The Nintendo Switch, through its popularity and also its extremely varied and diverse gaming audience, has attracted some fascinating video games to the eShop. The system is a home for experimental and challenging games, and Before I Forget - a title that addresses dementia - certainly qualifies in that category. Following its recent announcement, we wanted to learn more about the team behind the game, which was nominated for a prestigious BAFTA award in the Game Beyond Entertainment category.
Though a wider community of developers helped and contributed, Before I Forget is primarily the work of two developers that met at a game jam, formed the studio 3-Fold Games, and have created the game remotely over four years.
Claire Morwood is a programmer and artist with a passion for game jams and workshops to help others get into development; she is a member of the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol, UK and Biome Collective in Dundee. Chella Ramanan is the narrative designer of the game with a passion for telling stories from underrepresented perspectives; an award winning developer, she works for a AAA studio in Sweden and in 2019 co-founded POC in Play, a diversity organisation focused on increasing the visibility and representation of people of colour in the industry and games.
We asked both developers about how the game came together, the challenges of representing an illness like dementia in a video game, and their goals for Before I Forget and future projects.
Can you tell us about how 3-Fold Games came together? For example, how did the partnership evolve after first forming at XX+ Games Jam?
Chella Ramanan: Before I Forget was born at the XX+ Game Jam in 2016. The theme was borders and I had an old story idea about a woman with dementia, which fit the theme and immediately sparked ideas for us. Once we had the idea, we had the setting for the house and then the house being in grayscale was quickly implemented as a metaphor for dementia. A lot of the key elements of the game were already in the game at the game jam, such as the music as character and the narrative arc.
We won the audience choice award at the jam and that spurred us on to see if we could finish the game and nearly four years later, here we are with a BAFTA nomination and about to launch on Nintendo Switch.
One of the great things about our partnership is that we’re often on the same wavelength. It’s uncanny, sometimes. We just spark off each other and that’s what happened at the jam. We worked remotely for most of development and it’s funny, because now everyone knows what that’s like. It works, but it’s just not as organic as working together, in the same room. Sometimes we’d have game dev retreats at my house to crack a problem and we’d get so much more done.
But making games is tough. There were definitely moments when we both wondered if it was worth it, but never told each other until after it was done. We found a good rhythm and way of working together, fairly quickly and had great support from other indie developers, which was invaluable and really helped us see the project through.
As you expanded on the game jam experience, what were the main thoughts and principles that drove the Before I Forget concept, especially as your studio debut?
Chella Ramanan: Well, we formed the studio during the early stages of making the game, because we needed a name to put on forms and applications. The studio was a business necessity, initially, but the fact that Before I Forget was our debut definitely shaped the ethos of our studio.
We wanted to make a game about a person and a story that might otherwise not be seen in games
We wanted to make a game about a person and a story that might otherwise not be seen in games and that’s become part of the driving force of 3-Fold Games and the things we want to do and support in the future. As we got further into development, we came to realise that we could challenge what games can be. And by making a game about dementia, we actively challenged the traditional power fantasy that games usually deliver.
Sunita is an Indian woman in her 50s, with dementia, rather than the hyper-masculine, all action hero games usually present. She’s not abseiling down the side of the mountain, but she is the driving force in her narrative. Before I Forget tells a more intimate, but no less impactful story of a woman who has lived a rich and exciting life, with great loves, friendships and an incredible career. It’s a mystery and a love story.
For a project like this that addresses the topic of dementia and its impact, what sort of research did you do and how did it help the project to evolve?
Claire Morwood: Initially, in the weeks/months following the game jam, we looked to other media such as books and film to see how other storytellers had portrayed dementia in a fictional context. Two inspirations in particular were the book Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, and the film Still Alice. In both of these, the stories are told largely from the perspective of the person with dementia, and do a fantastic job of portraying the realities the protagonists are experiencing, even if those may be different from the realities of other characters in the story. Around this time we also watched and read more factual documentaries and articles to increase our understanding. We developed a lot of our initial ideas around the portrayal of Sunita’s symptoms and how we might enable the player to empathise and experience the world through her eyes from this initial research.
