Jotun: Kickstarting the animated Dark Souls

Now’s your chance to help make the game even Thor would be scared of become a reality.
Jotun © Will Dubé
By Ben Sillis

It takes guts to put your game idea on Kickstarter. Sure, you think you’re onto something, but how will complete strangers react to seeing it on a page? Will they reach for their wallets, slam it in the comments, or perhaps worst of all, meet it with plain old apathy? That alone is enough to keep an indie developer up at night, but what about when you’ve given up the day job already just to launch a crowdfunding campaign?

That’s exactly what Canadian developer William Dubé has done to bring his breathtaking vision to Kickstarter. Jotun is a beautiful looking action game crammed full of hand drawn art, massive bosses and mythology aplenty: you play as Thora, a Viking sent to purgatory after an inglorious death, who must take on the Norse elemental gods to prove her worth and enter Valhalla. Dubé describes it as “Journey mixed with the scale of the boss fights in Shadow of the Colossus in top-down 2D”, and he’s not wrong.

Perhaps just as impressive however is Dubé’s commitment to it. Earlier this year, he quit his day job as a games developer with free to play mobile studio Sava Transmedia in Québec to work full time on Jotun, and the project isn’t even funded yet: as of writing, Jotun’s raised a little over $38,000 of its $50,000 [Canadian dollars] goal with just over a week to go (it is however already greenlit on Steam, meaning there are enough fans willing to buy the game on Valve’s download service when it’s released September 2015).

Dubé says it had to be this way. “Kickstarter is an incredible way for us to test the waters. The worst thing to do when starting a business is to build something without knowing if people actually want it. Games are the same. Kickstarter has been just amazing so far, because it has allowed us to talk directly to the gamers. The response has been fantastic! As for ‘Why now?’, we’re at a point in development where we need to know if we can continue working on Jotun or not.”

Jotun may sport the whimsical hand drawn animation that’s become popular with 2D and indie games in recent years, but the game comes from a much more serious interest in medieval literature and mythology, Dubé says.

“I’ve always been fascinated with centuries-old texts like Beowulf and The Divine Comedy. I think there’s something sacred and mystical within them. Pagan mythologies are just so rich, different and awesome. In high school, I studied Greek and Roman mythology a little bit. I always loved the crazy stories. Zeus getting pregnant in his thigh, Cronus eating his children. Things you just don’t read about in other kinds of literature. Norse mythology is just a small step away and once I started delving deeper into it, I knew it would be the perfect setting for our story.”

Taking on the jotun, terrifying mythological beasts many times your size, will require a seriously tactical approach: you can’t just go wading in with your axe and expect to come out in one piece, as one blow will send you off to whatever’s beyond purgatory. You’ll need to look for openings in their defences and exploit them efficiently, a little bit like the enemies in Dark Souls, From Software’s hit adventure game.

“The combat is fast-paced and brutally hard,” Dubé says. “Imagine getting hit on the head by a powerful mythological being hundreds of times bigger than you! We want to keep the action simple to understand and play from a controls perspective and have the difficulty come from the actual boss fights themselves.”

Jotun © Will Dubé

“I think one of the pleasures in Jotun is actually getting a ‘this is going to be impossible’ vibe. It’s only by pushing yourself to your limits that you can learn something about yourself. This is also sometimes true in games. Depending on the person, achieving something that looked impossible at first is extremely satisfying. Jotun is not unfair in that it won’t trick you into making mistakes, but it will be difficult.”

So was Dark Souls ever a source of creative fuel? “Dark Souls is definitely an inspiration, as are games like The Legend of Zelda. I’d even cite the God of War series and Super Smash Bros. as influences. We’re pulling ideas from all over the place, taking the best of each game if it fits within our creative vision.”

Of course, a more immediately obvious source of inspiration is in comics. “Obviously, other than games, hand-drawn animation is a huge influence on Jotun’s art style. Be it old Disney movies or Japanese anime, the game is a huge love letter to the medium of comics and animation,” Dubé says.

Dubé has been joined in the project by several other Montreal artists, Alexandre Boyer, Jo-Annie Gauthier, Annejulie Painchaud and Darnell Lysius-Dicette. “They’re all people I’ve worked with in the past and who truly believe in Jotun,” he says.

Dubé says now is the time to turn to Kickstarter as the game is ready to begin development proper. “Jotun is in pre-production. We have a solid design, great art direction and fantastic music. We’re right at the stage where we need to know if gamers want to play Jotun before we can invest any more time and money into its development. That’s why we turned to Kickstarter.”

Jotun © Will Dubé

What Jotun does not have yet however, is a programmer. That’s a potential cause for concern given the recent high profile failure of the Yogscast Kickstarter game project, which collapsed largely because a programmer was not hired. Dubé hopes to avoid the same problems however.

“You’re absolutely correct in saying that it is an additional risk for our project. However, we are already in discussions with a few potential candidates. I wouldn’t compare Jotun to the Yogcast debauchery. They were not personally involved in the actual development of the game from what I understood. I don’t think they really knew what they were doing and I’m sorry for the backers. If we get funded, there will be a programmer on board.”

Dubé is currently planning for five big bosses battles, with randomly generated areas of exploration in between. “This is however subject to change as development goes on. I can’t give you a specific number, but we are definitely going for quality over quantity.”

The platforms Dubé targets could also change, depending on the success of the Kickstarter. Jotun is currently planned for PC and Mac, but Dubé won’t rule out other systems. “We are definitely looking at consoles and other platforms. It will depend mostly on what kind of stretch goals we can hit on Kickstarter. Ideally, we would like to be on every platform, but we have to consider costs when making those decisions. We have no plans for mobile at this time.”

Nor for that matter does Dubé have plans for anything else if the campaign doesn’t succeed: he’s all in on this one.

“I can honestly say that I have no idea what we’ll do if the Kickstarter fails. We will not be able to work on the game without funding and I wouldn’t want to compromise our vision. We’ll see, but I don’t see how we could continue without Kickstarter success.” More than a thousand backers have placed their confidence in Dubé and his team. Will you?

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