Little Nightmares and the rise of Tarsier with Ola Holmdahl

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We feel as if we’ve been tracking the progress Tarsier Studios for many years, pretty much since it announced a game called City Of Metronome in 2005. That title sadly didn’t make it out and since then the team has expanded and made a reputation for itself working closely with Media Molecule, a team it shares a lot of creative similarities with. With Little Nightmares (previously known as Hunger) it is finally stepping out into the light and showing what it can do on a solo project.

As Tarsier has begun showing the game off to gamers at conventions around the world and getting great feedback in the process, we caught up with CEO Ola Holmdahl to reflect on how the studio has developed, how Little Nightmares came about and how the lessons of the past are helping to inform this exciting new stage for the team.

[This interview was conducted prior to Ola Holmdahl leaving Tarsier after three years. You can read more here]

olaholmdahlsydsvenskan-590x331What was your background before joining Tarsier?

I’m a game maker in the sense that I started in the mid-Nineties making board games and miniature wargames in Sweden. Then I got into videogames professionally with Refraction Games, which was then purchased by DICE, who made Battlefield 1942, on which I was the lead designer. After that I went back to university and taught game design for a number of years. Then I went into entrepreneurship and making games again because it’s just too exciting to make the games. Talking about them and reading about them and researching is just not the same.

There have been a few Tarsier projects that nearly happened, like City Of Metronome some years ago, and Little Nightmares seems to be coming from a similar aesthetic. Can you speak to that?

This is coming straight out of the Tarsier DNA as a studio. Even as Team Tarsier before Tarsier Studios was founded as a corporate entity, these were the themes and visuals and storytelling desires that were within a lot of the founders.

Could you talk us through the art direction a little then and where that’s come from?

What can I say? Tarsier by now is not six people, we’re 50 and the team is not that many but it’s significant and I do feel everyone contributes to this game, which is why when we look at it, it does look unique and different from everything we’ve done before. The core subject matter and the core aesthetic is powerfully influenced from our art director, Per Bergman, who is one of the founders and also one of the concept artists we’ve picked up on the way, Jonas Berlin. They were a fantastic tag team. The core idea of the game came from a sort of a concept jam where Per drew a character, which was just a small girl in a yellow raincoat, very distinct, and Jonas was drawing these figures, these hulking, monstrous figures and there was a very interesting interplay between them.

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How important has the experience of working alongside Media Molecule been on the team?

Hugely influential. I think Tarsier as a studio owes them a great debt. There was just a good energy that came out of the very early work with costumes and art support work, but then that we could grow in that relationship to be taken on as a lead studio with LittleBigPlanet on Vita of course, but also to do what was essentially in my eyes a collaboration with Tearaway Unfolded. They had half the team and we had half the team and we sort of translated the experience from handheld inputs to PS4. They were very specific, they asked for us by name and said ‘we’d love to work with Tarsier again’, and they said, ‘we want some fresh thinking, some fresh energy, some fresh creative juice to make it a unique experience this time around’. We’ve learnt a lot of discipline from them and a lot of useful creative skills that they still set the bar for, I feel, how to identify a concept, bring it to life, and feel out what the game is that goes with the concept. Those were shortcomings back in 2006 and one of the reasons why Metronome never took off. Well, fool me once… I think Tarsier has learnt a lot of good lessons since then.

Has it helped to be somewhat out of the limelight on these brands, just get the work done and do well without pressure?

We have a little small sort of commando fanbase I feel. It’s amazing and there are people who remember Metronome, even today. But then again, just look at our totem, the tarsier, it’s the only mammal with individual eyeballs larger than its brain. And it’s nocturnal and very shy. We’re about the product. We’re not about being rock stars, so yes, we want our own product to be out there, we want to be making our own games. It’s fantastic to be working with Bandai Namco and seeing it happen and seeing the response, but we want the product to be the thing, not the team behind it.

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And the response so far seems to have been very good. How has that been?

It’s been overwhelmingly positive. And we couldn’t have asked for more. If you sat down and decided what is the best imaginable scenario, I don’t think we could have done much better. I was thinking about it before, clearly I think one of our game designers said it best after Gamescom, ‘finally we’ve achieved unsustainable levels of hype’. And that can be motivating, because we have a lot to live up to. It’s fantastic to see people excited by the visuals, excited by the concept, by the trailers and then they come and play it and they walk away with a very big look on their face. They’re stricken or they’re happy or just absorbed. That, to me, feels very good. That they can queue up, play the thing and seem so mesmerised and happy afterwards.

How weird is Little Nightmares? Could it be weird enough to join our WTF collection? Grab your copy now and see what you think.

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