DEEP-ROTED GAMES: An interview with Simon Flesser (Simogo)

DEEP-ROOTED GAMES is series of four interviews with four game developers from four different continents who looked for narrative inspiration and found it in unusual places: In the folklore of their own people, region or family, and in other storytelling-corners of the world which are too often neglected by the mainstream.

Simon Flesser is one half of Simogo, a successful and widely praised development studio from Malmö, Sweden. Charateristic for their work is the emphasis on unusual visual design and the inventivness with which they find new uses for the mobile platform they mostly develop for. For their acclaimed game Year Walk, Simogo took inspiration from the ancient Swedish tradition of årsgång, a ritual that lets one see into one's own future. And yeah, we here at VGT are definitely fans.

Year Walk seems to be a bit of an outlier in your work, when it comes to mood (which is dark, not to say horrific) and setting. Let’s maybe start with how the game came to be. In his article “He Met His Own Funeral Procession. The Year Walk Ritual in Swedish Folk Tradition”, Tommy Kuusela writes that you came across the tradition of årsgång by reading a popular book on folkolore, "Årets högtider" by Ebbe Schön. Is this correct? If so, was it clear for you from the beginning that this would make for an interesting game setting and did it take a lot of effort to convince everyone to make this the next Simogo game?

That is indeed correct. Jonas Tarestad, who wrote the script that we, losely, based Year Walk on found it in the book you mentioned. So, when Jonas sent me the script, the first thing I thought was how very game-like the whole tradition seemed, and so I joked a bit about it over the phone with Jonas. But later the same weekend I started to sit down and try to imagine how a game like that would play out, and I later suggested it for Jonas and Magnus. It didn’t take much convincing to be honest. I think our biggest fears was making something that felt this large in scope.

What kind of research did you do for the game? Year Walk sometimes feels like a veritable compendium of Swedish folkolore. Did you find all your relevant information in Schön’s book? It would be especially interesting to know if you also spoke to people, or if it’s purely a “bookish” take on folk tales.

It’s a little bit of everything. We did some research, both in books and on the internet, but I think the great thing about basing something on folk lore is that it’s so much about hearsay, altering the stories, and so in that way we only continued the tradition of lying to children.

One thing that is of interest for me is what place folktales do have in your life. Year Walk’s “origin story” makes it seem like it was pure coincidence that you stumbled upon Swedish folk tales as a game concept. Is that correct or is there some sort of living “story telling culture” where you grew up?

I mean, it’s obviously not like our grandparents sat us down and told us lies to try and keep us out of the forest, like people did back in the day, but we very much grew up with the stories anyway. Be that in books, through children’s TV, kindergarten and so on.

This one is a bit of a longer question, but bear with me: When we exchanged letters on Year Walk on Videogame Tourism, I wrote that I was struck by the fact that ‘narrative’ of the game in tandem with the ingenious ways you used the functions of the iPad gave the game the character of some sort of lost artefact, or even a grimoire of sorts, thus deepening the intriguing character of the whole experience. Kuusela writes: „What characterises folklore is the tendency of traditions to change or alter shape in transmission from one generation to another. But even if details change, as well as the accepted reasons for different practices, the basic principles can remain and fall into a discernible pattern.“ Did you encounter any particular obstacles in adapting those “patterns” in a medium that is in some ways very distant from the stories that originated hundreds or even thousands of years before it came into being? And was that experience of holding an old artefact, a folkoloristic objet trouvé of sorts, in the hands by design?

Yeah, the reason we went with the two-app design, was for the reason you describe; to sort of make it feel like these old stories were physically entering our own world. I think in any design, adapting your vision into the medium you’re working with is always a challenge in some way. I think the meta perspective and the companion app of the game actually has more of the tradition of folk lore than the game itself. Just like the creepypasta culture of the internet, it’s folk tales in the digital age.

In our letters, we also talked about how from the distant perspective of people in Austria and Switzerland, Swedish (and, in some parts, Finnish as well) popular culture is often deeply moving and fascinating because it seems to be able to tap into an (often somewhat dark) vein of myths, tales and legends that is not that pronounced in other countries – for example, Tove Jansson’s work seems to have that kind of mood. Would you agree?

Yes, I’d say so. I think it’s just the culture of how people are. The weather. There are reasons to stay inside and tell stories, haha.

As graphically oriented artists, where there any historical pictures, images or other visual depictions that you used as an inspiration for the look of Year Walk?

I definitely looked at things like Bauer, Kittelsen and such, but in the end Year Walk’s look is a little more inspired by more modern, simple, illustratory styles. Animation of the 1960s, that kind of thing.

One very original component of Year Walk is the companion app and the fictional expert on folk tales you came up with. (Fooling a lot of hopelessly intellectual types into hitting their local libraries and/or Google to find his works.) When and how did you come up with this idea?

I think as many things it started as sort of a joke. I think Jonas and I were drinking beer, basically. I can’t remember the exact reasoning, I knew we were talking about that it would be good if we could sort of explain the background of the game’s universe, the creatures and such. I think it just rolled from there. I’m a big fan of meta-perspectives, where the work is self-aware and enters, becomes a part of, our world, so I guess I often try to find ways of that happening.

While arguablyJapanese videogames have a long tradition of more or less directly tapping into their country’s mythology and folkolore as part of the setting, in Western games, this seems to be less of a case; you often do get “popular” myths that are often not part of the culture the developers actually grew up in (Greek or Roman mythology, for example), or the second-order mythology that is filtered through the likes of Tolkien. Are there games you know and/or enjoyed that try to turn towards more “local” traditions and that could maybe even have inspired Year Walk?

I agree that it’s not common and that it’d probably be fun to see more of it – I think I’d be happy if I could see more original game universes overall, not neccesarily based on regional culture. The games that springs most to mind that I enjoyed are the Project Zero games that feel very rooted in Japanese lore and such.

To give over the word once more to Kuusela: By the end of his article, he specifically singles out Year Walk and writes the following: „This tendency to market folklore and supernatural beings for entertainment serves another purpose: It makes sure that the old narratives and beliefs survive in a new environment.“ Kuusela explicitly is of the opinion that your game might be an important factor in preserving the knowledge of årsgång, which according to Kuusela was on the verge of being virtually forgotten. How do you feel about this? Was it a goal you set yourself when creating Year Walk to preserve that knowledge, that tradition? Do you actually do feel like a link in the long chain of telling stories about årsgång and the other creatures and tales you used in Year Walk?

No, that was never the reason or a goal, but I agree that we’re just continuing the tradition.

And last but not least: Could you imagine working with such “traditional” material again, or would it feel like repetition?

We already did with Bedtime Stories for Awful Children! Having made three very distinct versions of Year Walk now, I don’t think we’re super keen on returning to a similar universe for quite a while.

Thank you so much for your time!

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