How one Hollywood producer is helping an indie studio create its first game


Ole Søndberg is a Hollywood producer who's worked on the TV series Wallander and the Daniel Craig-starring The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Sebastian Bevensee is co-creator of Aporia, its game director and level designer; while Niels X is the CEO and creative director of the game's developer Investigate North.    

Acclaimed Hollywood producer Ole Søndberg's cinematic back catalogue boasts the likes of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—both its Swedish and English iterations—and the popular Nordic Noir television series Wallander. Having never played a videogame until now, Søndberg has partnered with Danish indie outfit Investigate North, whose one-time university project Aporia: Beyond the Valley has grown into a fully-fledged exploration-meets-puzzle adventure.

I've played through its opening chapter and was taken by its gorgeous world and story—the latter of which is told without the use of words or text. Keen to find out more, I caught up with Investigate North's Sebastian Bevensee, Niels Wetterberg, and Søndberg himself, to discover what they hope to achieve and where they see Aporia fitting into the puzzle adventure genre. 

PC Gamer: First of all, Ole, how did you come to work with Investigate North in making Aporia: Beyond the Valley?

Ole Sondberg: I was involved with the studio's first game, prior to Aporia, that never really worked out. We had to decide whether we wanted to close everything down or continue and true another game. We found a new manager, Niels, and we decided to try again. Niels met with Sebastian and persuaded him to work with us. Here we are today with Aporia finished.

Also, I have to say, one of the reasons why I think this is very exciting is, let me tell you a secret, I’ve never played a videogame in my life. I have children who’ve played like hell, I’ve seen people play with extreme enthusiasm, and I think it’s very cool. I like good stories and I like to be part of telling good stories so I think that this is a great new challenge for me. I think it’s great fun, it’s magic.

I’ve never worked on television or movies, but I imagine their production is quite different from making games. That said, are there any core similarities between making big budget shows or films and independent videogames?

Ole: Good stories. I think what interests me is getting more into the games stuff and exploring what kind of stories can be told. What we’re doing here is crafting two TV universes and creating a game based on those universes. I think there is certainly a very exciting link between film and games.

Having played the demo, I’ve enjoyed my time with Aporia and the story it’s hoping to tell. It does however feel quite far removed from Nordic Noir, the stuff that you, Ole, are more famously known for. What was it that drew you to the the project?

Ole: Every morning, every day I when I come to the office, when I see Sebastian’s eyes—that’s drive enough for me. 

Speaking to you Sebastian, Niels, what does it mean to have such an esteemed character contributing to your game?

Sebastian Bevensee: What we’re trying to do is something new and experimental. In terms of a Danish studio and where we are with production it’s quite ambitious. It’s absolutely brilliant having someone backing you up and saying what you’re doing is looking good. In terms of developing the story it’s also been a huge help. We have a cool team but we’ve also had a lot of help from the outside and using Ole’s experience in building a universe. What Ole just said, we want to build worlds. that you can keep exploring. There’s been a lot of talking about whether or not stuff works and I think that that’s been a huge help. It gives a lot of self-confidence.

What inspired the fantasy world of Aporia?

Niels Wetterberg: That’s kind of a difficult questions but what I can tell you is the inspiration for the creation of the game. We tried to explore different fields of how to tell stories in games, we tried different projects and we looked at different games to try to tell the stories in different ways. For example, Dear Esther and Journey—we played both games and were very excited about them. But we felt that something was missing in those types of games, especially in the interaction part; we felt that they missed the old puzzle feel from the late ‘90s like in, for example, Myst.

We really wanted to put that idea into a storytelling game. What was unique about Aporia was the desire to tell a story without text or dialogue because we felt that some of these games—Journey, Limbo, Inside—I love these games but I don’t get a specific story from them. I only feel like we get an abstract story, perhaps even an atmosphere from them, but here we tried to tell something very specific with characters and a certain message.

The tapestry-style artwork that the player uncovers as they go are suggestive in their storytelling—were these something you had planned from the outset or was this feature something that grew over time?

