If Found… from developer Dreamfeel, is a visual novel in an almost very literal sense. Presented via the framing device of a notebook, the player doesn’t take direct control of the narrative – but instead erases it.
The game’s central mechanic is the act of erasion. From the text itself to the distinct and beautiful artwork, presented as sketches in protagonist Kasio’s notebook. It’s a mechanic that ties into a central theme to the game, of erasing the past and beginning again – told via the main thrust of If Found’s narrative of a transgender woman returning home to her small Irish village.
Beginning life with a two-person development team back in 2016, the team grew to five people (alongside some freelancers) once publisher Annapurna became involved in the project around 2018. The small team is appropriate, given the game’s narrative – which juxtaposes an epic adventure of a space explorer attempting to prevent the end of the world with the smaller, more personal story at the heart of the game.
And while the team grew as the project progressed, it all began with just two people: with Dreamfeel’s Llaura McGee drawing inspiration from artist Liadh Young’s sketches, who provided the art for the game.
“It started with me and Liadh,” says McGee. “I loved seeing the rough pages she would draw with all her sketches and at the same time I really wanted to make a collage like game. So a diary based game was a natural fit, there’s something really personal about a notebook and all the doodles and scribbles.
“It was originally a witch’s diary and I realised I could take this masking technique I was playing around with in code to erase the diary.
“The mechanic was awesome so we decided to make the whole game around it. We also had these zooming mechanics which leant a sense of scale and apocalypse. What kind of story would we have in a game about erasing a diary during the end of the world?? As soon as we asked ourselves these questions, we had the seed of the game.”
ERASING THE NARRATIVE
The erasing mechanic is one of the more unique elements of the game. Beyond its thematic importance, it makes for a very tactile experience – making use of the touchscreen on both Switch and mobile platforms, as the player rubs out the game’s narrative, one page at a time.
“The erasing originally came from a university tech demo I made in 2012 in DirectX,” says McGee, “when I realised I could use shapes to essentially cut holes through objects. I had played around with this for years and had kept it in my back pocket.
“Then when me and Liadh were trying to create a notebook game, inspired by zine culture and DIY art, I realised we could use it to create the effect of erasing words/drawings from a page. And I could actually create a system where you could keep erasing deeper and deeper! It was such a cool mechanic that we knew at that point it should be the core of the game.
“So the difficulty was not in implementing the simple version of it, but in implementing it across many many layers in a structured way.”
With the game’s mechanic in the back pocket years before development, the challenge instead came from both the narrative and the logistical difficulties of releasing a game during a pandemic.
“I think the challenge we struggled with longest was simply figuring out the story,” notes McGee. “Trying to figure out where it was going, how we could do that in our limited time and budget, and bring everything to a satisfying conclusion. We went in a few different directions until we started digging deeper into the characters and following where they led.
“Release was probably the biggest challenge altogether. There was a lot of content going in and a lot of changes late in development. Additionally we were doing it during coronavirus. So handling testing where suddenly all the testers were working from home without the usual access to equipment was very tricky. Particularly with respect to the iOS and Mac versions of the game.”
ROLLING IN THE NINETIES
The story itself may have been a challenge, but it makes excellent use of its setting. If Found… is set in Ireland during the 90s, and while its time setting is hardly front and centre of the experience (Stranger Things this is not), the game’s characters are nonetheless informed by this period.
“Ultimately it just made so much sense for the story we were telling,” says McGee. “Ireland was still coming out of a depression at the end of the eighties and this was before the ‘Celtic Tiger’.
“A year before when the game is set, homosexuality was only just decriminalized here. So it was a time where the world was changing very fast for Irish people. In our game a major theme is how people’s identities could be erased, willingly and forcefully, by the world around them so the setting fit into that.”
Of course, the Irish setting isn’t hugely surprising, coming from the Dublin-based studio. McGee is keen to stress that while the game is not autobiographical, it does draw from her real experiences, and has a lot of “emotional truth.”
