Thanks to a muted color palette and the concept of a young, seemingly weak character struggling against a violent world, many drew comparisons to the games from cult-favorite Sony studio Team Ico — comparisons amplified as fans discovered that two of Friend & Foe’s team members had worked on Team Ico’s long-in-development adventure game The Last Guardian.
At the time, The Last Guardian had gone into public hibernation, leaving fans craving anything that looked similar, and the Vane announcement offered a small release valve for those eager for updates. Many on Twitter and message board NeoGAF loved it. For Friend & Foe, everything seemed to be clicking.
Then something unusual happened.
Approximately six months later, Friend & Foe’s Rui Guerreiro — the team member with the bulk of the studio’s Last Guardian experience, who created the original Vane prototype from scratch and whom Friend & Foe originally described as "the main creative force on the project" — left the company. Leaving the rest of the team to finish the game without him.
And then he started developing a new game that, by his admission, looks a lot like Vane.
Called Mare, Guerreiro’s follow-up again focuses on the relationship between a child and a bird, again relies on the player triggering wind vanes to progress, again has a muted color palette and again presents a mysterious world where most things are left up to the player’s interpretation. Mare has significant differences — most notably, it’s a virtual reality game that you control by looking around, rather than a game you play with a controller and a screen — but in many ways it’s a second branch of the same DNA strand.
"For me, this is Vane," Guerreiro says. "You know, it’s just me continuing to make whatever I’d begun. ...
"It kind of feels like I am competing with myself."
So, what happened?
As Guerreiro tells it, he decided to start over out of a desire for control.
The story begins back when he worked at Team Ico on The Last Guardian.
When he joined in 2007, the studio was attempting to build a story about a gentle-handed boy and his giant animal companion — an artificially intelligent creature that many have described as a cross between a bird and a cat. And Guerreiro was blown away by the team’s talent and dedication, saying it felt "like a sports team — really close and going for something bigger than yourself."
As time went on, though, the game’s development pace dragged and he began to see the studio’s outlook change. This came to a head in 2011, he says, when director Fumito Ueda left Sony to start his own company and finish work on the game as a contractor.
"I kind of felt a bit betrayed by that because, I mean, you want to deal directly with the director, not just being told what to do [by others]," Guerreiro says. "So it kind of felt like the team was not the same anymore. And also there [were] all kinds of things going on as well ... which I am probably not allowed to talk about."
Guerreiro says that while he was at Team Ico, he started working on a Vane prototype as a personal art project in his spare time, and when he left he took it with him to develop it further.
Next, Guerreiro took a job with art outsourcing studio Shapefarm — the team that would go on to become Friend & Foe — doing contract work on the action game Devil’s Third.
"Then I showed them the Vane prototype and things kind of ... unfolded," he says.
The team at Friend & Foe began to turn Vane into a formal project with most of the company — five full-time team members — dedicated to it. It became less of an art experiment and more of a game. And as the game grew, Guerreiro says he started to lose control over his pet project.
"It kind of turned into something I didn’t expect," he says. "... Because the company I got involved with, they were expecting things from the project which would benefit them as well. I was more interested in just making a good game. ...
"If you see it from a company perspective, it’s a business, so if you have an opportunity you go for it. But I guess for me, I just want to do something I like, and the way I like it as well."
A couple months after Friend & Foe released a Vane trailer during the 2014 Tokyo Game Show, Guerreiro left. In retrospect, he says he wishes he’d kept Vane as a personal project, in part to maintain control and also because of his belief that adding overhead to a project can slow it down.
"It’s an interesting discussion," he says. "I feel like the more people you add to the team, it actually kind of slows down things and you get less stuff done. So because [on Mare] I’m doing programming, graphics as well, and design — the connections just have a meeting inside my brain so quickly. I can just do things very, very quickly. It feels even faster than having a team of five."
"It kind of turned into something I didn’t expect."
Since mid-2015, Guerreiro has been making Mare on his own, originally as an independent developer and currently as part of the studio Visiontrick Media. Despite joining a new team, he has yet to hand any of the development work off to other team members, instead relying on the other members of Visiontrick for feedback and business development help. As time goes on, he says it’s possible he will outsource certain pieces of the game to contractors to finish the game, but he intends to do the lion’s share of the work himself.
Since announcing Mare, Guerreiro says he hasn’t heard from Friend & Foe about the similarities between the two games. Asked if his former co-workers were upset, he says, "I don’t know. I’m not really in contact with them. But I’m sure they are. [laughs]"
[Reached for comment, Friend & Foe’s Rasmus Deguchi said, "We’re really excited for Mare and everything Rui gets up to — he's a fantastic artist and we were sorry to see him go. Getting everyone on the same page seems to be one of the hardest parts of making a game together. We're really excited about how much Vane has grown in the past two years and don't think that similarities between the titles will be an issue."]
Mare’s ebb and flow
Despite the development backstory, Guerreiro is making Mare to stand on its own rather than to mirror the game he left behind. At its simplest level, Mare is an adventure game where you interact with the world by looking at parts of it.
In a demo version of Mare that Guerreiro has shown publicly, the player can look at wind vanes, which triggers the vanes to shine and attracts a bird to fly toward them. Then a young girl on the ground follows the bird because she feels safe around it, though at times there will be obstacles in her way, so a simple puzzle would involve moving the bird in such a path that the girl can follow without getting stuck.
The player can further look at the girl as another way to make her feel safe, in an attempt to create a connection with her.
"Also there’s a possibility where you can choose not to protect her, which might help solve a puzzle," says Guerreiro.
As the game plays out, Guerreiro says the player’s interactions will evolve and there will be more to do, but he intends to keep much of the game’s meaning up to the player’s interpretation. The girl, for instance, mumbles in an unintelligible language.
"It’s kind of like a cat," he says, noting that he has two of his own at home. "You can just feel what they’re thinking by the way they react."
Continuing the up-for-interpretation theme, he says that the game doesn’t define the player upfront, nor their role in the world. Are they another bird? A god? Some sort of fourth-wall-breaking entity?
"You aren’t really told exactly how the game works, but you get hints so you ... kind of add one and one and unfold the mystery inside your head instead," says Guerreiro.
He’s similarly vague about the game’s title, "Mare," though he says that in some ways it has more to do with the game’s development process than its content. Guerreiro, who is Portuguese, points out that mare in his native language means "tide," which he says represents the volatility of the game’s development process to date.
"Sometimes it’s easy and then sometimes there’s a massive tsunami going towards you, so you have to just keep going on and fight," he says, noting that the biggest challenges have come from connecting the various pieces of the game together in a seamless way.
"That’s also what makes it interesting, I guess," he says. "If it’s easy, you just kind of get bored. Keep yourself challenged — I guess that’s probably the meaning."
Almost 10 years in
In late 2016, Guerreiro says that Mare is approximately 50 percent complete and he has the scope defined — aiming for a three-hour game that will be exclusive to Oculus hardware. He’s not ready to commit to a release time frame yet, though, having seen The Last Guardian linger through multiple delays.
Conveniently, the day of Guerreiro's interview for this story, a photo appeared online showing a final boxed copy of The Last Guardian — proof that after more than 10 years in development, the team was finally able to see the project through to completion.
"It feels great," he says. "Obviously I wasn’t there the last years, but it kind of felt like a big struggle so it’s nice to see it finished."
Now he hopes it’s his turn. After almost 10 years of working on games without seeing them through, this time he’s in control.
Which, he says, is all part of the challenge.