Meet The Young Aussie Behind The Most Beautiful Game Of E3
In 2016, 16-year-old Melbournite Anthony Tan began work on his “deer game”, sharing screenshots to Reddit. In 2019, Way To The Woods was shown at E3 alongside the biggest gaming franchises in the world.
How was Tan to know that screenshots of his little game would explode in the Gaming subreddit? That they would be discovered by Hello Games’ Sean Murray (No Man’s Sky)?
“People really, really liked it, and I was like, ‘Oh. Oh, I have to do this now,’” Tan told Junkee of the initial Reddit blow-up. “But at that time, I just knew how to do art. I knew how to do games, but I didn’t know how to do, do games, like proper ones.”
Tan began learning how to develop games. Working as an artist for Owlchemy Labs, the studio behind Job Simulator and Rick and Morty VR based in Austin, Texas. Learning as much as he could about game making, he began to be more than an artist.
“Then two years later, it was a trailer, and then I just kept working on it,” he explained. “Now I’m at a stage where I feel like I have a good grasp of what kind of game I want to make, the mechanics, I know how to do it. I know how to do the programming and the animation and the music, and that stuff. I’m not working on it alone now.”
During that time and after an interview with Polygon, Microsoft’s ID@Xbox team reached out, and his game quickly became an official Microsoft-supported project. That then lead to him hiring an animator who, when comparing the trailers from last year and this year side by side, has helped make the animation quality significantly better.
Flash forward to him just a few weeks ago, where he’s now 20 years old and in Los Angeles, sitting in the giant auditorium-sized Microsoft Theatre among journalists, famous developers and Xbox fans, about to see his game in the biggest video game conference of the year. Alongside Keanu Reeves, a game made by George R. R. Martin and From Software’s Hidetaki Miyazaki, and the next big Halo and Gears of War, a minute-long trailer of Tan’s small little game about deer was live-streamed to millions.
i hope keanu saw my game 😊
— atan (@tamagotchi44) June 9, 2019
A month shy of E3, however, Tan was forced to experience the worst of circumstances. As he was making the trailer for E3, his father passed away.
“A lot of moments like that have happened, a lot of bad-luck stuff has happened in the development of the game,” he says. “When I started in 2016, I knew I wanted to make something like Journey, a really inspiring, emotional game. But at that time, I didn’t actually have any stories to tell. I was 16, how much life had I have lived, right?”
“Over the next few years, I started to just experience life, face things like anxiety or self-confidence, things like that. So, the story I want to tell is how to find the joy in the journey [and] the destination.”
In Way to the Woods, you’ll explore the journey of a deer and fawn in an abandoned world as they try to make their way home. Post-apocalyptic stories like The Walking Dead and The Last of Us often only show the human experiences of a desolate wasteland, so Tan wanted to use an animal perspective, one that would present interesting challenges in gameplay. But why deer? Tan answers, “because they’re really cute.”
“What can I do as a deer? What emotions can I make people feel as a deer? What kind of story can I tell with a non-verbal character. How can I remind people of the other life on the planet aside from people? In a zombie movie, what is a bird doing? What is a deer doing? It’s interesting to me.”
Way to the Woods (2020)
(developer Anthony Tan) pic.twitter.com/UrxjiGkDdh
— Simpsons Videogames (@simpsonsvgames) June 9, 2019
“I can’t have the player hold things sufficiently [as a deer],” he adds. “I can’t pull triggers. I can’t shoot guns. I can’t do that kind of stuff. So, I had a much more limited scope and gameplay but that allowed me to explore it more in depth.”
From this, Tan looked to how we see ancient civilisations and view those society’s everyday objects as significant cultural relics with a greater meaning than they were initially intended to, to predict how a deer would see our world if it were nothing but a relic of the past.
“We pick up a pot and we’re like, ‘Yeah. This pot was like some kind of ancient ritual pot’, whereas to them it’s just a pot. I want to take present, really, average environments that we might take for granted like a train station or a mall, and just kind of twist it and present it in a way that it’s being worshipped. Our everyday things like bins or vending machines are these crazy, fantastical, god-machines to these animals because they just have no idea how it works.”
