Our Senior Narrative Designer, Matt, has taken a moment to reflect on writing for Trial of the Ancestors. Here are his thoughts.

Ah, 3.22, the Trial of the Ancestors league. This one was a doozy, let me tell you. We haven’t been this ambitious on the story side of things since Betrayal, the first league I ever wrote for, and then later Heist. I believe those included 18 characters and 13 characters respectively split between two writers, while Trial of the Ancestors had 12 characters to be handled by just me… and the poor audio team. This was a fairly unique challenge, as we were recording a long list of characters for ExileCon’s Path of Exile 2 and Mobile demos while also doing recordings for the league. There were days that we had two or even three recordings with different voice actors.

The last character for the league, Hinekora herself, was recorded the Tuesday before league launch, edited by Wednesday, and implemented swiftly after. Almost the entire dialogue system came into existence in the final week, thanks to one heroic programmer, Nicholas.

Normally, the last week before launch is when I kick back and watch everyone else panic. This time, though, ExileCon’s extra workload had me working right down to the wire… and when I say down to the wire, I mean I literally had a flight to catch on Thursday night, and I sent in the final commit at 7:20 PM, the absolute last minute before I had to leave to get to the airport by 8 PM. That’s how dedicated I am to giving you, the hardworking common Exile, the great lore you deserve. Also, we just planned it all really well to fit in the time allotted.

Fortunately, this league had a strong concept right out of the gate, and plenty of lead time. Early on, I was given a basic description of the mechanic and this image, along with the list of names and tribes we’d worked out in conversation:

As some astute players have also seen, I immediately noticed that there’s already a Vaal Architect named Ahuana, but we decided to stick with it, because the Karui name is pronounced ‘Ahuana,’ while the Vaal one is pronounced ‘Ahuana.’ They’re totally different.

Also, I think I can just directly state this, the Path of Exile comics show Kaom killing a man named Akayo. That’s not Akoya, there’s no retcon here. They just have similar names, and both happened to get beheaded by Kaom. He tended to do that kind of thing to people… Akoya is, however, definitely the Chainbreaker whose name appears on a Timeless Jewel.

Initially, we intended the tribes to do pre-battle hakas, something you might have seen if you’ve ever watched New Zealand rugby, but ultimately the animation and recording cost for something players would skip 99% of the time didn’t end up being worth it. That would have been awesome to see, though.

Kaom and Utula were not immediately the chieftains for the Ngamahu and Kitava tribes. We had a discussion about that, wondering if we could really use characters from the main storyline, and I definitely voted yes. In the end, they were perfect picks for this. We wanted to expand and cultivate Karui culture, something which the game hadn’t really touched upon in quite a long time, and it wouldn’t have been complete without these two rock stars.

Utula in particular stood out as I created a map of tribe relations:

This was intended to mechanically influence favour and rivalries, but the design was later altered so that favour rewards were more random. I kept these personal attitudes for the characters themselves, however. Coming up with shifting attitudes for every possibility would have meant exponential work and a confusing feel.

Once I saw Utula’s almost-all-dislikes row on here, though, the personalities really started to take shape. As I went through the reasoning behind each relational pair, and as I went over Utula’s character in Oriath (here’s where I admit with shame I’m often a zoomie, skipping past dialogue), his attitude became so clear it was like seeing a living person hanging at a party he didn’t want to be at. It blew my mind to realize that Utula wouldn’t actually like the Halls of the Dead. From that starting point, my expectations for this league’s feel completely changed. Instead of a monolith of rigidly enforced warrior culture, the characters spread out into a prismatic reaction to thousands of years of history and personal experience.

Much of what we previously knew about Karui culture in Wraeclast stemmed from a very specific group of people at a very specific point in time – Kaom and his invasion of Wraeclast, along with the treatment of enslaved Karui by the Templars. Kaom and Utula bookend that era. I think we’ve seen enough about all that. The Karui are so much more than that single theme. Now, I had the opportunity to massively expand back into the past, and really delve into what it might mean to have the spirits of your Ancestors quite literally still hanging around giving advice. Each character had a roughly ten page script, most of which was combat dialogue, and I had to really hone the conversational dialogue down to the true essence of the Halls of the Dead.

If you’ve never seen the play ‘No Exit’ by Jean-Paul Sartre, I highly recommend it. That also served as inspiration here, namely in that ‘Hell is—other people!’ Our assorted Karui chieftains are all stuck together for an eternity, and they can’t even agree on how long that’s really going to be. There’s heart, there’s kindness, and there’s understanding, but there are also hurt feelings, secret misgivings, and lingering hints of uneasiness that only Utula is willing to express out loud. The Halls of the Dead were supposedly meant to be a good thing, but as he rightfully points out, nobody consented to this… and if you really listen to what Hinekora tells you, she herself might not even realize her intentions don’t come off completely altruistic.

That being said, there was lots of fun inherent in writing all these. The voice actors were all fantastic to work with, and, in the end, I’m very happy with the way the whole thing ended up. We even managed to use the Heist conversation system for some idle conversations between chieftains. It’s used very simply, but I’ve been trying to get back to using that for quite some time, and hopefully I’ll get a chance to expand on the number of lines the chieftains have. Hinekora’s prophecies were a blast to write as well, and I look forward to all your wild theories about what comes next—or what’s already happened. You never can tell with her!

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