How do Video Games Speak?
Video games are an amalgamation of different types of creative media under a banner of interaction. This can lead to new clashes between our notions of how traditional media express themselves. Most people are aware of how a film expresses itself: more or less a sequence of moving pictures often accompanied by an audio track, statically defined in a specific amount of time. But how does a video game express itself? One way is in its dynamic, almost quantic nature of change based on interaction from the audience - or rather, the player. The game is ‘on’ for as long as the player keeps the game running. It is actively waiting for the player to participate, demanding that they ‘do something about their situation’. The underlying, programmed system of a game is “awaiting orders” as it listens to player input, processes the input and compares it to its programmed laws of behavior, yielding a response back to the player.
Given the traditional static and linear nature of cinematic storytelling, what can we expect of its meeting with the chaotic, dynamic nature of a system awaiting orders?
The answer depends on the given project, on dedicated and conscious efforts to prevent potential conflicts, as well as on anticipating situations in which the strengths of either can be applied.
A Marriage of Story, Art and Gameplay
The first thing to do is to observe the foundational aspects of a project. What is it about a given project that should stand out the most when experiencing it?
Some games are founded on a gameplay idea coupled with a story - the foundation of which the choices of art should adhere to. It could also be a distinct art style lending itself easily to a type of gameplay, upon the foundation of which a story gets created.
In actuality, it can be any variation of this distribution: In this example we see an overarching gameplay idea that both art and narrative will be built on top of. There are, of course, even games completely without a story, like Tetris or Super Hexagon.
For Forgotton Anne, the most important aspects of the experience were:
a) Feeling like you are playing inside an animated film.
b) Experiencing a more serious story with the narrative craft of a movie.
c) 2D Platform gameplay.
Thus, the foundation of the project was the story developed by Creative Director Alfred Nguyen and Lead Writer Morten Brunbjerg, coupled with the anime-inspired art style shared between Art Director Anders Hald and Lead Animator Debbie Ekberg. Therefore, it was important that the gameplay was built to accommodate and accentuate these two pillars.
The most important aspect of the Forgotton Anne experience is thus not about exploring a procedural system. Therefore, the static and linear nature of cinematic storytelling is allowed more space in the design process. Our main concern was to make sure we could properly situate the story we wanted to tell into the anime-inspired art style and 2D landscapes we would come to create. The gameplay parts were then built to underline the being of Anne as she experiences the events taking place around her; considerations which were explored in my earlier blog post. Accepting and being comfortable with gameplay taking “the backseat” can be a challenge, but it can also lead to a better dialogue between the game’s constituent parts. It’s important to be modest, to stand back and give space, not forcing gameplay into the game just for the sake of gameplay. If it enriches the story experience, of course, then it is absolutely welcome.
Layer by Layer
These considerations were made practical when the production started. First, we made a pass through the game where we created the conditions and places for the story to be told, as well as the first sketches of puzzles, platforming, and dialogue scenarios. These areas were made with the design team in perpetual ping-pong between the writer Morten Brunbjerg and Art Director Anders Hald. We took one level at a time, with black and white sketches from Art and Animation being created along the way. Then, once we had a full overview of all the levels and we were able to play it from beginning to end, we made a new write-up of the game, focusing story beats and interactions, making the game design of the levels even more precise. During this, the areas we had created started being locked down, and with that, they could be properly produced and colored - the same with animations, both main and side-characters. For the final third of the production, we’ve had a proper gameplay and game-flow implementation, and we’ve implemented the recorded dialogue and music. Puzzles and other mechanics have been proofed and polished, and bugs are being swatted.
As we are wrapping up the production, it is hard not to look back in awe of what we have accomplished. We have had such high ambitions with this game, and while it’s still up to the receiving audience to tell of their experiences, without a doubt, every part of our game has been made with love and care. We are excited and humbled to see just how all of this is turning out. We have been hard at work for two years in production, we’ve fought for holding onto our ambitions and experiments, and have taken one step at the time. We hope your experience with our game is one that you carry with you in your life, and perhaps even think back on once in awhile.
Thank you for reading!
Valdemar Schultz Andreasen
Lead Game Designer