If you think indie horror games are all about jump scares, you’re wrong. Despite the attentions of YouTube scream-kings PewDiePie and Markiplier at the height of the first-person horror boom, Norwegian developers Krillbite proved with their first game, Among the Sleep, that there’s plenty of room for mature narrative and experimentation in the genre. In a departure from the themes of alcoholism and abuse explored in their debut, Krillbite are now taking on the all-too-relatable feeling of urban isolation in the social media age with their second major project, Mosaic.
Experimental games are difficult to describe, but Krillbite’s latest leans a little further towards adventure than their previous work, aiming more for creepy, existential dread than all-out terror.
“It’s a difficult game to pitch,” says Adrian Husby, a game designer at Krillbite, “because it’s mixing so many different elements and genres. We can pitch aspects of it, but pitching as a whole is hard.
“I guess what we have been saying is that it’s a surreal adventure game about a guy living a life deprived of any meaning in a dystopian setting. He gradually starts seeing some strange things and escapes from his life somehow.
“It’s a story-driven narrative game, so you’re following a specific character through various scenes.”
Mosaic is a mixture of Krillbite’s collective personal experience and imagination, as the team works to communicate the feelings of loneliness and angst that are central to the experience.
“We have a lot of different people working on the project, so a lot of people put different aspects into it.” Husby explains, “Some personal, some professional – others are more creative.
“Some partially inspired by work on Among the Sleep, our last project, actually. Even though it was wonderful in many ways, it was also extremely hard. So feeling trapped in that kind of situation, on a project where we were way out of our depth – that sparked some of the initial feelings that we’re putting in the game.”
“It’s so easy to look at how people are living their lives through social media these days,” adds Kristina Halvorsen, Krillbite chief of marketing and community. “They complain about working in big companies and tell stories about their horrible experiences – everything like that inspired us.”
“It seems like something a lot of people can relate to,” Husby continues. “Urban isolation – living in a small box in a huge building where you don’t know your neighbors, you don’t speak to strangers in the street.
“All of that stuff is new to society – only the last 100 years. A lot of research has been done on increasing suicide rates and other consequences of that shift in society. So even though it’s been explored a lot before in many ways, it’s interesting now both in terms of the digitization of society as well as the video game medium.
“I think it’s the perfect medium to tackle these issues. It’s very easy to use for escapism, and that’s kind of what our game’s about – what you want to escape from. So, it’s interesting.”
Mosaic’s setting will be familiar to a lot of people. Although it’s generally a linear, atmospheric, single-player-led experience, Mosaic takes players through a modern city with all the hallmarks and touchstones of contemporary urban life; the protagonist even has a smartphone, complete with custom-developed “stupid free-to-play game,” to fiddle with on their morning commute. The city takes inspiration from many around the world, as well as Olso, where Krillbite recently opened their second office.
“There are a lot of visual references at least from Oslo,” says Husby. “Every city has its own identity and marks, like everyone knows the double-decker red buses from London, but then you have things like how trams in every city always look different. We’re grabbing these iconic things and putting them in so that people who’re familiar with them can be like, ‘Oh, there are the dustbins that they have around Oslo.’ It has that familiarity.
“But it’s not based on a real place. There’s not like real streets or real places at all – it’s just to make it feel like the places that inspired it.”
The practicalities of creating such a different project have proven difficult for Krillbite, despite their now proven track record of success. They gathered almost $250,000 of funding for Among the Sleep on Kickstarter, which went on to sell more than 100,000 copies, even before it launched on console. But with greater scope and ambition come greater expectations, as well as more complex problems.
“Most of us thought that we’d learned so much from the process on Among the Sleep that our next project would be a walk in the park,” Husby laughs.
“But that’s not how it works at all. I feel that Mosaic has been an even harder project than the first one, because there are new challenges, and old challenges don’t disappear, they just come in different forms. They scale, as well. So, when you move the company up in size, the nature of your challenges change.
“And, of course, it’s a different genre. We went from making a first-person horror adventure thing to a more third-person adventure, towards a point-and-click game where there are completely different problems you need to solve in terms of design techniques, visuals, and programming. It’s hard in those ways as well.”
“A lot of people with their second game always hope, ‘yeah, we know this now,’” says Halvorsen. “And even if they have the same genre, they find it harder. We’ve gone a completely different route this time; it’s a new challenge, which is interesting in itself.
