Less than a month from Prince Of Persia’s release, Ultros is shaping up to be the number one must-play Metroidvania for 2024.
With its amazingly colourful and eccentric design, and even more mysterious setting, we couldn’t wait to learn more about Ultros, and jumped at the chance when the game’s narrative designer, Pelle Cahndlerby, was available to talk about it.
In our interview Cahndlerby goes into the creative process behind Ultros, how black holes and the mystery that resides in them helped inspire Ultros, and the importance of a garden in our long, but incredibly thoughtful conversation.
Just a housekeeping note, that I had already been playing Ultros for our coming review when this interview took place, so keep your eyes peeled for PSU’s review when it arrives.
Interview – Ultros Narrative Designer Pelle Cahndlerby Talks Black Holes And The Creative Process Behind Writing The Cosmically Colourful Metroidvania
PSU: Firstly, thank you for your time today, I know the release date for Ultros is coming soon so I’m sure you’re very busy. I really appreciate you taking the time to chat, and I’d like to start and ask if you could tell me a little about yourself and how you came to work on Ultros?
Well, thank you for wanting to have an interview with me. It’s an honour to spread the good word of the demon. And yes, as you said we’ve been very busy, we’re approaching deliverance, in all the best ways. So I’m the writer, narrative designer and poet involved with Ultros.
I have my background in writing, I’ve been writing all my life, ever since I was ‘three apples high’ as they say, and I always knew I was going to be an actor. Acting was my vision from a very young age. So I never actually strayed from this cultural path, I just kind of widened it.
The stage got a bit more digital sometimes, a bit more diffused other times. But I’m a trained actor, a musical artist, I have directed, and then I’ve also had this interest all my life for video games. So one day it was like, what if I translate some of this knowledge I have to see if I can reach people through this digital arena.
And what do you know, I’m sitting here talking to PlayStation Universe, so I must be doing something right.
I’ve worked together with Niklas [Åkerbald], El Huervo, before. We worked on SteamWorld Dig 2 when he was making the soundtrack. I also did some additional tracks but I was one of the two writers and also audio director. So we met a long time ago, after a gig he did at some gaming event, and I had him in the back of my mind for what kind of artist we would like for the music.
I sort of wrote him. We met and talked a bit about music, life in general, and all of a sudden I was sitting in his studio. There was painting, we were eating, and just talking about everything. We hit it off on a very good note, right from the start.
PSU: Well, I must be doing something right to be talking to you, is how I see it. I’ve been Ultros as much as I can since I got my review code. I feel like I’m pulling back layers of the story as I go, and I know that black holes were also a big inspiration for this game. Can you talk to me about what a black hole means to you? How that its significance kind of came about?
It’s interesting that you pick up on the black hole. I don’t think I had any questions about black holes, because, you know, the game is about colour, right? Colour and light, whereas black holes tend to keep things for themselves.
But let me just say on black holes, black holes are like karma, right? Nothing escapes them. It’s more about how they act with matter around them, and if you follow me from the karma to us, humans, we are mostly defined not by who we are but by our actions, how we interact with people.
So if black holes and karma are like adjacent in some way, and black holes are maybe the biggest mystery out there, it’s very suggestive soil for anything really. Without going too deep into stuff – sometimes it’s boring with answers, because sometimes it’s like, if I were going too deep in this direction, I’d be robbing people from some of the treats, right?
At the same time, I want to keep people curious, because there are different kinds of frustration, good and bad. So you have to humour me, I’m afraid. But mystery, I think is the key point. From the black holes to the biggest mysteries to the smallest mysteries we have.
I want people to be curious when they sit in front of Ultros. I want them to feel that spark, that curiosity that makes you want to find out. Maybe you will never grasp the whole picture, but you strive for it.
You want to see what’s behind the next bend. You want to see all the symbols around you. Maybe they mean something. What does anything mean? I don’t know, and then maybe you get this clue that takes you further.
