shines in its own unique way. When it comes to Children of Morta, you play as different members of one large family, and by the end, you feel as though you’ve joined their family in a way.
I am a Bergson, you are a Bergson, we are all Bergsons fighting against a common enemy.
It’s this dedication to the game’s heart that helps push you forward, even when you keep dying because you’re impatient and want to rush through each area. No? Just me? Ok.
I honestly found myself coming back to Children of Morta more than I thought I would, and I think it has something to do with the game’s rhythm and repetition. It’s corny to say, but learning how to play the game is a lot like learning how to ride a bicycle.
It's difficult at first as you test the mechanics and explore your balance. The farther you get, the easier it becomes, until you're finally able to press forward with full speed and confidence.
Not only will you level up your characters and the Bergson family as a whole, you’ll also tune in to each character’s method of combat, and memorize the best approaches to use in various situations.
One other thing I want to mention is that I have terrible anxiety and typically play games like Children of Morta to ease my symptoms. I think it's one of the reasons why I've grown so attached to the game. Whenever I feel my chest tighten and my heart race, I load back into my Children of Morta save.
Playing Children of Morta is like coming home, and for that reason (and many more), it’s one of my favorite indies of 2019. Having such strong feelings towards Children of Morta, I was curious to know a little more about the game’s development.
With that, I reached out to the team at Dead Mage and was overjoyed to hear back from Javid Najibzadeh, Reza Hooshangi, and Arvin Garousi Nezhad!
Children of Morta - Interview with Dead Mage
First, how would you describe Children to Morta to someone who doesn’t know what the game is?
Javid Najibzadeh: Children of Morta is a story-driven, action-RPG game about an extraordinary family of heroes. Gameplay-wise it's a mixture of action-adventure RPG, rogue-lite, and hack and slash.
The story focuses on the Bergsons, the relationship between family members, how they face the corruption as a one, and last but not least, what they value most as a family. To sum it up, Children of Morta is how the love of the family stands against corruption in times of need.
How many people worked on Children of Morta, and how long did it take to complete?
Javid: It all started with a core team of a programmer, a designer, an artist, animator, and a music composer. Later on, another designer joined the team who also handled the narrative. After the Kickstarter campaign succeeded in surpassing its goal, the initial designer left the team.
A pair of designers – gameplay programmers and a writer – joined the team instead. At later stages additional programers, UI artists, and designers also joined the project.
For most of the project, Children of Morta was developed with a lead programmer, two additional programmers, a UI programmer, 3 game designers/gameplay programmers, an artist, animator, a music composer/sound designer, a writer/narrative designer, a UI artist, a tester, and a project lead.
It goes without saying that there were many others who were part of the project for shorter durations. The entire process took about 5 years in the making, and counting on.
Were there any challenges in developing Children of Morta as an indie studio, and if so, how did you work around them?
Javid: Well, Small teams have their own benefits as well as weaknesses. The love and the passion that the entire team shares in every aspect of the game is certainly the cream of the crop as they feel responsible for every element and every detail. The flipside of sharing this love is getting too attached.
That is when you become so obsessed with everything meeting everyone’s ideals that you start overpolishing things (where there is no such thing as overpolishing) that you start missing deadlines. Miss a deadline and it creates a chain reaction of missing out the rest, and that is what creates chaos. Getting out of this chaos demanded a lot of attention, and from time to time, the sacrifice of some entire game systems.
Generally speaking, planning, estimating deadlines, and sticking to them were the most challenging parts for us. As the team with only a handful of devs, you can remain too dependent on every single one of them. And, as everybody is having responsibilities in various parts, if one underperforms in a period – which could be quite natural – so does the entire team. Yet another challenge we faced was the lack of regular outside feedback.
After each feedback, we went back to our cozy little office without any connection to the outside world and began changing things entirely. And only after a lot had changed we would again demonstrate it, only to learn about the new shortcomings. Finding a publisher and receiving more regular feedback as well as holding more regular focused test sessions was a huge lifesaver regarding this matter.
At later stages of production, optimization and network also were two major trials that we needed to face. To have the game run smoothly on every console, we went through a lot of reimplementations, workarounds, and refactors. A lot of trials and errors, to be honest. Network was another major addition as we had never given it thought before a certain state of the project. So, when we decided to add it, it was a huge change.
After weeks of R&D we had to refactor almost every aspect of the game, and we are still working on it.
You play as the Bergson family in Children of Morta. What impact does the family dynamic have on the game and the story as a whole?
Javid: For the most part, the main challenge was creating the feeling of a lively family. We wanted the main plot, characters, and gameplay to progress, but never to divert the attention away from the family. We wanted the Bergson’s house to feel like a real home and not just a hub. We wanted to create a bond between the family members as well as a bond between the player and the family.
We did a lot of iterations on the plot, the family story, and the personal story of each member. We even once had to restart almost every narrative aspect of the game to make the story anchor around the family. We injected a lot of more elements of sacrifice, caring, and of love. This helps you get attached to an entire family instead of an individual character and feel the love and selflessness they share.
This is something we believe, if not new, is very rare amongst the other video game experiences. Gameplay-wise, in addition to the individual character development, we wanted the entire family to grow and become stronger together. That is were we introduced Uncle Ben’s workshop, fatigue system, and the family traits. Combination of these mechanics together proved well to encourage the players to switch between characters and play as a family.
How did you come up with the names for all of the different Bergson family members in Children of Morta?
Javid: Well, we wanted to keep the names as simple and as generic as we could. We wanted them to sound very ordinary, like a common family. In this way, saving the world seemed more like an everyday job of every ordinary family out there. Sometimes saving the family is actually saving the world.
We thought this way more people could feel the simplicity and connect. The simplicity is not reduced to their names only. Each time you head back home you can find them doing everyday routines. From Linda combing her hair, to Lucy painting.