“Also, we’ve created so much new stuff since we started out as students working on a game. Now we have more experienced programmers and stuff like that, so new tool-sets to work with.”
“When you’re working on games they always change, they’re always evolving.” Husby concludes. “It’s never the same. The medium is evolving – everything is changing all the time, even the platforms. It’s a continuous learning experience, even if you’ve been in the industry for twenty years. You might’ve learned some best practices, but it’s not like you know exactly what you’re doing – no one does in this industry.
“Working on Among the Sleep and Mosaic is different in many ways; we’re approaching it in a new way. When we were making Among the Sleep, we explored it while we were making it, and continued designing it while we were developing it. Whereas Mosaic was different in that there was a lot of design ready, and then we started building what we’d planned. We’ve changed a lot of that initial stuff, but the whole approach to project management has been different.”
The trials, tribulations, and hard lessons of professional game development may not be the sole inspiration for Mosaic, but was the spark that re-lit the Krillbite team’s creativity after a tough crunch in the run-up to Among the Sleep’s release. It was at this time that Krillbite displayed their ruthless commitment to making the best game they possibly could, changing crucial parts of the game right up until release, while struggling to manage the expectations of community speculation without spoiling their hard work.
“When we started Among the Sleep we had a lot of plans, but no idea what we were doing,” explains Husby. “So we graduated after a year, worked on it for another year, and then we released the first teaser for the game, which went viral and exploded. Suddenly there were all these eyes on the project and people had all these expectations – things that they wanted it to be that it wasn’t. In some ways that was a challenge, because people were writing about it, and you know that these things will never be in the game.
“You have to face that you’ll disappoint some people. Which is a valuable lesson to learn, even though it’s hard.
“One year after that teaser, we published the Kickstarter campaign, which again morphed the project into something different. We’d promised this, this, and this, so that at least had to go in whatever the costs. Then another year after that again we shipped the game, so it’s been a yearly cycle of new level-ups as a company.”
“I remember the feeling.” he goes on to say. “It kind of felt like we were standing on the Titanic. The ship was heading towards the iceberg and you knew, ‘Shit, this apocalypse is coming and there’s nothing we can do to stop it,’ ‘this is crap,’ and all those imposter-syndrome feelings. We continuously changed the whole project during production. It started off more as an adventurous game, where the teddy bear had abilities and stuff, but ended up more as a survival horror where you’re hiding. A dramatic change in terms of game experience.
“And story-telling wise, only two months before we shipped the game we completely changed the main story arc, which is crazy. It made it much, much better and we learned a lot from it, but being there, it still gives me shivers down my spine just thinking back to that period. I remember thinking, ‘We’re shipping this game in two months, and this thing that’s the main thing in the whole game is not working.’ That’s a really terrible feeling. Then it turned out okay, and it’s given us the opportunity to make more games, which is more than I could ever ask for.
“I guess it was that period where Mosaic was initially spawned – you can feel that in the game, I think.”
ACTIVATING THE MIND
In terms of gameplay, Mosaic is first and foremost a narrative experience. While it does have puzzles, they’re more about investigation and world building than sliding blocks. The player’s computation and interpretation of events will be the most difficult part of the game, as they try to figure out what’s happening and what it really means.
“Of the two, definitely more along the second line,” Husby says when I ask him if Mosaic’s puzzles are more like old-school Sierra games or Myst.
“A large element of it we can’t talk about yet, but it’s much more of an atmospheric Kentucky Route Zero-like experience of being in the world, talking to people, and seeing various situations. It’s not like an inventory-based ‘combine five obscure items’ to pick the lock kind of puzzle. It’s more about environmental storytelling and exploring their world, finding hidden secrets, and trying to plot that into what it means than ‘here’s a locked door, solve this thing to find a key.’”
Husby elaborates, “Personally, I’m super inspired by other designers, and one in particular is Thomas Grip from Frictional Games. He’s written a lot about how you can make gameplay and narrative interwoven and not separate things. Like, in Uncharted as Nathan Drake you shoot a bunch of guys, but the story’s trying to present him as a hero while killing off a village, which is kind of weird. He’s been talking a lot about how you can make interactions like opening a door, which you do all the time in games, into super interesting narrative experiences.
“We’re still working with integrating all the mechanics and gameplay scenarios with the narrative, so they feel like part of the world and not just plastered on top, like ‘Oh, the player’s bored here. Give them a gun and some enemies.’
