Röki is an upcoming adventure game based deep in Scandinavian folklore. It follows the story of Tove, and her adventure through the winter wilderness to save her brother. However, strange monsters of varying shapes lurk between each tree and crag, standing between Tove and her quest.
OnlySP had the chance to talk to Tom Jones and Alex Kanaris-Sotiriou from Polygon Treehouse about the upcoming project Röki. Jones and Kanaris-Sotiriou discussed their journey in creating the game and how it has developed over the years.
Jones and Kanaris-Sotiriou met at university in 1998. In their final year, they undertook a major project set by Sony Cambridge, leading to their first jobs in the gaming industry: Kanaris-Sotiriou began working in character art and animation, while Jones did environment art.
“We were there for quite a long time—about 14 years—and at the end, we were both art directors of the studios. When we went and started our own thing,” Jones said. “We had good times there and particularly learned a lot. There was one thing that we really wanted to do: we wanted to make a game that was accessible. Not just in terms of mechanics and controls, but also in terms of theme and tone. So, it was a game that families could play. We worked on quite a lot of Killzones which were great, but also involved a lot of shooting people in the face.”
Although Jones and Kanaris-Sotiriou have years of game development behind them, Röki is still a huge project. Furthermore, Röki is a completely different game to what the two worked on at Sony.
“We found some stories from Scandinavian mythology of these creatures and monsters that we’ve not really heard of before. The stories are the ones that you’ll see in lots of fairy tales. They’re not massively different in their format, but the types of creatures and monsters… there was something that really resonated with us.”
This mythology got Kanaris-Sotiriou and Jones excited, but it was not the usual Norse gods that permeate modern media. Rather, the creepy creatures that live in forests, lakes, and caves caught Polygon Treehouse’s attention.
“Colliding those strange and beguiling characters with the modern world and making a contemporary fairy tale was something we both got really excited about. With ideas for a project or a game, you really have to be excited enough to sustain you through the whole journey of making it, so you kind of know when you find ‘the idea.’”
In particular, the team came across a monster that brought winter wherever he went. Although this beast is not literally translated into the game, it certainly planted a seed in the developers’ minds. Winter, a big monster, and ominous happenings are still true in the game.
Röki originally started as a point-and-click, but has since drifted close to the adventure game genre.
When asked about how Polygon Treehouse is modernising the classic point-and-click experience Kanaris-Sotiriou said, “You have complete freedom to run around, it’s not like you’re moving a cursor on a screen. We did that because we were originally looking at having two control options—one with a cursor where you clicked and Tove walked to that spot. We found that once we got the controller version working, the direct control of the character felt so much more immediate and so much more satisfying. It was the way we would always choose the play after having the two options on the table.”
Jones added, “I think there’s a lot of modern game tropes that we’ve put into it so that visually, and from an experience point of view, it feels very modern, but at its core a lot of the design aspects of point-and-click games, in terms of puzzles and item combinations are put in on top. I think it’s the best of both worlds.
“The world is 3D, the characters 3D—so we actually have different camera angles. We can change the angle as the character runs into a scene. It makes the game feel far more dynamic. It’s not just a 2D game with 2D characters where it is every old school point-and-click. Röki is more of an explorative 3D game. We use 2D in the background as set pieces, but for the most part the environment is 3D so you can run around and explore and pick up items.”
Through this combination of point-and-click elements and more modern gameplay conceits, Röki aims to be accessible to new and experienced gamers.
Character art and animation are also key components to Röki. Kanaris-Sotiriou, the character art designer said, “We have some characters that have loads of different arms or that are in a big pool. We didn’t want to have a humanoid, then a slightly bigger humanoid—we wanted to have some variance. You’ll be unsurprised to know that there are trolls in the game, and coming up with our take of what a Scandinavian troll was quite exciting. This stage has been nice for creating those characters that will hopefully delight and will hopefully have a visual surprise. We want them to be surprising and charming and add to the rich tapestry of the game.”
