Chatting with Lil’ Guardsman devs, Artiom Komarov and Scott Christian

by MaddOx
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In the vibrant panorama of narrative gaming, Lil’ Guardsman emerges as a delightful fusion of humour, fantasy, and deduction. This charming title, crafted by the innovative duo at Hilltop Studios, Artiom Komarov and Scott Christian, offers a fresh take on the point-and-click adventure genre.

We had the unique opportunity to engage with Artiom and Scott, co-founders of Hilltop Studios, delving deep into the creative essence of Lil’ Guardsman. In this enlightening Q&A, they unravel the inspirations behind their narrative-driven game, the intricacies of its gameplay, and the joyous journey of bringing a comical, yet complex world to life.

Join us as we step into the shoes of Lil, a young and determined guardsman, and explore the vibrant characters and engaging puzzles that define the whimsical world of Lil’ Guardsman. It’s a journey filled with intrigue, laughter, and the heartwarming tale of a daughter’s devotion to her father’s legacy.

Hi! Could you please introduce yourself and tell us about your role in the creation of Lil’ Guardsman?

My name is Artiom Komarov, and I’m one of the Hilltop Studios co-founders and co-creator/director of Lil’ Guardsman with Scott. In addition to sharing game design duties, I directed the art team!


I’m Scott Christian, and I’m the other half of Hilltop Studios, and co-creator/director of LG. We both wore so many different hats on the project, but two of my biggest roles were leading the writing team and composed the musical score for the game.

Scott Christian and Artiom Komarov of Hilltop Studios, the team behind Lil' Guardsman

What was the initial spark or idea that led to the creation of Lil’ Guardsman?

We are both gaming omnivores – we play a lot across numerous genres, but we are both nostalgic for the classic Lucasarts and Sierra adventure games we played as kids. When we started dreaming up Lil’ Guardsman, we wanted to make a game that channelled that feeling.


We started with the idea of a cozy, funny, fantasy take on Papers, Please. But as soon as the gameworld and the characters started coming to life, our game grew into something more.


Which games, books, or movies influenced the artistic and narrative style of Lil’ Guardsman?

Two big visual inspirations are the cartoons Adventure Time and Gravity Falls. Both are so vibrant and fun, but also heartfelt and earnest. We wanted to have a distinct illustration art style that supports, and brings to life those ideas.


Narratively, Lil’ Guardsman is a mashup of so many different fantasy adventure films, games and novels. The writing team took a lot of inspiration from classic comedy like Monty Python. Visually and narratively, we wanted to make a game for grownups that (for us at least) brought back the feeling of watching really good Saturday morning cartoons in the 90’s.


Can you tell us about the process of creating Lil, the protagonist? What makes her a compelling character?

My daughter Jaqueline was still little when we started planning the game, but she was my main influence for Lil. She was a sassy rascal even as a toddler, and as we figured out who Lil was I would just imagine what Jackie will be like as a precocious teenager. Heaven help me and my wife! LOL


I think Lil is a compelling character in part because the player can choose how to roleplay her. You can play as a purely trusting, virtuous version of Lil, which is sometimes the correct tactic – but a ‘chaos run’ playthrough where the player constantly mocks everyone is a  totally different, fun flavour. 

Something that makes Lil interesting as a video game protagonist is that we tried to subvert the typical gaming power fantasy. She’s surrounded by weird, wonderful, magical, powerful characters, but from beginning to end she’s just a normal twelve year old kid. The fun comes in all the ripple effects her actions cause that shape the story.

Lil' Guardsman screenshot of gameplay

How did you approach world-building for the high-fantasy setting of Lil’ Guardsman?

Early on in the process we came up with a rule that the game should be 70% fantasy, and 30% something else. And that something else was usually anachronistic technology – generally 70’s and 80’s. So the world of the Sprawl is 70% elves and battle axes, and 30% fax machines.


Lil’ Guardsman has been described as a narrative deduction game. How does this structure affect the way the story unfolds?

Lil’s performance as a castle gate guardsman is graded and rewarded (or penalized) with a 1-4 star rating, which impacts her pay at the end of a shift. We had a lot of fun playing with the tension between following orders vs. following your heart. Both are legitimate ways to play the game.


For instance, in the ‘Daily Royal Writ’ (which gives the player their marching orders from the royal advisors), you may be instructed to send all goblins to the dungeon. But then you unmask a goblin in disguise, and if you empathise with his plight you get dinged with a low star rating, BUT you get access to a new location early. There are lots of fun subversions and twists like that through the game, but no matter how a player plays it’s a riot.


The game features over 100 fully-voiced characters. What was the process like for casting and recording these voices?

My background is in music, theatre and comedy before I started in video games, so for the voice cast I was lucky to have an amazing network of actors to call upon. The cast is a fun mishmash of really wonderful ‘serious’ Canadian theatre actors, and some of the country’s best comedians – many of whom I’ve collaborated with at Second City here in Toronto over the years. 

