When game developers sit down and start to build the ideas that haunt their dreams, they usually begin with a genre, a mechanic, a character, or perhaps a hook to hang an ambitious script on. For the upcoming adventure game Vane, however, it all started with a feeling.
“That’s not really how people make games,” says Matt Smith, one-fifth of Friend & Foe, the outfit behind the game. “As it turns out, there’s a good reason for that. It’s really, really hard to make a game that way.”
According to Smith, thanks to the team’s strong art background, Vane’s austere aesthetic came quickly and easily. It’s a premise familiar to fans of enigmatic indie standouts: as a lone child with strange abilities, players explore an unforgiving environment to try to unravel the mysteries of a lonesome world. Past that back-of-the-box boilerplate, however, according to Smith, constructing nearly every other aspect of the game has been a four-year push-and-pull between different creative minds all struggling to make their output the best it can be.
Like many moody adventure games, Vane shares much in common with the much-acclaimed works of Japanese director Fumito Ueda — especially the groundbreaking Ico. As Smith admits, the resemblance is no coincidence. In fact, when it was first unveiled in 2014, Vane shot to prominence as the striking indie game crafted by ex-Ueda employees who once contributed to the long-delayed The Last Guardian. In reality, this connection was mostly illusory — only two of the team’s staff worked on Guardian, and one of them left early on. Yet players slavering for a new game by one of the medium’s most-celebrated creators latched onto the project as one to watch, especially since the release of Guardian itself seemed like a distant prospect. While Smith and the rest of the team appreciated the positive press, they now relish in the opportunity to step out of Ueda’s long shadow.
“It’s true that The Last Guardian coming out has unmoored a point of reference for our game, since a lot of people assumed that we might come out beforehand, even though it turned out to be the beginning of our process,” says Smith. “It was great that people compared our game to The Last Guardian, and it’s an honor to be mentioned in the same breath as Ueda-san. But at the same time, as artists, we want our work to stand on its own.”
“There was never any intention of trying to replace The Last Guardian, or trying to come out before it,” says Ivar Dahlberg, a senior member of the team. “We’re trying to make our own thing.”
Smith compares Friend & Foe’s splashy initial reveal to that of Below, the murky, rock-hard roguelike from Capybara Games. Though that game made quite an impression at E3 2013 with its dim aesthetic and Zelda-esque charms, the team fell into a five-year hibernation punctuated by the surprise release of the game in December 2018. To Smith, this represents a fundamental reality that undergirds this crowded era of indie development. For better or worse, you only get one or two chances to make a splash, and you need to make them count.
“I’m not saying we did it the right way or the wrong way,” he says. “However, I am glad that we were able to stand out because of how our game looks. That’s a benefit of our team being a bunch of artists. The game looked very polished, very complete, even though it was in that initial stage when we revealed it.”
“It made things a little difficult, though, because people thought that our game was further along than it was,” adds Dahlberg. “So people were surprised that we took this long to make it. But, honestly, that’s just how long it takes sometimes.”
Again and again, Dahlberg and Smith expound on the communal artistic process that produced Vane, and how it sometimes slowed the pace of the project down in exchange for a delicate consensus. (Smith jokes that they have a very “Nordic” approach to conflict resolution, owing to several team-members hailing from that part of the world.) While such a collaborative approach isn’t unheard of in the world of independent games, where one employee might often fulfill several specialized roles, you might argue that the team was forced into it.
Six months into the development of Vane, Friend & Foe lost the team member they described as the “creative force” behind the game, Rui Guerreiro. While Dahlberg describes the loss of Guerreiro as a major setback for the team, he ultimately feels that the game they created is so far from Guerreiro’s original vision that it’s hard to know how that hypothetical Vane would differ from the one they’ve created. (And for those looking for Guerreiro’s version, his upcoming VR game Mare shares more than a few similarities.)
“Early on, the expectations were very different, because it seemed like we working with a guy who had all the answers, so it was less of a team effort,” Dahlberg says. “Now, I’m not really sure if those answers existed, but [him leaving] gave us the opportunity to make it into our own thing and explore a lot more after that. Maybe it set us back in time, but it’s impossible to know, because I’m not sure what that version of the game would’ve looked like. It’s a case of the game dictating what it should be, rather than us pushing it in any direction, and I think that’s a very unusual way to do it.”
“I joined the team at basically the same time that Rui left,” says Smith. “So to me, the game is very much a road we wouldn’t have chosen to take if he hadn’t started down it, but on the other hand, we went down it for four years, so it’s sort of our road now. I think it would’ve been a very different road if he had been a part of the team, but I think that applies equally to any member of the team. When you have a studio this small, everyone’s an impact on the project, not just the lead. All the collaborators leave a mark, and that makes the base, or the spices, or the ingredients of the stew, and that’s the game.”
