How 'Before I Forget' Explores Dementia Through Gameplay
On the surface, Before I Forget is an exploration game about a woman's battle with dementia. But as developer Chella Ramanan explains, the heart of it was never about the disease.
"It was a person first, and she happens to have dementia," says Ramanan, a former games journalist, on the phone with The Hollywood Reporter. "We were very conscious of creating a character who's lived a life, who is interesting to people." Sunita, the first-person game's protagonist, is a distinguished cosmologist whose strong personality is felt simply through voiceover. She is married to a decorated musician named Dylan, who she believes is on tour in Italy.
Heat Vision breakdown
As Sunita explores her house looking for Dylan, players learn that she retired from the Institute of Scientific Research and Culture due to her "condition." When someone from the care agency calls, Sunita is confused and doesn't know who the person is. When she needs to use the toilet, she has trouble remembering which door is the bathroom.
Before I Forget was formed at a game jam in Bristol in the U.K. in 2016, with the initial theme of "borders," and eventually evolved into a story about someone with dementia. "I think we definitely wanted to make sure that we did portray it in the right way," says co-developer Claire Morwood. "For me, the worst thing that could happen with the project would be that we would release it and then people were upset with it in some way because of the way we portrayed Sunita and her symptoms."
The pair, who formed development company 3-Fold Games for this debut project, did a lot of research around the subject of dementia, including speaking with doctors who played the game and gave feedback. They would send builds of the game to Donald Servant, a doctor associated with U.K.-based organization Gaming the Mind, which promotes mental health in the video game industry, and he would send feedback as well as participate in discussions about the goals of the game.
Ramanan and Morwood additionally looked at portrayals of dementia in films such as Memento and Still Alice, as well as books like Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey, all of which follow protagonists who are stricken with dementia at different stages of life.
Before I Forget, which can be played through in roughly 60 minutes, includes a number of reminders to Sunita to find around the house, such as dinner, the dentist, the lunch in the fridge. There are wedding cards from various friends and family members. The house is filled with her things, Dylan's things, their things.
Ramanan emphasizes that there was also a need to portray Sunita's marriage in a way that felt real. "Her relationship to Dylan kind of lived or died on people caring about that, wanting to read those letters and find out where he is and what happened," she says. He was initially represented only by his music, and later fleshed out with a backstory and a voice in the game. Ramanan recalls being "obsessed with [deceased classical pianist] Glenn Gould for a weekend," with him among the musicians they researched to build that element of the story, such as his frustrations with touring instead of composing and artistic concerns. Dylan's musicianship is explored through his voiceover and various newspaper clippings from his career, which culminate in a devastating conclusion.
"We're both really keen to be making games that push boundaries in some way," says Morwood. She summons Gone Home, Virginia and What Remains of Edith Finch as titles that were influential for the way they tell stories and the environments they offer. Among other genres, Ramanan brings up the Uncharted series as a reference in terms of larger gameplay pillars, as well as Journey, for its fleshed-out and immersive world.
Before I Forget is nominated at the BAFTA Games Awards (taking place March 25 in an online live stream) in the 'Game Beyond Entertainment' category, which recognizes a project that raises awareness of social issues or engages in real world problems in a way that builds empathy and understanding.
March 18, 9:04 a.m.: An earlier version of this story stated that Morwood is a former games journalist. This has been corrected to reflect that it is Ramanan's former role.
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