By Jeremy Parish

A young woman journeys through a surreal realm filled with fantastic creatures, solving the 2D environmental puzzles she encounters along the way as she attempts to complete her quest and unravel the mystery that permeates the world she inhabits and her place within it. Sound familiar? While this description could indeed apply to The White Owls’s puzzle-platformer The Missing, here it actually describes ThroughLine Games’s Forgotton Anne. In truth, the two games don’t share much in common beyond some high-level elements like 2D action, puzzle solving, and their teenage girl protagonists.

According to Forgotton Anne director and producer Alfred Nguyen, the broad similarities between the games are a more a matter of two creators independently landing on the same solution to a common problem. “I remember Swery, the creator of The Missing, talking about wanting to do something equivalent to a ‘one-take’ game,” Nguyen says. “I think what we’ve tried ended up being something very similar. We also went to great lengths to make it seamless—to create an experience with minimal interruptions and pacing that more closely resembles a movie.”

A warm, inviting world, filled with soft lamplight and… talking refrigerators?

A single screenshot reveals the differences between Swery and Nguyen’s differing solutions to the one-take game puzzle. Forgotton Anne couldn’t be further in tone and style from The Missing’s dark, horror-tinged vibe. Its hand-drawn world is defined by radiant light and retro architecture that calls to mind the idealized 19th century Europe seen in the works of Studio Ghibli and French illustrator Moebius. And where The Missing protagonist J.J. spends her time evading misshapen nightmare monsters, Anne’s world is one free of physical dangers and conflict. Rather than relying on gruesome self-mutilation to solve puzzles the way J.J. does, Anne instead harvests mystical energy and glides across the screen on angelic wings.

In short, it’s a more sedate take on the action puzzler, one with a heavy emphasis on dialogue and meaningful character choices. While much of Forgotton Anne’s moment-to-moment action involves connecting electrical circuits and moving boxes into proper configurations (often by linking up those same electrical circuits), the heart of the game lies in its character interactions. It’s one part old-school precision platformer reminiscent of the early Oddworld titles, one part vintage graphical adventure in the LucasArts vein.

“We have fond memories of classic point-and-click adventures like The Secret of Monkey Island,” Nguyen says. “We were aiming first and foremost to create a 2D cinematic story-driven adventure within the constraints of the platformer genre, so naturally classic adventure games were an inspiration. We’ve seen a lot of cinematic 3D games, but 2D games haven’t employed the immersive techniques of cinema to the same degree. We set out to see how we can push those boundaries.”

In keeping with the LucasArts spirit, conflict and death don’t factor at all into Forgotton Anne’s mechanics. “There is no Game Over in Forgotton Anne, as it makes no sense for Anne to die over and over again in the telling of this story,” Nguyen says. “Early on, we did have some prototypes where we made use of the Arca [a battery for electrical energy] in light combat situations. But we couldn’t justify a combat system from a story point of view. 


Much of Anne’s journey involves rerouting circuitry to reveal paths forward.

“Limiting Anne’s use of power to certain instances and exploring her mindset through dialogue choices makes for more interesting participation and provides less distraction to let themes shine through more clearly.”

As in many of the best adventure and role-playing games, Anne’s actions and choices during her quest result in different outcomes. These play out in a more unpredictable fashion than players may be accustomed to, though. Conversations don’t necessarily have a “right” or a “wrong” choice, and sometimes those choices manifest through Anne’s physical actions rather than through spoken conversations. These situations can unfold in a matter of moments, with the only real indication that things could have played out differently (and better) coming in the form of a quick note after a bungled encounter.

“We wanted the game mechanics to either draw the player into the world or help tell the story,” Nguyen says. “So the platforming, which has a sense of gravity in the vein of Prince of Persia and Oddworld, is there to make you feel present in this fictional world, while the choice mechanics puts you in the shoes of Anne to become more invested in the story.”

Nguyen notes that the branching outcomes in Forgotton Anne play out more on the moment-to-moment level than as grand, world-changing events. Whatever decisions the player makes, “the major events in the storyline still happen regardless,” he says. Instead of leading to “bad” or “good” endings, “how they unfold can vary quite a lot with different emotional consequences. Even though it wasn’t within our resources to create a huge branching game with many different endings, I believe our constraints have enabled us to focus on creating stronger impact with the choices and consequences that exist. 

“And once you complete the game, something is also unlocked which relates to the variability of outcomes.”

It’s not only Forgotton Anne’s unique adventure/platform hybrid play design that makes it stand out; the game’s striking visual style also catches the eye. The characters and the world surrounding them are rendered as hand-drawn animation. The overall look deftly combines cel-style animation, painterly backgrounds, and digital lighting enhancements to great effect. The fixed viewpoint integrates depth-of-field effects as well, as Anne can travel into and out of the background at certain points. When she moves across planes in the 2D viewpoint, the virtual camera shifts its focal depth, blurring foreground and background elements as needed.


While
Forgotton Anne plays out as a 2D game, Anne can travel between “planes” of camera depth, putting a clever interactive twist on classic animation techniques.

“The old point-and-click adventures were also very good at building a world and immersing you in it, so we worked a lot on the atmosphere of the game and pacing to allow you to soak in the detailed environments,” Nguyen says.

All of these elements frame a fascinating imaginary world in which Anne appears to be one of the few human inhabitants. Most other residents of the world are animate household objects—everything from socks to furniture—seemingly given life by the electrical spiritual energy Anne can manipulate by using a device called an Arca. The Arca is strictly limited in terms of the amount of charge it can hold at a given time, and solving Arca-based puzzles often involves a fair amount of mental inventory-taking as you keep tabs on the location of available Arca resources at any given time.

How all of these elements fit together, and the relationship between Anne and the denizens of her world (including a disgruntled rebel faction) form the heart of Forgotton Anne. Adding meaning and substance to the relationships between each of the game’s elements was a top priority for ThroughLine, Nguyen says: “We started unconventionally, working on the story for a long time, and built experimental prototypes to test which mechanics lent themselves best to telling this story. It was very important to create synergy between mechanics and story; in some games, you feel the two aspects are divorced from each other.” 


Although
Forgotton Anne does tell its story with the use of scripted cut scenes, these sequences are almost indistinguishable from the interactive portions, which look every bit as gorgeous.

“I think with Forgotton Anne the combination of mechanics, presentation and focus on storytelling is quite unique, so there aren’t a lot of games we could lean on for a one-stop source of inspiration,” Nguyen says. “We took it upon ourselves throughout the development process to explore what the game needed to be. In many ways the game shaped itself.”

And heart, ultimately, is what Forgotton Anne is about. Anne’s realm is filled with the detritus of the real world, misplaced mundanities that have been abandoned or forgotten by their owners, and her role is to help these castoffs find a place where they belong. 

“I’d like for players to engage the game with minimal preconceived notions of how an adventure videogame or platformer should be,” Nguyen says. “Just dive in as you would approach a novel or a movie. The entire team behind poured their hearts into it to craft a wondrous experience.

“Think about the ‘luggage’ you carry with you from your childhood and upbringing. We all are shaped, like Anne, to some degree based on the worldviews of those around us growing up, and the realization of this can become the spark to begin a journey to confront deep-seated habits and limitations of the mind. I want players to remember pivotal moments in their lives with loved ones that have helped develop their empathy towards others.”



Forgotton Anne is available for preorder from Limited Run Games through Feb. 28. [
Switch Collector’s Edition | PlayStation 4 Collector’s Edition | Switch Standard Edition | PlayStation 4 Standard Edition]

February 20, 2020