One of gaming’s great strengths is escapism – the chance to step out of your mundane life and live something extraordinary. But Vane, from Tokyo-based indies Friend&Foe, lets you step out of body too.
As a child with the power to transform into a bird, your one task is to spread your wings and explore, filling in Vane’s wordless, enigmatic story from the ethereal desert landscape. Since Vane’s intial announcement at Tokyo Game Show in 2014, Friend&Foe have shared few concrete details. Late last year, they reemerged from the shadows under what has quickly become one of the biggest spotlights in the gaming calendar: PlayStation Experience.
“Sony have been a big supporter of us,” says Matt Smith, a producer at Friend&Foe. “The opportunity came up, and we were talking with them about when to take the lid off what we’re doing again. PSX came up as a pretty good opportunity, and the timing worked for us.
“It seemed like a good opportunity because it’s a show less about the inside baseball that happens in games and just connecting with players and fans. Getting that feedback is really helpful for us as well.”
Pitched as an “open-world adventure game based on mystery and exploration”, Vane garnered positive press previews from the event, despite being shown out of its element.
“[Vane’s reception] has been surprisingly good,” Smith explains. “By and large, people really like what we’re doing with the game – which surprises me, especially seeing as the game is more of a, sit down in your living room and take your time with it [style]. It’s not really built for a show floor.
“The people running the booth – us – were getting kind of nervous as the line grew, because it takes a while to play [the demo]. Everyone feels a bit of pressure in that situation, which isn’t how we want people to play at all. Even given that environmental challenge, I think the response was positive, everyone loves the atmosphere, the light touch we’re taking with the story telling, which confirms our direction to an extent. We were re-energized by the response.”
Counting the likes of EA, Guerrilla Games and Sony Japan Studio on their collective resume, Friend&Foe are eight experienced developers from the Japanese games industry. Originally concepting two games, ’80s-inspired “Lethal Weapon meets Metal Slug” Dangerous Men, and Vane, they focused on the latter based on the buzz created by its announcement.
“We’re just refugees from larger game companies, by and large,” says Smith. “The people that started the company, we all had jobs at larger studios like Electronic Arts or Guerrilla Games, Avalanche, Sony Japan Studio – we all happened to be in Japan, met up, and decided to work together and make games.
“We’re a small studio of game industry veterans trying to do something unusual, and so far, it’s been working out.”
And while they’re based in Japan, Friend&Foe are developing Vane with a Western audience in mind too. With the recent localisations of Yakuza 0 and the Digimon series, and high-profile releases like Final Fantasy XV, Nioh and Nier: Automata, there seems to be an increasing appetite for Japanese-developed games after a brief period of unfashionability. However, this trend towards globalisation isn’t as strong in the indies, which could be down to the make-up of the scene.
“Even Japanese developers are focusing on the West as much as they can,” Smith says. “I just think that the two markets are very distinct right now. In the sense that there’re certain niche titles that will get you a certain degree of success here in Japan – but I can’t speak too much to that, because we’re not developing for that audience.
“As far as indie developers go, there’s an interesting split. There’s a lot of Western people in the Tokyo development community. A lot of Western people living here in Japan, but working with global ambitions. While Japanese developers skew more towards the Dōjinshi style of creation. I think they’re not really thinking about an audience, per say. There’s a difference in mentality there that’s interesting.”
“When you mention these professional game developers who’ve been in the industry a long time going indie,” he elaborates. “That’s not what the indie scene in Japan really looks like. It’s hobbyists, people whose passion is making games, not necessarily whose profession is making games. And so, it’s a different scene.
“We’re fairly well insulated. We’re a company of foreigners living in Japan, we all get along pretty well in this country, and I’m sure it influences us to an extent, but as far as broader idea of Japanese video games as a phenomenon – I’m not really sure that it plays too much into what we do day-to-day.”
A DIFFERENT QUALITY
Friend&Foe’s main aim with Vane is to create an interesting and explorative experience punctuated with scenes of environmental story-telling. And while it’s tempting to forcefully guide players to their next destination, freedom is key to Vane’s success.
“It’s continually evolving,” Smith states. “Making a game is always a process of evolution, at least for us.
“It’s a big world that we look at in different slices – both spacially and temporally. There’re sections where the play environment gets very large, open-world almost. And there’re sections where it’s a little more limited. But by-and-large, to the extent that the story allows it, we try to allow the player as much freedom to move in and out of these spaces as possible.”
He goes on to say: “We’re trying to make a game that doesn’t feel much like a game, that has this different quality to it. Sometimes we don’t know what that is ourselves, and we have to try out a bunch of different things before we find what fits. But if you look at the first trailer we put out, and then the trailer we just put out, they’re a little bit different. We’re aiming to have a range of experiences within the title itself. But also the structure, the visual style, the gameplay have all undergone signifcant evolutions since we started the project.
“To us, exploration doesn’t really mean anything if you don’t come across the revaltions yourself. If it’s to the extent that you’re guided somewhere specifically, or you’re on rails, that’s not really an exploration game to us anymore. This game’s going to have sections which propel you forward, where there’s not a ton of room to move around necessarily, but I think the heart of the game will be the open exploration sections where there’re no training wheels, where you’re moving around an environment and trying to discover things for yourself.”
