Q&A: Storytelling through erasure in the astonishingly unique If Found

If Found lead developer Laurla McGee explains the creative process and motivation behind If Found's erasing mechanic.

Can you tell a story by letting players erase what's already written? In Dreamfeel's If Found, which recently landed on Steam, the answer is a resounding "yes." If Found is an astonishingly unique indie title, that uses the video game form to explore a specific time and place, and what it meant to its creators. 

In If Found, the main character relives her life in the process of destroying her diary, using an erasing mechanic alongside more conventional game conversations to guide players through the protagonist's life.

In a chat with Gamasutra, Laurla McGee explained that this erasing mechanic was the foundation of the game's direction, and discussed some of the challenges of telling a story in this fashion. 

Could you discuss the early ideas for If Found, and why you decided a visual novel was the right way to tell this story?

We actually never even thought of it as a visual novel until we looked at what we had made a couple of months ago and discussed what the closest parallels were in other games! There are certainly hallmarks of VN's like the dialogue. What’s interesting is that the dialogue sections were added quite late, only last Summer, to break up the player’s erasing, as well as deliver more character interaction. 

And until the end of 2018 players had complete freedom of movement through the collages too. However, we decided to go in a more focused direction to better communicate pacing and feel, to focus on the erasing mechanic and create a game that anyone can immediately understand. It's been really exciting to hear from my own family, like my mother, this past week, who never thought games could exist like this and particularly that they could play games themselves and experience the full thing like anyone.

I've also heard it described as a "point & erase" game which I really like.

For us genre is not important, what's important is how to best communicate the storytelling and the feelings we're aiming for, so that's how we end up with the mechanics we have.

The puzzle we were trying to solve which led to If Found... was how to combine these zooming mechanics I was experimenting with in 2014/15, with the diary, collage-like game we wanted to create. We were drawn towards an epistolary style approach to make the most of Liadh's illustrations in a very small team and our love of scribbles, marginalia and the intimacy of diaries.

And then I realized I could use masking techniques to erase! So we had erasing, and the diary, which led immediately to Kasio's story, and with the zooming the end of the world was the obvious fit, so all the core elements were there.

What was the idea behind the erasing mechanic, and using this as a storytelling tool compared to usual visual novel techniques?

From a mechanical POV one thing I noticed in games that "felt" good or alive is that you could change the world on a granular level, or at least that the game would respond to lots of little actions that you do (i.e. painting the world to figure out where to go in Unfinished Swan, or moulding the world in Minecraft). 

What I like about erasing is that you're interacting on a similar granular level too. For most of the game there are no things like shakes, so all the feedback you get is from this one single mechanic, and the delight in changing the screen, and the happy surprise of revealing something, or changing something.

It also lets players play in uniquely different ways. You can make the eraser huge, and blast through the game, or you can make it very small and change things delicately. It was a very flexible mechanic that we explore a little, as the story necessitates.

And of course, the reason why we went with erasing for this game was the thematic relevance. And the beautiful reversal into creating at the end.

If Found has a particular setting---West Ireland, in 1993. This runs sort of counter to how games usually establish settings. Could you dive into choice to set the game in this time and place, and how it informed the game?

The end of the 20th century was a time of enormous change for Ireland, as the country moved from being one dominated by the Catholic Church to one more open to the rest of the world. The early 90's in particular saw, if very quietly, things like homosexuality being decriminalized. In our game a major theme is how people's identities can be erased, willingly and forcefully, in such small rural communities, so the setting just felt right.

I grew up on the West Coast, not in the exact location of If Found, but close enough to be almost indistinct for anyone not from Ireland! So even before the LGBT stuff came to the fore, which it only truly did in the last year of development, the desire to represent the emotions and feelings, good and bad, of my corner of the world was hugely important to me. There are plenty of good ones too! I hope it's an image of Ireland much richer and more resonant than the very polished and often tacky one you usually see around the world.

A lot of media is just influenced by other media, even Irish media would be very influenced by the tv shows and the films from the UK and from the States. I believe to make something truly honest, you have to pull something from your own experience. At least emotionally, if not factually. And If Found is very much emotionally set in 90's Ireland. 

One choice we made relatively late in the game was moving the setting from a fictional Irish island to a real one, Achill island, and that was a very good choice in that it made us step up our game and its maturity to do justice to the real world, as well as being a very rich vine to pull from.

As a team of storytellers, what were the technical challenges you had to overcome to tell the story you wanted to tell?

I am a storyteller and coding is an intrinsic part of my storytelling, that's why I make video games. 

There is some incredible tech in the game from the erasing to the zooming (which might not be obvious anymore, but a given chapter might zoom 10x to the power of up to 100) and I'm still amazed at some of the tools we made for navigating and designing these spaces, but there was never something we couldn't achieve. It's always just a matter of breaking something down smaller and smaller, and we're good at that. 

Of course, ever since I worked at Microsoft as an intern over 10 years ago, I knew that coding was not something I wanted to do full time. I love coding, but I love it when it's something I'm doing to my own ends. So when we started on the game full time at the start of 2018, taking the zooming and erasing demo to a full length commercial game, one of the first priorities for the team was finding a great experienced coder to handle almost all of it so I could focus on the hard problems of writing and design, and we very much did in Tim Sabo. 

Challenges definitely crop up with bizarre bugs occasionally, but this is usually solved by slowing down and carefully stepping through what's happening. I would say the biggest challenge we had from a technical perspective was testing during quarantine. We can fix bugs when we know about them, but we cannot when we don't.

This was particularly an issue with iOS devices that we didn't have access as our testers were also quarantined and they only had a single device each. I’m proud of the team however, and our testing, and releasing a game during a pandemic is certainly a memorable achievement!

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