Ross is a writer, educator, and performer who lives and works in NYC. When he's not doing any of the aforementioned activities, he's playing video games.
We touched base with the studio behind Jotun and Sundered to find out about how Norse myths and horror stories by H.P. Lovecraft inspire their games.
The best stories tend to get retold over and over again, becoming translated into emerging mediums for new audiences over time. Nothing embodies this form of generational storytelling better in our day and age then the appearance of literary source material in video games. There are numerous examples of games that are influenced by or allude to great works of literature, but there are few studios quite as devoted to adapting famous tales of old as Thunder Lotus. Both of their titles to date, Jotun and Sundered, are directly inspired by some of their teams’ favorite stories: ancient Norse myths and H.P. Lovecraft’s terrifying fiction. We were fortunate enough to get their level designer, Ian Lafontaine, on the line to discuss why they choose to model their game designs on famous works of fiction and how they go about doing so. Here’s what he had to say about Jotun and turning mythology into action-packed top-down gameplay!
How does your team go about deciding what myths and stories you are going to base your games on?
First and foremost, we ask ourselves what kind of stories do we want to tell. Many of us here at Thunder Lotus are here because we get the opportunity to explore stories bigger studios wouldn’t or couldn’t tackle. Doing things differently, allowing ourselves to explore subjects in an unique way is something that we believe in. While Norse mythology has seen a resurgence recently, very few tackle stories unrelated to Odin, Thor, and Loki. But there are so many other interesting tales that are worth retelling!
With that said, our end goal always is to make a marketable game. If we cannot envision a way to turn a story into a game people would want to play, then that is a clear sign we need to look elsewhere.
In short, we try and find something that interests us, to which we can contribute something unique and that we deem to have sufficient market appeal so as to be financially viable.
Aesthetically speaking, why did you all go with a bird’s-eye perspective action-adventure for the Norse myths in Jotun?
The core of Jotun’s experience lies in the fight between Thora and the giants. We wanted the player to feel tiny and insignificant when compared to these creatures. We wanted players to feel like David facing Goliath.
Being able to weave between a Jotun’s feet greatly contributes to that impression. Most of the time you are not hitting these giants in the face, you’re chipping away at their feet. And when they fall down and you manage to land a blow directly in their face, this moment becomes stronger, special. A bird eye’s view allowed us to do this. It also means that a giant’s attack can cover a huge area, deal half your health in damage, and the only way around that is to not be where it hits. Rolling does not grant invulnerability frames. It isn’t even faster, it is just frontloading movement for narrow escapes.
A bird’s eye view also makes it easier to convey scale in the environments. When Jormundgandr rises out of the lake to strike at Thora, the camera movement contributes to making this moment epic. When the camera moves back to reveal a vista, be it the bridge in the dwarven city or the first level, fake perspective contributes to making the world feel bigger, that it extends beyond the bounds of the level.
Speaking of outstanding female protagonists, can you tell us a bit more about how you came up with Thora and such a feminist retelling of the Norse sagas for Jotun?
(Answer by Will Dubé, Creative Director on Jotun)
Thora was the combined brainchild of Jo-Annie’s, Jotun’s Art Director, and my vision for an awesome, badass viking warrior. We really just wanted to create a chunky, powerful character who could realistically (or as realistically as one can get within the fantasy) face off against giants one hundred times her size. I don’t think we went in with a specific agenda towards creating a feminist character, but we’re happy with how Thora turned out in the game. She’s more than capable of impressing the Gods!
Why do you think it is important to feature strong female characters in retellings of stories previously dominated by male figures?
I’ve talked about this a bit in an earlier answer, but we feel that given the game industry’s scarcity of strong female protagonists, unless having a male protagonist directly contributes to or supports whatever narrative we are building, we will always go for a female character. The world does not lack powerful and inspiring male figures to look up to, especially where video games are concerned, whereas video games with female protagonists players can look up to are much rarer.
To us, that does not mean that we won’t make a game where you’re playing a male protagonist, or that it is something we don’t want to do : there are many themes that could only be explored through masculine figures (fatherhood, to name but one). We just haven’t gotten around to any of them so far.
Can you describe some of the methods you employ when translating literary source material into the mechanics of one of your games?
As a kid, I remember loving detective stories but hating detective games. In those games, I would always end up in one of two situations: 1) having already figured out what happened but needing to find the proper things to click on so that I can ‘’learn’’ whatever I’m missing to progress or 2) having no idea what is going on but my character having accumulated the required number of clues to progress. In both cases, whatever insight I had did not match the character’s and that always proved a disappointment.
I’m much more fond of translating emotions and feelings rather than the actual story. I always prefer the player to be the hero, to be the one the story is about, and for them to be the instigator of their actions. That will never happen if your job, as a player, is to retread every step a known character has taken in a particular story. Working on Jotun, we wanted prior knowledge of Norse myths to increase a player’s enjoyment, not be a prerequisite to it. We used the Poetic Edda as a canvas for our levels. We tried to build each level around a certain myth or creature, but never to have the player himself retread that story.
For example, in the dwarven city, we placed creations around the forge to evoke the various wonders the dwarves built for the gods (Odin’s spear, Gungnir, and Freyr’s golden boar, Gullinbursti). We do not list them to the players, but players will notice the forge and the various creations around. In Ymir’s Blood level, the player navigates a marsh and we have him sit through retellings of the norse creation myth. But if he looks around the marsh, he will see giant ribs and vertebrae sticking out of the water, and the level’s name also serves to physically illustrate how the level itself is that myth’s aftermath.
How do you think retelling stories through video games alters the experience of those narratives?
Being in control of the action makes things more visceral. It gets the blood pumping, the tears flowing in a way the same story wouldn’t when told in another medium. When something happens to your character, it is personal; it happens to you. It also makes it so that when a player discovers a detail that is not mentioned directly in dialogue, when he uncovers depth beyond the surface of a game’s narrative, he feels like he earned it. I believe people enjoy the lore of the Dark Souls series not because it is better written or paints a nicer world than that of other games, but because the player is the instigator of every discovery. The game does not bother trying to make you care about its kingdoms or who did what when. That information is everywhere in the world, but you have to work to turn it into a coherent whole.
That is something we’ve tried to do in both our games so far. In Jotun, each of our levels tells a story beyond what the player is doing, most of it not forced on the player in any way. In the Nine Rivers level, there is a dwarf holding a skull shaped piece of cosmos. It has no gameplay purpose whatsoever, but it helps tell the story of a world where the sky is made of the skull of Ymir, the primordial giant, held aloft by four dwarves.
(TO BE CONTINUED…)
If you haven’t already ventured into Jotun, we recommend that you pick up a copy along with a collection of Norse myths to see how they compare. There’s nothing more entertaining that a good read paired with some excellent gameplay. Be sure to keep a look at for the second installment of our interview with Thunder Lotus, too, to hear their thoughts on what it was like to translate Lovecraft’s cosmic horror into an genre-blurring metroidvania, Sundered!