ThroughLine Games' animated adventure Forgotton Anne begins with a peculiar decision: whether or not to kill a talking scarf. It’s a bizarre introduction to a game, but one that establishes its fantastical setting while teasing the branching narrative to come.
You play as Anne, an enforcer in the Forgotten Lands, a place where lost items like clothes and furniture live while waiting to be rediscovered. It’s your job to suppress an ongoing rebellion among these Forgotlings, make decisions for the good of your allies, and ultimately find your way back to the human world.
For the Copenhagen-based studio Forgotton Anne is a real passion project, representing an effort to achieve a dream they have long nurtured: to create an interactive cinematic experience.
Howl's moving influence
Creative director and co-founder of ThroughLine Alfred Nguyen says, "When we first started, I felt like a burning passion had been suppressed inside me for years. After graduating from The National Film School in Denmark back in 2008, I had not been working on projects that allowed for deep involvement with cinematic storytelling and world-building, having mostly worked in the mobile game space and animated works of shorter duration."
Together with fellow ThroughLine co-founder Michael Godlowski-Maryniak, Nguyen came up with the core concept and recruited the necessary talent to bring the idea to life. Many of the team have extensive backgrounds in animation, film, and TV. These include the animators Debbie Ekberg and Sebastian Ljungdahl, and the art director Anders Bierbelg Hald.
"Both Sebastian Ljungdahl and I studied animation and game design in Tokyo for a couple of years," says Ekberg, lead animator on the project. "Most of our teachers were still professionally active animators. Among them were Mr. Hiroyuki Morita, who directed Ghibli’s The Cat Returns and Mr. Tatsuro Iwamoto who was Art Director on the Ace Attorney game series."
It’s clear from looking at Forgotton Anne that Studio Ghibli has dramatically influenced the animation style. The animation and the characters are both reminiscent of the studio’s adaptations of western works like Howl’s Moving Castle, Arrietty, and Tales from Earthsea. This was a deliberate choice, as the team wanted to reference the studio’s work but retain a European aesthetic.
Bierbelg Hald says, "Ever since I started working as a digital background painter, I have been looking at the backgrounds of Studio Ghibli and Studio 4C, so a lot of my artistic education was through looking at how they solved visual challenges and then adapting that to a digital medium, and most of the time, a western environment.
"Being only one person in charge of designing—as well as producing—all the non-character art assets for the game has its upsides. The style guide, art production pipeline, and color keys/mood boards are more or less all in my head. This also means that the art direction is basically just me and my sensibilities."
Nguyen is also adamant about Forgotton Anne blending eastern and western influences. He highlights the influence of the late animation director Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Paprika, Tokyo Godfathers) over the tonal composition and themes of the game, though he stresses the team are trying to establish their own identity in their approach.
"Being a small team means a lot of responsibilities for the leads," he says, "and for me it’s important that we stay true to ourselves, taking inspiration from all the things we love but also be true to our identities—and that means a mix between eastern and western influences that I hope will shine through and give Forgotton Anne a unique identity."
One of the ways Forgotton Anne distinguishes itself is with its character designs, with the Forgotlings—the animate objects that populate the world—looking like they came straight out of a fairytale. They call to mind characters from old European tales, like Hans Christian Andersen’s Steadfast Tin Soldier or the Beast’s servants from Beauty and the Beast.
The developers aim to give each of these Forgotlings their own personality. At the moment, only a few of them are on display in the demo I play. These memorable characters include a stained-glass lamp named Tiffany, a chain-smoking bear called Mr. Struct, and a decorative cushion named Pavel. They’re easily one of the demo’s best features, injecting it with plenty of charm.
"Our Forgotling specialist, Alex Kramerov (artist & animator), has designed most of the Forgotling creatures in the game and it has been really gratifying to see them gain even more personality when the voice actors come in and give us their takes. The characters in the game definitely play a large role in supporting the story and mythology we’ve created."
Another significant aspect of Forgotton Anne is its focus on player choice and interaction. Despite taking inspiration from cinema, it still allows the player plenty of freedom in how they explore and progress. ThroughLine believe this is integral in strengthening the bond between Anne and the player.
As lead game designer Valdemar Schultz Andreasen explains, "We intend to put the player in Anne’s shoes. As such, the situations they both experience will sometimes challenge Anne's role as the Enforcer. Does she apply force to settle a dispute, or does she try to be diplomatic even in the face of antagonism?
"Any choice we make in our lives is an expression of our personal interests, meaning, and incentive. They are therefore hardly objective and carry an inevitable effect on other people—one which we might have to face at a later point. Although we are telling a story with a definite start, middle, and end, we try to bridge these points with actions that have a similar type of effect on the world.''
Nguyen adds, "There’s not much repetition in the game. It’ll have a nice pace to keep the story in which you are partaking alive and in constant flow. Situations in the game cover a wide spectrum of emotions and it is definitely our hope that you as a player will feel your choices are reflected in those moments."
I see evidence of this while playing the demo which starts with an attack on your base by a bunch of rebel Forgotlings. It doesn’t just feature dialogue and alternate pathways, but puzzles and platforming elements, as I investigate the surroundings, navigate blockades, and locate anima—a sort of magical fuel.
Forgotton Anne is an exciting project, one that seems like it will be able to integrate these kind of environmental puzzles into a story where the animation quality will surely be a major draw. It's still in production right now, and currently scheduled for an early 2018 release.
"Seeing how everything is starting to come together is very rewarding and at times unfathomable," says Andreasen. "I like the steady flow of getting into the story. I also really like the interconnectedness of the map in the Workshop area. When Anne arrives into the city to investigate the bombings in the next chapter, we've tried to go even further, with a connective tissue not without inspiration from a metroidvania or Dark Souls. Hopefully, our audience will feel the presence, the sensation of being in an actual, geographically dense city with small nooks and alleyways."