Interview de Pelle Cahndlerby

Pelle Cahndlerby: writer and narrative designer on ULTROS

ULTROS is one of the games I’m most looking forward to at the start of the year. Its mysterious universe, psychedelic DA and Metroidvania look are just some of the reasons why I wanted to talk to the game’s narrative designer and author: Pelle Cahndlerby.

Ouji, protagonist of Ultros
Ouji, protagonist of ULTROS

Point’n Think: Hello Pelle, and thank you for accepting our invitation to take part in this interview. First of all, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little about the Hadoque studio behind the game ULTROS?

Pelle Cahndlerby: Hello Julien, happy for the invitation!

My name is Pelle Cahndlerby, and I’m the mouthpiece for the demon – the writer, poet, and narrative designer on ULTROS.

Writing and drawing were always my companions growing up, and I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be an actor. Through the years, I never strayed from this yearning. Instead, I widened it to include music and singing, training myself to become an actor and musical artist. Some years after graduating from the Ballet Academy of Gothenburg, I felt that I wanted to broaden my horizons even further. Could I, as an artist, use my cultural tools with my other passion? The passion for video games.

While studying game design, I started out with some modest sound design and miscellaneous help on Cockroach Inc.’s The Dream Machine – a beautiful game sculpted in materials such as clay, cardboard and coffee grounds. After finishing my studies, I joined Image & Form Games to become a writer and audio director for the SteamWorld series.

Time warping to the present, Hadoque is a blend of creative people that have gathered to breathe life into the dormant potential of the demonic being known as ULTROS. Some of us have worked together on various occasions with games and music, some have come into orbit during the initial phases of the project.

Based in Sweden, our home port is Gothenburg, but we also enjoy the faraway fellowship of artists from Stockholm and design from Malmö.

PnT: You’re the writer and narrative designer on ULTROS. Can you tell us more about the creation of the game? How did the project start?

Pelle: My involvement started with a midnight walk many years before I plunged into the poetic depths of the Sarcophagus full-time. Actually, Niklas (El Huervo) was slowly surfing on his skateboard, and I was drifting along as we talked about psychology, philosophical matters, and life in general.

ULTROS
ULTROS

He told me about this idea, this concept of a demon that you could not defeat through brute force. Instead, you would have to stay calm, almost passive, and pass through the demon without any aggressive intention. He touched upon the context of having it in a game, like a final encounter, and I shared my thoughts and some poetical impressions before we went our separate ways.

A couple of years later, the shaping of a game around this vision, together with insights and pieces provided by others, had commenced. Once again, we were out for a walk, but this time during the light of day. Niklas told me that his demon wanted the company of my words, that my poetry could bring beauty and mystery to what was already stimulating and beautiful.

From that day, my ink and mind walked with the demon.

PnT: The game is a blend of two genres that were among the best of the 2010s: metroidvania and rogue lite. Hollow Knight and Dead Cells come to mind when you play ULTROS. Why did you decide to go for this type of game design?

Pelle: From my perspective, I feel that this form lends itself best for exploring the feelings, atmosphere and themes of ULTROS. It provides an excellent toolbox for curious players who wish to venture around freely and experiment with creative gardening or engage in satisfyingly smooth close combat. With the rogue lite bits, without spoiling anything, I would say that we have added our own cosmic touch to the parts that fit our narrative.

PnT: What stands out about ULTROS at first glance is its art direction. It was designed by El Huervo (Niklas Åkerblad), who worked on Hotline Miami. How did you come to meet him?

Pelle: There was this release event in Gothenburg. Niklas and Dennis Wedin from Hotline Miami did a gig on a small stage. At the time, I was working on Image & Form as both writer and audio director, and we had just started working on SteamWorld Dig 2. As the project was fresh, we hadn’t decided which direction to take music-wise. I kept Niklas and his style in the back of my mind, and the project manager from Image & Form was also a bit inspired by the performance.

Shortly after, I invited Niklas to the office for a casual talk. I walked him through a rough draft for SteamWorld Dig 2, and he had some bits and pieces of new music that he let me listen to. Our vibes connected, and over the following days, we hung out at his atelier, discussing music, art, and our different experiences.

Self portrait of El Huervo
Self portrait of El Huervo

While Niklas buried himself in composing the bulk of the soundtrack, I could contribute with some additional pieces and tracks that fit his vibe. I also composed the main theme, which Niklas grazed as a producer.

Initially, there was a bit of an uphill struggle to get the design team aboard with Niklas’s artistic choices. We believed in our vision, and once our ideas began to take root for real, it enriched the soundscape, and it’s my firm belief that it also elevated the game.

PnT: Continuing with the artistic direction, there are psychedelic inspirations reminiscent of the heyday of the French magazine Métal Hurlant. I’m thinking, for example, of the works of Moebius (Jean Giraud) and Philippe Druillet, which are references that speak to us as a French medium. Can you tell us more about your artistic influences?

