This weekend marks the second annual LudoNarraCon, a completely virtual gaming convention that anyone can join. Various developers from all walks of life joined together to celebrate gaming while viewers at home can watch panels, download demos, and enjoy livestreams. We had the opportunity to interview Alex Kanaris-Sotiriou and Tom Jones of Polygon Treehouse ahead of their upcoming title, Röki.
Röki is an adventure game with a striking visual style that lets players explore a mystical fantasy world inspired by Scandinavian folklore. The developers also added some of their own touches, creating a world as unique as its artistic direction. With years of experience with Sony under their belt, Kanaris-Sotiriou and Jones set out to create a non-violent game that can be played by anyone.
TechRaptor: What's the importance of folklore?
Alex Kanaris-Sotiriou & Tom Jones: Folklore tales tell you a lot about a region. They are like a time machine for a people or a place, often with simple messages for the reader. For example, in Scandivian folklore many of the stories feature an unsuspecting victim being dragged into a lake or frozen river to warn adventurous children from straying too close to the water’s edge!
One aspect that particularly interested us was the heroism of children in these tales. In particular, their innocence and lack of prejudice often allows them to look past monstrous appearances and see the humanity underneath, a trait that we also use to great effect in Röki!
TR: What's most effective about storytelling through games?
AKS & TJ: In video games the player is an active agent in the narrative. They can make decisions, there is cause and effect by their actions. Generally most of the actions occur in realtime in a linear fashion. All of which creates a very powerful storytelling medium that allows players to feel truly immersed and involved in the adventure.
Röki has a strong emotional narrative to do with Tove’s past and her relationship with her family, so being able to actively involve players in that story makes it all the more powerful.
TR: How long did this game take to develop?
AKS & TJ: From literally a blank sheet of paper to where we are now has taken around three years. We set up Polygon Treehouse after a previous life of being art directors at Sony. We worked with PlayStation for over 14 years, working on multiple consoles and titles which was a great learning curve for us. When we started our own studio we wanted to play to our strengths, so naturally gravitated towards the art-led narrative genre and all its different flavours. We were also keen for our first indie title to be non-violent and accessible to a wide audience
It’s been a real adventure, and we’ve learnt a huge amount along the way. We’re super hyped about the reaction Röki has received and our publishing deal/collaboration with United Label. We’ve been lucky enough to demo at some great events like Day of the Devs and the Steam Games Festival, as well as being a part of the Nintendo IndieWorld lineup. So far the feedback has been amazingly positive. It’s incredibly satisfying and humbling to see people enjoying our game—even if it’s just a small demo. Needless to say, we can’t wait to get the full game out there for people to play.
TR: How important is music to a game?
AKS & TJ: Music is always important, but for some titles (like ours!) it can make a huge difference. For Röki we’re telling the story of a broken family finding its way back together, so conveying a range of emotion to the player is critical. A lot can be done with art and dialogue, but music is one of the most powerful tools we have to do that.
Knowing how important music would be to us, we were keen to make sure that we had layers to all our tracks so that they react to what is happening in the scene as and when the player does something. It can be pretty subtle, but it allows us to slowly shift the soundscape to be more threatening or melancholy, depending on the emotional beats we want to hit.
We were also incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to work with Aether, whose ambient electronic music works perfectly as a relaxing backdrop to our game, which, at its core involves a lot of exploration of nature. Ali is our sounds designer who then takes Aether’s work and orchestrates it in-game, together they make a great team.
TR: What inspired the monsters in the game?
AKS & TJ: The jumping off point for the cast of monsters in Röki is Scandinavian folklore, but instead of the big Norse gods (which we love, but have been featured in games a lot), we were more interested in the creepy outcasts that lurk in the lakes, caves, rivers, and forests. It was these often tragic creatures that captured our imaginations, so we wanted to drag them out of the shadows for their time in the sun.
Although Röki is a creature of our own creation, his story is directly inspired by folktales we’ve read. The game also surrounds him with traditional folklore creatures, as well as a few of our own creations!
As mentioned previously, we use Tove’s innocence to allow her to befriend, or best these creatures in ways that adults wouldn’t be able to. Some of the monsters in the game are pretty scary, but fortunately Tove is a resourceful and upbeat heroine, determined to find her brother, so she is well placed to deal with them.
TR: How would you describe the graphics of the game?
AKS & TJ: We’ve had a lot of positive feedback about Röki’s signature art style and it's often the thing that draws people to the game.
From the beginning, we were keen to create something with a clean, graphical, and colourful style. We do a lot of things differently to other games—ours is an art style that focuses on pure shape, silhouette and colour. Under the hood the game is 3D but is rendered in a flat-shaded style to give us full control over colour and composition. In fact, people are often surprised they can move around in 3D rather than being limited to explore in a 2D space.
This style extends to the characters as well which allows us to make them really come alive through their animations and actions as we’re able to push things far more as we don’t have to worry about how the 3D forms receive lighting or intersecting awkwardly.
TR: Have you participated in LudaNarraCon before? What are you looking forward to most during the festival?
AKS & TJ: No, this is our first time, but we’re super excited to be a part of the event and to have our own panel (‘Röki - Holistic Storytelling’). For us it’s always great to be given the chance to speak directly to potential players, so we can’t wait to talk a bit more about Röki’s story and some of the decisions we’ve made along the way!
TR: What do you do for adventure?
AKS & TJ: We drove the length of Sweden straight after a 13-hour flight from LA which was pretty adventurous given it was the wrong side of the road for us! Fortunately it’s a great country to drive around so we managed to survive our jetlag. Zooming around Gothenburg on scooters is definitely something we’d recommend as well! We’ve done trips to Iceland and Norway to gather reference for the game and record VO, but also made sure to take time to enjoy ourselves and soak in the scenery!
Outside of our love of the outdoors and reference trips we enjoy cooking. We’re both vegan so that presents some challenges and it’s fun to play around with the alchemy of vegan cookery.
TR: What's next on your plate?
AKS & TJ: Our focus at the moment is putting the finishing touches to Röki ahead of a release on Nintendo Switch and Steam later this year, at which point we’ll be full steam ahead supporting the launch (fingers crossed!). After the dust has settled, we’re excited to start thinking about our next project. We have a few ideas already, but nothing set it stone. However, whatever idea we end up running with will continue to evolve our own spin on adventure games as well as developing the studio’s signature art style further.
You can add Röki to your wishlist and pick up the demo on Steam to try it out for yourself. The demo will be available until May 1.
This interview was conducted by Sonya Alexander.