Friend & Foe’s puz­zle ad­ven­ture is an in­dis­tinct, in­trigu­ing shim­mer on the hori­zon

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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

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