Last Day of June’s ominous title is perfectly matched for its intentional, brooding Tim Burton-esque aesthetic. And as the game’s director Massimo Guarani notes, it’s our shared human experience of loss and subsequent coping mechanisms that is at the heart of his team’s upcoming indie adventure game.
At this year’s E3 in an enclosed booth at 505 Games’ showcase, and tucked away in a corner across from where Koji Igarashi was giving interviews and hosting demos for Bloodstained, stood Last Day of June. Jose Acosta and I shuffled into the room where lead designer Mattia Traverso and producer Elia Randon were eager to show us their company Ovosonico’s follow up to 2014's Murasaki Baby.
I was immediately drawn to the quiet scene of a gorgeous sky blanketing a hollowed-eyed couple’s picnic on a lake dock. Jose’s attention was drawn to the credits of the interactive adventure game, where Steven Wilson’s name materialized peacefully and vanished. After an incredulous inquiry, we were told that it was in fact the only Steven Wilson he knew—the famed UK musician, who through interviews, seems to be traditional in his rock sensibilities as well as direct in his opinions as they come.
Following E3, one of the questions that was seared in our minds was how on earth this small Italian studio managed to get Steven Wilson on board to contribute to a whole other medium. A video game, no less. It seemed implausible. And so, when Jose and I had the opportunity to interview Last Day of June’s game director Massimo Guarini via Skype a few weeks after E3, we were determined to find out.
The answer was just one of many in a series of questions and responses that stunned us. Our chat with Guarini—a seasoned figure in the gaming industry who worked as Shadow of the Damned’s game director, among other things—provided so much more insight into this interesting title. These included choices in game design and mechanics, Guarini’s personal influences, his time with Grasshopper Manufacture and working with Goichi “Suda51" Suda and Shinji Mikami, as well as his compelling views on not only his company, but the young Italian game development industry.
One of the major selling points of Last Day of June’s E3 presentation was that it is a game made for people who do not usually play video games. We found this to be a curious pitch and the obvious questions arose: how do you appeal to gamers and non-gamers alike? Where’s the challenge for those who are experienced with playing games, and what is it about this game that sets it apart from other similar experiences that are heavily narrative-driven, and point-and-click adventures. Guarini gave us a little bit of Game Design 101.
“Well it’s been like a tough decision. It’s not like we really sat down and said well let’s make a game for non-gamers, or you know let’s try to not be appealing to gamers, or things like that. You never do that actually,” he said. “It started from a personal desire to do something with meaning.”
This motivation to create a game with emotional substance came to fruition when Guarani and his team heard and saw the video for Steven Wilson’s song “Drive Home,” which he explained, “...[T]he ‘Drive Home’ video, particularly, was interesting to me because of that poignant message and the heart-breaking little story that was embedded into the video.” But it also tapped into his desire to relay a human story which everyone, regardless of their experiences with games or not, could feel a connection to. “So the real motivation was sort of like an inner thought I had, and yes it does somehow connect to my desire to expand to a broader audience and try to speak a more universal language because that’s quite interesting in my opinion.”
It’s a desire which comes from personal growth, too. He continued, “Probably because I’m not that young anymore and the more I grow older, the more I want to explore different things and different meanings meanings as opposed to just shooting up dinosaurs and stuff. Which is great by the way, again, we certainly need that but we also need something else. So the problem is not ‘what we have’ but the problem is ‘what we don’t have,’ that’s a little bit the fuel behind my approach to creating games.”
“It’s not like, I said before, we sat down and said how we can appeal or not appeal to people,” he reiterated. “But more I believe this is a great story and I think probably every one of us in our lives related to these kind of feelings to regret, and reacted somehow in a personal way to what is considered loss and reaction to loss; be it somebody you care about or being something you care about as well.”
Guarini’s emotional approach in Last Day of June is not just told through the story and characters but implemented through its gameplay mechanics, as well. It’s something he believes that rarely comes through naturally in the video game medium, even though he believes games are a powerful way to make people feel emotion. He hopes that their new game can attain that result through players’ actions. He said, “So it was more of an exploration and sort of an experiment trying to tell the story and convey some of that emotion through the gameplay. Because I believe one of the biggest mistakes we have always dealing within the video game industry is to try to tell stories and force emotion into people.”
Taking a movie approach to games and using the language typical in the universe of movies is, in his view, not the best way to tackle conveying emotions in games. As he explained, “So that you get all these long cut-scenes, losing a bit of player agency if not within specific areas of intervention.” For Guarini, Last Day of June attempts to address this issue through a more organic approach. “We tried to at least use the game mechanic as an emotional tool itself. So it’s like when you’re about to die or or about take decisions in your area of intervention, it’s because you really feel it should be like this and the mechanic itself is really tied somehow to the general empathy that a human being can have towards a character that can hopefully blends together in a single experience. So that was the kind of challenging part of the game.”
