We recently had an opportunity to speak with three members of the ThoroughLine Games team that's currently putting the finishing touches to Forgotton Anne: lead writer Morten Brunbjerg, animator Sebastian Ljungdahl, and lead game designer Valdemar Schultz Andreasen.
So where did the idea for Forgotton Anne come from?
MB: Well Alfred [Nguyen, creative director] would probably be the best guy to answer this, but very early on I was brought in to help out with the writing, and it was all one big mess in the beginning really about making something about a society that's a wasteful society, and how we're just making new products and we're throwing out the old ones.
So we wanted to do a couple of things. We wanted to tell a story about the wasteful society, at least the parts of the modern society that are very wasteful - we keep buying new devices and throwing the old ones out and all this. And we also wanted to tell a story of neglect, and we tried to combine these two things and that's when the whole setup really came about, around 'where do these things do when we throw these things out and forget about them?' And we started developing this whole world of forgotten objects.
VSA: It's very true what you say Morten, and you and Alfred worked on the story for half a year, a year, until we started full production in January 2016, and there's also this, I guess mutual globalised relationship of what has inspired us growing up. I played a lot of Sierra adventure games and then as the PlayStation came along I also tried the Japanese role-playing games, and for me presence and feeling the places that a game can take you to is very important, and through my education and my work and my thoughts I've also thought a lot about how is 'being' in a game [where] you are different things.
So for this project it was also: how are you Anne? What is it like to be Anne, and what are the situations that you can be presented with as Anne? What asks something important of her? So then Morten and I, and Alfred and the designers, would sit around and really try to find out - well if you're an Enforcer people are probably going to be telling you stuff; do you reflect on that? And then... I don't know how far we should be speaking into the story but let's have that as an outset at least.
Tell us a little bit about the team behind the game. How big are you guys? Where are you guys from? How long have you been developing the game?
VSA: We are around 12 to 15 people depending on the intensity of the production. Right now we are a bit lower because as the game is coming out we are preparing ourselves, and we come from pretty different backgrounds. All of us love games. Alfred has an education from the Danish Film School from the animation line, so he's an animation director and has worked on games prior too, mobile games and other games, and has made his own movies. We have the lead programmer Michael; we have Morten who is by now the go-to guy of writing for games. Are you the only one, almost, in Denmark Morten?
MB: Others are beginning to pop up.
VSA: That's good! The landscape is getting bigger as games are growing. Myself, I have an education in dramaturgy, that's in my Bachelors, then digital design in Masters, and I've even been a performer for interactive theatre, and just love interactivity in general. We have George, who is the game and level designer, he has an artistic background, he's done comic books and stuff like that. He's also very intellectual about films. Debbie and Sebastian are educated from our Japanese school. They have been taught by one of the Studio Ghibli directors, and generally, we just have this amazing crowd. We have one guy from Iceland, one guy from Romania, one from Greece; a lot of different nationalities.
SL: Yeah, both me and the lead animator Debbie, we studied in Japan for four years, and like you mentioned, with the project, when we applied for the jobs we also saw that this project was going for an anime-inspired kind of look, like a Ghibli type of thing, so we both felt that we would probably fit very well with the style or direction of the game after our education.
MB: Yeah, don't forget Anders Hald.
VSA: Oh yeah - Anders, who has done everything that is not moving of the graphical assets, so one guy has made all those backgrounds, all those assets, and is like the wildest one-man army you could think of.
Studio Ghibli seems to have been a big inspiration. Have there been any other key inspirations for you?
MB: Of course the Ghibli one is huge. Even before we started working on this all of us have just loved [it], but also we have several people on the team that just loves Japanese culture, and not necessarily games or animation but just the culture of it, and I think Debbie and Sebastian, they lived there for six years. [...] So we have a lot of people just loving Japanese culture in general, and well, we could talk a long time about the inspiration of games and stuff, and of course a lot of people... I'm in my forties now, so I was very inspired by Prince of Persia and [...] those that people mention when they see Forgotton Anne, which is very nice.
VSA: So I think there's the adventure games, there's the Monkey Island, but there's one of the most common denominators, which is Final Fantasy and probably VII. Although there is this feud inside the company, most of us are exactly from that time where we were around 12, 13 years old when VII came out, I got it for Christmas. I was actually living in Abingdon in the UK back then, and for me also Abe's Odyssey [...] There's some fun things that just melted in, and I guess that's just in our DNA.
The game's very narrative-driven and subtly guided. What was your approach to telling the story and making sure it was the best it could be?
MB: I think one thing we decided very early on was that, yes this was going to be a narrative-driven game, and there will be longer sections of storytelling and dialogue, and that's okay. That's fine. I remember actually, I think two of us were talking at one point and it was like 'alright we're making this decision, it's okay that we have these pauses within gameplay where we have some dialogue', which is, of course, one of our mechanics, the dialogue choices, and that's fine. So yeah, it was a decision very early on that it was going to be like that.
VSA: It was a lot [to do] with founding the core of what we wanted the game to be able to do, knowing - if we peeled everything away - what was the most important. The two pillars that was the most important was the sensation of being inside an animated movie, playing inside an animation movie, and then telling a story that is very important to us, that we wanted to bring something further along.
And so we decided that if in some sense gameplay is the tertiary thing then, what does that lead us to? That leads us to first and foremost making gameplay situations that are placed so that gameplay can be there. How do we situate almost like a stage [...] how do we make it so that the situations you're in look good in a cinematographical way? And again since a lot of us have worked on or have studied film, there was this natural cinematic language, and then there was just like, we want the story to be what unfolds around you, and we want to push out, and there's an actual pushing even in the 2D space, like you're always going either way, obviously, but then we do this semi-3D thing into the depths, and that led us down some places where we can have this almost semi-Metroidvania/Dark-Soulsian thing of trying to connect a lot of the places together.
So it was a bit bold, maybe, to say that the story is so important for us that that's the main dish, and once we have the scenes to tell the story, how do we place in the gameplay there?