If a game is set during the period of a major conflict, it isn't too unreasonable to assume that the gameplay focuses on the combat aspect, be it shooting or melee brawls. 11-11 Memories Retold takes a different direction. The upcoming collaboration between DigixArt, Aardman Studios, and Bandai Namco instead focuses on the impact of war on two non-combatant characters on different sides of the conflict during World War One. At EGX 2018, we managed to sit down with the game's Producer, George Rowe, and Art Director, Bram Ttwheam, to chat about the upcoming project, and especially the role of Aardman in its production.
How did the collaboration come about between the three studios?
George:Aardman is well known for their animation output but not so much for their games, which have mostly been browser titles up until now. What made you want to get involved with this?
There's a conference called Games for Change that is about meaningful games, games that are more than entertainment. One of our creative directors, Jake Manion, was there about three years ago and just happened to be sitting next to Yoan Fanise, who is the director of DigixArt, our co-producting studio. He's the creator of Valiant Hearts: The Great War
and worked at Ubisoft for many, many years. They just got chatting, and our director started talking to Yoan about how he loved Valiant Hearts, and maybe we could do a co-production with Aardman doing art animation and then Digixart doing the game design.
Yoan already had this structure of a novel World War 1 story in his head, so we worked with him for a while to realize that and get it to a stage to pitch it out. Bandai Namco in Europe are getting into doing more interesting narrative driven games. They've obviously got Supermassive and Dontnod doing games for them at the moment, so I think they saw this as another interesting narrative experience they could get involved with. That was about two years ago.
George: Aardman has had an interactive department for about ten years now. We used to make just flash games and things like that for our own IPs and the BBC, people like that. As flash died, we started making mobile games and using Unity, but while it's a department full of people who work at Aardman, they're also gamers and like making interactive stuff. It's always been a real desire to make a larger game, a console level game.
I think with this game specifically, because it really corresponds with a couple of Aardman's core values such as great storytelling and great characters, this seemed like a perfect opportunity for us to get involved with something like that. I think then with the art style being a bit of a handmade look...
Bram: ... yes, the handcrafted thing was very appealing to us, something you don't often see in games, so it seemed like a good opportunity to take the plunge and do some experimenting.
What is Aardman's role in the process?
Bram:The graphics are quite distinctive. Why did you choose this style and what kind of challenges arise from implementing that style into the game?
We're primarily looking after the arts side of things. We looked after the animation to a degree, but it's mainly focused on the look of the piece and helping fine tune the story aspects. We've been sort of involved on most levels.George:
It's very much a co-production. On paper, DigixArt are doing game design and programming. We're doing art and animation. The story's being shared a bit between everyone — it's quite a collaborative approach with a couple of writers called Iain Sharkey and Stephen Long who are actually the writers on Get Even
, a previous Bandai game. They were brought on board to do dialogue, tighten up the story, and things like that, so it's very much like a collaborative process.
The inspiration came largely from when Yoan Fanise saw a piece we did for the Imperial War Museum called The Flight of the Stories
, which was a painterly styled animation. That seemed to be a really good thing narratively speaking because you can render things in a subjective way, and that's primarily what we're trying to do with this game. We're trying to tell two stories from the points of view of the characters that you're playing. To render things subjectively seemed ideal and that's why we adopted this painterly approach.George:
Challenges. Ha ha. Bram:
They are manifold.George:
There's a few major ones. The main one that we really had was you want something to both look really painterly, you want to make it look like a painting, but then that is not necessarily something that marries so well with being able to see clear details and see what a player needs to see: I need to go over here and I need to find this thing that I'm looking for. Finding that balance between trying to make it look painterly but also so the player can tell what's going on, see where they need to be going, find the thing they're supposed to be finding, that was one of the main challenges.