“The importance to me isn’t so much representing Ireland,” says McGee, “so much as more creators representing the very specific places they’re from. I think when you pull from your own life the stories and the experiences are a lot more interesting and rich.”
Still, the team took great pains to make it an accurate depiction of Ireland itself: with its dialogue filled with Irish slang terms and references to Irish culture. The game even features an annotation tool, explaining any terms that may fly over the heads of non-Irish players.
“Fairly early on we felt we really wanted to go as far as we could with Irish language and Irish phrases. We wanted the story to be genuine. But we were also conscious of the difficulty that would pose to people who aren’t Irish though! So the annotations became the solution and they were planned fairly early on.
“People love being let in on secrets, and I think they add a lot of flavour. It would be cool if more games included annotations, honestly!”
A TRANSFORMATIVE STORY
Beyond its Irish roots, the game attracted attention for its transgender protagonist. Kasio’s gender identity is an important aspect of the story – and a source of tension between her and her family – but it doesn’t define either her or the game as a whole. And, as it turns out, she wasn’t written to be transgender until quite late in the game’s development.
“The character wasn’t canonically trans probably until well into 2019,” says McGee.
“If I started out to make a trans game I don’t know if it would be like this. But we were making a sad game about someone erasing and ultimately starting again and midway through development it was like: ‘oh damn, she’s trans.’ At that point it was impossible not to write it that way.
“So then it just came about writing the most honest thing possible. There are lots of shitty moments in our lives, but there are people like Jack and Colum and Shans and Maggy who are totally accepting, and then most people just don’t care. I hope the positive balances the negative and generally the negative doesn’t last too long without reprieve.
“It’s really important for trans people, all LGBT folks and anyone who is marginalized to be able to tell their own stories. No one else can tell those stories accurately, or without just repeating clichés. Only those who actually experience these lives can know whether what they’re saying is real, or whether what they’re saying is an echo of past media they’ve consumed. And if they’re just remixing past media it’s doomed to be full of stereotypes and even sometimes harmful.
“These stories don’t need to all be heavy though. I’m looking forward to lots of silly and stupid trans stories in the future.”
One potential selling point (or criticism, depending on who you ask) is that the game can be completed within a couple of hours. Personally speaking, in an environment where so many games market themselves on the hundreds of hours they take to complete, it’s refreshing to have a game that refuses to outstay its welcome.
“The plan for the game was so much longer when we had no idea what we were doing and no idea what the game was really about,” says McGee. “Getting closer and closer to understanding our own game meant we could cut what we didn’t need. And the game is 100x better for it. As short as possible, but no shorter.
“I feel like everything in a game should contribute to a good experience. The highest ratio of goodness to time. However most games are approached from how to maximise playtime, which leads to many single player games being way overlong and never finished. Endings are important to me, imagine not seeing the second half of a movie! And so I want to make sure players get the whole picture.
“Of course there are other games which are meant to be relaxed with. Even then I feel like it’s a duty to never be wasting someone’s time.”
The player might be able to finish the game quickly – but its developers certainly didn’t. From the start of development in 2016, to its eventual release in 2020, If Found… spent a fair amount of time in the oven.
“I would have liked to have made the game quicker,” says McGee. “Even before starting with Annapurna there was a lot of searching that it would be nice to skip past. The end of development was definitely the most fun part.
“So I wouldn’t have committed to the same scope and ambition I had for the story, and the amount of text that comes with that. If I could go back, I would probably make a much simpler story that didn’t take place over a whole month.”
Long development or no, it certainly seems to have been worth the work put into it, judging by the game’s reception. If Found… was nominated for the ‘Games for Impact Award’ at the The Game Awards, was adored by critics and listed on a number of games of the year list.
“I’m delighted with the game’s reception!” says McGee. “It means a lot to me how much the game resonates with people. When we announced the Switch version it was so rad to see those who had already played it being excited and telling others, and that word of mouth keeps going. And now we can make another game which is the most important thing.”