It’s a delicate balance because if you throw too much stuff at people, they will lose track of what’s going on. They will grow tired. You have to find like, when can I drop that on you? Or when should I hide this from you? It’s a delicate circus act, we’re performing here.
A very colourful circus act. I mean, show business, whether it’s on solid ground or in space, it’s about keeping the audience at the edge of their seats, right? But you don’t want to exhaust them at the wrong occasion, and you have to give them room to breathe also.
So mystery. Yes. That’s the key to keeping the curiosity. But I really love how David Lynch is working with his vibrant moods, and he’s creating an atmosphere, right? I can’t say that I have met anyone that could say, ‘Yeah I know exactly what’s going on in this [David Lynch] movie or in this series,’ but you don’t have to.
You just have to pick up on the vibes, because what you feel, that’s the most important thing. And as long as you feel, then I’m happy. That’s my main goal here. To make someone sit in front of this creation of art and mechanics, dive in with an open mind and feel things.
Maybe think about things you haven’t thought about before or things you have thought about before. As long as you feel and think there are two wins right there.
And then I won’t run after you, after you have left the theatre. I won’t say ‘No no no, you reacted at the wrong places. You felt the wrong things.’ You felt. That was the most important thing, right? So if I can lead you along this mysterious path and just kind of observe how you react, that you react, regardless of it’s the right occasion for me, or if you’re looking at something in the game and feel, ‘this doesn’t resonate with me.’
It’s like, yeah, okay. Everything is not for everyone, but as a whole, when you leave the couch or the seat of the theatre, you feel this was interesting. Then it can lead you down other paths.
Sorry, we started with black holes and now [Laughs]
PSU: That’s okay, I understand. It was drilled into me, in my own schooling that a measure of success for an artist is that you made your audience feel something, so I agree. I’m glad you brought up the environment in Ultros, because I wanted to talk about that. What was your relationship like with the environment artists on Ultros? I’m sure so much of what I’m seeing in Ultros has a layered meaning to it. What was your dynamic with the artists, and did the environment influence the narrative or vice-versa? Or was each side influencing the other all the time?
Everything has been like, crashing into each other all the time. But it’s important, as you say, when you have such a rich environment, you have this artistic soil that is El Huervo, right? Then you have to be humble as a writer and also see where that takes you.
Because when you’re talking not only about writing, but also narrative design, then it’s also for me to say, how will the audience benefit in the best possible way in this scene, or this room?
Is it about me throwing words at them? I don’t think so in this room, maybe the backdrop and the music should set the tone for what they’re supposed to feel here. And then as a writer, you find yourself more and more editing yourself instead of throwing more words into the machine.
It’s about seeing, as you say, peeling off layers. That also goes for creating stuff. You start out big and then you can like, take it down in intensity. So you have to start out, ambitiously, and you should, at the beginning of creation.
I don’t think anyone should make compromises because compromises, they just mean that no one gets what they want. Compromises are for the last 10% of you creating something when you have to tie everything together.
But before that, you should have your vision, because the vision is what’s going to steer you through the murky waters, right? When you lose sight of everything else, you can still see the light somewhere in front of you and know that, ‘oh yeah, why was I doing this in the first place? Oh yeah, I had an idea. I wanted to make someone feel something.’
Or I wanted to show them all these colours, or I just wanted to say this because it’d been gnawing at the back of my mind for 20 years. And then you meet El Huervo’s art, and then you say, ‘Ah! Maybe I can tell these things by also stepping back. Maybe I can tell these things, collaborating and giving space to these other creators that I’m co-creating this work with.
So you have to respect each other and listen to each other. But I can never then overstep the boundaries of claiming ownership of his area of expertise, because he is in charge of the art and I am the words. Oscar Rydelius, he’s the music.
So even if we collaborate, I have to respect their authority in their areas. Just as I want people to respect that, hey, I’m the pretentious poet, right? [Laughs]. Let me do my magical thing and we’ll all get out of here happy as a daisy.
