My Journey in Creating Trollskogen

This week I was in Copenhagen attending a Diversity in Games breakfast hosted by Playdead and organised by their amazing Associate Producer. We were 6 developers giving micro talks, and I wanted to share mine as the topic of my talk was how I took a personal hobby project and created a full release on the iOS AppStore.
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I’m the sole developer of Trollskogen, which I describe as an interactive fairy tale inspired by Nordic folklore. I released Trollskogen last week on iOS, and it’s my first very own game. I am a self-taught game developer, and did all of the design, programming, art, animation and audio. For this project, I used Unity, Photoshop or Krita and GarageBand.
Reflection.
I sketched out a level nearly 5 years ago in my kitchen one evening, and today this very same sketch looks like this in the game:
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At the time it was just a cool idea around a mechanic where you have to turn the phone upside down in order to move the reflection of the character so that she can ripple the trees in the water which would then fade away the trees on the ground that were blocking the path for the character. It’s the first level I ever designed for this game, and it remains the most difficult one to figure out for players. But the satisfaction when players solve it is priceless. I am still learning game design every day, so it’s no surprise that this level is the trickiest one to figure out.
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I kept sketching these levels that each had a unique mechanic that was somehow making use of the mobile devices features. I wanted it to feel intuitive so that anyone could play it, from young children to adults who don’t normally play games. I worked on several of these ideas with a friend in the very start, where we took inspiration from physical interactive pop-up books. The thought behind the project was to tell a short story, where each level had a mini-game to solve in order to proceed and get the next piece of the story. Puzzle games are my favourite, and the ones that tell a great story through mechanics are mind-blowing to me. Some of my favourite games are Gorogoa, YearWalk and Monument Valley.
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I then made a small prototype at a Global Game Jam in Malmö, using just line art to test out some of the mechanics in digital form. After that I made a tech demo consisting of two levels to show people at GDC, the reflection level being one of them. The reactions were super positive and people really encouraged me to create more levels, so that was such a nice response. Then I just worked on this whenever I had energy outside of my full-time job at Unity. Energy sources, however, are not infinite – I have diabetes type 1 which is a full-time job in itself. It’s easy to forget to put your health first.
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After working on this as a hobby project during my free time, I made the decision to quit my job and dedicate myself to my health last year. It was not an easy year for me, but having this project gave me the motivation to get up in the mornings. I was not in a good place, but there were a few things this year that really helped me in the process. The first thing was being accepted into a 2-year mentorship program run by the IGDA Foundation called the Next Gen Leaders. Later, I was also accepted to the Stugan 2018 accelerator program, where you spend 2 months working on your project in a cabin in the woods in Sweden with 19 other developers from all across the world. This was life-changing for me.
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I had zero funding for this project, and used all of my savings to take more than a year off being employed by a company in order to be completely indie. In fact, the Danish Film Institute rejected my funding application on the basis of not having enough competence to pull this project off. They advised me to acquire a team of people with the skills needed to create this project. Bullshit, I tell you.
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A week after release, I have 1000 downloads, all of my ratings are 5’s, and the reviews so far are only positive, saying that my art is beautiful and the experience is truly calming. The response to this game from friends and strangers has been amazing, I’m truly blown away from everyones support and kindness. So if you ever get discouraged from either seeking funding or people in your surroundings not believing in you, don’t let that stop you. Follow your dreams, because only you can make it happen. There are tools out there, great learning resources and an incredible community of game developers that will help you through your journey.
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From mechanics to story

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Trollskogen was originally pitched as “a calm exploration in the woods” because in the beginning, I was basing the game entirely on the mechanics alone. There was no story, no real cohesion between several of the levels, and no text. Each level was a small puzzle that players solved using a newly introduced mechanic each time. It didn’t feel as rewarding as it did frustrating, because more time was spent figuring out how to solve it rather than enjoying the feeling of completing it. Each level was also over very quickly, with minimal amount of cutscenes, camera zooms or sounds. Players wondered if there was a story or underlying meaning to the game, so I had to work on improving the story-telling through mechanics. It was a very fun challenge, and I also ended up adding written story texts in between each level to tie it all together. The story is loosely based on “The Changeling”, so I was able to adapt it to my own story which turned out to be pretty personal.

Today I describe it as an interactive fairy tale, because it just does that: tells a short story through interaction. It’s meant as a way for a child and their parent or older sibling to collaborate and enjoy a calm moment together, as they would with a written fairy tale. It’s inspired by the moments I myself had as a child, when my mother would read me fairy tales about the Nordic woods or sing me lullabies about the trolls that lived there.

