Walking in dim light, you regret ever stepping foot here. The spider was bad enough, even if it never made an aggressive move. Horrifyingly, something worse enters your line of sight. But there’s something entrancing, hypnotic about its erratic, twisted movements; you freeze, watching—but you should be the one that’s moving. It’s getting closer.
Where are you? Thankfully nowhere real. This is only the demo for Ginkgo, a project from the Advanced Games Program (AGP) at the University of Southern California. It was one of several titles recently showcased online at the USC Games Expo, an annual event sharing the work of game design students. After the unfortunately real COVID-19 forced much of the world into quarantine, the expo moved to a digital venue like so many other events.
For one day, USC featured gameplay from various student projects. After singer-songwriter mxmtoon enjoyed a relaxing session with the demo for fellow AGP project Beasts of Maravilla Island, she hesitantly started to play the strikingly different Ginkgo. The streamer was soon swamped with visible terror, providing a peek at the effectiveness of the game’s East-Asian-inspired horror.
Bones and Masks
Ginkgo starts with a funeral. A young woman looks for reconciliation after the death of her estranged mother, a renowned seamstress who seemingly chose career over family. The grieving daughter instead finds herself trapped in an eerie realm and armed with an enchanted needle and thread that can manipulate the fabric of existence. She’ll need them to escape the monstrous being that now stalks her.
According to Intel DevMesh, this is the Chase Yokai, Ginkgo’s main antagonist.
Milo Smiley, producer and narrative lead on Ginkgo, explained over Zoom that the Chase Yokai was created by the game’s design, narrative, and art teams.
“Design needed... an antagonistic creature that would chase you throughout the game, because we still wanted that element of horror and threat in our game, even at the same time that we were creating a very beautiful and evocative world,” Smiley said.
He shared that the art team came up with the initial design for the Chase Yokai, designing it with long, skeletal limbs and a Noh mask.
“It had an artistic style that matched the rest of our world, while at the same time being a design that immediately elicits fear,” Smiley said. “I feel like if you just see the Chase Yokai, you don’t want to be near it, even before you see it move and attack you.”
But when the Chase Yokai was initially designed, Smiley shared that it hadn’t been connected to the story. “It was just like this very scary force that you saw in the world, and you didn’t really understand how it incorporated into the rest of it.”
The task of drawing the Chase Yokai into the larger narrative of the game fell to Smiley, who made it into a key element rather than just an obstacle.
Providing Some Guidance in a Maze
The Intel DevMesh page on Ginkgo sheds additional light on the Chase Yokai’s development, such as the challenge of making sure the creature wasn’t too difficult. Originally, play testers had a hard time finishing a playthrough because they couldn’t survive their stalker.
“It’s like you’re trapped in a huge maze at one point in the game, and this monster’s chasing you throughout the entire thing. We want you to feel lost, but at the same time players were just getting a little too lost,” Smiley said. “So we decided to create a lot of subtle indicators, like we’ll use certain specific props, colors, and lighting to guide the player throughout a level in order to get them to the end. And we found really positive results once we added that in.”
There are other Yokai creatures in the game, but they’re far friendlier than the one that hunts you. There’s a Lantern Yokai that can help players open doors. The previously mentioned Spider Yokai even teaches you how to use the magic needle and thread.
“So it teaches you, sort of like a natural in-game tutorialization about sewing and cutting in a way that doesn’t hold the players’ hands too much,” Smiley said.
Tools for Innovation and Unease
Smiley described the magic needle and thread as a “super innovative mechanic,” explaining that it’s the primary way for the player to interact with the world in Ginkgo.
He credited the game’s director Joey Tan and design lead Justin Lu with developing this mechanic. “[Tan and Lu] are inspired by East Asian horror, and they wanted to create just a very stylish and innovative mechanic that could be [something] that has never been done before," he said.
But what defines East Asian horror?
“I would say some of the things that we’ve incorporated into the game from East Asian horror ... are just really intricate and unique environments that sort of express that feeling of discomfort and unease for a player,” Smiley explained.
Chills in the East and West
While Ginkgo features East Asian architecture, Smiley added that it also has other cultural influences.
“In terms of the visual design from our game, though, we actually pull from a European horror movie—which was the first horror movie ever created—called The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and that’s what informs the artistic style of our game," he said.
Still, Ginkgo was inspired by a lot of classic East Asian horror movies. Smiley explained that the game uses more atmospheric horror instead of jump scares, something he thinks is more common in Western horror than Asian horror.
“We all feel like Asian horror sort of pushes everything to the absolute limit of how crazy and messed up it can be,” Smiley said. “And we really wanted to get that feeling [of] like, ‘Oh my god, I cannot believe this is actually happening inside the story.’”
Ginkgo’s PC demo is available on itch.io and its website. There are also plans to develop it further for a Steam launch. Though still in production, it’s already won third place for Best Gameplay at this year’s Intel University Games Showcase.
Are you going to play Ginkgo’s demo? Did you check out the USC Games Expo? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.