Röki began as a two-person project, but has since gained five more team members who each work on different aspects of the game. The most notable improvement since the staff increase is the improvement of audio quality. Röki features a dynamic music system that brings the world to life.
“We went from being a two-person team to having funding from the UK Games fund and now having a publishing deal with United Label. That’s allowed us to expand slightly and fill out some of the areas we’re not comfortable with. For example, if the music was down to us it might’ve been played on a kazoo. Which would be slightly less atmospheric,” Kanaris-Sotiriou said. “We know from working all that time at Sony that sound is a massively important part to a game. If you want to impart a feeling or an atmosphere you can only do so much with art. The music will do so much heavy lifting.”
Röki has come along way since Kanaris-Sotiriou and Jones first began development, and with the help of the new team and publisher is becoming something they are proud of. Polygon Treehouse wants to do the game justice and that has been the biggest challenge so far.
“From where we started, if I look back to what we thought we were going to make the game has grown immeasurably. [Röki has] grown in terms of the story and the character arcs and the scope of the world that you’re in. Like going from a traditional point-and-click to a more expansive and explorative one. All those things are good things, and they make the game richer and more exciting and we want to do that justice. We want to finish the story, and we want to make sure the players get to play what is in our heads. And to do that, we need the time and the team to bring that vision to life, so I think that’s where we are at the moment—just getting that into the game and making sure it’s as good as it can be,” Jones summed up.
Puzzles and Playability
Balancing puzzles in a game is not an easy task, and Polygon Treehouse understood this from the start.
“The danger with [creating difficult puzzles] is making everything too hard, so it is inaccessible to a vast amount of players. We didn’t want to alienate either end, so we need to try and add in a dynamic difficulty where our baseline is challenging. But, for people who are stuck, there are clues and hints there if they know where to look. So, then if you don’t need that stuff, great, you can go through and nail it first time and feel like you’ve had a reasonable challenge.” Jones stated.
Kanaris-Sotiriou built on that by saying, “Old school point-and-click adventure games were notoriously known for being quite hard and a bit obtuse, sometimes you got really baffled by a puzzle that was illogical. We wanted our puzzles to be challenging, but we never want it to like—you need to be able to distil what the answer is without pulling out your hair—fortunately for me, I have very little of that. When making an adventure game, we knew that balancing the difficulties of the puzzles would be critical.”
The puzzles will not just be about combining random objects to progress through the story. Instead, Polygon Treehouse was determined to use the puzzles as another way of storytelling.
“We found that if you add some random puzzles that are about combining slightly esoteric objects it felt odd and undermined the story we were trying to tell. So, actually the puzzles and objects you pick up, you’ll notice that we’ve gone to quite a lot of effort to make sure they feel appropriate for the world and that we haven’t just come up with some wacky crazy solutions to things, while still having some challenge there, and I think we’re in a good place for that,” Jones continued.
Polygon Treehouse has set out to make an adventure game accessible to everyone and seems to be succeeding by giving a modern twist to the point-and-click adventure genre.
When asked about an inventory system, Jones said, “If you go up to an object it will only show you the interactions you can do with said object. There’s no time pressure in the game. Tove will still collect items and the player can still open their bag and drag the items onto the scene, but the core locomotion and moving around the screen is kind of pad and context-based. It feels more streamlined and more modern and we think it’s something that players will find very accessible.”
The Voice Acting
The idea of voice acting went through several stages during the creation of Röki.
“We thought about doing voice acting, but were a bit nervous about it partially because often if you have voice acting and text players tend to skip the text faster than you can hear, and it’s a lot of work for a small studio,” said Jones.
“And then, Alex (Kanaris-Sotiriou) had the idea where we thought about instead of saying the whole line we could actually have an ‘emote’, which is almost like an emotional sound. So, you could infer the tone of the sentence by that short sound. So that was the first phase of that which actually added a lot to the game. Then from that, we thought ‘does it make a difference if you do that with an accent?’ With some tests, we found that it made a huge difference. That’s what led us to working with our Ingvild Deila”.