Then also as I said sometimes you have to see that for the players, and the overall feeling of this area not to make it too crowded. Let them stay there and listen to the music. The music carries everything, here.
It is hauntingly beautiful and melancholic. So don’t disturb that, let them get that vibe with it, and then they come into the next room and see this art piece. Then my work there is done. Then my work is saying no to myself, don’t do anything.
And then it’s the other way around, sometimes my lines of poetry could be inspirational for Niklas, for El Huervo, to say ‘this is so beautiful that I would like to give it some room.’
Or have a room where you can really read this or paint something that was inspired from it. So it’s a door that goes both ways. It’s just about knowing when to like, elevate one thing over the other, really.
Same with the mechanics that Mårten Brüggemann, the game design director. Feeling the character, sometimes it’s also about leaving the player with a character to like, acquaint themselves, you know? And that could also be done through tutorials, of course, that need texxt.
But then it’s like a different kind of text. Then sometimes it has to be explanatory, or UI. Then you can’t be suggestive or mysterious. It’s like press this, this happens. But then it’s also about giving the players a chance to fall in love with the characters, just also about feeling them out.
Not only by their speech or their interactions, but also to feel that it’s a smooth movement here, and it feels heavy in a nice way when I jump and things like that. Everything is important.
It’s like a big stew and you can’t really take some of the ingredients out and feel like, ‘yeah, but you know it’s still stew.’ Yes but no. It’s complicated, art is complicated. Game design is complicated.
And when they meet, you have to prioritize. It’s like giving birth to a demon, but it’s also very rewarding when you see it come together. Just like when you’re rehearsing for a play or something, right? You hate each other sometimes. It’s like, ‘I never want to work with these people again,’ or ‘this will be terrible.’
Then you perform, and then someone in the audience says that this was the best show you have done so far. It’s like, ‘are you serious?’ But the process and the result, they don’t have to match the feeling you carry when you do them, right?
So the music carries a narrative, the art carries a narrative. Niklas and Oscar, the composer Ratvader, they have really twinned their minds when it comes to looking at it and listening to it at the same time. So then it’s also something that when those things were vibing so much from the start, then it’s also about ‘okay, I want to elevate this.’
Sometimes I come in and do a poetical, a guest play, like through the dialogue or through a vision or through descriptions. I love descriptions for items, because some people don’t read, you know, they click away everything.
But sometimes you have to go back into your inventory and read about stuff, and that’s the perfect part where a poet, a pretentious poet can put some lines in. So when they get to the bottom and read the line and is like ‘I don’t get it.’ But then they read it.
Maybe it resonates with them further on, right? So you have to be smart to sprinkle your words where you know that if you really want someone to read this, choose your battleground, choose your place. If it’s more about the overall ambience, then it’s okay if people skip it, because they will get it through the music, through the art, through the vibes of the mechanics.
And sometimes, believe it or not, poetry has a place in the room. It really has. Even in a space uterus drifting through all the colours of the cosmos.
PSU: I’m glad you brought up the item descriptions, because I was going to ask you directly about those. I’ve been reading all of them and love how you describe each of the fruits or anything you can pick up that your character can eat. Did you ever try to eat foods that were weird or new to you, to have that personal memory to call on when you were trying to write how these alien foods tasted? I remember for this fruit called a Mushi Berry, you wrote that eating it feels like “biting into a cloud,” that’s just one I really liked off the top of my head.
I mean, as you know when you create or when you go into a character, when you start to build something from scratch, research is everything, right? I would like to think I have kind of a black belt in research, because when I worked on the SteamWorld series, I wrote like over 300 hat descriptions, weapon descriptions, utility descriptions.
But I had to do them justice, I couldn’t just like, make up everything about hats. I also wanted to have some accuracy, even if there are hats that are out of this world. I let a hatter read about what I had done and asked, ‘Do you have anything really to say about this?’
And they were reading and reading and saying, ‘You have some nice terminology you get quite right here, and yeah I think you have done a good job.’ And that was way back.
