The IndieBeat: Way to the Woods shows nature thriving in a Studio Ghibli-esque postapocalypse

Way to the Woods is a gorgeous exploration game starring two deer in a postapocalyptic landscape. Melbourne-based developer Studio Happy Bee — which is actually just Anthony Tan — has worked on it since 2015, and the game is slated for a PC launch in 2019 with console releases hopefully to come.

As inspiration for Way to the Woods’ beautifully desolate world, Tan looked to works like Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, and Steven Universe. The result is visually stunning and atmospheric. In the trailer, the two deer seem to have a kind of lonely but peaceful existence. As they embark on a journey back to the forest, they encounter adorable creatures like gangs of raccoons and self-governing cats. But they also don’t go unchallenged — they’ll have to solve puzzles and face a perilous black goo that corrupts whatever it touches.

Tan is 18- going on 19-years-old, and he has played and created video games all his life. He also has some industry experience under his belt, as he worked on Owlchemy Labs’ Rick and Morty VR game as a 3D artist. When he first posted about Way to the Woods on Reddit in 2015, publisher and developer Team17 immediately signed a publishing deal with him. The two have since parted ways amicably, and he’s currently not searching for another publisher. Instead, he’s opting to focus on developing the game.

Here is an edited transcript of our interview.

GamesBeat: Who are you?

Anthony Tan: I live in Melbourne. I graduated high school in 2016, and obviously I’ve been making Way to the Woods since. I’ve worked on a few projects before, like Job Simulator and Rick and Morty, the VR game. I’ve done art for those guys. I’m just a video game developer.

GamesBeat: Is working with Owlchemy how you got started, or were you doing art before that and then you found them?

Tan: I’ve always been making games, even when I was really young, eight years old. I was playing Warcraft III and stuff like that, in the world editor, making custom maps for my own games. When I was about 12, I was playing with the Forge in Halo. I was really nerdy. I had no internet and nothing to do as a kid, so me and my brother would just make our own games, little films and stuff. It progressed from there.

In year seven, I got a graphics tablet and I started drawing stuff online. I started drawing my own little games. I made a game for fun when I was in year 10, and that got noticed by Alex on Reddit, Alex from Owlchemy. He set me up and taught me so much about the industry. I love Owlchemy. They’re really cool. They’re such a good culture, such good people.

GamesBeat: It sounds like you started as a gamer and then started experimenting with game design and programming. Or did you start with art and eventually progress from there?

Tan: Definitely on the art side. I’m not a programmer by any means. I do visual scripting, so I know how to do that stuff, but I’m not out there hacking into the Matrix and shit. I’m just placing blocks down and using the logic of the engine. The Unreal engine has this thing called Blueprints, this visual scripting, where you can connect nodes together without having to type out compiler shit. It’s just easy and it makes sense, straight to the point. I used to try to make Flash games and those were really shit. I kind of gave up on proper hardcore hacker coding a long time ago. I just use whatever I can to make a playable product.

GamesBeat: Do you work with a hacker programmer at your studio?

Tan: Studio Happy Bee is just sort of a legal thing? It’s just me, so I have something to put on forms. I used to, though. When I was with Team17, they had programmers I could talk to. They gave me some of their time and other stuff. But when I first started the project I was with a programmer, just a hobbyist. Then it got too big, too much of a time-sink for him. So now it’s just me, just Googling and YouTubing lots and lots of tutorials.

GamesBeat: You started working on Way to the Woods when you were a student, right? How did you juggle school and your social life and game development? 

Tan: Yeah, that’s something I always think about, how to juggle everything. When I was in year 10 and 11, I think that’s when I started Way to the Woods. It was just a fun thing I did when I got home from school. God, I was such a piece of shit. I was playing League of Legends all day. I was just drawing and—every kid wants to be a game developer, like it’s something fun. It was just an idea it was playing with.

Then I actually started to make it, because I thought, why not? I Googled tutorials on how to put this stuff together and then people liked it. That’s when it got crazy, because then I thought, oh shit, I can actually make this a game. I realized that in the meantime—I was really focused on that for a while.

When I was younger, when I was in year 11 and 12, I was focused on just getting good at art. “I’m gonna be a concept artist at all costs!” Then I started to follow a lot of concept artists, listen to their podcasts and stuff, and then I realized, maybe that’s not the life for me. Those guys are all crazy and they work all the time. Their whole life is about that. I’m kind of like that, but at the same time, I still want to kick back with my friends and be a kid for a bit.

Year 12, I was kind of part-time doing Way to the Woods, doing preproduction, figuring out ideas and the world and stuff like that. Maybe three or four hours a day? Or not that much, maybe two hours a day? Then I graduated, and I was one of the only people out of my friend group who wasn’t going to university. I felt a bit isolated. Okay, maybe I’ll use this time to work on Way to the Woods properly. It got a bit too much for me, though, so I started to take breaks and be more social with my life, try to just live a little bit, going out with my friends.

