Forgotton Anne

Distant memories: ThroughLine on the making of Forgotton Anne

We take a deep dive into the development of Forgotton Anne with members of development team.

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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.

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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.

Forgotton Anne
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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.

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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?

Forgotton Anne
Forgotton Anne

A big thing is the colour in the game, or the absence of colour. Is that a conscious choice?

VSA: I know for sure that [Anders] worked a lot with having a switch between when you're inside and when you're outside, and having this... a bit of a dread everywhere, and this organic analog feel that doesn't feel like Hypertron; digitised, but something that is more textured in a sense. I also know he's taking a big, big inspiration from our city, Copenhagen, where you would go by these big, high brick buildings, and I know that he has placed several hints at specific places in Copenhagen.

There are bits in the game where the colour suddenly comes in, and you're just overwhelmed. When you guys are thinking about the world in general, did you have a sort of idea or did that take shape with the project?

MB: We worked a lot in the beginning, in pre-production as well, with 'what is this place actually?' and 'what are the rules in this place?', and I can't count how many discussions we've had during production as well [regarding] 'what are the exact rules of this?', and we left many of those things open on purpose.

But we did work a lot with the style of this and what it was, and we had several drafts in which it was very... a lot more organised I would say, and we had quite a laugh when the Pixar movie Inside Out came out, because at one point we had a similar approach where everything was very organised, and we sort of went another way with that because we felt there was a clash with Western storytelling and Eastern storytelling, and we wanted it to be a little more Eastern and not as Western, if you can put it that way.

VSA: I guess throughout the pitch has been like the dark [Hayao] Miyazaki mixed with some Western fantasy traditions, so as you can probably tell from some of the different accents of the Forgotlings throughout, there is this sort of like global village thing happening, where it's a blend of a lot of different things at the same time. I know that since we had the story ready at a really, really early point, we had all the plot points - Michael [Godlowski-Maryniak] didn't know exactly what would happen inbetween, but he knew that those things would happen - then it was also easy for Alfred to sit with Anders, our art director, and then just concept and scope out all the colour palettes and make sure that we almost get all around the spectrum of colours throughout the game.

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Talk to us a little bit about the morality of the game, with these things that should just be things, but then you get this question raised as to whether they have the same rights because they have emotions. Talk to us a little bit about your approach.

VSA: Yeah, another core tenet was having dialogue à la, at that time, The Walking Dead, when we started production. This was before my time, but I completed jibed with it when Alfred spoke to me about this. There was even one point where we had a timer where you had to make decisions, time-based, but we decided against it because [in] a scene that there will only be one of two answers [...] then maybe it was just a bit more fun to have the time to be able to really think about what are the ramifications for doing this?

And regarding the morality and ethics, I don't know how much we're meant to be saying, but there is this kind of utilitarian thing happening, and I think it's a thing where... I think everybody does it. We're all sometimes blind to how life is for something else or somebody else, and sometimes that can lead us down some crazy paths until we, for whatever it takes, get that insight into 'oh s***, maybe living life different is something that should be seen as equally valid as the way I live my life'.

MB: I agree, but there was also the theme about recycling stuff or not throwing stuff away, always just defaulting into that, you're standing in front of that choice every time you face a Forgotling; that you can distill this object or not. Do you throw it away, or do you let it live, so to speak. That was a kind of reflection that I like. I don't know if you would call it morality.

Tell us a bit about the voice acting in the game.

VSA: It was mostly Alfred who was directing the voice acting. Fun fact: Rachel, our Anne - this is how crazy life sometimes is - we were at that specific time looking for who was going to be our voice actress for Anne, and obviously as a startup company we didn't have millions of dollars, so we had to wager who could we use and who could bear the role, and for some reason Rachel followed me on Twitter (and I'm not even a particularly active Twitter user), I don't know why or how, and then I was like 'wow, okay'.

I checked out her webpage and I was like 'it seems fine' and then I just sent Alfred her library, and he went through the applications that he had, but ended up with Rachel, who we might not have known of if she didn't follow me on Twitter. It's so bizarre.

But then also, you may have heard it, there's a slight Danish accent here and there, and that's because all of us here on the team have one voice of a Forgotling.

MB: I was obviously very interested in listening to these actors as we found them, but I thought it was important, as we talked about before, that there was a lot of different accents, a lot of different types of voices, male and female voices of all cultures, because I think the reflects the Forgotten Lands very well.

Forgotton Anne

What has the feedback been so far from fans?

VSA: Yeah we just went to a Danish-Japanese pop-culture festival where we showed off the game. We've also been showing the game off at EGX and Gamescom, and generally, people have taken to it really nicely, which has been very gratifying and humbling, and during when we were still producing it was an insane morale boost, because it's been honestly very, very tough. But then seeing and hearing those kinds of feedback just makes it wonderful and I feel we have this thing that we worked and put our hearts so much into, and we hope that people resonate with it.

MB: Yeah I think the most important thing I keep hearing is that it's so beautiful, it looks so wonderful, which is mostly what I hear at the moment, which is, of course because it's not out yet, [from] people seeing videos and things, so I think a lot of this is all Anders who is, as Valdemar says, a one-man army.

How do you feel now that this game is coming out?

MB: I feel very much the same as I always do, which is I cannot play the game and I cannot see the game without cringing and just feeling horrible and thinking that I could have done all this better and all this, but that's business as usual for me.

VSA: Yeah, I'm super excited. I know that I've gotten some feedback now that gratifies me to a point where I think it's not going to be a complete disaster, and then I'm already so happy to see that at least it's going somewhere. Let's see what it's going to be, you never know, but at least just the feedback right now has helped.

MB: If nothing else I'm very proud of the result, and I'm amazed at what the team has been able to do, and no matter how people receive it I'm proud to have been a part of it, so I'm very happy to see that it's coming out and very excited to see how it goes.

SL: I'm planning on playing it on release alongside the rest of the world, so it's going to be fun to experience it kind of for the first time, at the same time knowing where the story's going.

MB: Yeah, I have promised my wife that we will play it because she's been listening to me talking about this project and she has not seen anything really except the trailers.

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Forgotton Anne is coming on May 15 for PC (via Steam), PS4, and Xbox One.

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Forgotton Anne

REVIEW. Written by Sam Bishop

"If you're a fan of Studio Ghibli, or just great stories in general, then this is undoubtedly one to check out."

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