Generation Zero’s new Cold War trades on the authenticity of childhood memories

Avalanche Studios’ game director explains the thrill of nostalgic game design and the untold history behind his homeland

Generation Zero

Generation Zero and its rendition of 1980s Sweden is built upon a single question: what happens when your enemy is both there and not there at all? It’s a Cold War question, fitting of the game’s setting, and one that manifests in two forms. In this alternative history, a very real chill that threatens to wipe out life has swept across the east coast of the Scandinavian landscape. But the more immediate danger in Avalanche’s post-apocalyptic co-op game takes the form of an army of menacing machines.

Generation Zero sees you and your friends team up as young adults who have returned from an island-hopping outing to find the tranquil Sweden they once knew consumed by a robot invasion. Those metal monstrosities would like nothing better than to blow you to smithereens and fight over your ostentatious ‘80s sunglasses. It’s up to you to scavenge this eerily vacant world to find the gear to protect yourself and unravel what happened. It’s that, or you have planted your last potato, as Swedes would say.

That’s the phrase game director Emil Kraftling uses when he talks to us, at least. He goes on to talk about his upbringing in 1980s Sweden, what it means to make a game about your childhood, and how the decade of Top Gun, the mixtape, and Bon Jovi fits into a serious story about world powers jostling for domination.

PCGamesN: What does Generation Zero say about Sweden?

Emil Kraftling: It says a lot about Sweden during the Cold War and how we were in a unique position as a neutral nation. We were right on the border between east and west so we were very important to both sides. And that played into both the policies of Sweden at the time and the mindset of everyone living there. We knew that we had 200 miles of coast that bordered Russian waters, and throughout its rich history, Russia has been an ancient adversary of ours many times. We call it Russian fear, or fear of the Russians.

There have been times where they have not been our adversary at all – we’ve been allies at certain points during the Napoleonic wars, for instance – but there’s this sensation of this big dangerous thing, the East, that we don’t quite know and that definitely permeated the minds of Swedes during the Cold War and after.

Generation Zero

Do you feel like the historical moment of Generation Zero’s 1980s setting is relevant to today’s turbulent world?

Yes, in a good and bad way. Mostly bad. The geopolitical situation has become relevant again – things like defence and protecting yourself. As part of the research for making the game we called a bunch of Sweden’s different municipalities and authorities to get permission to go and take reference photos of old civil defence bunkers. Many years after the Cold War ended they were opened and people were able to go and look, or they were sold off because the threat wasn’t there anymore.

But many of the people we call now say, ‘no, we can’t do that anymore because we’re actually putting them to use again because of the geopolitical situation’. So it’s definitely both in terms of the threat of a new Cold War and the geopolitical landscape reverting back to how it was, as well as this potential threat of AI or machines, that’s also really relevant.

Since many publishers aim to avoid politics in their games, is the fact that you can do that a benefit of self-publishing?

This is not something that’s really front and centre in the game. For most people playing the game it’ll be a guerrilla action game. Mostly you can look like a cool ‘80s character and fight these awesome machines. And then the backstory and the world storytelling has this history grounded in reality. And that’s a way for us to just make the setting authentic rather than for political commentary.

It’s more about telling the story and then there are many different conclusions you can draw from that history or from history in general. We’re not saying specifically in the game that this is the conclusion we draw. That’s not because we don’t want to say something, but more that this is probably not the game or the audience where it’s most relevant to do so.

Generation Zero

So who is your audience?

We want to appeal to our existing fanbase, people who like Avalanche games, but we also want to tap into people who like survival games. It’s also an action game at its heart, but there are also these slower-paced, ominous moments and exploration opportunities that’s intermixed with high intensity combat. Mostly we want players who appreciate freedom or freedom in how to take on both things in the long and short term.

Will Generation Zero be on the Epic Games store?

I honestly don’t know. It will definitely be on Steam, for sure, we love Steam. They’ve been really great for us and we have a great relationship with them. There’s not going to be an exclusive and that’s as far as I know.

What is it like to reminisce on your childhood through game design?