It’s been just frantically juggling everything. There have been periods of hardcore crunching and periods of chill. I’m trying to get past that now and just balance my time schedule. When I was with Owlchemy, it was year 11 and I was going off to school, working, and going to sleep. I’d maybe go out for an hour after school to get some food, but after that it was just working. It just wasn’t sustainable. So I’m trying to be better about it, to manage my time and stick to schedules.

GamesBeat: You signed a publishing deal with Team17, right? Does that add some extra pressure? Or do you find that they’re understanding about the flow that you have with your work process?

Tan: I’m not with them anymore, because they weren’t able to provide the resources to help me out. We parted ways amicably. They were really supportive and understanding of my school schedule and stuff like that. The indie game scene is unexpectedly nice to me for some reason. They’re very understanding. Thanks, guys. They’re really supportive of my studying, stuff like that. So I’m trying to make video games my thing, and study that.

GamesBeat: Do you think you’ll try to find another publisher, or are you trying to go it alone right now?

Tan: Maybe. I didn’t really know what a publisher was when I got one. Like, are they going to give you artists and programmers? Oh, they do that a little bit, but mostly they just get on a platform to get things out there. OK. Right now I’m not really thinking about things like that. I’m thinking about just making the game, and then closer to release, further on in development, I’ll start to think about distributing the game, stuff like that. But also, talking with console people, Microsoft and stuff like that, I’m in talks with them and seeing the environment.

GamesBeat: Where do you go to find support, social and professional? It sounds like it can be quite isolating to just be working on the game alone. Like if you encountered a bug and you don’t know what to do about it —

Tan: Oh, God, that’s my whole life. Just running around stressing about bugs. In the past, when I first posted the initial screenshots, a lot of people reached out to me. I was surprised how many of them were local. I got to visit a lot of cool studios, like House House Games, the ones doing that stealth goose game that went viral a bit. Or Genital Jousting. Those guys were really fun. Ken Wong, from Monument Valley, he’s in Melbourne.

I got to meet a lot of cool people, and they let me test the waters. I was really glad to meet all of them. In terms of when I’m stuck on something, things like that, I have to really bug a lot of other developers, send a lot of emails. I’ll go on YouTube and find those guys with about 6,000 views and I’ll email those guys. They’re working professionals, and I’ll think, yes, this is exactly what I need. I do a lot of searching on forums and stuff like that, and just a lot of experimenting. Taking time to work on something else and come back to it. When I’m feeling really stuck on something and no one’s there to help, I’ll just readjust my thinking, try to work around it.

GamesBeat: How has the game evolved since you first started it? 

Tan: It’s definitely changed a shit-ton. When I first made it, it was just like, “Wouldn’t it be so cool if you were a deer and you found you were in the post-apocalypse?” There would be big old robots and a deer fighting it. I didn’t know what the game was going to be. I had no idea beyond that. I was just making assets and stuff.

And then in year 12 and last year and this year, I’ve been taking the time to think about the story I want to tell, something that would be cool to play beyond that idea. It evolved a lot from my influences. I thought a lot more about the people and series and games I look up to. It became more like this mishmash of all those things.

You can see, everyone says it looks like Studio Ghibli, and of course, that’s because I love Studio Ghibli. The music is really inspired by Ghibli and Steven Universe and all these crazy things. It’s just kind of a product of everything I’m into. That’s kind of how it changed. It used to be this really grounded — at the time, I think, I was really into The Last of Us and that’s kind of how it started. Then I started to embed my own personality and vision into it.

Once I came up with the story and started writing ideas, writing out something crazy and unique, or trying to be. Now it’s just—it’s still got that base, that vision I had, where you’re a deer in the post-apocalypse, but it’s a lot more dressed up and interpreted in a different way. It’s very —aesthetic, sort of? I wasn’t thinking about the audience. But once I started seeing audience reactions, seeing people play it, I started to think, oh, cool, they like this, they like that. It merged into this thing that’s—I don’t even know how to define it right now. This journey, adventure thing. It’s like a dive into stuff I like.

GamesBeat: How do you prune all the things you want to put in the game down to a manageable number? How do you decide what to keep and what to throw away?

Tan: There’s a lot of things I threw away just because I don’t know how to do it. In the trailer you can see the black goo dripping down the walls. I wanted that to be a barrier, a kind of liquid lava pool that you couldn’t step on, but you could split it apart like Moses. But I didn’t know how to do that. I made prototypes that weren’t that great. They were all right, but they weren’t what I pictured. I just ended up changing it. Now it’s a goo that covers everything and you can blow it up instead of splitting it apart. That works too. So either I change it, or sometimes you have to let your babies go, and just abandon it.