What Guarini and Ovosonico desire to achieve is an intersection of gameplay and storytelling in which the gameplay is the journey. “It’s about the experience on a whole. We’re not trying to impress people in a way with complex gameplay mechanics and not trying to sell the game as something it doesn’t,” he stated. “I think it’s more like you get the vibe and something to the story and because of the empathy and the connection it has created between the characters and the player, hopefully, you basically are not thinking of gameplay as a separate thing. Hopefully the whole thing will flow through as a whole, as a sort of experience as a whole, I hope.”
That journey begins with Steven Wilson’s “Drive Home” video and song as inspiration, as previously mentioned. In the video’s basic premise, a man loses his wife in a car accident, is haunted by memories of the day and the video details how he processes the loss. Last Day of June uses that premise—its protagonist Carl experiences tragedy when his wife June dies—but the nearly 8 minute video had to be translated into a game, which means some key differences. Guarini noted, “We’ve basically re-written everything from scratch because an interactive experience has so many different complex things going on.”
The first of these complexities comes with a groundhog day mechanic Last Day of June utilizes as part of its core. As Guarini explained, it wasn’t an intentional inclusion at first. “The mechanic of the groundhog day we started implementing without really thinking about it, the actual groundhog day or the movie, right?” He laughed and continued, “You know I like to refer to this game as a sort of like chess match against Destiny, as Destiny was your pawn somehow—fate. The groundhog day mechanic came in as a natural way to give the player a very clear understanding of the chain of events, where they started and when they end.”
“Initially we didn’t think about the groundhog day mechanic, so initially it was very complicated to get a hold of the time frames and the entirety of the game’s actions before the crash,” he recollected. “Okay, so having this constant reminder of ‘the day is starting here with this thing, and it’s stopping here with this event’ allowed us to basically implement a true groundhog day mechanic that was just much clearer for the player. So we didn’t want to make things complicated in terms of understanding. We just wanted to make sure the player had all his focus on trying to shuffle events in order to avoid the crash.”
Outside the gameplay direction, Guarini likes the time travel mechanic in general, from classics such as Chrono Trigger, and he cited Life is Strange as a recent game that used it well. “I really like the way it was presented, it was really clean and clever.” For Last Day of June, however, it’s less about the mechanic itself, as he explained. “I would say that definitely, I mean there’s lots of time travel in video games. It’s per se not the time travel mechanic that’s interesting, I guess. It’s how basically you live and get to relive this through the emotion that gets interesting in our case, I guess.”
The second complexity was visualizing Last Day of June and creating something from Steven Wilson’s video with specific reference to the stop-motion animation style which, for the “Drive Home” video, was the handiwork of Jess Cope—an animator who worked on the Tim Burton’s film Frankenweenie. Luckily for Guarini, Cope was excited and willing to consult on the project. More on board than even Steven, he recalled. “We got in touch with her before Steven because I got in touch with the guys making the videos before, actually, as a first thing. And we started talking about this idea of making a video game and she was really interested in trying to taking part of it as a consultant, for the story writing part of the whole project. So her involvement was very heavy towards the beginning in production.”
Beyond that, the experience was eye-opening given her involvement and views as an artist outside of video games. He continued, “And we connected a few times to try to see how we could actually keep the same as the original story but turn it into an actual interactive experience. And it was kind of interesting because she also doesn’t come from the game industry and she basically knows nothing. Probably she’s a bit more open to what a video game is than what Steven is. But it was a completely different background and that for me was really interesting in terms of production, really. You know it gave me a lot of different inputs. We tend as developers and game developers to be very self-referential somehow, we always talk about our stuff and gaming stuff, when you actually open up to people who are not necessarily into games but nevertheless they have wonderful ideas or even able to bring refreshed things into the gaming mechanic.”
Guarini expressed amazement that he was able to convince the former band member of Porcupine Tree to agree to using his music for a video game. Wilson, apparently, wanted nothing to do with the game initially due his perception of them, believing that all video games were in the vein of shooters such as the Call of Duty series, as Guarini told us. “When we mentioned about the fact that we were developers and making video games he was like not really interested because he doesn’t really like video games.” It was 10 months in that Wilson warmed to the idea, as Guarini recalled. “Then towards the completion of the production phase, he trusted us to do everything we needed and wanted to given that we were able to maintain the same mood and maintain the same initial phases that we pitched.”
During production, the team faced different challenges in bringing their unique aesthetic to the game. The art style is reminiscent of an impressionist painting which is intentionally linked to one of the game’s main characters, as Guarini told us. “We wanted to somehow link the look and feel of the game to the paintings because in the story we make June a painter, so she basically is the one who painted all the paintings that Carl will eventually use to travel back in time and that creates a sort of beautiful link between the characters as well. We were basically experimenting with different techniques and shaders and we came up with this kind of algorithm that made everything look a little bit marmalade.”
This was done with a specific aim in mind. “The purpose was to make something cartoonish and not realistic. But also at the same time retain somehow the realism of the stop-motion animation,” Guarini said. “You may notice the game is heavily using depth of field and illumination in a more realistic way. But then again the characters and environment they feel like they’re stuffed puppets or like clay animation, and stuff like that. We wanted to be a bit little in between the two things. And even though we haven’t used the stop motion technique in the animation, all of the animation is a little bit puppet style.”
