Co-op games have undergone a bit of a resurgence in popularity of late. Games like It Takes Two and A Way Out have been very positively received by the public and media alike, with them proving particularly popular among the streaming and VTuber communities, since they’re ideal for collaboration events.
Coming next year to Nintendo Switch is one of the most interesting examples of cooperative gameplay we’ve seen for a long time: Aliisha from UNDERSCORE Game Studio and Joy Brick Inc. This is a game that features strongly asymmetrical gameplay, allowing players who prefer very different styles of play to share the experience and help one another out in their own distinct way.
Sounds pretty interesting, right? We thought so, too, so we caught up with the developers to have a chat with them about exactly what the game is and how it works.
What is Aliisha all about?
“Lisha and Aisha are twin sisters,” developers Ozma and Nate tell me. “They are born with certain characteristics that set them apart from ordinary people. Lisha, a few seconds older than Aisha, is gifted with a highly rational mind but is nearly incapable of perceiving emotions or affection. On the other hand, Aisha is very sensitive and susceptible. She loves to go on adventurous trips and often gets injured, but she cannot feel physical pain.
“During one trip,” the pair continue, “Aisha discovered an abandoned temple that exists in folklore told by local people. Legend has it that all the priests who served at the temple, known as Twinkokka, were all twins. Furthermore, Aisha learned that a certain mysterious appliance in the temple can integrate the souls of twins.
“Eager to solve the mystery, Aisha urges Lisha to go exploring the temple together with her. Though not convinced, Lisha sends her AI robot AMBU to go on the adventure with Aisha due to her persistence.”
I’m sure you can already see how this is an ideal setup for an asymmetrical co-operative game, but it runs deeper than that; Ozma and Nate were keen to actually say something with this game, particularly with regard to the idea of individuality and our tendency, as humans, to compare ourselves with others.
“We hope the game, Aliisha, will let players realise that we are all independent individual, no matter our relationships — sisters, brothers, lovers or even married couples,” they tell me. “It’s important for us to know ourselves and make the right choices.
“We chose twins as the main structure of our game since people usually have the wrong impression of twins: that they are concentric and have the same preferences,” the pair explain to me. “In fact, their preferences are often completely different; we have interviewed some twins for their thoughts, and results showed that they can often hardly accept the appearances of their other halves’ partners, and have different preferences in food or interests.”
Interestingly, Ozma and Nate chose to highlight the contrast between Lisha and Aisha not just through how they are polar opposites in terms of the parts of the human experience they are unable to feel for themselves, but also through their physical traits too.
“To emphasise the differences, we set Lisha and Aisha’s skin colours as tanned and white,” the pair explain. “This gave us interesting reactions that exceeded our expectations. When we first revealed that we were developing this game, many people were surprised and doubted that twins could have different skin colours; in fact, there are many examples of twins with different skin tones.”
According to Ozma and Nate, Lisha and Aisha’s characteristics are partly there to reinforce their very different ways of thinking — and, by extension, how their two playstyles will be very different mechanically.
“Through the plot,” they explain, “players will feel Lisha, who can’t feel human emotions, is always rationally and coldly analysing the current situation and giving conclusions. She uses the most efficient means of exploration: remotely controlling the robot AMBU in the ruins, and reaching places that Aisha can’t to obtain information or solve puzzles.
“Aisha, who can’t feel pain, meanwhile, is more fearless and has better physical ability than Lisha. But with AMBU around to support her, Aisha can explore the ruins in a more relaxed way.”
Bring a friend
It’s clear almost immediately that Aliisha is a game that has been designed from the ground-up to be a completely co-operative experience — specifically one best experienced with two people sitting in the same room, each playing on their own Switch. According to Ozma and Nate, the game began as a prototype developed as part of a VR Hack Fest competition, then was subsequently developed as an augmented reality game.
“We thought that the operation and atmosphere of the game on Switch was the best way to express the original intention of our design,” they explain.
So what’s a practical example of how this asymmetrical co-operative gameplay works, then? How different will the two players’ experience be, really?
“Puzzles are separated into parts that only Lisha or Aisha can solve independently,” the pair explain. “Take the example of a level related to the concept of ‘veneration’. The huge musical instrument used for a sacrifice cannot be activated because it has been in disrepair for a long time, so it is necessary for the sisters to find components to repair it.
“In the process of solving puzzles, Aisha will frequently use the special features of the Joy-Con, such as simulating pouring water into containers; AMBU, controlled by Lisha, meanwhile, can move the sacred object by touching and engraving corresponding shapes on walls to activate the mechanisms.”
To put it another way, Aisha’s gameplay is primarily intended to be played on the television with detached Joy-Cons ready for the use of motion control and HD Rumble, while Lisha’s gameplay is designed specifically to work well with the Switch in handheld mode, including touchscreen interaction. In this way, the real-world mechanics of playing the game mirror the difference between the characters — Aisha is more “physical”, while Lisha is sitting back controlling things from afar.
“Aisha uses a third-person perspective in general adventure levels,” the pair continue. “This allows her to collect information more easily, and move and explore around the temple like a scout. Lisha is more like a command tower; AMBU’s first-person perspective lets her see more detailed information, and since AMBU can fly, Lisha can see places that Aisha can’t.”
What about those who, for whatever reason, aren’t able to play with someone else, though? Will they be catered for?
