This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Lieve Oma takes players on a quiet journey through the forest, steering around a child strolling with their aging grandmother as they gather mushrooms together. That relationship, and developer Florian Veltman's thoughts on natural actions in digital worlds, brings up memories of childhood relationships with positive role models, reminding players of the simple joys of travelling an unknown road with a loved one.
The touching connections that Lieve Oma makes earned it a nomination for the Nuovo Award at the Independent Games Festival, and Gamasutra spoke with the developer to learn more about using the player's natural instincts to better tell a story, and of bringing more positivity and love to games.
What's your background in making games?
While I was studying illustration, I realised that the tools to make interactive games and stories were becoming more and more accessible. I finished my illustration degree in 2014, focusing on interactive narration despite the lack of technical support from the school's teachers, and I've made a couple of short games since.
How did you come up with the concept?
I was compelled to make this game about something that has been a very positive force for me, as I consider the world around us to be pretty dark and gloomy already. This is something that is, in my opinion, reflected more than enough in the majority of video games, and I would like to see a larger amount of games that communicate a more positive and inclusive message, both through the story they tell and through the interactions they propose.
This is why I decided to make a game about going on a stroll, as this can be a very healing and soothing thing for people who are experiencing stressful situations. I also simply wanted to make a walking simulator type game that'd be more accessible to people who aren't necessarily used to first person controls.
What development tools were used to build your game?
I used Blender to both model and animate the 3D elements of the game, as well as to draw the textures and 2D assets. I used the Unity engine for the actual game and the Tiled editor to author the layout of the various scenes. I also used GarageBand for the musical compositions, and Audacity to cut some audio recordings I did in a nearby forest.
How much time have you spent working on the game?
Right from the beginning, I knew I had exactly 6 months to start, finish, and release something. So, from working out the scope of the project to making the game available, this deadline has been helping me to determine when I had to move on to another aspect of making the game.
What thoughts went into capturing the relationship between a child and their grandmother? Between a (somewhat) thoughtless child and a loving caregiver?
In my experience, most players tend to look for the limits the game will impose on them. In doing so, players are already acting out the behaviour of a curious child. I didn't want to limit this natural way of playing the character, and tuned the grandmother's and the camera's behaviours around this. The way you move through the space was also meant to reinforce the feeling of playing a young, energetic child: your walking speed is significantly slower than that of the grandmother (because children have shorter legs), but you can run way faster than her.
The idea of the game was to give players a soothing experience, which is why it is actually the grandmother setting the pace of the game, so you literally cannot rush through the experience (this might put some people off, but hey, you choose your audience one way or another!). Despite wanting to allow the freedom of exploration, to reinforce the idea of staying close to the grandmother, the character can only run when close to the grandmother, or when far away, you can only run towards her; any other direction will force you to walk slowly.
Why capture this relationship through exploration? Why have the characters journey together through the wilderness? What did you want this to make the player feel?
The game gives players some classic video game tropes to hold on to when starting the experience, like having a given space with some movement agency and some collectibles to pace the traversal. The way a controllable character moves through environments is, to me, very close to how a child likes to act when going on a Sunday stroll with their caretaker.
I wanted to capitalise on the player's natural curiosity when discovering a virtual place. Slowly but surely, the way the camera and the grandmother behave teaches the player that the purpose of this short game isn't "to win", but to just go for a nice walk and talk through the problems the child character faces. The mushroom-picking is only there as a short term goal for some players to hold on to.
This is also why the interactions you get with the grandmother after bringing her a mushroom, have some looping text and feels very "game-y".
I wanted the place to have no particular significance to the controllable character at first, so that players can actually discover the place alongside the child. Having this story happen at a place the character already knows well would create a dissonance between the way the player "plays" the role of the character, and the way I want the player to act out the story. You later come back to the places you've already explored, but on your own, to reinforce the idea that now, this place has become an important part to the main character. You as a player know the place, and are revisiting it with new perspective on its meaning for the main character.
How does playing this kind of experience help us see aspects of our lives we may have missed, or revisit memories we cherish? What is it about a game like Lieve Oma that makes the player reflect on themselves? The strength of games, in general, to make players reflect?
Games have the amazing advantage over other mediums to request the player's direct engagement in the telling of a story, where the player has to "act out" a character's behaviour, like an actor playing a character in a film or a play. This form of engaging with a story can help to both empathise with the characters or it can help a player think about their own personal experiences.
I think this form of engagement with a medium is very novel, though other mediums achieve this as well, but don't have the amount of engagement video games currently have. I'm just very happy a large amount of people engage with video games this way.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
I have played quite a few, it's an incredible list of games! I really loved GoNNER, Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, Islands: Non-Places, Mu Cartographer, Event, Duskers, Quadrilateral Cowboy… The amount of amazing games is unbelievable, and I'm extremely honoured to have a game in this list. I still cannot believe it!
What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?
The tools to make games are becoming more accessible by the day, and this is an amazing evolution for the medium—in fact, I think this is what is transforming video games from being an entertainment product into an actual means of expression. I'm personally really happy about this, because it allows people like myself to find a place in a creative industry.
One thing that can be an obstacle for a lot of people, is the fact that making a game is one difficult thing, but finishing a (fully finished) game and then releasing it is another, and is often glossed over when you've never done so before. Setting a deadline for yourself, making sure you're not getting lost in the details, and determining when something is "good enough for now" is extremely hard but also essential to any game developer!