Inside Pulse 12

Interview with Teemu Vilén About Alpha Polaris

Back in January, I did a little piece called “Ten Indie Games to Look Forward to in 2011”. First on that list was a horror adventure game for the PC known as Alpha Polaris. With the eventual release date of the game looming ever closer, I managed to sit down with Teemu Vilén, who is the project lead for Alpha Polaris as well as the CEO of Turmoil Games, and learned even more about what is one of the games I am looking forward to most here in 2011.

Diehard GameFAN: Let’s first start with a little bit about Turmoil Games. You’re a relatively new development team based out of Finland. Can you tell us how you guys got together and what made you decide to make Alpha Polaris?

Teemu Vilén: Hello Alex! My name is Teemu Vilén, and I’m the project lead/writer for Alpha Polaris. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to talk about our upcoming game!

We founded the company in 2008 with a few of my friends and colleagues from Media Studies. At that time, we had a passion for playing, making and studying games. To realize our dream, we started to seek people who would represent the diverse skillset needed to develop games. Looking back then, it’s virtually a miracle that we ended up with a such a great team we have now, especially considering our remote location. On the other hand, teamwork is something we have found to be much more important than skills of an individual.

Alpha Polaris was originally conceived after analyzing our strengths. We found out that content creation and visualization, stories, characters and environments were something we could excel in. Alpha Polaris grew from that, originally being just a three sentence story seed I wrote. If it works in a small size, it will probably work when converted to a full fledged script.

DHGF: Alpha Polaris looks to be a horror adventure game in the same theme as titles like Call of Cthulhu: Prisoner of Ice or the movie The Thing. Were either of those an inspiration for Alpha Polaris? If not, what adventure games from your own gaming history made you want to make a point and click adventure game?

TV: As a whole, the Cthulhu Mythos, with its immeasurable ancient creatures and blending of fiction and fact was definitely an inspiration for us. Prisoner of Ice, however, has a very different structure than Alpha Polaris. It progresses through various locales and themes around the world, where as AP progresses mainly through character arcs. Rather, our game could be compared to Shadow over Innsmouth, which takes place in a small, remote community.

The Thing is an inspiration for us with its location and visual themes, but it belongs to totally different subgenre – body horror. We do have similar elements, but I’d categorize AP to build more on psychological suspense.

One adventure game series I want to mention here is the Czho-mythos games by Ben Yhatzee. They are one-man freeware games and thus have much more limited production values and scope, but there are great ideas in them, great innovations in atmosphere.

DHGF: Most protagonists these days are larger than life characters that shoot first and ask questions later. Even in most horror games, the emphasis on fear or terror is downplayed in favour of shooting hordes of monsters. In Alpha Polaris, Rune Knudsen appears to be just an everyday biologist who works for an American oil company… which isn’t the most popular employer to be working for. How are gamers going to grow to care for Rune and the choices he makes?

TV: Indeed, if one wants to tell a gritty and realistic horror story, a larger than life protagonist might be a bad way to go. There are several hooks we will use to make the player care for Rune, maybe I can let you in on some of our secrets…

Firstly, we wanted him to be an attentive and identifiable Nordic character, an expert in Arctic nature but in a very conflicted situation: writing his thesis about polar bear extinction in an oil exploration station. Right from the beginning, we hook players by uncurling different story threads around Rune and later tie them together. Our aim is to immerse the player to a story in which the player character’s innate willpower is forced out more and more. Day by day, Rune becomes more and more mentally and physically strained, even to his breaking point, as do people around him. We want players to care for the other characters through Rune.

DHGF: What made you decide to go with a third person perspective over a first person one?

TV: Using the third person perspective ties AP to the continuum of certain adventure game traditions, enabling us to use and develop them. It serves the purpose of our specific story much better than first person view, although first person perspective surely has its own advantages. Maybe if we do a port to iPhone or Android…

DHGF: What are some of the puzzles (an adventure game staple) that we’ll be encountering in Alpha Polaris?

TV: In order to really immerse players to Alpha Polaris, we needed to blend the puzzle elements as carefully to the experience as possible. Thus, we strived to make them as realistic, narratically motivated and varied as we could. For example, Rune will work with his biology study, decipher ancient artifacts and has to survive in the Arctic climate. We wanted the puzzles to contain interesting real life content, for example information about polar bears.

DHGF: The art style is a pretty unique combination of realistic backgrounds and character models, while character portraits that are shown when speaking have a comic book artwork flair to them. What was the decision behind combining these two different styles of graphics for the game?

TV: From early on, it was decided that the game needed something more than 3D characters to visualize the different emotions. Dialogue portraits grew from that, as we thought they would contrast nicely with the crisp 3D art. The idea behind the portraits is to literally bring the characters closer to the player.

DHGF: I have to admit, I am really impressed with the screenshots I’ve seen of the arctic on your website. It’s some of the best background visuals I’ve seen using the Wintermute engine. What did you use to push the engine to have such lifelike graphics?

TV: First and foremost, we have a great graphics team, who decided to set the bar very high right from the beginning. Special attention was paid to the pre-rendered scene backgrounds, as they play such a big part in the game. Secondly, in order the visualize the clear Arctic scenery, we use a high wide screen resolution. This decision made the graphics harder to produce, and I’m glad we didn’t rush it.

For a free development tool, Wintermute was a good choice. I think small and aspiring indie developers should generally try to minimize the technical burden in their projects and use tools that allow them to focus on content. Wintermute gave us much needed time and energy to iterate the puzzles, screenplay and graphics instead of iterating the program architecture.

DHGF: Alpha Polaris is scheduled for a 2011 release date. What languages and/or regions will the game be available in?

TV: Digitally, the game will be available throughout the world, for example from Turmoil Games website. There’s also going to be a retail release, first in Germany and later in other parts of the world. Initially, the game will have English and German localizations, including full spoken dialogue.

DHGF: In this day and age, small developers have a hard time finding publishers for their games, especially PC titles. What was Turmoil games’ experience in trying to find a publisher and what was the end result?

TV: We didn’t really have to contact publishers. Several of them contacted us after we had published a webpage and a press release detailing the upcoming game. I would say our ability to present our case in a concise and visually interesting form played a big part in this. Eventually, we choose to go with Just-A-Game as they proved to be a publisher who understands the problems of a small indie developer.

DHGF: Finally, what will Turmoil Games be up to after Alpha Polaris is finished? Do you have any other projects in the works?

TV: We really want to push the adventure genre forward in the future. This would mean including more emergent and strategic level elements to them, minigames are something we probably won’t want to do. There are several interesting concepts brewing.

Before that, it will be very interesting to see what the gamers think of Alpha Polaris. Of course, we have done some extensive beta testing already, but the real test will be the public release. A lot of love and thought has gone to this product, and nothing would please us more than to see gamers lovin’ it too!

To learn more about Alpha Polaris, you can visit either the official website for the game, or Turmoil Games’ Facebook site. Be sure to check back here in the following months as we’ll definitely have a full review of Alpha Polaris once it is released.