The Signal from Tölva Interview – A Dynamic World Ruled By Robotic AI

Gameumentary recently had an opportunity to conduct an interview with indie developer Big Robot about their upcoming release, The Signal from Tölva. The game was announced back in August...

Gameumentary recently had an opportunity to conduct an interview with indie developer Big Robot about their upcoming release, The Signal from Tölva. The game was announced back in August with a pretty impressive looking gameplay trailer that showed off a ton of what we’ll be seeing once we finally get our hands on it. In short: robots, guns, an alien world dripping with secrets, and a story shrouded in mystery. Obviously, when we first heard about Tölva and what Big Robot had planned for it, we knew that we needed to find out more.

So, with all that said, enjoy this interview. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comment section, and we’ll see if we can get the developers to answer some of them!

Questions were answered by Jim Rossignol of Big Robot.

GAMEUMENTARY: For our readers that might be hearing about The Signal from Tölva for the first time, would you mind giving us a quick synopsis of the game?

Jim Rossignol: The Signal From Tölva is a science-fiction, open-world shooter wrapped inside a mystery. It’s about making robots explode with lasers, and exploring the weird relics and ruins of a beautiful alien planet. The Signal From Tölva is the second major game from my development studio, Big Robot. We’re a five-person operation based in the UK, and our previous title was Sir, You Are Being Hunted.

GAMEUMENTARY: There’s a huge amount of science fiction stories that have been told with video games over the years. What makes the story of Tölva stand out from them?

Rossignol: I don’t really want to explain the story too much, because it’s a mystery of sorts, and what’s really going is ambiguous. That’s the point of it. I like mystery in my video games, and I also like a lack of exposition. We’ve put a bunch of work into the idea of the world and the fiction behind it – we’ll even be releasing free e-books of lore alongside the game – but the game itself will remain cryptic.

There’s plenty there if you want to delve, but the game itself doesn’t spell it out. You’ll find yourself exploring this planet, encountering weird things, and fighting other AI, but who you are, why you are there… well, that’s not quite so clear. Basically, most science-fiction stories are what they appear to be, but that’s not quite the case this time.

GAMEUMENTARY: What sort of influences did you guys pull from when developing the planet of Tölva itself, and then of the larger universe behind the game? Movies, books, art, other games, etc.

Rossignol: This is a difficult list to put together, but I’ll have a go. We’re a gang of cultural omnivores and we take from all media. We’ve taken influences from architecture, especially modernist stuff, and we’ve been influenced by landscape paintings from the 18th century to the modern day. There’s a modern electronic ambience in the soundtrack, with hints of Boards Of Canada and Tim Hecker. There are references to half a dozen science-fiction movies, if you can find them.

There are references to real places: the Isle Of Skye, the highlands of Iceland. In terms of games, there’s a hint of Paradroid, a good dose of STALKER, some elements of Arma, and even a tinge of Half-Life. Most broadly, though, there’s science fiction in all its diversity. We love the idea of the distant, the futuristic, and the far away. Whether it’s from literature or illustration, it’s all gone in.

GAMEUMENTARY: You said in one blog post that you’d “default to minimalism for the story-telling in the game itself.” Was there something that drew you to that method of non-exposition laden storytelling? Did it present any issues from a development standpoint?

Rossignol: It’s hard to tell a story without telling a story. There’s a reason games rely on talking NPCs and cutscenes to tell their tale. We don’t have much of that, so keeping the idea that there’s a story underlying it all is hard. It’s a challenge to not go too far one way or another. I don’t know if we’ve got it right, but I hope people can see where we’re coming from. Really, though, it’s just a personal preference. I like games that are worlds or places, and don’t push the story on you — let you find it, if you care to do so.

signal from tolva

GAMEUMENTARY: In the same post, you called Olly Skillman-Wilson your “sorcerer” and, from what you’ve shown off, he absolutely is. How has his work helped or changed the development of Tölva? Can he actually use magic?

Rossignol: Yes, he is actually a wizard rather than a common sorcerer. He doesn’t like to talk about it, but he can turn into a newt. On the art side he’s brought with him years of CGI experience and a real talent for turning ideas into actualities. Creating a game that had a specific, strong look and was much prettier than our previous game, Sir, You Are Being Hunted, was one of the main goals for this project. We would not have been able to do that without Olly.

GAMEUMENTARY: What’s it been like getting to work with Cassandra Khaw on creating a prologue novella for Tölva? Can you give us any details on what the book will contain or feature? Is there anything about her writing that made you guys want to work with her?

Rossignol: I’ve known Khaw for a while and she said she’d like to work with us “one day.” So I said okay, write a The Signal From Tölva novella. So she did. She’s an exciting, interesting writer who likes ideas. That was enough. (The novella will actually be accompanied by a small lorebook, too, which was the skeleton universe that she based the book on — originated by me — which we have subsequently fleshed out.) The book is basically about what’s going on away from Tölva in the wider universe.