For the actual recording, we spent five weeks almost full time in my home studio capturing the ~7600 lines of dialogue. My co-writer Matt Bernard, who is a great comedic performer, took on voice directing duties and he made sure the jokes landed and was a real stickler for the comedic delivery and timing.

Lil' Guardsman screenshot with dialogue

Can you elaborate on the unique mechanics, such as the Truth Spray and the Chronometer3000, and how they enhance gameplay?

Each of the tools in Lil’s arsenal has a different effect, and it’s a combination of picking up on clues, as well as getting the hang of which tools are the right fit for a given situation. At the end of each turn, the ultimate choice is whether to admit, deny or jail an NPC; so being adept with the tools and as an interrogator is how you arrive at the optimal choice.


The Chronometer3000 is a device that Lil receives from an important NPC at the end of the first level, and it’s our way of weaving our rewind mechanic into the narrative of the game. This is a bit of a tangent, but one of the things that is so brilliant in Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please is the tension that comes with the timed aspect, coupled with the grim, devastating consequences. There are certainly dramatic story stakes in Lil’ Guardsman, but we give the player the Chronometer3000 to rewind, explore and experiment, ultimately making for a more chilled out experience.


What was the philosophy or approach behind designing the interrogation puzzles in Lil’ Guardsman?

Every NPC interrogation/turn in the game has to both satisfy the puzzle of its level, as well as move the story forward. No two turns are the same, while at the same time as the game progresses, there are new dimensions added to the core puzzle mechanic. Hopefully, it feels as fun and fresh at the end as it does at the beginning.


How significant are the player’s choices in Lil’ Guardsman, and can you give an example of a decision that has a major impact?

Lil’ Guardsman is a narrative game where choices shape aspects of the story. There are some events that happen no matter what, but many choices that you make determine the variables. For example (spoiler alert!): your treatment of a pair of royal envoys decides the direction of a royal wedding.

And then there are so many small choices the player makes that play out in fun little ways that you get to witness exploring the world of the game. Recognizing player choice was important to us, while we also wanted to tell an engaging, cohesive story.


There are a number of both fatal and non-lethal game overs, but they’re always meant to be surprising, ridiculous and funny. If you figuratively ‘step on a landmine’ you are always taken back to the moment before. We hope people enjoy discovering all of these!

Lil' Guardsman gameplay screenshot

Lil’ Guardsman is noted for its humour. How do you balance comedic elements with the more serious aspects of the game?

Something that I wanted to cook into the DNA of the game is that while it’s laugh out loud-funny, it also has a lot of heart. A number of folks who played the game early shared that they were surprised at how poignant it is. I think a lot of that magic is in the loving, imperfect relationship between Lil and her father Hamish. It’s sort of our spin on the Homer and Lisa Simpson dynamic.


There are so many fun, funny, weird things in our game that tiptoe right up to the edge of absurdity. But Lil (and the player by extension) cares a lot about her friends and family, and although it doesn’t start that way, the fate of the kingdom and the world hangs in the balance.  It’s a really fun combination of silly and funny against a dramatic, interesting, exciting story.


What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during the development of Lil’ Guardsman?

When we started, I had this vision that it would be really satisfying for the player to make choices and only later see the implications play out. But when we started early testing we found that this wasn’t ‘clicking’.


Our lead dev Italo said that our game should be more like chess, in that the fun is in seeing your choices move the pieces around on the board immediately. Some of Scott’s vision of the ‘long game’ and unforeseen consequences are still in there, but there’s also a lot of immediate feedback that feels really ‘game-y’ and fun.


Are there any plans for additional content for Lil’ Guardsman or expansions post-launch?

First we need to launch! If enough people wishlist, buy, and review our game we’ll be thrilled to work on the story DLC we’ve got in our heads. There are still more adventures in this world to be had! 


What advice would you give to aspiring indie game developers who want to create a narrative-driven game?

Something I sometimes see in indie dev groups is “I’m going to make a game in X genre because it sells.” I think it’s smart to think about the business of games, but we know a big part of why our publisher took a chance on Artiom and me is because we were so passionate about our idea, and we loved Lil so much. Game dev is hard work and takes a long time – I think it’s only possible to take a project to the finish line and not go crazy if you love what you’re working on.


If Lil’ Guardsman could cross over with any other game universe for a special episode, which would it be and why?

That’s a GREAT question. Because of the format of the core puzzle, it is so easy to imagine any number of real or fictional characters sauntering up to the guardshed and facing off with Lil. We’ve joked about Phoenix Wright from Ace Attorney going toe-to-toe with her. And this month we also joked about Dave the Diver coming through the castle gates to sell his fish in the Sprawl. The possibilities are endless!


And that’s a wrap! We’d like to thank Artiom and Scott for taking time out of their busy days to chat with us about Lil’ Guardsman. You can currently wishlist the game on Steam now ahead of its January 23rd release date, and if you want to offer your feedback on the game or chat with other players, head on over to the official Lil’ Guardsman discord. And let’s not forget to share those important socials so you can keep following the game’s developments: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

If you want to make sure you don’t miss a single Q&A this year, keep an eye on our Interviews section!

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