A dead-eyed horse, wearing a suit, standing in an ice-cold stream. It’s not the image we’re accustomed to seeing in a Simogo game. The Swedish studio—co-founded by Simon Flesser in 2010 (he’s on the right in the photo above, with his creative partner Magnus “Gordon” Gardebäck)—was better known in the past for whimsical works like Bumpy Road and Beat Sneak Bandit. But Flesser and his collaborators raised their art to a new prominence recently with Year Walk, a gloomy puzzle game for the iPhone and iPad that’s set in the woods of Sweden and is based partly on Scandinavian folklore. You play a man named Daniel who sets out on a sort of vision quest to glimpse his future. Along the way, you encounter strange beings from the netherworld like the aforementioned Brook Horse and a ghostly seductress known as the Huldra.
Year Walk is striking and moving on its own, but Simogo also produced a free companion app that purports to explain the folklore roots of the game. Players who dig into this supposed add-on will find that it dramatically deepens the experience, to the point that Year Walk isn’t truly complete without it. Flesser spoke to The Gameological Society about his ambition to make a game with a more prominent “serious side,” his commitment to minimalism, and the fun of blurring the line between reality and myth.
(Flesser and I spoke freely about the details of the game, so while I don’t think this interview will ruin Year Walk for anyone who hasn’t played it yet, it should be noted that major revelations are discussed. If you want to play first and you possess an iThing, you can buy Year Walk on iTunes. It’s cheap and it’s good, but your call. Also, because of repeated difficulties with our transatlantic audio connection, most of this interview was conducted over Skype text chat—from the third question on.)
The Gameological Society: I think Year Walk is generally seen as a departure from Simogo’s earlier, cheerier work. Where can we see the seeds of Year Walk in your earlier games like Bumpy Road and Beat Sneak Bandit?
Flesser: Bumpy Road definitely had a more serious side if you played through it and collected every piece of the little story. And certainly games that we worked on before [founding Simogo], like ilomilo, had a serious side. Both of these games talked about life, love, and death in a pretty serious way, but I would say not a very apparent way. So I think Year Walk might have been an ambition to talk about those ideas.
Gameological: Is that the genesis of the game? You were looking for more serious subject matter?
You can’t describe good art in one sentence.
Flesser: It’s actually based on a short movie script that never came to life as a movie. Gordon and I had been talking—I would say since Bumpy Road—about doing something more horror-like. Serious or dark.
Gameological: A movie script is such a rigid structure. How did you develop a game from that?
Flesser: We basically rewrote everything about it, with the main concepts left as they were—the start and the ending. But most of it is actually new for the game. That was really different for us, to work with something that had a start and an end and this is just the path. The way that we work is usually more like improvising the game as we go along, so that was definitely a challenge.
Gameological: I saw you in San Francisco at the Game Developers Conference. You had a demo booth there for the Independent Games Festival. We both remarked that Year Walk is a pretty tough game to demo. Did it make you nervous to make a game that you can’t really pitch to players in 15 seconds?
Flesser: There definitely were concerns about the financial viability of it. I think that a “pitch” is such a bullshit idea to start with. You can’t describe good art in one sentence, I would say.
Gameological: The game doesn’t help players along very much. There are no tutorials or menus.
Flesser: That was a very concious decision, and some of the first things we said were, “No menus, no text, no fluff.” In the end, we had to add some dialogue for Stina, as we needed the players to have some sort of connection to her. But for hints and that kind of thing, we were 100-percent set on not doing anything of that. And because of it, we see from time to time that some people are a bit nervous [about whether] the game is actually saving progress, since we are basically telling the players nothing about it.
Gameological: I wonder if this is something we’ll see more in games. Like last year, Journey had minimal menus, too. Maybe it’s a trend—to makes games that are less decorated.
Flesser: Maybe? For us it felt very appropriate this time. I guess in certain types of games, it makes more sense than in others. We wanted to give Year Walk this air of…I don’t know, a silent movie, a piece of art in motion? And menus and all that jazz would have ruined that feeling.
Gameological: It does have these distinctive moments of motion. The Huldra is this swooping, ghostly figure. And The Brook Horse emerges from the water with a lot of drama. Did it take a lot of experimentation to get those motions just right?
Flesser: It certainly was tough to get it too feel serious and not like a South Park episode. I had imagined the animation to be a lot like stop-motion all around, but for some characters, it ended up feeling a bit comedic. But the Brook Horse is one of the characters that retained the 12-frames-per-second look, like stop-motion. It just suits his character.
