Interview with 'Vane' Producer Matt Smith

Platforms: Sony PlayStation 4

On the 15th Jan this year Vane was released. An exploratory game where the world changes around you due to your actions. To see our full thought on Vane you can read our review here.

After the game was over we had a few questions and thankfully Matt Smith, Producer on the game, was kind enough to supply us with answers:

What inspired you to create this type of game? One that focused so much on the world and how it changed through your actions?

The creative drive for Vane was always to have you explore an unknown world, to have that thrill of the next landmark emerge out of the haze, and to let the player drive that discovery at his or her own pace. It is a fascination with the strange and the unknown and an aversion to the typical that drove us to create it. We also found that we were more interested in creating surprising contrast than establish and repeat a set of actions or escalating challenges in the traditional sense.

In the game you play as a crow that can turn into a young child, which is an interesting concept – Who came up with the idea and was there any meaning behind it?

I think it was our art director, Rasmus Deguchi, who came up with the idea to add transforming into a child to the bird flight of the game’s first prototype - multiple perspectives in games isn’t anything new but coupling it with a duality of form seemed a little bit off the beaten path and interesting.  Having a form that was pure perspective in the bird, and one that was pure agency in the child - that felt like fertile creative ground.

The people who worked on the game have worked on some very impressive titles in the past, such as The Last Guardian and Killzone – What was it like to work with such experienced people on Vane?

We get a lot done in a little time but sometimes our experience blinds us a bit.  There’s a lot to making a game that you don’t see as a team member in AAA. The last mile of this project was especially hard for us, and we learned a lot.

The game starts off very open and bright but quickly becomes quite bleak - What were some of the themes you were trying to portray during the course of the story?

Transformation is the major theme you can see in the game - and change comes.  In a complex system every choice, or even the absence of a choice, leads to reactions.  It’s how we parse our new landscapes that defines us.

We were also very keen not to get pigeonholed in a stereo-typically “fantasy” setting, and I guess there’s a certain European grimness to the way things darken - a sort of fairy-tale, but not necessarily a happy one.

The music in the game is very beautiful but it’s something I’d expect to hear in a more traditional Sci-fi game like Deus Ex - Why did you use a synth-laden soundtrack in the end?

Well, it’s our secret opinion that Vane is a sci-fi game!  It was important to us to keep Vane from becoming a trope, and the soundtrack helps us call out what’s unique about the game instead of just reaching directly for your heartstrings.

Back when you announced the game in 2014 the teaser you released showed things like the child running through lighting storms, next to sand storms and through what seems to be sand falling from holes in the walls. These features don’t show up in the final product - Please would you be able to explain the decisions behind not having these aspects in the released game?

The game went through a great deal of change over the four-plus years we worked on it.  The initial teaser was really just a proof of concept, or maybe even a step earlier than that.  Many of our ideas from those early explorations just didn’t play well and we had to cut them as the core of the game took shape.

There’s a golden substance that is found throughout the world in Vane that can transform you from a crow to a child. During the game it’s never fully explained what this substance is – Please can you explain what this was and how it affected the games world?

We’d prefer to stay cagey on exactly what the gold is in the game - players have their theories and we’re not the arbiters there.  But we put it in the game initially as something that the bird would naturally be attracted to, and the transformative power was a sort of potentially-sinister side-effect that generated a nice tension.  Then, we read up on memory metals, a type of metal that remembers its form and will return to it under certain conditions… ultimately, like any character, the gold was a combination of many influences and ideas.

I love the visual style. What made you come to the final decision of having a polygonal texture rather than something more traditional? Something that would have allowed you to show finer detailing to the characters and the world?

Vane was always about the big picture to us, the broad strokes over minute detail or typical character definition. We wanted the player character to be a cipher, diffuse enough to not get in the way of the player simply experiencing and being in the world. For the art style itself, it was a combination of wanting to take the “low poly” trend as far as we could and push it into something painterly, while still benefiting from a workflow that avoids a lot of the time-consuming tedium of modern texturing and baking we’d really rather avoid as a small team.

What was the reason for not having a HUD in Vane? Did you plan it from the start or was it something that you decided on whilst designing?

We want players to get into this world on their own devices, under their own initiative.  We felt a HUD would damage a player’s direct connection with the world. There’s never been a version of the game with a HUD, excepting some debug information in our dev builds.

While some, like myself, loved the absence of visual clues, a HUD or way-point markers, other people found the lack of a clear objective frustrating and this ultimately drove them away from the game - If you had the chance would you do anything different when designing this game to address this?

The thesis of the game is direct immersion, so I’m not sure we’d add more directly visible clues.  What I think we would like to have done is better sculpting of the world itself, so that the environment was a bit more legible and a little less easy to get lost in, and so that the important elements stood out.  It’s always a balance - we don’t want players to get lost but we also don’t want to spoon-feed the discoveries. We want what players find in the game to have been the result of their own effort, not the end of a leash the game ties around them.

No one really speaks in this game – Was there ever a discussion to add a voiced character and what was the reason you didn’t?

It was important to us to preserve the game’s atmosphere.  Adding a specific voice to the character would make the game about that character, that voice, and wouldn’t fit a game that has the same abstract and mythic elements as Vane.

There’s more than one ending to Vane and some people found these be quite confusing – What did it mean when you chose to become one with the golden orb? And what did it mean when you chose to fly away as a crow?

We’ve seen Vane in part as a parable about freedom versus progress, the primal against the civilized.  There’s more to it than that - but it’s not really our place to talk about it.

Was there anything you wanted to add to the game but couldn’t because of one reason or another?

The game was going to get much darker - nasty, primal arenas, slavery, addiction.  We had a hard time building the right game-play and visual vocabulary for those areas and decided to focus on the sequences that made their way into the game.  In our minds, though, we still hear the echoes of the Sunken City, and the wailing cries from the Half-bird mines...

This game was in development for a while but unfortunately some people, myself included, still ran into many glitches throughout the game once released. Players experienced frame-rate drops, texture pop-ins and floating AI, among other things, even when playing on a PS4 Pro – Are there plans to correct these issues and support the game post launch?

We’re hard at work right now on a patch that should address the more egregious progression-blocking bugs, in addition to a comprehensive check point system.  Once the patch is done, we’re looking at an update where we can hopefully correct a number of performance and cosmetic concerns as well as add some fun new stuff.

Finally, some people love Vane while others find it too frustrating to play and have been left wanting – How are you feeling now that the game is out and has been given mixed reviews? Do you have anything you’d like to say to the people who like Vane and to the people who don’t?

We knew Vane would be polarizing due to our choices to omit most guidance from the game.  The one regret we have is that, for players without excellent spatial awareness, the large spaces can get pretty confusing.  Better land-marking might have helped with that.

The game’s cause isn’t helped by its stability, which we’re working to correct, but this release has been a huge learning experience for us.

Some people really get what we’re trying to do with Vane and we’re thrilled every time we hear a message of support.  We want there to be space for the weird, the unusual and the daring in games, and it’s great to know we’re not alone.

We also hear the people who got frustrated or just bounced off the game, and we’re sorry it didn’t catch you.  We’d be ecstatic if you gave the game another chance after the patch but we understand if that’s too much to ask.

Thank you Matt for answering all my questions and as a fan of Vane I'm looking forward to your future projects.

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