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Hyper Games' mission to bring Moomins to the masses

Are Sundnes on adapting Tove Jansson's beloved creation, navigating game tropes with unconventional characters, and Snufkin: Melody of Moominvalley's Zelda inspirations

There’s only two types of people in the world. Those who couldn't imagine growing up without being aware of Tove Jansson’s Moomin series, among the very best of children's literature, and those who have no idea who Tove Jansson even is.

Describing Jansson’s universe to someone who’s never read anything from the renowned Finnish author and artist feels like a difficult task. It’s poetry, it’s melancholy, it's queerness, sometimes it’s darkness and fear — but it’s also unaltered joy, an unbreakable bond with nature, the celebration of one’s self in its entirety, honouring the small things of life. It’s wind howling in the trees, hearing a harmonica in the distance, summer on a small island of the Gulf of Finland, rolling down a snowy mountain without fearing the consequences – but never ignoring the consequences. Jansson’s work — both her children's literature and adult novels — is a must-read that I will never stop recommending to people.

It’s also difficult to explain how much of a cultural phenomenon the Moomin series is to people who are unaware of it. Nine books (translated in 44 languages and having sold over 15 million copies as of 2014, according to the BBC), several picture books, over 20 TV adaptations across Europe and Asia, a theme park in Finland, and more.

"There's a lot of Moomins fans all over the world. It's huge in the Nordics, in Asia, in Mexico, it's big in a lot of the European countries," says Are Sundnes, co-founder of Norway-based developer Hyper Games. "But in the US, for instance, it's not very well known at all. It's very much a niche thing."

"It's not only the cosy and wholesome stuff, but also the more emotional depth to the story and characters"

Different countries have engaged with different aspects of the universe, too. The US is slowly getting introduced to the Moomins via its books and merch; for instance, Barnes & Noble highlighted Tove Jansson's work this year in what is described as the first real foray of the series on the North American territory. Japan, meanwhile, has embraced every single aspect of the Moomins universe wholeheartedly since its early days. In Nordic countries, everyone's grown up with it but not necessarily with the same facets.

"Over here, it's like Mickey Mouse – it's equal," Sundnes continues. "[In] some of the European countries, it's a bit weird. I think France is on the mid-scale. I think a lot of people know about it but don't have a huge relationship to the IP. I don't think a lot of Norwegians have read a lot of the novels, whereas in other countries it's very different. In Britain, they had the comic strips in the newspapers for many years, but not the novels. So it's very fragmented but it has a huge [following]."

Okay, but what about video games, I hear you ask as I was readying myself to give you a 10,000 word exposé on Tove Jansson's work? Well, there's the 2000 Game Boy Color title Moomin's Tale (which didn't release in the US). A quick search on Fandom and Wikipedia tells us there's also been several PC titles only released in Finland in the late 90s, and a handful of Nintendo DS titles, most of them exclusive to either Japan or Finland. And that's it.

That is until Hyper Games announced Snufkin: Melody of Moominvalley in 2021. Based in Oslo, Hyper Games has done a lot of work-for-hire since its inception ten years ago, but has most recently been known for 2020's atmospheric puzzler Morkredd, published by Aspyr. The 13-people studio has been working on Snufkin: Melody of Moominvalley for over three years, keen to do justice to Jansson’s universe and following an initial idea from Sundnes, who is CEO and creative director.

"I was on paternity leave in November 2019 and I was reading a book called Who Will Comfort Toffle, which is one of the picture books that Tove Jansson illustrated and wrote," he recalls. "I've grown up with Moomins, so I'm familiar with it, always. But there was something about that book that really struck [a chord]. And it's not only the cosy and wholesome stuff, but also the more emotional depth to the story and characters, as well as the art style of Tove Jansson, which I'm a huge fan of.

