Despite how sophisticated we humans feel, there is something really mystical about venturing in the woods. Walking on your own in the forest in the quiet of the snow, where your imagination starts to come alive, your mind starts to play tricks. The slightly animalistic fears start to come out, the fears that come from being in the wilderness… alone.
That feeling of dread and wonder is one that game developers Tom Jones and Alex Kanaris-Sotiriou find exciting. It has been part of the inspiration for their first game, Röki, at their new indie studio, Polygon Treehouse.
When speaking with Tom and Alex about Röki, the excitement surrounding the development of their game is tangible. Alex described the game as a, “game that feels unique and different. It’s about a journey of the female lead, Tove. She journeys into this ancient wilderness. It’s a game about the fear of the wild and family in some ways. This is not just this epic adventure, or journey into a strange, unique, and wonderful place. [The game is] also about learning something about yourself, herself, and still facing your fears. Some of it’s looking outwards towards the world, this strange and unique place full with monsters and incredible scenery, and some of it is slightly more inward-looking, filled with more inner challenges.”
The lead, Tove, is an eleven-year-old little girl that is wise for her age, venturing through a snow-laden world with fears to face and monster somewhere in the woods. Tom and Alex found inspiration notably in Scandinavian folklore and have found these stories to be the biggest influence on the direction and feel of Röki.
“As we were discussing ideas at the start of the project, we were both interested in telling a story and making it with a younger protagonist,” says Tom. “At some point, we started to look at folklore for inspiration because a lot of those stories involve kids, and the stories are quite dark. [We] took bits from the best ones that we found and kind of made up are own. That is where [the game] started.
“We liked the idea of something coming in the night and actually disturbing a family and the repercussions of that and a young girl who you play that has to cope with her world being shattered.”
The inspiration for Röki does not stop with Scandinavian folklore; Stranger Things was mentioned by Tom as a good example of something in the same space as their game. “There is bad stuff going on, but it’s kids dealing with it,” he mentioned. There seems to be a little bit of everything piecing this game together.
Alex also wants the game to be one for all ages. “We don’t want to shy away from being quite hard-hitting [while] tackling some interesting areas and themes. [We] want to scare people quite literally.”
For these developers who worked mainly in console gaming, they took another route for their first Polygon Treehouse game: point-and-click. Tom and Alex want it to have the nostalgic feel of the point-and-click games of many of our childhoods, but with the artistically mature flair of games such as Kentucky Route Zero. This genre of gaming is notorious for its mastery of narrative play and the ability for players to have a more direct impact on their world.
“It’s a genre we really enjoyed growing up and still play. The genres’ games are accessible. There are generally not any complicated controls or any time pressure to do things, and we think this is part of why people really enjoy those games and are starting to come back to them,” said Alex.
With only a two person team, creating a game in other genres would have proven to be quite difficult. With point-and-click, a small team can make a game that looks and feels quite expansive and wild while still being able to do it in an orchestrated and crafty way.
This game is not meant to be a copy of other point-and-click games, though. There may be similar vibes of puzzle design or tone such as with the aforementioned Kentucky Route Zero, but only because of the level of artistry. Additionally, point-and-click games are often times humorous in nature; not Röki.
What about the developers behind Röki? How did Tom and Alex get to where they are today?
Tom and Alex met as students while attending Bournemouth University for computer animation. The versatility within the field and the ability to be more involved in the projects is what drew both of them into the gaming realm specifically. Both developers have always had a love of computer games, which fueled their desire to be in this field. For them, there is always something new, and the industry is always evolving in interesting ways, affecting how stories can be told.
At school, they were never really told that the gaming industry was really a job prospect. As luck would have it for Tom and Alex, Sony visited their university to brief their class on their final project – to create a PlayStation 2 spec character.
Tom’s spec character was a Scottish cowboy called Malachi. He was a Judge Dredd/Saint of Killers inspired lawgiver, but with a British twist and a crazy hard to animate kilt. Alex’s was a trainee witch-doctor called Voodoo Vernon, who was a bit of a collision between Harry Potter and voodoo magic.
“I think talking to the people that had come to visit and brief us for this project was quite cool,” says Alex. “That was kind of my path into Sony.
“Alex actually got me my job at Sony,” explained Tom. “I was working as a farmer at the time and had just finished university and got a phone call because Alex had recommended me. I was in the middle of the field when I got it.”
Talk about an amazing phone call to receive.
From there, the two developers (art directors at the time) worked for fourteen years together at Sony with the studio Guerrilla Cambridge. When they first started they worked on a project for PlayStation 2 called Ghosthunter. Both Tom and Alex agree that the initial skill set they were working with was quite broad. Character rigging, environment creation, shadowing, lighting, animation – basically having a toolbox with a little bit of everything in side.
As they continued working on games for the PlayStation 3 and 4, the skill sets used became increasingly more specialized for artists as they worked on titles like the Killzone games. Where someone once had a toolbox with at least one of every tool, artists began focusing their toolboxes to their strongest skill sets such as specializing in character rigging and animation exclusively or environment creation exclusively.
Alex discussed the phenomenon of specialization within the industry of game development. “I think being focused and figuring out what area you want to specialize in is important when getting into the industry. It’s difficult working out what your “thing” is, what area you want to specialize in.”
For Alex, that area was as a character artist and animator, whereas Tom’s area was building the worlds.
OPEN AT THE CLOSE
Guerrilla Cambridge, the studio Tom and Alex had called home for the past fourteen years, closed its doors this past January. With the decommissioning of the studio came the displacement of those employed there.
“Sony was really good about getting other studios involved after the closing,” said Tom. “They had studios come down and actually have little job fairs for people to go to so they could be placed elsewhere. Actually, a majority of the people we used to work with now have jobs!”
While others were being placed with various studios, Tom and Alex decided to form their own – Polygon Treehouse.
Where one door closed another opened wide for these two talented art directors. “The thing is… sometimes these things are opportunities to do something new and different,” explained Alex. “It personally gave us the opportunity to test ourselves in a different field, and it has indeed been very different.”
They both agree that in looking at developing a studio, often times it is easy to build upon your past successes.
“We both want to build Polygon Treehouse into a blazing beacon of being a great British, or rather indie game developer known worldwide,” says Alex. “Making these adventure games and other games recognizably as “Polygon Treehouse” games, and having some quality that you can identify it by is important.”
According to Tom, the new studio and this new game have opened a door for them that allows them more freedom in their work. “I think one of the things we are really enjoying about this game is not only the ability to tell a story, but a story that WE are creating every part of. I would like to think that is something we continue with.”
In starting their two man studio they have each been able to return to their roots. Alex is back working with character art and animation and Tom with building worlds, and the most common theme throughout our discussion was just how “chuffed” they have been with making work that is 100% themselves again. Working on a smaller scale and what that opens to interfacing with others, and the reception their game has had within the indie community.
The reception of the game has been great following the announcement of Röki , and they have not taken that for granted. One of the newest yet welcomed challenges for them has been interfacing with people, like us at Gameumentary, to talk about their game one-on-one and share their artwork, progression, and open themselves up to so many communities.
“There is a challenge there and a learning curve coming from a larger studio, but it is something we have been really pleased to do,” says Tom.
Röki is currently planned for a 2018 release on the PC and Mac, but Alex and Tom do hope to bring their games to a broader spectrum of platforms. If you want to follow their blog posts as development continues check out their website. For more frequent updates and communication go check out their Twitter.