For an educational game, the lore behind Tyto Online has a surprising amount of realism and complexity. The earth becomes uninhabitable, refugees have to experience an entirely new place, living with people who have never set foot on Earth. And because the game centers on scientific exploration and discovery, there’s a sense of necessity and conservation in completing the quests in the game.
For Immersed Games’ Creative Director Caroline Lamarque, it was important not to make the game “condescendingly sweet and innocent.” She wanted to have something “more complex than we often see in children’s media,” but not anything “gritty and dark” either. As players explore the game, they’ll see cute and fantastical alien creatures, and non-playable characters (NPCs) who are all extremely nice. And to Caroline Lamarque, positivity and a sense of realism go hand-in-hand in making Tyto Online’s captivating world.
How long did it take to lay down the groundwork for Tyto Online’s backstory? And what was that process like?
Caroline Lamarque: I remember that it took forever just to come up with the name Tyto — it took several days and 600+ comments on a particular Facebook post for the company to decide on it. It was Xanadu-like for a long time beforehand. And my first idea was a lot darker and grittier like most sci-fi, but we decided to reel it in because going utopian and having an upbeat sci-fi world made so much more sense.
After that, I feel like it didn’t take very long for me to start building Tyto’s universe. I had a prompt and a couple of details to start out with, but little else. [CEO] Lindsey and [co-founder] Ryan gave me a few guidelines. We could exaggerate certain things about this alien planet and fictional future to make them more interesting, but we couldn’t create any plant, animal, or detail that didn’t have at least some precedent in real life. I wrote up an idea right away and presented it to them the next day; I think they took all of my ideas immediately and we just started working from there. It’s always felt really natural to expand Tyto’s world.
Would you say that world-building is a hobby of yours?
CL: Definitely! I’ve always loved creating characters, writing stories, and building worlds. I even have an MA in creative writing. When I was a kid, I used to write a short story every day in my Lisa Frank panda notebook. Most of my stories were about dogs (I wanted a puppy more than anything for most of my childhood), and one day I made a “real” puppy for myself out of paper towel, tape, and tissues at recess. I made it a whole wardrobe of outfits out of more tissues and tape, and even a crate out of an empty manila folder! After a while my teacher told me I had to stop using up all of her tissue boxes for puppy accessories. I like to think that this was one of my first forays into world-building.
What were your inspirations for the world of Tyto Online?
CL: One thing that some players might notice is the fact that every made-up word in Espeth has some hidden meaning. Many made-up words were inspired by words in other languages, portmanteaus, or synonyms for a quality describing the object or place. “Espeth” is derived from the “esper-” prefix that means “hope” in many Romance languages. “Ovo” is a word derived from “ovum,” meaning “egg.” I thought naming the planet “Ovo” would be appropriate for a new planet: it’s roundish and full of possibility, but fragile if it isn’t handled carefully. I remember being very proud of all the allusions I strung together to make “panganog,” but I’ve completely forgotten what they were.
It seems like everyone is so nice in the city of Espeth — is it something in the atmosphere?
CL: It’s that good old-fashioned Fiction at work! Breathe it in! We wanted to create a world with lots of positivity and hope because it made a lot more sense to do so. We’re trying to teach players about how awesome science is. We can’t do that if we create a world where Tyto’s science department keeps getting de-funded and characters are too apathetic to ask you for help with their problems. We also can’t teach problem-solving if we create a world with problems that are too big to solve.
Were there any challenges along the way?
CL: The biggest challenge came from our Kickstarter backers! Many of our Kickstarter rewards allowed donors to write a line of dialogue, create a character or an alien creature. I expected to receive a lot of ideas that would be easy to incorporate into what was, at that point, a pretty sizable amount of interconnected lore. Nope!
The most immediately obvious issue was the Founders’ Wall, an in-game wall honoring the scientists who colonized Espeth several decades prior to the game’s beginning. I was expecting people to give us their full names so that Espeth’s illustrious, venerated founders could be forever commemorated in a very solemn way. But when so many of them gave us their gamertags instead, we decided that at some point between the present day and 2142 it became fashionable to go by one’s gamertag at all times, even in real life.
As it turned out, incorporating the Kickstarter ideas made the game-world even better! A lot of ideas wound up becoming huge parts of the game, too. In fact, we are currently building an entire module around one of the alien creatures designed by a teenage Kickstarter backer!
Have you ever thought about what other cities might look like on planet Ovo?
CL: I have thought about other Ovonian cities, as well as cities on Ovo’s moons, Halcyon and Valgard! Joel, the first NPC you meet in the game, is from Halcyon originally. Espeth is the only city that has such a large Tytonian presence, which affects the amenities and people there. Ovo is also a planet roughly the same size as Earth, which means that there is plenty of room for Ovonian tundras, deserts, and other biomes besides rainforest.
What were the most important aspects that you wanted to include in Tyto Online’s backstory?
CL: When I started building out the lore for the game, I wanted to present a more complex world than we often see in children’s media. I didn’t want to make it gritty or dark, and not just condescendingly sweet and innocent either.
An example of these complications are the various “factions” in Espeth. There are Tytonians, non-Tytonians, first/second/third-generation Espethians, and Earth evacuees, and everyone feels differently about their place in Espeth and the situation on Earth.
Early on, I decided that Espeth had been founded decades before the start of the game, for reasons other than an evacuation of Earth. We wanted Espeth to have tall buildings, infrastructure, restaurants, clothing stores, arcades, and salons — you’re not going to have time to build all of those things if you’re concentrating on fleeing your dead planet. If Espeth is decades old, that means that some young people have grandparents who have never set foot on Earth. These people would not care about the destruction of Earth the way that a recent evacuee would.
As the game grows, are there any other elements you’d like to see?
CL: The one thing that I’ve been wanting to create since the earliest planning phases is an in-game arcade! Due to one of the first Espethian colonizers being a world-famous video game designer, Espeth actually got an arcade before a town hall. (This bit of lore is actually inspired by one of our Kickstarter backer’s ideas!)