Stockholm-based Might and Delight’s Art Director, Jakob Tuchten, isn’t particularly interested in hand-holding or exposition, but in offering those who play role-playing games the chance to meaningfully shape their own experiences and advance their characters by acting out of thoughtfulness, curiosity, and even emotional engagement. For example, witnessing a death in Might and Delight’s latest, Book of Travels, will weigh your character down as time passes, but visiting the deceased’s resting place can transform that character’s grief into a new source of energy and strength.
When we talk about RPGs, creating a friendly, collaborative culture around them might not always be the first thing on our minds; yet that’s exactly what’s on Tuchten’s mind when working on Book of Travels—at once a tour de force of hand-drawn animation; an intricate mythopoeic world; and an invitation to roleplay beyond the traditional strictures of linear, quest-centric plotlines.
We talked with Tuchten about what it’s like to lead the formidable Might and Delight team, the freedoms and formal limitations that come with being an indie studio, Shelter fatigue, internal mantras, and the value of “going small.”
Many of your previous games have also focused on animals, right? In this instance, though, it has much more anthropocentric quality. You have actual walking-on-two-legs kinds of creatures. Can you tell me a little bit about what that jump was like, from a design point of view?
The creative leap between animals and humans I don’t think was ever discussed as a big thing. I mean, the characters are so small on the screen, so it becomes a very abstract avatar representation of yourself. And we’re still running with a few odd game design traditions that we fine-tuned in Shelter.
What do you think has resonated with people with the Shelter universe?
I imagine that at the time that Shelter 1 was released, the market wasn’t really saturated with a lot of indie titles. At that time, I think, Journey was one of few games that had that sort of calm-paced, more meditative rhythm to it. I still see that to be one of the pillars of the Shelter brand, that it’s a pretty calm game and it’s a bit of an oasis for people that are drowning in Steam games that all are so gameplay-based, fast-paced, and action-packed. This is just a personal reflection, but I think a lot of Shelter fans don’t really care about animals. Again, I have absolutely no idea. Many of them do. But I think many just like the sort of rhythm of the game. And I can definitely see how it stands out.
What tools are you using to establish that look and the atmosphere for the new game?
The process behind it is pretty traditional. It’s pen and paper sketches and then we’re bringing them to life in digital art, hand-painting them. And they appear in the game exactly as we draw them. So this is one of the appeals of the art stuff for us, because we’re three full-time concept artists or illustrators and it’s just a dream to be able to have what you actually draw come into the game in that exact shape. It’s very satisfying to tell ourselves that it’s that direct.
What kind of direction do you give to the team?
So when we developed the art style, we had somewhere around a half-year to a year of visual preproduction. And the main goal of the pre-production was to make it look pretty and to be able to pull it off in time, but also to create a style that we knew different people could pull off. So it’s been a challenge, but we’ve nailed it down to a quite rigorous method of how we approach the sketch and the render, what type of brushes to use, what type of compositions that work, the height of different objects that are suitable for the camera view.
You mentioned the calmness and stillness, so I was just curious about the time that you spend outdoors or just taking in nature.
I’ve always been very interested in urban culture. No, for me it’s been more of, if I’m going to pinpoint some sort of reason for the calmness, I would say it has more to do with literature. So it’s been a very big thing for the studio, for me personally, reading. And what it has in common, I guess, with the stuff that we do, is that whatever you put into the experience yourself is what you get out.
It doesn’t really spoonfeed you with the input or with experiences. It sort of trusts you to bring something to the experience yourself, to the medium itself, and then you get something back. But it’s very strong and powerful. And, I feel, there’s a connection there. But our titles are … if you play them, you know. They’re hard to get into. They have a bit of a threshold. They’re a bit meaningless, so to speak. They always tend to challenge you to understand what they’re about. But if you’re that type of person that feels like you’re investing in something, then you might get something back.
I definitely think that, generationally, this is a conversation that’s happening outside of games and which asks how digital experiences can create a greater appreciation for the natural world and serve as an inspiration for us to get out and see things. The thing that’s always interesting to me, about the Shelter franchise in particular, is that these are things that you feel could take place, maybe not in your back yard depending on where you live, but in a place that you are familiar with, where the stories are happening out in the natural world.
