Road to the IGF: Simogo's Year Walk

The latest in our Road to the IGF series has Simogo talking about its haunting and intentionally-mysterious Visual Art nominee Year Walk, a divergence from the studio's familiar, cute tone.
Simogo, winner of last year's Best Mobile Game at the Independent Games Festival with Beat Sneak Bandit, is at it again with its latest game, Year Walk. The studio's portfolio -- Kosmo Spin, Bumpy Road and Beat Sneak Bandit -- is unified by a handmade-texture look and a touchable charm. Year Walk, nominated in this year's Visual Art category, is something of a departure from the adorable action puzzles we've come to expect from the Swedish developer. Year Walk has a haunted look, a palette heavy on the play of light and shadow. Very little's yet publicly known about the game itself, aside from the fact that the studio's described it as a first-person adventure that focuses on unique events and fluid movement. The rest is intentionally obscured. Simogo's waged a secretive campaign of teasers and hints for passionate fan communities to decode, explaining on its blog that it intends to recapture the sense of mystery from days when players didn't know every last detail about a game before it launched. But as part of our ongoing Road to the IGF series of interviews with nominees, we tried our hand at getting Simogo to tell us a little bit about Year Walk and its inspirations, and spoke to co-founder Simon Flesser (the "Simo" part of the studio name; his fellow founder is Magnus 'Gordon' Gardeback). What background do you have making games? We have been making games as Simogo since August 2010. Prior to that, we worked for a couple of years with downloadable console games at another company here in Malmo. What development tools did you use? The digital tools include Unity, Maya, Photoshop, Madtracker and Audacity. This project has been a bit more analogue, though, as we've been doing a lot of research and loads of communicating with the people that have been helping us out on the project, so among the more unusual tools: rental cars, camera, GPS and maps. But the most important tools have, as always, been pen and paper. How did you come up with the game's concept? It seems closely tied to Swedish heritage: What is a Year Walk, exactly? After finishing Bumpy Road, we had talked quite a bit about how powerful horror can be, and how that could be something we should explore. At the same time in mid-2011, we also started to discuss how to make a first person game in 2D on touchscreens, and came up with a rough concept. Nothing came out of it, but in 2012 after having finished Beat Sneak Bandit, I read a short film script by my friend Jonas Tarestad, which was about this strange tradition called year walking. The script and the tradition itself had a very game-like structure. Over the time, it's evolved to something that isn't horror -- instead, we've found what I believe is a very unique atmosphere. I think our collaborators Daniel Olsen (music), Theodor Almsten (research) and Jonas Tarestad (story) have been a contributing factor to that. Year walking was an ancient Swedish tradition, with the purpose being to foresee the year to come. It involved a lot different preparations, and there are loads of variations when you start to read up on it, but most of them include not eating and locking yourself in a dark room for a longer period of time on certain nights, such as New Year's Eve. By midnight, one would walk to the cemetery -- of course, this would mean meeting a lot of the creatures from the rural myths on the way. Tonally the game seems like a departure from the cute look and style people have come to anticipate from Simogo. Did you intentionally want to challenge yourself to do something darker? I think creators, like all human beings, have different sides, and it's natural that those sides show in their creations. I don't think doing something dark was the challenge in itself for us, but rather to make something with a different tone and still make it feel Simogo. I think a big part of what we do is to surprise, and if we continue to make the same type of games we would soon be irrelevant, so it's very important for us to constantly broaden what we are about, what we can do to constantly keep surprising people. What influences inspired the art style specifically? I think it's difficult to separate art from other parts of the game. To me, it's much more about capturing a feel than finding a specific art style. Nature has been a big inspiration this time. I've gone through a lot of 19th century photographs of the south of Sweden too, and we even took a road trip on the countryside to really capture the feel of the setting. We listened a lot to Matti Bye and Mattias Olsson's album "Elephant & Castle" at the start of the project so that has been a great influence. The Legend of Zelda series has also been a huge inspiration. Not intentionally, but there's some things that have subconsciously found their way in there. On the more visual side of things, I really like Yuri Norstein. His play with perspective in the short film Hedgehog in the Fog has been a big inspiration. Generally, the art is probably an evolution of the style in Beat Sneak Bandit, so a lot of the things that inspired that game has been an influence this time around too: Charlie Harper, Jon Klassen, Alex Steinweiss, Disney's short movies from the 1950's; those type of things. Animal heads on humans (or perhaps it's animal with human bodies?) is in general something I find really fun, so it's been nice to finally be able to make that. Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed? I've played Little Inferno. That was a very interesting experience. We enjoyed Bad Hotel a lot. too. What's cool about Lucky Frame is that they really have their own unique expression. That's an admirable quality to have! Looking forward to try many of the finalists; Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime and Kentucky Route Zero look especially delicious. What do you think of the current state of the indie scene? There's a lot of interesting things happening, but at the same time I'm concerned about homogenization in themes, music and style, specifically in the indie scene, where unique things should flourish. I think a lot of it stems from an unwillingness or ignorance to find inspiration outside the art form. Many developers still focus on systems based on destruction and conquering (even in games that are not based on that on the surface), so I think it's important to challenge that type of thinking.

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