Developer Interview: Polygon Treehouse

The storied actors behind Polygon Treehouse took so naturally to the indie stage this summer that their debut title won a nomination from The Game Awards. In a year characterized by chilling chaos, Polygon Treehouse released Röki, a frosty tale with a core of sincere, lingering warmth. Since its launch in July, Röki has been like a steaming mug of cocoa for the world’s freezing hands. Alex Kanaris-Sotiriou, co-director of Polygon Treehouse, kindly indulged us with answers to a myriad of questions about the Cambridge studio, their bewitching Rökiand the journey ahead.

Polygon Treehouse Logo

|| What drove Tom Jones and Alex Kanaris-Sotiriou together to found Polygon Treehouse? We understand that both Tom and Alex were key figures at Gorilla Games before turning to the indie scene. Was this a natural transition for both? Were there shared core principles that made close collaboration possible? Why the name “Polygon Treehouse”?

Tom and I were both Art Directors at Sony’s Guerrilla Cambridge studio before its closure in early 2017. We had a choice to make when we found out the news; either carry on down that path and go into other large development studios to continue in similar Art Director roles, or to try something different. As we’d both been at PlayStation for over 14 years our thoughts aligned and we decided to ‘go indie’, founded Polygon Treehouse and started our indie game development adventure within a few months.

The name ‘Polygon Treehouse’ has its roots in the combination of technology (‘polygons’, the tools of our trade being 3D artists) and play (‘treehouse’). We liked the meeting of these two elements and thought they were evocative of our new direction in making playful, non-violent games….we also thought it just sounded cool, which is ultimately more important!

|| Is Röki’s focus on folklore a one-off for Polygon Treehouse’s planned projects, or can more in the same vein be expected in the future? Röki, your debut title, lives in the frosty fairy tale of Scandinavian storytelling. Should fans be boarding the hype train for more chilly folklore, or will the studio be looking to tell other stories in other ways?

For Röki, Scandinavian folklore was definitely the spark that settled us on the initial setting and world for the game, and folklore in general is something that we do find fascinating. There is something about ancient tales, told for generations, that feel powerful both in their age but also how they still resonate today. There is something we find really intriguing about the folklore of the different regions of the world, their commonalities and their differences, but whether they will be the spark for our next game that would be telling.

|| How did working with Nordic-language expert Kari Kinn influence or inspire the world of Röki? Elsewhere you’ve stated that Kinn’s role was to make sure things are as “authentic as possible” for this Scandinavian-based, UK-developed tale. Was there lore or terminology that changed or evolved with the knowledge that she brought to the table?

Definitely. We did a lot of research and gobbled up as many folktales of the region as we could, but the world of Röki is very much our own creation and take of that mythos, inspired by the folktales rather than tied to them directly. We wanted to assemble a cast of characters to tell our specific story, that of Tove, Lars and Henrik (and the beast Röki) that felt as if the player had stepped into an ancient world that had existed for a long time, even if it was our re-imagining of it. To that end working with Kari was a great opportunity to make sure our creations chimed true and that their terminology was sound and evocative of the original tales that inspired them.

|| Are there any true “monsters” in Röki? Throughout its narrative, Röki probes the question of what a “monster” is. While many characters find themselves stuck with the label, in your eyes, do any of them actually fit the bill? Why? If none of them do, why not?

We’d say not. Even the ‘villain’ of the story has their own reason and motivations for their actions, no matter how misguided, that I think they still have redeeming qualities. Not only do they still care but in fact love is at the root of their actions, even if those actions are pretty dark. On a lighter note we really liked the idea of ‘Monsters’ being very human, having human problems, wants and doubts. It’s actually when you look behind their appearance and put aside your preconceptions (as Tove does in the game) then you might find you have more in common with the creepy creatures than you initially thought! Ultimately we wanted to make a non-violent game with kindness at its core. Making friends with misunderstood monsters felt like a nice place to start. 

|| Which Röki background story do you find the most compelling? Röki’s narrative is a hallway of doors we’re itching to open. From Rörka’s lover to the state of the male trolls, many more hours could be spent exploring the universe’s deep lore. Which door would you find yourselves unable to leave shut, given the opportunity to open it?

I think sometimes the implied is more powerful than the explicit. The fact that many of the characters in the game clearly have wider ranging stories than are told in Röki’s playtime lends the game a certain ‘epicness’ (we hope) and those individual stories may lose some of their magic if dragged into too bright a light. Saying that, I really like the Trollsisters we created for the game. I imagine the snapshot we see of their epic existence is a mere glimpse of their long lives and adventures. They also have great wobbly noses which probably deserve a spin-off game all of their own!

|| How has being nominated at The Game Awards impacted your studio? Röki was nominated for Best Debut Indie Game at The Game Awards for 2020. What was it like to receive this well-deserved nomination? Has anything changed for Polygon Treehouse or Röki since?

Well firstly it was a massive surprise! We weren’t watching the nominations being announced as we didn’t even entertain the possibility that we might be in the running for any awards. It was quite a shock when we received word of our nomination for ‘Best Debut Game’ from friends who were following the announcements more closely. So all in all it was quite a surreal experience, but a very welcome one. In terms of what it means for the studio and our future I think it gives us a great deal of confidence in our craft in interactive narrative and has certainly shone a massive spotlight on Röki, our tiny studio and our future output.

|| You’ve been given an unlimited budget to make a game featuring the outcasts from one of your favorite titles. What game and which outcasts do you choose, and why? Elsewhere you’ve mentioned an interest in the figures that are normally left in the shadows, hence the focus on lesser-known creatures from folklore in Röki. Who else would you bring into the limelight?

That’s a tough one! I think given a free pick and unlimited budget it’d be great to create some spin-off games centering around some of the secondary characters from Lucasarts’ famous Monkey Island series. Certainly looking at the life of Governor Elaine Marley or Carla the Swordmaster outside of Guybrush’s blundering antics would certainly be appealing and it’d be a lot of fun to step into a much-loved world and explore it creatively.