Games are not created in a vacuum, and indie games are quite often a culmination of the lives and personalities of the developers working on them. Such seems to be the case anyway for point-and-click adventure series, The Journey Down. Created by a small studio out of Gothenburg, Sweden named SkyGoblin, the creators recently celebrated the successful Kickstarter funding of the third and final installment of the game. While the campaign will remain active for about another week, designers Henrick Englund, Theodor Waern, and Mathias Johansson, hope backers will continue to support the project to unlock stretch goals to enhance the title’s unique soundtrack.
The Journey Down is described as an afro-noir point and click adventure game, which features character concepts and art inspired by traditional African masks and textiles. This aesthetic decision was not chosen at random, but was decided upon based on the creator’s personal experiences and adventures through places like Zambia and Tanzania. We had the chance to ask Johansson some questions about his experiences in Africa, and how that ended up shaping the development of The Journey Down.
Jesse Tannous: How did you originally become interested in game development? What kind of development experience did you have prior to the creation of The Journey Down?
Mathias Johansson: I’ve been making my own games in one way or another since I was very young, and I usually have an idea for a new game dwelling in the back of my head. It’s the one passion that’s stayed with me throughout the years, but it took a long time to develop it into a career. When I was five, my brother and I got an NES for Christmas and it changed my world. We played all of our games through from beginning to end, and then we spent countless hours trying to find every hidden coin, power-up, secret and glitch. It was the completionist gene kicking in.
But then I discovered that the game Wrecking Crew came with a built-in level editor. Instead of just playing through pre-designed levels, I could make my own! I remember the feeling so well; it was like finding a magic wand. It was the feeling of infinite possibilities opening up in front of me. A couple of years later, I experienced that magic feeling again when I discovered programming.
Programming is my main tool when I make games, and it has become the natural role for me in the various groups that I’ve worked with over the years. I’m now working together with my two friends Theo and Henrik, running a tiny indie game studio called SkyGoblin. We’ve made a lot of different games together and The Journey Down is definitely the most fun and successful one so far!
JT: In your Kickstarter video you briefly touch on your journey to Tanzania, and how it helped inspire The Journey Down. What more can you describe about this time, and how it shaped not only the game project, but also your lives?
MJ: The time we spent in Tanzania is probably the most fun adventure we’ve had together as a team. East-Africa is the home of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met in my life, and I can wholeheartedly recommend every little dev team to work from abroad if you get the chance. It’s good to know where to find the basic game development necessities (coffee, internet, electricity) before you arrive on the scene, and since I had already spent some time in Tanzania earlier, I knew how to hook us up.
My Swahili teacher let us rent two floors in his house right in the middle of Stonetown, Zanzibar, where we could live and work, and everything was going great until the day of the Great Blackout. The undersea cable that supplied the island with electricity from mainland had been running for 10 years past its expiry date, and when it suddenly broke down it took three full months to replace it. For a long time, the whole island was left completely in the dark. Our laptop batteries were drained and we soon ran out of diesel for our constantly malfunctioning generators.
This is obviously not the ideal conditions for a game studio, but once our initial panic subdued, we found ourselves with ample time to reflect on some of the finer things in life. We used to sit up on the roof of our house and I remember how blissful the tropic nights felt when there was no electricity or fuel for miles in any direction. And, since the water pumps broke down too, I remember how much I learned to appreciate the luxury of having running water in the bathroom.
The power outage is one example of an inspiration that has materialized in The Journey Down, but there are lots of other events, characters and experiences from Tanzania that we’ve carried over into our games. And in a more subtle way, I think all of our journeys together have formed our perceptions and the way that we work as a team. I’m sure most dev teams could benefit from moving their office around now and then, and Tanzania is a wonderful place I’d recommend anyone to visit at least once.
JT: Why did you decide to tell this story through the lens of a point-and-click adventure video game as opposed to other genres, or even other digital or print mediums entirely?
MJ: I actually find point-and-click adventures to be the most immersive genre, especially if done right. I enjoy playing games where I can take the time to think through my next move and really absorb the environment I’m in. It puts you in a more relaxed state of mind, compared to more fast-paced and skill-based types of gameplay, where you constantly have to be on alert and ready for incoming fire.
The idea for The Journey Down was spawned by my colleague Theo, and it actually all started from his digital paintings many years ago. Basically, Theo wanted to bring more depth to his paintings and he realized that the best way to do so was by adding stories and characters to the scenes. So by making the scenes interactive, the paintings became background environments for a living narrative, and the passive viewer became an active player with more emotions invested in the game world.
JT: Music seems to be extremely important aspect of the game, why is that?
MJ: Music has been a core part in creating the atmosphere and ambience of the The Journey Down, and we’ve been really lucky to get world class musicians composing each chapter. What started as a random request for a saxophone sample on the Free Sound Project, turned into an incredibly good cooperation with composer and jazz musician Simon D’Souza. Simon wrote the entire score for the first chapter of the game and created the signature theme and reggae groove that makes The Journey Down really stand out in its genre.
In August 2012, Simon was diagnosed with brain cancer. It came as a shock to all of us, and it is still hard to understand how he could break down physically in such a short time. But in spite of his illness, Simon continued writing the score for the second chapter and kept asking for more assignments until the very end. Simon passed away in May 2014.
Before Simon passed away, he asked Theo to get in touch with Jamie Salisbury, Simon’s old bandmate, and ask him to complete the soundtrack. Luckily, Jamie accepted and did a truly amazing job picking up from where Simon left off and, in the end, their joint production won an award for Best Music. I’m happy to announce that Jamie will also compose the music for the third and final chapter of the series. We’re now trying to raise an extra $6,000 via Kickstarter to afford hiring some of the best session musicians for studio recordings that’ll push the music even further. We’re really proud of the music in The Journey Down and we’re going to give the finale everything we got!
JT: What do you hope players feel, experience, or walk away with after they finish The Journey Down?
MJ: I hope that The Journey Down leaves every player with a little bit of that magic feeling that I remember from playing classic adventure games like Grim Fandango or Monkey Island back in the 90s. It was the feeling of the world becoming a little bigger and a little more interesting, simply because a game had shown me something new that I didn’t expect. It may be a weird analogy, but imagine only having watched movies like Apocalypse Now and then you get a ticket to see Casablanca. You’ll have to open your mind to accommodate for all the new possibilities out there.
Of course, The Journey Down is not Casablanca, but I do believe we have pinpointed the right ingredients for making a very memorable game. And I hope that players will remember The Journey Down in the same nostalgic way that I remember my favorite games from the 90s.
The first two chapters of The Journey Down are available for PC, Mac, and Linux systems through Steam and the official website. Those interested in supporting the title can also back the Kickstarter campaign until it’s’ conclusion on October 31.