A Voice in the Static: Interview with the One Man Team Behind Sylvio 2

By Mark Delaney, 1 year ago
In January, I was assigned a horror game for review. I hadn't heard of it beforehand but being the biggest horror enthusiast on staff, I'm always happy to dive into another to see what it adds to the genre. This time it was Sylvio, a first-person horror adventure that uses a unique recording mechanic with which players capture electronic voice phenomena, or EVP. While the game lacked exceptional visuals and some of its other mechanics were lacking, the central elements surrounding searching for and recording EVP, combined with the eerie voice acting and atmospheric soundtrack, made Sylvio a pleasant surprise for me and for others I've spoken to that enjoy new ideas in the horror genre.

More recently, I saw the eerie trailer and gameplay footage for the sequel, Sylvio 2 which launched on Steam just a few days ago. With the game's intentions to later release on consoles, I wanted to reach out to the studio, Stroboskop, and pick their brains about designing new and unique elements for horror games. As it turns out, both games were done almost single-handedly by one person, Niklas Swanberg. In addition to that surprising fact, Niklas also touched on the game's memorable voice actress, crafting the authentic sounding EVP soundbytes, and fine-tuning the series' premise for the sequel. Check out the launch trailer below, then read on to hear from the series' one man show.

With few exceptions, Sylvio and its sequel were made only by you. This approach isn’t unseen in the indie dev community but it always sounds so daunting. Can you describe what it was like making this game virtually all alone?
Your constant enemy is time. You need to create a schedule and project roadmap, and then stick to it. If you bump into things that take too much time, you have to mercilessly ditch them and move on with another solution. That’s the good part with working alone, you can take huge, game changing decisions a couple of times a day if you want to. Thoughts are very complex, language is like a 2d version of a 3d model, it’s very hard to get your ideas across to someone else. It’s very much easier just to communicate with yourself in your own head. The bad part of working alone is the same thing, you don’t get someone else’s interpretations of ideas or visions, so sometimes it’s hard to make ideas blossom into something new.
How long did you have the idea for what became Sylvio, and did you work on other games previously?
I did some iOS-games, my first game came out in 2009 and was called Stairs, a horror game about a person built in clay walking down a never ending flight of stairs. It was always a dream of mine to create an open world horror-game, so when I discovered Unity in 2012 I realized I could do it. And after that realization there really was no turning back. The idea of Sylvio grew dynamically with building the world actually. The process was mostly like this: I created a room with a door. Why is the door locked? Am I a prisoner? Why am I a prisoner? I create the texture for the walls. They look a bit like tiles. Why are there tiles on the wall? Am I in a pool? I’m in a pool! Why is there a door in the wall of a pool? Et cetera. I was actually pretty amazed when the story was finished and everything just tied together. This is another good thing with working alone, you can create content, concept and story on the fly.
The frequent static in Sylvio probably reminds lots of genre fans of Silent Hill. Was that series a big inspiration on you as a player and a developer? Which other properties, horror games or otherwise, inspired Sylvio and its sequel?
I love many of the Silent Hill games, but I never consciously tried to make a game like them. My biggest horror inspiration has always been the work of David Lynch, I grew up with Twin Peaks and Lost Highway looping on the VCR. Inspirational horror games to Sylvio have been Alan Wake and Deadly Premonition. Horror needs to be borderline silly in my book. If it’s just dark and scary it becomes flat. You need the sprinkle of silly to make it grip your heart. Maybe silly isn’t the right word. Madness, something unexpected, an exaggerated contrast?
The crux of my review was essentially, “Sylvio is imperfect but its atmosphere and central mechanic, recording electronic voice phenomena, make for a horror game genre fans should make time for.” In what ways, if any, are the recording mechanics changing for Sylvio 2? Are you doing things this time around for which you previously lacked the resources, or is it perhaps a case of “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”?
To justify a sequel I think you need to take the concept to the next level, and the next level for sound is vision, right? So this time I wanted Juliette to be able to record movies as well. It was a challenge to get the feeling of the sound right when accompanied by a moving picture, I think I redid all the sound recordings four times before ending up with the end result. But I’m happy with it now, I think it works quite well.
The voice actress who plays the protagonist Juliette speaks in hushed tones throughout the game in a way that really lends itself to the overall quiet tension of Sylvio. The trailer for the sequel sounds like she’s reprising her role in the Sylvio 2. Where did you find her, and was it specific direction of yours to have her speak so softly or was that her idea?
This is Maia Hansson Bergqvist, a phenomenal Swedish actress currently working on Dramaten, the Stockholm City Theatre. I used to work as a composer on different theaters in Stockholm, so I know her from work and mutual friends. Right from the beginning I wanted to break away from the cliché of a scared girl in a horror game. I wanted her to be clear-minded, borderline mellow, like it’s impossible to startle her. At the same time I didn’t want her to have a tough or strong attitude. I also wanted the game to build tension in a calm way. So the soft voice makes the horror build slowly, telling us she’s a seasoned ghost recorder, but at the same time making her vulnerable to the evil powers around her.

