Ultros is a sci-fi Metroidvania set on a trippy, psychedelic Uterus floating in space called The Sarcophagus. After mysteriously waking up from a crash landing, players must navigate The Sarcophagus’ eternal black hole loops and strange, alien ecosystems. Some players may also recognize the neon, eccentric art style of visionary artist and musician Niklas Åkerblad, a.k.a. El Heurvo, from the influential success story Hotline Miami. Understanding the reasons behind Ultros‘ looping world is another part of its unfolding mystery, as players gradually learn more about the nature of its inhabitants and beyond.
In a recent interview with Game Rant, game design director Mårten Brüggemann, as well as game designer and programmer Hugo Bille, spoke more about Ultros‘ psychedelic art style, including its accessibility features. Brüggemann and Bille also explained the ideas and inspirations for Ultros‘ uterus setting in space and much more. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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Q: Where did the idea for The Sarcophagus with its black hole loops come from?
Brüggemann: As Niklas ‘El Huervo’ Åkerblad and I started developing the core concept of the game, I was about to have my first child. A lot of thoughts around parenthood – like what it means to become a parent, what you pass on and what you leave behind as they grow older, existential stuff like that – were going through my head. These were themes I needed to explore both consciously and subconsciously. The game has an overarching theme of birth and nurturing and tending to someone else other than yourself, both story-wise but also by the actions you take in the gardening parts of the game.
Another idea ULTROS explores is that of a karmic cycle, both in story and through the destructive vs constructive game mechanics we give the player to experiment with. Combining these two themes makes The Sarcophagus out to be as much a place of rebirth as it is a place of death. We knew early on that we wanted the player to be able to make the choice themselves whether to be a destructive or a nurturing force. The cyclic nature of the game came as a result of wanting the player to experiment in that space, getting to make an informed story-changing choice without having to start the whole experience over from the beginning. Instead, there are multiple cycles or chances to make the choice they want to make.
What governs the loops in the game is somewhat shrouded in mystery, but we wanted to find something that is grounded in science rather than “magic”. This connects to the civilization that is at the base of the world of Ultros.
The Various Inspirations for Ultros
Q: What inspired you to make a Metroidvania-style action platformer with a psychedelic art style?
Brüggemann: It’s a bit of a chicken or the egg situation. The style of our art director, Niklas Åkerblad, is inherently very maximalist in color usage and details. This blended very well with what we wanted to explore in the game’s themes, spirituality, and relation to nature, for example. So, what started as a way to describe the art style of the game also seeped into and inspired what the game was about. And vice versa, with the idea of the game pushing the art style into even more of a psychedelic vibe and sort of contextualizing it, giving it purpose.
Q: Could you explain more about the creative process of incorporating psychedelic visuals into the game and how you factor in things like accessibility?
Bille: When you have an art style like Niklas’, which is so exuberant and at the same time so central to the feelings evoked by the game, the last thing you want is to hold it back. I think we’ve taken a bit of an unusual approach to things like readability, placing a bit more responsibility on the player to make out what is interactive than games usually do in this day and age. That’s not to say we’re going full 90s; we developed lots of little shader effects to highlight interactive items and angry particles to accentuate certain critters that would otherwise risk blending into the background.
Niklas also gave a lot of thought to differentiating the interactive plants from the background vegetation, using a brighter color palette and more defined shapes. We also actually ended up adding accessibility filters that let you tone down the background, so you can more easily make things out, but that’s a last resort and not something we reckon the majority of players are going to need.
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Ultros Psychodelic Art Style, Soundtrack, and Alien Creatures
Q: What was it like working with artist and musician El Huervo for Ultros’ art and soundtrack?
Brüggemann: Niklas and I had known each other since university, decades ago. We had bounced ideas off each other and found that we had synergizing tastes in games and culture, but never gotten around to working together. So, I guess we both thought it was about time. Additionally, the vast majority of the soundtrack is composed by Oscar ‘Ratvader’ Rydelius, not just El Huervo, who I’m fortunate to have been able to collaborate on this game with too.
