“It’s somewhere between a beaver and a rat.”
Of all the things I thought I’d learn from solo game maker Tomas Sala, the existence of muskrats wasn’t one of them. They’re real! They’re like oversized rats but with big webbed back feet for swimming through your nightmares with. And where Sala lives, near Amsterdam, they’re a big problem. They gnaw into and burrow in dams, weakening the structure, until one day, crrrrreeeaaaaack, the whole thing comes crashing down. Let them have their way and what would be left – Amster?
They’re what’s known as an invasive species, and it’s why, in the wood I can see in the window behind Tomas Sala – which I only really comment on to make polite conversation – I discover they have a headquarters for a task force which canoes out and catches, and cages, the muskrats before the rodents wreck everything. And so in five minutes of talking to Sala I realise two things. One, he has something interesting to say about almost everything. And two, everything he says unerringly manages to be about his game The Falconeer, which unerringly always manages to be about him.
The Falconeer is a game about war, you see. There’s the obvious warring between rival factions of the archipelago, but there’s also the sense of a bigger war between people and the world. Ursee, as it is called, is not a hospitable place. And no matter what you do, in the name of whichever faction you are flying your giant falcon for, the world always seems to be trying to repel you, through storms in the sky, giant creatures from the deep, or a hungry mass of water waiting to pull you in.
The only real question is, are you muskrat or human, invasive species or protector? Or have I got that the wrong way around?
The Falconeer. ‘It’s easier if everybody said it’s shit, or everybody said it’s fantastic, but there’s so many opinions on it.’
Sala laughs. He laughs a lot. For all he looks fearsome in that one portrait that circulates of him online, the one with the scowl and the wild, curly hair, he’s actually jovial and gentle face to face. Of course coming up with The Falconeer wasn’t as simple as seeing a muskrat and making a game. Maybe the rodents didn’t influence him at all. But, as I come to learn about Sala, it’s impossible to ever rule anything out, because The Falconeer is anything and everything in his life.
The Falconeer story really begins several years ago, at a turbulent time in Sala’s life when he was making a game called Oberon’s Court. It was a real-time strategy game, a dark game, which cast you as Oberon, lord of the Underworld, who must campaign through Purgatory, building a shadowy army by feeding on lost souls.
It was Sala’s first big attempt at making a game on his own, though he’d been making games as part of a team for years. He and his brother created a studio called Little Chicken Game Game Company after graduating in 2001, and plied a trade making anything and everything: mobile games, VR games, games about theatre, games selling beer, and cars. It worked in the sense they had 30 employees working for them at one point, but it didn’t work in the sense Sala hated it. He hated being the boss, and he wouldn’t realise why until later.
“It was putting demands [on me] I am not capable of delivering,” he tells me. “I’m not a great boss, or very organised, and things started to go south quite badly.” He’d shoo people away who were asking what to do. “‘I don’t know, I’m working,'” he’d tell them. “I’m focused on this. Go sort yourself out. I’ll be with you tomorrow.’ And it just turns into a clusterfuck of people getting frustrated and you not delivering your best work.”
As an escape, he built a mod for Skyrim called Moonpath to Elsweyr, which marks the real beginning of his solo development journey. It was just a bit of fun for him, a tropical getaway for his mind, but the more people played it, the more they encouraged and supported him, and momentum grew. They even offered to voice act. “It careened into something really positive and nice,” he says. Today, Moonpath to Elsweyr is considered one of the best Skyrim mods around.
But in the background, pressure was mounting. There was pressure from work and there was pressure from home, as a relationship suddenly and dramatically unravelled, and the life Sala had built for himself, the identity he’d assumed – the person he thought he was – all appeared to come tumbling down. “So that set me careening down to the point I was, you know, a reed on the couch just sleeping and shivering. […] And then you have to sort of rebuild and investigate how the fuck did I get to that situation?”
He made some important discoveries in the time that followed. The one that really changed his life was realising how his mind worked. It was restless, energetic, and needed to concentrate fiercely when it fired. It was more chaotic than the minds around him, hence him finding it difficult to work with them. His therapist saw it immediately: ADHD. “And you go, ‘Oh fuck. Okay, so not everybody works like this.’ So you start to understand a little bit because all the bricks are down anyway. So you’ve got to just grab, pick them up and sort of analyse what’s happened.”