Forgotton Anne (not a typo) launches today on the PS4, Xbox One, and PC, and it feels like a game that Hayao Miyazaki would make. (If it weren’t for his infamous dislike of technology, of course.) The game’s art has a distinctly Studio Ghibli vibe, with locations that feel both magical and lived-in, and characters who move in a way that is warm and human. But the resemblance is more than just how the game looks, as Forgotton Anne also has a premise that calls to mind animated classics like Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle.
It takes place in a realm parallel to ours, where lost objects — everything from missing socks to discarded lamps — come to life, hoping to one day be remembered again and return to our world. They’re all assigned jobs when they arrive, so you’ll stumble across guns who serve as cops and train engineers who are actually plush, purple chairs. Each of these objects, known as forgotlings, is imbued with a magical energy that turns them from household object into a living, feeling creature. As Anne, seemingly the only human in the world, you have the power to suck that magical force away. She’s a police officer, judge, and executioner all in one, attempting to keep the realm in order by punishing deviants. The forgotlings call her “Madame Enforcer.”
In one of the earliest scenes in Forgotton Anne, the titular character is confronted by a rebel fighter, who may or may not have been responsible for a devastating explosion in the town she protects. Anne stumbles upon the rebel hiding in a closet, and this discovery forces her to make a choice: she can let him go or use magic to erase him from existence. As the player, it’s a difficult decision fraught with uncertainty, since you know little about the rebel and are forced to act quickly. And the moment isn’t diminished at all by the fact that the rebel is actually a flowing, sentient scarf.
Forgotton Anne is the first release from Danish studio ThroughLine Games, which was founded by creative director Alfred Nguyen in 2014. Nguyen had studied at the National Film School of Denmark with a dream of becoming a film director, but eventually moved into games, drawn by the storytelling potential that comes from interactivity and player choice. He spent a few years at a mobile games studio, but when he turned 30, he started to have doubts about his path. “Like anybody who grows older, you start to question if what you’re doing every day is meaningful,” he says. “I was searching for that throughline in my own life, which became the name of the studio.”
“You start to question if what you’re doing every day is meaningful.”
Forgotton Anne was an attempt to merge two of Nguyen’s passions — games and animated films — into something that felt like a cohesive whole. The studio describes the game as a “cinematic platformer,” which is a fancy way of saying that it plays like a classic 2D side-scrolling game, but features long moments dedicated to scripted story moments. Conversation and decision-making are also a big part of the experience; Anne’s choices influence the outcome of the narrative, much like in Telltale series like The Walking Dead. You can essentially choose to act as one of two Annes: the stern face of authority, or a more understanding and compassionate figurehead. Where you fall on the spectrum will likely change as you delve further into the world.
In keeping with that cinematic approach, the studio also decided to do away with a key concept in platforming games: death. There are puzzles to solve and tricky areas to navigate, but there’s no failure at all in Forgotton Anne. This was initially a contentious decision among the team. “Fun in platformers is often about overcoming something, and part of overcoming something is that you can fail, and have ‘game over.’” explains Nguyen. Early iterations of the game did feature death, but eventually the team realized that constantly stopping and restarting was hindering the story. “It was destroying the flow of immersion that we wanted to have,” says Nguyen.
The animation in the game is a mix between hand-drawn and more automated methods. Anne, for instance, is fully hand-drawn, and ThroughLine’s artists created more than 5,000 images of her to make her movements feel natural and fluid. Nguyen says the team wanted the animation to feel “tactile;” when Anne runs down a flight of stairs, you can see her feet hit each and every step on the way down. The result is a game that looks incredibly like an animated film, especially in motion. Much of the development team actually came from outside of games, which likely had a part in giving Forgotton Anne its fully realized look; lead animator Debbie Ekberg previously studied under former Ghibli animators at a design school in Tokyo, and the game’s lead designer, Valdemar Schultz Andreasen, used to work in traditional theater.
“We’re not actively trying to emulate a particular style.”
Nguyen says that the comparisons to Ghibli are flattering — “It works good for PR” — but notes that it wasn’t an explicit decision by the artists. “We’re not actively trying to emulate a particular style,” he explains. “Ghibli just happens to embody a lot of the aesthetics that we like; the more naturalistic style of anime that has a very humanistic side and respect for its audience.” And like the best Ghibli works, there’s more to Forgotton Anne than just sublime animation and charming character designs.
The story was inspired in part by Nguyen’s own life as the child of two refugees of the Vietnam War, living in Denmark. “I had to see things from two very different perspectives, so I’ve always been very interested in dualities,” he says. But it also touches on many other universal and timely subjects, like the spread of consumerism and the idea of blindly following authority. These elements are subtly woven into the magical story about talking lamps, and the game never takes on a preachy tone.
But for Nguyen, while there isn’t an explicit message he wants to impart through Forgotton Anne, there is something he wants players to take away from the experience. “We’re making something focused on empathy,” he says, “on understanding things that you don’t start out understanding.”
Forgotton Anne is available now on PC, Xbox One, and PS4.