In honor of the game’s one-year anniversary, we have an exclusive interview with Forgotton Anne‘s creative director, Alfred Nguyen. Check it out!
At the time, the type of mobile games we made didn’t afford much depth in terms of storytelling and world-building. So, in 2014, I decided it was time to get back to my roots, and Forgotton Anne was born from a soul-searching period that led to the overarching theme behind the game, informing the premise. In short, I was interested in social and cultural inheritance and how to break free of negative patterns and start taking part in shaping your own identity. The premise of Forgotton Anne plays with this by imagining the concept of a consumerist society taken to the extreme, causing us to “forget” our relations to one another. Thus, a forgotten realm is born, where Anne finds herself as one of only two humans amongst a population of sentient objects called “forgotlings,” who are all trying to figure out how to deal with their existence.
What games did you like to play growing up, and do you think they have influenced your work at all?
I grew up vaguely remembering the Commodore and Atari in the household, but I think my relationship with games started to form when we had our first Nintendo Entertainment System. I’d play whatever games we could get our hands on, so I’ve developed good finger dexterity with controllers playing fighting games and platformers. However, the ones that would continue to capture my imagination were adventure games like Zelda. In my teenage years, I loved RPGs and cinematic games, so I remember Final Fantasy 7, Xenogears, and Metal Gear Solid really blowing my mind when I first experienced them.
I do think games I’ve played have had an influence on me, but over time I think they are more a form of vocabulary I can use in communicating ideas, more than actual influences in terms of content and intention.
What was the process like starting from your original ideas to where you ended up in Anne’s story and what you were envisioning?
I spent a lot of time during pre-production writing, rewriting, and brainstorming with lead writer Morten Brunbjerg and other people around me until I arrived at a story treatment I was happy with. At the same time, we experimented with a lot of different prototypes and variations of mechanics and explored how the “Forgotten Lands” could look. When production began in 2016 and the team expanded, details would continue to be changed and story situations fleshed out with the contributions from the whole production team, especially the leads and game designers who had an enormous challenge in planning scenarios from a holistic viewpoint, merging interaction and story elements to create a coherent whole.
The more you work with a theme the more discoveries you make, so it is part of the process for me, and for the studio, to be open to these revelations and incorporate them if it serves the emotional and intellectual experience we are aiming for. It would take too much space here to chart the evolution of the concept, so while I can see the throughline of my original vision, the end result is a unique reflection of the development process it has gone through with a set of particular people I’ve been fortunate enough to have on the team.
You have mentioned in previous interviews that the game has symbolism around the “circle,” such as in the title of the game having an “o” instead of an “e” in “Forgotton” to Anne’s dress and so on. Can you talk more about this and explain why you chose this symbol to portray what you were going for in Forgotton Anne?
The way I work is often starting with themes and associative features, so an early sketch I did, which encapsulated a lot of ideas and felt aesthetically novel to me, was Anne sleeping in a round bed. This became a key image for me. The circle is neutral in itself and symbolizes both the natural cycle of things, and in this game, the inherited patterns of “neglect” that I wanted Anne to break free of. At the same time, nothing really disappears entirely; it continues in one form or the other, whether it is the stuff we throw away that become forgotlings or the anima of forgotlings stored in Anne’s round Arca that eventually crystallizes. There are consequences to your actions and ripples that will catch up with you one day in one way or another – this is true for the key characters in Forgotton Anne. We start the game with Anne waking up in the tower and journeying out only to return to the tower by the end of the game. I believe what goes around comes around, so to speak.
What were your overall goals with Forgotton Anne? What did you want gamers to get out of this visual and interactive experience?
My main goal was to transport players to a different wondrous world and let them partake in a story that had rich emotional and intellectual stimulation. This would be through a particular story about Anne and her journey of becoming independent presented in a 2D seamless, cinematic way. “Seamless” is a key word here, as early on I wanted to make a 2D animated game that had no distinction between “cut scenes” and gameplay, and minimal distractions. When we decided to do away with “Game Over” and managed to make the game without any loading screens, I felt we had removed some of the barriers that stood in the way of immersion. It’s also a story and world that is rich in thematic layers, so while I wish players to laugh, scream, and cry, I hope we touch upon topics and themes that make players want to think about society, their own lives, and their relationships with others – in the same way that the process of creating it afforded the team and myself to explore these things.
Were there any works that inspired the aesthetics, visuals, and overall ambiance of Forgotton Anne and how you wanted it to make players feel? Is it true it was inspired by Studio Ghibli with a European feel?
It is true that starting out, our “sales pitch” to get funding was to mention a mix of Studio Ghibli and darker western fairy tales. It was another way of saying it would contain an imaginative world filled with wonder and emotions with a focus on relatable human drama, expressed with beautiful animation and a darker palette. Fairy tales contain a lot of truth beneath a mask of imaginary things, and I wanted to draw on the rich symbols that existed. Looking at the works of famed Danish fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen reveals a lot of tragedy and dark elements that aren’t always emphasized in “Disney-fied” versions. In cinema, both Pan’s Labyrinth and the old Labyrinth were drawn upon as great inspirational sources.
