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Road to the IGF: Svedang, Akerblad and team's Else Heart.Break() Exclusive

February 17, 2015 | By Leigh Alexander




Story-driven adventure Else Heart.Break() is set in an interesting world -- the forlorn fictional Dorisburg, based on Swedish indie hub Gothenburg. Art director Niklas Akerblad, designer, writer and programmer Erik Svedang and team have been working painstakingly to bring Dorisburg to life, based on a sort of vision Svedang imagined years ago. 

The distinctive look and feel recalls the poignant, mature charm of late-era PlayStation RPGs -- their long-legged protagonists, detail-crammed houses and towns, and their attention to emotional landscape. Else Heart.Break() is up for an Excellence in Visual Art award, and as part of our series of interviews with nominees, we catch up with Svedang and Akerblad to discuss their work. 

Since you won the IGF in 2009, you've been wanting to create this game, right?

Erik Svedang: Yes, that’s right. A long time ago now! 

What tools did you use?

Unity.

How long did you spend working on the game?

ES: I had the idea somewhere in 2009, but we started working together on the concept drawings and prototypes in the fall of 2010. Early in 2011 we had gathered a team and started cranking out the game.

The setting of Dorisburg is based on Gothenburg -- a lot of game developers live there, right? What's it like?

ES: Yeah, the independent games scene here is pretty great with lots of different initiatives, both small and large. We have quite a lot of game jams here, the experimental multiplayer video game party Automat has been arranged several times and last week a series of workshops on inclusive games started at the public library – the first event was about transgender and queer games. This week there’s something called the DIY days with discussions on games, so there’s quite a lot of cool stuff going on here.

Niklas Akerblad: It rains a lot. So obviously it rains a lot in our game too. Gothenburg is a harbor town and we tried to get that atmosphere into the game. You know, seagulls, drunkards, containers, nude magazines, snus (snuff) and A LOT of coffee. 

You've said that although the game is essentially about hacking -- letting the main character manipulate the game world through its code -- it was more important to you to have a game driven by story. What are some of the narrative elements in this game you're most proud of?

ES: To me it feels like the characters are actually alive. They respond when they talk to you, they have their own goals and motivations. Essentially they don’t act as if the player’s character is special, rather they treat you as just another inhabitant of the city. This makes the effect of actually doing cool and perhaps "heroic" actions much stronger.

NA: It’s almost like a dollhouse. But instead of poking around with your hands you actually get to be inside the dollhouse, doubling as Sebastian. 

What were some of the influences on the visual style? When you look at the Postcards from Dorisburg site it's clear so much of the world was carefully planned with a certain look -- what were you going for?

NA: At first the plan was to go for a pretty hardcore PlayStation lo-fi kinda look. Then everything just looked like Doom, and we were aiming for something more towards Vagrant Story or Vandal Hearts. So I started to give the textures more love, and apply more of an analog painting technique, but still maintaining a very low, pixelated resolution. 

This is where the Swedish television program Skrot-Nisse started to become a major influence. It’s a puppet show, and all the scenography is handmade and very elaborate in its execution, creating an almost oversaturated level of detail. So drawing all this inspiration from Skrot-Nisse (which basically means Scrapyard-Nils in English) birthed a method in which I tried to build everything the same way I would if it was handmade. But in 3D, using very rough shapes and detailed textures and just putting as much stuff as possible in there.  

Is there anything you would have preferred to do differently with the game, or that you might implement later?

ES: There’s still a few things missing, like more games and programs within the game. I also want to expand on some of the side stories, making for even more variations between play throughs. Oh, and we’re working on changing the speech bubbles, since people didn’t fancy the Comic Sans-like font.

NA: I actually had a world-map double the size planned. Started out with delusions of grandeur but slowly realised the dubiousness of it all and settled for less. In the end I think it actually made the world more coherent. 

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any you've particularly enjoyed?

Both: Uhm, not really… We’ve been sort of self-centred trying to complete this thing of ours. Sorry!



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