Ingvild Deila is a Norwegian actress known for both independent films and blockbusters such as Avengers: Age of Ultron, with her biggest role being Princess Leia in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
“We were looking for someone to play Tove, which was a really important casting decision. We had an invitation to talk with Ingvild, and she has been absolutely amazing. We did a few tests with her and it became really apparent that she was just going to be amazing.” Kanaris-Sotiriou continued, “When it’s such a key part of the game, it’s so important to get someone who has an amazing range to help you out. That’s been really awesome and it’s added loads. One really good example: We said to Ingvild, ‘So, we got this idea for some achievement emotes. We’ll record for as long as you want, so just try some out. They were just so amazing, and she went on for a few minutes and they work really well in the context of the story’.”
Röki has about 40 emotes and each time one is activated during the dialogue, the game is coded so it will not repeat directly after.
“Once we had the emote library working from an audio perspective, we also found we could trigger Tove’s animations based off the dialogue line. So, then we went and created 10 or so different talk animations, so she’ll automatically look like she’s talking in a happy way. It’s those little things that add a lot to Tove so she’s not just flapping her mouth or the text beeping along, which we had originally at the start. It was relieving since you didn’t have to deliver so much on the animation side. If you wanted to convey the character is happy, with just animation then what do you do? Then you have the character dancing around looking really happy. The audio takes some of the weight off the animation side and allows the characters to be slightly more nuanced.” Kanaris-Sotiriou explained.
Jones added, “As you can imagine we play the game a lot, working on it a lot. So if there was a system that we created that started to feel annoying or repetitive, you’d think we’d be the first to see it. So far, it’s stood the test of time.”
The Story and Characters
Polygon Treehouse wanted a likeable character with a strong narrative. That is where Tove comes in.
“It was something we were really keen on—having a young girl as a main character. Because we wanted the game to be accessible to as many people as possible. She fitted very well into Röki, with her perspective on the world and her perspective inside her family, which is kind of fractured,” Jones explained.
Throughout the game, Tove has a younger brother that she must look after, then ultimately save.
“Part of the reason why we like the game being about two young children is because when you look at fairy tales and folklore it’s about kids. It’s about them being taken by monsters, or about them having to go off and fight monsters to save the family. A lot of Scandanavian ones are about young kids going to take back the family cow that has been taken by a troll. I think repeating that pattern, we felt would be true to that world and also give our game a new angle and really accessible to a wide range of players,” Jones said.
Although the story centres around Tove and her family, Polygon Treehouse has also taken the monsters into account when writing the story and character arcs. Although some of the character inspirations are not translated directly into the story, some of these initial ideas have found their way into different characters.
“I think everyone from their own perspective must think they’re an ‘okay person’ even if they end up doing questionable things. So, the idea of having a cartoony stylised game with actually having some characters with some depth is good. The monsters aren’t just ‘pure evil’ so we’re actually trying to have some depth there. With Röki, the monster that takes Tove’s brother, we ask ‘what is the layering?’ and ‘why is he doing that?” We’re constantly looking at what is his motivations,” Kanaris-Sotiriou said, regarding the moralities of characters in Röki.
“Setting up character relationships that reflect each other have also been incredibly important. So, with some of that ‘baddies’ their relationships with each other actually reflect on the main characters and their own personal relationships. It’s not just about Tove just going into the wilderness and going through this ancient world and forest. She’s doing it for a reason, she’s trying to rescue her brother. The father features quite prominently in the game and moments from Tove’s past also feature prominently in the game and how she got to where she was at the start of the story—which is already quite emotionally charged. Looking into terms of character development we wanted to do something more than just ‘It’s Tove and she’s going to defeat some monsters and the evil thing at the end!’” Jones said.