There’s a reason robots are searching for the signal, and a reason that the robots are autonomous and without human company. There’s a reason why the robots are fighting each other. And there’s a reason why the player is remote connected to the robots in the game. The novella touches on all that. It doesn’t explain what’s going on in the game, but it does provide a wider, richer, noisier context if you want that.

GAMEUMENTARY: Hearing that Ian McQue was working alongside you guys to help develop Tölva sparked a lot of interest in the community. How did your collaboration start and what has Ian brought to the table as far as creating and expanding your vision for what Tölva should look and feel like?

Rossignol: I had been interested in McQue’s stuff for a while, and when I heard he’d left Rockstar I got in touch. To my delight he said yes to working with us, and he provided a bunch of material to get us going. Having really high-quality concept stuff to work from and to have as a target has been absolutely critical — especially for Olly. None of us can produce that stuff on our own, so having some with the skill to say “like this?” gives the entire project momentum and focus.

I wouldn’t say that it has really dictated what the game feels like, because I’ve always had quite a strong direction for that, but in how the painterliness of the textures and the chunkiness of the world ended up being, that’s all from a McQue palette.


GAMEUMENTARY: Are there any similarities between Tölva and Sir, You Are Being Hunted? Both obviously feature robots and shooting, but was there anything you learned from developing Sir that helped you while creating and building Tölva?

Rossignol: Oh, there was plenty. It’s a very different game, of course, being focused on action and having been hand-crafted. But the fact that we’ve been able to make it at all has come down to having learned how to make games with Sir, and most of all having been able to be able to use Unity (the game engine) to its fullest. We’ve also learned what we like from games, and The Signal From Tölva is a natural extension of the wide open spaces and dynamic AI behavior that we explored in Sir.

GAMEUMENTARY: You guys have mentioned a few times that you have pretty sophisticated AI systems in place throughout the game. Talk a little bit about how they work within the world of Tölva.

Rossignol: The AI is more dynamic than complicated, I would say. We’ve built it to have a fair bit of freedom to behave within a few simple parameters. Robots squads, whether allies or enemies, spawn into the world at bunkers, and then patrol the landscape. The can choose to guard specific locations, or to attack other locations. They might go and survey a ruin, much like you are doing, or just scout a specific location.

They can go on huge hikes around the game world, and one of my favorite things to do is just to follow a squad and see where they go and what scrapes they get into. Once they encounter a hostile force, they’ll engage it. If they’re surprised and get hit before they’re ready, they’ll fall back. Likewise if they take too much damage or need to reload. Otherwise they’ll push forward, and try to get a position optimal for their weapon. Some of them have shields, too, which they can use to allow themselves a bit more time away from cover.

All that adds up to quite a bit of movement in the world, both in travel and in combat, and I hope that’ll make for a dynamic and interesting behavior for the players who encounter it, too. I really like the idea of game worlds that “play themselves.” You could basically take the player out of the game and let the world run, and the bots would just get on with their missions, and their battles, regardless. I really like that as a concept.

GAMEUMENTARY: You’ve said that the non-scripted AI movements really bring the game to life. How did you go about developing those systems and was that something you wanted from the beginning of working on Tölva?

Rossignol: Yes, it’s always been the plan. Tom built the mission system — whereby the bots can choose where they want to travel to in the world, and then go there — very early on, and the patrols have existed since our earliest white-box prototypes. The combat AI was adapted from work we did in Sir, building in the capacity to use cover locations and various new types of weapons. So the result is a merger of stuff we knew how to do, stuff we knew we had to do, stuff we had already done and, in some cases, stuff we didn’t know how to do and didn’t know we had to do, if that makes sense.

GAMEUMENTARY: In general, what has development been like over the last two years? Were there any hurdles you guys had to clear to make Tölva as good as it looks now?

Rossignol: Performance is the main hurdle. There’s only so much you can throw at a game before it starts creaking under the strain, and so we’ve had to put a lot of work into improving that, honing it, making sure that the game can cope with the things we’ve added to it. Keeping an eye on all of that as you go along is tough, and we’re still working on it now.

Dan will be starting an intense optimization pass next week, in fact. But there’s been just a lot of hard work, too. Olly has produced high-quality 3D assets for months and months at a time, while I’ve spent over 1,500 hours in our bodged-together custom level editor to get everything laid out in the world. For a team as tiny as we are, it’s been a colossal effort.

GAMEUMENTARY: When are we going to learn more about Tölva, and when can we expect it to release?

Rossignol: We have another video planned, focusing on art, that should land soon. No definite release date for the game yet, but it will be in the first few months of 2017.

For more information on The Signal From Tölva and to follow along with it’s progress, be sure to check out Big Robot’s blog!