But also, at the same time, I kind of look at it through the lens of a developer now. That would be cool. How would I approach it? I look at things as what’s doable. I look at the tools I have and think about what would be cool to do with those tools. That’s how I approach things now. I try not to go crazy. “What if it was a procedurally generated MMO?” Those ideas don’t really come into my head. And in terms of mechanics that I borrow or imitate, I try not to borrow too much. I try to just feel inspired by it and then make something that’s reminiscent, and also add something new to it. I don’t want to steal too much. I want to try to make something new.

I started to think more about what would fit into a game. You’re a deer, so what are your ways of interacting with the world? What are your ways of moving around? What are your ways of manipulating things? You don’t have hands. In the game, you can recruit raccoons and they’ll follow you around. They have little tiny fingers that can open locks and stuff like that. They don’t really care about you, though. They only follow you because you can pick up trash bags and stuff.

It’s exploring the limits of my game, or what someone would see as the limitations. I don’t have feet or hands. I only have hooves. Okay, cool. What has hands? Raccoons! I think about it like that. I try not to make the puzzles and mechanics that are too, just, mystical? I don’t think that’s lazy, exactly, but I don’t get any excitement out of that stuff. I like to think about it in a grounded sense. There is magical stuff, but I try to think it through and make everything physical. Try to physically place things in my head.

GamesBeat: I know you probably don’t want to give too much away, but can you tell me more about the story and the world, what the game is about?

Tan: The game is about these two deer, this big deer and this small deer. A lot of people have been asking me if the deer have genders. I’m keeping that ambiguous, because it helps a lot of people live their fantasy? So it’s these two deer, big and small, and this world is abandoned and apocalyptic. It’s not straight-up war or some shit. It’s just figuring out why the world is empty, going through this world.

As you go through the world things start to come alive. You start to find out what life is here. You see this strange society. These deer are trying to get to the woods, and on their way they encounter a lot of strange animals, strange characters. They learn more about the world as they go to the woods. The deer have this antler power, where the antlers glow, and you’ll find out about what it does.

It starts out really ambiguous and vague, and as you go on the world starts to unwrap itself around you. You find out that there’s depth to these societies. There are different animal societies, clans, gangs and stuff. Gangs of raccoons. There’s Cat Town, that you saw in the trailer, a society of cats that, in the absence of people, have built their own little society. Underneath it all is this goo, this oil, that’s affecting the way that everybody thinks, corrupting objects, taking over things. You trek through it and find out everything about the world and eventually make your way to the woods and maybe save everybody? Who knows?

GamesBeat: You started it when you were 16, right? And now you’re 18?

Tan: Yeah, 18 turning 19.

GamesBeat: Do you find that your age is an impediment in any way? 

Tan: I don’t ever really see behind the scenes with a lot of people, so I’m not sure what the big guys in suits are saying. But I do see comments and stuff like that. I don’t want to put it in every title, but it gets attention. So, all right, suck it up, I’ll do it. I don’t try to emphasize it too much, but I do mention it, because for a lot of people it’s inspiring, I guess? They can see that they could also do this. But for me, I’m just trying to make my game, guys.

It is an aspect of development and it has stopped me from a lot of things. I don’t have any money. [Laughs] I’m poor. But I do work for working studios. I’m the youngest person there all the time. I’m mindful of that. I don’t get a lot of the references people talk about. They’re all 25 years old and older.

But has it stopped me from doing anything? Kind of? Because I want to also do university, stuff like that. It’s stopped me from doing university, doing regular things people my age do. I want to eventually get back to stuff like that. It would have been nice to have done it later. Maybe it wouldn’t have gotten the same attention, but also, I saw the opportunity. It is something I really wanted to make. It’s pretty time-sensitive, so I want to do it now.

GamesBeat: Is it difficult for your parents to understand that you’re putting university aside to pursue game development?

Tan: Oh, God. When I was doing this the first year, every day my mom would walk into my room and say, what law school are you going to? What are you talking about? It took them a while to understand. But they got the picture eventually. Now they’re pretty supportive.

GamesBeat: So you’re doing this full time, living at home, and then afterward who knows?

Tan: Yeah. I just want to use this to build a platform and be able to keep creating stuff. That’s most of what I want to do, just make stuff for cool people.

GamesBeat: Do you think you’ll try to go to university after you ship the game?

Tan: I think I will try. I think I will. Just to live my life a little bit, take a break, and be a normal person.

IndieBeat is GamesBeat reporter Stephanie Chan’s weekly column on in-progress indie projects. If you’d like to pitch a project or just say hi, you can reach her at stephanie@venturebeat.com.

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