You might not know the name Ole Søndberg, but you’ll know his films. The Danish producer has been behind both the Swedish and American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as well as the TV detective show Wallander. He’s a founding father of the nordic noir genre and had a hand in more complex moral dramas than you’ve had hot dinners. Now he’s making a move into video games.
“It’s part of our DNA,” Søndberg tells me, when I ask him why Scandinavia has such a talent for bleak storytelling. “We are dark protestants. We have no choice. We are born to suffer, we must suffer every day.” He laughs.
Søndberg is chairing a Danish game studio, Investigate North, as it readies to launch Aporia: Beyond the Valley. Inspired by classic adventure games such as Myst and Riven, it puts the player in the ruins of a once-mighty civilisation, full of puzzles and mysteries about the world’s past. By studying their surroundings and finding illustrations in ancient tapestries, the player is able to glean information, piece by piece, about a forgotten culture.
This in itself is nothing revelatory. Titles as varied as Journey, Dark Souls, Gone Home and The Witness have all woven elements of Myst‘s environmental storytelling into their narrative approach, giving players obtuse clues about a world’s history in the form of ruined buildings, scattered items or cryptic puzzles. With the help of Søndberg, Investigate North wants to push this mode forward, creating a world that’s rich in implied environmental detail, but also in the stories of its characters.
“Character has been extremely important for me,” Søndberg tells me. “We’ve created characters like Lisbeth Salander. The reason I fell in love with [Stieg Larsson’s Millennium] series was because of the unique characters; the same for Wallander. Character is simply the most important, most central thing when I produce something.”
Niels Wetterberg, the studio’s founder, tell me the team was inspired by reading about ancient technologies and the death of various civilisations, and has woven elements from Mayan, Egyptian and Biblical sources into Aporia‘s sprawl of dark catacombs and lush forests. The game’s story is told without text or dialogue, so while Investigate North have a specific tale in mind, the studio is also keen for players to make their own interpretations of what they see.
“What we’ve seen from other games [in this genre] is that they’re very thematic in the way they tell a story,” says Wetterberg. “What I think is dangerous with that is that you end up not having a complete catharsis around the story you’re being told. There’s no specific story.
“I want [the players] to think they understand everything in the game. Then I can ask all of them what they thought, and get an equal amount of interpretations to the number of sales.”
Trying to tell a character-led story without words, in an environment designed for free interpretation, may be seen as an attempt to have a cake and eat it too. The balance between those two elements – player or developer as author – is a hard one to get right, and Wetterberg admits that the way these stories are told is still very much in flux.
“What 60 years of storytelling in games will do is absolutely fascinating”
“I think what’s really fascinating about games when you compare it to film is that we’re sort of in the 1940s, when ‘talkies’ were only just invented. Games have another good 60 years until we’re at the same level of storytelling [as the mature film industry], and just imagining what 60 years of storytelling in games will do to the community is absolutely fascinating.”
These approaches to storytelling are shifting and evolving on a near-daily basis. Aporia isn’t the only game in recent months to take the Myst model and twist it into a character-led shape. Giant Sparrow’s What Remains of Edith Finch, for example, pushes that model – through first-person exploration games such as Dear Esther and Gone Home – and uses it to tell a collection of stories about one family.
So how does Søndberg, as someone who’s spent his life in those mature industries, feel about his first foray into the fluttering world of game design? How does it feel to tell a story without dialogue, through architecture and environmental detail?
“Unpredictable, I’d say. It’s very unpredictable. You have an overall idea of what you’re getting, but you really don’t know. There are a lot of in-built surprises.
“With a movie or a series for TV, you simply don’t start production until you have a script you think is finished. You do the script and then it’s done. This is a completely different world. It creates some sweat on my brow sometimes.”
Aporia: Beyond the Valley is out now of Steam for Windows PC.