A Song for Viggo Interview – Behind the Paper Curtain
TW: Loss of a child; this article contains sensitive details from the game A Song for Viggo.
Simon Karlsson is making A Song for Viggo (now on Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight), a game made out of real paper about a parent who accidentally kills his own child. In our interview, Karlsson talks about the game’s production, the limiting definition of “videogame,” how fashion photography influenced his love for game design, and more. He also asks you to excuse any grammatical mistakes– he’s “still a Swede.” If you haven’t already, you can read our preview of the Kickstarter here.
IGM: The idea of these paper sets is obviously symbolic, but what made you decide on the physicality of actual paper rather than digitally in a game engine?
Simon Karlsson: Because I suck at everything else. I don’t know, I’m just not that into using 3D-programs, because the whole process isn’t really that fun, first you have to build a model, and texturize it and so on. Analogue materials are more… direct in some way. I see what I do, and it has some kind of charm to it that people can see, “oh this is photographed from real life”. And maybe that’s one thing that can break down the barrier between the game and the player. Knowing that it’s made by analogue, real models.
IGM: I saw that you’ve worked on a few games—including the unfinished Ralph and Mike, and it even seemed you were flirting with a horror title at one point as well—how did you come to settle on A Song for Viggo… a game so ambitious, as your first commercial title?
Karlsson: Ralph & Mike started out and was left there as an application towards game design school. I got in, so that was a relief. I think that during the game design school I wasn’t really into what was taught, mostly because the school always leaned towards the AAA-games, and not towards what I was interested in. This autumn everyone has an internship somewhere, and I had the opportunity to start my own business and make my own game instead of applying to a AAA-company. So that’s what I did. And it fits me like I want. I can have decent human values towards myself, control my time and work, and have much integrity to what I’m creating. Plus I kind of need to be at home anyway to compose the piano songs. It’s just loud.
IGM: This kind of relates to something I read on your Twitter that struck me. You wrote: “Videogames need to be defined as art in order to be funded by the government. But I don’t want to see it [them] as art, I want videogames as is.” Can you explain to me what you mean by that, or what you may have meant at that time?
Karlsson: Maybe just one of my nerd-rages on twitter. I mostly meant the scholarship that’s created for the contemporary art-world shouldn’t really be sought by pretentious indie developers. Everyone can say that their game is art. If games can be art? Sure. But they can be everything else too–it’s just a medium for interactivity… There’s a difference between awesome aesthetics, and what the question of ‘art’ is… People say about my game “this is art”. To them it might be, but to me, it isn’t. It’s not my intention to create art, I want to make an interactive story. Although, I have such a fetish for composition.
[I] Recorded a new song today, by the way… Called “Winter,” it’s going to play in the third chapter where everything is snowy. I’m actually saving up all the scrap-paper for the winter chapter to make it snowy everywhere.
One thing about my game is invisible choices. During the winter Steve will have the option to warm up his car to go to the therapist. If he doesn’t, the car won’t work, he’ll be forced to walk to his appointment, fall on an ice spot and spend time at the infirmary.
IGM: Speaking of these invisible choices– one thing that always comes up is the idea of multiple endings… is A Song for Viggo an open story that way or is the ending fixed?
Karlsson: Not sure yet. I have two endings, maybe. Or one.
IGM: The paper world is symbolic on its own, but I wondered if you were going to have the sets symbolic in further ways– perhaps crumbled or burned dependent to an emotion.
Karlsson: No, I don’t think so–it’ll be too ‘on the nose.’ But I might play around a bit with the properties with the paper. In one scene Steve is going to fix the laundromat. (Chapter 2 is about obsessive compulsive disorders and Steve wants to fix everything). And I might actually fill the laundromat with real water, and see it melt down. And there are for sure many different kinds of paper; yesterday I saw a paper that’s totally transparent–could be nice for windows and such.
IGM: Will the chapters loosely follow stages of grief or is that again too ‘on the nose’?
Karlsson: The chapters will follow the stages of grief, or how stages could be (it’s not like everyone gets OCD when they lose a loved one) but it’s more [about] that the tragic event triggered a miserable life, and how to continue still… I haven’t really lost a loved one, not that near, however my childhood friend died last week by a stupid illness, and I can’t imagine what her family is going through. So my game is merely an interpretation of how I think a family could handle tragedy
IGM: I definitely understand what you’re getting at… grief isn’t by-the-books at all… And I’m sorry for the loss of your friend. Has that event affected development at all, either positively or negatively?