"I have always thought that Link from the Zelda series is sort of inspired by Snufkin... That has never been confirmed by anyone, but I choose to believe that that's true"

"So it started out with: could we adapt this story to a game somehow? We knew from the beginning, if we were going to do this, we wanted to sort of mimic or adapt Tove Jansson's graphic style to the game. That was a thought very early on."

Another key aspect of the initial concept was the game's main character. Logic would have dictated to focus on one of the series' titular characters, Moomintroll. But Hyper Games decided to go with Snufkin, a musician, a wanderer, a lover of wilderness. And Sundnes also sees similarities between him and another well-known green hat wearer, whose adventures have inspired the game overall.

"He is one of our favourite characters and he has a lot of abilities and skills that work really well for a game, especially an adventure game," he says.

"I have always thought that Link from the Zelda series is sort of inspired by Snufkin. It's possible, but maybe not likely. But they look similar, they're the silent protagonist and have a lot of the same traits as well as the green [outfit]. That has never been confirmed by anyone, but I choose to believe that that's true," he smiles.

Considering that Japan has been a primary market for Tove Jansson's work, with Moomins being huge in the country, the theory is definitely plausible.

"We love Moomintroll as well, but I think there's something about Snufkin that is so mysterious and everyone kind of wants to be like Snufkin," Sundnes laughs. "He is free and in touch with nature and I think a lot of people idolise Snufkin in many ways, there's a lot about [him] that's really good. But I also like that he's not this one dimensional character. He also has a temper, he does irrational things, and I think that's something that's interesting in a lot of the stories that Tove Jansson told – that all the characters are multi-dimensional and have more than just one feeling all the time."

He highlights a lack of depth in many children's books, and overall in entertainment targeting kids.

"I get a bit annoyed at it, [in] television shows. Everything is so much about having people be happy all the time. And if someone's not happy then that's something we have to fix, that's a problem. And then we fix it, and then everyone's happy, and the TV show is complete.

"And that's very different from how Tove wrote. You can have characters that are neurotic or depressed. And that's not something that you need to fix, it's a part of their character, and everyone has a place in Moominvalley, [including] their flaws. There's a lot of the way that Tove Jansson wrote stories that we need more of, especially for kids. This isn't a kids game but it's a family-friendly game and we want kids to play as well."

"A lot of the challenges early on were taking tropes of these kinds of adventure games and making those concepts work for Snufkin"

There are challenges in adapting the depth and tone of Tove Jansson’s universe into a video game though. The various Moomins books cover topics like nature, friendship, and inclusivity, but also loss, depression, and a variety of darker concepts.

"We want to make sure the atmosphere and the feeling of the game matches Tove's style," Sundnes says. "But it is a game and gameplay is the main focus so it's kind of tricky to go into the darkest corners of Moominvalley within that format," he concedes.

"But we do want to have [what] we call the melancholy of the characters and the environment, and we want that to come across both in the dialogue – there's a lot of dialogue in the game – but also in the atmosphere, the environments. We're not making it very depressing but we do want to have the characters' personalities come across. It's a tricky balance in building the characters and still having gameplay as the main focus."

Snufkin: Melody of Moominvalley is a semi-open world title with a musical aspect, and a lot of material to draw inspiration from. Finding the right balance with a team of 13 people has been no easy feat for Hyper Games, as was finding a way to have game tropes make sense when your main character is a non-materialistic vagabond who has no interest in collecting any sort of items.

"When we started working on the early design documents, one of the challenges was we knew we wanted to make something that was kind of inspired by older Zelda games [but] you have a lot of sword fighting and we didn't want that — that doesn't make sense within this game," Sundnes says. "We needed to work on finding other mechanics that gave us the same kind of progression throughout the game where you could improve your abilities and have different 'weapons' – we ended up using instruments as these sort of tools.

Hyper Games' Are Sundnes (and a Hattifattener, one of Tove Jansson's creations)

"Snufkin is a musician and he can play various instruments, and throughout the game you will level up your inspiration. That's another thing that was a challenge with Snufkin – he's very non-materialistic. He doesn't care about anything like coins or gold. So picking up coins, that doesn't make sense at all. But he does collect inspiration.

