A Spoiler-Filled Conversation With Iconoclasts' Creator
Iconoclasts is a surprisingly dark game with a mature story, especially considering its nostalgic art style. It caught me by surprise in a great way so we decided to speak with its developer, composer, artist, writer – everything – Joakim Sandberg, about the game's prolonged development, surprisingly dark story, religious themes, and much more. We go deep into late-game spoilers, so fair warning if you haven't played the game yet!
How long has Iconoclasts been in development?
I started on a project called Ivory Springs in 2007 that the game is sort of based on, but the actual project started properly in 2010. With some losses of motivation, the project went off the rails along the way. It has basically been eight years of doing that and not expecting it to take so long. It becomes your life for a long time.
Is the game you imagined when you first started a lot different than what this final game is?
For Iconoclasts, it’s not super different. It was always going to have more darker characters, but it is darker than what I first intended. Ivory Springs was going to be a comedy thing because I was younger.
It started as more comedic, but was it still the same characters? The same world?
Ivory Springs started pretty much in the same way. It’s the same up until the village, destruction of the house, and escape. I recreated that for Iconoclasts but tried to be a little more serious with the events inside that house, sort of setting up that this might go somewhere that is different from your first impression of the game.
It’s a very colorful game at first glance, but it was in the brother's house I realized I was in the middle of two parents arguing about my being there and it was clear I was playing something much darker than I expected. What was the original game going to look like if it was more comedic? Did you still have an eye towards examining religion, or was it very much just a Metroid-inspired platformer?
Ivory Springs was something completely different and then several years passed and I started Iconoclasts, and it was always going to have these sort of themes. It was a very organic development of the story. I had notes and established the main characters and a bunch of the other people. As they reach these different set pieces, I imagine are necessary, they sort of act according to what I feel would make sense and I connected the story based on that.
I have lots of questions about the story and lore, but I wanted to ask you about some of the influences. Obviously, Metroid is a big one. Would you consider Drill Dozer a game that influenced its development at all?
No, but I can see why you’d think that. It has some of that attitude. I think I heard somebody say that before, but mostly people say Mega Man.
I definitely felt some Mega Man in there. It was the way you used the wrench to interact with the world really reminded me of Drill Dozer.
It’s been ages since I’ve played Drill Dozer.
I’m actually kind of surprised, because if you remember, the game is about a girl taking over her father’s role as a person who works on machines. So I was like “Oh man, he must be a big Drill Dozer fan! Like me!” I guess that’s not really the case.
No, I don’t think I beat it. I should try it again. I remember you level up your drill across every stage, stuff like that. I feel like it reminded me of the same sort of design attitude of a Wario Land game in a way. That’s what inspired the tutorial.
That is a specific line you can draw? With the signs showing you what to do, as opposed to telling you what to do?
Absolutely no one read the signs I used to have. People don’t want to read. Now they pop up and you have to see them.
That’s true, people don’t like to read, and I’m one of them. There is a lot of lore in the game. Did you just find that as people got more invested, they were more interested in digging deeper into the world?
Yeah, I guess I sort of went with less detail without being too shallow with the story and let people skip what they wanted to. The story, to me, is a personal indulgence more than anything. The whole game is, of course, because I sat and worked on this all the time. But I felt if I could tell a decent enough story, people would want to read all of those.
It’s interesting that you say the story a personal indulgence. What do you mean by that?
I just wanted to tell a story. I don’t know, really. It’s just something that I did entirely for myself, not really considering other people’s reactions other than having some personal reservations. I used to consider having swears, but I decided an audience that plays this kind of game would probably think that looks stupid and try-hard. Other than that, I just wanted to tell a story about characters that you sympathize with, without them really learning anything. A lot of people in this world don’t actually develop and just keep going in their lanes. That’s why it sort of goes darker. It doesn’t go to that “everybody’s friends in the end” way.
I want to talk about the ending specifically, in a broad way. It’s not a happy ending, but it is conclusive. Not everyone is in a great spot. Was that important to you?
Yeah, that’s just how I feel things would play out. Maybe I’m just a cynic. A lot of people appreciate games that cheer them up because the world is kind of s****y. But this is the kind of story I write. When I finish the story, I have to consider what’s going to happen next to these characters, thinking about how sad this and that was or what they could’ve done different instead of thinking about, “Oh, that was nice, everyone was happy and it’s over.” I want to ruminate on characters.
On that topic, are there alternate endings and story paths? I’ve seen people online trying figure that out, but is there anything like that?
There is one significant moment. It alters the ending, but it’s not a completely different one. Also, you have some choices and dialogue in the game that affects how aggressive the nightmare sequence is.
You’re talking about the end boss bird creature?