Now, because it’s so very much about, as you say, how things taste and botanics. So botanics and neuroscience are my two newest black belts, but I’m sure they’ll be gone from my head after the release. But you know, right now I’m really into it.
So then it’s about finding not only what things taste like, but also the right feel for a description of a husk, because it can be so different from seed to plant to fruit. Is it a cluster growing fruit, is it a people fruit, there are so many things. So first you feed yourself with all these things, with all the terminology and all the images.
And then as you say, you also taste stuff. I have tasted things just to see, like, I can’t eat this. This is edible, someone said, but no, not really. I can’t get it off my tongue, but it also helps you maybe when you write.
If you read everything, then you’ve seen I always have a quote at the bottom, and that’s where you can pick those references from. Like the mood of the berry or what would this fruit say if it had an internal monologue, right?
I think, just as with all the creating business there is, keep an open mind and it will come to you. So if you have fed yourself everything, eventually it has to come out. And I have eaten so many pop culture references throughout my days. Everything from Dallas to Nietzsche.
You can’t really censor yourself with your intake, it doesn’t make sense if you want to create stuff, because you have to have references, and you have to be able to say you know what it feels like to put your hand on a hot stove, because you’ve done it. I’ve done it, I can talk about that.
But if I haven’t done it, I can’t find the essence of it, right?
PSU: I know what you mean. Speaking of finding the essence, what would you say was your biggest block when it came to writing the story for Ultros? What was the thing you wrestled with the most?
Sleep. [Laughs]. I am very creative from midnight to three o’clock in the morning. It’s a blessing and a curse. And when you had too many of those [nights], things kind of blend together. I mean, I merged with the demon way back, right? When alpha waves were weak, but they existed.
Now I, we, have transcended above sleep. So I tell myself that because I don’t want to dissolve in the static between stations but sleep is really like, the main thing for me as a struggling writer to overcome.
Creatively it has been just to keep an open mind, to remind myself to be open just as I want the audience to be, right? I can never expect the audience to be open if I’m not open, because it shows. And then I would just be another pretentious a**hole, and there are so many of those, right? [Laughs]
But really, when you find the blockings and you are in such a creative atmosphere, you have everything around you. I can go to Niklas and sit in his studio and look at stuff, or I could listen to Oscar’s music or just talk about something else to like float out in space for a while.
When you have this smorgasbord of colours in front of you, I think it’s also about daring to seek inspiration outside of your own area. I mean, when people ask me sometimes ‘How do I get into the gaming industry as a writer?’ or ‘What is your advice for people that want to work with games?’
Then I always say, work with something else first. Find other references. Be a butcher, work in a stable, wait tables. I mean, when you have everything from the outside world and come into the bubble that is the gaming community, and you sit their with 50 white guys looking the same, having done the same stuff and everything.
It’s like, ‘Yeah, this is not very creative, is it?’ It’s a shock, it’s like getting a cold water splash in your face. I came here and thought the gaming industry was so creative and so open and so wide, and it’s like yeah, it can be.
But then you have to have something with you, you have to bring your own gifts. You have to find your tools in the outside world. Fall in love, be dumped, cry your heart out, go to Paris. Eat strange food, wear colourful pants.
Whatever you want to do, just don’t go to the same schools as everyone else has done. Don’t follow the A to B, ‘this is how I am when I’m a game developer.’ Find your own path, because that’s what makes you interesting. Your stories make you interesting, not that you share the stories with the other 50 guys waiting to do the interview, right?
So it’s the same thing I feel when I get stuck in my work. You have so many things around you, you don’t have to stand here and bang your head against this wall. There are 50,000 walls around you. Choose another.
So…that and sleep.[Laughs]
PSU: What’s the significance of a garden to you? What does a garden symbolize for you? Both within the game’s narrative, and for yourself?
Staying grounded, I think. To going back to the primal basis of actually getting your hands dirty and feeling things, because we work in abstractions. Hey, I’m delivering a demon.
