With the Quest for Glory series, Lori and Corey Cole pioneered a peanut-butter-and-chocolate hybrid of the RPG and adventure game that combined the best of both genres. The husband-and-wife duo had a shared background in tabletop roleplaying—which is how they met—and were inspired by the fluid way tabletop RPGs move between conversation, puzzle-solving, combat, and exploration. Though Sierra hired them to fill a gap when the studio lost the rights to publish the Ultima series, Quest for Glory ended up being a halfway point between the CRPGs of the day and Sierra's graphical adventures like King's Quest.
More recently, thanks to two successful Kickstarters, their indie studio Transolar Games released Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption, which built on Quest for Glory's day/night cycles to squeeze the school day time-management of a Persona game into an adventure RPG where you played a student at a university for heroes. In their next game, they're going even further down that road by making what Corey sums up as "a cross between a visual novel and kind of a choose-your-own-adventure game."
Summer Daze: Tilly's Tale is the first in a planned series of visual novels set at Hero-U. (Both it and follow-up Ifeyo's Tale were funded by another successful Kickstarter, and backers will get the second when it's finished.) In Tilly's Tale, like Rogue to Redemption, you play a student in what's euphemistically known as the Disbarred Bards class—the basement classroom for adventurers who specialize in stealth, lockpicking, and other skills the student paladins and wizards might look down on. Only this time, rather than exploring dungeons under the school, you're organizing a festival as punishment for kidnapping a sheep and dressing it up as the headmaster.
"It's a departure from our normal games," Lori says with some understatement. She mentions games like Hanako Games' Magical Diary series, which are also set in a magical school, as well as Long Live the Queen and Dream Daddy as examples of the kind of visual novel Summer Daze is closer to. "As I see it," Lori adds, "it's distilling all the good parts out of an adventure game, i.e. all of the story, plot and characters out of an adventure game and giving you an easy access to it."
This ability to focus on storytelling rather than combat and puzzles has let the Coles make a lighthearted and sunny adventure rather than one full of peril and brainteasers. "It's an interesting departure for us," says Corey, "because when we hear from our fans, what they tell us they remember is always the characters and the story and the adventures they had."
Even with the obligatory Sierra deaths, the Quest for Glory games were tongue-in-cheek and full of puns, and in the wilderness you were as likely to stumble on a serene outpost of natural beauty or a quirky NPC as a bandit camp. Taking the emphasis further away from danger and combat feels natural, but that's not why they chose to switch to visual novels.
Lori puts their reasoning plainly. "Economics, mostly," she says. "We wanted something that could be done fast, and with a relatively tiny team. That's why we went with this style of game, because virtually it means that we can do it with a three-man team."
While speed was an advantage of the form, in the end it took four years from the Kickstarter to completion. "There was this little pandemic in between," Corey explains, "and that caused ripple effects. We had a key team member leave and had to replace her, and then we've been caregiving for my mother. Basically, the outside world has come into the process."
Another reason for the delay was the decision to add voice acting. While Summer Daze made some of its stretch goals, it fell $4,000 short of a voice recording goal. The Coles decided to do it anyway. "We love working with voice actors," Lori says, though that's not the reason they made the call. "It was mostly, again, economics. Could we afford it? And the question became, can we afford not to?"
"We heard from a number of people that one of the problems with Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption was it doesn't have voice acting," Corey adds. "They said modern games require it. We originally intentionally did not put voices in Hero-U because we knew we'd be on a limited budget and what we didn't want to have was bad voice acting, but I thought that it would really enhance Tilly's Tale, and it's a much smaller script. It's like 80,000 words versus 400,000 words."
With help from voice director Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye, the studio behind games like Unavowed—another adventure game that learned a few lessons from RPGs—they found ways to make recording affordable. It helped that Zehra Fazal, who had voiced characters in Young Justice, Bojack Horseman, and Dragon Age: Absolution before being cast as elven rogue Tilly, was a fan of Quest for Glory.
One stretch goal they did hit was minigames, though admittedly it was set at a single dollar over the Kickstarter's base to ensure that would happen. Minigames are an important part of the variety the Coles' games are known for, from the homunculus labyrinth of Mage's Maze and the abstract strategy game Awari in Quest for Glory to the poker-esque Poobah in Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption. Tilly's tale contains a card game called "La Boomba", which Corey says is "based on the children's card game of War. It's a very simplistic card game, but we've spiced it up a little by adding a bomb unit similar to the spy in the game Stratego. It's the weakest unit, but it can also defeat the most powerful."
Ifeyo's Adventure, in which you play a student in Hero-U's wizard class, will include a wizard's duel minigame that Lori compares to classic arcade game Missile Command, only with element-matching. If your opponent drops a fire spell on you, you'll need to counter with an ice spell, for instance. Is there any chance that, like Gwent in The Witcher 3 or the solitaire variants in Zachtronics games, these games could get a standalone release? "I would kind of like to do a minigame pack like Hoyle Card Games at Sierra," Corey daydreams.
What their plans for the future don't include is a sequel to Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption. Though they'd planned one called Hero-U: Wizard's Way, it's unfortunately been postponed indefinitely. "If we ever are able to get back to the Hero-U series, it will mean one of our games going viral or something so we have a huge budget again," Corey says. "We spent a million dollars or so on that game, and we just don't have the deep pockets to do that. From what I understand Ken Williams and Roberta with their new game, the Colossal Cave, 3D in VR, spent about double that budget. Games have not gotten cheaper. When you're trying to do modern graphics quality and voice acting and stuff like that, it adds up."
It's not that adventure games and the various hybrids that grew in the fertile soil around them don't have an audience, he continues. "The problem is just the level of competition. If you're an adventure game player, it used to be that every year you bought one of the three or four Sierra games, or the one or two LucasArts games that came out. And that was your choice. You could go text adventure and go with Infocom, but you did not get 100 games a year to look at. Now there's like 1,000 new games released every month, and the back catalog of every game that's ever been made is there."
Still, they're hopeful their visual novels will find an audience. They're planning to release Summer Daze: Ifeyo's Adventure in about a year, and to have the third in the series done in three years' time (after another Kickstarter). The third will be about a student studying to be a warrior. "That warrior happens to be Sammy, the anthropomorphic corgi," Lori says matter-of-factly.
An assortment of diverse animal-people is another calling card of the Coles' brand of fantasy, like the katta and liontaurs of Quest for Glory, who you're much more likely to encounter than the typical gnomes or elves. Tilly's Tale includes a minotaur paladin named Mooella, who Corey admits, "is sort of named after one of my World of Warcraft characters. We decided long ago that if you play the tauren race in World of Warcraft, it's obligatory to give all your characters a punny name."
While Ifeyo's Adventure is up to the stage of having its filler art finished, Lori says, "We've got a lot of the art for Sammy's Story. We've got this pipeline going, these games can get out fairly soon. As soon as I can get to writing and finish writing them."
We'll have more about the Coles and their history in games, how they pioneered hybrid adventure RPGs and all the changes they've seen in the industry over the years, in a subsequent story. Summer Daze: Tilly's Tale will be available from March 28 on Steam and itch.io.