Yeah. Before then, you get sort of a mind-melt thing. I haven’t said it before, but it’s supposed to be anxiety. It brings out all of your anxieties and worries. All those sequences in the nightmare are based on if Robin felt she treated those characters right. If you pick options that are brushing off or not handled correctly, those fights are more intense because you have more anxiety. That’s supposed to be the idea.
Religion is a big theme in a strange way. I don’t get the sense that you’re calling out any specific religion, but was there a position you were trying to get across about faith in general?
Well, when you don’t have the script and you have to go by feel, you’re not always prepared to explain. Religion is a good vehicle for society in general, how they have a hive-mind of ideals and what you’re supposed to follow as a person. That’s the conflict, especially with Elro. He feels like he should be a certain thing. He keeps trying to go down a road that’s destructive for him. That’s true for all the characters. They’re doing a thing they’re not really passionate about, but they feel like they should for the sake of their society and loved ones, but it’s just destroying them instead because it’s not what they really want. It’s sort of reflective on me having worries about making a game for so long.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I never really got a point of view about religion in, positive or negative. However, I felt like Robin was this atheist in the middle of these competing ideologies and she was trying to tread through it in a way that she was still helpful towards everyone. Her interpersonal relationships were more important to her than her faith. That was my takeaway from the game.
A good summary of her character is not trying to pigeon-hole children. She’s young for a reason. She’s not jaded and willing to help anyone, but everyone around her is trying to get her on their side. She’s a non-partisan who just goes around the world and tries to help everyone.
The scene with Royal on the moon – How did that come about? What do you think of that scene now that you have had a chance to take a step back from it? For me, as ambiguous as Royal is in his own morality, I felt awful leaving him behind.
He’s just spoiled. It’s not his fault, it’s how he was raised. That’s the point of that character. He’s a hopeless character because he’s been so destroyed by how he’s always had a certain power. At the end, he sort of starts to come back around for the sake of Robin, but as soon as he feels rejected, he falls right back to where he was before and doesn’t really learn anything. That’s his destruction. On Robin’s behalf in that section, she tries her best to help, but she can’t always help everyone.
And there’s no way to save him, right?
No, that would change a lot of the theme.
It was important to have players not make that choice, but experience it?
You’re given a lot of time to realize it.
The bird creature at the end of the game – he doesn’t have a name. What’s his name? Is he Him? Is he just an unnamed creature?
That’s the thing I hear people theorize about Him. He’s sort of the capper on the story that’s left unclear. It’s just the background story on the facts of the world. I want to hear what people theorize about that character, so I don’t want to talk too much about him. That character is there to surprise people, and hopefully get you thinking about why this character looks this way. Why was the worm not the creature?
I was wondering what that creature was and what it wanted, which I love. I did not see that coming. It’s not really a twist, but it changed my whole view on The One Concern and what they were doing, or thought they were doing.
It’s not entirely out of nowhere. There are hints early on and throughout. It’s not like the Final Fantasy IX final fight.
Even if you don’t want to share it, does he have a name?
No, I haven’t thought of one. I only think of what the story needs. I don’t even know the age of anyone else but Robin.
On the topic of the bird creature, what has surprised you about the discussions surrounding the game? What are the debates you’ve seen online that spark your interest?
I would suggest seeing people piecing together what I actually intended, which is surprising. I was worrying that I didn’t have enough seeds in there to actually make people have those accurate guesses, but there’s been a lot of them. In terms of the birds, they’ve been close on that, too. It’s pretty fascinating. There’s like two camps on what that character is. There’s stuff like the bird worked with the suits, or the suits didn’t know what the bird actually was and theories like that. Those are basically the two camps … I know what my intent with the bird was. I had no idea what people would feel about it. There’s a good word for being very absolute, very plain about the worlds, like the easiest world. The truth of something is usually very mundane, that attitude.
You want people to theorize and come up with their own ideas?
Yeah, for a while at least just to see what they think.
Are you ever going to come out and say, “This is exactly what was going on...”?
Yeah, I might. The only reason I’m not saying anything is – at least 50 percent – just because I wanted to see if I could just tell a story that way.
The idea that maybe someday you’ll talk in more details about the ending of the game – is that something that you would do with a sequel?
I’m not thinking about sequels right now.
For more from our chat, including a discussion about the Switch, head to page two.
How about a Switch port?
That would be very fun. I have a publisher for distribution, so I can’t talk about just anything.
But you like the Switch, and it would be very fun.
I do. I have two [laughs]. The screen broke on one, but it still functions on a TV.
[Editor's note: we reached out to Iconoclast's publisher, Bifrost, to ask about the potential of a Switch release. Bifrost producer Kalli Karlsson replied, "All I can say is that we would love more platforms!"]
Why did you release it on Vita?
I think because it wasn’t much of a challenge for the guy who helped porting, for instance, and then it was just the focus at the time when I started developing. The Switch was missing from that.
