A Frog’s Tale preview: ribbit king

For Minneapolis-based developer AJ Norman, A Frog’s Tale didn’t begin with a design document, or a slab of code, but a piece of music about his cat, Roy.

A DJ and electronic musician intent on breaking into the games industry, Norman started work on a portfolio of music for an imaginary game – and being a fan of 16-bit era role-players like Super Mario RPG and Chrono Trigger, he started writing “big, romantic melodies” in the vein of a Super Nintendo game.

“When you’re writing songs you have to come up with, ‘What does this song sound like? It sounds like a desert level or something’,” Norman says.

“So having to come up with a context or use for these songs was like a world-building project. I had to come up with a bunch of ideas to fill in the gaps. You have stuff like character themes, recurring melodies. It was like the game was starting to come together without me even knowing it.”

From those songs and story ideas, A Frog’s Tale gradually coalesced: a top-down Zelda-like about an amphibian hero and his adventures in a cosy fantasy world. In many ways, the project’s the realisation of a childhood ambition; as a nine-year-old, Norman would spend hours tinkering with GameMaker and trying to make his own Zelda homage.

“It’s like my whole life, I’ve been trying to make a game,” he says. “But I’m not a super-talented programmer – I reach this ceiling where I can’t wrap my head around the programming I need to accomplish the ideas I have in my head.”

Over the course of the past two years, A Frog’s Tale has gradually evolved into a full-blown commercial project; with Norman in the role of creative director and composer, the game has artists in France working on the pastel-shaded pixel art, and Quebec-based studio Cathar Games working on the programming and implementation side of things.

If you want an idea of how A Frog’s Tale will sound, you can check out some of Norman’s music at wfmag.cc/frogtale.

Although still in its early stages – Norman hopes to have a playable demo ready later this year – A Frog’s Tale is already shaping up to be something more than just another retro throwback.

It’s a deeply personal project for Norman, not just because of his youthful affection for top-down adventures, but because he’s using it as a means of communicating the emotions he felt when his father tragically passed away in early 2019. “The game may look like your typical RPG fare, where you’re trying to find the special item and save the world or whatever, but underneath that, there’s a lot of personal struggle,” Norman says.

“The characters look really cute, but they’re going through some serious stuff. At the end of the day, I hope the stories can really connect with people that have gone through something similar.”

A Frog’s Tale, then, has formed part of Norman’s natural grieving process, he tells us: a means of processing the sudden loss of a loved one, and turning that difficult experience into something universal.

“Maybe the game can bring comfort to those who are having a hard time with loss, like I was,” Norman says. “It’s not an easy thing to go through. What happens in the game is what I hope happens in real life – it’s my optimistic look on death, and learning to accept it and find closure when it wasn’t something possible to get yourself. The main character struggles a lot with that in the game, but learns to accept it. I think it wraps up in a really nice way.”

We’re most intrigued by the character journeys Norman describes: “Their flaws can mostly be traced back to their relationships with their parents,” he tells us.

Far from a melancholy game, A Frog’s Tale will explore its emotional themes with the lightness of touch you might expect from a homage to 16-bit JRPGs and adventures. As well as Zelda, the game’s role-playing elements will draw from the likes of Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi, while the battles will take the form of rhythm-action minigames.

The game still has a long road ahead of it, as Norman hopes to use the playable demo he’s working on to either attract a publisher or form the basis of a Kickstarter campaign. But the online response to A Frog’s Tale has already been positive, and while Norman’s never headed up a project of this scale before, he’s clearly determined to see it through to completion.

“I want to make a name for myself in this industry, and make something special – even if it is my first game,” Norman says. “It’s not impossible as long as you find the right people to help you with it. That’s the important thing as well – you can’t do everything yourself. You need help. You need friends.

“So that’s what I’ve been focusing on – finding the right friends to make this the best game it can be.”

Genre: Zelda-like
Format: TBC
Developer: AJ Norman / Cathar Games
Publisher: TBC
Release: TBC

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