From Mary cooking, to Ben boozing. We wanted them to feel as much like a typical family as possible. Except they all do magic of some sort, which is… cool, right? With each character offering their own play style, it can be easy to pick a favorite.
Did you incorporate anything to encourage players to try out different family members rather than sticking with just one or two?
Javid: The entire family grows together. When you level up a character in dungeons and unlock their skill tree abilities, you are also unlocking their family traits. These traits effect and boost the entire family. Take John, for example. When you reach level 4, he automatically unlocks a trait that increases the entire family’s HP. This applies to every family member.
Also through Uncle Ben’s workshop you are strengthening the entire family’s basic stats. No family member is ever left behind or too weak behind the others. Not only does this boost the feeling of playing as a family, but it also encourages the players to switch between characters, and try out different styles of play which helps the game stay fresh and stop it from becoming repetitive.
We also had this challenge of finding our ground between an action-RPG and a rogue-lite. So we had a tough time deciding which gameplay elements should be lost with death, and which can be retained permanently. We went through a lot of iterations here as well. The entire loot system, upgrade systems, and items were subjects of severe changes throughout the development process.
We needed to find a balance between the feeling of progress and the diversity and unique moments in the roguelike dungeons. Fatigue system and family traits, along with Ben’s workshop, are basically what encourages the players to switch characters. As much as we actually wanted to encourage the players to try out different styles, we didn’t want to force their hand into doing so, as we were certain some would find it frustrating.
That is why we designed characters in a way that there were a pair of characters sharing an almost common style of play. If one is struck by fatigue and a player doesn’t intend to stray too far from their comfort zone, they could switch to the other. That is why we have two ranged characters, two heavy melee ones, and two agile melee characters.
We will also be introducing a new way to get rid of fatigue quicker in the upcoming updates. I also need to mention that, according to the feedback we have received so far, the majority of our players have found it encouraging rather than punishing to switch between styles and that is very good news for us.
How did the team blend linear story elements with the randomness of a procedurally generated, non-linear game?
Javid: Well, most of the main plot’s linear stuff directly depend on defeating bosses and proceeding to later dungeons. As far as this linear story is concerned, all players share the same experience when they reach a certain area. On the other hand, there are a lot of quests, family story progress, and side stories which are narrated in the dungeons and are generated procedurally.
Exploration here is the key. When you find these quests which are generated procedurally and you overcome them, in addition to watching a cutscene in the dungeon and being rewarded, they directly affect the state of the home when you return. In this aspect, each player’s experience may vary.
To explain it in more technical detail, the game’s narrative is being controlled by numerous parallel state machines. The main story state machine only proceeds to the next state if you defeat a certain boss. Every other state machine has their own unique conditions which may vary from finding an object, or encountering an event in the procedurally generated dungeon runs, to dying a certain amount of times in a certain area.
It is up to players to find these conditions and advance in every side story.
Speaking of which, can you tell us a little more about the technical side to developing Children of Morta as a procedurally generated roguelike dungeon crawler? What was it like to create a diverse assortment of areas to explore?
Reza Hooshangi: Having a good procedurally generated level is about finding a subtle line between the order of art and level design parameters and the chaos of random algorithms and numbers.
It's generally challenging to find the right spot between the two, but it was especially harder for Children of Morta since we were trying to achieve a meaningful and engaging narrative during the gameplay through the procedurally generated levels.
The art of Children of Morta is one of its cornerstones, so the procedural generation algorithm should use a custom defined set of tiles that gives the artist the freedom of having diverse art assets for all the dungeons. We had a lot of iterations during the development to find the best set of tiles that supports different styles for all the dungeons while keeping the cost of making chapter-specific art assets at an acceptable rate.
We wanted to have an algorithm that supports a diverse set of areas with different visuals and gameplay elements, which is the basic goal of every procedural game. We also wanted the algorithm to be able to change itself according to the players experience so that the player’s progress in the quests reflects directly on the representation of the next generated dungeons.
Children of Morta combines hand painted pixel art with animation. Who was responsible for creating the pixel art, and are there any early concept stills you can share with us?
Arvin Garousi Nezhad: From day one until now we had 2 artists working on all art assets for the game. One is responsible for hand-drawing pixels, backgrounds, characters, environment assets; and the other one for animating and painting frame by frame of sprites, combat animations, and the house.
Does the team have plans to add expansions to Children of Morta in the future to challenge people who’ve beat the game like a New Game Plus mode?
Javid: Well, to be honest I can’t be very specific or share all of the details, but yes. There is a huge roadmap that we are working on including a lot of new content and modes. 11 bit studios will certainly update the players and the community on every detail when the time comes.
Finally, what advice do you have to gamers just starting out in Children of Morta?
Javid: If the ride feels a little rocky at the start, have a little patience. You will get on the right track in no time. Make sure to try it out in local co-op if you can find a suitable buddy. Do not be afraid to switch between characters, you are playing a family after all. Stay tuned for the upcoming news and updates, and please enjoy your stay in the Bergson’s house.
I want to take a moment to thank Javid Najibzadeh, Reza Hooshangi, and Arvin Garousi Nezhad from Dead Mage for taking the time to not only answer the interview questions I sent over, but also for sending me several pieces of early concept art for Children of Morta. The images are stunning and emphasize just how beautiful the game truly is.
You can tell a lot of love was put into creating Children of Morta, its world, and the members of the Bergson family and that level of dedication should always be celebrated. If you're curious and looking for a new game to play, I highly recommend giving Children of Morta a try if you haven't already. To make things even easier, Children of Morta is available on Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One, and PC right now.
You can also get caught up with the latest updates to Children of Morta by following Dead Mage on social media!