Interviewing Eastward's Producer: From Concept to Masterpiece

Eastward is one of the year's best games, and had a fascinating development. We sit down with the game's Producer, Tommy Zhou, and talk about the game's story, characters, development, and the Chinese gaming industry.

Eastward game
Eastward really was the perfect video game. | © Pixpil & Chucklefish

Few games have captured my attention and imagination over the last few years. The industry is, regrettably, collapsing amongst iterative sequels and a general lack of any kind of creative ambition. This medium we all love has been replaced by cookie-cutter titles, games like Call of Duty: Vanguard or FIFA 22 that do nothing but repeat previous success year in, year out. Others, like the much-maligned Battlefield 2042, seek to capitalize on gamer's obsession with particular formats and franchises, whilst releasing sub-par products that fail to even deliver the very little that they promise.

In 2021, a year rife with Covid-19-related delays and sexual harassment and discrimination scandals from the likes of Activision and Ubisoft, only a small number of games managed to capture our collective attention in a positive way. One of those games was Eastward, a gorgeous little action-RPG from Pixpil, a brand new Chinese Developer based out of Shanghai, and Stardew Valley publishers Chucklefish. Following the touching story of protagonists John and Sam through a lovingly created, and incredibly beautiful, post-apocalyptic world.

Eastward was an absolute breath of fresh air from the slog of covering everyday titles like Call of Duty: Warzone and Rocket League. It was a joy to instead dive into a game with tremendous creative ambition, and even more, a game that actually managed to achieve the goals it sought to score. It was beautiful, had the best soundtrack I've heard in a game possibly since The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in 2015, had a touching story, kept me engaged, and was just a lot of fun. Thus, it was a joy to sit down with Eastward's Producer, Tommy Zhou, and dive into the game, it's development, and the state of the Chinese gaming industry. Please enjoy! Oh, and play the game, seriously!

Eastward's Post-Apocalyptic World, Fridges, and Wonderful Characters

Sending off an email to Eastward's Producer, Tommy Zhou, was a little nerve wracking. There was so much to talk about, so many questions to ask. Had I asked the right ones? Would he want to talk about all of these things? Was I being too specific? Not specific enough? In the end, though, Mr Zhou's responses shared some intimate and fascinating insights into not only Eastward itself, but the people behind it.

Let's start with those three hilarious and super-interesting facts that he shared with me:

  1. "Earthborn" is the first revision of Eastward's Chinese title.
  2. The game was a dual-stick shooter at the prototyping stage.
  3. During the development, we had 3 newborn babies in the team.

A dual-stick shooter? Really? We can kind of see that whilst playing the game. It might seem a little weird, but the isometric top-down view of the game clearly has taken some inspiration from dual-stick shooters. I go on to ask about the game's world, and Pixpil's inspiration for it...

Our lead artist Hong Moran made some concept art of a post-apocalyptic world before we started Eastward. It was the starting point of the project. It took us a year to develop the concept and the prototype, before we got into the actual production. The inspiration was the Japanese games and anime of the 1990's.
In fact, the most influential inspiration comes from the Mother game series. Moran was a huge fan of it and we both equally admired the way it presents the world and tells its story. "It plays like an animation movie", said Moran - that's the target we were aiming for.

It certainly feels that way. Few games have a story as wonderful, touching, and engaging as Eastward. It's a true achievement, but the world Pixpil created, and the locations you explore, are full of joy, sorrow, and personality. That being said, its characters are where Eastward really shines.

I ranted at length about Eastward when it launched, right here on The EarlyGame Podcast. Listen, I dare you! I talk about Eastward around the 10-minute mark...

I asked about the characters in Eastward, specifically about how the team over at Pixpil came up with the characters, and developed their unique identities...

All these characters are designed by our lead artist Hong Moran. We talked about his source of inspiration once before. He said that his inspiration came from the people he met in his daily life. I'm not sure about other characters, but the inspiration of Sam comes from my daughter who has thick eyebrows too. lol.

Obviously, though, Eastward is a video game, so these characters have to interact with that big, bold and beautiful world. One of the most unique things about Eastward is its use of Fridges as save points, each of which give you a different philosophical message. I asked him about these fridges, along with the fantastic cooking system found in the game.

The inspiration came from those talking frogs in Mother 3. While it's fun to have talking fridges in the game, our writer Pan Chen took this as an opportunity for narrations from a different dimension. We're happy about how this turned out.
Cooking and food is an important part in the theme of life. The characters in Eastward are trying hard to survive in this dangerous world. Even so, they are still having their own daily lives. So it's an easy decision to make such a cooking system in the game, to give the players more atmosphere of living in that world.

You have probably realized how much of a fanboy for Eastward I am at this stage. What you probably don't know, however, is that I am also a musician, and absolutely adore Eastward's music. Thus, when it became time to talk more specifically about the game's development, that was the first thing I asked about. I asked about Eastward's composer, Joel Corelitz, who also worked on games like The Unfinished Swan, and has a BAFTA under his belt. What was it like working with him?

Joel is absolutely a master. I had so little experience working with musicians before Eastward, and Joel guided me with great patience. He always knew what I was looking for, and always delivered more. An interesting fact I can share is that the first track we worked on became the last track you hear in the main game, "Terminal". The track had so much emotion deep inside it that I decided to use it for the end of the story when I heard it for the first time.

Eastward is also Pixpil's first-ever game! I asked them about the process of making their very first game.

Most of us were new in the industry, so the development process was a learning process. It's very difficult to keep concentrating on a single project for such a long time, but the passion of the team has made this happen.

This turned us inevitably towards the topic of Pixpil being a Chinese developer. Now, it's true that I have my reservations about massive companies like Tencent overtaking the gaming industry, but that doesn't make Chinese Game Development a bad thing. In fact, Chinese Game Development is growing exponentially, and is a fascinating part of the industry. It is home to some of the best studios and some of the best games in the world, including Eastward...

China has one of the biggest gaming market of the world. The players have been growing up, the industry has been growing up too, and the developers in China are just as passionate as the ones from all over the world. So I won't be surprised to see more and more interesting games coming from Chinese developers in the future.

Now, that was a very diplomatic and reasonable answer indeed! Eastward was, however, published by UK-based publisher Chucklefish, known for games like Stardew Valley. They are known for some pretty wonderful games, but in my opinion, Eastward is clearly their crown jewel.

Eastward is, as I mentioned before, Pixpil's first-ever game, and is an absolute blast. What is next for the studio, though? I asked that very question, in the hope that I could maybe wrangle a bit of a response from them... Alas, it was to no avail...

We need to take a deep breath before making any important decisions for the future. The only thing we're sure about now is that we will keep trying to make more games, interesting games...

I do hope that they continue to make games like Eastward. There are few games that have captured my attention, and that I have loved, like this game. I checked it out on the Nintendo Switch, and I would absolutely suggest you check it out on there too. It plays like a charm, and is great to have on the move. As for Mr Zhou, talking with him about Eastward gave me even more respect for the game, and a love for the decisions that made into making what is – at least in my opinion – the best game of 2021.