Immortals Fenyx Rising is an epic, lighthearted romp through Greek mythology, which frames the adventure of Fenyx, a demigod, as a story told by a captive Prometheus to an easily bored Zeus. To find out more, we spoke with Narrative Director Jeffrey Yohalem and Lead Cinematic Designer Michelle Plourde about how the story evolved, the advantages of third-person narration, and the importance of proper comedic timing.
Immortals Fenyx Rising was one of several games that underwent a significant delay late last year. What did that enable you to do that you wouldn't have been able to do originally?
Jeffrey Yohalem: I was very excited about this undertaking, because I saw an opportunity to include more comedic aspects, to make something very lighthearted. In the games industry, there are a lot of serious games, and so this felt like a fresh opportunity. We had to be careful with the timing and delivery of the jokes, and so because of the additional time, I was able to work more closely with the actors, doing a rough version of the entire script, getting the timing really down, and then recording a final version.
Michelle Plourde: It gave us more time to refine exactly what this game is about, and our vision for what we wanted from this game. I think it gave us more time to actually pinpoint the kind of areas we wanted to really refine, to get that really good experience that we were looking for.
In terms of narrative and my department, the additional time gave us the opportunity to look at underdeveloped characters, or underexposed myths that we could bring more to life. It did go through somewhat of a tonal shift, but I think that’s just the iterative process of making games. We just felt like this was natural for us, so it wasn't like a big shift, like night and day.
Was there a turning point when that tonal shift started?
JY: I was playing through the early work that had been done, and there was this moment where Fenyx enters Tartaros and falls on their face, and then stands up and blows a kiss at the camera. And that made me laugh, and I thought, “Hey, this is interesting, this moment. What if the whole game was like this?” And that was it, that was the grain of sand where the inspiration came from.
Also, I feel like Greek mythology is incredibly funny, and a lot of the popular examinations of it leave out that humor, and I felt like bringing that to the forefront would really make it fresh again.
Third-person narration is an unusual plot device in videogames; how did you decide on that approach? How does it affect your approach to the work?
JY: It provides many advantages in a game, because in a lot of videogames, the protagonist has to talk to themselves very often to help the player out. You know, like “Oh, this door is locked, I can't get in,” which can sometimes feel very clunky. Therefore, when you have a narrator, that becomes more natural, because it's like reading a book. Then adding the comedy angle makes it even more fun, because then it can be jokes about what's going on on-screen, with the narrators responding to what the player is doing.
MP: It's something that we can utilize in our scenes in a different way than just having the scene speak for itself. We can have them narrate over what's happening, and therefore influence what's happening on-screen, so having that external element to explain what's happening gives us a lot of fun, also. If we don't have narrators and it's just the player coming up on something in the world, sometimes we would use a self-monologue or make the player talk to himself, which can be unnatural. But if we use the narrators, Prometheus and Zeus, we can use them as a way to just tell what the player is feeling at this time. To use them in that sense was super different, because we could also just take whatever they were saying and actually produce it on-screen.
How did you decide on Zeus and Prometheus specifically to tell this story (as a comedic duo, no less)?
JY: You always look for drama and conflict; Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock for all eternity for stealing fire to help the humans, and then he needs Prometheus’ help in the game. Therefore, you have two people who used to be friends, there's this history there, but now there's this antagonism, and so that creates energy, which is great for storytelling. So I felt like they were the best choice for that kind of antagonistic but also comedic energy, like “The Odd Couple.”
Greek mythology seems like very well-trodden ground. How do you bring a fresh take to it?
JY: Well, for me, that was treating it as a modern comedy. For the ancient Greeks, what was so central to these myths was that it was their entertainment. It was their reality TV, and the gods were not perfect; these are characters who make huge mistakes that are very human, but are also loved for that. It’s teaching you about life, but not from the “This is the way you need to behave” perspective, and the gods are so entertaining.
I felt like the way to make this fresh is to take that spirit and actually run with it, to treat them as fallible and human. Fenyx is thrust into the middle of that. You help each of the gods return to a central home, and then the conflicts between them start, and you get to see that fire cascade, and it's very funny. This was an opportunity to update mythology, to bring it back to its original purpose of entertainment and teaching us about life and humanity.
MP: I think, for this specific game, we can modernize Greek mythology for today's times just by utilizing current language and expressions. We've heard these stories throughout our lives, and we know the stories behind these characters, like Zeus or Prometheus. But modernizing it in a certain way, and trying to make a comedy about it, and having relevant references to relatable content, like pop culture, was fun. It made it like digestible in a sense. And I know more about Greek mythology now than I ever did, because now I'm paying attention, because it's relevant to me.
I think just the way that it's written is a big part of it, and the way that it's acted, the way that they're speaking. They're relatable characters to us, because they are speaking our language. It's just the way that they're speaking, and the way that they’re acting is super, like, it could be your friend. So just that, I think, breathes life back into these stories.
What’s something that came out of the extra time that you were able to do in Immortals Fenyx Rising that you were particularly proud of?
MP: I think the way that we collaborated with the writers to really get to the point that we are currently is, like, we're super proud of it. Additionally, the way that we pushed ourselves to take what we did from Assassin's Creed Odyssey, and pull back away from that to try to create a new kind of cinematic experience for the players. This story is kind of like a comedy; it's lighthearted, so that kind of influenced the language, like the camera language or the camera styles that we were going to use, and I think just that challenge within itself to create this kind of new visual on screen was super-rewarding for us. It really showed on-screen when we started looking at scenes; we were like, “Hey, this is funny because we kind of did this camera movement at this time,” so hitting comedic timing was super-hard for us, but at the same time super-rewarding. So I think for us that's what really made us proud of the game as a whole.
So what's the secret to good comedic timing?
MP: [laughs] Yeah, that's super hard. Actually, I come from an animation background, and I did a lot of films and stuff like that. I think it kind of comes with experience, and also looking at film comedies; you get a sense of how they time certain things. Sometimes it's about cutting a line short and being interrupted, or having a quick camera cut to a certain object at a certain time. I think it's just something that you grow into with experience.
Immortals Fenyx Rising launches on December 3 for Stadia, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PS4, PC including UPLAY+, and will also come to PS5. For more on the game, check out our full preview and our ongoing coverage.