Road to the IGF: ThroughLine Games' Forgotton Anne
This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Gamasutra had a chat with Alfred Nguyen, Creative Director and Producer for the Excellence in Visual Art-nominated Forgotton Anne, about the game's themes of finding identity in a consumerist and conformist culture, as well as the thoughts that went into making players feel like they're exploring a full world of creatures both realistic and fantastic.
From animated film to games
My name is Alfred Nguyen, and I’m the Creative Director and Producer on Forgotton Anne.
I went to the National Film School of Denmark and planned to make animated movies back in 2004, but over the course of the program, we were introduced to game development as well, collaborating with other university students to form teams and make game prototypes. That was my introduction to making games.
Before then, I’d always played and enjoyed games, but the technical side of it had always been a barrier to imagining how games could be made. Since graduating, I’ve been working in a variety of roles on games and animation films, mainly mobile games, before founding ThroughLine Games in 2014 with the aim to combine both my passion for storytelling and love for games.
Exploring identity in a consumerist & conformist culture
With the amount of work that goes into realizing a game, I knew I wanted to conceive of a concept that was vast in its imagination and the possibilities it offered to delve into themes I was preoccupied with. These relate to forming one’s identity amidst a consumerist and conformist culture, to what I call the ‘circle’ of neglect, where negative thoughts and how you were brought up kind of effects how you treat others. So, the whole premise of Forgotton Anne is built on a worldview of people in modern societies having lost empathic connection with each other, leading us to treat each other as objects.
Once we started fleshing out the concept of the Forgotten Lands, things just evolved, and new, interesting questions were posed, and we just went along as interesting issues were discovered that felt natural to explore due to the plot and journey of the main character.
Creating a playable animated feature
Visually, my personal drawing style has always leaned towards the Ghibli style of anime, and, coming from an animation film background, the combination of painted backgrounds and traditional animation was a natural approach to the project. This was also because part of our mission was to create a playable animated feature -- to focus on seamlessness and blur the lines between cinematic cutscenes and gameplay in a 2D game.
Our art director brought a lot realism to the environments with rich details and helped create a very dense atmosphere with a feeling of depth that we wanted the game to possess despite it being a 2D game.
We specifically did not want the Forgotten Lands to be interpreted like it was all inside the mind of a person, but rather a sprawling place that really existed with a population of Forgotlings living there.
Animations lead animator Debbie Ekberg was the perfect person to bear the responsibility of bringing the characters to life with a sensitivity and a style she was comfortable with, since she has studied and worked in Japan. We never aimed at emulating a specific style, but instead drew on each of our individual strengths and shared sources of inspiration to arrive at the visual end result.
Developing a world to get lost in
For the visual style, I’ve worked with the art director before, so I knew I wanted the richness in detail in the environments that he is capable of creating, and which gives the world a true sense of place. One should be able to lose themselves in the world, feeling it extended beyond the borders of the screen, and so we used the camera a lot, along with cinematic effects, to pull in the player.
Sometimes, when you are overwhelmed with details, you become more immersed in the experience as you are forced to focus more intently on specific things. The player should get to a point where they stop admiring the craftsmanship behind the visuals and just believe that they are in an expansive and fantastical world.
How Forgotton Anne's visual style affected the game's development
Because we wanted to give a great sense of depth to the world, and utilize that depth gameplay-wise, we had to totally restructure how the environments were set up mid-way through production to accommodate the player character being able to move more realistically between interaction planes.
We also did not want to have filler sections in the game so that the story could have a nice, steady pace of progression, but this also meant a lot of unique environments and graphical assets of large sizes. We ended up with over 5000 frames for Anne alone, and had to create custom tools to manage all the sprites in the game. Kudos to technical artists and programmers who actually make it possible for the artists to express themselves more freely.
The amount of work this created for setting up the world also meant there was a limit to how vast a world we could create for the player to explore. So, for some places, like the City in the game, we had to be creative to be able to have good synergy between storytelling, gameplay, and also giving a sense that you are in a big space.
The realistic and naturalistic visual style of the game also lent itself to infusing the navigational and platforming gameplay with more gravity, weight, and precision than most other 2D platformers on the market. This definitely presented challenges in implementation, and in the end, partly shaped the pacing of the game. There are a lot of stairs in the game as it didn’t make sense for a world to be built around jumping around.
Script-wise, it also had a tonal effect, as the game’s visual realism forced us to take the fictional world seriously despite the quirky and inherently funny concept of forgotlings, and so we had to strike a balance in the game’s humor that did not take away suspension of disbelief.
On creating living objects both fantastic and realistic
The Forgotling creatures are a big part of the world of Forgotton Anne, and we went through a long process to arrive at the right look that blended with the environment and human characters. With their designs, I knew I didn’t want this to be a typical Disney type of tale, and so anthropomorphizing them with eyes would break the ‘grounded fantasy’ look we were aiming for.
Another thing with the animation style was that we were careful not to use too much ‘Squash and Stretch’ which is a great technique in animation, but lessened the believability of the world. It was a fun challenge to find traits in objects that could be used for expressions and be a substitution for limbs when they have to move about. With many forgotlings, though, we had to give them accessories which both added to their personality and helped communicate what was supposed to be their eyes, faces, or limbs.
The forgotlings might have been the aspect that I was most nervous about in terms of the whole visual experience, as they could easily risk becoming too cartoony and undermining some story elements, or fall too much to the other end of the spectrum where they would lack imagination and personality which was crucial also to the sense of wonder we wanted to instill in the player.
In the end, I’m happy we hit a sweet spot where they felt equally realistic as objects to me as they are individuals with quirky distinct personalities. Our in-house forgotling specialist, Alexander Kramerov, really brought these to life with the animations, which were a key element in their expression.
Using visuals to tell stories and engage the player
There is nothing more satisfying than having imagery and audio connect together with the underlying emotions you want to instill in the player. Just as with the music of the game, in which we tried to use the full range of sounds and emotions possible with an orchestra, we tried to make use of all the visual verbs we had at our disposal to help tell the story in a given scene.
Light and shadow are used to direct the player’s attention as well as for setting a mood, while the drab blue landscape you have been traversing for half of the game stands in great contrast to the lush green forest Anne finds herself in at one point. Depth of field directs focus to an interaction plane or specific elements and gives a sense of depth, while using foreground elements to obscure the view adds mystery and a sense of being there.
General cinematic tricks, including use of a dynamic camera, adds a lot of authorial control. With just the camera, we can compose a beautiful frame, increase intimacy in a scene with zooms and close-ups, as well as pull the camera back to reveal more of the world, adding to a sense of discovery.
With the Forgotten Lands we were very free to envision how it looked like, so mixing familiar architecture with unusual shapes or details went a long way in sparking the imagination of the player and propelling them forward. There are also no loading screens or Game Over states in Forgotton Anne, so in a way, it is the equivalent of a doing a one-take in cinema with no cuts, which subconsciously makes the player forget about time as they are continuously stimulated.