by Lee Hazell
Part of the inspiration for Last Day of June was to help diversify the kinds of games available to play. You were known, before founding Ovosonico, for games like Shadows of the Damned, Naruto: Rise of a Ninja, Splinter Cell and Rainbow Six. What challenges were there in going from such traditionally combat focussed gaming content to a narrative based title like this?
I’ve been working in the Triple A games industry since the late 90s and I have certainly spent most of my corporate career abiding by the traditional staples of game design and development. It helped me to build up enough knowledge and experience to eventually be able to challenge those very same rules and traditions I’ve been dealing with for decades.
I believe that for every creator, there comes a time when something clicks, and you feel the need to express something more personal, to move somehow forward and challenge things as we know them. I guess this process for me started when I was directing Shadows of the Damned. Traditional video games started to be less and less appealing to me as I grew older, and I felt the need to express this personal discomfort somehow through my work.
It was a particularly hard period of my career as I recall feeling out of place and out of time. That frustration gave me the courage to accept my feelings and work on something more personal, using gameplay as a very powerful expression tool.
What are your own video-game tastes?
I’ve always been attracted to arcade games, consoles, and cartoonish colourful graphics. I’ve spent years of my youth playing Street Fighter, Mario Kart, Zelda and the most wildly difficult Japanese action games.
Eventually, titles like ICO and Shenmue opened up my eyes to the potential of video games in terms of emotions and storytelling. Nowadays, I don’t have much time to play, and I consider this a blessing as it allows me to stay focused on my work.
Nevertheless, titles such as ICO, Journey and Inside definitely had a big impact on me.
What influenced you to become a developer?
As a kid, I’ve always been passionate and curious about science and computers. Back in the early 80s, personal computers were a big deal and I approached that mysterious universe through the Commodore 64.
Besides playing games, I started to feel the urge to create something myself and learned Basic so that I could start writing my own little games. I guess curiosity and the urge to create something have been and always are my biggest motivational sparks.
You’ve taken inspiration from several artistic sources and made two of them (Jess Cope, an animator on Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, and Steven Wilson, former Porcupine Tree frontman and singer/songwriter) collaborators. What was it like to bring them into the video-game fold and what did they bring to the project?
Bringing artists from outside the video games world into a collaboration for a video game can be a difficult or even frustrating task. Steven Wilson himself wasn’t really into video games, and mostly didn’t know what to expect from a game in 2017.
But since I normally take my inspiration from outside of the video game fold myself, it has been quite a natural approach and not long after I showed them the very first playable prototype, they were both excited to be on board.
Did they have much of an idea of what they were getting themselves into?
They absolutely had no idea of what they were getting themselves into and that was partly the beauty of this collaboration. It’s always important for me to surround myself with inputs and inspirations coming from outside of the game industry and their contributions were absolutely gold for me in terms of purity. No contamination at all with gaming staples or traditional unwritten rules. Just pure personal visions that inspired me at a deeper level.
The Marmalade Shader gives the game a striking aesthetic of European impressionism. What was the inspiration behind it and, what did you hope it would bring to the player experience?
I wanted every single detail in the game to revolve around the main themes of love and loss. June was a painter and was expressing her emotions through her art and through her portraits of the villagers.
I wanted that concept to be at the core of the art direction and we created a custom shader that gives the game that impressionist painterly look. At the same time, I wanted to somehow retain some of the stop motion photography feeling, as I am really into stop motion animation and the original Drive Home (a Steven Wilson music video directed by Jess Cope) an animator on Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, and the video was all stop motion.
So we added realistic camera lens effects and extensively used depth of field and other cinematic techniques to frame scenes and characters. Thanks to this, game characters somehow look and feel like realistic stop motion puppets lost in a dreamy painterly world, and that was exactly the message I wanted to give to players: Carl and June are in fact puppets in the hands of fate.
We can all be Carl and June. And ironically, the player himself will somehow act as destiny.
The narrative progression of the game relies on uncovering the stories behind the characters, what they could have done differently and how their actions impact others. It’s an interesting way for a narrative to unfold. What do you find compelling about a system like this and can you go into any more detail about it?
Last Day of June is a nonlinear narrative experience that tells a linear story through gameplay mechanics. The very core of the game is, indeed, to travel back in time, but I would say it’s much more related to the combination of the events that led to the crash, and not to the single sequence.
I like to say that Last Day of June is a sort of chess match with fate, as that image represents in a pretty good way the nature of the combinations system.
Through his actions, every character can have an impact on some other character’s actions, and that interdependence eventually builds up into a longer sequence of actions that led to the crash.
Like in a card strategy game, exploring and understanding all the different combinations is at the core of the puzzle experience, with the exception that in Last Day of June combinations have a meaning and must make sense for each character you play. The game allows you to unlock characters and play them in a non-linear fashion as you please, giving more room for player’s experimentation.
Of course, there is a solution, or rather a combination of actions, that allows you to move forward, and we wanted the player to be able to fill the gaps and connect the dots by themselves, so that finding the right combination has also a logical consequence in terms of narrative progression.
The project feels intensely personal. Did you bring any of your own experiences into the project with you?
I believe any creator inevitably brings some of his own life experiences into his projects. Making games, music or movies, and art in general, is an ultimate form of communication and personal expression.
It can’t help but be personal, at any level. I guess for me, Last Day of June embodies somehow the ancestral fear of loss and death. There’s a point in your life when you start thinking about your death, and the death of the people you love and care for the most. I didn’t really find any answer or cure to that. But I guess Last Day of June unconsciously helped me dealing with that fear.