Inkulinati preview: the pen really is mightier than the sword

A concept that came about as an end of school project, Inkulinati – a portmanteau of ink, illuminated, and illuminati, fact fans – takes place entirely on a medieval manuscript, and sees comical battles between various animals take place in front of the player.

Visually, it’s unique. In motion, it’s striking. And it all transpired because some students were amused by 700-year-old doodles.

“Back in the Warsaw Game Design School days, we needed to prepare a prototype of a game,” explains game designer, Wojtek Janas. “We had no idea what we wanted to do. Nothing gave us that ‘Yes, let’s do it!’ feeling. And then one day, Dorota [Halicka], our art director, came in and showed us medieval marginalia – the crazy and bizarre doodles of medieval monks and scribes.

“When we saw these drawings, we were blown away – there were rabbits riding on snails, donkeys playing harps, people with trumpets up their bottoms… It’s like a whole new world opened up to us all.”

As such, the theme and art style came first with Inkulinati, with the genre “falling naturally into place” soon after. While the main thrust of the action is turn-based strategy in a recognisable form – different units with different strengths and weaknesses, different approaches for players favouring alternative strategies and so on, this too ties in with the game’s look.

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The presentation really is sublime, and holds you tightly in its thematic grip.

As it turns out, the action is being drawn on the fly by the medieval illuminators who inspired Inkulinati – and sometimes, just like when an animator wanted to rub out Bugs Bunny, the hand that holds the quill gets in on the action, too. Fists can smash the opposition, units can be moved around by hand, obstacles can be drawn to slow down progress – it’s a neat touch, mixing mechanics with the overall presentation, and goes to show this is more than just a gimmick from the young team at Yaza Games.

From a storyline perspective, these manuscripts come alive thanks to ‘the living ink’, a substance that brings these animals to life on the pages, and one hoarded and used solely by… well, the secretive Inkulinati. Obviously. But it’s not a game aimed at conspiracy theorists; instead, it aims to bring in strategy fans alongside those who enjoy medieval themes.

“We hope we can reach others, too,” Janas says. “People that enjoy a Monty Python-esque sense of humour, playing against their friends, and those that like to play something perhaps a little bit different. But deep down, I guess we are making a game that 700-year-old medieval scribes would want to play themselves. That’s our target market!”

Jokes aside, Yaza Games is… putting the jokes aside. Inkulinati isn’t a comedy game per se; while its presentation raises a fair few smiles and it’s being marketed as ‘Look at this kooky project!’ (it does stand out, after all), the underlying game is focused, and the attention to detail requires the team maintain a level of accuracy in what it presents.

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Many dog owners will have seen this sight on a field at dusk, though the dog won’t have been carrying a sword and the rabbit won’t have had a shield. Hmm.

“As fun as it might be to have a bazooka in our game, it just doesn’t fit the overall vision,” Janas says. “However, most of the work was done by the medieval illuminators – those guys had a wicked sense of humour.”

That accuracy has been a bit of a negative – in the loosest sense – to the team, mind. “These artworks were created in a specific time, with specific meanings,” Janas explains. “It would be disrespectful to just ignore the deeper historical context, and just use them willy-nilly, however much we like them.

“So we do a lot of research behind each character, and we work closely with a professional medievalist (the absolutely fantastic Łukasz [Kozak] from Discarding Images) to make sure that the time period is relevant, that the character’s moves and skills are realistic, and to make sure that it all fits the larger context.”

Respect and honour is the approach, rather than just co-opting an artistic style and cramming in a game around it. Plus, in using such a unique look for a video game, Yaza ends up without much else to draw inspiration from, at least from a presentation angle.

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The artist’s hand coming into play harks back to the old Looney Tunes jokes of the same style.

“It’s always handy to see what other people did with the style that you developed, but in our case, there aren’t that many,” Janas says. “Marginalia Hero is the only other game that comes to mind. So we have to ‘invent’ mechanics or UI ourselves and test it over and over again to see if they ‘work’. But they’re not really negatives per se – it’s fun to see and work things out as you go along. You feel like an explorer a little bit, or a mad scientist.”

With a small core team behind Inkulinati, progress has been slow but steady. Helped out by folks outside the studio, like the aforementioned medievalist, an external musician, and with dev and QA support from Pineapple Works, the project is coming together nicely.

And just like the simple inspiration for the game, Janas has simple aims for Inkulinati once it releases: “Honestly, we hope that the game will be well-received and that we can sell enough copies of it so that we can make a second game. That would be fantastic.”

Genre: Turn-based strategy
Format: PC
Developer: Yaza Games
Publisher: Yaza Games
Release:__ TBC 2020

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