Alpha Polaris - Teemu Vilén interview
When Norwegian biologist Rune Knudsen is awakened from his slumber one frigid Greenland morning, he anticipates an average day at the oil research facility on which he is stationed. But from the bear seen wandering too close to camp to the fevered somnambulism of a startled station mate to the electromagnetic interference of a late night ion storm, it seems this day is going to be anything but ordinary, and when the demo (now available for public download) of Turmoil Games' upcoming horror-adventure Alpha Polaris closes, it’s clear that an even weirder tomorrow awaits.
In development since 2008, Alpha Polaris is the love child of a small-but-dedicated Finnish team of first-time developers, but you wouldn't know it by the quality of story, voice, and art on display throughout the two hours I spent in the isolated station that shares the game's name. The adventure begins with the main character, 27-year old Rune, being rudely roused from his sleep to investigate the sighting of a polar bear that has wandered onto the station's grounds. From there, you take control of Rune exclusively, navigating the small station and interacting with its other multinational residents. Early on, you meet two of them, the gruff American named Tully and the Inuit radio operator, Nova.
As the other young buck in the station, Tully sees Rune as competition in most everything, often digging at him with verbal barbs, while Nova is the object of the protagonist's seemingly unrequited crush. The older surveyor Al rounds out the initial cast, with promises of later arrivals dropped halfway through the day (the news of which has an unexpected reaction from one of Rune's station mates). Each team member is a specialist in some field relevant to Polaris's purpose: searching for and researching oil. During the portion I played, I spent a fair bit of time with Tully, the one who sighted the offending ursine and who would rather just kill the beast than find the root of the animal's seemingly pained state.
Players navigate the game's environments with a simple point-and-click interface. Double-clicking a new area transports you there instantly, saving you from some rather long walking sections, particularly outside the station. Mousing over items or people brings up one or two options. For people, these are usually Look and Talk, linked to the right and left mouse buttons respectively, while objects bring up Look and sometimes Use. Pressing the space bar highlights all relevant hotspots, though not all hotspots, which helps since some areas have quite a few interactive objects. The inventory rests in Rune's bag in the lower left of the screen, and clicking on it unfurls your line of acquired goods. You can mix and match directly in the inventory or carry them into the environment for use there. When combining items the sequence matters, so it's not enough to randomly connect three items together; you have to figure out the order in which to combine them as well. The required order seemed arbitrary to me, but Rune's comments let you know you're on the right track, just not quite there yet, which mitigates whatever frustration might creep up.
Made using the open-source Wintermute engine, the visuals and animation impress. While the bulk of the game is done in a realistic fashion, conversations bring up 2D overlays of more cartoon-like speaking characters. Some of these sprites are animated, though none are lip-synched. This same sprite integration is also found in other areas to call out focal actions such as Rune's restless sleep. Cinematics are in pre-rendered 3D, though I only ran into a couple of them. While the character designs are consistent throughout, it is a bit strange to see three different representations of the same characters used in sequence. Not quite jarring, but it did raise an eyebrow. Still, the art is crisp, clean, and all of it is in high resolution, offering very smooth visuals and fluid animation.
The game's sense of isolation starts at the main menu, with a shot of the titular facility set upon an empty frozen stretch of Arctic landscape. Evocative of John Carpenter's The Thing, the idea of a small team in a remote camp appeals immediately. This is reinforced by the sparse sound design and scant music throughout the demo. Some rooms are completely silent; in others, only the sound of a gently rocking washing machine breaks up the chilling quiet. The conversations are all voiced, though Rune's commentary on inventory items and his environment are text-only. The voice work is quite competent and fitting of the characters.
In my time with the game, I sedated and caged a sick bear, witnessed an ion storm, attempted to console an emotional station mate, and was set upon by another in the midst of a total freak-out, but still only glimpsed the larger story of an arctic research station on the cusp of trouble. So far, the game shows a lot of promise, and I’m certainly intrigued to know where it goes next. If the rest of the adventure lives up to the promise of the demo, the short wait until its release late next month will be worth bearing. But in the meantime, why not go straight to the source for a little more insight? Jack Allin and I caught up with the game’s writer and lead designer Teemu Vilén to learn more about Turmoil Games and what awaits us further on in Alpha Polaris.
Adventure Gamers: Teemu, after playing the demo, it’s clear that we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg (so to speak). Tell us more about Alpha Polaris.
Teemu Vilén: Hello, and thanks for giving me an opportunity to talk about Alpha Polaris! It’s actually one of my favourite subject matters these days. To me, the game is really about a group of people trying to find their way through a traumatic ordeal: about their inner struggle and the mystery slowly unfolding before them. Each one of them has their own unique way of responding to the things happening in the station. As you saw in the preview, the first day opens up several story threads, which we tie together later on. We want to build up the suspense elements gradually, so that the player has time to get to know the setting and the characters. As a writer, one of my challenges has been just that: building up a character-driven story and at the same time, introducing dynamic horror themes.
AG: You refer to this game as a “horror”, but the focus is more on psychological terror than physical threats, correct? What kinds of horror confront the Alpha Polaris team?
