Often, a video game is based on someone’s own personal experience in life. Such is the case with A Highland Song, a game close to the heart of inkle co-founder, Joseph Humfrey. This is why I jumped at the chance to sit down with him during WASD London 2023 to ask some questions.
The game itself stars Moira McKinnon, the fifteen-year-old protagonist. Thanks to living with her mum in a small house at the edge of the Scottish Highlands, Moira has never seen the sea. One day she gets a letter from her Uncle Hamish urging her to come to the coast. According to Uncle Hamish, if she gets to his lighthouse by the solstice, a wonderful surprise awaits her. With little else to prompt her, she runs away towards the distant coast.
An Ode to the Scottish Highlands
Much like inkle’s other work, A Highland Song is a narrative game with a many, many-branched storyline. It does break tradition by being a 2.5D side-scroller, rather than having adventure-type gameplay. Visually, it has the aesthetics of a Studio Ghibli film and has folk music from two award-winning Scottish bands, Talisk and Fourth Moon.
As previously mentioned, Joseph’s experiences as a teenager in the Scottish Highlands were a key inspiration for A Highland Song. Does this mean his teenage years were filled with rhythmic music and survival elements? Let’s find out!
There are aspects of your past embedded throughout, but is there a specific part of the game you resonate most with?
JH: “I mean, I guess the entire concept isn’t something I would call autobiographical. Rather, it’s strongly influenced by my foolish exploits in the Highlands as a teenager. I grew up in Scotland and had an amazing teacher who used to take kids camping in the wilds. It was an incredible experience. Unfortunately, when we were teenagers, and my friend got his first car, we were a bit too overenthusiastic. Four of us drove into the Highlands and basically got lost. We walked across the wrong ridge, down the wrong valley, and we just got more and more lost.”
“It was around the time that the first Lord Of The Rings film came out, and we had grand ideas of being Aragorn running over mountains. We were eventually found by a deer stalker. He rescued us and drove us back across the hills in his Landrover.”
“People can really underestimate the Highlands. It’s not like the Lake District or Wales even. These places may look similar, and for the most part, civilization is nearby. Whereas, in the Highlands, there are miles and miles of just nothing. A lot of the hills look the same. I still love the Highlands, but they can be a scary experience. Part of the theme of the game is that it echoes both the beauty and the danger. We really tried to capture that feeling.”
I still love the Highlands, but they can be a scary experience. Part of the theme of the game is that it echoes both the beauty and the danger. We really tried to capture that feeling.
Why the shift in gameplay genre? Did you want some new challenges?
JH: “We’re very restless as game designers, we don’t like to sit within one genre. I was also playing Breath of the Wild on my Nintendo Switch, and that inspired me to think about the concept of spending time out in nature. Experiencing an open space but in 2.5D rather than 3D. I will admit there is a certain complexity that comes with 3D games. It was about wanting a game that lets you freely explore a 2.5D space, but also has all of the substance and drama of a really good narrative. This is what our studio specialises in. The game basically evolved from that point. I originally imagined quite strategic elements of survival. Those elements are still there, but they aren’t as heavy-handed as they were previously. There are elements of rhythm games in there too, but at the heart, it’s still a narrative adventure game.”
How was Moira conceptualized? Where did she come from?
JH: “She isn’t quite as old as I was when I got lost in the Highlands. She’s still a child. The nice thing about having a child as a protagonist is that allows us to tell fairytales. We can draw a lot from Scottish Celtic mythology, and even invent some of our own. As adults we are quite cynical, there are quite a few myths we just really don’t believe in. As children, we don’t really know what is and what isn’t quite real.”
“When Moira has relatives tell her stories about the Highlands, she can conceptualize something like an eagle or deer being much more capable than in reality. We can have fantastical things happen in-game. We can draw on the genre of magical realism, which are very grounded narrative but have elements of fantasy. They could maybe be explained away as natural phenomena, or maybe heightened versions of reality. Having her as a younger character lets us include that in a natural way.”
As adults we are quite cynical, there’s quite a few myths we just really don’t believe in. As children we don’t really know what is and what isn’t quite real.
Music from the award-winning Scottish bands Talisk and Fourth Moon are featured throughout the game, can you tell me what it was like working with them?
JH: “It has been absolutely incredible. We feel really lucky to have had the chance to work with some really incredible bands. Some of their YouTube videos have had millions of views, and we are really delighted to be working with them. Their music is fully licensed, which means it wasn’t originally written for the game. It is authentic Scottish folk music though. They are fully independent, so we didn’t have to talk to a music label to negotiate with them. That makes a massive difference. We could just talk to them person-to-person, and really find a licensing deal that we were all happy with. It was done in a completely hand-tailored way, something that wouldn’t have happened with a man-in-the-middle music label. It’s been amazing having a personal relationship with them.”
“We do also have music in the game from our usual composer. There is an original soundtrack in there, in addition to the songs from Talisk and Fourth Moon. Our composer has contributed the best of what he does, which is this cinematic orchestral style. That really compliments well with the folk music.”
The game releases for both PC and Nintendo Switch in 2023. Is there a particular reason why the Switch was your console of choice?
JH: “You know, our company started making games for iOS because we were big fans of Apple and Apple devices. We started by making things on a platform we had a lot of passion for. The Nintendo Switch is now a platform we’ve become very passionate about as players ourselves. It fits that spot for us of relaxing on a sofa at the end of the day, but also having a handheld device we can take anywhere. It’s amazingly adaptable.”
“It’s also been a good platform for us financially too. Our latest game have been equally successful on both Steam and Switch. The fact that it has worked out that way is absolutely fantastic for us.”
Many thanks to Joseph Humfrey for sitting down with me during WASD London 2023, especially at such an early time too! He was even able to show me the game working on a Steam Deck, another handheld device he seemed very passionate about. A Highland Song will release for PC and Nintendo Switch in 2023 and joins the likes of 80 Days and Heaven’s Vault in inkle’s portfolio of work.