MyMBuzz’s James Pickard speaks to Alfred Nguyen, the creative director and CEO of ThroughLine Games, to learn how his development team has combined a fondness for classic anime and cinematic video games on the debut adventure, Forgotton Anne.
Ask anyone what they think defines a Studio Ghibli anime, and they’ll offer a number of examples. Some will say it’s the way you can get lost in the imaginative worlds. Others might list the characters that stick with them: from the gangly, spider-like limbs of Kamaji in Spirited Away to the playful innocence of the ursine Totoro. Still others will call up the sheer power of the emotional spectrum of love, loss, childhood, ageing, war and survival that runs through all of those stories. These are fantastical tales, but they also have the intensity to cut deep.
A Ghibli-like aura surrounds Forgotton Anne. Catch a glimpse of it in motion and it’ll leave you stunned. That’s not because ThroughLine Games is actively trying to replicate the visual style of the Japanese animation house, but it’s the way the developers have captured the atmosphere that breezes through their work.
Meanwhile, a Western influence adds another side to the narrative adventure, bringing with it a darker tone of traditional fairy tales. Both of these points of reference put Forgotton Anne in a unique position to tell a story within the world of video games. What’s unusual, however, is that the development team didn’t start out with that as their medium of choice.
“My background is in animation film,” says Alfred Nguyen, CEO and creative director at ThroughLine Games. “I went to film school and I’ve drawn my whole life, so a lot of the inspirations and influences have been from when I encountered anime during the late ’90s. It was just natural for me to draw in that style.”
While Nguyen cites Ghibli as a clear influence, he’s also quick to sing the praises of Satoshi Kon, the hugely influential writer and director behind the likes of Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress and Paprika. In the realm of live action, meanwhile, the dreamy worlds of Labyrinth and Pan’s Labyrinth are also important touchstones for him and the team.
It’s clear, then, that the creation of Forgotton Anne began with the game’s mythical setting – and it’s certainly a magical place. An ethereal otherworld where discarded and unwanted items roam, longing to be loved again. All sorts of objects turn up here: clothing, toys, memorabilia, written work and – most important to Nguyen’s story – people.
“First and foremost, I thought what kind of world would appeal to me in terms of pure wonder and so I often feel that it came to me in a dream,” Nguyen says of the story’s origins. “This thing where I saw this girl wandering in this impressionistic landscape. I knew that I was personally very interested in memories and the psychological aspect of stories, hence Satoshi Kon.”
The title character, Anne, exists in the Forgotten Lands as a protector and enforcer over the personified ‘Forgotlings’. There’s a quaint and loveable charm to these obscure creatures and objects, something you pick up on from the very first one you meet – a skittish scarf whose pleas to be saved seem so genuine and human. Yet, when we join Anne in the game, a rebellion among their ranks threatens to prevent her and her master, Bonku, from returning to the human world. That act sends her on a journey to uncover what is happening in the Forgotten Lands and how she can secure her way home.
While that sounds like the perfect jumping off point for a Ghibli-esque anime full of adventure and wit, Nguyen saw Forgotton Anne as a game after being introduced to the idea of video game production during his studies. At first, there was some reluctance within the class to consider working on games, but the students were convinced that the additional experience could open up more doors for them once they’d graduated. It seems to have been a smart call and, conveniently, Nguyen was already very much into video games.
“I’ve always played games. I’ve had a NES and I played my big brother’s Commodore back then. That followed onto SNES and PS1, and now PS4 and Switch and so on. It’s not like I didn’t know about games. I always liked games as well – and their storytelling possibilities in particular.”
“When I experienced game production it really opened my eyes – in a sense in this medium, there’s so much more to explore than film,” he continues. “It’s a younger medium with regards to storytelling and there’s this exciting challenge between interactivity and being fed a story. So, Forgotton Anne is definitely born out of the overlapping of those two things.”
Forgotton Anne is therefore best described as a cinematic adventure. You travel through the game’s fascinating and gorgeously detailed lands, meet and chat with its inhabitants, and guide Anne on her quest to find a way home to the human world. ThroughLine Games mixes in a few light platforming elements and a sprinkle of player choice during some key moments, but it’s the story they want to tell that takes centre stage.
“One thing I decided very early on is that this game should not start with: ‘What would be cool to do as a player?’ It should start with a story and with any story it’s best if it has something personal in it. I have to care a lot about it. Then I have to convince and let in other team members – the writer, the art director – and have them also be interested in this world, so they can invest themselves and create stuff that is personal to them.”
And there is definitely the sense of the personal with Forgotton Anne. Even in the opening moments, players get a strong sense of the emotional depth the team was shooting for in the game. There’s charm and playfulness in spades, but there’s also a sense of sadness and melancholy to Anne’s life. The chance to return home is the one thing that’s keeping her hopeful.
However, as Nguyen discussed previously, games are a very different storytelling medium when compared to film. You can create something truly moving, but how you do that while also tackling the unique challenge of player interactivity? It’s here that the most effective video game stories assert themselves.
Fortunately, Nguyen was able to draw upon a rich history of playing story-focused games to help solve this puzzle, including titles from his childhood, as well as more modern games that have taken a more experimental approach to storytelling. His interest in video gaming may have been solidified with awe-inspiring JRPGs such as Suikoden, Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII, but cinematic games like Metal Gear Solid and micro game experiences such as Journey have also played their part.
“My interest in games grew more and began to include a much wider spectrum of adventure games. I would say, because of my interest in films, it is these very cinematic games that have had my interest,” he explains. “I really admire the implicit storytelling in games that have come out in more recent years, where there are no actual explicit voiceovers. Games like Journey, where it’s just based on and focused on an emotion. In the end it is the emotion we want to… not manipulate, but at least appeal to, in order for the player to understand something or for us to say something.”
With that in mind, Nguyen also makes it clear that it’s important to give players the opportunity to explore and live in the Forgotten Lands. Although the developers are a small team, areas of the game do open up more so you can take a breather from the story and immerse yourself within the world and mythology of the game’s setting. There are also the small moments where you can make choices to affect events in the story.
“Anne is undergoing a journey and throughout this journey she’s going to face a number of different dilemmas ranging in intensity. Situations where it’s about trust, it’s about how far you would go in order to obtain something. Or it’s the question of who do you side with? What worldview do you subscribe to? This really ties in together with some of the core themes that we would like to work with in the game, which is looking at how we all grow up with some kind of baggage from our culture, from our surroundings, and how we meet situations that challenge those.”
Ultimately, it all comes back to the tale ThroughLine Games wants to tell and it has found a special crossover in combining the aesthetics of Ghibli with a story-led game. It’s a world that grabs you instantly – a place that feels so fully-realised because of all the small details and the careful touches. The team may even be so fond of their creation that they want to return to it in the future to tell more stories.
“This world of the Forgotten Lands and the Forgotlings is still exciting. If the reception was exceptional, I wouldn’t rule out that more things could be created with these concepts. This is unique and good enough as it is, but I’m very interested in doing more cinematic storytelling within this universe.”
That’s all far in the future. For now, with Forgotton Anne, ThroughLine Games is well on its way to creating something that we’ll remember for a long time to come.
Forgotton Anne is coming soon for PS4, Xbox One and PC.