Between the Seams - Design with a Center on Anne
Very early on, upon planning what was to be the experience of Anne’s emotional journey which is the core of the game’s story, we realized that each person on the creative team was leaning towards keeping Anne’s and the player’s presence as one. That realization grew from a buzzword of sorts between the art and design teams into a distilled core pillar of the intended experience.
Many other games that heavily influence some aspects of our game use the 2D camera as a means to communicate design, behavioral intentions, and effectively render information on the screen. For Forgotton Anne and the core experience, we started thinking about the camera very much as if we were filming with intent. We now had a direction. Staying with Anne.
There is a whole other chapter that can be explored about all the thinking that went into constructing the framework for the camera movement, the dynamic camera pans and zooms into the drama and the action. But I will focus on how we constructed the “scenes” or levels with that framework in mind.
With the pillar of Presence embedded, the environments had to cater to that need, and became part of facilitating that naturalistic feel. The way that we approached level design was constructing sets to Anne’s story. A story about moving on, which, in perhaps a funny way, is the mentality that level design has adopted about the spaces the player moves in this naturalistic manner.
Visually, sometimes entire rooms and locations are popping up behind a door when Anne turns the door handle, and since the player also moves on a 3D space, with corridors and stairs leading further in and out of spaces, the construction of each “set” is becoming more of an assortment of conceptual physical LEGO-like pieces.
Therefore, naturally not all the rooms and levels or “scenes” as they are called in the Unity engine can easily overlap with one another. That is because a foreground element that we need in one room inside a building to set a tone or a framing, for example, could overlap with another environment or a gameplay element outside the same building that we would need in order to emphasize or exaggerate something. So, sometimes two set pieces that were meant to be one behind the other, are actually set in a different physical space and then connected by a special door that “teleports” Anne and the camera to the other room, while creating the illusion that Anne is just stepping in somewhere.
In a film, because those two rooms would be different sets, the camera would cut the action, and the actors would move in a different location, or they would film it at another time when the set had been changed. That would mean that you would have a 'cut' between the two scenes. But for us, because it was very important to “stay with Anne,” we had to take care of some extra details to maintain the seamless experience.
For example: when Anne turns the handle to open a door to such a distant room, the animation of her walking in, is tweaked in accordance with the animation of the camera, making a slight fade before it teleporting you to the other space. However, during that slight second, we never stop Anne from moving in her relative space, even though she is 'teleported'. Now the mind of the player fills in that gap of motion during the fade, feeling as something I would describe as a natural blink. This might sound very obvious, but we found that we had to tweak little values like that here and there when we transitioned the player.
With that physicality of motion in mind, despite playing a 2D game, most of the times we were intuitively thinking of gameplay and camera movement that support this kind of presence, creating an interesting loop in how a concept informs execution and execution feeds back to concept. Besides the inevitable dealing with gameplay design aspects, to place and construct the levels, special consideration was given to staging the scenes, as someone would for a long take on a film shooting, or a “oner” as they call them.
A more complicated but more interesting example of such setup would be when Anne is boarding the Train to go after the Rebels. To pull off that seamless gameplay sequence, we needed to synchronize 3 different gameplay sets and one seamless transition to an in-game animated cutscene set. Also important is that the train sequence is endlessly in loop, unless Anne solves a puzzle, so we needed a traditional setup of a moving environment as well.
From a conceptual point, this again is very simple. The complication arises when the train needs to arrive half broken to the main station, after Anne solves a puzzle on it. From a technical point of view, it was very hard and unstable to move an entire level with many delicate systems and actors and crash it into another level. But.. as a player, we never stop.. and we always stay with Anne. That means that I was tasked with creating an illusion that an entire level is moving with the player and is landing on another level.
I got excited by the chance to finally use a trick used in cinema editing in a dynamic game, where very long takes are seamed together to form a film that seemingly never stops the take. Usually the camera follows the actor or the action and then at some point a very fast foreground element passes very close to the camera, creating a natural frame of total darkness. In this dark frame the editors and filmmakers cut the film and add the next which starts with a dark frame as well, creating this illusion that we just swept by a lamp post, while the actors and everything in the scene was reset to film the next sequence.
The real Train level is static, with all its systems in place. However, like a theater piece, it has some looping moving elements in the background to create the illusion of buildings passing by and perpetual motion. I have also constructed an identical fake Train that was part of the Train Station level's environment that was placed higher but aligned in the same horizontal axis as the “real” Train level.
The train’s environment gave me the perfect opportunity to use the swooping-by foreground elements when the camera zooms out. I had a replica foreground element that blackens the camera every time it passes by on both trains.
When it's time for the train to start moving towards the station, we used the timing of the swooping foreground to cut to the replica train that now actually moves to the station instead of being static. When the camera cuts to the replica train we also move the player there and when both the train and Anne arrive at the station, the player has no idea that the set around them was changed in that instance.
The game is riddled with small trick transitions and loading elements like that and while it was always an imperative task for us to create this seamless experience and reinforce the sense of presence and the sense of immersion with Anne, its feels like an additional reward to us, blending very traditional photo-mechanical tricks with our love of cinema and games to create something cohesive.