The Little Acre was one of the more promising titles I saw at this year’s gamescom. Developed by Pewter Game Studios from Dublin, The Little Acre is currently being fine-tuned under the consultancy of legendary designer Charles Cecil. Featuring beautifully hand-crafted animations, the game is set in Ireland during the 1950s, telling the story of a young girl named Lily and her father Aidan getting caught up in a strange fantasy world. As I had a lengthy appointment with Pewter Games’ Ben Clavin and Christopher Conlan, along with their renowned executive producer, there was time not only for an extensive interview but also to see the game in action.
Most of what I witnessed was from a segment at a reservoir dam harboring a secret research facility. Within that facility, Aidan was trying to gain access to the fantasy world where he hoped to find his daughter. Christopher had barely begun playing the demo and I was already delighted by the game’s audio-visual qualities. Enormous effort has been put into The Little Acre’s hand-drawn animations. In combination with cute 2D backgrounds and very good voice acting, Pewter’s debut adventure instantly felt like an interactive cartoon full of charm. A little later, Ben and Christopher showed me a small section of the alternate world, which revealed a very interesting approach. Whereas the real world is portrayed in classic 2D, the parallel universe uses an isometric point of view. Along with a different color palette, this gives each world a very distinctive look and feel. Yet according to the developers, puzzles won’t differ too much between the two other than the fantasy world having more environmental obstacles.
While I saw a few inventory puzzles, where an object from the inventory needed to be applied directly in the environment, the game does not allow you to combine your objects with each other. This probably underlines the team’s approach of keeping The Little Acre accessible. After all, it was designed as a game for the whole family that is "meant to be finished." I can certainly say that what I observed worked very well without super-challenging puzzles. In fact, the result of some of the puzzle-solving made me burst out laughing, like when you need to get rid of an employee at the research facility. I don’t want to go too deep into spoiler territory, but an important aspect of this task was a cat that, according to Ben, "people either love or hate." Some of the cat’s actions gave me the loudest laughs I’ve had in an adventure game in a long time, and it felt like an incredible reward for "trying things", difficulty level aside.
The Little Acre is aiming for release on Windows, PS4, and Xbox One later this year. The gamescom demo was just as hilariously funny as it was charming and beautiful. It seems like the project is on a very good path, particularly when you consider Charles Cecil’s supervising role. If you’re not convinced yet, then read on for my interview with Christopher Conlan, Ben Clavin and Charles Cecil to tell you even more about the upcoming adventures of Lily and Aidan.
Charles Cecil: Ingmar, I’m delighted to introduce you to the Pewter guys Chris and Ben. While I take no credit and no responsibility for The Little Acre, I was thrilled about the fact that these guys are Broken Sword fans. You’ll see some references to Broken Sword in their game, almost to the point of plagiarism. (laughs all around)
Ingmar: Alright, now I get it. Your original plan was to sue them, right?
L-R: Chris, Charles, and Ben
Charles: Exactly! But seriously, what’s also lovely, apart from the fact that the game is really beautiful as you’ll see, is its design is full of joy, and full of the kind of details we loved in Day of the Tentacle and other great classics, where you tried things and great things happened as a result. But also there’s sort of a connection with Revolution back around 1994-ish when we started working on Broken Sword. Back then I read an article that talked about this brilliant college in Dublin called Ballyfermot, which was set up by Don Bluth Studios, who did Dragon’s Lair, All Dogs go to Heaven, The Secret of Nimh, etc. They have a very interesting style; very charming but really quite different from Disney. I met a lecturer there in layout called Eoghan Cahill, and I showed him what we were working on. He just burst out laughing in this sort of Irish, mocking way. He said, "these really aren’t good enough, are they? You really do need to employ me!" And he was right. So a lot of the quality of Broken Sword came from his vision. He was just fantastic. Turns out Chris and four other animators on The Little Acre all went to Ballyfermot. So it kind of feels like the whole thing has gone full circle. Besides all that, these folks were Broken Sword 5 backers, and you know I love that! So, let me pass you over to these guys. Enjoy! (Charles excuses himself, and leaves for a while).