"I think a lot of the challenges early on were taking a lot of these tropes or established concepts of these kinds of adventure games and making those concepts work for Snufkin. Working with a very small team, we're not going to make the new Tears of the Kingdom," he laughs. "It's a much smaller game but still it's the biggest game that we made. We do think that exploration and walking around Moominvalley and the other areas that we have is important, and we want people to spend a lot of time exploring, finding stuff. So that balance on how linear and how open world [it] is, is also something that we spend a lot of time on."

The care that Hyper Games has put into being faithful to Tove Jansson's work was also helped by the benevolent eye of Moomin Characters, the company owning the IP, run by Jansson's family. While Moomins has over the years become an international brand with thousands of licensing opportunities, Moomin Characters is keeping a very close eye on what is done to Jansson's beloved creation, and therefore has to approve everything Hyper Games does.

"They are very much involved," Sundnes says. "And they have been throughout the whole development and that's been a really good experience for us. We have worked with licences [and] IPs before. But I think Moomin Characters are really good at maintaining the quality of the products in everything they do. They're so focused on having things of high quality, having things that are environmentally friendly, and all of these values that they know that Tove Jansson would want them to focus on."

He continues: "It was a bit scary when we first started because we know they have a reputation for being extremely protective. But I've been very positively surprised by how smoothly this has worked."

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The idea with Snufkin: Melody of Moominvalley is both to draw Moomins fans to video games and to introduce game fans to Moomins, to cater to both newcomers and fans of both aspects.

"I think we will be able to get the IP to reach a new audience, especially in the US, who has a big [interest in] wholesome games," Sundnes says.

To help propel Snufkin to new audiences, Hyper Games has secured the services of Raw Fury as its publisher. And this choice was a natural one for the team.

"From the beginning, from our first pitch to Moomin Characters where we proposed this game, we wanted to make something that felt really Nordic," Sundnes says. "We love Raw Fury's games, they have high quality indie games, and we're a small studio. I think it's a really good fit for us, but also having Nordic partners who have the same context of Moomins as we do [is] really good.

"Moomins is Finnish, we are Norwegian, Raw Fury is Swedish, the band Sigur Ros [which features on the game's soundtrack] is Icelandic, and we're working with a Danish localisation studio, so it's a true Nordic collaboration, which I find really nice, to sort of cover all of the Nordic countries."

Snufkin: Melody of Moominvalley will release in Q1 2024 – recently pushed back from a late 2023 ETA "to make sure that the game is good enough," Sundnes tells us. The title featured last month in the Wholesome Direct, which leads us to discuss this strange phenomenon of people seemingly beyond annoyed by the 'wholesome' movement.

"I don't think there's any reason to be negative about [wholesome games]. Because there's room for all kinds of games"

"How can you be annoyed by that?," immediately reacts Sundnes.

A fringe of the gaming community, for instance, expressed frustration at the multiple farming games featured in the recent Wholesome Direct even though they probably wouldn't bat an eye when being served ten first-person shooters at any given game show for the past 30 years.

"I haven't really noticed a lot of negativity around the wholesome games genre," Sundnes says. "I think that's something that really exploded during the pandemic. I spent hundreds of hours in Animal Crossing during the course of this development and it really resonates with me.

"And I think the great thing about that genre is that it reaches a new audience, who doesn't really care about a lot of these standards, the shooting games and the sports games and the car games. And it makes gaming more varied and more accessible for a lot more people and I think that's great.

"I don't think there's any reason to be negative about that. Because there's room for all kinds of games."

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Marie Dealessandri avatar
Marie Dealessandri: Marie joined in 2019 to head its Academy section. A journalist since 2012, she started in games in 2016. She can be found (rarely) tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate and the Dead Cells soundtrack. GI resident Moomins expert.
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