Karlsson: Not sure if it affected my game, but I’m composing a song for her at the moment to have in the game… Often when there are things in my life that I can’t control, I kind of get in a creative mood instead. Just sit by the piano and try to get the feeling out there instead. Guess it’s a better alternative.
IGM: Are the characters or story elements drawn from your own life at all? I ask because in Steve’s blog there’s some mention of a ‘fatty liver,’ and I recall on your Twitter something [similar].
Karlsson: Yes, that’s true. Some things, details. [I’ve] increased weight by eating antidepressants, and a fatty liver came with that, so I’m kind of tired quite often. Which [doesn’t make] my game dev suffer, but I kind of get up later, work, sleep, work on the full [all] night, [then] sleep. And so on. Just a bit imbalanced. It’s actually awesome right now for the Kickstarter– it makes me be into this [because] the whole time [I’m awake].
IGM: How long has it been like that for you?
Karlsson: Couple of years. It’s not that I suffer from it, just that it’s a bit boring to get incredibly tired every now and then.
IGM: You’re practically working on this game alone… do you ever find it difficult due its subject matter? I know you’ve spoken to people who suffered similar tragedies as to Steve in the game. I feel like that would be hard at times with no one else working on the game with you.
Karlsson: It’s not that hard being alone, but the interviews are hard. The one I remember mostly made me cry; a woman ran over her child, Simon, with her car on his birthday. The strange thing is that’s exactly what happens in my game. And she herself works with miniatures and stop-motion, so that’s just a scary coincidence. When I told her how Viggo will die in the game, she poured her coffee over herself.
IGM: How many families have you spoken to?
Karlsson: Three, and one extra who didn’t lose their child but a parent. I hope to have more interviews if it [the Kickstarter] gets funded, to get more even more details in how the following days were for their family. And if it’s funded, I do plan to visit funeral agencies, get into just [seeing] how people in society act, [and] how hard it can be to arrange a funeral. I think the sessions with real life people could be something good for the project–add additional things people can relate too.
IGM: Something I find really interesting about this project is you’re not a psychologist or someone that’s experienced this [tragedy], but you find it important enough to put this amount of effort into telling this story properly.
Karlsson: [Effort] to talk with people who experienced such events? [It’s] mostly because of common sense. I’m gay, I won’t have any kids, so it’s hard for me to make something up just like that—I would be kind of lying I guess? So that’s why I’m talking to people, but also [to] parents who haven’t suffered from tragedies on how their initial reaction is towards the subject. Many say ‘it sounds like a really interesting game, but I won’t play it. I hope it succeeds, but I can’t handle the anxiety.’ I respect their opinion, even if it’s kind of sad that so many are afraid of experiencing other kinds of interactive storytelling. I myself have a problem with the term ‘game’ since it’s not the concept of ‘win or lose’ or the rooted term of ‘game equals fun’. Still it’s a term I have to use in marketing, so people can recognize the medium. So it’s hard.
IGM: You were talking earlier about how you said you weren’t actively trying to create art, and that you were trying to make an interactive story… you’re evidently an experienced photographer, so what led you to feel that an interactive medium (in this case, yes, a game) would be the best medium to tell this story, instead of, say, a photoset? And I find it especially interesting too because what you’re creating is undeniably artistic.
Karlsson: It could surely been an animated movie of some kind, but I want the interactivity to get the player to feel interacted with the world. Otherwise it’ll just be a dramatic movie, and might not trigger the experience I’m after. I’ve been working in the fashion industry for fun the last couple of years, and I love it because of the interactivity in the sets–I hate the industry though. When the image is done, it’s kind of “ok nice” but then I just throw it away basically. I can’t affect the process anymore. That’s why I’ve always been into games… It’s like, first I studied contemporary arts, then I got fed up with the construction of explanations after each piece of artwork I saw (you had to read the book to know the artwork), so I started doing something shallow: fashion. And that became a way of expression as well, but the industry is– you have to be so damn popular, and if you speak up with the wrong kind of words you’re so done for. Then, a couple of years ago, I figured that creating games is just what I want to do. I’ve been playing games (several) each and every day for my whole life. So suddenly in this project I could fit my experiences all together. And the reason why I’m into the fashion and models is the same reason I’m into the “utopian” way of how humans are supposed to be, how a perfect family is supposed to act, and so on. And how everything isn’t always as it seems.
IGM: Thanks a lot, Simon… It’s been a pleasure talking with you.
Karlsson: You’re welcome. [I] Hope I haven’t been too cynical or pretentious… I hope that people can give other kinds of games a chance, and [know] that their donation is so very well needed for this game to come true. Otherwise I’ll have to sell hamburgers or something.