Ben Clavin: (grins) Just confirming, Charles is going for a wee.
Ingmar: (grins) At least it’s unlikely Charles is going to sue you while having a wee.
Ben: (laughs) Yeah, those were our options; either he sues us or we hire him.
Ingmar: Let’s talk about The Little Acre now.
Ben: Right, The Little Acre is a hand-animated adventure game, so everything is a frame-by-frame drawing, old-school Disney/Don Bluth way of doing things. Very time-consuming, but very pretty, so it’s worth it! There are two playable characters, a father named Aidan and his daughter Lily. There’s a real world, and a fantasy world, kind of like in The Neverending Story, Laybrinth or Narnia; all the classic fantasy stuff, you know. Initially, the father gets trapped in the fantasy world, and the little girl decides to go and save him, but they get swapped around. Gameplay-wise it’s a classic adventure, inspired by Broken Sword a lot, so it was really cool when Charles came on board to help us with the final ten percent.
Chris Conlan: Yeah, even the suggestion of sending the game to him was quite intimidating, you know. Our publisher Curve Digital said they have a good relationship with Charles, and would like to send him our game to ask what he thinks. So, yeah, he got in touch with us and said he loved The Little Acre, and we were shocked and delighted, but – even better – he offered to help us out, and give us as much input and feedback as he possibly can. We’re actually working on his recent revisions right now, adding a few bits and pieces, making the game as good as it can be.
Ingmar: Please tell me a bit more about Aidan and Lily.
Chris: Prior to the beginning of the events of The Little Acre, Aidan and Lily have been living in a small cottage with Lily’s grandfather, Arthur. Aidan has experience as an engineer, which serves him well for the journey he’s about to embark on, but for the time being he’s out of work. It’s while he’s keeping busy with chores around the house that he discovers something about his father and gets propelled into an adventure. Lily on the other hand is very young – about six or so – and very imaginative (probably a requirement of living in the countryside in 1950s Ireland!). She’s also fearless, which is something that Aidan notes she didn’t exactly inherit from him. The difference between the two is something that I love seeing throughout the game, especially since they pass through many of the same areas separately; you get to see how each of them react to things in polarity.
Ingmar: Lily has one companion in the real world and another one in the fantasy world. What can you say about them? And do they have an effect on puzzles?
Chris: In the real world – or maybe I should say our world, because they’re both technically 'real' – she is accompanied by Dougal, her loyal dog, guardian, and friend. In Clonfira, she meets Bugsy, and it becomes immediately obvious how easily Lily makes friends. She’s very trusting of everyone until given a reason to do otherwise. Bugsy resembles a giant caterpillar, but characteristically is also very similar to a dog. Both Dougal and Bugsy are used for solving puzzles, by co-operating with Lily to overcome whatever hurdle she encounters.
Ingmar: After seeing The Little Acre in action, it’s safe to say that the art and animation in the game is quite stunning.
Ben: Thank you very much! There’s one guy who’s doing all the backgrounds, and a bunch of animators working on it. The good thing is that Ireland has a really strong animation scene. You know, there are some Oscar-winning companies doing films and television, but there’s not much going on when it comes to games. A lot of the graduates really want to work on games, though, so it’s quite easy for us to steal some of the best students. Instead of going to a big company, they are able to come to us, and we give them a lot of freedom. For example, we want a character to open a crate or free the cat, so they’ll just take care of the animations. While all of that happens in-house, they have a lot of liberty.
Ingmar: The demo you showed contains a slightly(??) psychotic cat that made me burst out laughing several times. I predict that a lot of people are going to remember that cat once they play The Little Acre, so please give this feline a first introduction to our readers.
Chris: The cat’s name is Marie Purry. She lives at the hydroelectric dam with her owner Nina, a scientist who works at the facility. It becomes evident later on that she has it in for another worker at the dam, who you meet during the game. Marie turns out to be quite a useful companion to Aidan too, but you’ll have to play the game to see how!