Pelle :

David Bowie’s comment on music as fragmentation, taking bits from all over the place, mashing it up and seeing what the end result looks like, is something I can relate to. I have a talent for working with shreds, putting things together that come from opposite sides of anything. My influences really wander all over the map. They might as well stem from episodes of Dallas as from Goethe’s Faust or paintings by Frida Kahlo.

At the same time, I thrive in the wake of David Lynch and his way of setting the mood with camera angles, sounds, colors. Things don’t have to be relatable or make sense. It’s all about the emotions they stir, the atmosphere. Give people mystery, and don’t cave in and explain everything if they don’t understand. Given the project and circumstances, you may have to give some initial direction or sense of it anyway, but do not underestimate the seductive powers of exploring the suggestive!

PnT: ULTROS is a science-fiction game that’s as brutal as it is intimate, with a duality between violence in the face of cosmic entities and a vitality linked to the plants you’ll have to grow in the course of your adventure. Can you tell us a little about the game’s universe and lore?

Pelle : It’s hard to dive too deeply into it all without spoiling the experience of playing the game. It would be a bit like robbing you of the treat for being curious.

ULTROS
ULTROS

Roughly, the Sarcophagus is a drifting space station, once constructed by a Berian enclave of shamasal to contain an entity that fell from the sky. This cosmic uterus got trapped in the vicinity of a black hole, and due to tragical circumstances concerning the shamasals’ rituals, demonic chain reactions got set in motion.

Over time, a humus bred by the still-unborn demon has spread and affected the different realms of the Sarcophagus through psychosomatic morphing.

As Ouji, you wake up in this alien landscape of strange plants, insect-like creatures, and all the colors of the universe. She is just as oblivious to what is going on as the player. So begins the journey through the Sarcophagus.

PnT: Getting back to game design, you play with loops, one of the mechanics of rogue-lite, adding your own twist to reveal secrets as you go along. How does this mechanism work in the game?

Pelle: As our game design director, Mårten Brüggeman would say, we don’t consider ULTROS a roguelike. The game does, however, flirt and dance a bit with roguelike mechanics. The loops, or karmic cycles, are tools for changing the environment of the Sarcophagus. Your choices and actions will affect the plants you grow and how they, in turn, affect your surroundings. Like seasonal changes, if you will.

I see the karmic cycles as a chance for the players to meditate on their actions. Reflect, release, relearn – then onward, to discover more about the world and what part you play in the state of things.

PnT: The game uses this mechanism to explore themes such as karma, mental health and life and death. Where does the desire to put these themes at the heart of the story come from?

Pelle: ”Themes as old as time, true as they can be”, to play a bit with the strophe of Howard Ashman. Just like our relationship with nature, these are all matters that we can’t separate ourselves from. The care we show ourselves and how we look out for others shapes our community. We all share our hopes, dreams, and fears, and when we deal with our struggles, billions of fellow terrestrials go through the same emotions. We are never really alone, even if it feels like it.

We are all connected, and we are all part of nature. Don’t let that scare you. See it as a strength and something to incite change. Life and death is as natural a cycle as day and night. They follow one another and lead to new beginnings – closure, transcendence, and rebirth.

PnT: Likewise, we discover the lore via a mysterious environmental storytelling. As a narrative designer, how did you work on this aspect of the game’s writing?

Pelle: Writing is not only about putting more words into the fray – it’s also about editing yourself, being humble, and acknowledging when it’s better to stand back and let other instruments tell the story. What’s most important for me is that the audience, players, feel something. To stir emotions is my desire, and if that comes through level design, beautiful, artistic landscapes, music, or maybe the weight of the character’s movement – it’s all a win.

Also, with such a rich art style, you must be open – dare to let it lead you. How and where can I infuse these alien surroundings with my poetry to elevate it further? Sometimes, Niklas also got so inspired by something I had written that he wanted to make room for it as a work of art or an expressive scene somewhere. That also goes for Ratvader’s (Oscar Rydelius) hauntingly beautiful music. The interplay between the music, the sound design, and the scenery is breathtaking. By simply standing there and listening, you get absorbed into the very essence of ULTROS.

The beautiful realms of the Sarcophagus grew in ways none of us could predict, and we all did our best to support its cultivation. Giving each other space and respect was integral from the very beginning.

PnT: The game will have a physical edition, which is becoming increasingly rare in the independent industry. Was this a genuine desire to preserve the game over time?

Pelle: As digital stores close down and regrettably leave many creations unavailable to the gaming community, we were happy to get the opportunity.

PnT: We discovered the game via the Day of the Dev organized by Iam8bit. Does this kind of event help you promote a game like ULTROS? Do you feel a spirit of mutual support between independent studios?

Pelle : Events do a lot for visibility, no doubt about it, and we have been very fortunate to have had such great help from Kowloon and Kepler Interactive.

Many have reached out, being friendly and supportive, and it’s always a great feeling to mingle with other indies to see what they’re up to. There are so many talented devs out there, and we must keep finding opportunities to lift each other instead of eyeing each other as competitors, that’s for sure. Everybody benefits from growing a neighbourly gaming community.

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