Behind the Design: Wylde Flowers
July 25, 2022
Lots of games defy easy explanation, but Wylde Flowers is a particularly rare bloom.
This charming Apple Design Award-winning game is a cross-pollination of farming simulation, eerie mystery, optional love story, and exploration of tolerance and understanding.
Also, you’re a witch who sometimes turns into a cat.
“The Wylde Flowers experience is a bit different for everybody,” says Amanda Schofield, the co-founder, creative director and managing director of indie developer Studio Drydock. “It’s all about self-expression and self-exploration.” And as the game elegantly shifts from cozy sim to curious mystery — and introduces a gratifyingly diverse cast of characters — that experience transforms, too.
Wylde Flowers is set in the idyllic town of Fairhaven, a pastoral little hamlet where everyone knows everyone (for reasons the game turns into a winking challenge) and the most urgent menace appears to be the rotting boards blocking the entrance to an old mine.
Fairhaven — and Schofield — make your welcome as comfortable as an old cardigan. You play as Tara, a young woman who’s fled the city after a tough breakup to recharge and reconnect with her Grandma Hazel — who keeps secrets of her own but whose love for Tara radiates from the first cutscene. “The first thing we do is literally wrap you in a warm hug from Grandma,” says Schofield. “That’s the personality of the game. We’re saying this is a safe space, where things are they way they should be. I think that’s quite needed at the moment.”
Once in town, however, who Tara is — and what she becomes — is entirely up to you. Your in-game decisions shape the direction of her friendships, possible love life, and farming skills. Serendipitous interactions move the story along; bump into the gregarious bartender Damon or the flirty doctor Amira at the right moment, and you might change your plans (or unlock a special cutscene or quest). In that early conversation with Grandma, you even decide who Tara broke up with.
Such inclusivity is certainly intentional; townsfolk like the non-binary butcher Kim and the married couple Angus and Francis play key roles in the story and date back to the game’s earliest prototypes. Yet at the same time, Wylde Flowers isn’t a game that strives to make its points. “The LGBTQ+ characters aren’t defined by their queerness,” says Studio Drydock marketing lead Victoria Kershaw. “It’s a part of who they are, but it’s not their story arc. In Fairhaven, everyone is accepted as human beings.”
In that way, Fairhaven mirrors the ethos of Studio Drydock itself. “We’re creating a game for young women in a formative part of their lives, women who are dealing with problems that they might not necessarily have the tools to broach,” Schofield says. “We wanted to show them a world where all their choices could be accepted. So we didn’t need to make a story about people trying to find acceptance. Let’s just assume this place has evolved past that.”
‘Just a little bit longer than War and Peace’
While Wylde Flowers kicks off with a Tara making Grandma a nice mushroom risotto, things, as they say, escalate quickly. Without giving too much away, the story soon takes a peculiar turn, one that involves a dark forest with a mysterious gate, a shady-looking company of hooded figures in masks, curiously specific plant requests, and a cat that just keeps showing up. “We needed the story to be a slow-boiling frog,” Schofield says.
We needed you to walk in and feel comfortable, but we didn’t want you to think you were just playing a farming game.
Amanda Schofield, Studio Drydock creative and managing director
A farming sim that also includes rebound relationships, undisclosed trapdoors, 30 chatty characters, and a sprinkling of witchcraft is not exactly a simple undertaking; Schofield jokes that the game’s script is “just a little bit longer than War and Peace.” The game’s tone was the subject of daily discussion: Was it dark enough? Was it cozy enough? Did the mystery unfold at the right cadence, and did it pair with that warm welcome? “We needed you to walk in and feel comfortable,” says Schofield, “but we didn’t want you to think you were just playing a farming game.”
That script fell first to Desiree Cifre, the game’s narrative director. Cifre signed onto the game a few months into development — the protagonist had a backstory, but (at the time) no name. “We made the choice to have a designed character,” says Cifre. “We wanted her to have specific depth in her backstory.” Cifre calls it a controversial choice. “But we felt it would ultimately give us more freedom in helping the players decide what kind of Tara their Tara is,” she says.
Much as finding the tone was a balancing act, Tara’s story needed to hit some consistent marks. “Often, I’m brought onto a project at the end, after they’ve decided on the design. It’s basically creating narrative reasons for why the design is the way it is,” says Cifre, with a laugh. “With this, Amanda’s design was developed in tandem with the narrative, which is why is works so well.”
To begin sketching out the narrative, Schofield drew on her past experience as a senior producer on Sims FreePlay, where she had helped add a “story arc” to the game’s famous open-world structure. “My epiphany was that people love making their own stories, but that doesn’t mean they don’t like engaging with other handcrafted stories too,” she says.
