There’s an unreality to Vane that makes it mesmerising. It’s been a year since we last played Friend & Foe’s winged adventure, and it’s lost none of its bleakly beautiful sense of mystery since. Before, we explored a vast, bleached desert, and got rather lost in the process. This time, we’re in a dark crevasse littered with mechanical bones, and our goal is clearer: to realign the broken rail in the centre of the room. Our objective may be more mundane, the signs pointing to it clearer, but completing it is still wonderfully strange: we leap into a chasm, transforming effortlessly into a bird in the freefall, and set about our task.
Much of the past year of development has been about reconciling Vane’s abstract, enigmatic spirit with the practicalities of a videogame. “I think at the beginning we weren’t quite sure what kind of game we were going to make,” producer Matt Smith says. “We knew what kind of experience we wanted, but we weren’t really sure what
form that game was going to take. And the process of pulling a game out of that feeling has been challenging – more challenging than we would have expected.” Vane is not their first feathered rodeo: this is a dev outfit comprising several ex-members of The Last
Guardian team. But the process has proved remarkably different. “None of us had really owned a project like this before, and didn’t really realise how much of your own soul you put into it,” director Ivar Dahlberg says. “When you’re working for someone else, making someone else’s game, you don’t care as much. But suddenly you have this thing, and everything is very, very important to you.”
Foremost is that chimeric atmosphere – the shivering, shapeshifting nature of Vane’s world and characters. “If anything, the stuff we’ve done in the last year is even weirder,” Smith says. Parts of the craggy chasm seem
to pulse in response to the game’s synthy soundtrack. When we need to push a counterweight from a cliff, we dive into holographic pools of gold to turn from bird to girl: seeing a fellow bird trapped in a cage, we plunge into the crevasse to reverse the change, before landing on a perch above and calling over the flock to help us dislodge the prison. But there’s something else new, and not entirely welcome: button prompts that tell us how to call out as the bird, or grab an object as the girl.
These prompts, alongside a more explicit visual narrative to the puzzle we’re trying to solve, are part of what makes this demo of
Vane so much clearer than the last. But it’s a compromise, and continues to be a source of much deliberation for a team concerned with subtlety. “Prompts are something we’re still testing out,” environment artist and art director Rasmus Deguchi says. “Our intention is for it to be less intrusive than it currently is, and to hopefully also offer you a choice to turn them off, or make them less in your face.” With release finally nearing after many years of iteration, pragmatism and prioritisation has played a larger role in development this year. “Ultimately, we’re kind of down in the crucible now,” Smith says. “This is a battle, and you can die on this hill. And I would prefer we didn’t die on this particular hill – I think there are more important ones to die on.
“The thing we’re most scared of is the player not owning their discoveries,” he continues. “Getting to some place and feeling like they were led there by a leash, as opposed to feeling like they discovered it.” But when we complete the puzzle and progress into the next room, we feel as though we’ve stumbled across something unspeakable, the hairs on the back of our neck prickling. Around a central structure hang several cages, each containing a distressed bird. We pull at handles to release them, and they drop into golden puzzles below, transforming into our sisters. It’s straight out of a Grimm fairytale: a magical, faintly disturbing scene. “What we noticed is we needed to be more explicit in driving the narrative forward,” Dahlberg says. “Not necessarily explicit with what everything means or how it works, but just making sure that we’re keeping that momentum and not letting players get lost.” With a more game-like structure supporting it, we finally see a realistic future in which a larger subset of players will be able to experience and appreciate Vane’s stranger stylistic workings. “We have allowed ourselves specifically this last year to make wider turns in what we bring into this world,” Dahlberg says, “and make it a little bit more special, more fantastical.”
“Suddenly you have this thing, and everything is very, very important to you”
The more open-ended desert scene is still a standout, as are tightly choroeographed storm sequences scored with devastating synth music
Scenes with more linear puzzles can still play out differently. We head towards optional objectives first, freeing birds from cages, on a second playthrough
LEFT Vane will be about “how your relationship with this catalyst, the golden material, kind of changes and carries the gameplay,” Deguchi says. A quick peek at another level has us pushing a gigantic ball of the stuff with other bird-girls
Smith on Vane’s unusual structure: “The structure of the game we were talking about last year is still basically there,” he says. “Your relationship with time is unreliable, it’s just we may not communicate it as spectacularly as we’d hoped”