Student founded Gone North Games has just released their first game, A Story About My Uncle, to critical acclaim. Kyle chatted with studio CEO Sebastian Eriksson about inspiration, controls, grappling and games as art.
KYLE: Games like Gone Home and Dear Esther were clear inspirations behind the storytelling aspect, but you've gone above what these plot vehicles can offer. There's a sense of exploration and wonder involved with A Story About My Uncle, keen to recall Valve's Portal games and its ilk. Can you elaborate what sort of places you borrowed inspiration from, even if they are abstract?
SEBASTIAN: I would not say that the inspiration for the storytelling was directly influenced by any single piece of media. We all played and liked Dear Esther so that might have rubbed off a bit, but Gone Home wasn’t even announced when we released the early free version of the game back in 2012, so in that case it might be the other way around (yeah right). What we aimed for was to give the player a constant companion, someone to share the experience with. In the commercial release we took it one step further, giving the player the company of Maddie as a sort of guide to this fantastical world. But we didn’t want to explain everything but instead let the player decide if they wanted to learn more of the story and the world. That’s why the game is 2 hours for some and 4-5 for others. If you want a fast paced and flowy experience, that’s and option, but you will only get the bare bones of the story. And if you are the type of player that likes exploring and taking it slow, we’ve tried to reward that as well. So how we tell the story pretty much came from that, trying to cater to two different kinds of players.
KYLE: The title seems to offer a great deal in the way of personal growth and following in the footsteps of those you admire, but also carving your own path (suggested by highlighting your grapple's landing point in relation to your uncle's). Do these aspects echo your own life experiences?
SEBASTIAN: Within the team we have many role models in the gaming industry that we look up to. And bet that’s the case with many of the new startups and indie companies. But even so we are part of an industry that strive to always do something new, to explore territories in gaming yet to be explored. Sure, we’ll always have others previous work and struggles to lean on but we all need to find our own path to reach the same goal. I believe that as long as that strive is still there the games industry will keep on being healthy, bringing in new people to the mix, both players and developers.
KYLE: Was creating a "tight" game one of your highest priorities? The controls are very smooth and responsive.
SEBASTIAN: It sure was! Taking on the challenge of making what’s essentially a platform adventure in first person is something we didn’t take lightly. We knew going into it that players have been burned before when it comes to first person platforming. I can’t even tell you how many times people have brought up the Xen levels in Half Life when talking about how bad it can get. But Valve kind of redeemed themselves with the Portal games and DICE did a great job with Mirror’s Edge, so we knew it wasn’t impossible and we also felt that what we had took the concept even closer to perfection. The grappling hook is a big part of this because your jumps don’t always have to be perfect, there is always a way to save yourself and land exactly where you want to. And because the main mechanic in the game is player movement we knew that we had to nail it.
KYLE: There's truly a sense of speed and mobility contained in A Story About My Uncle. What sort of steps did you take to achieve that?
SEBASTIAN: Mobility and freedom of movement has always been key ingredients to the games design. We knew from the very first time we did playtesting on the game that it would be impossible to keep players from ”ruining” the level design by completing sections of the game in other ways than originally intended. So instead of working against that we started to embrace it and building the levels around that. Sure, we always try to show the player the intended way of making it through (the way uncle Fred came before you) but if playtesters found new and exciting ways to complete parts of the levels we tried making those paths even more viable by building the levels to their advantage.
When it comes to the speed of the movement it’s really been a balancing act between playability and the sense of speed. Our game demands of the player that they take split second decisions in mid air, so we could not crank it up as high as some players might have liked (or think they want). Good players can still fly through the levels at great speed, but that’s only when they’ve learned the mechanic and can cope with it. So in one way it scales with the players ability. We’ve also worked with graphical effects to enhance the sense of speed, even for the players that like to take it slow.
KYLE: Why grappling and why not, say, jetpacks with limited boosts or aping Spider-Man's webslinging to some level?
SEBASTIAN: It’s funny how things work out sometimes, because the grappling hook wasn’t meant to be the main mechanic of the game to begin with. Originally we tried to make a game where you turned the world upside down and back again to solve puzzles, but our then limited knowledge of the Unreal engine prevented us to make reality of that design. At the same time we worked on some side mechanics, one of which was a grappling hook, but it turned out to be so much fun that we made it the main mechanic in the end. There are actually quite a few people that have called the game a Spider-man simulator, even though you don’t swing in the exact same manner. We talked about including a mechanic where you could start a swinging motion from the tethered beam but it didn’t work out in the end. And I truly believe that it would be too nauseating and disorienting to swing like that in first person. But who knows. I’d like to be proven wrong.
KYLE: There are a fair amount of locales within this fictional world that can be transposed from our own. Are these dreamy depictions of how you wish the world was?
SEBASTIAN: Haha! I think that a world where just one misstep would have you falling to your grave would be a bit unpractical, but it would certainly be exciting. While the locals were chosen for a variety of different reasons they actually hide a deeper meaning. But I won’t say anything more about that...
KYLE: Your game can certainly appear/be challenging, perhaps with some of its platforming experiences turning people away from it. What sort of advice can you offer to those who are in it more for the story than the play itself?
SEBASTIAN: While making a game it’s easy to lose track of how easy or hard some parts are. We obviously played it a lot during development and got really good at it. We certainly wanted the difficulty to ramp up for the last part of the game, but I don’t think we were quite ready for exactly how hard players would find it. We did plenty of playtesting, always bringing new players in that had not been exposed to the game before, so we are a bit surprised that so many players seem to have such a hard time completing the last part. With that said, it truly tests the players to see if they’ve learned to use the games mechanics in every way we’ve tried to drill them during the game. It’s kind of a test and we hope that the players that make it through find it a rewarding experience.
KYLE: You claim that "games are art." What titles do you feel best represent this notion (i.e., what are some of the games you admire the most these days)?
SEBASTIAN: The great thing about games is that they affect so many of our senses. We have many favorites in our group but the games made by Supergiant Games are both beautiful and great sounding. The living breathing worlds created by Naughty dog in The Last of us and the Uncharted series are great testaments of the technical skill in that company as well as the ability to tell great stories. What Simogo are doing with the medium is also really interesting. We love games and gaming and could go in forever talking about games that inspire us in so many different ways.
KYLE: What one piece of advice would you offer to someone struggling with personal growth?
SEBASTIAN: Break your routines and try something new. Only outside your comfort zone is there room to grow.
Day 1 | Gone North Games