"It's somewhere between a beaver and a rat."
Of all the things I thought I'd learn from solo game maker Tomas Sala, the existence of muskrats wasn't one of them. They're real! They're like oversized rats but with big webbed back feet for swimming through your nightmares with. And where Sala lives, near Amsterdam, they're a big problem. They gnaw into and burrow in dams, weakening the structure, until one day, crrrrreeeaaaaack, the whole thing comes crashing down. Let them have their way and what would be left - Amster?
They're what's known as an invasive species, and it's why, in the wood I can see in the window behind Tomas Sala - which I only really comment on to make polite conversation - I discover they have a headquarters for a task force which canoes out and catches, and cages, the muskrats before the rodents wreck everything. And so in five minutes of talking to Sala I realise two things. One, he has something interesting to say about almost everything. And two, everything he says unerringly manages to be about his game The Falconeer, which unerringly always manages to be about him.
The Falconeer is a game about war, you see. There's the obvious warring between rival factions of the archipelago, but there's also the sense of a bigger war between people and the world. Ursee, as it is called, is not a hospitable place. And no matter what you do, in the name of whichever faction you are flying your giant falcon for, the world always seems to be trying to repel you, through storms in the sky, giant creatures from the deep, or a hungry mass of water waiting to pull you in.
The only real question is, are you muskrat or human, invasive species or protector? Or have I got that the wrong way around?
Sala laughs. He laughs a lot. For all he looks fearsome in that one portrait that circulates of him online, the one with the scowl and the wild, curly hair, he's actually jovial and gentle face to face. Of course coming up with The Falconeer wasn't as simple as seeing a muskrat and making a game. Maybe the rodents didn't influence him at all. But, as I come to learn about Sala, it's impossible to ever rule anything out, because The Falconeer is anything and everything in his life.
The Falconeer story really begins several years ago, at a turbulent time in Sala's life when he was making a game called Oberon's Court. It was a real-time strategy game, a dark game, which cast you as Oberon, lord of the Underworld, who must campaign through Purgatory, building a shadowy army by feeding on lost souls.
It was Sala's first big attempt at making a game on his own, though he'd been making games as part of a team for years. He and his brother created a studio called Little Chicken Game Game Company after graduating in 2001, and plied a trade making anything and everything: mobile games, VR games, games about theatre, games selling beer, and cars. It worked in the sense they had 30 employees working for them at one point, but it didn't work in the sense Sala hated it. He hated being the boss, and he wouldn't realise why until later.
"It was putting demands [on me] I am not capable of delivering," he tells me. "I'm not a great boss, or very organised, and things started to go south quite badly." He'd shoo people away who were asking what to do. "'I don't know, I'm working,'" he'd tell them. "I'm focused on this. Go sort yourself out. I'll be with you tomorrow.' And it just turns into a clusterfuck of people getting frustrated and you not delivering your best work."
As an escape, he built a mod for Skyrim called Moonpath to Elsweyr, which marks the real beginning of his solo development journey. It was just a bit of fun for him, a tropical getaway for his mind, but the more people played it, the more they encouraged and supported him, and momentum grew. They even offered to voice act. "It careened into something really positive and nice," he says. Today, Moonpath to Elsweyr is considered one of the best Skyrim mods around.
But in the background, pressure was mounting. There was pressure from work and there was pressure from home, as a relationship suddenly and dramatically unravelled, and the life Sala had built for himself, the identity he'd assumed - the person he thought he was - all appeared to come tumbling down. "So that set me careening down to the point I was, you know, a reed on the couch just sleeping and shivering. [...] And then you have to sort of rebuild and investigate how the fuck did I get to that situation?"
He made some important discoveries in the time that followed. The one that really changed his life was realising how his mind worked. It was restless, energetic, and needed to concentrate fiercely when it fired. It was more chaotic than the minds around him, hence him finding it difficult to work with them. His therapist saw it immediately: ADHD. "And you go, 'Oh fuck. Okay, so not everybody works like this.' So you start to understand a little bit because all the bricks are down anyway. So you've got to just grab, pick them up and sort of analyse what's happened."
As he rebuilt, he built Oberon's Court, and he went a long way with it. You can see this yourself in the gameplay video. It both looked good and had some good ideas. I particularly like the idea surrounding saving souls, something you would naturally want to do. But if you did, it would turn your unit into a useless fluffy sheep instead of a powerful shadowy fighter. It was more beneficial to keep them enslaved to you. It was a dark game. You controlled the forces of darkness, fed on people's souls. And your mission? Groom someone to replace you as lord of the Underworld. Think about that in relation to Sala's life as being a reluctant boss of a company: similar, isn't it?
