From the moment Riot Forge’s Rowan Parker finished playing Tequila Works’ RiME, he knew he had to make a game with the studio.
“I played RiME and was like, ‘Oh my god, this game is incredible. I wonder if they would want to work with us?” Parker told Digital Trends during a recent interview over video chat. “Tequila Works is really good at telling these tight, human stories that bring you up close to all of the emotion. Working with them to tell stories with our characters is kind of a dream situation.”
Parker, known by the League of Legends community as L4T3NCY, was the Lead Modes Designer for League of Legends but had since transitioned to being Head of Creative for Riot Forge for the past several years. Riot Forge is an ambitious new publishing label for Riot Games that aims to create narrative-focused, indie-like titles featuring Champions in the world of Runeterra, so it’s easy to understand why Parker was eager to make what’s now known as Song of Nunu: A League of Legends Story with Tequila Works.
Song of Nunu isn’t the first game to establish what a Riot Forge title can be, though. Its first titles were the RPG Ruined King and rhythm-based Hextech Mayhem, while this year it delivered the intense isometric action game The Mageseeker and time-bending Metroidvania Convergence. This band of games, which all share the “A League of Legends Story” subtitle, has created a welcoming new avenue for people to get into League of Legends and its world.
That said, when he was pitching Tequila Works on what would eventually become Song of Nunu, Riot Forge wasn’t the known entity it was now. Parker tells me that Tequila Works founder Raúl Rubio Munárriz thought he was getting a prank call at first. Parker had to double down and tell him, “No, actually, this is Riot. We are quite serious, and we would like to work with you on a story game.”
Following this string of solid Riot Forge games, the return of in-person events, and Riot Forge’s latest announcements, Parker thinks it’s unlikely that this will happen again with developers that Riot Forge reaches out to in the future. The latest Nintendo Direct revealed Bandle Tale: A League of Legends Story and confirmed Song of Nunu’s November 1 release date. I spoke to Rowan Parker prior to that to learn more about what goes into consistently making Riot Forge games, and we even have a new and exclusive Song of Nunu trailer to share.
While it might seem like Riot Forge’s primary goal would be to contract developers to make game pitches they’ve already come up with, that’s actually not the case. “I think a lot of studios initially expected that we would show up with a preconceived idea,” Parker says. “We don’t go to studios with RFPs or pitches and ask them to make a thing. It’s built together organically from the ground up.”
In this case, that game ended up being a spiritual successor to RiME, starring two League of Legends champions you might not expect. With Tequila Works, Parker says the first Champions Tequila Works pitched Riot Forge feature Nunu and Willump, a young boy and yeti from an arctic region of Runterra called the Freljord. The game is a story-focused action platformer following the titular Nunu as he searches for his mother with the help of a Yeti named Willump. Players dynamically control both characters while exploring the Freljord, doing a healthy mix of platforming, combat, sliding, and flute-playing along the way.
If you want to get a deeper look at the game in action, Digital Trends has an exclusive “Braum’s Hero Lessons” trailer. It gives an overview of many of the areas players will explore and the characters they’ll meet during Song of Nunu, all with some colorful, cheeky commentary for guest-starring League of Legends champion Braum. Check it out below.
I also played and pre-launch build of Song of Nunu and loved how it really delved into a part of Runeterra and two Champions that League of Legends itself doesn’t always give the strongest focus. That means that even if you’re just a fan of action platforms with light puzzle elements, Song of Nunu should still be a good time for you. That’s by design, as Parker says that he doesn’t greenlight a game unless he’s “convinced it’s a good game agnostic of the League of Legends IP.”
Song of Nunu was one such title that passed that test. Parker also tells me Riot Forge intentionally tries not to only make games for the most popular League of Legends Champions, which surprised Tequila Works, as they thought Riot Forge wouldn’t be interested in a game about more obscure Champions.
“For character selection, I think initially, a lot of people suspected that we were picking only the popular characters… Now, we have a whole game about Nunu and Willump, so I think, at this point, we’ve squashed that rumor. It’s about load-bearing narrative. What Champions can tell the stories and fit the gameplay for what we want to make? In the case of Tequila Works, Raul wasn’t even hesitant; he wanted to tell a story about Nunu and Willump.”
