This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Anodyne 2: Return to Dust seeks to heal the denizens of a surreal 3D world, asking the player to do so by shrinking up, entering the 2D dungeons of their minds, and vacuuming out the poisoned dust inside.
Gamasutra spoke with Melos Han-Tani and Marina Ayano Kittaka, developers of the Seumas McNally Grand Prize-nominated game, to talk about the development companionship that fuels the ideas of Anodyne games.
Here, they open up about the joy they felt in creating a game of two very different visual styles, and sharing the power of healing and togetherness through their games.
Kittaka: I'm Marina Ayano Kittaka. I was the lead writer, artist, and co-designer of Anodyne 2.
I grew up around hobbyist game dev communities like Game Maker and OHRRPGCE. None of my projects really picked up steam until I connected with Melos through a mutual friend during college (2012), and we made Anodyne 1 together.
Han-Tani: I'm Melos Han-Tani (previously Sean Han Tani). I'm the programmer, composer, co-designer, and I lead the business/marketing. I did a little bit of writing (Geof, Pastel, Orb, Iwasaki).
I did casual Cave Story mods / VB / Java games in grade school on my own, I also arranged music. In college, I started making small games and composing, hanging around game forums like TIGSource, /r/gamedev, Twitter.
An evolving 3D space
Kittaka: Melos had just made All Our Asias (a 3D game) and we were curious to try working in 3D together. I had just made a small 2D platformer prototype that involved shifting between 3 different scales. So, we sort of combined these ideas. Things really took off, I think, when we decided that the mid-scale was 3D exploration and the small-scale was 2D action puzzle levels (large scale was adapted to ridescale/car mode). The story evolved from how that format cast some of the themes from Anodyne 1 in a new light (Melos note: in particular: the role of Dust, cleaning, and the trio of Briar/Young/Sage).
Han-Tani: At the end of 2017 we had a bunch of e-mails. To handle the 3D, we decided something loosely SOTC-inspired - NOT in gameplay, but in sense of 3D space - might be good. Before any coding, we decided that it might be good to limit the game world by making it a round island. We also decided that it would be good to limit the Big Form's power by having a radio tower control how far it can travel. This evolved into the Center. By the end of December, Marina had a loose story in mind as well as the general shape of Palisade's character. I think I was also concerned about scale, so I suggested we do a lo-fi style - because it would also be appealing for a number of reasons (elaborated on in a below post.) I also suggested the narrative tone be a bit easier to follow.
After prototyping over a few months, we decided on how to combine mid and small-scale sizes as Marina discussed above.
On the tools used to create Anodyne 2
Han-Tani: Mainly Unity for the game, Ableton Live for SFX/Music, and REAPER for mastering. We use Discord/Google Docs for correspondence and I use Evernote for note-taking/writing.
Kittaka: Unity. For art, I mainly used Blender and Photoshop CS5, with a little bit of Aseprite and Pro Motion NG. For 3D textures, I relied heavily on free images from Textures.com and Pixabay, which I then messed with in Photoshop.
Inhale and exhale
Kittaka: To me, Anodyne represents a very particular working "mode" where Melos and I are kind of prototypically ourselves in a very self-indulgent way (Whatever that means at any given time). Then, we glue it all together with themes and dream logic. It's a wonderful way to work, but we also like to alternate with other games that feel more grounded or have more constraints. To vastly oversimplify, with our games it's sort of an inhalation and exhalation. Or, like working out a muscle by tensing and releasing. Not that we'll necessarily always alternate making Anodyne games with making new IPs, but that is how we're working so far.
Han-Tani: Artistically I'd agree with Marina. There's something about our approach to Anodyne games that can be very loose in a satisfying way (for ourselves), as long as we're careful to keep some common thread holding things together.
On the business side... well, I guess to be totally honest I was eating an overpriced taco in Chicago in August 2017. It's like, hot, really hot outside, I didn't have sunglasses and enough water. Maybe I was stressed out and so was brainstorming how to make money, while eating this taco, following the financial failure of Even the Ocean (which is coming to consoles this year!! I believe in you, Even the Ocean!).
Anodyne 1 was quite popular, so a sequel seemed like a good idea. I rambled about it on Twitter and Marina was down with the idea, but then we both forgot about it till December as we were both working (I was making All Our Asias too).
The trick, of course, is that we wanted to make sure we stayed imaginative with the "sequel"-ness. It was never going to be "Anodyne 1, again!". Also, if we set the expectation that we're more a Final Fantasy 7 8 9 10 than a Dragon Quest in terms of changing things up a lot, it'll allow us to come back to Anodyne in the future knowing people won't demand there to be Zelda-like dungeons all the time.
On Anodyne 2's low-poly visuals
Kittaka: It's a collision of a lot of different factors. I think it's a really beautiful space. Also, very efficient. To me, lo-fi art is less about capturing any one exact era and more about getting the most bang for my buck with the tools and time that I currently have. Certainly, we're taking cues and inspiration from artists of the past. We don't shy away from the power of nostalgia, but it's never my intention to create a work that is primarily referential, or that treats the past as a static object to be remembered or recovered. The histories we hold in communities or the memories we hold as individuals are constantly in flux.