Teemu: The focus is definitely on terror. We want the player to sense a Lovecraftian, ancient threat around him or her. There is something or someone behind the aurorae in the sky, and when the story progresses, it’ll slowly get a name and form. I’ll spoil just a little bit by telling you there are no sci-fi elements involved. When asked for common references, I usually say we looked closely at the stuff Stephen King writes. As for different horror genres, we decided early on not to go towards survival or slasher type of conventions, but rather more deliberate, more psychological. In that sense, we want the horror element to be more of a tool to address human themes. Yeah, that’s quite a challenge... but I think adventure games are truly just about the only form of gaming these days where you can try that.
AG: The inherent challenges of enduring endless cold and isolation is a daunting trial in its own right. Was that one of the reasons behind choosing Greenland as your setting?
Teemu: Definitely! For a good “trapped-in-isolation” story it is almost a requirement to have deadly wilderness cutting you off from the rest of civilization. The polar setting also stems from my passion for romantic era expeditions, which now when I think of it... would also make a good travel story adventure game... Anyway, at first we thought Rune would go to the Antarctic, but then we realized that is a bit overused as a location. Lovecraft also used Hyperborea (present-day Greenland) as the setting to tell stories of immensely old, alien creatures being worshipped by tribal men...
Besides, if we had placed Alpha Polaris on the South Pole, Rune would’ve had to tend penguins instead of polar bears.
AG: The game touches on some timely subjects, such as climate change and Arctic drilling effects. Was the goal to be topical and provide a commentary or do you see them as aspects of the story, nothing more?
Teemu: There should always be a point when using these kinds of topics. We want to highlight the plight of polar bears and the effects of drilling. However, we don’t want to do it in lecturing manner, and don’t want it to stick out like a sore thumb. We want these themes to be a naturally-flowing and elemental part of the story.
AG: The team at Alpha Polaris are primarily scientists. Does anyone at Turmoil have a background in science? Did you bring in any outside help to consult?
Teemu: About half of the team, me included, has a background in media arts and studies, and I think that it has definitely helped us content-wise. In media arts, you create new experiences from the already existing technology, which is a pretty accurate depiction of our process. Other than that, we briefly consulted an archeologist. For the mystery part, we mixed about half-and-half of fiction and fact, and aimed for a blend that turns smoothly from one to the other – so that you can never be quite sure which territory you are in...
AG: Any similarities between spending long winter nights in Finland developing adventure games and life on Alpha Polaris?
Teemu: Where to begin? The coldness, darkness and that strange Arctic feeling. I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but I’m actually from southern Finland, and when I came here to Lapland, it just felt different. That is definitely something we wanted to capture in the game. Did I mention coldness? Last winter, when the outside temperature was about minus 35 Celsius, the industrial building we are situated in developed a heating problem. So one could say we’ve really felt the setting.
AG: How do a handful of guys from Finland find themselves joining forces to make an adventure game of all things?
Teemu: I assembled the team out of a couple of my student friends and found others by sending an e-mail to the University of Lapland mailing list. The remarkable thing is that it actually worked! But I guess it was the passion that united us. We went for an adventure game after analyzing A. what our strengths were, B. what we wanted to do, and C. where we felt an independent developer could make a difference.
AG: Are you all adventure genre fans, or was this simply the best way to tell the story you wanted to tell?
Teemu: We were all fans but not super hardcore. I used to (and still do) play a lot of more experimental AGS-type adventures. Now, during the development of the game, we’ve tested countless of commercial demos and really dug into the genre and its conventions. One important rule we have learned: you may break different conventions, but don’t break them too much!
AG: As a small team taking on an ambitious project, what have been the greatest challenges you’ve faced?
Teemu: The biggest challenge hasn’t been a single aspect of the process, but the iterative nature of things when your ambitions are high: you need to re-evaluate things, iterate, iterate... while doing it in a pre-defined timeframe. It’s awfully easy to become blind to your own creation. We also had to learn many things during the development. Fun fact: just one of us knew how to do advanced 3D-modelling before the project. Now we all do.
AG: One obstacle you’ve had to overcome is a publisher turnover when The Games Company went bankrupt. Most indies are fortunate to sign deals with one publisher, let alone two! How did you hook up with Just-a-Game?
Teemu: They found us! After we went public with a web page, several publishers contacted us. After talking to them we decided to go with the Germans, as they really seemed to understand the challenges of an indie developer. The transfer to JAG was really a very smooth process.
AG: So we’ll be able to buy the English language version from your own website as a download beginning June 24th. Any chance of seeing a boxed version of the game sold at some point?
Teemu: The boxed version is definitely planned! I'm certain it will happen in some point in the future, but there is no timetable for it yet.
AG: Any plans for Turmoil Games beyond Alpha Polaris, or can’t you see past crunch time just yet?
Teemu: We’d love to go ahead and start to work on a second AG. However, this has been a long project, so what we’ll do first is have a long summer holiday. There’s a certain nice summer cottage in the Turku Archipelago. I’ll go there, lie in the sun, and have a pen and a paper ready. There are so many good ideas, so many good stories to tell...
AG: Well, whatever you end up deciding to do, we certainly hope it’s more adventure games, as we like what we’ve seen of Alpha Polaris so far. Thanks for taking time to talk with us, and good luck with the home stretch.
Teemu: Thank you for having me!