“We were doing Little Big Planet, Tearaway Unfolded… When you’re working inside of someone else’s idiom there’s a safety net there. And then you get the chance to do your own thing…that was a lot of angst.”
-DAVE MERVIK (SR. NARRATIVE DESIGNER ON LITTLE NIGHTMARE)
As the game designer of the group, I, Larry Charles Jr., was delighted to have a chance to interview Dave Mervik who helped bring Little Nightmares to life and ask him everything we could think of about Narrative Design for video games and his experiences in development.
So Little Nightmares, when I saw it for the first time it was very groundbreaking and visually striking, the context and the narrative elements were very enticing. How long did you guys have that cooking before going into production?
“That specific idea, maybe a year or two we’ve been slowly brewing on the kind of thing that we could do and the kind of place and what it would mean and all that sort of stuff. But if you know way way way back when the company was first created it was like 10 students. Way too ambitious, but skilled enough to fool people that they could pull it off. We went to E3 with a prototype called City of Metronome and knocked everyone’s socks off. But no one actually went to the final stage and gave them money, and the game would have been huge with 10 students.”
Ever think about revisiting that original idea then?
“We get asked that now and again, which is flattering and nice that people know it. Probably because I told that story so many times but I don’t know… I think of it like a poison chalice. It’s the reason I found Tarsier and the reason I was desperate to work for them. It had it’s time, it had its chance… But if we made it now then maybe all those people who have their idea of what it would be would be disappointed. I don’t know, when I look back at that prototype I think it was cool back then but maybe now it would need to be a different game. Or maybe that was Little Nightmares. Little Nightmares is a totally different game but it’s the same people that made it, this is where they are now, a lot darker and a bit depressed (laugh).”
What were the highs and lows of starting this game? (Little Nightmares). I’m sure there were a lot of No’s before the yes’ from Publishers?
“We were doing Little Big Planet, Tearaway Unfolded… When you’re working inside of someone else’s idiom there’s a safety net there. And then you get the chance to do your own thing, because we put a cool pitch together. But once we started putting this design doc together then you have to figure out, hang on, is this a game, where’s the game in all this. Yeah we can put great art together and put some great words and get people excited but at the end of the day there has to be a game there, that was a lot of angst. We’re getting this chance here, we have to nail it. There were a whole load of No’s at that point. We had to make sure if we’re getting this money we had to do the best we could.”
Well let’s take a moment to look back at where your career started, your brother got you a 2 week job in QA… Where did you first make your transition into game content development and what was that first role?
“I got into digital marketing by accident and realized quickly I had gone wrong. I got back in touch with an old colleague at Warthog, and started begging him like “Man I’ll make the tea, I’ll clean the toilets, I’ll do anything to get back in”. After six weeks he finally was like “Jesus man, alright!”. So I started working there on a game called Prince Caspian then moved to TT Fusion our sister company, they were making all the console games with the Lego stuff, there I started working as a designer. I worked on Lego Batman, Indiana Jones…”
How was the Lego experience? Those games are rarely top charting, but they’re always consistently good how was it working on those types of franchises?
It was amazing! I didn’t have any formal education that you could get now in terms of like game and level design. I got it the old fashioned way, you go and do QA and then you know people that put you in touch with really experienced designers who are like “Yea this is how cameras work, here is how we place objects”. And as I got the hang of different elements of level design, they gave me more and more and more. It was a really nice experience. It was a really nice way into the principles of level design and game design.
Back to Little Nightmares, you guys are really paving the way for the future of this industry, I can’t believe you all made that game with 20 people it looked AMAZING!
”I hope I’m not lying about that! I think it was like about 20 people, we weren’t many at all. I hope it goes that way, because that’s where we came from, the kind of games we want to play. I hate massive games, I’m probably the worst person to talk to, I am not interested at all and I find it so dull. A lot of the kind of stuff I enjoy about what we did on Little Nightmares, I’m like “Ah come on we have to try harder”. We wanted to go a little back to smaller teams with less money balancing on you. These are the things we know already. You see at some point someone would have taken the risk (on a small scale game or project), and then that’s where the main stream game comes from down the line, these things kind of evolve. I remember playing Tomb Raider on the playstation and it was out of this world to me. I played the latest, and it feels like not the game I knew anymore. Then you have Uncharted which ripped off Uncharted anyway, then Tomb Raider came back like “OOHH that’s interesting”. What are you doing???”
Ok let’s fast forward to when you guys release your teaser. How was that reception did you expect it?
“No, I think our Art Director was about to have a breakdown for a few seconds because EVERYTHING was riding on it. We worked so hard on it and we all knew it was our shot. We all knew once he pressed go on that video he just sat there with a bottle of scotch… ANd you started to see thousands and thousands of people watching it. You know it’ was nowhere near Sneezing Panda, and I’m a bit offended by that but we had a few hundred thousand views, and it started to show up on websites we actually heard of, so that was amazing. It was nice to go to GDC with a little bit of buzz. The first time I did an interview where people saw my face I was terrified of the comments section. But it was surreal, it was like I was scrolling down and someone wrote 1:37 Dave Mervik has no earlobes. And they felt compelled to tell the world I had no earlobes. So the flames in comments were there, but they were all mostly nice!”