Five Elements Interview with CEO Ivan Pestrikov
Five Elements is a new puzzle game with the aesthetics of Chinese culture and Taoism. It caught my eye because I find it rare for a puzzle game to delve into a topic like this. Usually, puzzle games tend to keep their noses clean. I often see the same match three mechanics wrapped up in varying colour schemes without a great deal of innovation. Not something I have a problem with since I have sunk more hours than I care to admit into games like Fat Princess and still find them satisfying. It is just something special when that cycle is broken and something different comes along. One such game that jumps to mind is Monument Valley‘s puzzle mechanics and beautiful aesthetics.
I’m curious about Five Elements since it does seem to be breaking the norm with its unusual theme. Rather than pure speculation, I thought it best to ask a few questions, so today’s interview is with Ivan Pestrikov who is the CEO at New Star Games RU. You can also check out Daniel’s review of the game over here.
Simplicity, patience, compassion… Five Elements Interview
What Inspired You To Create A Game With Taoism As A Theme?
My first question, and maybe your first question, is why make a game with a Taoist theme? I have lived in China for quite a while now. I am somewhat used to foreigners exoticizing Taoism. It is the ultimate go to if you are looking for a belief with great soundbites wrapped in a culture many westerners are curious about. When I read about Five Elements I wondered how true it would be to Taoism or if it would purely stop at the aesthetic stage.
Ten years ago, I was in a phase of active spiritual search. Christian by birth, I struggled to stretch my knowledge of things outside the material world. I swallowed tons of books, learned yoga, chi-kung, tai chi, Buddhist meditation, and a dozen other spiritual disciplines. The biggest discovery for me was that all the religions are basically speaking about the same ideas; they all encourage every person to become better, to realize the unlimited potential we carry in ourselves, and, at the end of the road, to become enlightened.
I know that it sounds pretty abstract, but I’ve always wondered why the religions don’t shout about this from every rooftop: even a smallest glimpse of enlightenment gets you really high, without drugs, alcohol, and so on. It’s the purest form of enjoyment you can experience in life. So, if my game will inspire a wish to attain enlightenment in even one human being, the job we’ve done has not been in vain.
Why Taoism? Because it’s a very neutral and practical system of beliefs that can easily be converted into gaming. It does not promote a god. Taoists just learn to manage their own energy, accumulate it, purify it, and use it to reach enlightenment.
It is nice to see a genuine interest in Taoism. Ivan is right, it is a fairly neutral movement without a god to please. I think that is one of its better selling points. A nice book to pick up if you are interested is The Tao of Pooh which uses points about the children’s’ show Winnie the Pooh to talk about Taoism.
How Do You Think It Will Be Received In The West?
Beyond exoticism, it can be difficult to sell a game with an odd or spiritual aesthetic. Religion and spirituality, in general, are iffy waters to traverse. It is something I have warned about in posts I have written in the past such as my infamous To Light Ex Umbra article. Religion is just an alienating topic. I still have a kneejerk dislike to most religions and I know I am not alone in that. Most of the time it is okay if it is something as exotic as Taoism because people haven’t come into contact with it much to make assumptions. A bit like how many of my Chinese students find Christian symbols weird and cool but don’t have any understanding of what they represent or think it is a vampiric cult (a mistake I find too amusing to correct).
Taoism is just a sugar coating around this new and exciting gameplay. Our team spent hundreds of hours honing it, and we will continue doing so according to our players’ feedback. All that matters is if they like it.
I’ll admit I was a tiny bit disappointed by that response but not too surprised. A sugar-coating is often all that consumers can handle for the same reasons I stated before; religion is alienating.
As A Person, What Are Your Thoughts On Taoism As A Practice?
Taoists have a profound system of cultivating inner energy. They use it to help make the body and spirit healthy and strong.I think that every person should try out different practices and discover what works for them. Once you’ve found the right practice, you will not be able to avoid it because you will feel it deep inside. In Christianity, there is a good term for that feeling – bliss. When you feel it, you will know that you’re on the right path.
How Much Is Taoism Actually Present In Five Elements?
After mentioning that Taoism was simply a sugar coating I thought it best to ask how much Taoism is present in Five Elements?
The game revolves around a teacher-student relationship on the path to enlightenment. The teacher’s prototype is Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism. The gameplay itself is based on a real meditation called the “Fusion of Five Elements,” which precedes more advanced practices.
You may or may not be familiar with Lao Tzu but you’ve probably heard some of his quotes. Namely: Give a man a fish, he’s fed for a day, teach a man to fish and he’s fed for the rest of his life. As a side note, bringing up the variation of this; Give a man a fire, he’s warm for a day, set a man on fire and he’s warm for the rest of his life. Doesn’t go down so well at Taoist dinner parties.
