Year Walk: An Interview with Simon Flesser
As created worlds videogames often transport us to imagined places, telling imagined stories about imagined events. All too often the source of inspiration for these settings is dominated by a self-perpetuating creative well of bankable tropes and settings. There’s plenty of medieval-fantasy RPGs, plenty of Sci-Fi shooters. What there aren’t plenty of is games about Swedish ritualistic vision walks.
Year Walk is something unique. Developer Simogo’s latest iOS title is a first-person adventure game about the Swedish tradition of årsgång – a mystical vision quest believed to hold prophecies about the year ahead – which is a departure from the cartoonish titles Simogo is known for. I spoke to the studio’s co-founder, Simon Flesser, about the title’s inspirations and ideas.
Why make a game about a Year Walk? Where did the idea come from?
Our friend Jonas Tarestad presented the tradition to me in late 2011, and I found it really fascinating. He was working on a short move script based on it. I read the script when we were about to finish up Beat Sneak Bandit, and it had a very game-like structure, so we started talking about making a game based on it. Things just rolled on, and we reworked the script into game – and here we are!
Year Walk is quite a departure from Simogo’s previous titles in terms of both themes and mechanics. Was this a conscious decision?
Conscious in the sense that we constantly want to evolve and challenge ourselves creatively, yes. The step from Beat Sneak Bandit can seem quite big, but to us it feels natural: just as ourselves, I don’t think players are interested in seeing the same things over and over again.
Simogo seems to have a real grasp on how to create accessible, yet deep iOS titles. What is it that appeals to you about the platform?
The main reason we got in to iOS development was how easy it was to get started and get your games out in the wild, which is a very big difference from console development that we started out with.
How did the collaboration with Theodor Almsten come about? And what was the extent of his involvement during development?
Jonas introduced us to Theodor as he had been taking one of his classes. Theodor has been very self-going and wrote everything in the companion. We have taken quite a few liberties with his research, but hopefully he’s not too upset about it!
Has Theodor played the game? What did he think of it?
He has indeed. At first he might have been somewhat sceptical with the liberties we took with some of the stories, but in the end he really enjoyed it and understood why we had to take those liberties!
I think that his companion book works wonderfully. It’s filled with hints and tips without being an overly obvious guide to progression. Where did the idea to do a separate companion app come from? And how did you go about designing it to fit in with the actual game?
We wanted to connect the past and the present. We also thought that Swedish folklore was a strange and unfamiliar concept to a lot of people and this would be a good way to get a grasp on some of the traditions. And it’s just a really neat thing. It almost feels like you’re going to the library, but everything is there in the palm of your hands, collected for you.
Strange and unfamiliar is a very appropriate description. Year Walk felt a bit like a compelling history lesson. How did you go about designing puzzles from the structure of a Year Walk?
First of all we had to rework everything into a game. There are some key elements left from the short movie script, but a lot of it has changed. I started with scribbling down the key scenes, and then drew a map of the entire game, and placed some of the key scenes around on the map. Then it was “just” a matter of figuring out puzzles and the placement of them on the map. I guess every creator has different way of working, but for me making a map early on was really helpful.
So very often videogames are based on imagined fantasies and creations. Why do you think more games don’t explore real world cultural traditions and heritage?
Honestly I think it’s a lack of knowledge about it. I think one of the biggest problems with games is that they are so inspired by each other, or Hollywood blockbusters. I’d love to see more games based on more unfamiliar concepts, and really push the art form in new exciting directions.
Are there any games that you admire for being based on unfamiliar concepts?
I can’t think of any direct examples, but I like games that use settings that are not common in games, at least. Hotel Dusk and its sequel had some really cool everyday-settings. The Dream Machine is also a cool example of this. I really liked the themes in Catherine, too.
Was Year Walk influenced by anything else besides the Swedish folklore it is based upon?
We often have an idea of what we want to be inspired by, but in the end the games ends up being inspired by totally different things; stuff from movies, books and games that we admire just unconsciously find their way into the game. The Legend of Zelda and Killer7 are examples of such things. More conscious inspirations include the adventure games from CiNG, a short movie called Hedgehog in The Fog, which is a favorite of mine.