Developer Interview: ThroughLine Games

ThroughLine Games is the superbly talented studio behind Forgotton Anne, the staggeringly beautiful 2D platformer currently available on Steam, PS4, and Xbox One. Forgotton Anne‘s remarkable Ghibli-esque art and complex, enchanting storytelling make it a stand-out in the segment — and as it is ThroughLine Games’ first entry, it promises great things in the future for this indie studio. We spoke with Alfred Nguyen, CEO, Creative Director, and co-founder of ThroughLine Games to learn a little more about the up-and-coming studio, its landmark Forgotton Anne, and its future trajectory.

ThroughLine Games Logo

|| How did ThroughLine Games, the studio, come to be? We know you were founded in 2014, nestled in Copenhagen, Denmark – but that’s about all we know. What’s your origin story?

It has been a windy road to get to this point. I thought up ThroughLine Games as a studio in the summer of 2014 together with jotting down the initial premise and ideas for Forgotton Anne, which at its inception was actually named “Impressive Anne.” Michael (Godlowski-Maryniak), co-founder of the studio, came onboard as the technical lead as my own background as an animation film and mobile game director was lacking in that area. Straight away, during that summer we created the first prototype and made a concept trailer to show off at Gamescom to gauge reaction from publishers and platform holders which went very well. Very early in the process we drew on the network of colleagues in the industry, as both art director Anders, lead writer Morten, and our composer Peter were old friends back from my filmschool days. It made it easier to arrive at something decent to show off, however the changing prospects of financial resources it’d take to produce the game would constantly shift our focus during pre-production with respect to what could be possible to achieve. Everything luckily came together by the end of 2015 with the financing and at that point we had finished a vertical slice and had the story beats down so we could recruit the remaining key roles we’d need on the team. An intense production then started at the beginning of 2016 and the process we went through and the people onwards from there really is what ThroughLine Games is today. As the studio head part of my focus has been on the culture and processes within the company, small as it is, as I wish for it to grow but remain faithful to my starting point where I was searching for a meaningful place to be, making games I found meaningful to share with the world – creating a throughline in our careers and lives.

|| Why a 2D platformer for your first title? Forgotton Anne is far more than just a 2D platformer, but the general segment is relatively crowded. Were there specific reasons why you chose this style of gameplay?

We were aware of the crowded segment, but thinking that we could really add something to this genre. This would be in terms of storytelling and the whole cinematic feel without it being labeled as just an interactive movie or walking simulator. Ori (and the Blind Forest) and Child of Light weren’t released back then and we knew we could create something unique by drawing on our 2D animation film backgrounds. The ‘branching storyline’ aspect was always part of the idea and in the beginning we experimented more with seamless integration where you’d be able to move and choose your replies, but that quickly spawned many issues in such a story-heavy game. The whole Arca mechanics also underwent many changes through experimentation and iterations to arrive at something that enabled puzzle gameplay and challenges but without overpromising deep exploration of it thus turning it into a hardcore experience. Another thing with the platforming was our intention to differentiate by having less focus on it as a gameplay mechanic but more towards heightening immersion as you move Anne around. In this it harkens back to older platformers like Prince of Persia where you felt a weight to the character you were controlling. Our game designers really had a tough challenge walking a fine line balancing many dependencies as story, level design and interactivity had to complement one another and create a nice flowing rhythm. I think all of this combined makes for a unique platformer, though we are not fan of labels in general.

|| When did you meet Square Enix, and how did you arrive at the decision to partner with them? Frankly, we think Square Enix made one of their best calls in publishing Forgotton Anne. How and when did that relationship first take off?

We met SE collective very early in 2015 at the Nordic Game Conference in Sweden, and kept in touch with them throughout the year and during our incubation period at Execution Labs (headed by Jason Della Rocca) in Montreal Canada where we spent three months. They were very supportive with the game and was the fastest to move with at the time, seeing as we had a tight schedule we wanted to keep for overall logistics of manpower and resources to add up.

|| What inspired the striking art style of Forgotton Anne? Delightfully Ghibli-esque, Forgotton Anne has some of the most beautiful art we’ve seen in a while. What were some of its inspirations? What was the process of creation like?