An expansive setting is no use if it’s empty. Friend&Foe are focusing on giving meaning to the world you’re given to explore. Taking inspiration from masters of the craft, like Playdead’s Inside, they’re using sound queues to form a well-constructed atmosphere that twists and changes the constraints the team have placed on themselves in interesting ways.
“Most of our thought process is going into how we make the environment tell the story we’re trying to tell,” says Smith. “Because that’s the canvas we’ve allowed ourselves.”
“Knowing if it’s working or not is quite difficult. We’ve noticed that you tend to over-correct one way or the other. It’s easy to be a little too subtle, so players can easily pass over all the stuff you think is important. But on the other hand, it’s quite easy to be too blunt. For instance, if you try some tricks to explicitly draw the player’s attention somewhere in a level or the gameplay environment, then the subtlety that you’ve tried to bake into that environment disappears by comparison. It’s very much an exercise in controlling the volume of things.
“It’s our biggest challenge. Coming up with an environment that feels natural to explore, that doesn’t let the player feel lost for too long, but also lets the player explore it on their own terms.
“We’ve tried a number of different things to try and guide the player, but also build meaning into space – and they’re almost competing ends of a spectrum, at least that’s what we’ve found so far. Our big hope over the course of developing this is that we’ll find a way to resolve those seeming opposites. It’s definitely a big challenge that we’ve put in front of ourselves.”
Indie development not only throws up a number of creative difficulties, but practical and political ones as well. Money is tight, and the studio’s future hinges on success.
In terms of other challenges, we’re a small studio,” Smith explains. “Which means everyone has a voice. We don’t have much of a structure, so things are quite democratic at times. I would say that the one thing we’re committed to as a company is making games together. That can be a messy process sometimes with heated discussions about what we should be doing, or how we should set something up. But I also think that Vane wouldn’t be the game it is without that dynamic interplay.
“Outside of that, the biggest challenge that we have for ourselves is that this is our first game together. It’s a game that isn’t easy to make, a game where we’re – purposefully – throwing out a big chunk of the rulebook and a big chunk of the tool-set that developers give themselves, and making something interesting by reinventing those tools in weird ways. I think that the biggest challenge is getting the game done to the level we want it done in the time that we have. We want to release the game this year – so that puts us on the clock. We really need to apply ourselves, be focused and work as hard as we have done to meet our goals.”
These challenges mean that there’s still a lot to learn, even for industry veterans – especially when a cornerstone of indie development is walking the road less traveled and breaking new ground.
“One of the biggest takeaways is creative risk, which I personally understand a lot better now,” says Smith. “When you’re working at a larger company, you’ve got less experience maybe and you’re working for somebody else. Let’s say that you advocate for something interesting, but unproven, because you’re in the games industry because you’re a creative person and want to make your ideas a reality – so you push for something that’s a little bit out there, a little bit strange.
“Invariably, if you work for a larger company or someone else, you’ll get push back on that because people’ll be like, ‘that’s a risky idea,’ or, ‘we’re not sure how that fits into the existing scheme we’re trying to build,’ or, ‘no other game’s done that, can we afford to take that risk?’
“At least for me, when I was told those things as a young developer, I thought it came down to commercial cowardice – being afraid to put something new on the market for fear of being rejected.”
He continues: “There’s a certain amount of production risk, like, can you actually figure out what you’re trying to do? Do you understand you own desires? Because you need to understand them quite well to reflect them in a game. There’s going to be a million different ways a player approaches what you’ve put in there, and unless you’ve understood them thoroughly, it will completely unravel.
“For instance, we have a dedication with our game to keep things open and the environments from becoming linear platforming sequences. We want you to be able to weave in-and-out of large spaces. The character can transform their shape with certain circumstances in the environment, so we’re trying to build a certain amount of freedom into our traversal sequences.
“You look a game like Journey, and the traversal is basically just moving forward on a line through the whole game. We’re trying to open that up into a more three-dimensional space where you can direct where you’re trying to go a little bit more. But that means that everything you make has to be approached from three dimensions, and will be approached in three dimensions.”
“It takes a lot more thought, I think,” he adds. “Not only is there a risk in the release product of people bouncing off it because it’s too open. But there’s also a risk in production of, ‘are we thinking hard enough about this, and now we’re committed to doing this, do we have enough time to do it justice?’ The one thing I’ve learned the most is contextualizing, and what really makes that concrete for me as a developer is when you try something different, [you ask] ‘what are those risks exactly?’
“In that sense, Vane is a very risky game. We’re trying to do a lot of other things that are different or weird. We have no guarantee that those risks are going to pay off, but that’s the road we’ve chosen, and it’ll be exciting one way or another.”
This commitment to creative spirit underpins everything with Vane, where Friend&Foe desperately want to create something exciting and different. What remains to be seen is how they realize their vision.
“We’re focusing on the PS4 release first,” Smith concludes. “Just because we’re trying to cut down variables as much as possible. There’ll probably be a PC version that we’ll work on as soon as we’ve got the PS4 version in-hand. It’ll probably come out after the PS4 version, but there’s a lot of uncertainty there that makes it hard to speak to specifics.
“We’re making this weird thing, and we hope that people like it. That’s pretty much all we can say.”