The games market is saturated right now with all kinds of horror games. From the bigger titles like Outlast and Resident Evil to the microbudget jump-scare fests of 5 Nights at Freddie’s and Tattletale, it seems like horror has suddenly jumped to the forefront of recreational gaming. But whatever happened to the thriller genre? In other artistic mediums, thriller and horror are usually considered two different sides of a Venn diagram, with the final product somewhere in the middle. But with the market so choked with bloodbaths and jump scares, is there room for a more nuanced or suspenseful experience? Swedish indie studio Midnight Hub thinks so.
In the summer of 1988, a young girl named Marie decides to go out on one last camping trip with her sister before winter sets in. All seems well and good until an argument flares up between the siblings, sending the younger running off into the forest. Marie follows after her, but discovers more in the forest than just her sister. Dark shadows driven by madness and hate begin to emerge from the dark woods, forcing Marie to take shelter in an abandoned estate and work to unlock the mystery of the forest. This is the world that Midnight Hub intends to bring to life in their inaugural title Lake Ridden.
“What we’re trying to do is tell a kind of story that you might not come across so often in video games,” says Sara Casén, Midnight Hub’s producer and studio manager. “We want to have types of main characters other than the usual ones you’d find in thriller games. We’re trying to tell a difficult story about difficult topics. We definitely want to broaden the types of games out there – it’s a thriller, but with someone who’s fourteen, just on the bridge between a child and an adult, exploring how far they’d be willing to go to save their little sister.”
Founded in 2015 by industry veterans Sara Casén, Johan Bernhardsson, and Erik Nilsson, Midnight Hub is a little less than a year away from their scheduled release window for Lake Ridden. I sat down to talk with a couple of their team members about their experience so far of running their own company and about what we can expect from the moody forests of Lake Ridden once it hits the market.
“Well, very common in game development… I think that we feel like we’re way behind where we’re supposed to be,” interjects my other interviewee, creative director and Mojang alumnus Johan Bernhardsson. Casén chuckled at this remark. Both were in good spirits despite having just returned from the 2017 Nordic Game Conference, where Lake Ridden alpha gameplay was on full display.
“It’s very common in game projects to feel like you scoped the whole game wrong, even though we haven’t. So I think that a lot of people are feeling a little stressed out right now. But we have been getting some really good feedback, which we don’t trust, because you don’t ever trust good feedback.”
Casén told me the reviews from the conference attendees were very positive, something she remarked was very encouraging, but also frustrating.
“We want people to say all the bad things that we need to change or things that aren’t working. There were people almost constantly lining up to try the alpha, which was I think a huge boost for the team as well – that so many people were following what we’re doing – but when someone tells you they like what you’re doing you’re thinking, ‘Yeah whatever – what can we do better?’ So, there’s a lot of pressure, but I think, definitely, the three of us [Sara, Johan, and Art Director Erik Nilsson] knew what we were getting ourselves into when we started this.”
A UNIQUE SITUATION
Five employees make up the intimate team at Midnight Hub: Producer and Studio Manager Sara Casén; Creative Director Johan Bernhardsson; Art Director Erik Nilsson; Game Developer Malin Sandgren; and Game Artist Anton Sander. Because the Midnight Hub team is so small, their development cycle has been much more fluid and flexible. Bernhardsson remarked that he found the smaller setting a liberating change from the previous groups he worked with.
“When you’re part of a big team, you can sometimes be a little more focused, but it’s also a lot of fun to not just have a specific talk and do that. We like jumping around and trying to find new solutions to new problems – it’s very exciting.”
On the surface, a lack of focus sounds like a dangerous thing, but contextually it’s freed up the team at Midnight Hub to make the game they really want to make. With this in mind, I inquired about the inception of the game. I’ve often wondered what the process is that causes any developer, be it a AAA studio or a one man show, to sit down and firmly say, “This is the game we’re going to make now.” Casén said their circumstances were rather unique.
“I think that we perhaps approached this in a way that’s a bit special because we actually started with our team first. For different reasons all three of us founders found ourselves in situations where we felt like we wanted to start a games company. I was running this other thing, Johan was at Mojang, and Eric had just left Paradox. So, we assembled the team, decided what our strengths and weaknesses were, and how can we could use them to make a game of our own. So, everyone got an assignment to take an idea of theirs – maybe it was something they always wanted to make or something completely new – and pitch it to the team in one week. That’s how we ended up with Lake Ridden.
