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Meet the Developer Behind ‘Hunger’, Tarsier Studios

Protagonist Six explores the world of Hunger

From Swedish developer Tarsier Studios, known for their work on Little Big Planet PS Vita, comes Hunger, an unsettling “adventure-suspense” that follows a young girl as she explores a grotesque and nightmarish world.

But first, here’s a little more on the people behind the scenes.

Founded in 2004 as Team Tarsier, the independent studio have since grown to employ 45 staff. Narrative designer Dave Mervik is one of them. His job is to keep Hunger’s striking and stylish world in-check, making sure lore permeates every aspect of the game.

“I initially thought it was just a fancy way of saying that I’m a writer,” he says. “As the role has kind of taken shape, it’s about making sure the story breathes through everything. It’s very collaborative. I go through the art and through the audio design, making sure there’s a coherent narrative voice. You have to pay attention to this stuff, because even though it might look like it doesn’t matter, when it’s done badly, it matters,” he laughs.

Mervik’s a veteran of Northern England’s game development scene, but never had serious plans to enter the industry.

“It was a total mistake actually,” he explains. “I finished a Master’s degree in English and Creative Writing in about 2001, then came out and realised I couldn’t really get a job. If I didn’t want to be a teacher, then I didn’t know what else to do, so I kind of panicked.

“My brother had been working for a company called DID (Epic, TFX, Wargasm), in Warrington, then moved over to Warthog [Games] (Star Trek: Invasion, Rally Championship Xtreme) in Cheadle. So I just asked him, because I wasn’t doing anything, ‘Is there any work experience I could get in the meantime?’ I started there as a QA, which was supposed to be for about two weeks, and that went on to be three and half years.

“It was around that time when you could still do it that way,” he adds.

A boat approaches The Maw

Tarsier’s current project, Hunger, is set in The Maw. A bleak and grimy world choked with soot

“That was the first time I came to Sweden as well,” Mervik continues. “I was sent over to work on a game called Richard Burns Rally in Helsingborg. Then I had a little hiatus down in Brighton, before I got back into it working for Traveller’s Tales (Toy Story 2: Buzz Lightyear to the Rescue, Crash Bandicoot: Wrath of Cortex, Every LEGO game ever) back up Manchester way, so I can’t really stay away from Manchester for too long.”

“I was with Traveller’s as a designer for about another three and half years, and then my wife, who I’d met when I was over in Helsingborg all those years back, wanted to move back to Sweden. I didn’t really know what I was going to do because I thought, ‘well I’m never going to get this kind of job over there’. But, I found Tarsier. I don’t really know how, I think I was just looking for places in Malmö. It was the first time I’d ever heard of them, and the first time I’d ever seen [their game] City of Metronome, but I just had to work for them; it was the weirdest feeling. They said they couldn’t promise me anything, but the opportunity came up.”

Recently, Tarsier have been frequent partners with Media Molecule, producing content for both Little Big Planet and Tearaway Unfolded. Then in 2012, they got their own crack at the franchise, producing the well-received Little Big Planet PS Vita.

“The buzz that came from [City of Metronome] in 2005, I think, started the relationship with Media Molecule,” explains Mervik. “It started off with costumes, DLC for LBP one, the same for LBP two, a lot of the DLC packs, the backgrounds and such. When they wanted to move away, they were discussing who could take [LBP] Vita on, and that’s where our name came up because we had such a long-standing relationship with them, we understood what the game was all about.”

“It was a dream for me, because that was still undisclosed when I came over here,” he adds. “Even though I wanted to join because of City of Metronome, I was a huge LBP fan, so you just start to think, ‘this can’t be real, no one’s this lucky, surely’.”

Sackboy smiles through a strongman photo-board

A tonal shift to say the least.

City of Metronome comes up in just about every conversation about Tarsier. Much like Hunger, Metronome was a 3rd person adventure, steeped in atmosphere and lore. Despite turning heads at E3 in 2005, it never found a publisher, and sadly stays a good idea to this day.

“It’s this legendary story that you always tell whenever anyone asks, ‘It was amazing, and it went to E3 and everyone loved it’. But it never got made. It was just one of those, ‘Yes! No.’ moments,” Mervik laughs.

“It brought so many people here,” he continues. “If nothing else, it was great for that.

“It was very much a calling card, so if people came here to work on that, then they were already kind of in-tune with what Tarsier’s all about.

“That’s what’s carried over into Hunger really. It’s the kind of game you want to make. Something that’s got a bit more to it, a bit more depth, something different. Not a cookie-cutter kind of game. For me, even though Metronome never got the chance to evolve into an entire world, I think Hunger has taken that and amped it up, distilling what was fantastic about that world and the characters. We don’t need to mourn the death of Metronome much longer.”

Still committed to independent game development, Tarsier have received backing from the Nordic Game Fund and the EU’s Creative Europe programme, totalling over €200,000 to date. Access to funding schemes like this has, in part, led to a thriving development community in Sweden, which produces a myriad of high-profile triple-A and indie games; ranging from MachineGames’ Wolfenstein: The New Order to Minecraft and Coffee Stain Studios’ Goat Simulator.

“Way back before we heard about the two grants we thought, ‘this can’t happen. You don’t get to make this kind of game unless you’ve already been very successful and have spare money’. Which people generally don’t,” says Mervik.

“You can’t help but feel hopeless,” he adds. “But we thought we might as well have a go, because you’ve got nothing to lose. For Creative Europe the application had to be a 20-page design document, and at that early stage it’d been brewing in our minds, but we had to condense it down. We just poured our heart-and-soul into those applications and it was a good few months until we heard anything back; and we got it. It’s made what we’ve done up to now possible, there’s no two ways about it.”

Six tries to open a high door by swinging from a doorknob

Hunger is the culmination of all the lessons Tarsier’s learnt from LBP and City of Metronome, becoming an interesting mix of the two.

“There’s so many cool companies coming through now,” Mervik explains. “If you go to the Nordic Game Conference, there’s loads of really interesting, ambitious companies starting up, and they have the funds.

“There’s a company called Simogo based here in Malmö who do really cool, interesting stuff. Device 6, is like a text-based adventure where the text is part of the gameplay, so you move it around searching for clues. It’s really cool. They’re two guys. To even have that kind of stuff in the same city, is amazing. It feels like a really healthy environment over in Sweden and I think in the Nordics generally. They really offer to support people who want to do something different, which is great; that’s how things get better.”

Come back tomorrow for more on Tarsier’s current project, Hunger.

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