We talk to Big Robot’s Jim Rossignol about The Signal From Tölva

He’s a difficult man to pin down, but we managed to secure a world exclusive interview with the project lead behind The Signal From Tölva [official site], one Jim Rossignol. After months of negotiations he agreed to speak to us, divulging thoughts and feelings about the game that will most likely kill him and all involved. Now, some people are going to say that there’s a conflict of interests here, what with Rossignol coincidentally being a director and co-founder of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, which is an outrageous accusation that impugns our integrity, wholly accurately.

John: Right, let’s get this over with. Tell me about Sir You Are Being Hunted 2. (I’m going in combative.)
Jim: I’m not going to discuss unannounced projects at this time. *folds arms* Perhaps we need my PR manager to oversee this interview.
John: Come on in, the ghost of Genghis Khan.
Jim: He conquered Asia, he knows how to market your indie game.

John: The Signal From Tolva. You couldn’t find a more difficult to remember name?
Jim: Sorry, I need to be more mindful of your failing faculties. Let’s just call it Robot Game 2. But in all seriousness: The Signal From Tölva is a VERY CLEVER name, which at some point someone will recognise, and I shall be famous. Also I know how to type ö
John: I only know how to type ø. Can you make it Tølva?
Jim: That’s very offensive, John.
John: You hate the Nords.
Jim: You’re the one messing with their circular letters. If there’s one thing they fucking hate, it’s that.

John: I’ve played it, and it’s not terrible. You get to be a robot, or indeed another robot, or that robot over there. But why, Jim? Why?
Jim: Why do you get to be a robot? Or why did we make an open-world shooter set in an alien world in which you play a remotely controlled robot on a journey into space mystery? I mean the answer to both of those questions is: because it seemed like a good idea at the time. I think that’s the main reason behind all indie game development, frankly. And I’ll be talking about it in my GDC presentation: Ideas, And How They Seem Good At The Time: A Primer.

I’ve actually been tinkering with the idea of talking more about game development once this big crunch thing is done, and I think my main lesson learned is that in a small team like Big Robot everything is a function of the skills and interests of the members of that team. So compared that to a AAA team where people are hired to perform specific roles as well as for their specific skills, when the team is smaller, you have to make do with what people are able to achieve, and what they want to actually make. I think both Sir and Tölva are direct expressions and functions of that.

The game is perhaps relatively ambitious because I really like making Tom [Betts] work hard for years at a time with no break, and he seems to be fine with that, for example. (Not sure if I am joking about that.) When we sat down to make a new game, there were some things we knew we wanted to do, and some things we knew we could do. So we tried to squash those things together with our useless, fleshy hands. The result is we made something that builds on our systems-driven robot freeform worldiness, as seen in Sir to some extent, but also it’s very pretty. That’s because we hired an artist. Lovely chap.

Sir had a tremendous atmosphere and strong theme, but the presentation and individual assets were much weaker than they might have been if we’d had the resources to do lots of lovely art. With some increased capacity in that department I think the results speak for themselves.

John: Why robots instead of humans? That’s twice now it’s been all robots where the humans are meant to go. What about this interests you?
Jim: Well we did briefly consider humans for the next thing – and I do think that humanoids, if not humans, are really important to a first-person game because it gives you a relatable sense of proportion and scale. But the answer there really ended up being in the source material: we wanted to base the game on some lovely sci-fi art. We knew we wanted a big fancy sci-fi theme, and we were lucky enough to catch the attention of tremendous Rockstar artists Ian McQue (which we’ve banged on about at length) and his robots are just beautiful. I mean they’re just about the best robots I’ve seen, and so when he offered to design them that pretty much sealed the deal. There are other reasons why that works, too: robots have a certain inhuman jerkiness to them that means we don’t have to have the world’s most technical animators to make them work. And we’ve all see how people react to badly-animated humans over the years. Also – I don’t know if you noticed this – but robots explode really well. Humans are more sort of red and wet when they break. Eugh.
John: So it’s not because you are really a robot?
Jim: Well I plan to be. But I am still made of flesh for some reason.

