Interview with MiTale’s narrative designer Petter Skult

MiTale, although   having   a wide   extension   of   services, is still   an   indie   game development company, its key focus being narrative driven games. Having several successful projects of this kind, the newest one is CLAY – The Last Redemption, a story-driven RPG, set several generations after the collapse of civilization. The person behind this story is MiTale’s narrative designer, Petter Skult. His background caught my attention and I wanted to hear more about his interest in storytelling, with an emphasis on post-apocalyptic fiction. He has several stories published and a PhD in English literature.

Petter, could you explain what draws you to post-apocalyptic fiction and how did it all start, since you have chosen this subject for your PhD thesis?

I think the first moment I knew what I wanted to write my PhD thesis about was when I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) while on exchange in York. The book affected me to such a level that I knew I had to write about it, and as I did my research, I realized there was a need for an updated look into post-apocalyptic literature today, which is what my thesis ended up being. But even before then I’d always been fascinated with narratives of the end of the world; maybe because I grew up in the short bubble of time after the end of the Cold War but before the reality of accelerating climate change really took hold, when the idea of the ‘end of the world’ seemed like a distant fiction rather than an everyday reality.

How does game narrative differ from writing a novel or a short story?

In a novel or a short story, like in a movie, you always know exactly what the reader will be presented with, and in what order, and you craft the story accordingly. You don’t have to worry about your reader turning around after the first two steps outside their village and deciding “naw, I’m just going to stay at home instead”. In a game, you have less control over the order and pace that the player takes through the story, and in your writing, you have to accommodate that. For example, if the player decides to turn around after the call of action, what happens? Do we lock the gate behind them, forcing them on? Do we let them return, but have all the NPCs in the village spout nasty comments about how much of a coward the player is? Do we create an alternate easter egg ending where the entire game never happens? Therein lies the power of game narratives over other types of stories – the fact that we can accommodate these kinds of choices (even if it means more work!)

Were you interested in gaming before you joined MiTale and what kind of games were your preferred choice?

Of course, I’ve been a life-long gamer, starting with the NES but quickly graduating to PC. I’ve always been a huge fan of RPGs, from Fallout to Neverwinter Nights, but I also really like strategy games (Civilization, Warcraft, C&C), turn-based tactical games (all the X-Coms, from the original to the remakes) and recently Rimworld-style ‘survival/colony building’ sims. I also really enjoy unique indie game experiences, like Gone Home, Return of the Obra Dinn, Outer Wilds, Firewatch etc.

Are you involved in other parts of game development process?

Yes, I’m also a game designer, and I’ve learned enough Unity and C# to be able to make my own games from scratch. The art I leave to others, although I’m happy to bash something together with free assets. Like many indie game devs, being a jack-of-all-trades is kind of a requirement!

What are some of the challenges you faced while working as a game narrative designer?

The main thing about being a ‘narrative designer’ is that it’s rare you will get to actually just do writing or story-planning. There is so much involved in designing a narrative that you often end up doing a big chunk of game design on the side, whether you intended to or not. The obverse of that is when you are given the task of only writing, but the writing makes no sense in the context of the game. If you’ve ever played a game where the PC is shot a million times during the course of the game without flinching but then suddenly gets wounded in a cutscene – that wasn’t the writer’s fault. But it’s all a part of the job.

So, where did the idea for CLAY – The Last Redemption come from? What makes this game so special?

CLAY started as a short story about a little girl whose father had died and left her with some magical clay, clay that could talk, move and learn. It was set in a post-post-apocalyptic world, where humanity had forgotten all about the high-tech society that came before and which had created the AI-inhabited nano-mass known as clay. From there, it changed and evolved quite a bit, through various imaginative leaps, until we reach the state of the story as it is today. The world is still post-post-apocalyptic, and clay is still considered magical by many, but who controls it and how has become a lot more important. We also decided to set the story in a very special part of the world, cut off but still affected by what happens outside. I think what makes CLAY so special is the fully realized, unique sci-fi world it’s set in, combined with gameplay that places story first.

What are the next steps for CLAY? When can we expect to try it for ourselves?

CLAY is in production! Coding, writing, art, game design, all of these things are being worked on. The next step however will be to create a vertical slice of the game that can be shared with testers to iron out bugs, improve UX, ensure compatibility, and generally be used to help improve the game going forward. Whenever this playable vertical slice – the alpha – is ready, it will be made available to early adopters who are willing to play it in exchange for giving is feedback. If that’s something you’re interested in, get in touch!

Interview by Milica Bulatovic

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