At a crowded convention like PAX East 2022, peace can be hard to come by. Every game shouts for your attention, and many deserve it. But Dordogne, developed in tandem by Un je ne sais quoi and Umanimation and published by Focus Entertainment, draws you in like the quiet friend at a crowded party.
Dordogne swims against the tide, rejecting both neon pixel art and soft pastels in favor of an earthy, inviting watercolor aesthetic. Its painterly visuals help tell the story of Mimi, a 32-year-old woman who has returned to the home of her recently deceased grandmother for the first time in 20 years. The cottage stands in the French countryside, in the region from which the game takes its name, and Mimi returns both against the wishes of her parents and without an understanding of why she's been away for so long. It's only when she begins to explore that her memories reveal themselves.
Cedric Babouche, the CEO of Un je ne sais quoi, serves as both director and art director on the game, and it is his brush that brings the world to life. As a child, he spent several family vacations in the region.
"It's really carved in my brain, in my skull, in everything in my body," he told DBLTAP at the Focus Entertainment booth.
"When we decided to create the project, it was very easy to open these boxes in my head and find what elements I needed to make, I hope, a good game — or at least to share with the players the feelings I had when I was there."
As she recovers her memories, Mimi flashes back to her time in Dordogne as a child. The PAX demo focuses on the first of these flashbacks, which happens to be Mimi's first day in Dordogne. The player controls her as she wanders around, collecting souvenirs as she goes.
Mimi carries an instant film camera and a tape recorder, which the player directs in key moments to document her experiences of the day. Will you photograph a nearby country manor, or the fish coursing through the river? Will the purr of a sunbathing cat make it onto your tape recorder, or the chatter of birds outside your window?
Mimi also sees words and phrases floating in the environment that speak to her feelings at the time — "Expectations" at the top of the stairs, "Dandelions" above the flowers in question. At day's end, the player goes back over these souvenirs and selects their favorites, turning the phrases into short poems and preserving them alongside the photos and recordings in a journal.
"[Our feelings] come from what we touch, what we see, what we hear, what we think," Babouche said. He and the team pull a neat emotional trick with these methods of preservation. In the moment, taking photographs of a distant hillside town or recording tape of its clanging bells evokes the wonder of discovery — a feeling so often reserved for children. Then, preserved in journal pages, those mementoes evoke a powerful sense of nostalgia for both Mimi and the player. It's a two-for-one deal.
Although Babouche says he and the rest of Un je ne sais quoi are generally inspired by the work of Fumito Ueda (Shadow of the Colossus) and ustwo Games (Monument Valley), direct inspirations for Dordogne came from other mediums. In particular, he cites Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki as a major touchstone, whose work showed him it was possible to tell a story without simplistic villains or violence.
"I want to tell a story without being obligated to have bad guys, or even good guys!" he said. "It's just a matter of a slice of life."
These inspirations make sense for Un je ne sais quoi and Umanimation. The two studios have their roots in animation, and Dordogne is their first game. But their ambitions extend beyond either medium, according to Umanimation Founder and CEO Aymeric Castain. Castain stood just off to the side while Babouche explained Un je ne sais quoi's side of the game, stepping in to offer his perspective when relevant.
"We work in a transmedia storytelling way of writing stories," he said. "There's a big story, and we'll take a chapter of that big story, and we adapt it to the platform that it fits the best."
Castain also serves as a producer on Dordogne, a move that comes out of Umanimation's restlessness with form.
"When we were producing animation, it was kind of frustrating when all the content is watched on interactive screens," he said, referring to phones, laptops, et al. "So why not make interactive content with it?"
He continued: "The cinema imported [visual effects] 30 years ago, and now cinema needs to import interactivity and game engines."
The two studios have plans even beyond games. Babouche mentioned a potential illustration book, a VR kayaking experience from the perspective of Mimi's son, and a prequel short film following her grandmother's original decision to move to Dordogne.
In fact, that short film is where Dordogne's story first began. Babouche wrote it when he and his family decided to move from Paris to Bordeaux as a way to reassure his daughters' anxiety about the change. Ultimately, the fear they felt may not be so different from how young Mimi feels on her first day in Dordogne, and that in turn isn't far from a near-universal experience Babouche aims to evoke in his game.
"Most kids have that kind of feeling at some point when you go on holidays with someone you don't want to go with. You just have to accept the fact that you don't want to be there." He smiled. "And then you realize that maybe it's going to be okay. Maybe it's going to be awesome.
"And at the end, you feel that you own the place in a way, and of course, next year you want to come back."
We can't speak for Mimi, but we're certainly excited to come back to Dordogne. We'll get the chance when it's released on Steam and Nintendo Switch later this year.
For more from PAX East 2022, check out our list of the best games at the convention.