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The story behind Google’s biggest game yet: An Olympics-themed JRPG

(The Washington Post illustration; Google, iStock)
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On July 23, in advance of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, visitors to Google.com were greeted by an unusual feature. In place of the standard logo, or a traditional Google Doodle — an illustration timed to a specific date or event — the company published “Doodle Champion Island Games,” a video game. The game, which can be played in as few as 10 minutes or for up to four hours, resembles a sprawling Japanese role-playing game and sports a cute feline protagonist competing in sporting events and tackling side quests.

The original plan had never been that big.

The Google doodle team, which designs unique graphics and small-sized games for the tech giant’s homepage, had been working on the game ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. When the live sporting event was delayed to 2021, the team was given an extra year to work on the project. That helped the game grow far beyond its original scope, said Nate Swinehart, the doodle’s creative lead.

“If I had come in and I’d been like, ‘I need two years, and I’m going to do a two-hour game,’ it would have been like, ‘You need to calm down,’" said Swinehart, laughing. The original planned timeframe was just a single year.

While Google has previously made interactive games as homepage doodles, the team said this was the largest doodle game they’ve ever made. The team declined to say how many people had played the doodle so far, but said it has generated a decent reception from fans.

“We do, as a team, produce five to 10 interactive games a year, so it’s not rare for us,” said Jessica Yu, doodle team lead. "We usually aim for experiences that are probably two minutes in length. And this is exceeding it by hours. But it was an experiment for us.”

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“Doodle Champion Island Games,” which was not officially commissioned by the International Olympic Committee, features seven sports, including skateboarding, archery, the marathon, rock climbing and more. You play a calico cat athlete, or “cathlete,” in the game’s parlance. Google lets players pick a team, either red, blue, yellow or green, and submit high scores by competing in these virtual sports to raise the team’s standing on the global leader boards.

Controls for the game are limited to the space bar and arrow keys. Despite the simplicity, the “Doodle Champion Island Games” still manages to hit a diverse range of minigames, from a Dance Dance Revolution-style game where pressing arrow keys is part of the artistic swimming challenge to a rugby event where pressing space bar will toss the ball to a teammate.

Google faced technical challenges in bringing the doodle to life, which included needing the game to run on lower-end mobile phones, tablets and PCs. The game also had to remember a player’s progress (which the team achieved by saving data to local storage).

The gameplay, which has a look inspired by older, pixel art JRPGs, is interspersed with anime cutscenes that bring to mind Studio Ghibli films. Google worked with animation company Studio 4°C to develop those anime scenes and work on broader concept development.

Before Google approached Studio 4°C, Swinehart had thought of making the game’s main character a fox. “[Studio 4°C was] like this is great, but the fox is more of a trickster-like character and it doesn’t really super make sense as a hero,” said Swinehart. “They’re like, so we were thinking maybe, something like a calico cat. And it was like love at first sight."

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The Tokyo-based studio also helped develop stories that reflected Japanese mythology, including an owl climbing a mountain for the rock-climbing challenge. Some of the challenges, such as rock climbing and running a marathon, were designed to be harder for players to earn a perfect score.

Google engineers built tools to allow Swinehart and fellow doodler Sophie Diao to write and program side quests, such as helping deliver a letter from a ghost, while the engineers focused on getting the feel of the sports events right. Throughout the process, the engineers would express surprise at how many quests had been added to the game, said Swinehart.

In the over 1,800 lines of dialogue that Swinehart and Diao wrote, there are Easter eggs and reflections on building the game during the pandemic. One of the side quests in the game is about how it’s raining all day, and the player must find a way to stop the rain. One of the non-playable character’s dialogue reads, “After so much rain, we could all use a sunny day,” said Swinehart.

“I wrote that in the middle of the pandemic, being like ‘I just wanna have a sunny day,’" he said.

As for whether Google will consider doing larger doodle games like these in the future, Yu said: “It’s an excellent data point for us that it’s great to see how well it resonated, and that we do have the capacity and the love from the audience to play with the stuff that we make for longer. So I wouldn’t rule it out, but I also won’t promise anything.”

The doodle will return to Google.com when the 2020 Paralympics start on Aug. 24.

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