In the independent gaming scene, where sheer inventiveness is prized over all else, the alluring image of the lone creator struggling to forge their perfect creative whole can sometimes outweigh that of a team that shares design duties collectively. To Smith, the cult of the isolated genius toiling away might make for a great story to sell to consumers, but it doesn’t reflect the true conditions that most games are created under.
“The auteur idea is a little bit of a misnomer in any discipline,” says Smith. “A movie director delegates to a lot of people that they have faith in. Even writers have editors. Games are more collaborative than most artforms, because the disciplines are so distinct. Our team really isn’t like a waterfall, but it’s a tide pool. Or maybe one of those wave pools at water parks that people are always falling over in.
“It’s something that’s always frustrated me, but it’s very hard to have an approachable, public face to a game that’s this complex. People want to think that one person’s ideas are the thing that crystalize in a game, and they want to subscribe to that person’s philosophy.”
Despite the impending release date of Jan. 15, Friend & Foe is still cagey about the details of how Vane actually plays. While it undoubtedly shares some creative DNA with the meditative milieu of Journey, both Smith and Dahlberg describe the game as more open-ended than its contemporaries — and a great deal weirder, to boot. In particular, the studio has endlessly debated the necessity of even basic tutorials in the gamespace, see-sawing back and forth between prioritizing accessibility over immersion, or vice versa. While it might seem like a small point to tussle over, Dahlberg emphasizes that the focus of the game remains the peculiar feeling that Guerreiro’s original prototype evoked. Therefore, anything that might interfere with that might serve as a major impediment to the game’s artistic success.
Even still, after four years in the pipe, Smith and Dahlberg struggle to explain the game’s core activities without spoiling the experience for would-be players. After a bit of fumbling, Dahlberg explains Vane’s fundamental tension as one of scale, land versus sky. Set adrift in large, desolate environments, the player character can use their bird form to scour the map for puzzles to solve and objects to interact with. While they shy away from describing Vane as a non-linear experience, they insist that the player has some degree of choice over the order they complete the game in.
“I suppose you can define the game by what you do,” Smith says. “More than anything, it’s an adventure game. You explore the environment, you interact with stuff, you solve some light puzzles we’ve created. We don’t explain a lot to the player, so the impetus is on you to figure out what’s going on.”
“The theme of the game is transformation,” says Dahlberg. “Obviously, that manifests in the kid-and-bird transformations that we’ve already shown, and there are a couple more that you get as the game progresses. But the game is not just about changing yourself; it’s about trying to change your environment, change your world, and what the limitations or the consequences of that can be. This is a very alien environment, and we’re leaving a lot up to interpretation, but we think a lot of people will get something out of it.”
While Smith says that the Journey comparison is understandable, he emphasizes that Vane does far less to constrain the player than most of the more lackadaisical indie hits over the years. In bird form, players can find dozens of interactable objects that don’t have a large or even immediate effect on the game-stated — rather, they simply contribute to the player’s understanding of the world, and perhaps their place in it. As Smith puts it, the team’s stated goal was to make the player feel ownership of the strange objects they find in their sprawling maps, rather than leashing them to the yoke of linear scripting.
“We’re trying to make a puzzle game where players own their own discoveries, and own their own decisions,” says Dahlberg. “That’s one of our major struggles. What direction do you set off to? Eventually, the game funnels a little bit, but the game starts very openly, and it’s up to the player to figure it out. Most games will push you in a direction very early on, like ‘the princess is in the castle, go save her.’ Our game doesn’t give you that immediate goal, and, as a developer, that can be a bit scary at times.”
To Dahlberg, this tension between player guidance and self-determination was the hardest part of making Vane. As a studio, Friend & Foe originally prioritized the openness of the experience above all else. However, as development progressed, the team began to realize that this sense of expansive freedom came at a cost, and not all players would be able to stomach it. Therefore, the team had to learn to guide players with what Dahlberg terms “non-intrusive” elements, like sound cues. He terms it “speaking to the player without them knowing we’ve spoken to them.”
While the particulars of the game remain cloaked in shadow, it’s clear that the studio wants to make more projects together, and they’d love to reach as many people as possible. To Smith, however, the fact that Friend & Foe managed to ship Vane in a state that they’re happy with is ultimately far more important than sales figures, even as they wonder if its open nature may alienate some audiences.
“We don’t like to talk about it, but despite the game’s fantasy atmosphere, this really is a sci-fi game, for better or for worse,” he says. “I remember one day we sat down, and we were going over some of our plans for Vane, and I said, ‘We’re really trying to make the Dark Souls of walk-’em-up games, aren’t we?’ Ultimately, that’s what I think of Vane. Maybe it won’t reach everyone, but I’m happy with what we made.”