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Interview: Exploring Ancient China In Total War: Three Kingdoms

I think I'm learning Chinese!

Total War is heading somewhere it’s never been before with Three Kingdoms, taking us back to 190AD and a time of civil war in ancient China. Three kingdoms have emerged to vie for power as a cruel dictatorship crumbles, and it’s up to you to pick a side, or more accurately a character to guide through the turmoil.

Catch our preview here, but with so many new ideas in the game, from character relations to wushu film hero combat, we spoke to not one, not two, but three of the senior developers at Creative Assembly. They were: Leif Walter, Senior Designer, Pawel Wojs, Art Director and Peter Stewart, Writer. Which of the three would emerge victorious? Read on to find out!


TSA: Are you guys hoping that you get to do a direct sequel to Total War: Three Kingdoms, just so you can have a game that sounds like a football score?

[Laughter]

Pawel: No, we haven’t… but now we will! I think that, yeah, when we discuss future expansion content, we’ll bring it up.

Peter: You’ve gone straight to the hard questions!

TSA: Sorry, I just had to start with the most difficult ones! [laughs]

TSA: More seriously, what was the inspiration behind choosing this setting and time period? Was it key for you to pick something completely different that we’d not seen before?

Pawel: Yes! That was the key. It started with that idea; we wanted to do something that we hadn’t done before, and that came with the time period and the setting of ancient China.

Leif: We always look for interesting and vibrant periods in history like Ancient Rome and all these things. 190AD China is certainly an interesting period with lots of conflicts, characters and personas emerging from the crumbling Han empire. It was the perfect setting really for a Total War game.

Obviously we had the two main sources of Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel and the historical accounts in the records. So that was a nice lens for us to use.

Peter: I think better than most periods in history it gives us an opportunity to focus on the characters, because there’s so many vibrant, amazing people that drive it forward.

TSA: It feels since Total War: Warhammer that there has been a much bigger focus on trying to put stories in the games. Thrones of Britannia as well was quite story driven, I felt. Is that the same here?

Pawel: Well, what kind of sweetened the deal for this particular period was that there was the combination of those two sources, the historical account of the period as the reference we would normally use for a Total War game, and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel. It’s fiction, but it’s historical fiction, it’s 80-85% accurate and 15-20% fictional. It’s an amazing combination where we have this historical text plus the interpersonal relationships and narrative that give a personalised view into the period.

Leif: The Romance novel had really nice examples where we could look at the game and say, “OK, we can build a really nice system around these interactions.” We didn’t just want to tell the story by events, we want to bring it into the gameplay. You’ll build friendships with other characters, or rivalries will grow, and it’s all based on what you’re actually doing.

[It was later clarified to us that there are also many of the key events from Romance of the Three Kingdoms represented by quest battles in the game,which appear as optional challenges]

TSA: So the stories that you get while you’re playing the game are more based off what you’re doing, as opposed to the kinds of quest battles and key moments?

Peter: It’s built to reflect what you do in the relationships. So if you’re friends with someone, that might bear itself out a few turns later even if you’re not in the same faction, whereas if you’re enemies and you meet on the battlefield, you’ll be throwing jibes and insults at each other because that’s the way you played the game to that point.

Pawel: The idea is to build a sandbox. Whether Romance or Records [the Classic mode], it’s still a sandbox, so the narrative is what you make. What we give you is all those amazing character relationships, the ‘guanxi’, the social network of characters all derived from the book. All of those relationships we know because of the stories.

We know because of the focus given to honour, to brotherhood, to family, fealty to your lord and the desire to work for a worthy master, and how that’s in conflict with enemy factions because of the segmented civil war state. You and your sworn brother from childhood might have been separated by the conflict, and you’re both serving worthy lords, but you’re on two different sides.

Leif: That’s one of the main things, that characters aren’t just in one faction like they were in previous games. They move around, so a character might work for Cao Cao, and then five years later he works for Cao Cao’s enemy. There’s this movement, so maybe you will employ someone who fought against you before? All this character movement helps to build these stories.

Pawel: And these stories are dynamic and changing. Every playthrough is going to be different based on the relationships before and the actions that you take.

TSA: I just realised how I should frame this interview: there’s three of you, there’s three kingdoms…

[laughter]

Peter: Which one’s which?

TSA: Yeah, which kingdom do you each represent?