John: Lots of people are going to compare Tølva to Far Cry, because of its camp-clearing ways. Is that unhelpful for you?
Jim: It’s a pleasant enough comparison. I have enjoyed aspects of the Far Cry games, and it’s fun to think we can be uttered in the same breath. However I think we’re in danger of pulling a short straw in terms of being compared to big games like that because we are a handful of men in bedrooms and Ubisoft has hundreds of millions of dollars. My feeling is that while that gives people some easy context the initial similarities run out fairly quickly: Tölva is a much more chilled out FPS exploration experience than Ubi’s games, and certainly have fewer cutscenes and/or dream sequences. My influences are definitely much more Stalker and the like, rather than those games, but at the same time I recognise that stuff like icons on a map is just a really straightforward way of getting people exploring your world.
John: Tell me about the magic buildings. For reader context, these are small metal containers that when entered are a like if the TARDIS were a maze.
Jim: They were a bit of a whim at first, but they ended up being rather good at underlining the theme of spooky weirdness that runs through the game. The initial world design was “alien highlands”, which I think we achieved fairly well across the various regions of the game, but as we got further in we realised that contrasting that with some interior spaces would be fun and interesting. Initially James prototyped some obstacle-course things, so that the interior spaces would be a break from hiking and shooting, but that didn’t quite sit right with us. Eventually he began to use clever seamless portaling stuff to create impossible mazes, where you would drop down and down and appear at the top of a tower, for example. I found that thematically pleasing (not to mention consistent) because the story of Tölva is about a world that isn’t quite right, and where things are glitchy and inexplicable, in a way that disturbs even AI intelligence. And so the interiors underline that. They are strange and difficult mazes. Not puzzles as such – as we were discussing just this morning – but challenging and impossible spaces that you can explore if you want to. None of them are crucial to the game or the plot, and I like that many people won’t even see the secret in one of them.
John: Because it makes you feel superior?
Jim: Yes, basically. That’s what game development is all about.

John: You’ve been on the other side of receiving reviews now. The critic got critiqued. Has that affected how you approached development?
Jim: Yes. We’ve focused a lot more on making things accessible (by making the gamepad actually useful, for example) and in ironing out more of the rough edges that we saw in Sir. I don’t think the critiques really change much about what we make, or why, or influence design beyond tweaks and balance changes, but they definitely change how we work. We’ve been far more conscientious this time, and I think it shows in the production quality of all the things. People really care about how well a game is put together, and we’ve tried to rise to those demands. Actually, there is one thing from Sir critique that definitely influenced me a lot, which was people saying they found being hunted constantly too stressful. I don’t think that changes anything about Sir – that was the point of the game, and hence the design – but it did make me want to make Tölva a more relaxed experience. I think we’ve achieved that. It’s just a really lovely place to spend time.
John: We’re very busy over the next few months. Do you want to do the RPS review for Tõlva?
Jim: I’m not sure I can remember how. You just talk about an old girlfriend and then check if it has a FOV slider, yeah?
John: Yes Kieron.
Jim: Kieron Gillen’s blog is a cool website btw, you must really like working for it.
John: It’s a daily honour. Thanks for your time.

The Signal From Tôlva is out in April, and even has a Steam page.

Disclosure: This is beyond a conflict of interests – Jim co-owns RPS and is a director of the company, so we don’t have a hope of balanced coverage of Tòlva. It’d be ridiculous to ignore it, so we’re just embracing the farce of it all. Bear that in mind when you read any of our coverage, although when it comes to a review we’ll give it to an independent freelancer who has no relationship with Big Robot whatsoever.

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37 Comments

  1. udat says:

    Quite like the sound of this. I backed Sir after seeing a preview build at an EG Expo or similar, but I never got on with it. This sounds a bit more my speed.

  2. tikey says:

    This is the kind of journalism I expect -and love- from RPS

  3. Robert The Rebuilder says:

    although when it comes to a review we’ll give it to an independent freelancer who has no relationship with Big Robot whatsoever.

    Interesting approach. Will you allow the reviewer to post it without edits from RPS staff?