As a 3D action-platformer tied to Tequila Works’ roots, Song of Nunu differs from any Riot Forge game that came before it. Parker sees Song of Nunu as a more “chill” game compared to titles like Ruined King or The Mageseeker because it prioritizes telling an emotional story that will make players cry and finding engaging ways to combine the unique skillsets that both Nunu and Willump can provide. At one point in the demo, I had to play Nunu’s flute to activate a platform so I could jump onto a climbable wall with as Willump. There’s also combat, and while Nunu can only throw snowballs, he can climb on Willump’s back and start to deal some real damage with its swipes.
At its core, Parker says Riot Forge wants to “make bespoke, single-player storytelling games. Looking forward, the trend will continue as Song of Nunu is quite different from Bandle Tale. Parker says this is very intentional on his part and that Riot Forge fans shouldn’t be expecting this to be building to an Avengers: Endgame-style crossover of all its games.
“We have a diverse portfolio and haven’t doubled up on genre yet because I’m of the opinion that if we just made an action, isometric, hack-and-slash game, players probably don’t want us to make another one straight away. Similarly, we haven’t doubled up on Champions, zones, or factions yet because there’s so much to explore that a crossover doesn’t need to happen yet.”
In fact, Riot Forge feels justified because it does something that’s tough for Riot Games to do within League of Legends itself. As a multiplayer-focused MOBA with an evolving meta, there isn’t much room to delve deeper into the stories of every Champion and Runeterra’s rich lore. That’s why Riot has made shows like Arcane and all of these smaller games with Riot Forge in recent years. Runeterra features many captivating characters and lore as interesting as the universes of Marvel and DC; it just hasn’t taken full advantage of that until now.
“Song of Nunu is a great story-driven adventure game with cool puzzles, great little, you know, cinematic and story moments, even if you don’t know anything about League of Legends,” Parker states. “But then, if you add League of Legends on top of that, it can become something special.”
Riot Forge’s approach of not being beholden to a specific kind of game can be tricky as each game presents different challenges. With Song of Nunu, Riot Forge and Tequila Works had discovered that the original voice actor for Nunu had grown up and could no longer voice the character, so they had to go on a lengthy search for a new voice and keep recording lines with them in the hopes that their voice wouldn’t drop the next day.
For a puzzler like Song of Nunu and a crafting RPG like Bandle Tale, the QA processes got much more intense as many things necessitated playtests outside the developer’s knowledge. “With any game’s development, you never end up getting to do all the things that you wanted. You have to scope back and go with the best versions of stuff,” Parker admits.
There’s also the fact that Riot Forge is associated with the term “indie,” even though Riot Games is a massive company backing these games. We’ve also seen past initiatives like this from companies like EA transition toward preferring larger-scale games. Parker admits that “indie” and “scale” are loaded terms nowadays in the game industry because they can mean different things from game to game.
“Not all games have the same scope; some of our games are larger or smaller than others. I wouldn’t say Song of Nunu is dramatically larger than some other games we’ve done before, like Ruined King, but I’m hesitant to even make that comparison because, in game development, when we’re talking about scope, it can be about a variety of things. For developers, it encompasses systems, art style, environments, the sheer volume of voice acting, and localizing, whereas I think it bubbles down to, for a lot of players, things like how many bosses there are or how long the game takes to complete. I would be careful with being too reductive on something like scope, but because Song of Nunu is a big 3D game, it has a bit more impact visually.”
Despite those trials, tribulations, and loaded industry terms confronted during development, Parker was elated about and confident in Song of Nunu throughout our discussion. He’d bring up smaller, satisfying moments from the development journey, like adding a hug button that players can use at any time or seeing the warm and fuzzy feeling playing the game gave some members of the press during a hectic Gamescom.
Those experiences, like the unique game mechanics and the story Song of Nunu features, will be things Riot Forge takes away from its next game. Parker tells me that Song of Nunu “stands head and shoulders above” what Tequila Works achieved in RiME, the game that initially attracted him to the studio. And that’s because he had faith in the characters of Runeterra and the talent of the studios Riot Forge works with.
“Technically, every game or genre that Riot Forge has done is new to Forge, but that’s the advantage of working with studios that are really good at what they do,” Parker explains. “It doesn’t matter that it might be the first time that we’ve made that style of game because the studios we work with have five, 10 years of history-making them. We really lean on the expertise of studios.”
Song of Nunu: A League of Legends Story launches for PC and Nintendo Switch on November 1.