Playing with History – Illuminating the insane game world of Inkulinati

Have you ever found yourself vacantly scrolling through your twitter feed? Perhaps you’ve just popped the kettle on and are looking to while away the next minute or so in the toxic dustbin that is social media? Suddenly, amidst the dross, you spot a particularly peculiar tweet and find yourself uttering ‘What…the…hell?’ in shocked tones.

This happened to me the other day, and not for the usual reasons of Trump, Brexit, or Z-list celebrity roundhouse kicking bottle tops. Instead it was my discovery of Inkulinati, a brilliantly bizarre offering from Indie games studio Yaza Games.

Inkulinati is a turn-based strategy game. What sets it apart from thousands of other titles in that genre is that it’s a turn-based strategy game set in the pages of a medieval illuminated manuscript. The player takes on the role of an illuminator who, using the magical power of the ‘living ink’, paints armies of anthropomorphic animal warriors to send into battle. Spear wielding rabbit soldiers hack apart literal dog soldiers in a spray of black ink, cheeky donkeys spread their ample cheeks to gleefully make the trumpet wedged inside parp, and even the illuminator gets involved, slamming an armoured fist down on the page to squash the hapless creature beneath it.

I had to know more about the insanity I’d just witnessed. And what better way to do that than by having a chat with Inkulinati’s designer, Wojtek, and artist Dorota?

TSA: What was the moment of inspiration for you and the team to create a game based around illuminated manuscripts?

Wojtek: It all happened in the last months of our Game Design School course. For our last project, we had to create a prototype of a game and to be honest, we had no idea what our game should be! Then one day in class, our artist Dorota started showing us these crazy medieval drawings placed on the margins of manuscripts – around or below the main text. They were medieval marginalia, a miniature world that doesn’t operate by man’s laws.

We saw snails eating knights, bunnies attacking dogs with swords – it was nuts! We’d never seen anything like this before, and the more we looked at them, the more all of us got excited. That was the moment when we fell in love with medieval illuminations and marginalia. That was the moment when we knew what the game is going to look (and feel) like.

Real-life medieval marginalia – Yaza Games’ inspiration.
(Summer volume of the Breviary of Renaud/Marguerite de Bar, Metz ca. 1302-1305)

TSA: Was there a particular historical period of illuminated manuscripts that you chose as the aesthetic for your game? Or is it a mish mash of several different periods?

Dorota: After long research, and multiple consultations with a medievalist (who is the creator of Discarding Images), we chose our art setting to be inspired by the medieval European manuscripts of 11th to 14th centuries. All of our illustrated references were made by hand; we chose manuscripts made before the invention of Gutenberg’s printing machine.

Thanks to the digitization of these medieval books, I was able to browse them online and choose the main references for our visual style. I was looking for a drawing style that would be most useful in the technical aspects of our game (for animations, to communicate with the player through graphics and colours, etc.) and one that would suit me and be easy to reproduce. After long research sessions, we have several main manuscripts that I use as references most often.

TSA: I noticed from the screenshots that you also use a colour palette that you would tend to find in illuminated manuscripts – predominantly blue, red, yellow, green and gold – can you tell me more about how you researched and decided on your visuals?

Dorota: After choosing the main manuscripts, I tried to reproduce illustrations from them and drew many sketches by hand in ink and digitally to learn the style assumptions. After several attempts, I found a style based on historical references, but at the same time being our own style as well. We also talk a lot about game mechanics, law and orders in our imaginary world, and game genre. After choosing a turn-based strategy genre and 2D platformer-kind of world, I try to create all of the graphics to look like medieval manuscript drawings that would also be useful be the player.

I try to use colours, shapes, and other references exactly as they appear in manuscripts. It’s hard to make a game looking like ours and be playable, clear, and understandable at the same time. It is also important for me that every detail, like the shape of the sword, the clothes of the character, or the effects of the fire look like they’ve been taken from a real manuscript. In addition to reviewing manuscripts, I am also looking for information about what ordinary life was like at the time. Every detail helps us build immersion.

Wojtek: All of our units and the game’s visual style is based on these ancient manuscripts. A lot of libraries and museums have digitized those scripts, making it easier for us to flick through them and get inspired. We also work very closely with a medievalist, who makes sure that what we do is as close to being as authentic as possible. And we have a very dedicated and knowledgeable community, who are always willing to help us out. I guess we are able to do what we do because of the passion of others towards this ancient art and that’s what’s really cool about it.

TSA: Where did the idea come from to have anthropomorphic animals as the characters? And do those anthropomorphic qualities of the animals dictate the way they behave in the game? Attacks, movement, special abilities, that kind of thing?

Wojtek: All of those crazy animals and characters weren’t created by us, they’re a figment of the imagination of people that were here hundreds of years ago in the past! The illuminators from 700 years ago were the ones that created donkeys with trumpets, dogs with spears, and more. They are our concept artists.

Dorota: We try to include in our game true medieval humour and beliefs about that world; It is not only about the visual style. Many of these drawings present beliefs and legends living in the imagination of medieval society and describe reality in a perverse and witty way.

For example, rabbits back then were considered as pure, helpless, and passive creatures. Even Jesus was surrounded by them in medieval texts. Rabbits were portrayed as victims too (In the Medieval era a significant proportion of the French economy was based on eating and skinning rabbits). But when it came to marginalia, rabbits turned to pure machines of terror, killing knights and anything else they came across. Amused medieval artists show us a world where rabbits get their revenge. A world upside-down where the hunter becomes the hunted.

Wojtek: And yes, our units will be influenced by their appearance and physical traits. For example, our snails are big beasts, which means that they will move a little bit slower on the pages of the battlefield. Actually, it’s quite fun to design each unit’s properties. It brings out a lot of laughs!

Dorota: The artistic department (actually, me!) works closely with the game director and designer, Wojtek. He creates game mechanics and I am looking for visual references best suited to a given problem. After determining the appearance and function of a new unit, we consult with the medievalist so that each unit’s appearance, meaning and symbolism corresponds to our historical references.

Sometimes we see a strange character in the manuscript and decide to add it to our units. Wojtek invents mechanics based on its appearance and I draw it in our style and animate.

TSA: What type of creature or character in your game best represents you and the other members of the team?

Wojtek: To get in the mood of Spook-tober, and to go with the “poor indie devs who can’t afford food” narrative, here we are, as skeletons from Hours of Saint-Omer, France ca. 1320. And most likely, that’s how we all gonna look like by the time Inkulinati is out!

Thanks to Wojtek and Dorota for answering our questions. Inkulinati will be released in 2020. To find out more about the game head to its Steam page. You can also keep up to date with all things Inkulinati over on Yaza Games’ Facebook and Twitter feeds. 

Written by
Ade reviews video games. He writes Playing With History. Read more of Ade's stuff at www.adewritesstuff.com