When atmospheric greyscale puzzle game Limbo was released in 2010, it made its creator, Arnt Jensen well known. He was even titled as game industry’s own Lars van Trier. At that time Danish game industry was in a flux. Nordic Game Jam was turning into an institution and game developer community Copenhagen Game Collective was founded. Its members were releasing original and experimental games that raised discussion about novel themes and interaction modes for games. All of these incidents shifted Danish game industry’s core from IO Interactive’s Hitman series and triple-A to many steps beyond mainstream.
Game designer and developer Jeppe Carlsen worked at Playdead studios for eight years. After working on highly praised titles Limbo and Inside, he decided to go after his long-standing dream. Already when applying for a job at Playdead, he had had a game demo of a twin-stick shooter with him. His interest got rekindled at a local game jam, where the first prototype for THOTH was created over the course of three days. After that, it took a long time until action-puzzle hybrid gameplay identity of the game became clear to him.
THOTH’s simple idea of a hazard toggling on and off every time player kills an enemy became his inspiration for the entire game. In the game, a player shoots aggressive abstract enemies until they run out of colour. Even out of colour they keep on hunting the player. In co-op versio addition fun is delivered when another player dies and follows you like a feisty abstract zombie until the end. Square, round and triangle enemies and puzzles change from level to level and new elements are being introduced along the way. The levels are completed in groups of four. Game play is accompanied by dark eerie audio effects. Fast phased constant changes balanced with patient dodging keeps a player alert.
Lately Carlsen has done two projects of his own: 140 and THOTH. In both games original visual style and inventive level design is tied into pervasive audiovisual experience. His games focus on simple ideas, and all design decisions support the core. Carlsen says that instead of Danish game developer community, he is more influenced by the years spent at Playdead. He worked closely with Arnt Jensen for almost 8 years and discussed every tiny detail of the design of Limbo and Inside to death. He considers that being a massive learning experience on designing with constraints and iterating on designs to make each one as simple as possible without spoiling the core idea.
Same thinking is repeated in all his games. Whereas 140 was strongly directed by him and game music and audio was developed hand in hand with game play design, development of THOTH was fun and very different as a project. When coming up with ideas Carlsen tries to put himself in the mind of the player and do designs he considers logical, consistent and something that will add value to the game play experience. But it is clear that THOTH is hardcore and not trying to please a broad audience. He sees a chance of success in there even if he would not be able to attract large audience. That was proven to be the case when he was lucky enough to launch THOTH in Humble Bundle Monthly. Economically that made a big difference.
The constant change of game industry also has an impact on indie developers’ opportunities. 140 was released in 2013 and it did great whereas THOTH released last year is struggling in comparison, says Carlsen. THOTH is much more niche than 140, but still he feels 140 would not do half as well if it was released today. There are just so many great games being released all the time.
Carlsen’s goal is to make interesting but simple games that leave an impression. In all his games audio and visual synchronisation is central. 140 is all about synchronizing gameplay to music in unique and interesting ways. The audio design was an integral part of the game design process. He met with composer and sound designer Jakob Schmid almost once a week for a long period of time. They let the music influence the level design even so much that they shifted the timing of some gameplay events to allow for more interesting music.
THOTH on the other hand was very far into development before he teamed up with experimental composers SØS Gunver Ryberg and Cristian Vogel. In sharp contrast to 140 Carlsen did not allow himself to use any kind of rhythm in the gameplay in THOTH and found it fitting to reflect the same thinking in audio design. Besides this constraint, he only gave the composers minimal creative directions. That consequently pulled the game in a direction he would never have imagined.
Carlsen plans to continue developing games. That’s why he and Jakob Schmid founded a new studio to work full time for a longer period of time on their next game. Even though THOTH got nomination for Nordic Game Sensation Award for THOTH, Carlsen feels confident that next game will be his coolest game concept yet.
A version of this article was written for Pelaaja (Player) magazine in June 2017. Pelaajalehti.com.