Gameological: There’s a watery feel to his motion. You can sense him just lightly bobbing in the stream.
Flesser: He’s an odd character. I sense the most connection to him of the characters, I guess it’s because he’s the most human of the bunch. Yet he’s very mysterious.
Gameological: And he looks you directly in the eye and holds your gaze. The other characters are mysterious in different ways—they’re not engaging you as directly.
Flesser: He has this air of having one foot in the human world and the netherworld, whereas the other creatures are very much more based in the netherworld.
Gameological: I enjoyed the sensation of decoding the symbols of a lost civilization. I have to imagine that a lot of that comes about because the game is based in Swedish folklore. What kind of research did you do?
Flesser: Hm…I know Jonas [Tarestad], who wrote the story that it’s based on, and the companion things, is pretty well-versed [in folklore]. But a lot of the “research” comes for free with our cultural heritage.
Gameological: Year Walk overall has one foot in truth and one in myth. I’m still not entirely sure which portions of the companion app are factual.
Flesser: It’s all part of creating and presenting a world in which the player coexists. Breaking down the walls between the storyteller and listener, if you will. Without the companion app, it would’ve been a good little story, but with the companion app, it’s a narrative that takes place in the same space as the player.
Gameological: Suddenly, it’s not this story that you hold at arm’s length. It enters our world.
Flesser: Exactly! So while it’s not breaking down the wall in that sense that the player is involved in the outcome of the story, it’s a narrative twist that is only made possible by the fact that Year Walk is a game.
Gameological: Is that why it’s important that the companion app is a separate app? It wouldn’t be as convincing if it were contained in the same program as the game itself?
Flesser: That’s the biggest reason; it’s just an exciting element. In a way, it’s almost role-playing. You are playing the role of a researcher or a detective going through these files and connecting the pieces. Other reasons are that we wanted to keep the game really clean, and also it’s a good presentation for people who might be curious about the universe. So in a way, it’s also a demo, but not a demo at all!
I think that giving the player a role in the game itself is a super-underused opportunity in games. It’s certainly something that we are keen to explore more. Like, when you are going through the notes of Almsten—you are the detective John Teti making research, right? Not that we tell you that you are, but there’s this sensation that you are doing this for real. You are playing the game in the real world, if that makes sense.
Gameological: Was the Almsten story part of the original concept?
Flesser: That definitely evolved. When we started, we had none of the meta/present-day elements, and the original script is just Daniel’s story. So that came about later.
Gameological: What is the most frightening moment in the game for you?
Flesser: Actually, it’s not a very scary game to me at all! But I think the vision after touching the runestone is a bit unsettling.
Gameological: I was unsettled when I saw the photo of the puzzle box in the companion app. This object had vexed me so much while I was playing the game. And now I saw a photograph of the actual object. I felt like Year Walk was entering my world. The boundaries got blurred.
Flesser: Good! I actually have the box here next to me.
Gameological: Ha! You’re teasing and enticing the player with the box, aren’t you? You put it right at the beginning of the quest, but we can’t open it. It always feels like unfinished business.
Flesser: Actually, we placed it there at the start with two purposes. One was to have players feel constantly stuck, haha. Or, actually, it’s the same reason: to make them feel frustrated and stuck constantly, so their mind would always be on the box. So they know the box is important.
Gameological: I would always go back and try the box again.
Flesser: Exactly! “Okay, THIS symbol must be related to the box.” Happy to hear it. We accomplished what we wanted.
Gameological: The Myst games, Myst and Riven at least, take a similar approach. There’s always something prominent at the beginning of the game that refuses to yield its secrets.
Flesser: I think it’s conceptually pretty interesting that the game can be completed in under a minute if you had all the info to start with. We don’t require a playthrough to open it. So it was also a bit of trolling from our side to destroy the experience for people watching walkthroughs (maybe). Actually, have you played Dream Machine? Anders Gustaffson, who made that, is a friend of ours. He lives here in Malmö. He constantly changes the solutions to make walkthroughs obsolete. So fun.
Gameological: At the Myst postmortem at GDC, Robyn Miller said that he thinks Myst could have been made without any puzzles, which was startling to me. How important do you think the puzzles are to Year Walk? Could it be just a pure exploration game?
Flesser: It could. That’s how we had envisioned it, actually. But then I think we were just too tempted to give this a very cryptic flavor, and I think puzzles were a way to achieve that. It creates some friction that I think is important. I am not saying every game should have friction, but for us it felt important that there was something trying to keep you away, yet at the same time reel you in—testing your might.
