Artist for Games Like Hotline Miami and Else Heart.Break(), Niklas Akerblad Interview with Timothy Courtney

Interview Published: 03/24/2016

Timothy Courtney interviews Niklas Akerblad, an indie artist who has created iconic art for games like Hotline Miami, Kometen, and Else Heart.Break().

Timothy Courtney: Where did you grow up, and how do you think it influenced you most?

Niklas Akerblad: I grew up in Gothenburg Sweden, not sure how that influenced me most. But the weather is pretty bad so there was alot of time to sit inside and draw.

What are some fond memories from your childhood? What kinds of things did you like to do as a kid?

Just generally being able to do what I wanted and not deal with grown-up bs. Being free and leading a simple life. My most favourite things to do was drawing and playing videogames. Maybe reading comics too, I did that alot, but videogames probably took up more time.

What is the first art you can remember making?

Kinda hard question to answer since "art" is subjective and I might've had the same feeling while drawing monsters at the age of four as when spending two weeks on a canvas, pondering some deep subject. But the first real "piece" I did while recently having found out I wanted to become an artist was this weird portrait of a being wearing tights and a scary mask.

Did you look up to anyone locally growing up, as a creative-type or artist that you wanted to be like?

Not locally no. We don't have alot of weird creative individuals in Gothenburg, not at the time at least. I was more into my comic heroes Stan Sakai, Moebius and whoever those artists where who created the covers for my Sega MegaDrive games. Later I found Edward Hopper, Stan Sakai and Moebius (Jean Giraud) and wanted to paint like them. I never really wanted to be anybody other than myself.

Some people get struck when they get a commision or make something personal that felt satisfying. What was the moment when you knew... art, that's it for me.

I always knew I wanted to draw and create. At first I worked for a game company creating concept art. It was probably around that time I realized I wanted to do my own art and not just draw cool characters. I wanted something more out of them. There was a mystery there I wanted to explore.

How did you learn about art, and did you ever receive formal training? How much did you have to practice to get your skill level to where it is?

No formal training. I discovered pretty early on that schools just wanted to try and conform my techniques into old patterns. To follow the "rules". Something I find preposterous. Art is for me pure freedom. There are no rules. The only thing rules does is narrow your mindset of what can be done. So I just followed my passion and kept drawing and making stuff. Learning as I went.

Your art is vibrant with color, and I maybe see a lot of Dia de Muertos influence in some of your color choices and faces. Is that an influence for you, and if not, where does that come from?

I think it's just a coincidence, or maybe a reincarnative thing, that I find skulls and masks interesting (for me they represent the lies grown-ups feed us as kids and the social codes we hide behind to protect our true selves for fear of rejection). Also, Mexican Muertos art use a very basic color palette with high saturation, something I do too, and I think that is just the product of not being classically trained. It's sort of considered ugly to use basic fully saturated colors in art-school, the colors are supposed to "wander throughout the whole picture".

A lot of people are familiar with the poster you did for Jonatan Soderstrom and Dennis Wedin, depicting Hotline Miami. What was the mission they gave you for that? Were they specific about what they wanted, and what was the process like creating it?

They just wanted something that was similar to the Double Dragon cover and they also wanted to use like eighties VHS cover cliches. Within those guidelines I had pretty much the ability to do whatever I wanted. I don't remember much of the process. I generally just get to it and find my way as I go. But I usually start out with a sketch and if I don't get a good idea at first I tend to randomly look at pictures on the internet or in my artbooks to see if anything comes to mind.

As you've evolved as an artist, how has your color choices changed? Do you still have the same taste? What have you learned about color?

Maybe I'm just trying out different combos more. Or I've become increasingly conformed in my choices. I would like to think that generally my choices might be less bold but more focused and the over all results are more dynamic and less flimsy. I try not to be too academic in my thoughts about art or analyze the processes since I find that sort of breaks the magic. I just try to channel whatever energy and emotion I have to be as honest as possible in my work.

You're usually working on a new painting. Where do you think that drive really comes from?

Mostly boredom. I suck at procrastinating. Everyday life can be so mundane. Art is an adventure. So I want to explore as much as possible before I die. It is just a very strong calling. I'm compelled to do it! And it keeps me away from decadent destructive behavior. But I have all these ideas in my head all the time and for every one painting I get like three new ideas. So they're piling up!

A lot of your work is of 'people' in one way or another. Is that your favorite subject to paint, and if not, what would it be and why?

Humans just interest me. The interaction and the isolation of the soul. Humans always seek familiarity and contact with one another. But it is a sad irony that we are utterly unable to truly make an honest connection; we are simply unable to fully communicate the intense overwhelming sensation of self awareness in our individual consciousness. It's a sad paradox that I find interesting.

But then there are ofcourse other underlying themes such as oppression, love and stupidity.

What's a typical day like for you, when you're on, being productive?

Get up. Drink some coffee, check my email and turn on some soundtrack to suit the mood. Usually something instrumental. Then I just get to it! If the cogs are clogged up I drink a little wine or smoke a little weed in the afternoon. It's cheating but whatever, everyone else is addicted to their iPhone so....

You worked on Kometen and else Heart.Break() with Erik Svedang. What was the moment you started thinking about games as a vehicle for your art or was it more about games for you?

I've been in love with videogames since I was a kid so it just seemed natural. And I actually started out my artistic endevours in a professional while working at a videogame company. Working with computers can be a good balance towards traditional art since it forces you to be more practical. Sort of helping you keep your feet on the ground.

I believe development of else Heart.Break() went on for atleast a couple years. How much did you get involved with game design on that?

Not much at all. Erik wanted to do his thing and I wanted to do mine. Luckily we have alot of mutual respect for each other which created this natural awareness of what the other was doing. So whatever we did hardly ever clashed.

Do you see yourself getting more into game design in the future as far as possible indie game projects go? Do you have any prototypes cooking?

I don't know. I'm pretty content just creating art at the moment. Since else Heart.Break was a really draining project I feel it's OK to put games on the shelf for a while. Ofcourse I have dreams of various projects in the future though but we'll have to wait and see where that ends up.

What are some games you really like to play, be it AAA or indie?

Mostly games that try to do something new without gimmicks. A general sense of honest exploration rooted in classic gaming. Bloodborne is a recent title that has COMPLETELY consumed me and it might very well be the best thing I've played since Silent Hill back in 1999. A perfect blend between beauty and horror, complexity and straightforwardness. Plus the world and lore is some of the best ever written. I love it when developers really manage to create believable weird worlds.

What is something you'd really like to explore in art that you haven't gotten the chance to do yet?

Maybe Comics! It seems really hard to do but I'm intrigued and I have ideas that I want to try.

When you're not painting and working on video games, what else are you really into?

I like to make music and I also like to..... wave around my wakizashi, juggle with knifes and play the cajon.

Is there a turning point you think really helped you breakthrough with your music?

Shelby Cinca played guitar on Daisuke which was the indisputable breakthrough for my music.

What advice can you give to someone starting out who wants to be an artist like you?

Just go your own way and do what you want to do. Don't think about practical things or building a career.

Focus on your passion and always try to be curious about everything. The worst thing I know is all those artists who seem to find their "thing" and then just keep doing that until they die.

Being an artist is a very solitary exercise and you might be questioned alot for your choices in life but stay strong and believe in yourself and you will be awesome. And for the love of the Great Ones DON'T measure your worth in money.

How can people follow you and your work?

El Huervo on instagram, facebook and bandcamp or my tumblr.

💘 Interview by Timothy Courtney

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