“We’re trying to approach it that way, at least. Which is hard when the game’s about loneliness, inner struggle, and the boring commute to work. These themes don’t lend themselves very easily to engaging interactions. We’re still working with it, and there are some more abstract, dreamy elements in there as well, so we’re trying to spice it up a bit by adding more surreal things.”
“I think that things can be hard in many ways,” Husby says. “They can be mechanically hard, about mastery and those things. Or you can make it hard mentally where it’s difficult to work out the solution. But, it can also be hard in terms of themes, setting, and narrative where you have to think, ‘What does this thing mean in this context based on what I’ve seen up to this point?’ You can activate your mind as a player in many ways, so we’ve been experimenting with those things.”
By crafting every interaction in Mosaic in this way, Krillbite are trying to give players a very specific experience – eliminating extraneous variables and distractions to elicit the right feelings at the right time. This is something they’ve had a lot of practice with, picking up a trick or two along the way.
“We’ll use everything we can figure out to help along the way and assist people in having the experience we want them to,” says Husby. “Making people feel like they’re in control while something completely different is happening behind the scenes, we use a lot.
“An interesting trick we used in our small experimental game The Plan: The ending of that game is a long build-up where you have a fly approaching this huge lamp over the period of two minutes. There’s this song which starts as you start ascending towards this lamp, and it’s super crucial that you hit the lamp when the music peaks – no one will notice this, but for the experience to be what it is, it’s the most crucial thing in the whole game. And how do you do that when the player’s in control and can hit the lamp whenever? Instead of moving the player, we move the lamp. Since it’s outside of your view most of the time, and there aren’t many visual queues in the environment at that point, it’s very easy to trick the player into feeling like they’re playing.
“When the player flies upwards we move the lamp upwards to compensate, when the player flies downward we move the lamp down. You’ll never notice those tricks as a player, but any time anyone plays that game they’ll hit the lamp at the perfect moment.”
Following its initial teaser and funded Kickstarter, Among the Sleep found great success on YouTube, where countless Let’s Plays racked up tens of millions of views. But unlike a few indie-horror games around that time, this was more a case of smart marketing than cynical pandering. Krillbite make games they want to play themselves, and hope that other people feel the same.
“During Among the Sleep, we knew YouTubers were a thing and contacted them directly to send them builds for marketing purposes, but I don’t think we targeted YouTubers or anyone in particular with Among the Sleep,” explains Husby. “We just made the game that we really wanted to make, stumbled onto the idea as students and thought, ‘Shit, this game needs to exist.’
“Personally, I feel the same about Mosaic. It’s a game I’d love someone else to make, something I really want to exist and I think there are some super interesting elements in there. I’m working on it for my own sake and hope that there are enough people out there like me.
“It seems that way, looking at recent trends in games – only in the last few weeks there’s been What Remains of Edith Finch, which looks amazing. There’s just been so many new, interesting games that open up and go in different directions.
“[Mosaic] is not a game for everyone, although I think a lot of people will enjoy it. We’re not trying to appeal to everyone.”
Krillbite hope that Mosaic can have a lasting impact on the people it does appeal to. In their team bio, they emphatically state that their goal is not only to focus on stories, but create experiences which enrich the player. By exploring the instantly identifiable themes of loneliness, ennui, and isolation in Mosaic, maybe they can make a few of them feel a little less alone.
“Some games are mainly or only escapism – and that’s okay,” Husby says. “But games as much as anything else can inform your life in some way or make you think about what you’re struggling with. Whether it’s identifying with a hero or anything else, there is a lot to be gained.”
“I do think it can be inspiring for people who’re also going through hardships and how you can deal with things changing in your life,” Halvorsen agrees. “I think a lot of people can recognize that.”
“Looking at the material, I think it’s easy to see what themes we’re tackling,” Husby finishes. “They’re pretty normal feelings that a lot of people these days are experiencing. Being lonely gets better if you know that you’re not alone in being lonely, that other people are going though it too, and that you have someone to identify with.
“Looking at Among the Sleep, it could’ve just been ‘it was all a dream, and you wake up,’ but what makes all art work is the allegories it has, what it actually means when you delve into it. There’s a lot to extract from Mosaic in these terms if you want to, and if you look for it.”
Mosaic is slated for a simultaneous PC and console release, but a date is still TBA. A PS4 version is confirmed, with other consoles still being confirmed.