Most video games set in the First or Second World War shoot for gritty realism. In Battlefield 1, for instance, there's an extraordinary amount of detail in every uniform, firearm and mud-filled trench. It's the visual fidelity, paired with addictive combat, that draws players in.
11-11: Memories Retold is different. The story-driven experience, set during the last two years of World War I, has a painterly art style inspired by artists such as Claude Monet and Joseph Mallord William Turner. Every scene is created with tiny brushstrokes that slowly move, transform and dissolve. As you move the twin protagonists forward, the paint will change again to reflect your position in the level. If you're standing on a street in Paris, for instance, the building at the end might be represented with a single dab of paint. Move closer, however, and it will become a larger object composed of many more strokes.
It's almost as if the scene is being constantly repainted around you.
The visuals are dreamlike and impressionistic. They're also hugely divisive -- some think the style is beautiful, while others believe it's too "blurry" or looks like someone has smeared Vaseline everywhere. The game's creators knew it would be controversial. Yoan Fanise, the director on 11-11: Memories Retold, told Engadget: "I prefer that people like or don't like it, rather than doing something in the middle that nobody cares about. 'Okay, it's not beautiful or awful, but I just don't care.' I prefer to have something strong, with color, that people will either love or hate."
Fanise is the co-founder of DigixArt Studio, a French company that made a rhythm game for mobile devices called Lost in Harmony. He's best known for his sound design work at Ubisoft, however, which included Beyond Good & Evil, Assassin's Creed III and Valiant Hearts: The Great War.
DigixArt partnered with with Aardman Animations, the studio behind some of the most iconic and beloved stop-motion movies, such as Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run and Early Man, to develop the distinctive art style. The company, based in Bristol, in southwest England, set up a web department many years ago to work on websites like shaunthesheep.com. Some of the team's original members loved video games and, within a few months, were working on projects for external clients such as Disney and Nickelodeon.
"I felt that we just had to use this kind of rendering and technique."
The web department is now called the interactive team. It has produced smaller games such as Home Sheep Home 2, but nothing on the scale of 11-11: Memories Retold.
Fanise met Jake Manion, then creative director for Aardman Animations, at a Games for Change festival in 2016. Manion asked about Valiant Hearts: The Great War, an award-winning puzzle game inspired by letters that were written during World War I, and whether Fanise had anything planned for the armistice centenary in 2018. The French director had, by chance, been thinking about a game with a painterly style similar to Loving Vincent, a biopic animated in the style of Vincent van Gogh's legendary artwork. "Loving Vincent wasn't out yet," Fanise recalled, "but there was a teaser. I felt that we just had to use this kind of rendering and technique."
Manion was intrigued and asked Fanise to visit the Aardman Animations studio in Bristol. The team showed Fanise many projects, including a painterly short called Flight of the Stories, which had been commissioned by the UK's Imperial War Museums. "He looked at that and was like 'That's it. That's what the game should look like,'" Dan Efergan, creative director of digital at Aardman Animations, told Engadget.