I know a few terms in Japanese, but I really don’t. If you add shimasu onto the end of a word, it becomes a verb. This ground-breaking discovery has led me to add shimasu to just about everything I say, appropriate or not. Drive-shimasu, game-shimasu, chicken-shimasu, all excellent examples of how to bamboozle legitimate Japanese speakers, but I still can’t read the language. Thankfully, Kana Quest might finally help me overcome this hurdle, so I wasn’t going to let a talk with the designer of the game slip past me.
What is Kana Quest?
Kana Quest is a puzzle game. It’s a cross between dominoes and a match 3 game, but it teaches you how to read Japanese. The way it works is that each puzzle piece in the game is a Japanese letter. Japanese letters have this weird quirk that they almost always have a vowel and a consonant- Well, it’s a consonant and a vowel, but I digress.
Each letter is like a domino tile. You match the sounds from one letter to another. A ‘ka’ and a ‘na’ will match because they both have the ‘a’ sound. A ‘ka’ and a ‘ku’ will match because they each have a ‘k’ sound. When all the tiles on the level are all connected up, that’s when the level is done, and there are mechanics which muck around with that core concept a bit, but that’s the core idea.
Just for clarification, it’s katakana, right?
Katakana and hiragana, it teaches both. Here at PAX, I’ve disabled the option where you switch between them, but both are available.
Which do you think is harder to learn?
Most people say that katakana is harder to learn, but that’s usually because they learn katakana after learning hiragana, so they go, “Aw, I don’t want to go through all this rote learning all over again.” But there are also four letters in katakana that are really, really tough. They’re ‘shi’, ‘tsu’, ‘n’ and ‘tso’. They’re all really similar, and they’re all a combination of line here [vertical] and a line here [diagonal]. So, two have two lines at the top, and then a slightly different diagonal…
Yeah. The way it goes is that ‘tsu’ is two dots and ‘tso’ is two horizontal, and then you start the second stroke from the bottom to the top, and then… Wait, I’m getting mixed up… It’s weird. An example of where it’s used is in Bleach. Bankkai, that’s where it crops up.
Where did the idea for this come from?
I do a bit of Japanese tutoring, and I had a Japanese student who really hated cue cards. At the time, I was working a telemarketing job, and it wasn’t very fun. So, I would spend as much time possible on funner things. When I was at work one day, I was thinking of my student and going, “how can I help him?” and came up with the idea of a game that uses hiragana letters as puzzle pieces. Originally, I thought of it as a strategy game, but it quickly morphed into a puzzle game because it played much better that way
Does it take the same idea from cue cards where you flip them to know what the character is?
Yeah, it’s a puzzle game at heart, but it’s one big excuse to trick you into doing cue cards, and the game just makes you forget that you’re doing cue cards. Like, if you don’t remember how a specific letter is pronounced, you’ll have to flip it round, figure out what it matches with and what it won’t. It’s just something you’ll have to do as part of the process. You get exposed to it, and bit by bit you get more familiar with letters, and then you start remembering letters.
Did the idea for the game come from just cue cards?
I honestly don’t know where it came from. I just remember thinking, “Oh, it’s interesting how Japanese letters are really uniform and how they fit on a table, Like, what if they connected up. Oh, there’s a game mechanic there!” I think that’s where it came from, but when I first had the idea, it was a bit over two years ago, two years doing it on and off while I was working another job. I moved to Japan and started this full time. Only started full production of this in May this year.
That’s pretty impressive. You’ve got a working game by the six month mark.
Well, I got the first prototype working while I was in Japan. The first playtesters were my students! My English students in Japan. I did that because I wanted the game to be fun even if you knew Japanese.
How do you get people to help you with a game like this? Because if they don’t know Japanese… Seems tricky.
Most recently what I’ve been doing is grabbing people who walk in and out of my work. I just go, “Hi. Can you playtest my game for me?” and do the normal playtesting thing of telling them as little as possible. They’ll usually go, “… Oh, is this teaching me Japanese?” and I think to myself, yeeees, we got there.
Would you this consider a ‘serious’ game?
Eh, I don’t think so. Like, it has applications outside of entertainment value, but I just hope people sit down and go, “I really enjoy playing this game, I really like playing this on my train ride to work.” I started making this game because I thought it could make the world a better place. Helping people learn a new language is definitely something that I thik would have a positive impact on the world. It’s a small impact, but it’s an impact I can make. It’s cute. I’m just one game dev, I can’t change the world overnight.
It does feel like one of those games that you pick it up and go, “Oh, this’ll be easy” and then it really tricks you.
Well, I’ve taken a bit from a game which is not at all easy, an Australian game called Dustforce. I really liked how that game handled its difficulty. You can complete the level, but you have to complete the level perfectly to progress. Kana Quest has a bit of that. Its not as harsh as Dustforce, particularly in later levels, but you can complete a level with bronze and it will let you continue and unlock new levels. I’m cool with that. It lets people pick their own difficulty.
So, in order to progress you don’t need to know that much kana?
Oh, you definitely do. The first world is pretty easy to blitz through without thinking it through a lot. The second world is virtually impossible. The main mechanic in the second world is something called the mystery tiles, and I love the mystery tiles because they look so goofy. They’ve got these huge, silly disguise glasses on and the big nose- I love them. They make me laugh every time. They will match like normal kana, but they can’t be moved and the level won’t be complete until all the mystery kana are matched. So, you have look at what they match with and what they don’t match with and figure out what their true face is by typing in what their name is.
Switching from knowing what they are to figuring out what they are?
Yeah, exactly. I have a couple mechanics that force you to pay closer attention to what the sounds are. Those are some of my favourite mechanics because they make the game a bit more interesting.
You’ve got more?
I’ve got more, but I haven’t brought them here because I don’t want people playing forever and ever and overloading them with too much complexity. The finished mechanics are mystery tiles, slime tiles – slime tiles are interesting. There are five letters in Japanese that don’t actually have consonants: ‘a’ ‘e’ ‘u’ ‘e’ ‘o’. You use them with another kana and they change the vowel sound. Some levels you won’t be able to complete until you change the vowel sound of the correct kana. There are paralysis tiles, so you move them once and they can’t be moved any more. One direction tiles because they don’t know they’re beautiful.
It really is more of a game than an education tool.
Yeah, I designed it to be a good game. I wanted to make a fun game that people go, “Oh, this is a fun game, but it’s just so happens to teach me this awesome skill.” Which is part of the elevator pitch.
You haven’t developed any other game before?
Well, I did at uni – this isn’t my first attempt at educational games. I tried to make a kanji game at uni, but that game definitely wasn’t a three week project.
And kanji is…?
They’re the Chinese characters, and they’ll have multiple pronunciations attached to them. The kanji for Sun is really tricky because there’s six pronunciations for them, and some of them are just used in one particular situation. If you have the symbol for now and day then it’s ‘kyo’. In no other situation do you pronounce day as ‘yo’. I have an idea of how I’d like to do kanji, but I can’t do that by myself.
Do you have any plans on furthering this game?
When it releases, I plan on supporting it. Things like weekly levels, a bit like how Two Dots has its weekly levels and lets you know, “You were the first to complete the level!” Just have a bit of fun with it.
Here are some other places where you can show your support for Kana Quest: