The original version of this text was first published on FZ.se. It has been republished here with permission.
In a relatively short amount of time Sweden has established itself as fertile ground for dozens of talented and internationally successful game developers, producing everything from AAA-giants to major indie darlings. That was certainly not the case 20 years ago when a few friends, stuck together in a cramped basement in Stockholm, wrote an early but largely forgotten chapter of Swedish gaming history. This is the story of a game that sadly never got the chance to leave the lonely darkness of that basement. Until now.
The Room Under The Stairs
April 1994. Spring is slowly but surely settling in over Stockholm. While the Swedish national football team is currently training for the World Cup, which they will eventually return from with bronze medals around their necks, a small team of developers are squished together in a small space located in the basement underneath the classic gaming store TV-spelsbörsen. They are working on the first Swedish Super Nintendo game – an action platformer called Dorque & Imp. The team consists of the programmer Peter Waher, developer and artist Satrio Studt, and Daniel Adler who is in charge of music and sound effects.
– We were in a renovated basement that mostly consisted of TV-spelbörsen’s office. They had big desks made out of mahogny and ebony, while we were stuck in the Harry Potter room under the stairs, Satrio says.
– It was barely even a room, according to Peter. But at that point I didn’t really think much of it. As long as there was a desk, a decent computer and the chance to make a game I didn’t need anything else.
Dorque came to life when TV-spelsbörsen decided to expand their business from selling games to developing their own, but the gang’s collective story stretches much further into the past.
– I met Daniel in 8th grade and got to know Satrio through a friend we had in common. We started copying games together and we had a joint goal to one day be able to develop one of our own.
This led to them creating the pc-game Legend of Myra. The game, a puzzle adventure similar to Boulder Dash, started out as a hobby project but ended up being good enough to catch the attention from a publisher. What followed was a mess of legal problems that the guys are still uncomfortable discussing publicly, but which ended up leading to the team losing all rights to the game. Today Myra is considered abandonware and can be downloaded for free online.
Some time after Myra, Satrio was contacted by Josef Schreiber, one of the owners of the classic Stockholm-based gaming store TV-spelsbörsen, who was interested in expanding the company’s operations beyond just selling games to developing their own. To accomplish this, Satrio quickly invited Peter and Daniel to work on the project.
– We had to learn how to develop games for the Super Nintendo from scratch. We built our own tools, level editors and assemblers, and we had to figure out the process on our own. None of our tools were officially sanctioned by Nintendo, Peter says.
The concept of Dorque & Imp was born out of Satrio’s interest in fantasy and role-playing games, which influences from Midnight Wanderers and the arcade version of Willow.
– I was really into fantasy, Tolkien, Warhammer, RPGs, all that stuff. I wanted to make a platform game that was inspired by those kinds of worlds but with an anti-hero as the protagonist.The idea was that Dorque is a magician’s apprentice that isn’t allowed to learn any magic himself. When his master disappears he steals his book and learns that he can steal the powers of spirits that live in the woods, that we called Elementals. He decides to collect their powers so he can use them to defeat his own master.
However, Dorque was not capable of doing anything himself, which meant that he constantly needed help from the magician’s helping spirit called Imp. The relationship between the two would have been developed in story sequences between each level. Satrio compares Dorque to Gargamel from The Smurfs; mean and bitter, but ultimately helpless. Peter approved the concept, but on one condition.
– I was mostly working with the game design and my only contribution to the story was that Dorque had to be punished in the end and learn that being evil does not pay. The story expanded as we were developing the game. We were learning what we could do and when something started to look like a working concept we would add that to the narrative. But the most important thing was always that it would be fun to play.
Dorque was developed as a non-linear platformer with puzzle elements and a major focus on exploration. As the player guided Dorque through each level, with Imp constantly around to help out, they would have to figure out for themselves what they needed to do in order to progress.
Dorque Leaves The Basement
Work commenced for months with the team aiming to present the game at the Europeans Computer Trade Show (ECTS) in London, where they hoped to sell it to a publisher. TV-spelsbörsen paid a small amount of money to the developers, but no deal had been worked out with any external parties, least of all Nintendo. Peter explains that they didn’t even have the necessary rights to develop games for the console – a fact none of them were aware of at the time.
– There was no strategy from the beginning, Satrio explains. It was very gung-ho, learning-while-doing shit all the way.
