With the release of narrative-driven WWI title 11-11 Memories Retold on Friday, we talk to Aardman Interactive creative director Dan Efergan about the challenges of working on a game that looks like a painting, with a team that lives in another country

It's unusual for a game based around an event that occurred 100 years ago to be considered topical, but then 11-11 Memories Retold is a truly unusual game, as its launch event at the Imperial War Museum confirmed.

Live portrayal of a WWI soldier, live music with a choir, a meticulous 2h presentation touching upon all the nitty gritty aspects of the game, access to the First World War galleries of the museum all night... It was very clear from the get go that Memories Retold was an important project for everyone involved, from developers DigixArt and Aardman to publisher Bandai Namco, and that it deserved a grand event to celebrate it.

“We're all very passionate and we're all quite good at our job but the idea of us all being on stage and not missing a beat…” winces Dan Efergan, creative director at Aardman Interactive, when we mention how thorough the event was. “But then I was like: 'This is actually quite slick',” he laughs.

11-11 Memories Retold premiere at the Imperial War Museum

11-11 Memories Retold premiere at the Imperial War Museum

11-11 Memories Retold tells the story of two soldiers during WWI: Harry, a young, naive Canadian photographer who enrolled looking for adventure, and German technician Kurt, who enrolled to try and find his son missing in action on the front. Fighting is not at the core of Memories Retold – understanding the reality of war and remembering WWI as we approach its centenary are. And organising the premiere at the Imperial War Museum was a way to remind people of that.

“I talked a lot about the importance of this story and I think when you're here [at the Imperial War Museum] and when you see everything that's going on it's quite easy to appreciate that importance. 100 years on we have no living record of this, there's no one that can sit down and tell you that story anymore,” Efergan says. “And so that was the seed at the beginning. I think we're just storytellers so the more you uncover, the more everyone gets behind it, the more excited you get by what it could become. [Writers] Iain Sharkey and Stephen Long started building this thing and then it just snowballed into this desire where a narrative you have in your head has to be realised. We've got to get this across to people, we have to do it justice.”

MAKING IT HAPPEN

Memories Retold is the combined work of Wallace and Gromit maker Aardman and French studio DigixArt, launched in 2015 by Yoan Fanise – an industry veteran who spent 14 years at Ubisoft working on the likes of Assassin’s Creed, Rayman (he’s also behind the iconic ‘language’ of the Rabbids), Beyond Good & Evil and more. When asking Efergan about what made him want to work on this project, working with Fanise was high on the list, he says.

“He came over to Aardman and we spoke about his creative process and how every bit of his games he approaches through emotions. It just seemed to chime so well with the way that Aardman approaches everything – emotion first and trying to build from that,” Efergan says.

The idea for Memories Retold remained in gestation for a year before production started. Aardman and Dixigart then had to find a way to divide the development process.

Dan Efergan, creative director at Aardman Interactive

Dan Efergan, creative director at Aardman Interactive

“It was one of the most naive of splits,” Efergan laughs. “It ended up being a bit more complex and murkier than that but DigixArt was going to worry about the gameplay itself and the development of that and we were going to worry about the art style. And between us all we were worrying about the concept of how you play it and the story itself. And then with writers coming in and Bandai Namco coming in, they kind of took even more responsibility of that story as well, on top of that. But that was kind of the basics – we were doing the art style and then also the programming to make that art style happen.”

But with 861 miles and the Channel separating DixigArt from Aardman, the process was not a traditional one, even though the two teams visited each other very often.

“We were very aware of the fact that we had to be one team and so there was a lot of attempts at keeping communication, ideas and conversation going as much as possible,” Efergan says. “So lots of Slack, lots of calls every morning between one person who was in charge of the level design, one person who was in charge of the art. And then we had this kind of magic Skype window which was open the whole time which worked really well.

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“I remember one day I walked into the room and someone was on the phone explaining something but looking through the window at the other team trying to say: ‘No, a bit more like this’,” he laughs, making a sweeping gesture with his arms. “We didn't want to feel disconnected from each other. It wasn't a big team, I think we were at our most about 30 or 40 people so it's quite small. And therefore we had to work together and that was probably our biggest fear. And sometimes it was hard. Sometimes when things get stressful it's easy to blame people that aren't sitting right beside you but generally we we were doing everything we could to fight against that. That made it better. Luckily the flights from Bristol land quite close to them!”

CRUSHING AGAINST THE NORM

The teams worked on 11-11 Memories Retold for a year and three months, which is ridiculously short for a game that presented so many challenges, the first one being its art direction: Memories Retold looks like an impressionist painting. Every single brushstroke is visible (and was generated), making you feel like you’re literally inside a painting.

