Canadian Game Awards Spotlight – interview with Spiritfarer’s Nicolas Guérin

In 2020, Thunder Lotus Games, a Montreal-based indie studio, debuted its third game: Spiritfarer. Tackling heavy topics like the loss of a loved one, Spiritfarer balances its themes with a remarkable art style and soundtrack. It’s a whimsical game that has delighted players since its launch, and has amassed quite a bit of positive reception.

Thunder Lotus Games was awarded Best Art Direction, Best Score/Soundtrack, and Best Indie Game at the 2021 Canadian Game Awards. We sat down with creative director Nicolas Guérin to reflect on the studio’s wins, as well as the development and choices Thunder Lotus Games made while creating Spiritfarer.

Image credit: Thunder Lotus Games

Steve: The art direction of Spiritfarer is very unique in its own way, yet appears as a natural fit to what we’ve seen from the studio prior. How was the art conceptualized?

Nicolas Guérin: I’ll be the voice of Joe, our art director. It’s in line with what the studio has been doing for five years. Basically, the studio was founded by people who came from visual 2D animation. There is that love for the craft and knowledge of what makes 2D animation great. From an art perspective, moving from Sunder – which was a much darker game – to Spiritfarer, we made it a cozier game as it had a warmer colour pallet. We took a lot from classical Japanese animation, mainly Studio Ghibli. Spirited Away was a huge inspiration for us.

It was to be a crossroad of classical western animation and Japanese animation with a twist. We wanted it to be whimsical, classical, and mundane at the same time.

Canadian composer Maxime Lacoste-Lebuis contributed to the game’s soundtrack. What attracted you to work with him in order to create the score for Spiritfarer?

Will, the founder, is a long time friend of Max. Max is an awesome composer who worked with us on Joten and Sunder. He’s a part of the family. We’re fortunate to have these people in our surroundings. Max has been around since the beginning. 

Max wanted to tackle something that was a bit different. Going from a more intimate score with piano, for something more sweeping and dramatic. He took a huge inspiration from Hayao Miyazaki’s films, like Princess Mononoke. I think most if not all movies from Studio Ghibli have been scored by Joe Hisaishi. Max took that and made something personal. 

Spiritfarer is the studio’s third premier title. What lessons has Thunder Lotus Games learned throughout the years that helped with its development?

We try to be smart enough to lean on our strengths and get rid of our weaknesses. We’ve revamped things we didn’t do before, like having a menu in our game. That was a hurdle. Almost every game has inventory menus. Joten and Sunder were extremely light, so it was something we had to learn.

From a gameplay perspective, we had a game that was both a management and farm-light sim, and had emotional storytelling with characters. Everything from narrative to broader meta designs was something we had to craft.

You brought it up at the beginning, but the art is what makes every project seem like a coherent whole. The art and the intent is at the core of what we do. We make games that have a purpose and deliver a powerful message. We allow players to have a meaningful experience. If we didn’t try to make games that move people, we wouldn’t even try to do what we do. 

The studio walked away with not one but three awards from the 2021 Canadian Game Awards. What was the overall response from the team when you found out?

We were stoked. The reaction was tempered because we were all around our screens in the pandemic life. If we were at the office, we would have been erupting in laughter, drinking, and partying until late at night. We kind of did that remotely, but it’s not the same thing.

It’s encouraging because of all the efforts we have made. It was rough to publish the game last year. We were digging a hole in April when the studio went remote, and we shipped in August. That period between March and August was a bit of a blackhole.

Everyone was extremely happy and proud. It’s funny because its not in our DNA to feel that way. No one in the studio thinks of it as a competition. We look at other games and celebrate them. When we win an award, we look at the others and think about how awesome they are. It’s a combination of being proud and humble at the same time.

Being in Montreal, how does the city’s culture break through into the studio?

I’m French myself, immigrated 16 years ago. It’s a whole mix of influences and cultures. Montreal and Toronto are the same mold of having people from all over the world. We draw influence from Japan, Europe, North America, all equally.

We’re pretty lucky to have a diverse studio with a lot of sensibilities in there. The overall video game scene is quite diverse. The indie scene is nourished by the FMC, which is an awesome boon for Canadian developers.

Image credit: Thunder Lotus Games

The studio diversifies its way of tackling various topics and themes throughout its games. Do the personal experiences and background of those working on the game play into these aspects?

I think that it is personal. We first tackle subjects that are global and relatable – hence death. It’s rather universal, it happens to every living being on the planet. We take that subject and try to morph it into a personal one.

Spiritfarer is a personal game, especially for me. Four spirits are pretty heavily inspired by my own family members and friends who had passed away. Other spirits are inspired by team members’ relatives who have had an impact on their lives. We had that emotional period during development where I interviewed people who wanted to talk about their grandmother, uncle, and so on. It’s those personal stories that make Spiritfare as honest as it is. 

Although you may not be ready to speak on what’s next for Thunder Lotus, can you talk about any other initiatives the studio has planned for the year?

We are going to be supporting Spiritfarer for quite some time. We just launched an update on April 20. We have planned two more updates. There is another spirit planned for the summer. Two other new spirits are planned for the winter-ish season of this year.

Yes, we’ll make other games (laughs), but I can’t talk about that now. I can tell you something, though. It will be hand-drawn 2D, and will be a game that may be meaningful to players.

[This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.]

Congratulations to the entire Thunder Lotus Games team on their awards, and a big thanks to Nicolas Guérin for taking the time to speak with us!