Stay in the industry long enough and you hear the same answers over and over again. They’re making this game because it’s a story they’ve been working on for years. The mechanics were influenced by their love for martial arts movies. Yes, we all want to make the next Journey. For Once Upon a Coma, however, the usual won’t do at all.
“They gave me three hours to live.”
That was the answer Serenity Forge CEO Zhenghua Yang gave when asked about the influences on and of Once Upon a Coma. It’s a game that is the brainchild of Atmos Games’s Thomas Brush (with the help of developer Erik Coburn) and a continuation of his high school passion project, but it’s also a game that has high social aspirations. With the partnering with Serenity Forge, it wants to help.
Once Upon a Coma is based on a daydream of Brush’s from his senior year of high school. Traipsing through an ethereal coma wonderland, young Pete wakes up one day to find that the world is not as he remembers. All of the adults have seemingly disappeared, leaving the many troublemaking children to hold the reins of the realm. There’s an odd, dreamlike sheen to this proscenium that begs many questions from Pete and the player.
It quickly turns into a side-scrolling hack and slash once Pete find’s his fathers (gigantic) razor and enters a dodgier part of the world filled with shadowy insects and shambling monsters. It’s very much a mash-on-the-attack kind of combat design with varying quests and puzzles to fill in the gaps. To get the razor, for instance, demands that you figure out the correct notes to play on an old, broken piano. And to progress through a well, you have to find something to help deflate a youth Winnie the Pooh’d in the opening.
The interesting part comes in when you start asking about why these are the results of waking up from a coma. For Yang, the answer is simple. “Games can do more,” he said while describing his two years in the hospital. Across Pete’s journey, he’ll deal with loss and death and reflect how children can learn healthy ways to deal with those things as well. “We can give them the tools to cope.”
It tastes of a certain flavor ginned up by That Dragon, Cancer, which perhaps isn’t surprising considering Yang lives down the street from Ryan Green. Once Upon a Coma may come from a more diversified team bringing different experiences to the table, but this emotional facet is hewn finely to this point. Even knowing this aspect colors expectations of the game.
Combat, for example, goes from withheld to pleasing to token. But then I wondered: what if I just run? Barreling through the stretch of dangerous spiders and jumping over their attacks, it made me wonder what this reflect in the cycle of loss. Perhaps the allure of resisting acceptance? Or something about control?
Or maybe I’m reading too deeply into it. But after talking to Yang and playing the demo, I’m intrigued. He’s right; games can do more. They can affect change and bring meaning to lives, children or otherwise. Whether or not Once Upon a Coma does that remains to be seen, but the important part is that they’re aiming for that. Look for it this September on PC.