“We have a single-player mode,” the pair confirm, “but the best experience is to play together in a duo-player mode. After all, discussions and quarrels are some of the most important experiences in the game! When we exhibited at several game exhibitions in Taiwan and provided players with our demo, we found that the more familiar players were with one another, the easier they got into quarrelling or becoming closer!
“We’ve designed the game based on players in the same room,” they add in response to my question about whether or not there will be an online option. “The reason is that we hope the players can have more discussions and interactions with one another while playing. It is difficult to achieve such a degree of enthusiasm while connecting remotely.”
Indeed, if some of the promotional art for the game (above) is anything to go by, Ozma and Nate even hope that people outside of the pair who are actually holding the controllers will get involved, too — Aliisha really does have the potential to be an experience a whole family or group of friends can enjoy together at once.
A harmonious soundscape
One of the most interesting things about Aliisha is that as part of the whole co-operative concept, even the soundtrack has been designed in such a way that the two players’ experiences will complement one another. In other words, the music playing on the handheld player’s Switch will not interfere with the music playing on the TV; the two scores will instead intertwine, interact with and complement one another.
“The scores will allow you to understand your character better,” Ozma and Nate explain to me. “When you immerse yourself in the story of Aliisha, you will feel the connection and bond between the twin sisters.
“In addition,” they continue, “the musical arrangement uses a large number of female harmonies to express the atmosphere, which lets the players feel that the Gemini goddesses are actually accompanying the twins throughout their entire adventure. They have been following Aisha and Lisha inseparably from the entrance of the ruins, and watching the choices they make together.
“We spent a lot of time designing the melody of the music,” they add, “since the melody is the core of the music that moves players’ emotions. In addition to expressing emotions, the design of the melody is closely related to the meaning of the lyrics in the songs throughout the game. I hope that players will discover these Easter eggs while playing.”
If you want to hear some samples of how these two musical scores work together, be sure to check out the game’s official website; you can hear samples of Aisha and Lisha’s themes separately, and how they combine to form the full Aliisha score.
Taking on the challenge
Aliisha is, I’m sure is abundantly clear by now, an enormously ambitious game — and while co-operative games are indisputably popular right now, it’s still a challenging field to get into. I was curious if Ozma and Nate had looked at previous successes in the field to get an idea of what they should and should not be doing with their project.
“We have borrowed ideas from all types of games besides co-op centred ones,” they explain. “Both pros and cons let us learn a lot, and gave us thoughts on the design of Aliisha’s emotional experience.
“We definitely want to avoid the failure of the game,” they say, referring to a failure of the game to achieve their creative vision, “but there are many other kinds of failures: poor sales, bad reactions from players, not being able to meet deadlines, lack of funds and so on. Our team is still very young, but we have referred to many experiences and clearly understood that good creators must constantly verify their designs from the reactions of the market, and learn from mistakes.
“What we can do is continue to learn from other people’s experiences,” they continue, “and in that way we can avoid repeating the same mistakes ourselves. But we must also exert our best effort in design, and try to solve all problems. The most important thing that other games have taught us is that there is always a ‘better’ approach, but it may not be the best approach for the entire work. If we want to continue developing new games in the future, learning to make choices is very important but also painful! We are still learning.”
It all sounds pretty positive, though — and the developers’ admirable humbleness and willingness to admit that the development of this game is a learning process actually bodes rather well. While Aliisha clearly has intentions of erring on the more “artistic” side of gaming with its emotionally captivating story and creative use of game mechanics to reflect its narrative and characterisation, Ozma and Nate are clearly a far cry from some of the more arrogant “art game” developers we’ve seen over the years!
“There’s too much to say about our affection for Aliisha,” they tell me. “Development is a thrilling and dreamy fantasy for our team.
“Taiwan does not have much experience in independent game development,” they explain. “There usually aren’t absolute answers to the problems we have encountered, but creators on independent game platforms in Taiwan are all very kind and enthusiastic. Although each team worked hard to find a way to survive, everyone is willing to share the information they have collected — or their own failures. In this way, Aliisha has received a lot of help from lots of people.”
This is a particularly heartwarming thing to hear, especially from an emerging market such as Taiwan, which we’ve started to see some really excellent games coming from in the last few years. Game development — particularly in the independent sector — can often be perceived as highly competitive, especially when the “business” side of things enters the picture, but at heart it’s a creative endeavour. And creators work best when they can bounce ideas off one another.
“We have tried to cooperate with creators in many different fields,” Ozma and Nate explain to me. “The content of the game comes from the spirit and self-cultivation of the producer, but their ability varies in different fields and they can’t take care of every aspect while having no flaws. Since games are like movies in that they’re collective creations of multiple forms of media, we believe that we need to discuss the spirit we want to express with creators in different fields and then let them present better results. It takes time and effort.”
Ultimately all that time and effort looks set to be worth it, though; with contributions from creators from all over Taiwan, Aliisha is a highly creative, collaborative project produced by a variety of people all with their own thoughts and backgrounds. And likewise, each new player will bring their own experiences to the table when playing Aliisha for the first time themselves.
“We hope that players can enjoy our creativity and enthusiasm during the game,” the pair concludes. It’s clear that their passion is shining through — and that Aliisha is going to be one to watch.
Aliisha is set to release for Nintendo Switch in Spring of 2022. Click here to preorder a physical Collector’s Edition, including an artbook, art cards and 126-piece jigsaw puzzle!
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