“If someone tells you what a story is about, they are probably right. If they tell you that that is all a story is about, they are very definitely wrong.” – Neil Gaiman
Triple Topping are a small, award-winning, indie game studio based in Copenhagen, Denmark. They released their first game Spitkiss, a ‘pansexual precision-platformer’ in 2018 and have recently released Welcome to Elk. This latest title is a narrative game based on true stories, both emotional and humourous with a fantastic hand-drawn art style (you can read our review here). Triple Topping’s latest project, a platformer without platforms called Ynglet, is being developed with Uurnog creator, Nifflas and is set to release later this year.
In this interview, we get the chance to speak to Triple Topping’s co-founders Astrid Refstrup (game director, co-writer), Simon Stålhandske (game designer, programmer), and Murray Somerville (art director, co-writer) about working in the games industry, the process of creating and releasing Welcome to Elk, and, of course, ask what is next for the talented team of developers.
How did you all get into game development, and how has your experience of the industry been?
ASTRID: I actually started out with a degree in fashion, I wanted to do lingerie design. But also wanted to have my own company, and never really felt home in the fashion industry. So I changed direction and applied for the BA in games and the Royal Danish Design School, I nearly did not finish my BA but got it done in the end. I have done a lot of game jamming, and this is also how I met Simon and we learned that we wanted to build a games studio.
I love and hate the industry, I have a lot of good friends here, and I feel very privileged that I have been able to create my own dream job. With that said the games industry, as many other industries still hold a lot of challenges, but the focus on diversity is definitely there and I’m positive that we are changing the industry to something better.
SIMON: I actually decided to become a game developer after picking up Magic: the Gathering again after many years of not playing games at all, and realizing how much joy I was missing out on. The lead designer of Magic, Mark Rosewater, has an amazing podcast on game design that I can highly recommend.
After that I quit my physics master’s education and started studying game development at the IT University of Copenhagen, which was a real eye-opener for me. They have a strong indie/entrepreneur focus and I got super inspired to go off and create something small on my own or with a small team. So it was very natural for me to start a company after finishing my studies.
MURRAY: I first studied illustration in the UK and did freelance illustration (between other jobs) in London for 7 years. I’ve always wanted to create, but illustration wasn’t really cutting it and since I was interested in games, I made the decision to try and transition into the games industry. I moved to Copenhagen in Denmark, where I studied a Masters in Game Design – but I then dropped out of my education to work at Triple Topping. (I began as a student intern on Spitkiss, but then became full time on Welcome to Elk and joined the company.)
I couldn’t fault my experience in the gaming industry so far (past 3 years) but that’s because I’ve spent nearly the entirety of it at Triple Topping. There are definitely the not so nice parts of the industry which you see and hear, but as Astrid said, I think there’s an appetite for change, so I hope that’s something that continues to grow. It’s a necessity.
Welcome to Elk is full of stories, both heartwrenching and heartwarming; are they all true and where did you first hear them?
The stories of Welcome to Elk are all based on truth, some more accurately than others. All the stories come from Astrid and her family. The stories were all first heard by Astrid, told to her by her family. The most important first hearing was when Astrid’s brother Lauge, told Astrid about his adventures in rural America and Greenland over a pint, when he had returned to Copenhagen. It was these stories that planted the first seed for Welcome to Elk. The other stories from Astrid and her family came into Welcome to Elk as the game began development.
What made you decide that all these stories needed to be made into a game and how did you start the process?
It was Astrid’s idea that these stories should become a game. Storytelling is essential to all humans and the stories from her brother Lauge touched her in a way that she knew she had to share and retell them to others. Astrid wanted to capture the magic of how people tell stories to one another.
Regarding the process of it then becoming a game, Astrid made the first iteration of Welcome to Elk as her BA project while she was studying (Simon also worked on it as a programmer). This was the first attempt to capture the magic of these stories. Years later after Triple Topping was founded, Astrid pitched the idea of Welcome to Elk to Murray and Simon as their next game, which was then developed into what Welcome to Elk is today. Murray’s art style and talent for writing dialog was important in order to make Welcome to Elk what it is today.