Han-Tani: I like those visuals a lot. Not enough to want to exactly replicate them - Anodyne 2 might look like what you remember PS1 looking and feeling like (at least that's how I think of it), but if you go and compare, PS1 games are visually rougher.
Abstract art styles can suggest more detail than actually exists to a player, because their minds have to fill in what's not there. There is a practical reason (for 3D) because it's quicker to just use simple lighting and low-poly modeling. It's not even that Anodyne 2's world is practical, but if you go 'loose' on the visuals and create an odd surreal feeling in the player, it's super easy and time efficient to complement that with writing and music.
Also the visual style is nostalgic for some. The nostalgia has a few uses. For someone with no nostalgia, the game still looks unique and pretty thanks to Marina's art. For someone with nostalgia, we can short-circuit the communication of the game being whimsical/unexpected/fantastical, since one might associate their PS1 nostalgia with childhood discovery of games. This is powerful when combined with marketing and outreach. Not enough to be a viral phenomenon, but enough to do Good Enough.
The key with visual nostalgia is to not let it drive too much else. Like in Anodyne 2's case, the gameplay/story have nothing to do with nostalgia.
The fun of two different visual styles
Han-Tani: 3D was tricky with programming the movement and camera, but the 2D was easy because of our prior experience. We generally put things in 3D or 2D if they would be more efficient to make in those dimensions, as Marina mentions below. Other than that, it was fun. 3D's fun to concept and mock up because the final thing will be pretty close to the initial mental image, and it was fun having the game be able to fit in these different 2D areas into different 3D spots. It was also motivating because we were using 2D/3D in an entirely novel format!
Kittaka: It was honestly a joy and a privilege! I would get really tired of the 3D grind and then switch to an entirely different headspace to work on pixel art tilesets for a while. Creating loose exploration comes very naturally in 3D, while tightly designed puzzles are much simpler to make in 2D. We were very intentional about structuring the game so that the pieces felt fun to make. That's not to say there wasn't a lot of tedious, tiring work, but I think having the different styles was well-suited to our situation.
The metaphor of dust
Kittaka: Dust is a really potent metaphor. It was in the very first tiny prototype that I played of Anodyne 1 nearly a decade ago (Good choice, Melos!). It's all around us, appearing magically as a constant reminder of entropy. I feel like the world of Anodyne 2 takes part in a long tradition of people associating cleanliness (order, discipline, harsh delineations of space) with morality and value.
Han-Tani: Something I thought about was how fixing/curing people can often have ideological baggage, especially in the mental sense. A lot of 'fixing' nowadays is about making us more efficient workers (something another Grand Prize nominee, Eliza, touches on!). So, we structured the game into four main sections with a different take on cleaning (Cenote, Blue Vale, Dustbound, Outer Sands). There's also an interesting theme my spouse pointed out about who, in Anodyne 2's society, is being ordered to carry out this cleaning, or this therapy, and bear all the emotional weight - Nova, a woman, who's manipulated and exploited over the course of the game, for the ends of a particular social order.
On what they sought to touch upon with the game's music
Han-Tani: Most straightforwardly, a fit between visual style and music. I did focus more on strong melodies this time around. The game doesn't stick to any era in particular, and mixes 'contemporary' synths with SNES or Genesis samples if needed. The 3D areas were sometimes more atmospheric, based on the Ambient-Melodic idea I started with Even the Ocean (using sounds/phrases that are almost sound-effect-like to construct a melodic-feeling, background track). While I did try to make the 2D areas sound a little rougher/'older' than the 3D ones, and did this by usage of older-sounding samples or synths, I don't think it's strictly necessary for 'something that looks like game boy' to be paired with 'game boy sounds'. It's just a useful shorthand for creating a sonic contrast between 2D/3D, in Anodyne 2's case.
Overall the Anodyne 2 OST is as eclectic and unique as the things that happen in the game. Like any good game OST, it exists outside of genre and easy-to-pin-down descriptions, and is best experienced by playing the game, and then listening to on repeat.
I want to inspire future composers to really push beyond what's possible to imagine, sonically, from the standpoint of the song itself. Anodyne 2's music is some of the most interesting stuff to be coming out of games music right now, so I hope it inspires a lot of people! And I hope one day my music gets more recognition, too!
Kittaka: It feels a bit silly to say it outright, but I've experienced healing in various ways, and it's made my life dramatically more enjoyable. I'm very sensitive about evangelism, I would never want to imply "you should do things like me, because I have X". Nonetheless, I feel like I am constantly changed by the people around me and by art, and I want to engage in that exchange of energy. I want to visibly act out pieces of my own story and thoughts, both to feel validated and to have others include small pieces of me into their own patchwork lives.
Han-Tani: I owe a lot to small online and offline communities in terms of personal growth, and I've learned a lot by just being there for other people and listening. Small communities or friend networks (that can push you towards growth or self-reflection) are such an important thing to have throughout life and I want to reinforce that. As I release more games, I've been starting to develop a sense of wanting to also provide valuable experiences for the people who play our games, too.