It’s a dream come true – something that I never thought I would be able to do. To have an idea that’s come from yourself, and to have that made into a game, very few people get to experience that. Often that’s because there are other things or other people above you deciding to instead make an endless stream of sequels.

And then, in addition, to have it be about your childhood and where you grew up in the place that you know best in the world, it’s unique but not uncommon – you see a lot of studios tapping into that. Telling a story is sharing what you know, and if you don’t tell what you know, it’s not going to be a good story.

So a lot of studios, especially independent ones, touch on where they are. You have the STALKER developers who did something that’s very close to them. I think you see that authenticity come across and even though I who don’t know those things, I intimately appreciate them, so I hope that we can get that across with Generation Zero.

Generation Zero

Did you learn anything by revisiting your childhood in making the game?

I learned that I probably have some cheat codes in my childhood because I won a lot more than I do in the game. But I definitely learned things about Sweden in the ‘80s. So I was still a kid then and shielded from some of the things that happened, even though I picked up on them.

Someone always knew someone who had seen a bunker or close up of a military thing. And, when I grew up, we had a shooting range a couple of miles away. So every now and then you could hear this rumbling artillery fire. I didn’t really know what that was at the time. It was just ever present and that’s something that I now see was everywhere. This really permeated our society.

There’s a symbol for a bomb shelter that’s posted on the side of buildings and so you can easily find them and I didn’t really think much about it before. But now I see them everywhere. When I’m going through the street I can go walk 100 metres in any direction and I’ll probably see ten of those signs. Only now, looking back at it, do I sense the stakes that were at play, which as a kid I didn’t pick up on.

How did you get this across to the rest of the team as they developed this world that might not have shared your experience?

Fortunately a lot of them share similar experiences. So there was you an immediate understanding from some that could say, ‘hey, it looks exactly like where I live!’. But then when I was selling it to others it helps to highlight surprising facts. For example, Sweden had the fourth largest air force in the world. People think ‘that’s stupid, you must be making that up’. People respond to aspects of Generation Zero’s world and say ‘yeah, so this sounds pretty cool but they’re a bit far-fetched, your imagination went too far’. No, those things are actually reality.

Also, Sweden, over the course of the Cold War, built more than 40,000 underground shelters, factories, and naval bases. We had one of the most sophisticated coastal defence systems in the world. We had something like 30 defence positions around the coast: three were on the west coast and 27 were on the east coast, so that was indication of where we expected the threat to come from. There’s a lot of that history that I don’t think the world really knows inside or outside of Sweden so I was eager to be able to share it with Generation Zero.

Generation Zero

How is a serious tone maintained in a co-op game with emotes and outlandish customisation options?

We wanted to be creative and already in the beta we saw people doing crazy stuff, and we love it. They are the sort of games we used to make but we we didn’t want to do the ‘80s just for the sake of doing weird costumes or stereotypes. We still wanted to it to feel authentically ‘80s but let people pick up on the music and the styles of the decade.

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That’s part of why we chose to have you to play as young adults instead of just regular adults. This allows us to tap into all of the subcultures that existed and create a sense of variety not just for the sake of variety, but so that when you play together you can create characters that feel different and feel like this is your character, that no one else’s looks exactly like yours.

How does Generation Zero being a self-published game affect sales expectations? Is there less pressure?

The pressure is definitely there as we still want to release something that people enjoy. That is the most important thing to us because we have done triple-A games and we’re known for them, but it’s more about handling the expectations of players that beyond the price point, yes, this is a £29.99 game.

But, beyond that, we want people to understand that this is not a game with a massive budget. We have made choices and made them deliberately; you won’t get everything you get in every other game. But we still think this is a good experience and the fact that we’re going to continue to expand on it makes it a good deal for players.

At the same time, we have so much triple-A experience, we know how to release stable games or polish where where it’s most important to. We know where to let go of it and say awesome is better than perfect. So as long as people can do crazy stuff and have fun, it doesn’t have to be picture perfect everywhere. Hopefully we’ve struck the right balance.