The result is peculiar, beautiful and a little bit creepy as Jose and I saw at E3, and as Guarini stated, “It’s not really super realistic in terms of humanoid form, somehow it’s kinda like, you know, weird. And I have to say that’s on purpose because we really wanted to make you feel like the actual protagonist. These characters are any one of us, just as human as we are, and the fact that they are kinda like puppets without the eyes, without the mouth or anything. They basically serve the purpose of being your a little bit like your avatars in a relatable emotional story.”
While his previous experience working on 2011's Shadows of the Damned with Suda51 and Mikami has helped production of Last Day of June, Guarini expressed an intriguing personal approach to any given project he works on. “I think Shadows of the Damned was kind of like, an incredible experience for me and I would say not so different from what I do now, even though the approach was completely different. It was a crazy experience, right? And for me, making Shadows of the Damned was like making Army of Darkness, the equivalent of making Army of Darkness in movies. It was like totally crazy stuff and juvenile jokes all the time.”
With a laugh, he continued and indicated that his projects are distinctly separate. “I think I guess a path that I am unconsciously taking. It’s not like I really think too much about what I did before. And I actually tend to get bored pretty quickly about my ideas. Ideally I’d like to work on a different game every year but it normally takes a couple of years to make a game so it’s not really possible, so. I would say probably there is a common thread, that if I look back I can actually spot myself but I never really tend to influence myself on my previous works, if I can.”
As a veteran in the gaming industry, Guarini’s knowledge helps push his smaller Italian company forward. In Ovosonico, which he founded in 2012, he can see the benefits to the working a smaller team and the differences he experienced while working for larger studios, such as his many years working for Ubisoft in both Italy and Montreal. He explained, “It’s like great when you’re 20 years old because you learn a lot and you get to work into the business and it’s thrilling. But then again, there’s a moment where you probably want to explore different things and cherish efficiency and kind of like unique side of working with smaller teams. Because that where you can foster an execution of an idea in a much better way than 300 people can manage.”
When it comes down to it, the joys of working with Ovosonico and a smaller team comes with the connectivity of a family-like environment. “I really don’t want to grow beyond 20 units. You know that’s kind of like a sweet spot you can still approach mid tier games but keeping the same chemistry and good communication between team members because everyone gets deeply involved in the game and the company as well,” Guarini mused. “So that’s like a really sweet number because we don’t really want to make super small things or like you know, throwaway games or anything like that.”
In Guarini’s opinion, larger teams can sometimes lead to more incoherency when it comes to making a game. “Call it authorial gaming, call it as you want. You know sometimes you hear these things about creative direction by committee or stuff like that which is normally being used in very large things where is no such thing as a single creative director because it just wouldn’t work,” he said. “So you have like probably three or four of them, plus a plethora lead game designers. You can imagine how things were going in these studios because at one point it was just like a nightmare because everyone was just working for themselves, basically. And then [they] try to merge efforts in a single vision. So it’s like, you know, a little bit like directing a movie with like four different directors. And that can happen but what you get is basically four different movies, right? You have collection of four different movies. Yes there are four different directors but there’s also four different stories so I think keeping it small is somehow also works to make sure that everybody gets on board with the vision and knows exactly where to go.”
“That’s the most important thing,” Guarini continued. “Because you know, everybody can have good ideas and that’s the fun part of the process but it’s not the difficult part. The difficult part of every process in game development is making sure that you are able to deliver that experience as you thought initially. That’s the real challenge. That’s something that you basically have to work day and night in order to acquire the experience to do that, especially when you’re all by yourself. But that’s what sets a small studio apart that is able to deliver as opposed to you know, having a good idea and then taking 10 years to complete it. You know sometimes you hear about a studio taking 7-10 years to come out with a game. It can be cool from a story point of view but it’s not really sustainable from a business point of view in the long term.”
Ovosonico in the gaming sphere is not just another Indie team. For Guarini, his company represents a picture of Italy’s game development presence in the global market—and Italy’s stake is one that’s seeing some changes but still in its adolescence, as one Italian newspaper noted. Guarini’s opinions on this are intriguing. He said, “I spent mostly about 10 years abroad to work so I was away from the Italian game industry as a whole. I think the biggest problem was that as Italians we tend to think very local. We don’t have this great, you know, leadership in terms of like thinking globally and making sure our ideas and our products can actually compete on a global market. So sometimes we get stuck with local, cultural staples and things, you know, at the end of the day that make it impossible to sell our products abroad, because it just wouldn’t work because it’s just not interesting from that point of view. So a little bit of that and a little bit of the fact that traditionally there has never been big production studios.”
Despite Guarini’s views on Italy’s cultural outlook withholding some progress for the game industry, he does see movement. “I think that’s just the beginning of something bigger. I see signs of things moving in the right direction,” he said. “We’re still very far away from being anything as proper industry wise as France has or the UK has or even Spain has but I think little by little we’ll be able to hopefully leave a mark as well in the global market. It’s all about you know, believing and having enough self confidence to take a risk, make the first step forward and make sure what you do is something that can appeal to a global audience.”
Last Day of June releases on PC and PlayStation 4 on August 31st.
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