“That’s a lot of the roots of the post-apocalypse idea. It gave me a way to present these environments that I just thought would visually be really cool to have an animal in. Then, as I started to think about it more, it presented so much gameplay opportunities. Whereas in a forest it’s like, ‘That’s a deer in a forest’, we know that. We know what deer do, but what does a deer do in a mall?”
While Tan didn’t want to go too deep into the game and spoil the experience, some of those gameplay opportunities he described to me included smashing into vending machines and glass scavenging food for you and your fawn, using your magical antler powers to gather specks of light and reactivate broken down machines.
For those worried about the deer’s survival, Tan revealed you should expect a story that’s more Kiki’s Delivery Service than Grave of the Fireflies.
A Sprinkle Of Studio Ghibli, Journey, Steven Universe And Everything Nice
Tan’s love for the beautiful flora and fauna of the worlds of Studio Ghibli and joyous stories of Rebecca Sugar and Lin-Manuel Miranda oozes out of Way to the Woods’ visual and aural design. As seen in the E3 trailer, the world is populated by giant mysterious cats, shadowy figures, packs of wolves and relics of a lost human civilisation, all motifs in many of his favourite films, games and shows growing up.
“I’m really inspired by anything that’s profoundly optimistic and joyous,” he says. “Movies like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke are scary and they’re quite violent sometimes, and they’re even quite dark, but if you look at the core of all these movies, there’s a spirit of joy and optimism and the human spirit.”
Thinking they wouldn’t reply, he reached out with an email that read, “Hey, here’s my game. Do you want to do music for it?”.
“Just these stories that encourage bravery and inspire bravery in the face of a world that’s getting increasingly cynical and dark and edgy. People who are endearingly genuine like Rebecca Sugar, Lin-Manuel Miranda, just random creators in media, those people are big inspirations to me and the type of message I want to carry in my work.”
“Celebrating everything that’s good in life [but] also presenting you with the scary world, like the goo-tunnel scene in the trailer, where the shadows collapse around you. That’s like, ‘Okay, maybe it’s not a G-game anymore. It’s PG.’ I want to present players with these moments that might frighten them a bit and encourage them to find their bravery and keep going.”
In that way, having Steven Universe composers Aivi and Surasshu involved in the project is a full circle moment for Tan. As he recounts, holding his breath and crossing his fingers, he went to their page and found their Gmail. Thinking they wouldn’t reply, he reached out with an email that read, “Hey, here’s my game. Do you want to do music for it?”. Luckily for him (and us), they did.
“It was surreal for me,” Tan said. “I was like, ‘Whoa, my heart.’”
“They’re really nice people by the way, like Aivi and Surasshu, they’re really great. Being able to work with them, especially because they did so much important work on a piece of media that was very important to me in my formative years, was a big, like, “Oh, shit, it’s happening.”
“I can recognise where my limits are,” he adds. “For the first trailer I did the music, the pianos and stuff, but I was like, ‘I can’t focus. I can’t do everything.’ There are people who are at the top of their field. I just want to be like them. The next step up is to get that person.”
As someone who’s been following this game since 2016, I gasped the second the screen cut to a breathtaking shot of two deer pushing a cart in the Microsoft conference. No amount of Keanu Reeves, Overwatch on acid or Billie Eillish-accompanied Gears of War trailers could instil in me such a reaction; a sense of endearing pride in seeing a young Australian kicking ass in the international gaming community.
“I’m not trying to build it up as something more than it is.”
Way to the Woods looks to be an endearing, wonderful little game that combines a lot of what I like about peaceful artistic gameplay of Journey, the hopeful, inspiring nature and wonder of Studio Ghibli and ability to brighten the darkest of times in Steven Universe. With the emotional weight Tan has had to carry dealing with his father’s recent passing, it’s hard not to see this as an incredible passion project and profoundly moving, but as he puts it, “it’s just a video game.”
“I’m not trying to build it up as something more than it is. It’s an indie video game, but obviously, to me, it has a big importance. But for most people, I am still just trying to do a good video game and nothing more than that.”
You’ll be able to find your Way to the Woods when the game launches on Xbox One and PC next year.
Julian Rizzo-Smith is a freelance games and pop culture writer. He would die for these deer and wishes Aivi and Surasshu composed a soundtrack to his everyday life. He tweets @GayWeebDisaster