Wireframe

Climb every mountain in the physics-based action adventure, Surmount

By Ryan Lambie. Posted

In the midst of the global pandemic in 2020, Animal Crossing: New Horizons provided a cosy escape route for many. But as well as a distraction from the isolation and stress of lockdown, Nintendo’s life sim also helped bring together Jasper Oprel and Indiana-Jonas Sundberg, the creators of Surmount. “We met over Animal Crossing just as the pandemic was getting started,” says Oprel, the game’s programmer and co-designer. “And through a mutual friend, we started visiting each other’s towns and started talking from there.”

At the time, Sundberg had a prototype for a climbing game intended for mobile devices; taking its cue from Donkey Kong: Jungle Climber, it had the player swipe the left- and right-hand sides of the screen to propel their character up a procedurally generated mountain. As Oprel and Sundberg began collaborating on the project, though, it began to grow into something much bigger and more involved. In the migration from mobile phone to computer, the swiping inputs were switched for an entirely different system, where you fling your climber from point to point with the left stick while using a face button to grip onto handholds.

Today, Surmount is a unique take on the rogue-lite genre: starting at your base camp, you ascend a procedurally generated Mount Om, spinning and leaping between handholds and keeping a watchful eye on your energy levels. “It’s about preserving your stamina and making sure you take a breather every now and then,” Oprel explains. “[The climbing] is semi-lifted from the way that climbing works in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – the way you grab stuff and how long you can climb for.”

There are also hazards that will not only make you lose your grip but also take away a chunk of your stamina – getting kicked in the head by a mountain goat is one example Oprel describes. Surmount is therefore intended to provide a challenge for players, especially in its later stages, even if the overall tone is serene and relaxed. Get a second player involved and you’ll be able to help each other navigate the crags of Mount Om. “We’re going for something that’s approachable in the beginning – I want somebody who plays games a lot to be able to play this with somebody who doesn’t play games at all,” says Oprel. “Say, a father and child or boyfriend and girlfriend. That kind of combo would be perfect, because they can both have fun. They can pull each other along with the rope system.”

Away from the climbing, there’s the little town at the mountain’s base. Here, a hint of Animal Crossing’s social aspect comes to the fore, with the town populated by a likeably eccentric cast of characters, including other climbers hoping to conquer Mount Om. “I don’t think there’s the same generated life aspect to Surmount as Animal Crossing would have, where everybody has their own routines,” Oprel says. “But as you move through the world, the characters move along with you. You meet the same characters again and again, and get to know them. We think players will get attached to a couple of the side characters who are doing their own thing.”

Peak Fitness

Like Spelunky, there are handcrafted side paths that branch away from the procedurally generated challenges. Here, you’ll uncover nuggets of story or extra abilities that will help you on your journey. “There are items you can equip to give you a passive boost, and there are one-off items that you can throw, like a rope or a little trampoline to get up higher. But it’s constantly in flux – just this week we were prototyping lots of new items.”

Those items will come in handy, too, because the path to the summit will only get more hazardous – and surreal – as you climb. “There are four different biomes on the mountain,” Oprel tells us. “First it gets colder, then it gets warmer again, then it gets weirder. There’s weird stuff with gravity because you get up so high. There are different, strange creatures and plants that live up on the mountain – there’s a cool backstory as to why those things are there. So it varies from zone to zone, and it helps to be prepared ahead of time – ‘ooh yeah, the next zone is snowy. It’d be nice if I found the gloves that give me extra grip because of the icy rocks.’ ”

As of November 2022, Oprel and Sundberg estimate that there’s around 30 percent of the game left to develop, and while they can’t confirm what consoles it’ll appear on, ports are being looked into, they say: “If we’re going to port, we’re probably gonna do it ourselves as well, because we’re dumb like that,” Oprel laughs.

Talking to Oprel and Sundberg, it’s clear that they’re enjoying the process of making their first collaboration. They talk warmly about their chance encounter, and how the modern miracle of remote working has brought two like-minded designers together. Before Surmount, Sundberg – originally from Sweden, now based in Paris – worked as a freelance artist on such games as TOEM and Hokko Life. Oprel – based in the Netherlands – initially trained as an architect before the threat of burnout loomed, and he set his sights on game development.

Says Oprel, “When I was at school, I thought I’d find the other piece of the puzzle. That other person who has all the skills that you don’t. But I never did find a person who had that same interest in games. So it was a very magnetic encounter when I met Jonas. I was like, ‘Oh yeah, he might be that one!’. When we worked together, it all felt natural.”

“I also felt the same in school,” Sundberg says. “I wanted to meet someone I could click with and collaborate with. But I didn’t find that person until I started working with Jasper.”

“You know,” Oprel laughs, “we’ve never told that to each other before…!”

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