Interview: Ole Helland, Director of Through the Woods

Through the Woods is set to revolutionise horror video games, as its director, Ole Helland, explains:

What exactly is Through the Woods?

Through the Woods is a third-person psychological horror game set in a forest on the western shore of Norway about a mother and her missing son. Through dynamic narration, you play a mother’s re-telling of the events surrounding her son’s disappearance, in a setting heavily influenced by Norse mythology and Norwegian folk tales.

It says on the game’s website that the developers are trying to “capture the forest as they see it as children”. Can you elaborate?

I think it’s safe to say that a lot of the children who grow up in Norway have a close relationship to the forest. For instance, when I was a child, I remember having my imagination playing tricks on me whenever I would walk through a forest by myself. Especially by night. Like whenever I visited my childhood friend, who was living on the opposite side of this huge forest. In the middle of it there were these two relatively huge monolith-like pillars standing next to each other. I remember how I would never walk between them, because they almost looked like a gateway to another world. Just recently, I visited that same forest, and I could immediately recognize it as a leftover from this older and regular sized gateway that used to be there. I was slightly let down, to say the least.

Why do you think that Norway makes such a perfect setting for game?

To be frank, it’s simply because we haven’t seen it been done before. So after forming and founding Antagonist, we asked our friends and even ourselves: “Is this something I would like to play?” and the answers were a resounding “F*** yeah!”. So, with the inspiration of our own experiences, Norwegian art history and Norse mythology tucked neatly in our arms, we set out to make our game, simply because we want to play it, ourselves. When we announced our project on Steam Greenlight, we quickly understood how people out there wanted the same thing.

Does Norse mythology feature?

Yes. To be completely honest, we weren’t planning on focusing as much on it as we ended up doing. However, from the reactions on going public of our project, we understood that this was something we needed to treat with respect. So without spoiling anything, there’s a very known backdrop for what’s going on in the game that I hope people will recognize.

And I understand that the story is also influenced by Norwegian folk tales?

You’re correct. For instance, Old Erik (“Gamle Erik” in Norwegian, or “Old Nick” in the UK) is a nickname for the Devil back here. I think it was more common in the old days, but generally to scare children into behaving. So we basically took the idea and made him into a physical character in the story we want to tell with Through the Woods.

How has development been progressing?

Steady, but slowly to outsiders, perhaps? The project started as our bachelor thesis, and we basically had to hit the ground running the day after we graduated. Since then we’ve gotten some funding and even went to GDC a month ago, where GameInformer named us one of the very best indie games of the conference. Besides the almost expected growing pains, we’ve had to postpone the release, but only because we didn’t have the manpower to properly start the development. We just hired 2 more people that are filling the current requirements for the growth of both the team and the project. I can’t say too much right now, but we have some great news right around the corner.

What kind of art style does the game employ?

The story we’re telling is that of a bleak and desperate one: A mother struggling to explain her son’s disappearance, so it became natural to us that the style should be relatable and realistic. There’s not any man-made lightsources here, so the game will be quite dark. However, since the story takes place in a forest that’s been untouched by any ordinary humans for a long time, we allow ourselves to be inspired by the works of the Norwegian painters like Hertervig, Kittelsen, Tidemand and Gude.

How will the game utilise sound design?

Good question. It’s tailored inside our game mechanic, to alert the player of threats, whether it’s real or not. Just a month ago, we actually won an award for the sound design, namely the Norwegian Game Award for Best Sound Design.

What about the gameplay? Will there be a focus on puzzle solving and exploration? Is there a combat system?

At Antagonist, we appreciate a clean, almost surgical design. That means that with Through the Woods, all the mechanics are evolved around the use of flashlight. When it’s on or off is up to you, but a lot of things happen within this binary choice. For instance: With the flashlight on, you’ll be able to spot out the reflectors that has been left behind by Karen’s son, Fillip, as if they were a breadcrumb trail to follow. However, you might want to switch it off, to hide from certain threats in the forests that are either curious or even threatened by the flickering and bright light. Fortunately, Karen’s hearing and eyesight will slowly adjust to the sudden darkness. But no, there’s not going to be any puzzle or combat elements within the game.

How will Through the Woods scare its players?

It all has to do with the presentation, in my opinion. And it can start building up with everything from sound, a sudden movement or even Karen’s reaction to her surroundings, or almost better than everything: Nothing at all. We’re still in development, but so far, most of the fear we provoke on the player, is mostly happening in the player’s head. So it’s been a little tough, figuring out what works and what doesn’t, because you can only be so much inspired before stepping into known territories, which isn’t where you want to be in this genre.

Will the game feature effective lighting and darkness mechanics?

Yes, as I explained with the design choices, everything is based around the use of flashlight. Exactly how that affects things physically in the game world is probably best left unanswered, hehe.

Can you tell us a bit more about the main protagonist?

So with Karen Dahl, I started out by writing a female character I could believe in, with her flaws and imperfection. The unnamed town that the story begins in is where her childhood home was. When she grew up, she moved to Oslo and spent most of her adult life here, even after giving birth to her son. However, she inherited a family cabin that she frequently visits, again for reasons left alone for the full experience, before spotting her son being led away by Old Erik. Throughout her interrogation with Christian Petersen, we’ll get to know her better as she’ll sidetrack or defend herself while talking about what she did or encountered on the day of disappearance.

And what about the other characters that she will encounter?

She won’t encounter any other humans. I’ll leave it at that.

When can we expect to play Through the Woods?

We’re currently aiming for a Q1 release, 2016!

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Ash Hamilton is not only the owner of Horror-Fix.com, but also one of its major contributors. A long time horror movie enthusiast, Ash has lent his personality to radio and television and continues to support his favorite genre through his writing and art. He also loves beef jerky and puppies... and low-grade street-quality hallucinogens.

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