You did say you started about seven years ago, right?
Yeah. Well, the publisher came into the picture in 2015 and then the porting guy a little later. Before than it was me and whatever money I made.
I didn’t understand the importance of the tickets. I saw people talk about them, and then in the bird fight there is an explosion of white tickets at some point. What are those? Is that something you’re willing to talk about yet?
They were just papers the bird had, I can say that. They weren’t white tickets. Maybe I should have said that because that’s a nice idea.
They seemed more important than I realized by the end of the game.
They are part of the background story. There are hints of different colors of tickets. A lot of people in the tower section talk about, “Oh, we were having red tickets,” but the pupils were handed white ones, and then you can find a door that says, “Please show your white ticket,” and that leads to the rocket platforms. You can sort of theorize that the red tickets are just fakes. But being told the pupils are going to get to go? It’s a background detail.
This is another broad lore question: It’s not Earth, right? It’s meant to be another planet.
I wasn't sure if it was supposed to be a future society, or some completely different planet or universe.
You have to consider the so-called arcs. There are at least two. There’s a detail on one of those that I haven’t heard anyone point out, which is really surprising.
Are there any other details or secrets that you haven’t seen people discover in the game besides that one?
I haven’t seen a lot of discussion on the fact that the game looks to have an art style of a geometric nature. I’m sure people have discussed it, but then you get to Mina and it’s normal leaves, so to speak. I expected to see more people talk about that and why that is. Maybe they just understood immediately and are discussing other things.
I chalked it up to an art direction choice. I thought, "Oh, well this area of the world has cubic plants and this area doesn’t,” but it sounds like there’s a bit more to it than that.
It has a narrative purpose. I was trying to show when a weird thing happens in the environments.
I want to compliment you on something, and I’m sorry if I don’t know all the terminology in the world. What those boss characters go through in order to become what they are –what the ivory does to them. I really appreciate how messed up that was. It made me think of the children in Akira and what they must go through.
That’s sort of more about literal religion, or what religion can inspire people to do and think, I guess. Just go back in history and read about the kind of s*** people do.
It’s awful, but in a really intriguing way that makes them sympathetic.
That’s the core of the character, just the symptoms of having gone through that.
I would like you to talk about the gameplay. After finishing the game, the story is what sticks in my brain, but there are a lot of cool mechanics, like using the wrench to activate switches and the way puzzles are distributed. How did the gameplay, puzzle, and level design evolve over the course of development?
I just had a general attitude that every single room should have to be interesting somehow. So, every single room seems to have a little objective. The inspiration for that is Monster World 4 [Wonder Boy 6 in North America], which is pretty much structured the same way. It’s a flawed game, but I really love it. It inspired two projects so far. It’s different from the other ones, it’s more like a side-scrolling Zelda game, than Dragon’s Curse.
It’s puzzle-focused as well as action because I like bosses and intentional level design, I guess. It’s a mix that I wasn’t sure if people would like or not. There were some people who feel like they either want to see the story go on and the puzzles seem to stop them, but then there are people who aren’t too into the story and just want to play the game. You’ll get that when you mix a lot of elements into the game.
I was surprised that there was no way to look at the full map. Was there a reason that you limited the view to whichever area you’re currently in?
I guess that’s just how it ended up.
It wasn’t an attempt to make the world feel smaller or anything like that?
No, I had already made the U.I. four times by then. One thing that is sorely missing that I’m figuring out is seeing descriptions of key items.
You’ve been working on this game for so long. Is there anything else you feel came up short, other than that? Is it the game you wanted it to be, ultimately?
I can’t say that yet. I’m not the most confident person, I guess. Some days I can feel really good about it, then I can read one person saying, “It was just O.K.,” and it brings me down the rest of the day. I need to get past that stage to really judge how I feel at the end, after all this time.
Any final thoughts?
You asked about different things than most people. Most people want to know exactly what made the characters tick.
Th story and characters are definitely what stick with you after finishing the game.
No, I understand that. What the game is at the end, even according to me, is gameplay that isn’t terribly new, but just as polished as I can do it. Of course, it’s about bosses, too.
Did you do everything in terms or art, design, and music?
Yes, me and nobody else.
I wasn’t sure if you had done the music, as well.
People always assume the music is separate, even when someone says they did everything. It’s probably also the most different medium from video games, if you’re going to separate it out. I really like making music, and people seem to like the music most of the time. If there’s a complaint that I’m seeing about it, it’s that people don’t remember the music, so that’s fine – as long as you don’t say it’s grating.
Is the game doing well?
It’s doing alright. It was released during a week with three much more anticipated games, with Monster Hunter, Dragon Ball FighterZ, and Celeste. We’ll see what happens in the long-term, if we get to other platforms.
For more on on Iconoclasts, you can find our review here.