Bille: Niklas brought me in to help out when Mårten was away on parental leave, a year or so into the project. Niklas and I had been circling each other in the Gothenburg indie scene for a while but never worked together. I was excited to see a game so fully realized in his trademark style and loved all the ecology and philosophy behind it, so when Mårten came back I ended up staying.
Q: Some exotic creatures that players encounter look more friend than foe. Could you talk more about the game’s alien world, ecosystem, and unique alien creatures?
Bille: The ecosystem of the Sarcophagus becomes both weirder and more integral to the game the further you play. We wanted to build a world where nothing of what you face is inherently good or evil, friend or adversary – so we ended up basing a lot of the fauna on bugs and insects. They have this great alien quality that lends itself to fear and enmity – “What is that, let’s kill it” – but also invite wonder because they are so different from us, and we as a society are constantly learning more about how we depend on them to survive.
With Ultros, we hope to evoke a sense that everything is part of a self-enforcing system that even includes the player – the enemies are more than just enemies, they connect to the plants, the food, and the soil in both expected and unexpected ways, and by understanding how each part relates to each other, you can make the strangest stuff happen.
Ultros’ Gardening Elements, Level Design, and Progression
Q: Why did you decide to include gardening elements, and could you explain more about their role in the game, such as reaching new areas?
Bille: At the heart of any good Metroidvania lies the satisfaction of gradually turning an alien web of tunnels into a familiar, almost cozy space where you know all the shortcuts and secrets. Before starting work on Ultros, I was a bit impatient that no one had tried to pair that with a proper gardening system, letting players truly make the world their own and put that intricate mental map they built to better use. At the same time, it could add an element of care and nurturing into what can otherwise be a quite cruel, extractive, and dare I say it, almost a bit colonialist game formula. Now it seems that a bunch of games are in development in the sort of “Gardenvania” subgenre and I couldn’t be more pleased with that. I look forward to how we each nurture this potential in different ways.
For Ultros, it was important for us to build upon the things that players already expect from the genre, rather than tack on a different game altogether. So, we came up with a gardening system that really ties into combat, platforming, discovery, and spatial problem-solving. Most plant species have parts that can be used to reach new places if you use them right, but you will have to experiment to learn the secrets of each species. For example, there are features of the Mushishi Twiner that only come into play when it grows in a ceiling. The gardening is its own little world to discover, while it also lets an experienced player blow the game wide open – we are eagerly anticipating all the challenge runs and speed runs that players could get up to with this game.
Q: Could you talk us through the game’s map design, size, and how players can progress within its unique loop-based mechanics?
Bille: The time loop places the Metroidvania exploration inside kind of a karmic cycle of rebirth. At certain points in the story, you trigger the end of a cycle and find yourself back at the start of the game – it may even seem like the game has completely reset, and indeed many things have… but you will discover that not everything is affected. Almost immediately, you stumble into new areas and new adventures where you can learn to get some of your progress back. You start to learn the difference between what is just temporary in the Sarcophagus and what persists for eternity. So you could see it as a time loop, but it’s also a sort of season cycle, where looping is a necessary step for a lot of the game’s natural processes.
Brüggemann: The Sarcophagus is divided into different areas. Each area has its own theme, both within the context of the story but also in the sense of exploring a different concept in relation to the game’s overarching message. We have a relatively small cast of well-defined characters that the player will interact and evolve along with, and sometimes even fight. Each character is closely tied to one of the different areas of the game world – each area representing a different worldview or issue. Depending on how the player acts in different situations, their relation to each character may change.
The theme of an area also spills over into the mechanics that are in focus of the area. Some areas are more focused on combat, while others explore certain environmental mechanics, through puzzles with specific plant types, for example.
Q: Were there any inspirations from Metroidvania titles like Hollow Knight for Ultros’ level design, environmental storytelling, or otherwise?
Bille: Metroidvanias build this fascination with the unknown, inviting players to fantasize about all the areas, systems, and powerups they haven’t seen yet and almost building up their own fantasy world map out of theories and hopes and even misunderstandings. I feel that as the genre becomes more crowded, that feeling is fading fast – those big negative spaces get filled up with players’ expectations from other games, and we all already know pretty much what will happen. Especially after Hollow Knight came out, I just felt “That’s it”. There’s no point in making a straight Metroidvania anymore, that was the pinnacle of the genre.
