Introducing: Happy Volcano Interview
Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with David Prinsmel and Jeroen Janssen from Happy Volcano about their newest game, The Almost Gone, and their studio at large. Please enjoy our unabridged interview here.
The mysterious ethos of The Almost Gone really appeals to me. What was the inspiration and impetus for such a mature and unique storyline?
David Prinsmel (Creative Director): We wanted to make a game that was a bit more mature and unique in many ways, also in the presentation of it. Firstly, we built the world, which ended up very colorful but having a dark vibe glooming over it. It inspired our writer (Joost Vandecasteele) to come up with a dark story about death. We wanted to make something like a horror game, but with real-life themes, which usually are far worse than the stuff you encounter in your typical horror game. The idea was that a character ended up in an in-between world, between life and death. This world helps you understand what happened before you can pass on to the afterlife. The world acts as some sort of shock therapy that the character needs before the healing process can start.
Since the game focuses so heavily on narrative while weaving in puzzle as well as point-and-click elements, how did you strike a balance between making The Almost Gone something the player experiences, and something the player interacts with?
David Prinsmel (Creative Director): We didn’t want to make puzzles just for the sake of puzzles. They needed to be intertwined with the story. If you solve a puzzle, you get more information about a character or moment. The puzzles are aligned to certain story beats, meaning the player gradually makes out more of the story as he or she interacts with the world.
On a meta level, how would you describe Happy Volcano’s design philosophy, and how does The Almost Gone fit into that?
David Prinsmel (Creative Director): We’re trying to be unique in simplicity. Our visual style can best be described as honest, colorful and inspired a lot by graphic design. We try to offer the player something unique, something unusual with a lot of attention to detail. I think TAG is a great example of this design thinking: its presentation is unusual, but provoking. The art style got a lot of care and iteration to make something unique and polished. We wanted every angle of every tile we designed to almost feel like a finished illustration, something that deserves your attention for a bit longer.
As a studio, Happy Volcano has done a lot of contract work alongside your original titles such as The Almost Gone. How does contract work feel different from working on your own games? What are the unique affordances of both?
Jeroen Janssen (Managing Director): There is a huge difference between them. But they are equally important for our business and mental health. Our own productions are obviously something where we put our heart and soul in. The Almost Gone is our baby and we only want the best for it. On the other hand, contract work allows us to play around with the worlds and characters of another IP. Which in itself is a nice thing to work within constraints. And it also allows us to learn more about game development on someone else’s dollar.
Finally, to return to The Almost Gone, the narrative touches on some heavy and poignant themes. What do you hope the player walks away from the experience with?
David Prinsmel (Creative Director): As we talk about pretty heavy stuff in the game, we’ve made sure to never make it too explicit. The subjects are present in the main character’s life, but we don’t try to give a solution or answer to any of them. She discovers them along with the player, it’s like she matures a couple of years in a couple of hours. That’s the goal of this world, it’s helping you understand. Because we’re never explicit, players will get to piece the story together themselves and come up with theories about what really happened. Some players will make connections in another way than others. Which is nice – we’ve looked at this as some sort of Lynchian experience. Sometimes something lingers on way longer when it’s not explained.
Thank you very much to David and Jeroen for their time. The Almost Gone is available now on Nintendo Switch, and you can check out our review of the game right here.