“I think the biggest challenge was probably trying to get the shader to work in real time,” Efergan recalls. “We knew that from the beginning. We were naive but not that naive to think this wasn't going to be bloody hard. But we found faith in the vertical slice that we could make it beautiful. But only because five per cent or so of the vertical slice you could see moments that were like: 'Oh God there's something there'. And then it was probably six to eight weeks before the end of the project that it felt like it finally looked like what we wanted. And it wasn't in a nice gentle curve. It took a very long time, so we had to hold our nerve quite a lot and believe it was going to come together.”

Memories Retold is also the first video game of this scope for Aardman, which added its own challenges – and advantages.

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“We knew that we were going to be naive in various ways. We knew we didn't have that depth of knowledge around some of the console systems, all the kind of technical aspects,” Efergan starts explaining. “And we didn't necessarily want to come as veterans of having done this so instead we purposely wanted to play on that naivety. We believe there was strength in the naivety and by throwing naive people at something they approach it in a different way. 

"Bram [Ttwheam], the art director, has never art directed a game before but that was on purpose. We picked him up because we knew that with a strong game design team beside him he could say: 'But why can't we do this?’ And crush against the norms of what's going on rather than already working within those nice, neat pre-defined tracks. That still means that we have lots to learn. I would say that we're at the beginning of learning this craft. I'm not unaware of how long it takes to learn, like any craft. We see this is our first step and I hope Aardman can continue to get better and better and better. But we've still got a lot to learn.”

We’re already hoping for more historical events being explored in the same, narrative-driven way, but Efergan says nothing has been decided yet.

“We don't know what we’re going to do next, but we do want to do it,” he smiles. “This has always been an ambition of mine, and definitely around the whole Interactive team. But now Aardman as well I think, with the last ten years of convincing them of this amazing interesting fertile space for storytelling. We've been getting [our teams] to read all the books on storytelling, trying to really blend all that stuff together in preparation for doing things of stature, worth and beauty. And I feel like this scale really helps to do things that could actually make a change and so Aardman is very excited – Peter [Lord] and Dave [Sproxton], the founders, they're behind it. So I hope that we can continue to do it.”

DON'T FALL OFF A CLIFF

Whatever Aardman chooses to do in the future, Efergan hopes to be able to continue to work with Bandai Namco, which supported Memories Retold from the very beginning.

“[Bandai Namco joined] before we made the vertical slice. We didn't really expect a large scale publisher to get involved. It felt like an indie game. You know the idea of recording in Abbey Road with orchestras [for the soundtrack, composed by Olivier Derivière] and all of that was well from our minds at the time,” Efergan says. 

“But we believed in the project and it was really interesting how close Aardman and Bandai Namco are. They're very deep and emotional and a partner-based company. And then actually the European team themselves and their recent drive to build a new part of their portfolio that's narrative-driven, and things like Little Nightmares and all the stuff they're doing with Dontnod right now, I was like: 'Oh yes that's where we fit in among this'. So I hope our relationship keeps going. They have grand ambitions there and they're very similar to ours – just hugely bigger because they've got so many more people.

“But Aardman is trying to create a company which doesn't have much or very heavy borders between our forms of media. We believe that the world is shifting and changing, everything is getting blurry and so we've been trying for the last five years to reconstruct the natural barriers forming our company and get rid of them so that we can be the kind of company that can blend story, film and animation, and all those things together. And Bandai, similarly, they really believe in these wider 360 kind of approaches to IP. So you know there's a lot that resonate between us all. So I hope we can keep working together.”

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This idea of breaking boundaries between media is already visible in 11-11 Memories Retold, as in this way of telling this specific story is quite new to video games. A war game where you don’t shoot people? Unbelievable! We ask Efergan if he’s worried about gamers not being onboard with this.

“We have thought about it,” he answers. “My instinct on this project is it's going to be a bit like Marmite to use a British euphemism: people are either going to love it or hate it. And that's okay, I think. That's alright. We've come to terms with it. I don't know if I will when I read the YouTube comments but right now I have,” he laughs.

“But when you split people like that, when you create emotions, you've done something of greatness. So in some ways I'm kind of aware that we're going to sit into a particular park but it's a game that I want to play and therefore I hope there's other people who want to do it as well. There are other games that will do the other things and there's plenty of games that you can play in the war where you can shoot other people. This is just something different.”

He concludes: “I've got this belief that for all the best projects you're on this constant tightrope where you're either going to make the shittest thing you've ever made in your life or the greatest you're ever going to make it your life. But that is a very fine balance. I think if you're pretty sure it's going to be okay then you just end up with this like mediocre thing. You just throw yourself at it and hopefully don't fall off a cliff.”

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