We were humbled that people felt such a connection to our game and felt able to openly talk to us afterwards, and we learnt so much from these conversations about dementia
Later on, we consulted with two doctors; Dr Donald Servant is involved with the charity Gaming the Mind, and Dr David Codling has expertise in dementia. We had several calls to chat with them both, and would send them early versions of the game for their feedback. This was truly invaluable to the development of the game, and allowed us to refine the mechanics and narrative that we had created so far to be more accurate and realistic for Sunita’s situation.
The other key way in which we learnt more about dementia was through taking in-development versions of Before I Forget to games events, such as Adventure X and EGX Rezzed. At these events we were able to watch members of the public play the demo of our game, and often afterwards they would engage in conversation with us about their personal experiences with dementia. We were humbled that people felt such a connection to our game and felt able to openly talk to us afterwards, and we learnt so much from these conversations about dementia and the ways in which it affects so many lives.
The game has striking visual and audio design, can you talk about how that came together?
Claire Morwood: We always wanted to ensure that the visuals and audio of the game reflected and emphasised the narrative of the game. Contrast between moments of clarity and moments of confusion or fear, as well as there sometimes being a disconnect between what the player and the character are feeling were key emotional features of the narrative. In terms of the visuals, we wanted something that clearly showed this contrast across the entire landscape of the game that tied into Sunita’s state of mind and memories. The idea to have the environment of the game initially in greyscale, with colour spreading in relation to particular objects and memories was concepted right from the initial game jam, and influenced a lot of our design decisions from then on. A lot of the visuals have a focus on fading, spreading, and contrast of detail or colour.
Alongside the absence of colour throughout much of the house, we also wanted to reflect this in the audio, with an absence of an underscore for much of the game, and only minimal sound effects. By doing this, we were able to provide a much bigger impact when those elements do come in. This tied in with Sunita’s narrative, but also with Dylan - who is largely portrayed through the music of the game.
The other key decision we made early on in development was to use light, pastel colours for the visuals, and have the game largely set during the day. We wanted to avoid a horror vibe, or a portrayal of dementia as supernatural. There are parts of the game where we do lean into Sunita’s confusion and fear more, such as when she is looking for the bathroom, but for the majority of the game we wanted the focus to be on her life as a whole and not just her dementia.
You were recently recognised with a BAFTA nomination, what were the prevailing emotions when that happened?
Chella Ramanan: Immense joy. It was overwhelming, especially considering the company we were in in our category. It was quite fitting for Animal Crossing to take the crown, as we had our launch day celebration in that game, in a mockup of the 3-Fold Games office on Claire’s island. The only office we have is on Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
But really, it’s a great honour and very humbling. It’s a bit of a dream come true to be recognised by your peers and the institution of BAFTA in that way. It’s also great for helping family and friends outside games understand what we’ve achieved.
For those unsure of playing a game about dementia, can you share your perspective on what Before I Forget delivers as a gaming and interactive experience?
Some people have told us that the game helped them deal with the passing of a loved one by helping them understand their experience
Chella Ramanan: Some people have told us that the game helped them deal with the passing of a loved one by helping them understand their experience. And others have told us that although they’re glad the game is here, it’s just too raw and real for them, and both responses are valid.
Dementia is sad, so the game is sad, but it is also a celebration of a life. Sunita has lots of stories to tell and this is just one of them. We always aimed for a bittersweet experience and hopefully that comes across. Ultimately, it’s a love story, wrapped in a mystery with a minimalist approach to gameplay that supports the narrative.
One of our goals has always been to tell stories that aren’t often told within video games. We hope that through making Before I Forget we have been able to contribute to the conversation around the breadth of what video games can be.
We'd like to thank Chella Ramanan and Claire Morwood for their time; Before I Forget launches on Nintendo Switch eShop on 29th April.