Originally appeared in the August/September 2018 issue of PosAbility Magazine
Before I Forget is an upcoming game by 3-Fold Games which explores the life of Rashmi, a woman with early-onset dementia, and sees the player bring literal and metaphorical colour back into her life by jogging memories which she has lost a firm grasp of through her illness.
We spoke to Chella Ramanan and Clair Morley about the ideas behind Before I Forget, and what they hope to achieve with their beautiful and thought-provoking game.
Could you give us a brief description of Before I Forget in your own words?
Chella: “Before I Forget is a narrative exploration game about a woman with dementia. When we first meet Rashmi, she doesn’t know who or where she is. The world is in monochrome grayscale, but when players interact with objects around the house, colour comes back to that part of the world and it triggers a memory for Rashmi.”
Players slowly piece together elements of Rashmi’s life and solve the mystery of the story. But the game also sets out to confuse the player, in an attempt to represent some of the confusion and anxiety that comes with dementia, as well as the escape into happy memories.
How did you come together to form 3-Fold Games?
Chella: We met at the XX+ Game Jam in Bristol in October 2016. We were thrown together to make a game in a very short amount of time, and it worked out. Before I Forget won the Audience Choice Award – the game people most wanted to see finished. We’ve been working on it ever since. Luckily, we’ve shared the same vision for Before I Forget, from the start, in terms of the atmosphere and look of the game, as well as the type of experience we want to create.”
Can you explain how you came up with the idea of Before I Forget?
Chella: I write fiction in my spare time and have a preoccupation with memory in a lot of the stories I write. What is memory? How much of who we are is locked in our memories? What happens when we lose those memories? Do we become a different person or are we just a different aspect of ourselves? These are questions I try to explore all the time, so I’d had an idea of writing something about a woman with dementia for a while.
I hadn’t managed to write the dementia story in prose, but as soon as I thought about it in the context of a game, it just wrote itself. The story had found its ideal form and I’d met the right people to help me tell that story.
Does the team have a personal connection to the illness that lead you to choose dementia as a topic?
Chella: Fortunately, neither of us have any direct personal connection to dementia. I know friends who have seen parents and grandparents go through it. I chose dementia because memory loss is one of the most well-known symptoms and as I mentioned, that’s a topic I’m interested in. And then we picked it as a team because dementia and memory loss fitted with the game jam theme, which was ‘borders’. We were thinking about internal and mental borders.
Amnesia is used quite often in stories, but not many people have experience of amnesia, In contrast, dementia touches so many people. Sadly, it’s become a universal concern, which makes it a topic worth tackling in a game. But memory isn’t the only aspect of dementia that we’re looking at. The game also touches on hallucinations, incontinence and some of the other behaviours people show. We’re talking to experts in the field to help us get those little details right.
The mechanics of the game show a really clever and aesthetically beautiful way of conceptualising how reawakening memories and feelings adds a kind of metaphorical colour and texture into the lives of people with dementia – can you explain how you came up with that as an idea for representing dementia in the game?
Claire: I’m really interested in games that use their mechanics to convey personal stories and in exploring artistic and mechanical ways of conveying emotion and perspective, especially when it comes to health issues. Dementia is interesting to try to visualise within a game because of the disconnect between the player and character knowledge.
We wanted to try and make sure that when you play as Rashmi, you see the world through her eyes. We wanted to convey how impactful it would be to walk around somewhere you don’t recognise, and then to interact with an object that suddenly brings back a vivid memory. This contrast from unknown to vivid detail is really important and powerful, and maybe at times confusing too, so we wanted to make those interactions feel important and as though they are literally painting her world around her.
Something interesting that’s come up through playtesting is that people tend to want to ‘complete’ rooms by filling them with colour, and for this reason it’s always been really important to me that there are also gaps and areas that can’t be filled to represent that her memories are neither permanent nor complete.
What is your aim in terms of player experience for Before I Forget?
Claire: Our main aim with Before I Forget is to tell a story and create an experience of one woman’s life with early-onset dementia. In terms of player experience, I think the main focus is not just empathy and insight into how dementia affects Rashmi on a personal level, but also appreciating the full life she had leading up to that.
Mechanically, we want the player to feel as much as possible as though they are acting and thinking as her to share her experience. We’ve already seen from demoing the game to people that it really opens up a conversation about dementia afterwards, which is fantastic.
The traditional view of dementia is something that’s sad and kind of a mental “thief,” so to speak, but Before I Forget is such a bright and beautiful game – was there a conscious decision made to make it a more positive game?
Chella: I’m really happy to hear you use such positive words to describe Before I Forget. There was definitely a conscious decision to create a light, airy feel to the house. We really didn’t want to go down the horror route, which we could easily have done with a game about something as scary as dementia and the setting of a woman alone in a house. A lot of games in houses go for that horror feel and we wanted to set Before I Forget apart.
Also, as you say, the traditional view is that dementia is all doom and gloom and there’s no happiness. As the player is Rashmi, I don’t think her experience is going to be one of sadness because she’s living in that moment and doesn’t realise that she’s lost anything of herself. I think dementia is sad for the people who are left behind – the loved ones and friends and colleagues who remember this person.
We represent this aspect of loss and sadness through the letters and memories players find, but really we’re representing Rashmi’s experience. I think, rather than aiming for a positive game, we’re going for a bittersweet story. Sometimes the misunderstandings experienced by people with dementia are funny and sometimes they are just living in a happy moment in the past. We’re trying to represent all those aspects of dementia. I think we just wanted to tell the story of a woman. Rashmi isn’t just dementia. She’s lived a very full life with a successful career and a loving relationship with her husband, friends and parents. That’s how the positivity of Before I Forget comes through.
You exhibited Before I Forget as part of the Leftfield Collection at Rezzed this year, what was the reception to the game like?
Claire: Exhibiting at Leftfield has been a personal goal of mine for years, so I was so happy to have the opportunity to present our game there! The Leftfield Collection is fantastic because it showcases projects that are really innovating and experimenting with gameplay, so to be part of it was extremely exciting.
The reception to Before I Forget was amazing, and we often had queues of people waiting to play it. Friday was very hectic as we had a few interviews scheduled as well, which was a new experience for me. I love talking to people about the game though, as everyone we meet is so encouraging about what we are doing.
People seemed really excited about it, and often emotional or thoughtful afterwards too. There’s definitely a sense that people want to see stories and mechanics that increase the breadth of narratives found in games, which is exactly what the games at Leftfield do.
So many people have a connection to dementia in one way or another – what has the reaction been from people who have a connection to dementia been like?
Claire: We took the game to Adventure X, in November 2017 and this was the first big show for us. The reaction to Before I Forget was overwhelming. Many people were emotional by the end of the demo, which wasn’t as polished as the one we have now.
One player rushed off and came back to apologise, saying he’d had to go outside and cry because it reminded him of his grandfather, who’d had dementia. He thanked us for making the game and wished us luck, but said he might not be able to play it. That was really staggering, that something we made could create such an emotional response.
Generally, people are really positive about the game and talk about the people they’ve lost to dementia and tell us that it rings true to their experiences. It’s really important that we get as close as we can to representing some aspects of dementia.
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