In a forgotten and ruined land, a strange golden dust transforms a free-spirited bird into a lost child, setting off a chain of events that will reshape the world in unexpected ways.
– Friend & Foe
Vane, a game developed and released by the studio Friend & Foe is highly reminiscent of TeamICO games. Its simplistic design, lonely world, small cast, and moody atmosphere make it so that it could have been released by Ueda himself. But something is missing. Though the look and feel of Ueda’s games is there, it doesn’t go much further than that. It feels hollow.
In 2014, The Last Guardian was reaching a development standstill. The PlayStation3 hardware was not powerful enough to handle the game’s demanding graphics, forcing Ueda and his TeamICO to stop and consider their options. They could drop the project they had been working on since the release of Shadow of the Colossus in 2005 or, they could continue to push forward. Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide saw that progress was slow but was willing to keep true to the vision that Ueda had in mind. That year Ueda left Sony and disbanded TeamICO, stating there was “a sense of crisis within myself about a lot of things.” Ueda and certain members of the team went on to create GenDESIGN, the studio responsible for Guardian‘s release in 2016. The remaining members went on to begin Friend & Foe.
The biggest difference in my mind between Ueda’s games and Vane is a focus on friendship. Ueda adores it, featuring Ico and Yorda’s relationship in ICO, Wander and Agro’s relationship in Shadow of the Colossus, and the boy and Trico’s relationship in The Last Guardian. Unfortunately, there is no good equivalent in Friend & Foe’s Vane. There are other children like you, but they are kind of just ‘there’ with no solid connection to the plot. It is like the team decided to reinvent Forgotten Key’s AER: Memories of Old without bringing forward the style of character development that TeamICO fans admire so greatly. Ok, I admit that the comparison is not entirely accurate. But the difference between Ueda’s games and, games inspired by him, is obvious. The teams of inspired titles tend to aim at the wrong things; they go for the atmosphere and a picturesque experience in favor of a fully formed story. Ueda, on the other hand, aims for a single element in the relationship between two characters and, everything else like atmosphere and gameplay naturally falls into place. When Ico encounters a puzzle-like room, the challenge doesn’t feel artificially placed. Likewise, his actions to solve the puzzle don’t stand out as anything more than a book character would do. They don’t feel like a puzzle or the next level. Vane doesn’t quite reach this.
I think it is hard for games like Vane, RiME, and AER because trying to strike the perfect balance between revealing enough but, not too much of the story is very difficult.
No doubt the puzzles presented can be interesting; switching between bird and boy reminds me of Link’s situation in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, his being able to switch between human and wolf. But as Polygon reviewer Colin Campbell wrote, “Vane begins with me joyfully soaring above sun-bleached sand drifts. But it gently dissolves into me slowly pushing a giant rock from one tiresome puzzle to another. This feels like an apposite visual juxtaposition for my entire experience, which slides from admiration to mild boredom.” This is a feeling I personally experienced with Tequila Work’s 2017 game RiME. The beautiful Mediterranean atmosphere appeared to be all the focus, leaving me hanging, not sure why or how everything around me fit together into a story until the very end. Even then it felt a little flat. Now, Shadow of the Colossus too leaves much of its lore up for personal fantasizing but, it is also willing to provide just enough clues to form a solid core. Vane is a little empty in this way, leaving out a little too much for its own good.
Mysterious figures in cloaks and pointed bird masks bring back memories of Lord Emon and his soldiers. The other bird children you encounter are much like the spirits of the horned boys that were imprisoned in ICO. But again, ideas are not grounded enough (sometimes literally, Campbell noting how the boy’s feet will drag “through rocks or, float weirdly over perches). The vagueness and the mystery all looks good and gives off an eerie air. Unfortunately, their collective sum doesn’t really amount to anything. The Verge reviewer Andrew Webster describes it as, “[A] game that takes place in a vast, virtually empty world full of mysteries and secrets. All of those secrets are up to you to discover. At no point does the game provide any real direction or hints, [and] the story remains entirely unexplained by the end.” At this point Vane and RiME fortunately diverge. Not every Ueda-inspired game has to be an utter disappointment.
I think it is hard for games like Vane, RiME, and AER because trying to strike the perfect balance between revealing enough but, not too much of the story is very difficult. I am actually grateful that Vane did not go to the other extreme of spoonfeeding the audience. That I hate more than anything. Being artificial betrays the presentation of any amount of story a game has. So in this respect, Vane does well enough.
This game is designed so that the player creates their own story, not live the story of another person. It is a different approach toward portraying narrative in videogames.
On a more positive note, the artistic direction and atmosphere are truly superb. In some ways they remind me of moments from ThatGameCompany’s title Journey. The most obvious comparison is the desert landscape and stone ruins. Where Vane differes is in its attempt to be more open world. Journey is exploitative but linear, while Vane pretty much lets you do and go wherever you want, even if it means you dropping progress toward the puzzle that opens the way forward. And this has a tremendous affect on the ambiance. Journey’s linearity makes you focus on the dynamics between two different gamers, both on their own PlayStation platforms; the artwork reflects this by creating scenes and visual motifs to guide and center this interaction, such as the use of scarfs, an element which is also a primary gameplay mechanic. In Vane, there is such a lack of guidance that it forces you to really search for details. You can easily miss them and, sometimes it is necessary to take a break from the frustrating puzzles by going on a pleasure flight, far away from the scene of trouble. Instead of a focus on interaction, there is a push for the player to roam.
Much of the game’s story is defined by doing just that: roaming. And, here I will give the game some kudos for not focusing on the plot like Ueda does. This game is designed so that the player creates their own story, not live the story of another person. It is a different approach toward portraying narrative in videogames.
For me, it’s not important to tell the details of the story. In Japan, there is a poet expression called a haiku [where] you don’t explain some things in detail and let the receivers understand or use their imagination with what is presented.
That lets the receivers make their own story from their imagination, and I think this is also a good style of expression for video games – at this moment. In the future, someone may discover there’s another way to do narrative and tell stories through gaming, but at this moment I think this is a great way to tell stories.
– Fumito Ueda
I truly believe this is what Friend and Foe was trying to achieve. Part of why Vane feels half-baked is because, six months into development, they lost their creative lead Rui Guerriero. This left them to struggle for a bit, but it allowed the remaining members to express what they saw as a good game. Guerriero’s Mare (through Vistiontrick Media) is an extremely similar creation; Mare is what Vane would have been if he had stayed with the original project. A little girl, not a boy, wakes up within a sprawling mass of ruins, their atmosphere not too dissimilar from the Nest in Ueda’s The Last Guardian. Walking on foot, she must follow a bird-like toy which flies through the air. Much of the game is centered around helping the girl safely navigate.
Overall, it feels like someone is reminiscing about that magnificent, magical time they once had. And as with any memory, it is incomplete, containing everything that made it what it was but not enough to truly relive it. I think that if the team had not been so disjointed from the start, Vane really could have been a strong game. But this is the version we have. For those who just want a beautiful, dark world to explore without much in the way of backstory or narrative guidance, this is the game for you. I don’t hate it. It’s just that it could have been something so much greater. It needs someone to wake it from vague reminiscence.
- ‘Vane’ at Friend and Foe
- ‘AER – Memories of Old’ at Gog.com
- ‘RiME’ at Tequila Works
- ‘Journey’ at ThatGameCompany
- ‘Mare’ at Visiontrick Media
Header image sourced from the official website for “Vane” by Friend and Foe studio.