I think, again, that some of the inspirations that we like to bring in on this project are games like Baldur’s Gate, old school fantasy RPGs like that. That game, as well, had something of a quite rare mix where you could just walk around in these nature environments that are basically all empty. And then you encounter a ruin or something, and that becomes a super, super powerful experience. That has been an inspiration for this, as well. To sort of create the everyday life situation in this fictional world. So we’re not going to overthrow people with the more fantastic, like say World of Warcraft.
Do you all have an internal mantra for what you feel makes a Might and Delight game different from other types of titles that are out there?
We did have a line that was on our wall. I don’t know what you call it, really, in English. When you have pictures and…
A mood board?
It’s a riddle, but it’s an image riddle. We had one of those in the studio a long time ago and it said, if you translated it, it said, “We’d rather fail with something that we love than succeed with something that we don’t like.” That has been one of the foundational pillars of the studio. And I think that’s about as much philosophy as we have. I mean, we’re a punk studio. We’re very sort of bohemic, rogue-like. We do a bit of whatever we want and we do a lot of different stuff, so we’re not that coherent. But that is the recurring thing. If we don’t like it, we’re not doing it.
In terms of the makeup of the team, you mentioned that you like finding people who have nontraditional backgrounds. Are there any specific examples that you think are emblematic of the Might and Delight team?
Let’s just look at the founders. I come from fine arts and the other founder comes from, basically, food, like cooking, restaurants, chef backgrounds. And then we have people that worked with theater and drama, that worked with movies and commercials, that worked with book publishing, and people that are from fine arts, from traditional animation, and technical people that are just not from game schools but from the academic technical background. We always need to communicate, always need to find common ground and what we like, what we want to achieve, based on our different backgrounds. It’s just a very magical sort of process for us. But it presents a lot of problems, as well.
What does your character design process look like? I’m interested in the Shelter series and Fables from the Den. Could you tell me a little bit about how you go about creating the look and feel for some of these new characters?
For the Shelter cast of characters, it’s evolved a bit over the years, but we tend to seek some sort of realism before we make the Shelter abstraction. As an example, we did a lot of nature study before we drew the first Shelter animals and decided the style. We looked at real life animals and understood the anatomy of the animals before we stylized them.
I’m not the art director for Shelter anymore. It’s a woman called Emma, and she’s doing a fantastic job. Because I felt at some point a certain Shelter fatigue.
One of the benefits that you all have as an independent studio, and you publish your own games as well, is the freedom to decide when you want to put something out into the world. And I was curious, how do you make that decision that something is ready to go? Because I think for so many indie studios, they release something really early and it stays public, unpolished and incomplete for a long period of time, and then it basically stays in development hell for years. One of the things that’s interesting about Might and Delight is that you look at your portfolio page and you have a lot of public, completed work out into the world.
I feel like that is something that has gone a bit unnoticed. I think you’re the first person that ever mention it. Because I feel like I’ve been so shocked by how rare it is for games to be on schedule. Many of us has worked in contexts that are a bit more production centered and deadline heavy. I don’t know if that factors in.
When it comes to the process, when do we know that we are done? Everyone has really good insight in the process. Everyone is their own producer and responsible for the integrity and the quality and the timing of their work. If everyone on the team buys into why we’re doing it and at what time we’re doing it, then I think that’s just more efficient than someone shoving a schedule at you saying, “This is it. You have to meet these deadlines.”
With Book of Travels, because the model for those types of games is different, how are you both learning from what other role playing games have done, but also trying to make sure that it fits into the Might and Delight ethos?
We believe in the product standing on its own. And to be honest, I don’t know if that’s the most wise decision, but that’s just what I believe that our fan base will respond to. We feel it’s the fairest thing to do and we think it reflects, like I said, our ethos and how we believe this project will turn out.
I think that tagline [Tiny Multiplayer Online RPG] is very interesting. Rather than going big, you’re going smaller.
So one of the key things for Book of Travels that we believe in, is that we in fact want roleplaying to be the main dish of the title. It sounds a bit cheesy, but we believe that having your own play style and expressing yourself through your character, focusing more on the personality and persona rather than classes and stats, brings the social interaction, the acting aspect of roleplaying, to levels where it feels like it’s fitting of a community that we want to build. That it’s a sort of nontoxic, very friendly multiplayer. So that is one of our strongest sales pitches to backers. If you want to see an RPG that has that type of friendly culture surrounding it, yeah, then this is the project.
That’s something we learned in our previous online game, Meadow. We really love the collaborative aspect of the game design and just the overall friendliness of that community just inspired us to do something like this in a new genre, basically. Bring it to new people that might not be into Shelter, or animal games.