It can be surprisingly hard getting truly lost these days. In our modern world, there is always some satellite tracking your position. Or, at the very least, a helpful sign pointing you in the right direction. This also holds true for video games. And perhaps to an even greater degree, what with interactive maps, glowing trails or flying arrows showing you the exact way to your next objective.
Time on Frog Island on the other hand provides no such help. Playing as a sailor who gets shipwrecked on a mysterious island, you'll have to find spare parts for your little boat, with no help from maps or quest logs of any kind. And while the local inhabitants are friendly enough, they are also frogs, meaning they can't really communicate that much in terms of help or descriptions.
The developers from Half Past Yellow describe Time on Frog Island as a combination of free exploration, light platforming and puzzles. But most importantly, the game is not just about being lost on the island, but also getting lost in the moment-to-moment gameplay.
"Our artist Casper, weirdly enough, has always said that it's like a point-and-click adventure for people with ADHD," explains game director Max Wrighton. "You can pick anything up, you can throw anything. You are just kind of moving from place to place, and it's kind of rewarding in itself to do that."
I'm visiting Half Past Yellow on a snowy day in the middle of December. Despite it having a small second floor, their office space feels a bit cramped today as nearly everybody is in. Even the sound designers who usually work remotely out of their native North Macedonia. It's an improvement though compared to when they first started out and were working out of apartments and cafes, "trying to figure how many coffees we needed to buy not to get kicked out," as tech lead and studio co-founder Remy Stuurworld puts it.
The studio was founded in 2017, but despite being based in Copenhagen, none of the founders are Danish with Max Wrighton being Scottish, Remy Stuurwold Dutch, and Gianfranco Dbeis Italian. The trio met while attending the short-lived EUCROMA exchange program facilitated by The Danish Film School and immediately bonded over a common interest for doing Game Jams.
This idea, of rapidly prototyping concepts, throwing ideas up in the air and seeing where they land, has helped form the identity of Half Past Yellow, and it was also an essential part of the initial development of what became Time on Frog Island.
"On Monday we would start going with a concept. It was almost like an extended Game Jam, where we developed Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and maybe even Friday. And on Friday we would evaluate. We would sit down, have a beer and see whether the game was fun and a good business decision," tells Wrighthon.
"I think we have taken a lot of what a Game Jam is. In terms of structure and almost self-imposed hard deadlines. In order to maximise our effort and the result in the end," adds Stuurwold.
After releasing the mobile game Tiny Tomb in collaboration with another indie developer and later abandoning a project known as Komako, Half Past Yellow set out to make a new game from scratch in 2020. The team spent six weeks prototyping and testing concepts with the hope that from one of these seeds, a full fledged game could emerge. The ideas included a multiplayer experience and an Indiana Jones inspired robbery game set in a maze. But what really caught their imagination was a much simpler concept.
"We started with the sailor," recalls Wrighton. "It was almost, not a platformer, but just a place where you could run around. There weren't any frogs. We thought about the trading, but more in terms of static characters as in a point-and-click adventure. A very simple memory game, almost. And it is very much what Time on Frog Island became, but we put a lot of extensions on top of that."
Despite playing a prominent role in the final release, frogs were not a part of the initial concept and were only added later. The island could potentially have had all sorts of inhabitants - as long as they didn't speak the same language as the player.
"We wanted the communication barrier between your character and the native inhabitants of the island. We wanted these images of the items that you need, to be the main communication," says Stuurwold. "As to them being frogs, it's a little bit random. Maybe it's just the atmosphere at the time because we happened to release at the same time as five other indie games with frogs. So maybe there was something in the air?"
Wrighton adds that there were also practical reasons for the team finally settling on the green amphibians: "Originally there was this thought of going the Animal Crossing route with birds, cats, dogs and so on. But that also becomes more expensive in terms of asset creation. And while our frogs all look very different, our artist Casper could begin with the same model and then adjust them."
When they finally materialised, the frogs helped bring the developer's vision to life in more ways than one. In terms of atmosphere, they added to the feelling of the island being both strange and familiar at the same time, with the frogs wearing human clothes and working as artists, plumbers and so on.
More importantly, the frogs also reinforced the core gameplay of constantly being on the move. With no other hint than a picture in a speech bubble, the player will gain little by standing still and contemplating their situation. Instead they are encouraged to run around blindly, trying to stumble over the necessary items, which emphasizes the pure joy of exploration that had captivated the team while prototyping.
"It was super important that when a frog asked for an item you instantly recognised exactly what they were asking for. For as soon as you see it in the game, you know exactly what it is. And you have that small eureka moment through exploration. You explore until you find the next breadcrumb that you need to fix your boat," explains Wrighton.
Besides unleashing a small-scale plague of frogs on their fictional island, Half Past Yellow polished existing concepts and added many new ones during development, such as a day and night cycle, a charming Zelda-inspired artstyle, and a more elaborate story.
With Merge Games handing the publishing, Time on Frog Island was finally released on PC and all major consoles in the summer of 2022. The game was generally well received, but some reviewers and players complained about the lack of any in-game map or quest log to keep track of the many items and tasks the player is supposed to juggle.
When asked about this, Wrighton acknowledged the criticism, but says it was an intentional choice: "One of the things that I like the most about games - and I'm kind of forcing that on the players of this game - is that you can play bigger games like Red Dead Redemption 2 and turn off the map. It's about learning the lay of the land and having these points for reference. As in when you see the farm, you know the town is north of here, and the fisherman is to the west. That is the kind of experience we wanted to instil in the player."
To sum it all up, most of the design decisions behind Time on Frog Island are all about helping the immersion, even if that sometimes comes at the expense of helping the player. In this way the game is very much the opposite of most modern titles. While it doesn't make the game difficult per se, as there are no enemies or time constraints, it does make it "more niche than it appears in screenshots," as Wrighton puts it.
Despite this Time on Frog Island is still very much, 'what you see is what you get,' whether on digital storefronts or on the actual shelf, as Half Past Yellow hasn't released DLC or added new features after the release. This doesn't necessarily mean that they won't come back to the universe though.
"If we wanted to do the sequel or more content in the universe, it's very open to that. That is something we left intentionally open, so that we could revisit it whenever we wanted to. Say a bear island, a cat island or a mole island. That is all the possible in the world we have made, because we didn't close it off," says Stuurwold.
But for now focus is on the next "Top Secret" game - a project that is going to go in "a completely different direction." And that is ultimately what the team, coming from a Game Jam background, wants to do. Develop games and release them. So that they can finance the next project, and once again get the creative juices flowing.
"You often see this quote from Miyamoto or the Zelda director talking about Ocarina of Time: 'A released game could be bad, but a delayed game will eventually be good.' Or something like that," says Wrigthon. "And I think that is true for a studio like Nintendo who are not going to run out of money. But for an indie team, it's better that your game is out and you don't go bankrupt. It's better for you to be able to keep making games, having fun as a team and building the next game whether it's a sequel or a totally new thing."