Gameological: The game is very cryptic—each puzzle seems to have just enough detail for the player to figure it out. How do you strike that balance? There’s playtesting, but at a certain point you just have to have faith that smart players will “get it,” right?
Flesser: Puzzles are, of course, a very subjective thing, so it’s more or less impossible to strike a balance. Actually we do not do a lot of playtesting. [We playtest] among our friends and such, but not anything major. Certainly not to get opinions—more to watch and see if interactions make sense, that kind of thing.
Gameological: I wish more developers would take that approach. I think over-testing often leads to generic games, filled with prompts and hand-holding to make sure everybody is along for the ride.
Flesser: That’s a tough balance to strike, though. Everyone says they do not want tutorials, yet most of the support mail we get are actually people that don’t know how to progress, even early on, before meeting Stina. So it’s hard, because a lot of people simply do not have the patience to try themselves, in the Twitter age.
Gameological: When that email started coming in, did you think you’d made a mistake? I think I would panic a bit.
Flesser: Not really. I am a pretty neurotic person, but when it comes those kinds of creative decisions, we are very confident.
Gameological: Some of the most striking moments come from an intense use of touch—holding ghostly infants on the screen with your fingertip, twisting a doll’s head. How important is touch to the game?
Flesser: If we were to make the game for a controller or mouse or keyboard, we would remake a lot of the puzzles. So, important, I guess!
Gameological: Did you consider other platforms?
Flesser: Not really! I think it’s interesting in that way. A lot of people say, “No other games exists like this on iOS!” but I would argue there’s no game on console quite like it. We’ve been asked a lot about making a PC version, but that would take a lot of remaking—not only the touch puzzles, but we would have to consider a way to translate the companion into a context that makes sense on a computer. And for that amount of work it’s basically making a full new game. [Making a new game instead] would probably be more exciting for everyone, including ourselves. For example: What would the companion app be on a PC? A site? A 1990s CD-ROM application? The narrative involving the companion makes much more sense on a smartphone, so it’s a tough one to “translate.”
Gameological: Did you grow up with stories like the folklore in the game?
Flesser: Yeah. I guess every kid grows up with myths to some extent. The Huldra and the human form of the brook horse “Näcken”—which literally translates to “The Nude,” I think—are definitely things that most kids are aware of when they grow up. At least, I think so. Maybe it’s iPads and Vuitton bags nowadays.
Gameological: These folk characters are like seeds that are planted when we’re kids, and they take on new meaning as adults. That’s the feeling I get from Year Walk, too. It plants seeds that take on new meaning both as you play and after you play. Is your understanding of the game still evolving?
Flesser: I think so, yes. We have a pretty clear idea of what the story is, but we are still thinking about new interpretations all the time. We’re often very surprised by the interpretations [from players]. For us, it’s pretty clear. As clear as time paradoxes and the supernatural can be.
Gameological: What are some of the surprising interpretations you’ve heard?
Everyone says they do not want tutorials, but…
Flesser: I think a common one is that Almsten and Daniel are the same person. One interpretation I can think of that is pretty interesting is that the game is based on the notes of [a real-life] Almsten.
Gameological: That thought occurred to me at one point as I was reading through the notes. Because it felt so real.
Flesser: [When development began,] the companion bits were going to have a bit more of a ghost story to them, and it was a lot more complex and had a lot of elements to it. But we distilled it down to a “do not fuck with the rules of the universe because it will not end well” kind of thing.
Gameological: One last question on perhaps my favorite detail. The first sound you hear once the game begins is your foot crunching in the snow.
Flesser: Ha, a lot of people like the snow crunch, that’s for sure!
Gameological: It’s great. The sound design remains minimal throughout. Why be so reserved with the audio?
Flesser: It’s just the rationale that’s behind all of the game. Everything is very subtle, slow, suggesting things rather than telling you them. So we wanted the sound to have that too.
Gameological: You had someone from outside Simogo handle the music, right?
Flesser: Yes, Daniel Olsén! That we worked with before, during our time at Southend. I made the rest of the sounds, though, including some jingles here and there based on Daniel’s music. Fun note: at the start of the project Daniel asked “Does he have to be named Daniel? It’s creeping me out a bit.”
Gameological: Ha, but you kept the name anyway. Is there a meaning to it?
Flesser: I think Jonas just wanted a very “blank” name. In the original script, he’s much more of a character. In the game, he’s more of a blank sheet of paper, so that there’s no disconnect between the player and him.