Earlier this year, The Young Folks reviewed Iconoclasts for PS4 and PC; and we loved it. To borrow from that review, it’s an expertly crafted platforming adventure – with a deep story underneath a charming design. It is the kind of game you almost wish was on Nintendo Switch; and the good news is that, this week, that dream came true alongside an update to the existing releases.
The game it is about Robin, a mechanic who just wants to use her skills to help people, but the theocratic government labels her a criminal for doing so. This sets Robin on a path to encounter pirates, chosen ones, and the truth behind the theocracy. Given the current political climate in the world, the rebellious narrative of this game has connected with plenty of people, myself included, and are propelled through the title with exceptional pacing of metroidvania gameplay.
Upon the release of this port and update, we reached out to the developer of Iconoclasts, Joakim Sandberg, and he was kind enough to talk with us about the new features and more about the inspirations behind the game, along with other opinions on games as a whole. This interview was edited for clarity, and some minor spoilers follow.
The Young Folks: First off, let’s talk about the new content for Iconoclasts. A free update is going out to existing versions of the game along with the Nintendo Switch release, can you tell us about what is in the update?
Joakim Sandberg: Along with the Switch release, there will be some simple content added, like a Boss Rush letting you play most of the bosses in a row on one life. There is also an added Relaxed difficulty mode. It exists for those that get into the story, but don’t want to get stuck on a challenge. When a game like this has so many elements it might be that you get enamored with one, but can’t get into it as easy as you’d like because of another.
TYF: In some form or another, you’ve been working on Iconoclasts for an extremely long time. What is it like working on your own to produce a project like this?
Sandberg: It’s not recommended, in hindsight. Unless you know how to manage your life! It wore me down socially and mentally, but at least I somehow got to the finish line. But it’ll take me a long time to truly think about how I feel about all the parts of making it, however dark that sounds, haha. If anyone considers a similar game to make, reconsider it twice, then remember that you should not bank on it being a huge success and accrue debts, or sacrifice friendships. Take weekends. These are always my recommendations now, before I even tell people my game design recommendations.
TYF: By all accounts, Iconoclasts has already become a fan favorite and critically well received. There is a thriving fan Discord and the game has an 87 on Metacritic. Was there a moment you can think of where you knew this game was going to be a hit?
Sandberg: I have a hard time expecting much, haha. The game has done pretty well, definitely for someone like me working on his own without having things to repay after I was done. All I really did when making the game was try to tell a story in a way I would prefer it in a context of a sidescroller 2D game, more than sticking to too many tropes (though the game consciously starts out that way). I think that if there are fluctuations in opinions, but scores are generally still high, I did something more unique.
TYF: Iconoclasts quickly reveals itself to be about a religious organization that rules the planet while abusing its people. I’m not sure how familiar you are with America’s relationship with religiosity; but as a former Evangelical Christian I found a lot of the One Concern’s teachings and behavior to be very similar to that experience. Are you or have you been a religious person?
Sandberg: I’m a cliché Swede in that I am either agnostic or atheist. Contrary to the cliché I’d say many more Swedes are agnostic than atheist. It’s just human nature. We function better if we sometimes have something to blame, or something to thank, for the things out of our control. Unfortunately that also sometimes means blaming other people. It’s these societal group behaviors that always fascinated me. More so today than when I started Iconoclasts back in my early, naive 20’s. If I started today the plot would probably be even more indulgent with these themes.
Devotion, not just religious, is a lot of what drives the world these days, and how easily exploitable some groups are. But also that every person had a life that lead to where they are today. A lot of “evil” people become that way solely because they are driven by voluntary ignorance to the world around them, or acting on what is expected of them. All of this sounds very lofty, but those are the feelings that drive my narrative ideas. I just very much enjoy watching how the world unfolds, and why it does, in my own way. I say enjoy, it very rarely unfolds in a positive way these days. If I made another narrative-driven game it’d probably be even darker.
TYF: Was any part of Iconoclasts meant to call back to your own experiences in any way?
If not, how did you come to settle on religion as a backbone for Iconoclasts?
Sandberg: A lot of the main characters are a piece of me. Me worrying if making the game is a mistake, experiences I had growing up, feelings I had if I belonged, and so on. When it comes to religion, that part is just a catch-all for society as a whole. You could make religious analogies to our dependencies on technology. Finding a group we feel we belong in and that answers questions that used to give us anxiety for their lack of concrete answers makes us happier, at least in the short term. Literal religion has its problems with its established rules, but in the same sense the iron grip of some politics or corporations dictates the world and people as well.
Religion, in a narrative, is a useful comparison to these things from the real world, to me. I’m not out to attack a specific one. Though to be fair, some extreme ‘supposed’ Christians have been pretty bad lately!
TYF: A scene that particularly stuck with me involves a character talking about the One Concern’s “thoughts and prayers” and calls them fake. Again, you may be familiar with the current American political situation, but this struck me as a comment those politics. Am I reading too much into this?
Sandberg: You can read into it as you’d like. It is definitely an offshoot of faith solving things for you. The “you” being the person giving condolences. “I don’t have to do more than this, I gave my prayers”. In the exact context of that scene, Elro is incredibly frustrated with his life and the questionable passing of his father, and this simple platitude, that to someone who is very weary with the world or depressed, becomes the last straw to break the back.
That is definitely based on my opinion of the expression. It is a catch-all-tragedies response, and honestly means nothing. The person saying it may mean well, but to the victim more and more often just comes off like a greeting card kind of response for something that truly impacted them.
TYF: Of the members of Iconoclasts’ cast, do you have a favorite?
Sandberg: As a dumb man who likes some things, Mendeleev is visually my favorite and my greatest indulgence, haha. But to be more serious, I am very happy with the plotline for Black, as many others seem to agree. But I also am happy with the arc Elro goes through. He isn’t a good guy, judged by his actions, but that’s not the point. The point is seeing his line of thinking, and what he might feel is expected of him to need to do. Faulted characters are much more interesting, and everyone is faulty somehow.
TYF: I’ve read before that your influences for this game come from your different opinions of certain franchises – such as liking Metroid Fusion more than Super Metroid. In that spirit, what is your favorite unconventional opinion of a popular game franchise?
Sandberg: Hard question. Not really sure what kind of response you’re after. *laughs* If you’re looking for blunt opinions, I guess how – though I love Dark Souls – those games get credit for a story that isn’t there. It is a lot of magical nonsense in item descriptions that due to its nature of not being tied into a clear narrative is connected together by the players, or people that unconsciously are better storytellers than the developers, but still giving the latter the credit. It’s pretty fun. It’s fine, I just like to see these things as they are.
But closer to games that have to do with Iconoclasts, I think that people ask for non-linearity like Super Metroid had, but nobody would ever have the patience for it anymore. Nintendo knows it. People will complain when Samus Returns lets you use power to fill out the map anywhere, and how the game is more linear, but far fewer people would finish the game if it did things that Super (Metroid) did. Things like needing to find a secret block in an elevator room for the main path to beat the game. Or knowing that *this* specific lava is just pretend lava.
TYF: Are you playing any games right now?
Sandberg: I play the same, very few games, for a long time. I still play Dark Souls 3 and Overwatch. I played some PUBG until it got too annoying for me. Not much more than that at the moment. I like to find two or three new games a year I can obsess over, rather than play 30.
TYF: Finally, Iconoclasts has been a long time in the making, and it could be said with this new update, you’re still making it. With this release, would you say you have finally finished Iconoclasts?
Sandberg: I think so. There isn’t more story to tell that wouldn’t either detract from what I wanted to say, or detract from what fans have imagined.