The art style came into being as a natural extension of our art director’s skills and the overall direction of the aesthetics drawing from a more naturalistic strand of anime. Our animators, Debbie and Sebastian, had studied animation in Japan under Ghibli animators and so most of us in the visual department had a shared reference of the processes in creating 2D animated movies which we carried over into the production. There is a treasure trove of ideas we had for portraying the forgotten lands, as it could contain anything from our world we could imagine. At one time we envisioned different places with architecture reflecting the past in different regions of the world, but ultimately we also had to be practical! Technical solutions also played a role in how we ended up with the final look of the game, as for a long time we thought of the game as being 2D, but had to reconfigure our mindset and remake parts of the game in order to accommodate our wish to have more depth in the game, both for atmosphere but also traversal in the z-axis, making the world feel more rich and expansive.

|| What’s next for ThroughLine Games? Forgotton Anne doesn’t seem like a title that will need substantial updates now or in the future. Dare we hope you’ve already started an outline for your next hit?

Making games is hard if you want to push yourself and create something somewhat original not to mention the whole business side of it. We’ve got so much passion for this medium and have a few concepts ready to accelerate forward with if somebody would just give us the money and say go! The reality though is that we have a plan for Forgotton Anne we want to follow up with in regards to exposing it to more gamers around the world, and also take some time to nurture the concepts we are developing to a point where we feel confident that they’ll become fun and meaningful experiences. For now we want to call on all who enjoyed Forgotton Anne to be verbal and spread the word so that the commercial side of it goes hand in hand with the positive critical and user reception that has really touched us. We are an independent developer with little to no marketing muscles, so are relying on word-of-mouth a lot.

|| Is there a culturally Denmark flavor to Forgotton Anne? It’s safe to say that it takes cues from Japanese anime, but was there anything distinctly ‘Denmark’ that was incorporated into the different facets of its game design?

Even though the team is comprised of many different nationalities, there is definitely a Danish flavor in there. We were happy to collaborate with local artists and the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra, having the lovely singer-songwriter Randi Laubek writing and singing the theme song as well as showing full-length animated shorts from the 20’s by the Danish grandfather of animation Storm P. in the game. You will also be able to catch references to Danish city elements in the game, as well as books and probably a number of references that even I am not aware of – with people on the team inserting them subtly behind my back (haha).

|| What made you decide to take the risk of potentially grim storytelling? Oftentimes, plotlines get coated with a dash of sugar to make sure they appeal to everyone. Did something in particular inspire you to craft Forgotton Anne’s story in such a thoughtful and complex way?

Making Forgotton Anne has been a long journey for myself and the team, and so from the beginning I knew we needed to treat the themes and topics in Forgotton Anne with respect and some emotional stakes. The grim and grotesque has always been a part of fairytales and I was very inspired to merge different elements from East and West, growing up with two cultures myself. Danish author Hans Christian Andersen wrote famous fairytales like the Little Mermaid which contains many grim things that we don’t see in the popular versions, and in cinema Guillermo Del Toro is wonderful at portraying beauty with a grotesque surface. In fact Pan’s Labyrinth was a big inspiration in terms of music and tone and it seemed exciting to marry that with the fantastic imaginative worlds of Ghibli. Forgotton Anne is thematically sprawling and we subtly touch upon topics we find personally interesting ourselves, such as consumerism, surveillance, and what it means to be human. We’re born into this world knowing little and what we’re taught during childhood often ends up coloring our worldview and so we each have to go on a journey of self-discovery like Anne does.

|| What does ThroughLine Games pride itself most on regarding Forgotton Anne? Was there anything in particular that was accomplished that you’ll always… remember?

Just the fact that we managed to create something that feels whole, as during development different elements could sometimes feel disparate when not seen from a holistic perspective. If you take a step back and think of the premise with the quirky forgotlings, a talking scarf with sunglasses or a screaming sock, how could you ever balance that with some of the more serious themes of the game without it feeling schizophrenic and out of place? It’s outrageous. Through our processes we really betted on the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. I’m a fan of Pixar’s motto “Trust the Process’ in this regard. We trusted in one another and it paid off – seeing the story unfold in people’s hands discovering that the subtle details and effort we put into it is appreciated and the emotional spectrum we cover over the course of the experience. The company motto is to ‘amaze’ and ‘surprise’ and this applies to ourselves during the development as well as wanting it to apply to gamers who play our games, so when we hear of positive surprising reactions from players — it could be the visual fidelity, the dramaturgy, certain puzzles or choices — we feel great pride in knowing the experience managed to move and touch somebody out there.