Do You Find That Religion Or Politics In Video Games Is Alienating?
Of course, if a game is trying to recruit you it’s a major turn-off. In Five Elements the Teacher speaks only in general terms about all religious concepts: modesty, kindness, love, compassion, unity. I’m not trying to persuade anyone to turn to Taoism. I am a Buddhist myself
How Long Has Five Elements Been In Development?
I’m always curious how long a game has been worked on and in what conditions. Over the years of talking to developers, I’ve heard some fascinating tales. The hardships that come with trying to put a game together between jobs or looking after kids or even with a partner that thinks you should just give up. As a result, it is one of my favourite questions to ask.
For a year. As true indie developers, we didn’t have the ability to work full-time on the game. I woke up at 4 or 5 in the morning, worked 3–4 hours before going to my day job (six days a week), and then I spent all day on Sundays working on its development. It was a tight schedule, but game development is the best job on Earth, so it felt more like a rest from my main job. Today, we are enjoying the opportunity for all of us to work full-time on our second project, “The Rise of Singletone,” a space sandbox in the vein of FTL and Factorio.
Can You Tell Us More About Your New Project The Rise of Singletone?
It’s always nice to see a developer who doesn’t stop. At least, I think so. I’m a little curious to see how different Rise of Singletone is from Five Elements. It is still early days for these developers and because of that, they have a lot of room to experiment and learn.
It’s a story of a distant future, where humanity became extinct many centuries ago and the only inhabitants of the galaxy are robots. Their factions wage endless wars with each other, each holding on to their own beliefs. Some believe that progress and evolution can only be achieved through war, where the strongest survive. Others try to reduce the chaos by recycling all matter in the Universe into a copy of themselves. Some gather huge amounts of energy for no other purpose than just to own it.
However, a tiny robot with a unique Artificial Intelligence (AI), stuck in the middle of battle between the different factions decides to stop the madness. It rebuilds a simple, Faster Than Light (FTL) type of ship from scratch, mining for resources, processing them in a Factorio style. In addition, it designs other ships, trades or fights with other factions, researches incredible technology, and builds its own empire. My main goal is to give the player an ability to automatize almost everything during the game. You start with some routine actions, building machines and other robots, researching advanced programs. You can then enjoy how everyone is working for you. And we have a great feature – you can actually program the robots, machines and ship, using an in-game visual programming language. Of course, this is only if you would like to do so.
This tiny robot will unite the robots and stop all wars. How it does this depends on the player’s choices. In the worst case scenario, it can simply wipe out all of the opponents. However, it can also establish a robot democracy, join all AI’s into the Singletone, or even to create the rebirth of humanity.
The Rise of Singletone sounds quite different from Five Elements in almost every way. It is nice to see that the developers already have hungry eyes on the future. I look forward to hopefully getting to play The Rise of Singletone in the future.
Can You Describe The Central Conflict Of The Game?
When I first came upon Five Elements it was marketed to me as a non-violent game. When emphasised, this is always something that interests me. Conflict in the form of violence is easy after all. Having a clearly defined enemy whether it be a Goombah or a Metroid is straightforward. It is always interesting to me when the central conflict is something more abstract, though.
The ultimate goal of a player is to bring his character to enlightenment, to master Tao, and to become immortal. Like in a real life, the only real enemy that stands in the way is the character himself, his own imperfections, sins, and bad qualities.
Five Elements Is A Non-Violent Game. Do You Think There Should Be More Non-Violent Games On The Market?
Always a heated topic in the gaming community, violent video games get hit the hardest by smack talk in the media. When a developer deliberately makes a non-violent game I like to probe as to why.
The market is overwhelmed with games where violence is the main theme. Our assumption is that there is a niche for a different type of game. I believe that, at some point, maybe after 20 years of gaming like myself, or maybe a bit earlier, players will want something new.
It is something even I find to be true. I tend to like violent games, especially horror like Resident Evil. Overall however, I do find violent games can often be quite samey in their respective niches. This is what makes games like Resident Evi 7 stand out so well when they do a good job. I do appreciate a different approach to gaming conflicts such as This War Of Mine which act as a pallet cleanser. We need a balanced diet of video games to enrich us as people. From narrative focused, to mechanics focused, to violent and non-violent to the occasional pigeon themed dating sim *cough* hmm?
Outside of PC Do You Plan To Bring Five Elements To Mobile Devices Or Vita?
Hush, you all know that my Vita is my baby and that I will always ask this question.