    • SuicideKing says:

      inb4 complaints about spelling and grammar and how RPS editors suck

    • Sin Vega says:

      FWIW, of the 20 or so articles I’ve done for RPS, they’ve edited a sum total of maybe a paragraph. And 90% of that was cutting out or reorganising a weak intro, or removing the bit where I kept calling Adam “a big manc tit” just to see what would happen. They’ve never changed the content of what I said, or the critical impression any reader would get.

      • April March says:

        Careful, Vega. I’ve heard that when their edits sum up to a whole paragraph, they own your soul. Or it starts aging instead of you? My point is, check out the TOS.

        • Blad the impaler says:

          So you hide the whole paragraph in your attic and stab it in a fit of remorse and terror 40 years later. No problem.

    • Premium User Badge

      John Walker says:

      We would never (and have never) change a freelancer’s views or opinion, on any game. We don’t have any agenda, and we call our reviews “Wot I Think” for a specific reason.

      Editing covers everything from fixing minor errors to asking someone to entirely re-write a piece because it’s gibberish, but it would never, ever involve changing the opinions of a piece.

      (To be abundantly honest and transparent, there are exceptions. For instance, oftentimes writers will call an aspect of a game’s development “lazy”, and that’s almost never factually accurate, and definitely never provable. We would always ask that rather than impugn the developer’s personal efforts, they instead better criticise the fault or flaw that is present in the game. I guess that might count as changing a view, but with the result that it’s better criticism, not less critical.)

      So no, while editing will be done in-house, it wouldn’t be acceptable for it to change the writer’s opinion.

      • cosmitz says:

        So how does submitting a piece work? I don’t see any easily-accesible email adress or such.

        • Premium User Badge

          John Walker says:

          Not being able to find an email address on this site is probably the first sign that someone’s not quite ready : )

          But we commission pieces, and don’t accept unsolicited submissions.

          • cosmitz says:

            A contact email catchall does not a proper submission-system make. :P But yeah, ‘not taking unsolicited submissions’ was the answer i was looking for.

  4. gunrodent says:

    Wonder what Tølva/Tölva is about then? Same as Sir but with space robots?

    I found Sir shallow. Stressful? Well yes, I died. And restarted a few times and it got tense now and then, but that stressfulness I actually liked.

    However, once completed why repeat the game? I really didn’t feel like playing a second round of Sir once the game was “done”. And that didn’t take that many days.
    I found that exploration and discovery was a key activity for my enjoyment of my first round. Then after this, the discovery bit was completely removed leaving just the mapping out the RNG islands, dealing with known challenges and threats.

    The value of exploration went down as you gathered pieces. Nothing new to see, the random bits would be put together slightly different, but they would be the same robots, buildings and thus the same challenges. All over. It felt more like a polished show case rather than a full weight game because of that.

    Would have liked a “Oh, you think you’re clever eh?” mode adding something for the players who made it through once. A reason to explore again. Seeing the same things but suddenly a layer of meaning or function is added to them.
    Jap games are brilliant at this. Wonder how this one will get about replayability, if there will be a reason to repeat the endeavour?

    • Premium User Badge

      tigerfort says:

      IMO, fiddling with (even the more basic) the custom settings added a lot of extra replay fun to “Sir”. Different types of island and changing up the mix of robots both make a fair bit of a difference to the best tactics.

      I do sort-of-agree from a slightly different angle, though; I found that I wanted-to-want-to-go-back more than I actually wanted-to-go-back. My brain really liked the setting and the style, but the game somehow came to feel routine much faster than it seemed as though it ought to.

      • gunrodent says:

        I think we had the same angle on it. I wanted to enjoy it. I did, but couldn’t bother with a second round at all. This is what I hope Tölva changes.

  5. Premium User Badge

    subdog says:

    “John: Because it makes you feel superior?
    Jim: Yes, basically. That’s what game development is all about.”

    RPS is killing it lately.

  6. Premium User Badge

    tigerfort says:

    “Ideas, And How They Seem Good At The Time: A Primer.”
    I would definitely watch that talk and/or listen to that article, especially if it was as much fun as this. (This kind of article is one of the several kinds that each individually justifies my paying for an RPS supporter package.)