Leif: Peter reminds me of Cao Cao…

Pawel: I like Dong Wu as a kingdom.

Peter: I’d forge my own kingdom!

TSA: So you’d be a forth kingdom?

Peter: It’s the sequel, right?

TSA: I thought that was going to be the football game?

TSA: It feels like these relationships make for the perfect opportunity to go root and branch into diplomacy and figure out a better way of dealing with that. I’ve felt for a long time this was a weakness in the game, where it feels almost impossible to get someone to be your vassal, so I just wipe them out and be done with it…

Leif: This game’s perspective is that you’re not choosing a nation to play or a faction, you play as the character that’s leading that faction. So let’s say you choose Cao Cao, you will build these relationships with people and that will obviously feed into diplomacy. If you forge a brotherhood with another character and that character becomes faction leader of another faction, this will heavily influence how you interact in diplomacy with each other.

So these character relations will feed into various game systems and really drive your campaign forward.

TSA: There was something mentioned about spies in the presentation, and how this takes over from the agents that you often had in the past. How does this actually figure in the game?

Pawel: You don’t have agents, you don’t have spies, you have characters. These characters can spy for you, but they are the character. So let’s say I have a top general, a man of talent who’s willing to spy…

TSA: Do you get a resume? “Top general, will spy”? [laughs]

Pawel: You get exactly that! You get a resume where you get to see where they’ve been before, and that might you make you suspicious. Like, he has worked for your enemy before, so maybe he is a spy?

But if someone is willing to spy, which is a trait, then you can send them out to spy for you. The faction may or may not take him on, into whatever position they want to place him in. He could be a general, he could be a governor, it depends, but that position determines what he can perform. […]

When they’re a general you can literally see them walking around with their army. You’ve got vision. The enemy faction could potentially send your own guy to attack you, right? But then you could perform a hostile action where he takes the army. If he’s a governor, maybe you see the whole province. If you leave him there for 20 years and his faction leader trusts him, maybe he’s promoted to faction heir and then you could spark a civil war. Activate your sleeper agent!

Leif: The really important thing is that it’s not about sending a special character class somewhere, they’re just characters. Some of your own characters might actually be spying for an enemy; their allegiance might be with another lord, and all of this helps add a little paranoia…

TSA: Coming to the battles, it feels like you’ve brought back a lot of the micromanagement in having formations, unit actions, and particularly in Romance mode where you can fiddle with the hero abilities.

Leif: In Romance mode a single character can totally change the tide of battle if you use them correctly and trigger that ability at the right moment. Classic mode, it’s more about where’s my line? How do I flank? It’s more traditional strategic gameplay.

TSA: Were you inspired by things like Dynasty Warriors and Wushu cinema for the look of the duels adn hero combat?

Pawel: Less Dynasty Warriors and more Wushu cinema. We said from the very beginning that even though Wushu wasn’t a thing during this period, it’s something that people have come to expect from martial combat, be it a game or a movie. That’s why we had to do Wushu, but we’ve grounded in reality.

Leif: The look we try to have is a very modern take on the historical material. The art style is very much inspired by a modern painter painting these historical landscapes, so it doesn’t look like parchment.

Pawel: Yeah, we moved away from the skeumorphic panels of the UI to something much more freeform, with flowing ink that falls into the visuals of the 3D space.

But going back to the fighting, we don’t want to go too fantastical, because the key was that even in Romance mode it is still so very history-based. It’s more about telling the story through the lens of a simple peasant and how he feels looking at these armour clad warriors riding past and taking on ten guys, then telling the story of how he witnessed this warrior taking on a hundred men! It’s those kinds of Chinese Whispers, tales and legends.

TSA: Finally, has it been fun learning to pronounce Chinese words and names properly?

Pawel: We’re still learning! It’s an ongoing process. For me, it was just incredibly fun to learn about the period and read the book.

Peter: You don’t realise how it’s super important to Chinese culture. It’s a real cornerstone to their culture.

Pawel: To this day, there’s so many sayings and quotes from the novel. […]

Leif: As with all our games, we hope that players can really immerse themselves in the world, get interested in it, learn about it and maybe get curious to pick up on things outside the game.


Thanks to Leif, Pawel and Peter for talking to us about Total War: Three Kingdoms. Make sure to check out our preview from the Ambush of Sun Ren battle, which will be available to play by the public at Gamescom next week. Total War: Three Kingdoms is due for release in 2019.

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