“Going back a bit to the monster that Tom was talking about, that hasn’t really been translated into the game, but is still fascinating. It was this creature that brings winter with them. The creature just wanted to be friends with someone—the closer they would get to someone; they would just freeze them. There was something in that, about what is a monster and shades of grey in terms of characters actually having monsters and in terms of monsters that aren’t actually monsters and humans that are actually monsters,” Kanaris-Sotiriou elaborated.
In terms of the story, the game will be divided into a three-act structure and will be story focused. At the start of the game, the player will be near Tove’s family home and will meet Röki. At some point afterward, an inciting incident will occur and the player will end up in the ancient wilderness. The game will become a lot more open from then on.
“The challenge there is telling the story in a way in which the player is involved in, so it’s not just ‘Okay, you finished this bit now watch a two-minute cutscene where we tell you exactly what the characters’ motivations are!’ It’s more learn by doing and exploring. We actually take you back to parts of Tove’s childhood in some of the game, but in an interactive way so you play those bits in a slightly dreamlike sequence and that allows us to put the pieces together of her past and why she and her dad are the way they are. It all feeds into the individual character arcs. Which if done well, you’ve got all these things coming together at the end and leaving the player with proper closure. We’re keen to make sure those different strands of the story are clear to the player without being too blunt about it,” Jones said.
“I think we have this interesting story that follows this family and looks at its past and follows this monster and his past, there’s some weightier issues there. It’s not a morose game, but I think there’s some depth to it that stops it from just being a superficial quirky story.”
Working With United Label Games
Polygon Treehouse is working with the publisher United Label, whose goal is to unite indie game developers across the globe.
“[United Label is] very passionate about [Röki] and they like our vision for the game. It’s really nice to have that support and understanding there. They’ve given us a certain budget that’s allowed us to start working with other people and allowed us to level up certain areas of the game that we thought we needed more attention to make sure it’s the best adventure game we could make. They’ve been very respectful of our vision and where we expect our game to go,” Kanaris-Sotiriou said when asked about how it is working with the publisher.
Jones continued, “One of the reasons why we decided to go with them in the first place is because of their sense of ambition for what they’re trying to do: bringing a selection of indie games and developers to the market in a way that hasn’t been done before. We are also ambitious for our game, we felt as if there was a good relationship there where we were both on the same page. Having that support in the background was great. Making games is hard, particularly with a small team, so being able to have a larger support network and a network that can actually take the weight off of other areas like marketing.”
Here and Now
When interviewed, Jones said that the game was in beta, which was going very well. Team members have been able to play the game from start to finish and recognise flow issues.
“We’re in the process or properly ‘arting’ everything, and adding all the creatures and the characters and bringing them to life so we know what to do with the story, we have a lot of the dialogue written and a lot of the music done. A lot that is now just bringing it all together, and connecting all those pieced and making sure it’s all polished. We’re currently also just testing it and responding to feedback.”
“It’s an exciting part of the project in many ways, particularly now we have a slightly larger team. There’s a lot of pieces there that suddenly come together and you can see it and go ‘oh, that’s our game!’ You can kind of compare that to what you think the game should be. It makes you happy because you actually managed to put what you’re thinking about into a playable experience.”
While the team is not yet ready to lock in a release date, a 2020 launch is almost certain.
“Both the publisher and us want the game to be the best it can be but we don’t want to be spending years and years making the game. But it’s very important that the game is good. They give the support and freedom, which is good. But we’re still looking at that. Over the next few months the release date will become clearer, when we’re confident that we can get the game that we want to make and are really happy with. We’re not a million miles away from making that decision.” Kanaris-Sotiriou explained.
Jones continued with, “There’s a few different factors in making that decision as well. We want to do a proper round of focus testing and get an external group of people to play the game and get their feedback onboard. I think there will be minor tweaks for few things. The worst thing you can do in a situation where you commit to a deadline is go to the effort of having focus testing but not have enough time to respond to it. That’s why we’re being careful to commit to an absolute date. I’d rather spend a few extra months addressing a few final issues rather than push it out the door.”
“We know that generally, the experience of the game is good. Now just want to know is how to go from people really enjoying it to being amazing.”
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