    • unacom says:

      I´m with you.
      But as someone who is:
      a) slightly involved in “creative work”
      b) still relatively young (or close enough to remember)
      and
      c) married to a brewer´s daughter
      I´m confident the whole discussion will boil down to one thing – Beer.

  7. Stevostin says:

    I had bought Sir and thought it was all in the good direction although not good by itself – game mechanics were fine but there was little more to it and ultimately I wasn’t taken in it. Yet it was fairly priced and I expect Tolva to be better on every front. I am glad to read that there may be some atmosphere here.

    One thing though: vivid color effects on the robot shoot bits completely negate McQue feel, to the point that I actually missed his presence despite knowing (and admiring) his robots.

    Also you probably got me there despite robots, but it has to be stated that man shoot are cool because you shoot men. Borderland is a success mostly because you can shoot midgets and hear them scream in pain. That’s the real deal. That’s what we need.

  8. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    I wonder if the “Signal from Tolva” is the player, controlling robots.

  9. Jay Load says:

    But Jim! JIM!

    HOW MUCH GRAPHICS DOES IT HAVE???

    • frightlever says:

      Too much when it come to some of the gun effects. I really don’t like the gunplay in it.

  10. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    Between this interview and a couple of the comments on the recent article with the trailer, I’m slowly becoming more interested in this. (I was too tired to properly parse the trailer itself, and its music, though clearly fine, isn’t my bag.)

    Also, you lot give the best disclaimers I’ve seen, and these are the best yet.

  11. Rikard Peterson says:

    You’re the one messing with their circular letters. If there’s one thing they fucking hate, it’s that.

    Replacing an ö with ø is fine. (Or ä with æ, å with aa.) What gets annoying is when people change an o to an ö without changing the pronunciation, just because they think it looks cool. (I’m looking at you, metal bands.) Ö is a different letter than o. Our alphabet has three letters after Z: å, ä, and ö.

    • udat says:

      Spinal Tap being the ultimate exponents of that art :)

    • Fadaz says:

      Them’s fightin’ words to us Icelanders. Replacing the noble ö with the Danish abomination ø, particularly in a word that does not exist in other languages and is one of the most clever neologisms I have ever heard, would cause riots in the streets, looting and burning and in extreme cases pillaging.

      • Rikard Peterson says:

        Now you made me curious enough to look it up — yes, that was clever.

        • Darth Gangrel says:

          What’s so clever about it, link to en.wikipedia.org doesn’t say me anything.

          • Rikard Peterson says:

            As we were saying, there is a difference between o and ö. Try this link instead:
            link to en.wiktionary.org

          • Darth Gangrel says:

            Tölva is Icelandic for computer, now things make sense and I can go on with my life.

          • Fadaz says:

            It’s a portmanteau of the words tala and völva into tölva. Tala means number and völva is the norse equivalent to an oracle. I’d call that purdy danged clever.

          • TΛPETRVE says:

            You sure “völva” isn’t Icelandic for vulva? Considering youse also use “pönk” instead of punk, and, if my ol’ friend and former Sólstafir drummer Gummi is any indication, “fökk” instead of fuck :-P .

  12. jmags says:

    What I was to know is does Jim, after arguments with his coworkers, tell them that he has sent them, “The Signal From Told Ya!”

  13. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    Love this – Ideas, And How They Seem Good At The Time: A Primer.

    My game ideas always seem great until the amount of work required to instantiate them becomes evident. Should rebrand myself as an “Ideation Director” so that becomes a positive.

  14. c741535 says:

    I’m one of the 500 who bought keys to help with testing and I really like this game. It is a medium-chill exploration shooter with minor stealth elements, beautiful art and atmosphere, optional puzzles and replay-ability.

    FWIW I’m on my fifth play-through and it’s not cos I’m addicted to posting environment collider issues on the test forum. It’s good fun and well worth the $20 IMHO.

  15. Alien426 says:

    It doesn’t only have a Steam page, but also one on GOG.com (link to gog.com) and one on Humble (link to humblebundle.com).

  16. Ragnar says:

    This is my very favorite interview! I loved every bit of it!

    Thanks John, Jim, and RPS!

  17. Ragnar says:

    Was this interview conducted in a pub over pints?