So when you have plants at home or anything, just to feel the leaves or the stems, it’s life. You’re feeling life, and it’s easy sometimes, when in an environment of so much plastic and glass and whatnots, to actually, just like I want people to do in the game, stop and listen to music.
I also want to be better at just staring at clouds or letting my feet touch the grass because I am a part of that. We are a part of that, and it’s easy to forget, the relationship between humans and nature. We can’t put ourselves at the sideline because we’re part of nature.
So tending to plants, tending to planets, tending to ourselves, it’s tending to each other. So if I can get myself to, or if I can remind myself to take care of plants, then I can also remind myself to take care of myself, because that is so easy to forget.
After this, I really need to rest, like, mentally and look after my physical health [laughs] because sometimes, when, you know, you’re on a writing streak or something, you don’t leave the apartment. Or you don’t for reasons like a pandemic, and stuff, but otherwise too.
You forget, as I said before, there are 50,000 other walls to bang your head against. But it’s important to acknowledge that I am a physical being, I have to tend to myself just as I would tend to a plant.
If I can take care of a plant better than myself, that’s a sign of something, right? So by getting my hands dirty and taking care of a plant, I can also remind myself that I am a living organism that needs to be nurtured. We need to nurture ourselves.
Right now, mental health is everywhere. It’s an issue that many people still have a hard time talking about, because it’s a stigma around, ‘yeah I don’t want to tell people that I’m not feeling well, because then they’ll think that I’m crazy.’
Hey, people already think I’m crazy. I’m in the cosmos with all the colours of space and fruits and demons. I can say that I have had struggles with like, when you feel you don’t have any more energy mentally, and sometimes everything just spins too fast and you’re working harder thinking that it will go away.
But we have to make sure to rest, to stop for a while after every big endeavor we’ve had. Not only to analyze the situation, what we’ve been through and things, but also to let the body breathe, to let our minds breathe, it’s very important.
PSU: Is that then part of what you feel is the significance of gardens in the game? Because whenever I plant a seed in the game, I know it’s going to be there on my next loop, and it feels like this is a moment to understand or I guess reflect on the cycle of life, how you’re planting a seed and something is going to grow from it. Is that part of the narrative significance for gardens in the game? Am I on the right track?
If you find that is one part of the mystery for you, or if that is one part of your journey, then yes. But I do acknowledge that we would all benefit from taking care of plants, mentally.
PSU: So much of the focus on Ultros is on natural phenomenon and nature, I wanted to then, looking outside of nature, ask you what your thoughts are on generative AI in game development. Do you think it has a place? Does its use concern you?
I will always choose to build my dreams and bounce ideas off a curious mind that has lived, loved, and laughed rather than dig through the algorithmic waste of a soulless centrifuge.
PSU: I love that answer. Lastly, what was your favourite part to work on for Ultros? What was your favourite thing to write?
There’s been so, so many. Things are interesting in different ways, of course, because when you find a voice for a character, that’s interesting. When you find a poetic way to do stuff, that’s interesting.
But there’s one character that I had to like, invent alien words for, to put them into sentences to give a feeling that it’s from a totally different place than the others. And that was very interesting because I wanted the words to actually have some bearing in reality.
So I have a few languages mixed up in words where I know exactly what the word means, and I see the logic behind it. It was fun to dive into, because what is fairy tale and what is reality, right? Reality can be so much more than we think.
And sometimes when you invent something that has a bearing in what people call reality, that can also be a bit of a magical situation. So it was very nice intellectually and creatively to work on those parts to feel like, yeah this is artistic, but some people would also say you’re really smart. [Laughs].
PSU: Thank you for your time today, Pelle, I truly appreciate it and it was wonderful to talk to you.
Ultros will be available on PS5, PS4 and PC on February 13, 2024.
A sincere thank you to Pelle Cahndlerby for his time and his thoughtful and vulnerable answers. A special thanks as well to Colby Tortorici and Tinsley PR for their work to help make this interview possible.