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.