If any It Takes Two fans didn’t watch the recent Nintendo Direct Mini late last month, then they may have slept on the wrong presentation. Tucked cozily into the show was Blanc, a visually striking story about a lost fawn and wolf cub that is, gloriously, a rare cooperative adventure.
Games that focus on couch or online co-op (Blanc has both) as a key gameplay element rather than just an optional addendum to an otherwise single-player experience are scarce despite the popularity of It Takes Two and its Hazelight predecessors, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and A Way Out.
So it’s perhaps understandable that Blanc didn’t originate from a known games studio or even from a studio committed explicitly to making games at all. Instead, it’s the work of French agency Casus Ludi, a small company that explicitly designs interactive experiences, including interactive documentaries, board games, and other types of media.
Prior to Blanc, Casus Ludi had never made a large video game before, though several of its members had worked on small games. Its CEO, Florent de Grissac, had been a part of organizing multiple game jams in France when he was invited to participate in a 2018 jam in Québec City. De Grissac assembled a team of six, which included designer Rémi Gourrierec and artist Raphaël Beuchot, and headed to Québec City only to find themselves making a game while a massive snow storm raged outside.
The theme of the game jam? Perfect storm.
The snowscape outside inspired de Grissac and his colleagues to answer the question of what happens when a storm is over, and their respective answers turned into Blanc: a cooperative adventure starring a wolf cub and a deer fawn who become lost in a storm and must work together to reunite with their families.
Blanc is expressly non-violent. De Grissac tells me that Casus Ludi focuses on projects that “provoke debate or awareness about various subjects,” specifically social issues. In the case of Blanc, Casus Ludi wanted to create a “positive experience of empathy and cooperation” that was “without violence, without antagonism.”
“We all feel that video games are full of [violence] already,” de Grissac says. “We don’t need more of that. We are convinced that video games are real media with every possibility to tell any story. Some stories have been told a lot, so we don’t need to add to this.”
Helpfully, making a non-violent game also helps it stand out, de Grissac adds, even though he acknowledges there are a number of other non-violent games out there too. But Blanc remains unique in a number of other ways, too. There’s its art style, for one, which uses hand-drawn art brought digitally into 3D, and has a black-and-white comic book feel to it that likely nods to Beuchot and Gourrierec’s respective backgrounds in comics art and writing. Beuchot says that while he could name inspirations for many of the comics he’s made, he’s not fully sure what prompted him to make Blanc in the style he did – though the backgrounds are at least in part influenced by the countryside of his childhood.
Another unique element of Blanc is its lack of text; its story and gameplay are entirely wordless. For a time, Casus Ludi wanted to make Blanc without any text at all, both as a storytelling device and to make things easier for localization. But while it might seem like completely eliminating text would make a game more accessible, rather than less, the team ran into a major accessibility problem when it tried to design its in-game menus.
“You need several channels of communication to the players, so you can’t really remove text from menus and everything,” de Grissac explains. Gourrierec adds that normally, they would include text, sound, and visual indicators to ensure players knew what to do in a menu at a given moment. But removing one of those three, in this case the text, proved too confusing.
Still, the story itself is completely wordless, and is designed to be understandable and accessible even to people who have never played video games before – a thematically appropriate goal for a team that has, as a unit, never made video games before. De Grissac says he’s grateful for the support they’ve received from Gearbox Publishing to bring Blanc into the world, especially given their inexperience.
But the Casus Ludi team – around six people, plus a number of freelancers – isn’t sure it’ll stick with video games after Blanc is over. It might make more, certainly, but de Grissac adds that it’s far more important that Blanc’s success help bolster the careers of the freelancer game makers who have joined them for the endeavor rather than propel Casus Ludi to further video game heights.
Blanc, which is headed to the Nintendo Switch and PC in February, is instead a work of passion and interest and art. De Grissac says the team wanted to make a game that people “could play with someone they like or love,” especially as a first introduction to video games, or even across generations, such as playing with a parent, a grandparent, or a child. In fact, the trio agree that seeing many, many people who have never played games before play Blanc would be a marker of success for the project.
“I think the biggest win will be to play it with my daughter and mother, maybe,” Beuchot says. “I’m very impatient to do it.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.