After helping create two of the decade's biggest indie hits, the next logical step is to quit your job and strike out into the unknown. At least that’s what you do if you're as ambitious as Inside and Limbo's lead gameplay designer Jeppe Carlsen. "Playdead is a fantastic place to work," Carlsen says of his former development team in Copenhagen, "But eight years is a long time, and I simply felt a strong need to focus on my own work and see where that would take me." Only a few months have passed since the moody and mysterious platformer Inside debuted to unanimous praise, but Carlsen, the 33-year-old native of Denmark, has already completed his newest solo project, Thoth, which launches on Steam on October 7th.
At first blush, Thoth presents itself as a retro twin stick shooter with a disarmingly sparse style. A large pastel number looms in the background while you pilot a white dot around a cluster of pulsating squares. With a presentation this modest, even a classic game like Asteroids appears busy in comparison. But all of Carlsen's games look misleadingly simple. Limbo and Inside both begin with a young boy trekking through a subdued forest before plunging into shockingly gruesome adventures. Thoth expands in meaning as you progress, with sinister and even occult sensibilities bubbling up from below the placid surface.
In some ways, Thoth is the game that Jeppe Carlsen has wanted to make his entire career. When he initially applied to work at Playdead, he brought along a rough build of a twin stick shooter on his laptop to demonstrate his talents. The idea for the game persisted, even if the route to creating it wasn't a direct line. Initially hired to work as a programmer on Limbo, Carlsen set himself apart early with his design ideas. It turns out he had a knack for creating simple and challenging puzzles, and his role eventually evolved into lead gameplay designer. Carlsen's work left its mark on Playdead's games: the puzzles in both Limbo and Inside stand out for their elegance and restraint. And in turn, the studio’s philosophy helped shape his aesthetic priorities as well.
"I worked at Playdead for far longer than I studied computer science at the University," says Carlsen, "So it's safe to say that it has affected my approach to making games a whole lot." The most notable design philosophy Playdead imparted? Working under the constraint of nonverbal communication with the player. "It was a company rule of sorts," Carlsen says, and it came from Limbo and Inside director Arnt Jensen himself. "It was not a personal goal of mine at all, but I liked the challenge of working with the constraint."
This constraint is a central component of Thoth's style. You won’t find a single letter of text apart from its name; it even forgoes "press start" at the beginning. And although it has the trappings of a shooter, at its heart it remains a puzzle game, the pleasures it offers more cerebral than visceral. You’re tasked with shooting shapes and dodging obstacles to advance, but each board has its own set of peculiar rules you'll need to learn through experimenting. Failure to calculate for each shape's internal physical logic will lead to rapid and repeated failure. "I think most games have this type of communication between game mechanics and the player," says Carlsen, "But since Thoth exclusively employs non-verbal communication through a constant stream of new mechanics, the experience of playing the game may emphasize the communication itself, and possibly cause the player to reflect upon it."
If all this sounds a bit heady, that's because it is. Thoth may find its greatest admirers in fellow game designers with an eye for minimalism, those interested in exploring its limitations and expansive possibilities. There's a ruthless intelligence at work, a sense that the genre’s rulesets and iconography have been crushed to the size of an atom, to the point of implosion.
Perhaps as a corollary, Thoth can feel abrasive and downright uninviting at times, only to welcome you back moments later with a spell of meditative tranquility. It's a contrast the game deliberately toys with. The looming, softly-colored shapes shrink as you fire upon them, revealing what Carlsen calls "holes into the universe," infinite starscapes that intrude on the screen's stark color palette. The music often growls with industrial and electric static, lending the geometry a menacing tone as you descend through 64 brutal and numbered levels, crawling toward what could either be enlightenment or annihilation.
"Letting artists loose in your project can be very inspiring, albeit a bit scary sometimes."
Carlsen says he wanted to avoid the "typical energetic dance vibes often associated with this type of action game," so he conscripted the experimental electronic musicians Cristian Vogel and SØS Gunver Ryberg, known for their esoteric compositions, to work on the score. "They pulled the game in a direction I would never have imagined," says Carlsen. "Letting artists loose in your project can be very inspiring, albeit a bit scary sometimes." The duo scored Thoth while simultaneously watching scenes from Jodorowsky's psychedelic cult film Holy Mountain for inspiration. The resulting score sounds much closer to Metal Machine Music than Millipede, and it’s woven so tightly into the fabric of the experience that it's hard to imagine the game without it.
Thoth stands as a significant departure from the character driven games Jeppe Carlsen helped create at Playdead, and yet it shares the dark undercurrent and uncompromising vision of his earlier projects. It teeters on the edge of impenetrability while still beckoning you to unearth its hidden mysteries. "Finding this exact balance is what my work is all about," says Carlsen. "However, I do feel that my design experience has reached a point where I am much closer to intuitively predicting the reactions of players... only time will tell if I hit an appropriate difficulty balance this time around."
It's interesting that Jeppe Carlsen drew inspiration from classic shooters such as 1982's Robotron: 2084, a game he says allows you to turn your brain off and "feel your way through the chaos." With Thoth, he's created Robotron's diabolical twin: a game that requires your brain in order to access its chaos.
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