Before I Forget: How two strangers made one of 2020's most moving games 1

Before I Forget: How two strangers made one of 2020’s most moving games

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They met when the story of Before I Forget begins, at a game jam in Bristol in 2016. Chella Ramanan and Claire Morwood didn’t know each other but, on a wave of intuition, decided to tackle the brief of ‘borders’ together. And whereas other people took a more physical approach, looking at things like Trump building a wall, or the Syrian refugee crisis, Ramanan and Morwood decided to look inwards.

They pulled on an idea Ramanan had scribbled down in a book at some unconnected time before the event. Simply, she wrote, ‘Woman with dementia’. It was an idea born out of a fascination with memories and what they are, and what happens when someone begins to lose them.

I’m a bit surprised by this. I expected the idea to originate from some kind of personal experience of dementia, in whatever form that may be. From what I’ve seen, it’s a condition that seems to leave an indelible mark on the lives it touches, something you need to see up close before you fully comprehend it, fully understand. If they hadn’t, how could they?

They did what they could through research, inspired by books like Elizabeth is Missing and films like Still Alice. And they consulted with doctors who specialise in dementia, peppering them with questions and sending them builds of the game to feed back on. This taught them many interesting things. Did you know, for instance, that when someone forgets the name for something, they’re more likely to refer to it by the function it serves? A watch, therefore, becomes a time-counting thing.

But it wasn’t until they got the game to shows that an experiential kind of learning showed up for them, appearing in the form of people who had seen dementia up close in some way. “We found that people, after playing it, would often open up the conversation to us about their own personal experiences,” Claire Morwood says.

Before I Forget, now on console.

It was at shows they learned about the problematic nature of patterned objects like rugs, for example. “Oh, you couldn’t have that rug in a house with someone with dementia,” a lady working in the care sector announced. Rugs can trigger hallucinations, or cause someone to trip. So they used that knowledge in the game. And while most people didn’t understand the hallucination-rug, some people did. “Oh the rug in the hallway!” a colleague of Ramanan’s with dementia would say. “Ohhh, yeah.” “And,” she says, “it felt so heartwarming that it was speaking directly to people who know.”

But with the personal accounts came something else too: a feeling of responsibility. People were opening up because they sensed an ally, I think. They had found someone to share something of what they’d been through. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re making it,” people would tell Ramanan and Morwood, which they would interpret as: “Wow, we really need to get this right.”

Before I Forget’s portrayal of Sunita, of a lady living with dementia, is sensitive and considered, and it’s warm. Moreover, the game focuses on her rather than the condition she’s living with. Through Sunita, the game manages to give us a glimpse of something inescapably private, usually walled off by the symptoms it causes. It helps make visible something that’s not.

It’s an achievement that has been recognised in the highest places, with Before I Forget nominated for a BAFTA in the Beyond Entertainment Category this year. It lost out to Animal Crossing, but it’s still a dramatic contrast to the humble aspirations Ramanan and Morwood had for the game, of selling maybe 100 copies. “It’s, um, really unbelievable,” Ramanan says.

Before I Forget has a pastelly, golden warmth which permeates down into the memories you rediscover.

What’s more, Before I Forget now has a brand new Nintendo Switch and Xbox One/S/X port, only just released, opening the game to a new audience and allowing them both, for the first time, to hold the game in their hands. “It’s like going into a bookshop and seeing your book on the shelf,” Ramanan says.

Theoretically, however, their partnership ended with the completion of Before I Forget. That is why they came together and now it is done. And the Windrush Scandal game Chella Ramanan is working on, a game called Windrush Tales, doesn’t necessarily involve Morwood and the 3-Fold Games studio they jointly set up.

It was something Ramanan was sad about, as the two of them obviously share a connection. But as Morwood lives in Scotland, and Ramanan in Sweden, they really need an active project to glue them together. “I was like, I wonder if we will work together again?” Ramanan says. “[Will] we lose touch and drift apart, and will 3-Fold Games just become this dusty cobweb thing?”

Thankfully, not. It seems their partnership is destined to be. Because when Ramanan finally revealed an idea she’d been thinking about since Before I Forget wrapped (but hadn’t mentioned for fear of overloading a busy Morwood, who was programming) Morwood turned out to be thinking much the same thing. It must be something to do with their being on a similar latitude, I offer. “Yeah!” they unanimously agree.

As to what the new game will be: they’re not ready to say, other than to tell me it’s “a little different” and not purely narrative-driven. We’ll know more, apparently, next year.

chella
Chella Ramanan, narrative designer.
claire
Claire Morwood, programmer and artist.