Sure, Animal Crossing might offer a wholesome, anthropomorphic escape from the coronavirus quarantine, but if you’re looking for content that speaks more directly to the phenomenon at hand, a Canadian developer has made just the video game for you.
A Fold Apart, by Toronto-based Lightning Rod Games, is a puzzle game about a long-distance relationship. Available on Apple Arcade, PC, and the Switch (it’s coming soon to PS4 and X-Box), it has players fold photographs of a couple living across the globe from one another, in order to connect their paths and help them work it out.
Seeing as most of us are now in long-distance relationships—forced to communicate with our friends, family, and crushes solely through digital screens—the game might understandably hit different at this present moment. A Fold Apart’s creators swear it’s all a freak coincidence.
“We’d been working on the game for four and a half years and never would never have expected that by the time we launched it, this would be the state of the world,” says Lightning Rod Games’ co-founder Mark Laframboise. He notes that since launching the game about a week ago, the studio’s been receiving tweets from users saying “it's hitting a little close to home with the kind of stuff that they're going through now.”
Laframboise says the game was originally inspired by his own experience with a geographically-compromised romance. During his younger years in the game industry, an opportunity to work for Disney Interactive in California forced him to move three time zones away from his significant other at the time, who remained in Ontario. “There's just a lot of emotional ups and downs that you go through living apart from each other and having those kinds of struggles, especially with communication,” he says.
The ordeal, while heartwrenching, gave Laframboise a novel idea for a game. The concept of the long-distance relationship, he observed, hasn’t been explored much in pop culture. At least not very well. (Have you seen Dear John? Good. Don’t.)
The concept for the game’s mechanics came years later, during a spitball session with Lightning Rod co-founder Steven Smith. The duo had just attended the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, and Laframboise says he was pushing his business partner to come up with a mechanic that’s never been seen before. “He was like, ‘Oh, well, what about the back of a Mad magazine, where you have one picture and you fold it and it has another picture?’” he says. “I couldn’t really think of any games that do anything like that, especially a game with folding paper."
A Fold Apart’s narrative is driven by text messages between the two protagonists, as well as their inner monologues. Inevitably, one person reads too much into a text, which leads to overthinking, which leads to the relationship going off the rails. That’s where the folding comes in. The player tackles a series of origami-esque puzzles in order to work through the anxieties of a character. It’s a metaphor for the communication breakdowns we often encounter via SMS—now more than ever. Think of it like quarantine exposure therapy.
Though the Lightning Rod team has a Toronto studio, the team is made up of members in Montreal and Victoria as well. Suffice it to say they’re fairly accustomed to socially-distanced interactions. Lafromboise says the pandemic hasn’t affected the company too drastically, as virtually all of his work can be done at home on his MacBook. In fact, he urges anyone with an inkling for creating video games to try their hand at it during quarantine. “The cool thing about game development as a whole is you can just use your existing computers. If you have a MacBook Pro at home, you can download Unity, which is the game engine we use,” he says, noting that the platform has made many of its programs free in light of the COVID-19 lockdown. “You can basically just do the tutorials and it will teach you how to make a game, from start to finish.”
Who knows, maybe building a game from scratch is just the hobby that will get you through this trying time. Hey, it worked for Lafromboise. “When we made the game, I really did it as a way to process some of the emotions that I went through when I was living apart from someone,” he says. Of course, if you're not quite feeling that ambitious, simply playing A Fold Apart works too. “In some ways, I hope playing through the game normalizes those emotions for others.”