Some of the best coming-of-age stories take place during tumultuous times of war, revolution, and disaster, but what about graduating from high school watching your near-inevitable doom in the greatest catastrophe ever to hit Earth? That’s a rough outline. This is the setting of “Goodbye Volcano High”. This work is a dramatic, narrative-driven tale of clumsy virgin avian teenagers in the midst of a transition that the rest of their lives are waiting for..
Montreal-based indie studio KO_OP has been working on Goodbye Volcano High for several years now, and the tale of prehistoric high school life is coming to PS4 and PS5 soon. We spoke with the game’s director, Kyle McKernan, to dig even deeper into character writing, narrative discussion, and how mini-games are woven into the fabric of the sprawling drama.
stone age drama
“The central themes of ‘Goodbye Volcano High’ are love, friendship, and young people facing what feels like an inevitable catastrophe,” McKernan said. “The game explores what it means to embrace family and find one in times of crisis, and the different ways people deal with impending disaster. Our focus was on how we reconcile all our desires, needs, goals and love when the time to close is short.”
Being a teenager is not easy, no matter what race you are. The story of Goodbye Volcano High School often tackles difficult themes such as love, dealing with other people’s expectations, drug use, and the looming fear of premature death. “Creating the story was challenging because we had to explore serious and often difficult topics ourselves and translate them into our characters,” continues McKernan. “Facing death is not an easy thing to reflect on, and it’s not easy to focus on it, especially after all these years of growing up. It was important to us to honor those feelings in the story, and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get it as right as possible.”
Difficult situations sometimes mean making difficult choices, and we get a direct peek into protagonist Fang’s mind when faced with a difficult decision. “Our UI can reflect Fang’s thoughts to the player. When players make choices, they’re not just choosing something, they’re looking at what Fang is thinking, what they want to do, what they’re going to say.”
The key to creating a compelling story is the characters you love (or hate). Students at Volcano High School include: Fang is an aspiring vocalist for an indie band. Songwriter and guitarist Trish. An extraordinary lead who is both a drummer and a dungeon master. Shy student council president Naomi. And Fang’s younger brother, the straight-laced class president Nasser.
To help the story connect with the player, the KO_OP team paid special attention to developing the personalities of these central characters, along with many other faces of Volcano High School. “Our focus is on getting the player to see themselves in the character in some way,” McKernan said. “In the game, players have more tools at their disposal to do so, as they directly engage and influence the game itself. We want players to get into Fang’s mind and naturally derive the experience that comes from it.
McKernan said the core cast went through quite a few iterations as development progressed. “Our characters went through a lot of revision and refocus as the overall narrative and atmosphere of the game settled into place. “
Ultimately, McKernan wants players to feel connected to the gang. “We wanted the player to feel what the characters feel in the game. Not only fear and anxiety (we have enough of them in the real world), but also love, friendship, creativity and hope are amplified in the face of immense peril. For us, authentic characters are essential to any narrative art, so it was very important that the characters’ actions, thoughts, and feelings felt authentic, especially as it allowed us to feel connected to our work.”
One of the main elements of the story is Fang and Trish’s band, VVORM DRAMA. Bands are more than just background information. Some parts of the game require you to play a rhythm mini-game to jam. As McKernan explains, these parts are just as emotional as the rest of the game. “It was important to create a rhythm mechanic that allowed the player to become part of the music without being overly challenging, in order to make the moment of playing the music emotionally glowing.
However, there’s also some experiential gameplay that helps you get ready for what’s happening right now, rather than just alternating between making decisions and playing songs. “There are moments in-game where you can look at people from all over the world and ponder your thoughts, or see their social media posts that help give a sense of place to the world the characters live in. There are also moments that show the emotions that certain characters are feeling and draw you into those emotions. It helps flesh out relationships and characters on a small scale.”
This prehistoric tale may have been 66 million years in the making, but you don’t have to wait too long to play with Fang and friends. Goodbye Volcano High will be available digitally for his PS5 and PS4 on August 29th.