“The Search for God in Knytt Underground”: An Interview with Nicklas Nygren

A few weeks ago, Nifflas Games released their first console game, Knytt Undergound (PS3 – Playstation Network, PC). While the Knytt name might be new to some, it wasn’t new to fans of the series on […]

Written by Richard Clark / Published on January 14, 2013

A few weeks ago, Nifflas Games released their first console game, Knytt Undergound (PS3 – Playstation Network, PC). While the Knytt name might be new to some, it wasn’t new to fans of the series on PC. It was a strange little series, understated and simple, even while it seemed masterful at creating a zen-like atmosphere and providing a sandbox for exploring simple mechanics. The Knytt series is about as pure a creation as I’ve seen in a long time. 

But the latest entry is significantly more ambitious, an understated but direct examination of life, mortality, and belief. And there’s a reason for that: Nicklas Nygren has been thinking about these issues deeply for several years. It seemed inevitable they would become a major part of his creation. 

Knytt Underground is, as a result, one of only a few videogames that deals with the subject of faith and belief in a way that feels honest and truthful without seeming preachy. It’s fun on its face. But below the surface, it’s something beyond simple entertainment: it’s truly haunting and resonant. 

Nicklas Nygren creator of the Knytt Underground and the Knytt series.

But what is Knytt? And how does Knytt Underground differ from the rest of the series? We’ll start with letting Nicklas explain:

So basically the first Knytt game was Within A Deep Forest, which was I guess the first successful game I did. I would almost say it’s the first Knytt game even though it doesn’t have Knytt in the title. It takes place in the same world and has some of the same characters and one of the places in the scenery.

All of these games were always about the atmosphere and ambiance. I think [in the first Knytt game] I just wanted to express, but didn’t really want to put any words on it. It’s a lot about just creating a place where I would like to be. It’s just a nice area. And the stories of these games are kind of simple.

"I would rather say I’m in the green zone in between everything, trying to make sense out of everything."
These old games are never about the plot itself; it’s unimportant. In Knytt the main character gets abducted by a UFO and crashes on an alien planet, and then you have to collect the pieces of the spaceship to go back to your original planet. It’s not about a plot, it’s not supposed to be interesting. What it does is it defines that you are alone on a different plant – so it establishes that this is a new place that you have never seen before. It actually adds a lot to the atmosphere, that you just find yourself in this completely strange world and you just have to explore it.

When I created Knytt Underground I basically wanted to do something really different. I wanted to write a story that I really cared for, that’s not just an excuse for the game’s atmosphere, where the story part actually meant something to me.

It does seem like the game is, at least in a metaphorical sense,  about faith or superstition or however you would think of it. It’s about these things that this community of people believe. So there’s this question of what’s true and what’s not. Can you talk about the motivation behind that idea?

Yeah, so basically the game is about trying to figure out life. How life works, and all of the questions like, what is true, is there a God, is there not?

And it’s a bit complicated. Like, there are two main groups in the game. One which is called the Myriadists – they are like a metaphor for all the religion and all the spirituality which we can have. They try to figure out their understanding through looking at who came before them (which was us, because this game takes place in the future, and all the humans have disappeared). Then there’s this other group who’s more into just science and having logical explanations. They look into higher technology to try to understand themselves.

And it’s pretty apparent for somebody who’s actually playing the game that they are kind of lost, and neither of them are making good conclusions – like, neither of these two groups. Which, I like to think is a metaphor for our own attempts to figure life out and often failing at this. Like, there are so many religions, so many different approaches. Let’s just assume that one of them is actually true – then those other thousands of other views must be wrong.

It seems like there’s a running theme of people making promises to each other, and those promises keep being broken. Like, on a major scale and on a smaller scale there’s a lot of lost faith going on.

Yeah. But it’s kind of interesting. I was raised in a religious family – not like super extreme or anything; pretty nice actually. The church I was in was very conservative and has some different views that I don’t really share with it anymore. And there was this especially super-charismatic period – you know, like a lot of faith-healing stuff, which later I looked into, and it was very much hoaxes and weird psychological manipulation.

In addition, all the values I’ve been taught I’ve not been very happy with – like, a lot of the these conservative values I’ve been told to be the truth. I’ve been fed with all this different information, like: “evolution is impossible, it just doesn’t work.”

When I got into my twenties I started to really look into it. I got into debates, started to read lots of articles about these things – not only from the point of view of what I wanted to believe, but from various sources. I would kind of figure out that the part that was against evolution were like 2% of scientists and that all of their arguments had perfectly fine counter-arguments against why those arguments didn’t make any sense.