How much of Welcome to Elk is fact and how much is fiction and how did you approach combining the two ethically and with such emotional balance?
A lot of the true stories are more anecdotes than biography, so to weave them into a linear, cohesive story meant that there had to be a fictional universe which could house all these true stories together.
We created design pillars on how to translate these original stories into our fictional world in a way that meant we handled them with care. For instance if someone had died in one of our stories, it was of the utmost importance to make sure that was expressed with sensitivity and empathy, that we should never make jokes or mishandle how the gameplay interprets the story. We also made sure to change names and important details to always protect anonymity of those from the true story.
The most vital tool we used in this part of the process was conversing between one another, constantly interrogating and iterating on what we made to make sure that the story was being told in the right way and for the right reasons.
The original concept art (seen in Murray’s Steam stream and tucked away in-game) is very different to the overall final aesthetic; how did the early black and white drawings evolve into the colourful world that players are shown in Welcome to Elk?
As mentioned before, Astrid had previously created an early version of Welcome to Elk (then titled Elk) which had this pencil drawn, contrasted realistic and cartoon art style. When Murray joined the team as art director, he wanted to retain a lineage to the original game Astrid made but also find a way to visually express the different stories we had collected. The introduction of a more cartoonish and colourful world was inspired by Bojack Horseman. Knowing our stories could differ from a funny drinking anecdote to a tragic tale of loss – we needed something that could create a buffer for audiences and allow us to play in contrasting narratives. So Bojack was a great example of how to do that well and with that inspiration in mind, we created the more disarming style of Welcome to Elk that it is now.
What setbacks and obstacles did you have to overcome while creating Welcome to Elk and were there any that were especially troublesome or that you really did not anticipate?
The development of the game was pretty forward, of course we had to change and redesign things, but that is very expected when making a game. We have worked a lot on age restrictions and explaining the content of the game after the game was more or less ready. We quickly learned that Welcome to Elk touched people in a way that even though the official age restriction would be 13+ we had to set it to 17+ and provide extra description of the content to prepare people before playing the game.
How have you found the less development-focused aspects of bringing your game to players, such as securing funding, marketing, PR, choosing platforms and actually releasing the game?
Astrid was for most of the time doing all marketing but also business development of the game. It’s a lot of fun and important to focus on from the beginning. Most challenging was finding funding, we got some public funding in Denmark for 50% of our budget, but still had to find the rest with an external partner. Astrid went to GDC in 2019 to do this, but as she was pregnant at the time she had a very hard time being taken seriously when pitching the game, on the last day she had a meeting with Kowloon Nights who was way more cool than the rest of the publishers and investors and decided to fund the game.
For platforms it’s a bit of a puzzle Steam is good for building a community but other platforms can help with funding too.
What was your favourite thing about creating Welcome to Elk and were there any standout moments?
We’re all big fans of game jams and the structure of Welcome to Elk allowed us to have a free flowing approach to gameplay, similar to that of a game jam. Trying to work out how to invent gameplay to express a story was a rewarding experience and invited a lot of cross collaboration and iteration between the team. If we had to pick one stand out it would be the singing mini game with Beth singing to George. It’s a hard hitting scene and took a lot of iteration to get just right, but the end result is something we’re all proud of and perfectly encapsulates what we were striving to achieve with Welcome to Elk.
Can you tell us anything about what might be next for Triple Topping (besides a well-deserved rest!)?
We have started our next game, but we won’t say anything just yet – BUT we can say that it is revealed somewhere in Welcome to Elk. So that’s a fun surprise for those who can find it. We’ll be excited to share more in the future!
Triple Topping Games
Welcome to Elk
Developer: Triple Topping & Nifflas
Released: TBA 2020
Platforms: Windows, Mac
Available on: Steam
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