That is greatly dependent on whether players like the game. The Steam auditory has more hardcore and midcore players than any platform. The game is not nearly as simple as Match-3 or other casual games. First, we must earn the favor of the Steam auditory, and then we’ll march forward.
(strokes Vita gently) it is okay baby. I still love you.
What Reactions Do You Expect From Chinese Players?
A hurdle for the Five Elements team is being foreign to China but creating a game exploring something well known in China, Taoism. When I first came to China I was invited to play Mahjong. It was a game I had played hundreds of times on my windows computer since it came preloaded. I quickly learned that the Mahjong on my computer simply didn’t exist in China and just used the same pieces to play a completely different game. It was a little embarrassing.
Having lived here for a while I am still amused by how incredibly wrong my Chinese friends are about some things. A lot of it simply comes down to distance and interest. Vampire Christianity Cult aside I’ve also had people surprised by my lack of promiscuity since people believe all foreigners are ‘DTF’ due to media portrayals and such. My point being that Chinese players could be Five Elements’ harshest critics.
We didn’t expect such a warm reception from the Chinese players. China is in second place on the sales list, after the United States. For me, this means a lot. Taoism is a part of their beautiful culture, and I hope I have managed to grasp its essence.
You Mentioned You Think Game’s Development Is The Best Job On Earth. What About It Do You Find Appealing?
There is something about video game development that is very alluring to me and I think any gamer. Once you have been captured by a game I think part of you wants a shot to capture someone else the same way. For me, it was Final Fantasy VII that made me fall head over heels in love with the industry. I think for those who pull it off, it really is the best job on Earth.
1)Because we create live, interactive worlds.2)An indie developer has to be a jack-of-all-trades, and all of the elements are extremely exciting: game design, coding, art, direction, finance, PR and so on. You’ll never find yourself getting bored.3)I’m particularly fascinated by coding. That’s my favorite activity as it feels like you are solving a very complex puzzle, and it gives you an intense feeling of satisfaction.4)I believe that in the near future, the movie industry will merge with the game industry. The resulting cross products will integrate the realism of the movies (real actors or CGI generated ones) and the interactivity provided by the games. Imagine that you could take part in a movie as the main hero, and your friends were able to play the villain and secondary characters. Your decisions at key moments would influence how the story ends. You see the story from the perspective of your character, and each time you may see it in a very different light.For example, you may choose to be a Tom Cruise character, and you could speak for him, choosing one line from the options appearing before you. That creates a strong bond with the character. It’s not him making that choice, it’s you. I believe that this development reflects the future of entertainment. An unprecedented level of immersion will be combined with great replayability.
What sets Five Elements apart from other puzzle games?
The puzzle game genre is one very much prone to imitation. The overall lack of innovation and depth in the genre has led to it being labelled as ‘casual’. It has also become an area of conflict as media critics attempt to claim that match 3 games are on the same level as triple A games such as the Call of Duty franchise. It isn’t often that I come across a puzzle game like Five Elements attempting to appeal to midcore and hardcore audiences while also being somewhat innovative with their aesthetic and mechanics.
In my opinion, the set of game rules has the potential to become a new classic game. It is complex enough to give players a great deal of strategic variety. It requires fast thinking, tactical planning, and thoughtful resource management. Even more, we have a great visual system to display the player’s progress. From each game session (meditation), a player brings out purified energy as a reward (experience). The character’s body transforms gradually into a body made of pure energies. It feels great, try it yourself!
What Games Would You Recommend To Players Who Enjoyed Five Elements?
I created this game because I failed to find something similar. But if you haven’t played Factorio, FTL, Space Engineers or Astroneer – check them out.
How Important Is Player Feedback To You?
I think it is an important point to see how developers see their audience’s input. Some take the road of “This is my project and I’ll just appeal to the people who like it” while others are open to change at the beck and call of their fan base.
Players are our Gods, bosses, and partners. The most valuable advice that we receive comes from the gamers. We plan to launch Rise of Singletone by the end of 2017 in Early Access, and we put all of our hopes in the collective mind of the community to make a great game.
After this interview, I have high expectations for these developers in future. I expect the team to keep moving forward and refining their art. I’m always delighted by the light application of real world culture in games. Video games act as a gateway to learning when they simply mention something in passing to wet your appetite. It is one of the strengths of the medium.
If you would like to read the raw interview (unedited) please check out this patreon post. Patreons keep Indie Thoughts running ad free and help us expand and hire new people so consider joining even if only for a dollar. You can also check out Daniel’s review of Five Elements here. You can also buy the game on Steam right now. Here is the Steam page (unaffiliated).