Interview With Aoineko Studios’ Ben Steele

Aoineko Studios, a veteran of the indie film industry, is crossing over to iOS with the massive RPG project, Kitaru! The project’s Kickstarter page just went live today. Here’s our chat with studio lead Ben Steele to find out more.

So what does “aoineko” mean exactly, and how does the studio name relate to your artistic vision? Would you describe Aoineko as geographically distributed and reliant on the Internet for communication or do you all live in the same area?

Aoineko means “blue cat” in Japanese. It was the name of a hovercar I made for a digital art installation in 2003. I decided to make it my company name because it represents a combined focus on art and futurism without taking itself too seriously. For this project, Kitaru, I have volunteers from around the world – England, Italy, Germany and Argentina – as well as across the US. It’s a pretty amazing feeling to wake up every morning and realize I have these talented people around the world helping me bring my gaming vision to reality. I’ve worked at game companies that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on projects that didn’t get as far along as Kitaru is right now, on a budget of zero!

I wish we could really dive into your experience in the indie animated film scene, but I’ll link to this lovely interview you did with Cyberpunk Review so our readers can get more background on that. But could you briefly tell us about your experience working on Fragile Machine, one of Aoineko’s early large-scale multimedia projects?

Fragile Machine was a labor of love. It was inspired by my time spent living in Taiwan and specifically a visit I took with my friends to a place the locals call “Ghost Mountain.” I spent three years producing those 30 minutes of animation. Some of the characters were things I’d modeled when I was 15 years old, so it had a ridiculously long overall development time. But despite how rudimentary some of the animation is, my proudest moment as an artist came from that film, when a fellow animator who had lost his son told me that Fragile Machine made him happy, because it reminded him that someday they would be reunited. It’s pretty rare to get a compliment like that.

What drove you to make the leap from film to videogames with Kitaru?

Well, for me, Kitaru is more of a return to my roots in the interactive world. In 2004, Rockstar Games awarded me both Grand Prize and First Place in their Upload competition for interactive art. So with Kitaru, I am trying to bring that sensibility into a full game. Games are a fantastic storytelling medium and I have over 1,000 pages of plot and backstory for Kitaru. So players should be able to find clues and secrets everywhere they turn in the game and hopefully find an experience in it unlike anything they’ve played before.

And just how long has Kitaru been in the works? I’m seeing news blurbs on the studio website for it going as far back as 2008!

I started writing Kitaru in 2006 and considered making a game for it as early as 2008, but the timing wasn’t right. After finding other tech companies like CaptiveMotion and Motion Analysis Studios to help me out, I began putting together the team we now have in place.

Tell us a little about Kitaru’s world and story. Are there any connections to previous works like Fragile Machine, either direct or just spiritually/thematically? The Orwellian themes are obvious, but I’m really curious about how David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia factors in as one of your influences?

Yes, all of my stories take place on a world called Sen Four. The city represented in Fragile Machine, called Neroma Kai’, is south of Taifa, the nation where Kitaru’s story begins. Fragile Machine’s story predates Kitaru by about 70 years. So I guess Fragile Machine is like my Silmarillion! As far as other influences go, Orwell is huge, as is Lewis Carroll, Frank Herbert and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. David Lean films inspire me because of their ability to be epic yet intensely personal, which is what I want for Kitaru.

It looks like you’re also dabbling in language invention. How developed is Yuna nowadays, and what role does it play in Kitaru’s story?

The Yuna are one of four tribes in Kitaru, and the originator of a language that rival tribe Saph has outlawed. The Yuna language has its own grammar structure, alphabet and three distinct dialects. I think a unique language can give a fantasy world weight if done properly. Its usage reveals things about the warring culture, and as the story progresses, a player can achieve certain strategic goals through using it that are otherwise impossible.

The thing that impresses me most about the CG cutscene footage released so far is how well-synced the characters’ lips are to the audio. Did you have a huge adventure in motion capture, or did you bring in any techniques you’d developed during your earlier film work?

Yeah, we worked with the team at CaptiveMotion for those scenes and they are awesome guys. They’ve done Alan Wake and a lot of other big projects, so having them help on Kitaru was an amazing experience.