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Talking Philosophy, Elephant-Zelda With Yono Creator Niklas Hallin

by Neal Ronaghan - October 2, 2017, 4:32 am PDT
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Ahead of its October 12 release, we caught up with the man behind Yono and the Celestial Elephants.

The Nindie Spotlight a few weeks ago was, in summary, a banger. Filled with games happily making their Switch debuts, sequels we've always wanted, and brand new games we never knew about, that event had many, many things to be excited about. One thing that stood out to me (and a lot of people) was Yono and the Celestial Elephants. From its trailer reveal, it appeared to be a Zelda-like game where you played as an adorable elephant. On the surface, that was all I needed to hear to be stoked for its October 12 debut.

As I started to look more into Yono, I noticed more and more of what the developer Niklas Hallin was clawing at in his intriguing and ambitious game. Notions of how god-like creatures are in fully-formed worlds. Subtler philosophical undertones tied to different towns in the world that contained zombies, robots, and humans. While the outward appearance still seems to be inspired by Zelda (Hallin even says so himself in the interview), Yono seems to be much more than a riff on a beloved series and genre. We'll find out how well it delivers on its promise soon, but until then, enjoy our chat with the man behind the celestial elephant.

Nintendo World Report (NWR): You worked as a freelance artist before Yono. What were some notable projects you worked on? What made you want to strike out on your own and make a game?

Niklas Hallin (NH): I only worked on small freelance projects, many of which were canceled or abandoned halfway through. It was more of a pay-the-rent thing until I managed to maneuver myself into a position where I could work on my own projects. Creating my own games was the plan all along.

NWR: What are the origins of Yono and the Celestial Elephants? What games inspired you? Any other media inspire the world?

NH: The most direct inspiration are the Game Boy Zelda games, notably The Minish Cap. That's where the top-down camera angle comes from, as well as the blocky, grid-based shape of the world. The story has a strong streak of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

NWR: Many, myself included, have referred to this game as "Elephant Zelda" or something similar after seeing it in the Nindie Spotlight. What's your take on that assessment? Do you worry it might skew expectations of what your game is?

NH: Do I worry? Well, I do now - when you said that! Zelda is tricky, because it means so many different things to so many different people. We don't really have “Zelda-lika” as an established genre, and I think that is because there is no general consensus on what exactly that would mean. Yono is an even mix of what Zelda means to me, and what my restrictions as a solo developer would allow me to make. My game is lighter on backtracking and combat than the general Zelda formula, but I am very confident about my puzzle design, so I think many Zelda fans will have nothing to worry about.

NWR: How did you get involved with Nintendo and how long was the process of porting Yono to Switch?

NH: Interestingly, Nintendo happened to stumble upon Yono online, and recognized it as a game that would be right at home on a Nintendo platform. The actual job of porting was in reality refreshingly straightforward, apart from the fact that I have no idea what I'm doing when it comes to advanced code. Still, it has taken more than ten months to plan and arrange the whole affair, including the Nindie Spotlight and reveal at PAX West in Seattle.

NWR: The world of Yono appears to have a deep lore, especially with past celestial elephants and the history of the 3 races. How did that become such a large part of the game?

NH: I think writing is important. There's a widespread idea that video games is a visual medium and should be kinda like movies. I love visual storytelling, and this game is stock full of clues that are communicated via the graphics alone. In fact, almost the entire puzzle system is revealed visually. Having said that, the problem with images is that they can only ever represent things the viewer already understand. It's very hard to make new, complex information come across with symbols alone. This is why academics write papers, and not comic strips.

And when I say that writing is important, I not only mean the content of the text but also the style. The texts in this game are written as children's fairy tales, as philosophical dialogues, as orally transmitted myths, and more. There is even a Shakespearean sonnet!

NWR: You have worlds with zombies, humans, and robots. Were there any groups left on the cutting room floor? Why go with those three?

NH: It has to be three. Three is what you need, because you have one normal, and one extreme on each side. That's when you get humans, dwarves and elves. Or Hylians, Gorons and Zoras. Or Terrans, Protoss and Zerg.

Undeads have been part of my thought-sphere for a long time. They very neatly embody the image of leaving your mortal coil behind and transcend to a higher excellence, while at the same time they are seen as unnatural and revolting by the living. Like the creation of Dr. Frankenstein, they are simultaneously outcasts and the next level of humanity.

Robots are seen as sub-human in a similar way. Both zombies and robots are seen as things, rather than persons. That ambiguity is fascinating to me, and it is metaphorically resonant with people who feel like outsiders themselves.

NWR: There seem to be deeper philosophical elements potentially under the surface of Yono. Are there specific philosophers that you're read/heard of/studied/etc. that influenced some of your world building?

NH: I am partial to the virtue ethics of the ancient Greeks. The undeads are aligned most closely to that, making frequent references to thinkers like Diogenes the Cynic and Epicurus. Their city is a beautiful garden in accordance with Epicurus' preferences. They also inherit a lot of their values from Buddhist philosophy. What the Buddhist and Hellenistic thinkers have in common is a focus on how to perfect a human life and how asceticism is a big part of that.

NWR: If you could make a Yono crossover game with a Nintendo character or series, what would it be and why?

NH: To be frank, I'm actually not very interested in crossovers. My way of designing is so holistic, and every piece plays its role in a larger context. Taking parts of a unified idea and combining it with parts of another is going to be a bit weird, and any point would be lost. It could be made into an absurdist joke though, like Super Smash Bros. for instance.

NWR: Separate from that, if you could work on any one Nintendo series, what would it be and why?

NH: Metroid. I didn't actually play Super Metroid until a few years ago, and suddenly saw what I have been missing all this time. Metroid is also a series which hasn't really reached its full potential lately, I think many will agree, and not only does the series has strong themes, it is also very subtle about those themes, which is very admirable.

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