Sebastian: That’s something that definitely grew over time. It was an iterative process and we tried out so many different things and ideas about how we could tell something specific. But I think why explicitly we landed on this sort of animation came from how we wanted to relay the story while still presenting it in a stylish manner.

Niels: The idea that these tapestries were designed to make the player interpret them was part of the vision from the beginning. I think the reason that we decided to create an ancient world was because when growing up we read about ancient civilizations and as a tourist going to an ancient site we’d stand there and imagine the stories taking place. When you go to Stonehenge, you might imagine Druids running around, carrying out rituals—that feeling of imagining an ancient society is a really brilliant feeling that we wanted to put here. On top of that we also wanted to tell a really specific story. That’s been there from the very beginning.

Towards the end of the demo segment, we begin to see a supernatural force tracking the player. Can you tell me anymore about that at this stage?

Niels: I’m sorry, you’ll have to wait for that. That’s a pleasant surprise of sorts.

Going from a  university project to a fully-fledged game is quite a jump—what would say have been the biggest challenges of stepping up to where you are now?

Niels: I’d definitely say matching the quality of existing games out there. Getting the game out there and different and at the same time have the same graphical qualities as the competition at the moment. Also something that’s been difficult is that we’ve seen a growing interest in these sorts of games and the competition is in turn stronger. That said, that’s also a good sign because it means a lot of players are playing them.

Sebastian: From a management perspective moving from a smaller to a bigger team while keeping the mission intact has always been a challenge. But I think that’s a challenge faced by anyone making a game.

What has Ole’s input been like over the course of development, how he has helped you guys achieve what you’ve set out to do?

Niels: Actually, it was interesting for you to say earlier that Aporia doesn’t resemble Nordic Noir. To me it’s different. If you look at mysteries—what we’re doing is a mystery game where you have to find out who you are, where you are, and if you look at classic mysteries like, say, Murder She Wrote or Columbo, it’s very much about finding the motive behind those involved and figuring out who the murderer is.

I think Ole’s inspiration from his Nordic Noir background comes from how we’re trying to tell a story, it’s a mystery that you need to figure out, but at the same time it has a specific story with some specific characters who’re really dark with a moody morale underneath there. For me, then, Aporia is very inspired by Nordic Noir and very relatable to it. I think having the confidence in what Ole has been achieving in Nordic Noir and the world he’s built—it’s been great trying to mirror that and mirror that achievement.

Ole, you spoke at the start of the conversation about taking pride in working with Investigate North and how passionate they are—what’s it been like watching this project grow?

Ole: I must say it’s been a real pleasure. Building a world that reflects that of a TV or movie world with rich story and characters and intrigue is very exciting.

Niels: Actually, there was some really interesting thoughts from the outset of Aporia. We wanted to do a short movie and we wanted to experiment with short movies but it’s also trying to find a market for that. We were worried this could dilute our efforts and right now we want to make a really great game, create a really great universe just for that and then see where it could grow from there.   
 One of the early versions of Aporia had a tapestry that was more interactive—it had pictures that you had to match up and some geometry drawings you had to work out. What we found was during testing where people were trying harder to solve the puzzles rather than looking and understanding the pictures. In that sense a lot of the mechanics of how we tell the story has changed over the course of development.

It’s early days yet, however if Aporia sells well is a series of games something you’d consider?

Niels: We’re actually working on a DLC already so we’re trying to expand the game. This will include another big puzzle, a new area and will add to the story in the game. We’re also looking at making a side experience for VR—both with the Oculus and the Vive. In the development process we’ve created an extended universe, what you see in the game is maybe around half of what we have in terms of story assets. Hopefully, if it’s a success, we have a universe than can grow and can be developed into, perhaps not a sequel in the classic sense, but into another game.

On that point, how long is Aporia in its entirety?

Niels: It’s around five hours.    

Ole, now that you’re working in videogames, do you think that Aporia might see you more involved in the medium moving forward?

This is only the beginning. I promise you, we’ll continue. We have two more games on the slate—it will absolutely continue.

Aporia: Beyond the Valley is due July 19.