Friend & Foe’s puzzle adventure is an indistinct, intriguing shimmer on the horizon
Much like its development team,
Vane holds its cards close to its chest. Some things are plain as day: the scope and mood of Friend & Foe’s forthcoming thirdperson puzzle-adventure is gently familiar, reminiscent of Tequila Works’
Rime, or Fumito Ueda classic Ico. But some things are less clear. Who is the child we’re playing? What is the substance that triggers their transformation into a raven? More to the point: what exactly is our goal in this game? After a long stretch of soaring through the sun-bleached desert, we’re left with more questions than answers. It’s not necessarily a negative impression. It’s definitely a powerful one: a deep, quiet, burning sense of curiosity.
“We stumbled across this feeling as we were developing [the game],” programmer
Matt Smith says. “We had this very mysterious vibe and we thought: how do we build a game to support this vibe, and evolve this feeling over the course of the game to make a satisfying experience?” The suggestion that this came about by chance isn’t entirely accurate: artist Rasmus Deguchi is a Team Ico alumnus, after all. “That was a very long time ago, so it’s a very dubious connection at this point,” says a defensive Deguchi, keen to disentangle this fledgling game from the ties of the past. His colleagues are more willing to acknowledge the influence. “We all like their games, and it’s a big reference, especially in terms of mood,” Smith says. “There’s a sort of melancholy to the games we enjoy, so we’re trying to create something with a similar vibe. The Team Ico games are a big inspiration to us. I think Raz might undersell the techniques he’s taken out of his experience there.”
When we take to the air as the raven – brisk button taps flapping our blue-black wings – to begin our long flight, it’s riding Agro in Shadow Of The Colossus that comes to mind, the meditative, anticipatory quality that a journey to an unknown destination affords. It’s no coincidence: Colossus has served as a “touchstone” for Vane, says Smith, with the team using composition and framing to both direct the camera and allow players a degree of control over the view.
Glints of light guide the way in lieu of objective markers. “They have a bigger tendency to show up at glancing angles; they’ll show up in the periphery rather than when you’re looking straight at them,” says former 3D game-design teacher and current illustrator Ivar Dahlberg. Indeed, they catch the corners of the eyes as we fly, an invitation to veer around and swoop down to one of the game’s weather vanes, which are hung with sparkly beads and indicate interactive areas. “The glint started as a way of saying, how
do we do a HUD without doing a HUD?” says Smith. “We wanted to keep it grounded in the world. But we’ve found they’re almost overpowered, because the environment doesn’t speak as well. It winds up being a ‘hunt the sparkles’ game, which isn’t what we’re looking for.” Dahlberg agrees: “Ideally, we want to have a world pulling you into it with the sheer beauty or interest of the environment itself.”
While the section of the world in our demo is vast, it is stark. Flat stretches of dry, yellow earth do little to inspire: at times, our raven’s flight over it is just slow enough to counter the curiosity drawing us to the next sparkle. When we arrive, mysteries unfold, then shrink into themselves again. Diving into crevasses leads to shivering piles of iridescent gold. Up close, they cause our feathers to splinter and shudder, then disappear as we emerge from the substance in human form. In one instance, a puzzle is briefly obvious as we release a raven trapped in a cage with the help of some slightly clunky platforming.
But these places guard their secrets jealously: it’s not clear what the next step is. Another gold-flooded cavern elsewhere in the stage seems for all the world a red herring. Again, a sense of wonder is tinged with frustration. “The game has elements of puzzles in it, but it’s not one big puzzle that you need to figure out,” Deguchi says. “It’s more an experience where each individual interaction can stand on its own. With some things, you get a more immediate reward for figuring something out, and other things tie into a bigger chain of events.” We’re still unconvinced that small cavern has a purpose – but we assume our liberated friend is part of something bigger, and irritation melts away into a desire to explore again.
It is the bright glints of hope – mechanical and otherwise – that draw us on, or cause us to circle back to crumbling landmarks and dark holes, in case we’ve missed something. A turquoise oasis, fittingly, offers some welcome relief from the parched expanse. This time, however, it’s the tricky process of landing on a windsock that nearly cheats us of a moment with an unkindness of ravens. It adds an involving skill-based facet to Vane; it could also be seen to contradict the game’s atmosphere. “We have that debate all the time, and that’s the reason why that mechanic is a schizophrenic mess,” Smith says. “We want to have some depth to it, but something we’ve learned is sometimes we let that depth become the mission, instead of the mission being the player experiencing the world.” And while it’s not exactly early days for
Vane (it was announced at Tokyo Game Show in 2014), development is still in its infancy. Friend & Foe is attempting to perform a parlous balancing act between mystery and clarity. What lodges itself in the mind and under the skin, though, is that vibe, perhaps most evident in our demo’s opening scene. We are a weakling in an improbable world, avoiding lightning strikes and stumbling over ground as distorted as the synthesiser accompaniment. The sense of doom is palpable.
In these moments, Vane moves further from the easy Team Ico comparison into something far stranger. We ask about a a previous build, which showed this scene at a different point in the demo. “I don’t want to get into that,” Smith says. “The structure was special to [that show]. Ultimately, it’s not super important when those things happen…” Finally, some illumination escapes through a crack in the veneer of vagueness. “This is a game that has a unique relationship with time – time, space, and location. It’s something that may not make perfect sense to you right when you encounter something, but we want the mysteries to resolve over time into more ideas. As you finish it and play through again, it comes into better focus.
“We want it to stick with you. Not as a cool story, but an affecting experience. That sense of mystery is key,” Smith says. “Maybe the mystery is solved, but not in the way you expect, and you can’t really explain what the resolution was. Maybe it’s not easy to put how you felt about it into words.” We note that this is a writer’s idea of hell. Smith laughs. “It might be our idea of hell, too.”
“This is a game that has a unique relationship with time – time, space, and location”
From top: Rasmus Deguchi, Matt Smith and Ivar Dahlberg