Performance as well. It's quite an intensive shader — while the rendering is applied it's quite an intensive thing — so getting it to run at a rate that would work on current generation consoles was a bit of a struggle, but we got there in the end. We learned so much through making it. At the very beginning we had ideas about what the painterly effect would be when it was finished, and then by using it, developing it, experimenting, all these kind of things, you're making the thing as you're trying to use it. It becomes a very, very iterative process of taking our original assumptions, and then from testing them out you find that maybe there's something wrong and you find a new way to approach it.
We used to think that we wanted to have as many brush strokes on the screen, that it would make it better. We realised after a while that it was bad for performance. At one point we were rendering 1.7 million brush strokes per frame, which even on a powerful PC with a really good graphics card was not very good. We got 15 fps at best in a scene with one character in. But then we realised if we reduce the number of brush strokes, we can actually make it more painterly sometimes because we can see the edges a little bit more. You can see the fact that it is a painting rather than layers under each other. It was probably the most challenging thing we did, but also probably the most rewarding of all of them.
World War I games usually focus on the combat and the whole fighting aspect, but 11-11 Memories doesn't. It tells the story of two characters whose voices you wouldn't expect to be heard. Why those characters?
George: One of the most obvious answers for that for us is that World War I games are normally a certain type of game where you're trying to shoot people in the head, but for the common soldier, that's not what war is. They don't care about being there to shoot people. They care aboutwhether they're going to get to see their family again. When they get home, are they going to be the same person? All this kind of stuff.Historical accuracy is obviously important to you in this game. How did you go about making sure you achieved this?
World War I is such a messy war, there's not really good and evil and there's not really right and wrong. It's such an interesting conflict compared with something a bit more black and white like World War II. We really wanted to tell how does that affect people rather than how does that affect strategy and killing, and things like that, because the common soldier doesn't care about that. The desire was to tell a real personal account of war and then also to tell it from two different sides so you can get that different opinion on one conflict.
Bram: It's nice to focus on the fact that war is something that happens to people rather than people happening to war. That was a nice appealing way to go in on the narrative.
George: It's a fictional story, but it's set in the real events of World War I. There's a layer of collectibles, like letters, photographs and real artifacts from World War I, that you do actually find in the game, so there is that layer of factual information in there. We didn't want to ram it down the player's throat. This is not an educational game; it's a narrative game with a little bit of an educational layer you can get involved with if you want to.
Bram: We wanted it to be respectful to people's memories really.
George: World War I is a little bit understudied, certainly in games, and even in film as well. It's the centenary of the Armistice coming up and everyone who was actually involved in that war is dead, so there's not nearly as much stuff about World War I as there is World War II. First of all we worked with two military historians, so we worked with a British and a German military historian. We wanted to have that balanced view because you play a German and you play a Canadian Allied character. They helped us with all the real events and what the soldiers would have been doing, all kinds of stuff like that. It's important for us to remember that it was a terrible thing that happened.
It's also interesting even with the more people that worked on the game that everyone has a story about World War One in their family. It's a conflict that touched all of Europe, well most of the world, so it's very interesting to find out people's personal stories about that and try and put aspects of that in the game. I actually found my great-grandfather's discharge papers from World War I in a tube in my dad's house while making this, and that's now in the game as a collectible that you can find, which is quite nice. People start working on something like this and you start talking to family members about it and they're like "oh, there's this family story about that". To a certain extent we tried to get those things into the game as well — that's where the bare bones of the story came from.
Yoan's read a lot of personal letters and diaries, things like that from World War One. He's sort of picked and chosen from those to tell the story. There are some times when we bend the story away from accuracy because of it being a game, or just it being a story, because we need to have that ability to tell the story. Hopefully by playing this game, though, some people might get interested in World War I that they might not be in other ways.
After our interview the pair also took to the stage to give a presentation on the game's art style, as well as showing the game in action and some of the stuido's previous work. You can see that presentation in full below.
If the game's distinctive art style and premise has taken your fancy, you'll be able to get your hands on it on November 9th. Many thanks to George and Bram for taking the time to answer our questions. If you'd like to see more of 11-11 Memories, you can find all of the latest news, videos and screenshots at the game's hub.