From Iceland — Chasing The Phantom Spark: The Iceland-made racing game that’s gathering real momentum

Chasing The Phantom Spark: The Iceland-made racing game that’s gathering real momentum

Published April 19, 2024

Chasing The Phantom Spark: The Iceland-made racing game that’s gathering real momentum
Photo by
Art Bicnick/The Reykjavík Grapevine
Phantom Spark/Supplied Game Stills

You are an iridescent bug, skating at high velocity across a wide, glassy surface. You speed effortlessly forward, arcing smoothly between coppery pillars and rusty ruins, finding the path of least resistance — a graceful, chitinous speed skater. Ahead, a ghostly shape traces the same racing line. Your senses sharpen as you try to shave seconds off your time and close the gap, until it happens — you overtake at the last gasp and streak over the finish line. You slump back in your chair with a mixture of relief and elation as “New Personal Best” flashes on the screen.

The game is Phantom Spark, a stylish time-trial racing game that’s been in development since 2021. Its makers are Jonatan Van Hove (ludonym: Joon) and Torfi Ásgeirsson, an independent game developer duo working out of their cosy office in the creative space. They met through the Reykjavík indie games scene and worked together on Jonatan’s successful 2021 title NUTS. It was in the wake of that release that a new idea started to form.

“I had been working on a prototype vehicle controller,” says Torfi, “figuring out the physics of how the vehicle should behave; how it should move, jump and collide. I landed on a version that I thought was pretty promising and decided to continue evolving that prototype. And that became Phantom Spark.”

Passing the controller

Torfi and Jonatan quickly realised they were onto something when playtesting early track designs. “We found ourselves passing the controller back and forth,” says Jonatan, “not actually racing against each other, but competing to shave milliseconds off each other’s best time. It was compelling and convinced us that we could build a game around constantly improving and learning to be a better driver.”

The idea proved to be a good one and after pitching some publishers, the pair inked a deal with Coatsink and Thunderful. With funding in place, work could begin in earnest. The next challenge would be to try and evoke that same competitive instinct in solo players.

“We had to get people to care about their times the way that we’d come to care about them,” explains Torfi. “It wasn’t trivial and took a lot of figuring out. We added a narrative structure and champions who challenge you to beat their time. So even if you’re playing alone, there’s someone to race against.”

Ghosts and Champions

Players can repeat each track endlessly, racing against champions and the “ghost” of their last attempt. “The ghosts are very important,” says Torfi. “They are where the ‘phantom’ in the name comes from. They act as your competition, but they also offer guidance. You can try to copy their racing line and find the best way to take on each track.”

The final game will include both local multiplayer and online leaderboards, so players around the world can see how they measure up against one another. Players can race each other’s ghosts, picking up new tricks in doing so. “You can see the other player’s movements and learn from them,” Torfi explains. “Each track becomes a puzzle to be solved.”

We found ourselves passing the controller back and forth, shaving milliseconds off each other’s best time.

Learning and improving are key elements of playing Phantom Spark. The game includes short challenges designed to teach players key manoeuvres, like how to take corners and chicanes at high speed. As races and challenges are completed, new ones unlock, creating a feeling of constant progression.

“There are three champions to race against,” says Jonatan. “The first is very supportive and talks about how you’re on a journey to enlightenment. They encourage you and tell you not to get frustrated when it’s difficult, that it’s not important to be the best. Another is really competitive. He’s intentionally kind of a jerk. So of course, you feel more competitive racing against him.”

Castles and clouds

The setting of the game is a character in itself. The initial tracks have a dreamy sci-fi vibe, leading players on a weaving journey between strange ruins, cast in the luminous palette of oxidised copper. It’s the work of art director Joost Eggermont.

“We were super lucky to find him,” says Torfi. “When I was making the first prototypes for this game, I had recently started following him on Twitter and I was already fantasising about how cool it would be to make a racing gun game with his art.”

As luck would have it, Joost was looking for a new project. “He was an incredible discovery,” says Jonatan. “It can’t be overstated how much work he’s done. I feel like the aesthetic we’ve ended up with is something that you might need a ten person team for. We were able to do it with three three full time people and some external help.”

Joost’s dreamlike art, combined with the game’s silky, free-flowing movement, create a sense of lightness that permeates Phantom Spark. “I think ‘dreamy’ is a good way to put it,” muses Torfi. “The environments intentionally feel a little bit unreal, with all the castles and clouds.”

Nearing the finish line

As the game nears completion, the effort to raise awareness amongst players is ramping up. A new trailer was shown at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in March and Torfi says there’ll be a demo for people to try before the game is released widely this summer. The two are quietly optimistic about the game’s release, and hope that its sense of gentle competition and optimistic self betterment will connect with a wide audience.

“It’s always important to improve and be a better version of yourself,” finishes Jonatan. “That’s what the high level concept of the game is. It’s about acknowledging what it’s like to play these kinds of games—building up a skill and deriving enjoyment from that. ‘Enlightenment’ is a big word — but there’s definitely a kind of personal enrichment to be found.”

Phantom Spark will release on PlayStation, Xbox, Switch, PC and Mac in summer 2024. You can wishlist the game now on Steam and check out the trailer on YouTube.

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