Similarly the music is quite memorable and in general it seems one thing Sylvio consistently gets right is the sound design. How did you go about recording the EVPs? As someone with an interest in the subject for many years, I felt they sounded authentic, so much so that I wouldn’t be surprised if you borrowed them from ghost hunting websites.
That’s so cool to hear, thank you! It’s a mixture of a lot of sounds, spanning from AM-radio static, FM-radio static, walkie talkie static, theater play recordings, café recordings, interview recordings. A lot of 8-bit crunching software. It was a sound designers dream job. Very fun to do.
Meanwhile the driving and shooting mechanics both felt superfluous, at least during my time with the game. Will Sylvio 2 use these mechanics again, and if so, in what ways have they improved or changed?
I decided to focus on mood and atmosphere in Sylvio 2, so there are no chasing enemies, guns or driving. There is a ship that you travel with, but it’s all controlled by an automatic computer. You click on an 8-bit map and it takes you there.
Without spoilers, can you summarize the setup for Sylvio 2 from a story perspective. As it seems we’re again playing as Juliette, what’s she seeking in the sequel?
Juliette wakes up in the same room as in the end level of Sylvio. After walking through an underground tunnel she ends up in an apartment from the seventies, buried underground by a landslide. After finding a ghost recording equipment she manages to escape and make contact with Walter, the owner of a local boat business. She learns that her boyfriend Jonathan is looking for her, and she decides to go look for him too. She borrows Walter’s boat to travel the flooded landscapes of Saginaw Park, and heads for the coordinates written down on a post-it note stuck to the ship’s computer. She’s just looking for a way to go home. When she understands Jonathan is in the area, she wants to find him, and then go home.
There’s a stillness of the original that seems to be present in the trailer for the sequel too. That’s the sort of atmosphere a lot of horror stories ignore but when done well, as it is in Sylvio, it can be much more memorable than jump scares or gore. Did you ever, or perhaps do you still, doubt yourself when you’re designing these games that play slowly and quietly like that? Is it difficult to trust your gut when you make those design choices? It would be easier the second time around, I imagine.
That’s more or less the only kind of horror I like. The evil is always in the stillness. Everything else is just put on make up. The gut is my only trustworthy source to go to, so if I don’t trust it, I have nothing. And no, you can imagine it being easier the second time around, but it’s like I reset for every new project. I remember all the technical stuff I preciously learnt, but I have no idea of what I’m doing otherwise. Which is good I think. If I would start to do stuff because I ”know it works” it would probably be garbage.
In what ways do you feel Sylvio 2 most improves over the original?
I really liked Sylvio because of how wacky it was with all the shooting, flying orbs, endless car driving and sometimes ridiculous puzzles. Sylvio 2 has a much more solid core. It’s a cleaner concept, and it’s much easier to progress in the game. The mood is consistent and more thought-through.
Sylvio 2 just launched on Steam days ago. When can we expect it on consoles? And the original was not available in the UK, as many comments for our review pointed out. Will that change for Sylvio 2?
It’s planned to be released in 2018, but the final decisions haven’t been made. The port to consoles is a pretty big job for a small studio, and we’ll just have to wait and see how things go. My intention is to release in Europe as well, but at the moment I just don’t know.
Thanks again to Niklas for joining us as part of our horror coverage on TA all throughout October. If you're eager to play Sylvio 2 ahead of its expected console release, it's out now on Steam. Niklas did provide me with a Steam download key too, and I'll happily give it to the first person who tells me what their favorite horror story is and why they love it. Find more coverage for Sylvio 2 on the game's homepage.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is the host of the community game club TA Playlist. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his family. He almost never writes in the third person.