With animation, Studio Ghibli and Satoshi Kon’s work were definitely a huge inspiration for me, just as much for their storytelling as animation. I was very adamant from the beginning that we were to treat the story and world with a higher reverence towards thematic elements than logic because part of the wonder of these works are the mysteries and interpretations that come from themes sometimes overriding logic as the connective tissue in storytelling.
The game has a whimsical Studio Ghibli vibe, and its animation reflects Studio Ghibli as well. You had a member on your team who studied under former Studio Ghibli employees; is that correct?
Yes, that is correct. Two of our animators, Debbie Ekberg and Sebastian Ljungdahl, stayed and studied for a time in Japan with former Studio Ghibli animators. It was incidental in that we were seeking animators for the production that would be a good fit for the project and was contacted by them. I think their experience working in Japan partly imbued them with a discipline and dedication that was of great value to the production.
What did Debbie add to the team?
Debbie was the lead animator and did, among other things, all of Anne’s animations beside supervising. As a woman herself, she could connect to Anne in a different way and really make her a believable character through the animation. She would travel from Sweden to our office in Copenhagen, Denmark every day, and she added a great dynamic to the team as a whole.
We were very international in composition with team members from Romania, Greece, Bulgaria, Sweden, and more, and as a studio, we really value diversity and how it positively affects the development process through the different perspectives it brings. It gives us the opportunity to learn from each other and approach things with an open mind.
What was her input in the creation and animation process?
I would scope out the tasks together with her using thumbnails and talk about the individual animations before she began on the roughs. She had such a good grasp of her craft that it allowed us to discuss the emotion of the scene or subtle details of a movement or pose more than technicalities or quality of drawing. I would often be surprised by little things she added to an animation that elevated it. It was such a delight to work with her, and there existed a great synergy with the team.
What was your favorite part to work on while creating this work?
This is such a hard question! I love a good challenge, and this project was such a big undertaking for our relatively small team. I loved some of the long story and design discussions I had with the leads that sometimes went very deep and revealed our individual philosophies enabling us to grow as people during the process. I had a blast working with our composer, Peter Due, and the voice actors. Music in general is a huge creative driver for me. Perhaps one of my favorite parts was close to the end of production when we began to have most of the assets of the game, and I would sit and tweak how a scene played out in the engine. Often, it would be early mornings or late nights where I could afford sitting alone, concentrating for hours, playing around combining visuals, audio, and storytelling elements, experimenting. It’s similar to my experience with animating film productions, where I’d say my favourite part I always looked forward to was the editing and mixing stage.
If you could tell our readers anything about why they will love Forgotton Anne, what would that be?
You will love it because it was made by a small team of very dedicated and passionate people who poured their hearts into it in order for you to have an experience filled with emotion, rich craftsmanship, and surprises that will hopefully become an experience you won’t soon forget.
You will also love it because it is like being able to play a traditionally animated 2D feature, and where else would you be able to take on the role of a powerful woman enforcer and allow yourself to develop feelings towards a walking and talking gun, blanket, and posing doll?
What do you think would touch gamers the most about this game and its story?
I think it could be a feeling of connection with Anne and some of the key characters as the story progresses. As Anne grows, you grow alongside her as you partake in some of the choices in her journey and see the effects of them.
We’ve seen players reacting differently to different things, whether it is Anne’s orphan background or the fate of certain forgotlings around her. You develop feelings in this imaginary world of forgotlings and have to leave it when the game finishes. There is a layer subtly hinted at, if you play through the game, about the power of fiction and your relationship with it.
How did this project influence you in the way you will go about future projects?
Seeing and reading about players’ experiences with Forgotton Anne makes us think back on the choices we made during development and our approach to an explorative process with storytelling, and conclude that it all paid off.
I think individually and as a company, we’ve gained some confidence from the recognition it has received. We are a sensitive bunch, haha, so despite having clear opinions of how we wish to tackle things, we are still vulnerable human beings in the end and appreciate confirmation from the outside world that what we do is valued.
In that way, I think it has emboldened us to continue down the creative path established with Forgotton Anne and motivates us to keep exploring artistic expressions with a focus on interactive storytelling.
Are there any projects in the works we can look forward to seeing from you?
We are still at a crossroads following the release of Forgotton Anne, in that we’re unsure where the next round of funding will come from for us to continue making games, but I can say we have several concepts in the works, some of which are more developed than others at this stage. I do hope that by the end of the year we will be able to show something from one of the projects.
What advice would you give someone wanting to get into the field of game creation?
I think that would really depend on which role they are aiming for in a game creation process and what their particular desires and needs are at this particular stage in their lives. So as general advice, I’d say find out what makes you tick, know your strengths and weaknesses, and seek inspiration from sources outside gaming and media in order to be able to bring fresh perspectives to the table and turn the process into something personal. I think that’s a way to make games that will feel meaningful. I think now more than ever, it doesn’t matter if you have a formal education in games, so think about how you want to grow as a person and in your field and let that be a guide to what you embark on.
We would like to thank Mr. Nguyen for taking out time from his busy schedule to have this interview with us–thank you for the wonderful insight you gave us as to your process, your game, and advice for others wanting to make their dreams come true!
Follow Geek Insider and ThroughLine Games’ social media pages to stay up to date on their projects, including news and information on Forgotton Anne. Check out Forgotton Anne and experience the majesty for yourself!