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ULTROS and the palette of surreal sci-fi

El Huervo is testing the limits of color in video games.

Hadoque

Game design is a daring and dangerous endeavor for Niklas Åkerblad, who creates under the name El Huervo. When he describes the artistic process behind ULTROS, a neon-speckled platformer set in a demonic cosmic uterus, he talks about pushing against the sharp edges of introspection and sanity, drawing from wells of creativity buried deep in his psyche. It sounds like he could’ve slipped and fallen down any of those wells at any second, never to be seen again.

“I had a pretty rigorous discipline when it came to creating the world of ULTROS,” Åkerblad told Engadget. “It involves deep meditation while working and maintaining 100 percent focus to be able to know when harmony is achieved when working with such a dense flow of shapes and colors. It is almost impossible to cerebrally analyze this process, but it is rather something you have to feel, thus any external disturbance can greatly impact the process. It is perhaps not something I recommend others do without proper experience in creating visual art.”

Niklas Åkerblad, AKA El Huervo
Niklas Åkerblad

At the same time, Åkerblad is extremely practical about the business of making games. He’s been in the independent scene for years, and he’s enjoyed incredible success as the collaborator who provided the cover art and other assets for Hotline Miami and its sequel. You know the vibe — grizzled but radiant, with the threat of violence in every other pixel. He also composed a handful of songs for those games, including “Daisuke” and “Rust,” and he went on to develop else Heart.Break(), a 3D adventure set in a digital city of hackers, artists and activists that implemented programming as a core mechanic. Else Heart.Break() came out in 2015 and was a finalist at the Independent Games Festival that year.

His latest project, ULTROS, is a 2D exploration of The Sarcophagus, a looping world in a black hole that cycles players through environments overrun by alien plant life and vicious demons. Every scene in ULTROS is packed with detail and brilliant color; the backgrounds are alive with monsters and organic machines. Streaks of black delineate the boundaries of walking paths, ceilings and platforms, contrasted against shifting rainbows of luminosity.

ULTROS
Hadoque

There’s a lot going on in ULTROS at any given moment, but the protagonist stands out with a glowing green helmet, vermilion cloak and an evolving arsenal of platforming gadgets. One lesson from else heartbreak() that Åkerblad fed into ULTROS was the idea that games can have way more fun with color palettes. ULTROS is purposefully packed with visual interest.

“I felt video games tend to not push the boundaries of colors so much beyond ‘green is good’ and ‘red is bad,’ and whatever metrics are used for loot tiers,” he said. “I feel that there is this misunderstanding in design that less is more, and my gut tells me it's the opposite and I worked very hard on ULTROS to prove my theory. Undoubtedly there will be those who do not agree with me, but I feel it has more to do with taste and personal or physical preferences than academic truth — if there is such a thing.”

As a cyclical Metroidvania title, ULTROS is completely different from Åkerblad’s previous projects, but it’s also undeniably El Huervo. Actually, in this case, it’s Hadoque — around 2017, Åkerblad and game director Mårten Bruggemann started building the prototype that would become ULTROS, eventually bringing in composer Oscar “Ratvader” Rydelius and Fe designer Hugo Bille. Other artists joined over the years, and they ended up calling themselves Hadoque, a loose organization of creators who could float in and out as a project called to them.

ULTROS
Hadoque

“We wanted our group to be associated with its own thing, so we decided on Hadoque,” Åkerblad said. “It's a cool name that looks a bit weird and it suits our vibe. Also, it allowed everyone to still have their own thing on the side and not be legally tied to anything if they wished to pursue other venues.”

El Huervo AB remains Åkerblad’s own corporate entity, useful for dealing with the bureaucratic aspects of making video games. Through El Huervo AB, Hadoque received backing in 2019 from the gaming fund Kowloon Nights, which has also supported titles like Sifu, Rollerdrome, We Are OFK, Sea of Stars, Spiritfarer and Tchia.

“El Huervo AB merely functions as a sort of bureaucratic condom, and Hadoque as a name to be used when a group of developers come together to make art as games,” Åkerblad said. “Sort of like a band name. People come and go, but the vision remains.”

ULTROS is a game about life, rebirth, aliens, monsters and peace, and it all plays out in a technicolor dreamscape of vicious creatures and gorgeous foliage. This is the palette of surreal sci-fi, to Åkerblad.

ULTROS
Hadoque

“The themes explored in ULTROS are of an existential and spiritual nature, and I find that surreal sci-fi is a good genre to explore these themes in, as it has a long tradition of doing so,” he said. “In this regard, Ursula K. Le Guin has been a huge inspiration. Hopefully, what we manage to evoke in players is a sense of introspection and comfort.”

Despite the amount of deep thought that he’s done about the nature of art, sci-fi and play, there’s no singular message that Åkerblad is trying to convey with ULTROS. Instead, he and the rest of the developers at Hadoque encourage players to identify their own journey as they cycle through The Sarcophagus. As Åkerblad put it:

“Please enjoy ULTROS any way you want and don't try to look for a ‘true’ interpretation, but rather find your own meaning. This goes for any art, I think, in general. Interpretation is purely subjective and I want to keep telling stories that invoke and allow this subjectivity to exist.”

ULTROS is available now on PlayStation 4, PS5, Steam and the Epic Games Store, published by Kepler Interactive.