Trollskogen has gone from a paper concept I sketched soon five years ago, to a small tech demo I created two years ago, to a complete game today. I’m excited for it to be up for pre-order now on the iOS Appstore, and within a few days it will be available for the world. I’m super proud of myself, it’s such an achievement for me to have created this personal project that has been part of my own journey in finding myself again. Thank you all that have supported me throughout this process, it’s been intense emotionally, but oh so rewarding ❤

If you have an iOS device and want to pre-order Trollskogen, you can find it on the AppStore 🙂

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My goals for Trollskogen at Stugan

I applied to Stugan with the goal of creating a vertical slice that I can show to publishers and potential investors. I believe there are many people who want to enjoy a calm experience with pleasant aesthetics. I also think that many people would enjoy learning more about Nordic folklore and quirky traditions that we normally don’t hear about. Sure, vikings are cool and all, but there is so much more to tell stories about 🙂 Most people have never even heard about the Midsummer traditions that we have, and how big these are here.

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Stugan is located in an area with the type of environment I’m creating in Trollskogen, so I want to soak in that inspiration while I’m surrounded by it for these 2 months. There is something very serene about the Nordic woods, lakes and fields. Even just taking the train from Copenhagen up to Stockholm, or from Stockholm over to Oslo is mesmerising. I always choose the window seat and become completely drawn in by the nature that passes by, and love the transitions from seaside to fields, to woods and lakes and the various villages. I’m creating new environment art and basing a lot of it on the surroundings here at Stugan.

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There are puzzle elements in each level, and they mainly consist of exploring the environment and interacting with it. By doing this, players will figure out how to solve each puzzle in order to progress forward. A thing that is missing right now and that I’m adding while I’m here is making more objects in each scene interactable in some way, even if they don’t help progress the game forward. It’s so rewarding for the player to get a response, and encourages them to interact and explore more.

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I’m expanding the first level I ever designed – the whole reason Trollskogen came to be -and tying it together with the story-telling. I’m adding more trolls, more expressive animations, and some hints of the story by revealing the Troll Princess to the player for the first time.

While I’ve been here, I’ve also been adding a few more things to the project in order to help teach the player some mechanics that are not very common in most mobile games. I want to make sure that the players do not accidentally solve the puzzles without knowing what they did, so each mechanic needs to be crystal clear. I’m taking the current levels and getting them into a shape where they can be played independently either at a showcase or through test flight. Thanks to my amazing Stugan mates, I’ve brainstormed how to deal with certain game design issues, and I’m adding more ways of communicating with the player. Here at Stugan I’ve also had my youngest play tester so far – she’s 15 and was incredible at the game, solving every puzzle without hesitation.

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I’ve started adding more details to certain scenes, such as plants, mushrooms and berries that are commonly found in these woods. I asked amongst my friends who grew up in the Nordics about some of their common memories from their childhood, and received some amazing responses that just fills me up with nostalgia. Because of these heart-warming responses, I’ve decided to add a new feature: an in-game handbook containing fauna and flora that you discover and unlock in the game as you go along. This handbook will also contain the mystical creatures you encounter, such as ‘mosekonen’, ‘vittror’ and ‘lyktemann’. This is just a nice complement to the rest of the story for those interested in the folklore parts.

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We’ve now been here a bit over a week and I just want to express how grateful I am to have been chosen to participate in this program. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime and I am already feeling how I’m growing in terms of my confidence, creativity and ways of thinking. The other persons chosen to be part of this program are absolutely incredible. The biggest shoutout goes to Jana – she is one of the founders of Stugan and also runs the program, and does an amazing job. On top of that she’s just a fantastic human being, I love going on hikes with her or chatting about absolutely any topic. I don’t have a photo with everyone in it but here is part of the Stugan family:

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Thanks for reading in on my first blog post here at Stugan, there will certainly be more 🙂

– Sara

Trollskogen selected for Stugan 2018

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A very exciting thing that will take place this summer is being part of the Stugan 2018 accelerator program. In just one week, 21 game devs from around the world will travel to the middle of Sweden and live in cabins in the Nordic woods for 2 months. Here we will be working on our games, receiving mentorship from industry professionals and taking in inspiration from the environment around us – including each other.

It is an amazing opportunity to have been selected for the program, and this will certainly enable me to take Trollskogen through its next steps. Creating a game about exploring the Nordic woods while living in the actual Nordic woods just couldn’t be more perfect. I’m very much looking forward to being in an environment together with other creatives, and I have a strong feeling that I will grow as a game developer there.

The other projects that are part of this years program are looking fantastic, have a look at the trailer:

There have been many amazing games being created at Stugan in the last 3 years that the program has been running, including Semblance, Gonner, Dandara, Tunic, Tick Tock, Intergalactic Space Princess, Mosh Pit Simulator….the list goes on! No pressure…

I’m looking into setting up some streaming time as well as creating small vlogs during the time I’m there, and Stugan has its official YouTube channel where there will be video posts of the teams and projects throughout these months. I’m aiming to record the streaming sessions to show parts of the development of Trollskogen, but more on that later!

This was my video application for Stugan 2018, it gives an introduction to Trollskogen 🙂

Next time I’ll be writing from the woods in Sweden, so excited!
Thanks for stopping by!

