It’s uncanny how many memories a single photo can unlock. This idea — that objects can act as apertures to our past, revealing things we never even realized we forgot — is the core mechanic in “Hindsight,” an upcoming narrative exploration game from Annapurna Interactive.
“Hindsight” is the work of developer Joel McDonald, a former Call of Duty designer who created the critically acclaimed mobile game Prune, a meditative puzzle game about taking care of trees, and narrative designer Emma Kidwell. Kidwell’s text-based games, including “Half,” which was featured in the Smithsonian American Art Museum Arcade, have been lauded as poignant explorations of identity, mental health and other personal themes.
During a hands-off demo in May, McDonald demonstrated how “Hindsight’s” apertures work: While examining a wind chime on the home’s front porch, he hits each rod, and they gradually change color until it becomes clear that, together, they form a window into a scene from Mary’s childhood. At another point, a young Mary stares out her bedroom window on a stormy night, idly tracing raindrops on the pane. Players connect the raindrops to form an image that then acts as a transition back to the present.
“We had a difficult time making sure every transition in and out of a scene made sense together narratively,” Kidwell said during the preview. The team experimented with apertures of different sizes to figure out what would fit naturally in the world or break the immersion.
There’s an element of escapism, too, as Mary comes to terms with her grief and mulls over the “what-ifs” and “what could have beens” of her relationship with her mother. Kidwell described Mary as a “bit of a dreamer,” and the team made the conscious decision to embrace surrealism in some memories, a reflection of Mary’s struggle to process her feelings.
Structurally, “Hindsight” follows a “hub and spoke” model; it’s divided into chapters with players returning to a central hub, Mary’s desk, after each one. Players can explore these chapters in any order, and they may uncover different aspects of Mary’s life depending on what objects they find and interact with. Upon finishing a chapter, you choose one object for Mary to take with her, packed away in her suitcase. However, regardless of a player’s choices, the narrative remains the same. You won’t find any branching storylines or alternate endings in “Hindsight,” and that was intentional, McDonald said.
“This is a woman’s life that happened already, and you’re uncovering it and reflecting on it with her,” McDonald said during the preview. Rather than creating a choose-your-own-adventure experience, he wanted to focus on self-reflection, to craft an experience where players are left to “soak in the scenery and soundscape” and process the game’s heavy themes — grief, family, mortality — alongside Mary.
“Hindsight’s” development mirrored that of Prune in several ways, McDonald said in an interview with The Washington Post. For one, both took much longer to create than he anticipated. Development for Prune, originally intended to be a two- to three-month project, ended up taking roughly 15 months. As for “Hindsight,” it’s been a years-long process; Kidwell joined around 2018, talks with publisher Annapurna began in 2019 and then 2020 saw the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
At this point, the game feels like “a baby I’m just ready to deliver,” Kidwell said.
Following Prune’s release in 2015, McDonald began brainstorming his next project — what would become “Hindsight.” Prune had appealed to a wide audience, including people who didn’t necessarily consider themselves gamers, and while he wanted to tap into that again, he said, he didn’t want to just make Prune version 2.0 or follow the same formula as other games already on the market.
“I kind of realized that maybe the world doesn’t need another first-person shooter but with a twist game,” McDonald told The Post. “I kind of realized that I wanted to reach this audience that I was lucky to reach with Prune.”
Another parallel between the two games is that they both heavily evolved over the course of development.
“Both involved listening to the game and what it wanted to be,” McDonald said.
McDonald didn’t have a particular narrative in mind when he began working on “Hindsight.” Rather, development started with the idea of building a game around apertures, and then Mary’s story grew out of figuring out answers to why these objects would trigger such an emotional response and why players would be sifting through them in the first place.
As the team learned who Mary was, the game’s writing also changed. The tone shifted significantly midway through development, Kidwell said. It was initially inspired by Terrence Malik’s “The Tree of Life,” a coming-of-age story that unfolds as the characters, through voice-overs, philosophize about the meaning of life. The movie’s voice-overs are eloquent and emotional but use stilted language, which didn’t fit Mary’s journey. Ultimately, as the team gained a better understanding of Mary’s character, they switched to a more grounded, conversational tone for her voice-overs, Kidwell said, which sounded much more natural.
“It was kind of a slow process of, like, evolving it and realizing that it felt like we were kind of forcing a style on it that didn’t necessarily match with the rest of the game or the story that we were trying to tell,” McDonald said.
Throughout the process, though, one thing did remain constant: McDonald wanted to develop the game with mobile players in mind.
“With Prune, I was really happy and lucky that I was able to reach this broad, nongamer audience,” he said. “I would get emails from old ladies saying how they’d never played a video game before, but they picked up Prune because it was this game about gardening or at least that’s what it looked like.
“So from the beginning, I tried to think about, you know, how are we going to be able to play on an iPad [or] sitting on a couch. … Let’s say that you don’t have a decade history of playing first-person shooters and knowing how to use WASD controls and all that. I wanted to make it as simple and straightforward as possible.”
At the same time, McDonald wanted “Hindsight” to be an immersive, stand-alone experience. The majority of mobile games are designed for players to incrementally engage with them throughout the day, to fit playing into their schedule whenever they check their phone. A single “Hindsight” playthrough can take between three to four hours, McDonald estimated — a relatively short playtime compared to most PC and console games.
Put another way, with “Hindsight,” McDonald aimed to re-create the feeling of losing yourself in a great game on PC or console in a way that mobile audiences could enjoy. Noting that nectarine season is in full swing this time of year, he compared that feeling to savoring a deliciously messy piece of fruit.
“I just love a good nectarine where I can eat it over the sink and just, like, the juices dripping down my elbows. And that’s what I want [‘Hindsight’] to be even for your mobile experience.”
Interacting with apertures translated easily to touch controls, but it sometimes took a bit of creative thinking to figure out how to incorporate clicking on or moving objects in a way that felt intuitive with the setting and tone, Kidwell explained during the preview.
“Player expression was always really important to the both of us,” she said. “We wanted to acknowledge the player’s presence and the journey they’re having with us.”
Because while “Hindsight” is a one-sided conversation between Mary and her mother, Kidwell said, it’s also a situation many players, especially those with aging parents, will likely navigate at some point in their lives. Exploring that grief, and understanding that there’s no one right way to process it, are some of the game’s central themes.
“Hindsight” is set to come to PC, Nintendo Switch and iOS sometime later this year.