But Sala didn't see it. He didn't realise that his work reflected him, not yet. It wasn't until his new partner, now the mother of his children - an artist, a ceramicist, someone used to seeing meaning in things - said something to him that the penny dropped. She saw him working on a fox character constricted by a snake (an image that's now in The Falconeer, incidentally, carved into the stone of the Mancer base) and said: "Well, that's you right, that you are being squeezed?"
"I remember," Sala says. "It's as clear as seeing my kids being born. I sat there in my shitty office chair, in my living room, at the same table as this. I remember just going 'No, no, no. Okay you clearly don't understand video games. This is nothing. Video games don't deal with any of this. It's just cool.' And she looks at me with a look, and I go [his eyes open wide]. It's literally [mimics his mind exploding]. It's literally that. It's that sense of how blind have I been? How blindingly obvious is this?"
It made him look at Oberon's Court in a different way, and when he did, he saw all the pain weaved into it. "It was so fucking dark," he says. "And it reminded me so much of that period, that relationship, the struggles, and I was still partially in it. I couldn't touch it any more."
That's when The Falconeer was born. Like Sala, it rose and flew away from the ashes of Oberon's Court, though not entirely. The mythology of the world carried across, minus some of the death, and a lot of the art was salvaged. The whale you can see in the Oberon's Court video: it's the same whale you see rearing up in The Falconeer. "Why not reuse it?" he says. Though you can't go inside the whale and eat its heart like you could in Oberon's Court. Not yet, anyway.
The Falconeer was a realisation for Sala, an understanding that, "Ah, fuck, if I just start making stuff, it's always about me." And rather than try to prevent that, or affect that, he surrendered to it. That's why The Falconeer made a deep impression on me. Aside from the fact it's an incredible achievement for one person, it's how much of that person you can see in the game. How much of their mood you can feel, how much of their way of thinking you can glean from the things around you. What does that brooding sea mean down there, threatening to pull you under? What do those tortured landscapes represent, those spindly buildings on precarious foundations? And why is there such sadness to the world, to the mythology? What does it mean?
I know the answers now, because I asked, but I wish I didn't. It should have been enough for me to know there was meaning, not to seek it explicitly out. Because to lay it bare was to dispel the mystery. The power of a piece comes from our interpretation of it. That's how we lodge it down deep within us, from judging it through our experiences and seeing the parallels there. For someone to spell it out takes those meanings, our meanings, away from us.
Imagine sharing a game like that with the world. How could you not take it personally if someone didn't like it? It's you, your world, your life, and you're the only person who made it. Unsurprisingly, Sala didn't enjoy it. "Launching a game is horrible," he says, "because people have an opinion on what you made, which is an opinion about some inner-world you bring, something you've created yourself from your own frustration. That's scary and it's painful and it's a horrible process. "But then again," he adds, "you made it so other people could play it, so there's this [dichotomy]."
Particularly, it was the hostility he didn't enjoy. He knew where some of the issues were. He knew there was an issue with the artificial intelligence, but he got Covid a week before the press build and couldn't get out of bed to fix it. And because he's the only person making the game, he had to take the hit.
"It's brutal," he says. But the real problem was how much noise there was, how many opinions there were. "It's easier if everybody said 'it's shit' or everybody said 'it's fantastic'." And while a good review might give him a buzz for a day, a bad one would stick around for a week. "And now imagine there's dozens of those..." he says.
His reaction was to work. It's his defence mechanism, and he knows it's not a healthy one, but he worked through December, fixing and adding content that didn't quite make it, and he's still going now, though he's eased up a bit. (There's a suggestion of some big content coming this year, and maybe even non-Xbox versions of the game, possibly for PlayStation, possibly for Switch. I wasn't allowed to know, which always bodes well.) Crucially, time passed, and in doing so, the noise dimmed, and now Sala has finally settled into something like appreciation for his work, a feeling I'm sure will only grow in time.
He can begin to appreciate the things that really matter. "Definitely if you talk a little bit about how hard it is to launch," he says, "the love and attention you get from gamers, or the responses, does offset that. I get messages and PMs from gamers to thank me for what they've made. I've had discussions on Twitter on mental health based off the game because people do sort of resonate with what it's trying to say, with the subconscious vibe of the game, what it's about, about being stuck and stuff. And once people discover that, they really connect with the game."
And who knows what effect the recent Game Pass release will have? If only a segment of the huge Game Pass audience resonates with The Falconeer, that will be worth it for Sala. And it may also help the game reach an audience large enough to warrant more Falconeer in the future, because that's what Sala would really like to do, make a sequel. Maybe, he says, he'd even work with a small team.
This isn't, then, a story of incredible sales success. Sala is not an overnight indie sensation. But does he need to be? Sala has done enough, through publisher deals, through Game Pass deals, to set himself up so he can continue making games for a few years to come. More importantly, he's left behind a way of working that wasn't serving him. His story is, inevitably, the story of The Falconeer: a story of transformation and escape.
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