– Sara

From concept to implementation

It’s always fun to go back and look at original sketches of an idea and then see if what you imagined in your head ended up like. Me being a visual person thought it’d be fun to share some of these. I mean I am, after all, making a narrative game that uses no text to tell a story 😛 Here are a few before and afters from Trollskogen. Most of these have been tweaked further, so the videos are not completely up to date, but that’s game development for ya 😀

Reindeer

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Midnatt

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Reflection

Reflection.

Vinter

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Night Freckles

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Mors lilla Olle

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Lullaby

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Hope you enjoyed this post! Check out all the videos on our Vimeo channel and you can always see early snippets and screenshots on our Instagram account 🙂

Slottstaden

As mentioned in the previous blogpost, a small prototype was created during Global Game Jam 2015 called Slottstaden. Part of this is now being recreated in Trollskogen, and it’s a nice trip down memory lane to see how these parts have changed.

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The original line art version of the castle has taken on a ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ colour palette.

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Playthrough of Slottstaden:

Hoping to wrap up the new version of the castle chapter very soon, perhaps rewatching some Wes Anderson films will inspire more of the atmosphere.

Thanks for reading, hope to see you here again soon!

– Sara

An introduction to Trollskogen

The concept of Trollskogen came to be when designing a level in 2014 where the way the player uses the mobile device as input is not limited to tap and swipe. In this initial level, the player has to turn the device upside down in order to solve the puzzle and proceed to the next level. Making the use of tilt, rotate, shake and multitouch are fun ways to interact with a game, and this is something mobile devices enable. This type of interaction with a game was something to be explored further.

 

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First ever sketch of Trollskogen. In the second frame, the player has turned the device upside down and is now controlling the reflection of the main character.

The project is an interactive visual novel/fairy tale, where each level is a chapter of the book and contains a small puzzle to be solved and hidden objects to be found. In each chapter, the player will unveil a hidden animal that will guide the main character on her path. As the story progresses, the animals are not always going to be guiding the main character, so she has to figure out which other elements in her environment that will help guide her further. This could be the moon lighting up a path, the stars lighting up an area or her reflection in the water unblocking barriers. The end goal is to escape the woods completely. ‘Trollskogen’ (or ‘Troldeskoven’) are the mystical woods found in Nordic fairy tales, and in them live the forest people (‘Skogsväsen’ or ‘Skovvæsner’).

A big inspiration is Simogo’s game ‘YearWalk’ on iOS, as the game does exactly this: tells a story through puzzles and interacting with the environment with minimal use of text narration. In order to solve certain puzzles in the game, the player has to make use of tilting or rotating the device, multi touch as well as dragging the environment beyond the borders of the screen. Another inspiration is ‘The Room’ series which ties narration to puzzles and hidden-object gameplay.

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During Global Game Jam 2015, a project called ‘Slottstaden’ was created which was a first iteration of an interactive book. The project contained 5 levels/chapters where the player could interact and enter floating books, erase clouds and put together broken pieces of a castle similar to a jigsaw puzzle. The art was all hand drawn in ink and scanned so it would have more of a paper/book impact.

The development of Trollskogen started during spare time in October 2016 in order to demo a small prototype for attendees at Game Developer Conference 2017. The initial reactions were positive, and the project is now being worked on full time since September 2017.

50% of the levels have been developed into a playable prototype, and testing is continously being done on iOS devices. Polish of the input has been the highest priority and will continue being tweaked. Focus has shifted over to giving the player feedback during interaction, which ties the input with the design of the puzzles in order to guide the players. Research on puzzle design and interacting with the environment is being done and games such as ‘Gorogoa’ are highly inspirational.

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Concept sketch of the main character Nyponros and the reindeer she meets in one of the chapters.

Another big focus is making interactable elements in each chapter more distinguished from the background and static objects in the environment. As Trollskogen is a 2D game with a flat environment it can be difficult for the player to immediately know what to interact with. Inspiration will be drawn from other 2D games with a flat world, such as ‘Cuphead’.

The theme being Nordic fairy tales makes younger children a suitable audience due to the nature of the stories, but as fantasy and Norse mythology has made its way into other mediums for all age groups, it can also be enjoyed by older children and adults. A surprising result when testing the prototype on adults 20+ was the positive reactions from persons who typically do not play games. They were very taken with the art style and calm atmosphere the game presented.

Playtesting has also shown that players are curious about the story and want more of the narrative. Players have so far been interpreting the story themselves and are finding metaphors in some of the chapters. This was a great finding as the story can take Trollskogen beyond being simply a puzzle game, and more emphasis is being put on the narration. Nordic fairy tales are generally dark in nature, and the conclusion of Trollskogen wrapped up by the final chapters will hopefully leave the player with the same feeling as when reading a fairy tale.

Thank you for reading this first introduction to Trollskogen, and I will be updating the blog with more news on the progress and sneak peaks 🙂 You can also check out screenshots and videos on our Instagram and Facebook page.

Hope to see you here again!

– Sara