“We could all find parts of games that really excited us individually that we wanted to work on because we’d been on passion projects before. We’d worked on those things where one person has a really strong passion about a game that they’ve perhaps been dreaming of making since they were a child. But to make those games you usually recruit people to make that game specifically. If it’s an MMO, we would have recruited people that have specifically worked on MMOs and are perhaps good network programmers. But then you release the game and you’re like, “What can we do now?” Then you’ve almost painted yourselves into a corner because you’re a team who only knows how to make MMOs. So, as a small indie studio, it’s really really important to us to try to find aspects in each thing that we’re making that excite each person on the team. So, that’s how we ended up with this idea, and then it’s grown into what is Lake Ridden today. It wasn’t at all clear from the beginning. We just had this seed or fetus, I guess, that got us to this.”
Lake Ridden has been branded by its makers as a “different kind of thriller,” and one of the things I immediately noticed from the alpha footage is the game’s apparent influence from older puzzle and thriller games like Myst and Firewatch respectively – albeit the comparison to the latter was more a gut reaction due to the forest setting of Lake Ridden shares with Firewatch. Casén and Bernhardsson had very good reasons for why they wanted to brand Lake Ridden as a thriller and why they didn’t want it to be confused as a horror game.
“When you look at movies, there are a lot of really good thrillers, and it’s been a really well known genre for a long time. People know what you’re talking about when you’re talking about a thriller,” says Casén. “When it comes to games, there are way more horror games out there than games that label themselves as thriller experiences, so it’s exciting to be doing this kind of game because there’s a lot of people who, if you say that you’re doing a ‘horror game’, eight out of ten people are like, “Whoa, horror’s not my thing.” They immediately think about gore or that kind of stuff, so we wanted to make Lake Ridden a ‘thriller’ experience with more adventure and puzzles.
“In that sense, it’s definitely more like Myst, but Myst is insanely hard,” Casén smiles as we all chuckle in agreement. “I think we are aiming more for the people who enjoy Gone Home, Firewatch, and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter – and the puzzle-y parts of Amnesia. Our hope is that those kinds of players will enjoy Lake Ridden.”
“Horror games are usually a lot more of a roller coaster ride; you usually need to be more experienced to play the games,” Bernhardsson chimes in. “When we were talking about ‘mystery’ and ‘thriller’, we wanted it to be more engaging to the player – we want to actually tell the player, “Yeah, you have to be the one to solve the mystery and move the story forward.” We also have a more open world area in the later parts of game where the player can go around and explore and find different pieces to the big puzzle. If we were to compare Lake Ridden to Firewatch, I think we’d find Lake Ridden a lot more active for the player. It’s more that you have to find the clues and solve them yourself than be guided anywhere by another character. And it is a drama as well, so it’s a lot more story-heavy than the Myst games are. It might even be more story-heavy than Firewatch.”
What I’ve seen of Lake Ridden so far oozes with the kind of obsessive attention to detail that well-crafted indie games have. The natural settings of Lake Ridden that have been shown to the public are full and vibrant, even through their dark and ominous backdrop. In my personal experience, the setting within a game like Lake Ridden tends to develop a character of it’s own, inevitably contributing as much to the story as much as it’s protagonists. Games like Hyper Light Drifter and Soma have environments in that style – games where the game wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t in that exact setting. I asked if this was an intentional creative decision or just a happy coincidence.
“Eric, our art director, is super excited about nature and plants and and birds and stuff. He and I are huge nature nerds,” says Casén. “He’s put so much love into all the nature parts of the game that I think that’s why you could say the environments in some parts could be interpreted as a character of their own.”
“We’ve obviously put a lot of effort into making the world have a consistent theme, like how everything’s put together,” chimes Bernhardsson. “But I’m not sure the whole picture has even come out yet based on what we’ve released. We’ve released small parts, but not any parts of the big hub where most of the game takes place – I think that area has an even stronger personality.”
And if the alpha gameplay is to be trusted, personality is something Lake Ridden has in spades. It’ll be exciting to dive into the intrigue-saturated forests of Lake Ridden, and find out for ourselves what kind of thriller Midnight Hub has made for us.
Lake Ridden doesn’t have a set release date yet, but Midnight Hub plans to launch the title on PC some time in 2018. You can visit Midnight Hub on the web here and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.