Ingmar: You just demoed the game on a controller; what can you tell me about the controls in general?
Ben: The game is also coming out on Xbox One and PS4, so what we’re doing is that you move the character with the analogue stick, and we use kind of pop-ups when you walk around. It’s a little difficult to get point-and-click without pointing-and-clicking, you know. (laughs) I like it now, but it took a while.
Chris: Initially when we started working on the controller use, we just did a straight conversion of how it works on PC: moving the analogue stick would move the cursor. You would press a button and the character would move towards that point. It wasn’t terrible, and it’s been seen in other adventure games on consoles, but we felt like we were missing an opportunity to do something better with the controller, especially where we’ve got this part of the game where it’s an isometric perspective, and moving around with a controller in that type of environment feels more natural. So now the analogue stick actually moves the character—no more cursor for movement, even in the regular point-and-click adventure parts of the game.
Charles: Have you seen the cat yet? It’s a bastard, that cat!
Ben: (laughs) See? I told you. Some people love it, some hate it.
Ingmar: Due to the game’s visual qualities, I can imagine it might appeal even to people who usually don’t play adventure games. Are you trying to keep The Little Acre as accessible as possible when it comes to its difficulty level?
Chris: What we’re saying is that we want this to be an adventure game for everybody. So, regardless of how much experience you have of adventure games from the past, we want you to experience the whole story as it’s a game that’s made to be finished. Not to say we’re making it particulary easy, you know; we’re just trying to avoid obscure puzzles and make it somewhat logical.
Ben: There are no inventory combination puzzles; it’s more about the characters, and story, and keeping it moving. A bit like a film, I guess, but longer and interactive.
Charles: (grins) As far as the difficulty level is concerned, they came up with this brilliant idea – no idea where they got this from – of adding a hint system. I mean, what a great idea!
Ben: (laughs) Oh yeah, very innovative! It’s cool because it keeps people in the game. You know, I feel like once you cheat once, the next time you get stuck for two minutes, you’re gonna cheat again.
Ingmar: The point of no return!
Ben: Exactly! So keeping the players in the game is important as they won’t start opening their browsers or something like that. Of course, for the hardcore gamers we have achievements you’ll only get if you don’t use the hint system.
Ingmar: How much does the hint system give away?
Ben: (grins) Well, it’s a three-step program. (Everyone laughs) Charles, please don’t look at me like that.
Ingmar: Sounds familiar indeed. Can you offer an idea of the size of the game?
Ben: Time-wise, I’d say we’re around 3-4 hours. It depends on how you play. The way I play it, clicking on everything, getting the full experience, takes around 4 hours, I think.
Ingmar: What can you share about the voice acting in The Little Acre?
Ben: Well, Aidan’s voice actor is one of the most popular YouTube guys in Ireland. His name is Brian (better known as Terroriser on YouTube), and he did really well. The girl, Lily, is voiced by my sister, Kate Clavin, who was also the character designer and one of the animators on The Little Acre. There are just a couple of others, professionals from Ireland. Good voice acting makes such a difference. You know, when some of us are doing it ourselves at first, you really think you made something bad until an actor makes it come alive. You just feel so much better about your job.
Ingmar: You often hear how great a feeling it is to hear your own words spoken by a good voice actor for the first time.
Chris: Oh yeah, it is!
Ben: Although sometimes you find a line where you’re like, “Oh, that sounded good on paper”, but you realize it just doesn’t work.
Chris: But mostly the other way around.
Ben: Yeah, exactly!
Ingmar: Before we finish, please tell me when you’re planning to release The Little Acre, and what kind of work is left to do.
Chris: The plan is to release this year. We haven’t settled on an exact date yet, but soon. Like we were saying before, with Charles coming on board, offering all of his insight, we’re just making a number of changes, and a few additions. That’s what we’re working on right now, but we still want to release within a few months’ time.
Ben: Yeah, most of the art is done; we’re nearly there, but with an adventure game, I think, it’s the most important last few percent just to make sure that everything makes sense, and Charles is a big part of that.