So, while we’ve undoubtedly taken a lot of inspiration from previous works, certainly the greats like Hollow Knight, Super Metroid, and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, it’s been more important to look at them and say “What can we do differently”, how can we break off from this and subvert these expectations, find new structures. I think we did that in a lot of ways. Some, like the time loop framework, is something we’ve shown extensively in trailers, while others are still lurking a little bit further into the game.
Q: Could you tell us more about the Extractor tool?
Brüggemann: The Extractor tool was used in a cleansing ritual that is a core concept of the backstory of the game. You will receive many upgrades to the Extractor in the game.
It has been an integral part of the game from the start, more or less. At the beginning of development, it was meant to be sort of an external womb that would be influenced by your actions. It would later give birth to a new player shaped by your actions from the previous loop. We’ve moved away from using the Extractor in that sense, but the rebirth mechanics and thoughts are still in the game in a broader sense.
Before we had gotten deeper into the nurturing parts of the game concept, we also thought of the Extractor as more of a weapon, with more conventional functions like shooting and shields. However, we realized that those kinds of functions sort of contradicted the Extractor’s role in the lore of the game, so we decided to find Extractor functions that were more about interacting with the world and less about fighting it, which more reflects what the lore’s use of it was. The more combat-related upgrades can instead be found in the Cortex, which is the game’s skill tree.
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Q: The game looks to encourage combat variety and different fighting styles. Could you discuss the possible combat style, combos, and upgradable abilities?
Brüggemann: We wanted to make the combat feel intimate and visceral, to underline the brutality of nature and the player’s actions in the world. We describe the combat as a “dance of death” where you’re up close to your foes but still have an element of acrobatics that goes with the feel of the platforming in the game. There are a few different fight mechanics in the game which you can choose to use more or less of. You can also upgrade the ones you feel are most suited to your way of playing. The different fight mechanics include counter moves that let you react to your enemies’ attacks, juggling attacks that let you hit enemies into each other, and a variety of airborne, heavy, and sliding attacks that you can unlock.
You can combine the attacks however you like, and you’re seldom required to use specific attacks in any situation. But the main combo reward system at play promotes variety in attacks. Described in-game as inflicting blunt force trauma to your victims, using the same attack over and over will make the spoils you get from defeating a foe become “battered”, i.e. less valuable.
Ultros’ Themes and Storytelling
Q: Could you tell us more about the meta-themes explored in the game, including mental health, life, death, and karmic cycles?
Brüggemann: An approach we had when exploring the themes we were interested in was to consider what the game and the game world actually represented. At the core of our ideas is this balance between the destructive and constructive resolutions to different scenarios, the violent and the nurturing. But as we designed the inhabitants and their scenarios, it became clear that they were all part of a bigger whole. The narrative can be seen through the lens of nurturing something back to health, and a lot of these issues are contained within that scope, be it mental health or environmental issues.
When designing something that relates to real-world issues it felt unavoidable, for me at least, to not start thinking about what it means to play a game; what the actions and structure of a game communicate to the player. What does it mean to exist in a world where I can choose whether I want to nurture or dominate it? And what does playing in a certain way say about me as a person? So those kinds of questions are something we hope to evoke in players, although you’re not required to be thinking about all this on a meta-level to enjoy the game. There’s no fourth wall breaking.
Q: Without going into spoilers, how might players’ interactions and choices in the game influence its story and the environment, with the option to break cycles or encourage rebirth?
Brüggemann: The story and the environment are very much intertwined in the game. Getting to know each part of the world’s ecosystem – the creatures, plants, and biomes, etc. – will be integral to progressing and finding the different endings to the story. Every actor in the world can also have different outcomes to their specific story; a destructive or a nurturing path. What unlocks what is very specific to each situation.
We’ve tried to keep the world and the progression very open; breaking cycles and finding new paths around obstacles are part of the game, and the garden system with its dynamic and expandable plants are at the center of all this.
The looping structure of the game also lets the player try out different solutions to different scenarios. Sometimes coming into a familiar situation with a new perspective. So, experimenting and finding new paths are part of the journey.
Ultros releases on February 13, 2024, for PC, PS4, and PS5.