So in a way I’ve taken quite a lot of different blows on my religious views. If I’m ever going to go back to Christianity, I can’t take anymore of this conspiracy conservative stuff – I need to have, like God himself coming down and being like “Hey, I do exist.”

I’m a bit angry, if it makes sense, that all this kind of weird stuff that… yeah, it’s kind of hard to explain.

But the game is a lot about this, because I’ve gone so many years picking at everything I ever believed was true my entire life – just picking that apart piece by piece until just being lost, not knowing anything.

I’m scared of dying, too – because my entire life I’ve had the belief that like, “Oh I’m going to this awesome place when I die,” and now it’s just like “Oh, maybe it’s nothing at all.” Which is actually kind of depressing.

So as you started to realize that people were lying you, you start to associate the lies with the actual faith itself?

It’s tricky, I don’t think most of them were lying to me. Maybe just the faith healers – those were the ones who actually lied. Because their tricks are always so obvious – like it’s always the same, it’s like a leg that grows out. But it’s such a nice miracle, because it’s so easy to fake.

But as for all the others, I honestly believe that almost everybody I know who has a Christian belief are very honest about it and they really believe it themselves. So I wouldn’t call it lies.

I would say the reason I am having a problem believing in it is I haven’t actually seen anything that indicates that it’s true whatsoever.

I feel like you can kind of feel that in the game. Like, you can kind of feel this struggle with… Like, I’m very much a Christian, but I went through a time when I was really struggling with questions. There’s kind of an emotional dullness that you feel, and a way that when people talk to you, you kind of roll your eyes or something.

I feel like the game manages to communicate that sense without coming out and telling you to feel that way. Even with the two fairies that are very extreme examples of how you can react – I feel like it leaves it open to the player to even react to that reaction.

Yeah, it’s part of the point, which is also why I didn’t want the main character in the game to be one of the fairies. I want the player to look at it like two friends telling you this stuff, but you have to take your own standpoint. It’s not like you’re not one of them. I really don’t try to push anything directly to the players, and I try to stick to the rule that whenever I make a statement, I try to make the opposite statement in the game too.

So are you purposefully leaving out the nuanced positions so that the player would take those stances?

Yeah, exactly. I usually try to present the extremes.

So basically you’re exposing a flaw in the way we consider those big questions?

Not necessarily. I don’t always think of it that way, either. Maybe the truth is sometimes on one of the sides. I more just polarize it – even when personally I’m sure which perspective is right. Then it’s kind of interesting to present several. Because that’s also a very important point. I try to avoid that one of the fairies are ever right about anything.

"I’m scared of dying, too – because my entire life I’ve had the belief that like, “Oh I’m going to this awesome place when I die,” and now it’s just like “Oh, maybe it’s nothing at all.”"
For example there’s a quest in the game where you’re supposed to help – there’s this guy who has cheated the main character before. The question is, are you going to give this guy a second chance? One of the fairies is like “Hey you should give him a second chance.” The other one is not. But there’s another character in the game that presents a very very similar scenario but this guy instead does in fact try to make up for what he did earlier. Those two quests are there to make exactly the opposite statements about second chances.

So I actually designed a quest where one of the fairies was right and I designed a quest with the same theme, where the other would be right, to kind of still end up in the kind of uncertainty of what the game is.

Would you basically consider yourself an agnostic?

I don’t know. I guess agnostic implies that there’s no way we can know anything about anything, and I don’t think that’s true either. Maybe agnostic on a personal level, but – I don’t know. It’s really complicated. I would rather say I’m in the green zone in between everything, trying to make sense out of everything.

So this game is probably less an attempt to convince anyone of anything.

Yeah exactly, it’s not meant to convince people.

What would you say it’s meant to do?

Maybe just ask the questions – or maybe try to… Life is very complicated, I guess. If there’s any statement that could sum up this game it’s “It’s complicated.” Like, I’m starting to “get” how complicated it is, and it ends up with me just trying to figure out basic stuff that I was sure I had answers to before. But it seems like the older I get, the more confused about everything I get.

Maybe it’s just there to communicate the simple message that “It’s complicated.”

About the Author:

Richard Clark is director of editorial development for CT Pastors and Preaching Today, a co-founder of Christ and Pop Culture, and has written for Unwinnable and Kill Screen. He can be followed on twitter @TheRichardClark.