When the gang landed in London to show off their game and themselves at ECTS they did so under the moniker Norse. At this point they had also left the basement for a new office in Årsta. The trade show lead to the gang connecting with several publishers, one of whom was Interplay.
– They wanted us to port Alone In The Dark to Sega Saturn and the 32X. Once that deal was finalised all of our focus moved to that project and they hired two new developers who had experience with “real” game development to assist us. Unfortunately the new guys didn’t know how to port a pc game to a Sega console.
The problems continued when Peter was shut out of the planning stages by both Interplay and the owners of the company. He was never consulted on how much time the project would require, which lead to the team struggling and failing to meet the publisher’s impossibly tight deadlines. Despite the fact that the team managed to build a working graphics engine Interplay were not pleased with the work and chose not to spend more money on the port. When the majority owners of the company wanted the developers to keep working for free, Peter had had enough.
– I swore then and there that I would never develop another game ever again. We had several offers to continue but I was disgusted by how the industry worked.
The failed collaborated with Interplay was to be the final nail in the coffin for both Norse and Dorque’s adventures. When all focus was shifted to impressing the publishers, Dorque was shelved, despite the fact that the game had caught the interest of several other publishers and was almost ready to be released. The developers moved on and Dorque remained in the darkness of the basement.
An Unlikely Second Chance
And it would have stayed there had it not been for Eleazar Galindo of Piko Interactive.
– I have worked for two years, with no pay, hunting down unreleased games in the hopes of getting permission to finish them and give them a proper cartridge release. I saw Dorque on Unseen64.com and managed to find an interview with Peter, at which point I contacted him.
The gang liked the idea of returning to the game after almost two decades and it inspired a massive nostalgia trip for everyone. Friendships were rejuvenated and memories returned. After twenty years in obscurity, their little project had been rustled back to life and a new generation of retro game lovers had discovered it thanks to an incomplete ROM floating around online.
– It sparked a lot of ideas in me, Satrio explains. I was sick with cancer at the time and one of the things that helped me through was the thought that I could create something that other people would enjoy. I wanted to do that again. That Dorque had managed to find an audience made me very happy.
Unfortunately, the last version of the game, the one that was more or less ready to be released, had been lost when somebody used Peter’s back up disks – to copy games.
– It was karma for all the games I used to copy myself. Interestingly, that was the point of the game as well, that Dorque always took the easy, dishonest way out and had to pay for it in the end.
Piko decided to rewrite the code from scratch, but they kept the majority of the graphics intact, with Satrio offering to work with the team to create new art for the game. Almost exactly twenty years after the production of the game was cancelled, we now finally have the opportunity to experience Dorque’s adventures as the developers intended.
– I don’t think many would have remembered the game today if we had released it at the time. Nobody would have spent any money marketing a game that late in the console’s lifecycle and the game was probably too difficult for most people. It was a game for gamers, but those that really made the effort probably would have liked it, Satrio says.
Even if it’s only an obscure footnote, Dorque & Imp deserves a place in Swedish gaming history. Maybe it’s even more timely today, when retro is more popular than ever, than it would have been two decades ago. Regardless, it’s obvious that the team are proud of they managed to achieve, as Peter concludes:
– Our goal was never to be famous. It was a huge disappointment when what happened happened, but I don’t remember anybody being sorry for not becoming rich or famous. The goal was only to be able to make games.
A few weeks after our conversation I receive an email from Peter. He tells me that Satrio passed away on the 29th of April 2014, after battling cancer for four years. He was 42 years old.
In his last email to Eleazar, Satrio suggested that they should change the name to Dorke & Ymp. The game is now available to buy on their website and you can vote to have it released digitally on Steam via Greenlight. Piko have decided to dedicate the game to Satrio’s memory.
I have chosen to do the same with this article. Through our conversations it was obvious that he was a friendly, fun, inventive and open-hearted person. Naturally, it’s a shame that he never had the chance to see his game finished and experience the gamers’ reactions to his work, but it’s nonetheless comforting to know that the hard work he put in to the project was not in vain after all. Satrio was a part of the team that wrote a small but integral chapter in gaming history that we can now finally experience for ourselves.
Peter works in Chile with the project The Internet of Things. Amongst other things he has been invited to participate in The White House’s Smart American Challenge.
As one half of the production company Fingerfunk, Satrio developed the mobile game Eggs and the augmented reality app Chestburster. He also worked as a designer, 3d-animator and illustrator for many years.