EGX 2019: SNOW

One of my highlights at EGX 2017 was Falling Sky. In development by Jonathan Nielssen and a small team, this narrative title was the result of eight months’ hard work of students of the MA Games Design and Development Course at the National Film and Television School (NFTS).

The games coming out of the School at the time were all interesting but a little ‘rough around the edges’ – in no way a criticism when you consider they were being created by people just starting out on their career. Falling Sky was different though. The demo I played back then was remarkable and perhaps the most technically- and visually-impressive NFTS project I’d ever had the opportunity of experiencing; The Guardian even included it in their 12 favourite games from EGX that year.

It was clear Nielssen had talent. The were a few bugs in the demo but if you overlooked these it was obvious Falling Sky was going to be something special. The atmosphere and visuals reminded me of releases such as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Heavy Rain, and the music and voice-acting were far superior to what you’d expect from a student creation. Sadly though, news about the game seemed to disappear after the expo and I didn’t hear anything else about it.

When I received a promotional email about SNOW shortly before this year’s event, I was sure I recognised the developer’s name. A quick internet search revealed that Nielssen was back with a new project and so I added it to my EGX schedule immediately; if this new title was anywhere near as good as Falling Sky it would be well worth checking out. After trying out Beyond and Steel Sky and Röki on the first day, my other-half and I made our way over to the Loeding stand to find out what was going on.

Although SNOW looks as though its set in the present day, it takes place in a remote town in Norway in 2050. The developer told us that this is because its inhabitants shun technology and want to preserve a life without any outside influences. He also shared that special forces are on the hunt for a powerful artificial intelligence (AI) that has escaped; and 12-year old Oskar’s mother thinks her adopted son may be wrapped in up in the mystery somehow. Players will solve puzzles and piece together the truth about the boy’s origins.

The start of the demo had us navigating an ASCII maze to pick up glowing symbols and strengthen the AI’s connection to Oskar. What followed was on of the best transition scenes I’ve ever seen. When we told the AI we wanted to see our home, the screen turned into a mass of sparkling ASCII which then took on colour to reveal a forest. We could see the boy’s white silhouette which we guided through the trees towards a light, as the symbols grew smaller and eventually turned into a more photo-realistic scene. It’s hard to describe but it was amazing.

We then found ourselves in bed being woken by our mother, after she’d had a mysterious telephone call with someone who was trying to persuade her to get Oskar some help for his nightmares. The character models look so good thanks to a collaboration with FBFX and Centroid3D, two industry leaders in the field of photogrammetry and motion capture, and a video being played on Loeding’s stand showed the actors being scanned for their roles at Pinewood.

The next part of the demo was more an ‘experience’ than a game because there were no characters to talk to or puzzles to solve at the present time, but it did give us an opportunity to explore the town of Barvik and get a real sense of what SNOW’s atmosphere is going to be like. Environmental artist Gustav Morstad told us they first built the setting to include nothing but snow before adding buildings and other objects, because it was so complicated to get the lighting for it right; and this is one of the reasons for the game’s name.

When we told Nielssen we’d played the Falling Sky demo, he hinted at issues regarding rights when taking a student into private sector. We didn’t pursue this line of conversation out of respect but got the impression that we may not see his original game in its final form. At first I was a little disappointed by this because I remember it being so impressive; but after getting my hands on the start of SNOW, it looks as if we’re in for something that’s going to be even more special.

Morstad told us the title won’t be ready for another two years though so we’ve got a while to wait. But I stand by my statement from 2017 ago: Nielssen has talent and is going to be a developer to keep an eye on. And as I said two years ago, if there’s ever a Kickstarter campaign in the future then the Loeding team have got themselves their first backer already.

EGX 2017: Falling Sky

The National Film and Television School (NFTS) is one of the top film, television and new media schools in the world. I had the pleasure of getting know Tony Evans, the NFTS Games Coordinator, after taking an interest in a game being made by a graduate several years ago, and we now seem to bump into each other at video game events.

Tony usually steers me towards the title he thinks I’ll like the most (we both seem to favour those with strong narratives) and over the years I’ve had the pleasure of playing some interesting games coming out of NFTS. They all tend to be a little ‘rough around the edges’, which is in no way a criticism and completely understandable when you consider these are projects being made by students who are just starting out on their career.

That explains why Falling Sky was a bit of a surprise when I came across it while at EGX at the end of September. Under development by Jonathan Nielssen and a small team, this cinematic narrative title is the product of eight months’ hard work and the demo I played was extremely remarkable: it was perhaps the most technically- and visually-impressive NFTS project I’ve ever the opportunity to experience.

Falling Sky sees Daniel returning from college to his home in a nondescript American suburb. His mother has disappeared and his younger brother Tommy has been left to fend for himself; and when questioned, the boy seems paranoid about a ‘set of rules’ and scared by the mysterious ‘Star Man’. Cryptic answerphone messages, along with bizarre encounters with Officer Maloney and Daniel’s school crush Rachel, lead the oblivious brothers on a dangerous journey while searching for the truth.

Nielssen gives Heavy Rain as an inspiration and this was evident within the demo. The experience was very cinematic with camera angles shifting as the player moves Daniel around the room, and motion capture adding realism to the characters. Twin Peaks is also stated as an influence for the developer; but for me, the atmosphere and visuals remind me more of the much-admired Life is Strange and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.

The small section I played set the scene for the rest of the title, which I’ve read is due to span across five episodes. Daniel attempts to calm his younger brother after finding him hiding in a makeshift fort but then, being unable to get any sensible information out of him, the brothers head to the local diner to feed Tommy after not eating for a few days. At this point the game switches to a top-down view with a ‘Google Maps’ feature that helps you navigate your way to town.

I experienced a few glitches here whereby the car flipped itself over and juddered along the road upside down but, overlooking these issues, Falling Sky could be something very special. The music and voice-acting were wonderful – the former composed by Seymour Milton, and voices courtesy of industry veterans Stephane Cornicard and Christy Meyer – and far superior to what you’d expect from an early student creation.

After I played the demo, I had the opportunity to chat to Tony and Zsofia Szemeredy (in charge of PR and marketing for the game). Tony revealed that the majority of NFTS creations are never released as full titles available to the public: many of their students go on to secure employment with established developers and then don’t have the time to continue with their own projects.

As much as I wish the best for Nielssen and his future, I really hope that doesn’t happen in this case because Falling Sky shows so much promise! The Guardian thinks so too as they named the game as one of their favourites on display at EGX. If there’s a Kickstarter campaign for this game at some point in the future, the team have got themselves a backer.