The Little Acre: A love letter to Broken Sword
Even if you don’t know the name Don Bluth, you’ll recognise his work. An American Tail, The Land Before Time and All Dogs Go to Heaven were all directed by Bluth, in styles so synonymous with 1980s animation that, for many people growing up in that decade, Bluth’s aesthetic is the shape of childhood.
Don Bluth is one of the first names mentioned when I sit down with the co-founders of Pewter Games, a Dublin-based studio working on point-and-click adventure The Little Acre. The core set of animators behind the game graduated from Ballyfermot College in Ireland, from a course originally set up by Bluth, and from what I’ve seen, their game drinks in gulps from Bluth’s rough-around-the-edges, often-bizarre art style.
The Bluth thread also runs to the other side of the table, towards Charles Cecil – the industry veteran behind the Broken Sword series, and executive producer on The Little Acre. Broken Sword has its own Bluth-axis in the shape of Eoghan Cahill and Neil Breen, who both worked for Dublin’s Don Bluth studio. I’m told The Little Acre isn’t only a nod to Bluth, but to Cecil’s leveraging of the style in his 1996 adventure game Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars. More than a nod, perhaps. “When I saw [what Pewter Games were up to], it was either ‘See you in court’ or get involved in the project,” he jokes. “I went for the latter.”
The game is set in rural 1950s Ireland, and follows protagonist Aiden and his daughter Lily. Aiden’s father goes missing. Aiden goes looking for him. He finds a portal into another dimension, and things carry on from there. While the real world is viewed from side-on 2D, this other world – called the Clonfira – is seen from an isometric viewpoint, resurfacing memories of RPGs in the ilk of Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment, as well as classic adventure games. Two nostalgic reveries, one stone.
The studio’s co-founder Ben Clavin tells me the decision to split the game between two worlds was inspired by films such as The NeverEnding Story, Labyrinth and The Pagemaster – fantasies where quotidian life is punctuated by an entry into a fantastic world. Clonfira certainly looks the part, with its strange landscape populated with ruins and Studio Ghibli-style characters. What struck me most, however, is the attention to The Little Acre’s Irish setting. I only spent a few minutes with the game, but the scenes around Aiden and Lily’s home are rich with detail about their lives, and the culture of mid-20th-century Ireland.
Games and Irish identity
I ask the game’s creators how they’d characterise Irish identity in games. “We have a strange lack of pride sometimes,” Ben Clavin responds. “Perhaps because of the Americanised, twee Leprechaun vision of Ireland. So we tend to imitate other cultures a lot. Even in music, we have a lot of American-style singing. We do have that in our culture, where we feel a bit awkward being Irish in our hearts sometimes.”
Is The Little Acre a step against this then? The makers say the story gestures to Irish folklore, but doesn’t make a huge song and dance of it. “We didn’t want to lean on it, in the same way someone British wouldn’t want to do ‘The Queen’s Adventure’,” says Clavin, explaining there’s a difficult balance to strike, between wearing your national identity on your sleeve and descending into a parody, pruned to appeal to an American audience and its distorted vision of your country’s culture.
“I think if you look at American, or even English, games, they tend to have a particular setting – it’s a crime game set in London, for example,” says co-creator Christopher Conlan. “Sometimes they have a token Irish settings. Even Broken Sword took a little trip to Ireland, but it wasn’t set there entirely. What we’ve done is set the game in Ireland, and there are Irish characters. It’s not something you see that much in games.”
WhetherThe Little Acre succeeds as a modern point-and-click adventure remains to be seen, but the decision to tell a story populated by Irish voices already sets the game apart from the wave of (often homogenous) US-based indie games. Throw in an art style that harks back to the glory days of the Don Bluth studio and The Little Acre is shaping up to be an adventure with heart and attention to detail. We’ll know more when the game comes out in October, for Xbox One, PC and Mac.