An Interview With The Creators Of 11-11: Memories Retold
Aardman Animations is a name you usually associate to charming claymation movies, and escapades involving a Yorkshireman and his dog that you are almost guaranteed to watch over Christmas.
But yet, here they are, creating one of the most artistically unique games of 2018 - a gripping, harrowing World War One adventure that exposes you to the reality of conflict.
It’s a memorable experience that won’t leave you long after completion, and you can read more of my thoughts in the review.
But watching the birth and development of this one-of-a-kind project, I couldn’t settle at just reviewing it… I had the pleasure of being able to ask them and fellow studio DigixArt a few questions about their inspirations, what it was like to work on 11-11, and their future plans. Enjoy!
For those uninitiated, who may have just seen the pretty screenshots without context, tell us in your own words what 11-11: Memories Retold is all about.
Aardman: 11-11 is a game about two people thrust in to the extraordinary crucible that was World War 1, two people from opposite sides who are both at war for very different reasons, neither of them to fight. Two people who form an unlikely friendship, and when that friendship is tested to its breaking point, they must decide ultimately where their loyalties lie.
It’s a fictional story, but set during the real events of WW1.
What inspired you and the team at DigixArt to create this game?
Aardman: There’s a few different answers to that question. First of all, I think Yoan Fanise (the game director from Digixart), has read so many personal accounts from WW1 that he had all these game ideas bubbling around in his head for a while. It’s fascinating to read these personal accounts, and also as we developed the game we started uncovering stories from the families of the development team – everyone in Europe was touched by it in some way.
The gestation was a chance meeting at the Games 4 Change conference between Yoan and an old Aardman creative director called Jake Manion. They ended up sitting together, discussing previous games Yoan had done, and talking about new ideas. Jake suggested that Aardman, with our team of 3D artists, animators, and such like, could do the art for a game in conjunction with Yoan’s new (at the time) company Digixart. Yoan came over to Bristol and we started developing the game idea together.
And more personally from me and the interactive department in Aardman, this is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time – a game of this scale. We’ve been making smaller games for nearly ten years, and have a department full of gamers, so we were itching at the chance to take our game making to the next level, and this seemed the perfect project to be involved with as it’s a fantastic story with great characters – what Aardman is really about.
Without giving anything away about specific plot details, how is the story told? Do we have a linear structure or are there game-changing choices to be made - and why did you make this narrative choice?
DigixArt: No it is not a linear story, as there are a lot of different endings. We track a lot of player's choices, small or big that will affect the story mostly in the last third. For examples the photos you send back to Canada from Harry or the sentences you write for your young daughter as Kurt.
The story is told mostly by the voice over of both Harry and Kurt, their feelings, the evolution of their mindset regarding the reactions of their loved ones through the letters they receive all along those 2 years of war time. And that's why it was so important to get really talented actors like Elijah Wood and Sebastien Koch. it gives a game a very subtle and deep audio signature.
Tell me about the work you did in research, experiential work to bring historical accuracy to the game.
DigixArt: I read a lot of books from the two sides and tons of letters, the the historians Peter Doyleand Robin Shaeffer came on board to help us all along production. They were on slack so everybody on the team could ask them any question any time, about graphical details or authenticity of an event, a date, a location.
But the game story stays fictional and it takes a lot of freedom toward the ending to focus on those two characters story arcs.
Was there any challenges in representing both sides in a balanced way?
DigixArt: It was pretty natural as we worked with writers and historians from both sides. That was one of the most intersting part of the conception of the story. The experiences of the soldiers of both sides was really similar and their main considerations were the same, taking care of their closed ones even if they were far from them.
The fact that Robin Schaeffer could translate letters that were in old german was gold. We paied a lot of attention to have a similar lenght of play on each side and the mechanic of character switch was built for that.
The art style is a bit of a diversion from the usual Aardman look and feel. How did you decide on going for watercolours and were there any unexpected challenges in doing so?
Aardman: Well, it’s not so much watercolour but painterly we were aiming for. Bram Ttwheam, the art director, had a vision of doing an art style that was born around the time of WW1 – this was the start of a lot of modernist movements. After experimenting with different styles (cubism, futurism), something that was based fairly loosely on impressionism seemed to really chime with what the story of the game was – about subjective, personal experience. This style let us play with colour, light and detail in a way that we couldn’t with a photo realistic game rendering.
Aardman had made a previous short with a painterly style called Flight of the Stories [FooS] (for the Imperial War Museum) so we were aware how performance intensive something like that is – some of the frames from FooS take five to ten minutes to render, and considering for the game we need 30 frames per second, we knew this way wouldn’t work.
Though the style is different from the Aardman ‘house style’, we still wanted to go with something that had a handmade feel – in this instance, a living painting.
Continuing about presentation, tell me about the soundtrack behind the game. Looking at some of the behind-the-scenes stuff on your Twitter account, it seems like Olivier worked very closely with you all, and took plenty of inspiration from French Impressionism.
DigixArt: Yes it was the second most important pillar for the narration, bringing the music to the front, using it as a narrative tool and composing it at the same time of the script, each one influencing the other one. Olivier was with us on slack all along the production working closely with the writers, the art director and myself.
It was natural to go for a full orchestra, with acoustic instruments and choir, this is a story about real human feelings, about the reality of war, and that was a wonderful choice. And Bandai allowed us to go for the best studio in the world, we recorded in the legendary Abbey Road with Jon Kurlander, the engineer of the Lord of the rings.
This sort of experience is a bit of a step away from the family friendly Aardman adventures (Chicken Run and The Wrong Trousers being favourites of mine) and into darker territory. Is 11-11 a sign of the kind of stories you want to tell in the future?
Aardman: That’s an interesting question. I think the setting of this story is different from what people think of as traditional Aardman stories, but I don’t think the story itself is. All good stories need to have the light and dark sides, and this is something 11-11 does have, but you can see that in our other work. Chicken Run is essentially a war prison escape story, and there are some very dark moments in that tale.
Is 11-11 a one-off video game for Aardman, or do you want to jump into this industry and make more? What are your future ambitions?
Aardman: We’d love to do more, it’s been our dream for so long! I’d really like to do something that is more in the Aardman house style next, to see how we could use all of the fantastically talented people who work on our feature films and series, and bring those things in to a game world.
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