Hollywood powerhouse publisher Annapurna has been in love for two years with Dublin-based Dreamfeel's surreal new project set on Achill Island. Ahead of its release next week, the visual novel's two writers tell us how and why it took so long
You already know the old chicken-and-egg conundrum but have you ever looked at your favourite game and wondered which came first – the unique gameplay mechanic or the narrative that exploits it? Think Metroidvania, roguelikes, point’n’click, or, um, Flappy Bird.
In the case of Irish studio Dreamfeel, they knew they were on to an original storytelling tool when they played around with an endless zooming movement coupled to a eraser. Devised largely by studio founder Llaura McGee back in late 2015, the gameplay forms the eye-catching heart of a touching coming-of-age yarn called If Found… to be published for iOS and PC/Mac next week.
Rewind those four-and-a-half years, though, and McGee wasn’t sure what she had. The experienced game designer and writer had already been in the business for several years, having made the well-regarded Curtain, about a couple in an abusive relationship. She was trying to prototype her way into a new project when she met up with comics artist Liadh Young in 2015.
“At first I had this endlessly zooming mechanic,” remembers McGee, who is originally from Donegal. “Then we combined that with the erasing and it made a really cool combo where you'd uncover stuff and then uncover more stuff. And then we worked on that through 2016 and we made a really cool demo.”
McGee now heads a core team of seven based in Dublin but who are all working remotely due to coronavirus. On a Skype call recently, she and writer Eve Golden-Woods explained how the team were applying the final touches to If Found… ahead of its long-delayed release next Tuesday.
Back in 2016, the skeleton of the visual novel and how the mechanic fitted the plot began to come together. “The erasing idea was so powerful and we were like, OK, what kind of story can we tell with this?” says McGee.
The tale they landed on follows a young queer woman named Kasio on Achill Island on New Year’s Eve 1993 as she destroys her diary. The mystery of why and how she got to that point – and the potential involvement of a black hole – is for the player to understand as the words and illustrations vanish under your cursor. But it deals with issues of family conflict, gender identity and relationships in a sensitive and revealing manner, all wrapped in a setting that is authentically Irish.
“It being set in Ireland and in 1993 is not a coincidence, because it was a time of change,” says McGee, who is 31. “I was a kid then but Ireland was going from this time when it was about erasing or hiding anything that wasn't normal. So the story came from the erasing really. And it was like, who is this character? And what is she trying to do in a sense? What is she trying to get rid of?
“Often when you get games with serious topics, there's a very explicit interactive metaphor – the classic one is where moving left to right, you get older or whatever. I find when the message is encoded really explicitly in the mechanics, it's too simple, it's very prescriptive. So one thing that I really liked with the erasing is how different people's reactions are to it. Some people just erase like mad. And then some people will erase as little as possible and try not to erase things. It's definitely open for interpretation.”
It’s been a long road for Dreamfeel and If Found... has gone through many revisions in those intervening years, all the while winning awards and courting interest from arthouse megapublisher Annapurna Interactive.
“We took that demo to lots of shows around Europe, like Amaze in Berlin and EGX in London and Rezzed,” notes McGee. “We were working on other projects at the same time because we thought, oh, If Found… is a bit too big for us right now. Then at the end of the year, we won the Grand Prix at the Irish Design Institute's awards. It's the first time a game had ever been nominated for anything. That gave us more encouragement to return to the game.”
On a 2017 visit to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, McGee talked to a number of publishers. But she felt most kinship with LA-based Annapurna, which has midwifed several indie hits including What Remains of Edith Finch, Florence and Outer Wilds, as well as Hollywood movies such as Zero Dark Thirty.
“They felt that there was something about the game that really fit within their wheelhouse, they definitely have a very distinct style,” she says. “A lot of their stuff is often American-centric. So it's kind of cool to have something from this side of the Atlantic. But they thought the themes and the mature nature of the game really fit. So then it was a question of when the project would start and where it fitted within the release schedule. There was a long conversation there. But that was all kind of finalised by the end of 2017.”
The financial support made If Found… a reality and McGee began to build her crew.
“Annapurna allowed us to go from what was me and Liadh and a part-time producer to a full team,” she says. “They have funded most of the production since then. They do all the kind of regular publishing business, and give constant feedback as well. They care a lot about the game.”
Even calling If Found… a game presents problems for Dreamfeel because it’s not a conventional play-to-win experience.
“It was originally going to be an anti-dating sim where you would meet different people on a fictional island, and every relationship would go terribly wrong,” recalls McGee. “But then as we worked on it, we focused on one relationship more so than others. As we delved into Kasio's state of mind, her family came into it more.
“I have described it as an animated film to people who don't know what games are. Sometimes people see games and think it has to be like Peggle or Space Invaders. Then they're like, how do you make a game about a woman in the 90s? But you couldn't do this interaction in any other medium. It wouldn't be possible to tell the story, such as erasing the diary and the stuff she goes through.
“The game a year ago was so different but Annapurna were very understanding on that. If Found… was so such a long process. I did think it was longer Annapurna expected. They were expecting like a 40-minute game, or a kind of juiced-up version of our original demo from 2016. We completely shattered that.”
If Found… has been translated into 14 languages, which is no easy task given how colloquially Irish it feels. Dreamfeel went to the trouble of adding a language cheat sheet for the uninitiated overseas unfamiliar with our local slang.
Golden-Woods explains: “Our translators did a really wonderful job but we use a lot of Irish expressions. It was one thing that we really wanted to do was that for Irish people playing this game that it would feel genuine and authentic, and that meant putting in as much Hiberno-English as we could.”
• If Found… will be released on May 19 on Steam and the iOS App Store. See http://dreamfeel.org/#/iffound/ for more on the game