The initial draft came quickly. Cifre — alongside co-writer Elizabeth Ballou, who was brought in midway through production — wrote for a world that had “a foot in fantasy” but stayed close to the human element. “We didn’t want something that was arch or twee,” Cifre says, “but we wanted to tell players, ‘It’s OK for you to get really invested in these people.’”
The game would be a farming sim with a malleable storyline that prized inclusivity and acceptance. To do that, the studio needed a way to tell a story about prejudice without necessarily targeting a particular group — and still match the game’s vibe. They found their answer in an unlikely set of headlines. “We got the idea to focus on witchcraft while watching an election in the United Kingdom,” she says. “A group of individuals had decided to hex the government as part of their campaign. It seemed like an appropriate idea for us.”
It was appropriate on a number of levels. “Historically, [the witchcraft label] has been applied to groups — predominantly women — that people were afraid of,” Schofield says. “It’s been applied to healers, to people who have deep connections with the Earth. There’s always been an element of distrust for powerful women who are able to do things other people don’t understand.” Cifre dove into the literature of witchcraft, infusing the story with a melting pot of history and mythology drawn from Russia, South Africa, Iran, and more.
In addition to core plot points, the script had to allow for enough agency in a player’s choices so that they could feel ownership over the direction of the story. Tara needed to be sincere and irreverent but also a little lost, adrift after the loss of her job and relationship. Her experience discovering the town — and being “gobsmacked” by her new reality, as Cifre puts it — mirrors the player’s experience. Serendipitously, the character, town, and game grew together.
And then, there was the cat.
“OK, so everyone in the studio is cat-obsessed,” says Schofield. “We have whole channels of pictures of cats. Honestly, the cats in the game were the most critical things to get perfect.” (She’s kidding — probably.)
There was just one kitty-catch: The lone non-cat person in the room was Mike Taylor, a 20-year game design veteran — and the animation director charged with bringing them to life. “Mike probably had the most stressful job in the game,” Schofield laughs. “We’d have meetings with 25 people telling him, ‘No, this is how the cat should sound! More real! But also more cozy!”
She laughs. “If you’ve never been in a video call with 25 people meowing, it’s something.”
‘It wasn’t competition’
Schofield and Studio Drydock co-founder Alex Holkner first conceived of Wylde Flowers with a team of about a dozen, plotting out a snappy narrative that mirrored the “spring” section of the game. But after the initial development phase, they found the game expanding fourfold. “You know that meme with the red strings all over the wall?” she says. “That’s what our hires looked like after that first year.”
“No studio goes into their first game saying, ‘Let’s build the biggest game we’ve all ever done!’” Schofield laughs. “As a producer, I’m supposed to manage scale creep.”
But the team’s passion rendered her pleasantly powerless — something was clearly happening. Ideas came from anywhere: Cifre pitched a character whose feet are backwards, concept artists furnished quests. Cultural consultants were brought in to ensure dialect and dialogue were accurate and respectful, sometimes changing a word or two of the script or even redrawing entire dwellings.
“The animator would come in and say, ‘Look, I made this character’s hair move dynamically in the wind,’ and then the character artist would see it and say, ‘Well jeez, now I have to make the hair look better,’” she says. “It wasn’t competition. It was everyone wanting to meet a standard.”
All told, Wylde Flowers has about 18 hours of dialogue, 350 cutscenes, and 230 names in the credits. (To be fair, that last figure does include the orchestra.) Reaching those figures took about three years. Early game designs experimented with a top-down view (the better for mobile play), but Drydock quickly determined that play felt too disconnected from the characters, especially in a game with so much acting. Subsequent versions brought the view down to an angle — and would zoom in and in until it got as close to the characters as it could.
The scaled-way-up game’s story and visuals were taking shape, the growing team was deeply invested, and the town of Fairhaven was coming slowly to life. There was just one thing missing: its citizens.
‘So many Taras!’
Schofield had been noticing the degree to which game studios were bringing in voice actors, especially the K-pop or J-pop stars turning up in games produced in Asia. The voices, she knew, were key. “We couldn’t have gotten away with calling it a narrative game without voicing it,” she says.
Studio Drydock — and its gifted voice director, Krizia Bajos — took immense care in casting its voice actors; Kershaw laughs at how the the team auditioned “so many Taras” in pursuit of the magic combination of humor, lightheartedness, and deep emotion. Their choice was Valerie Rose Lohman (she/they), who earned a BAFTA nomination for her work in What Remains of Edith Finch. “It’s important that the voices of the characters are portrayed by the community being represented,” says Lohman.
For the character of Kim, a non-binary (and emotionally guarded) town butcher, Drydock brought on Erika Ishii (she/they), a strong advocate for the LGBTQ+ community on social media. “The writing for Kim was so natural and the script was so rounded and fleshed-out,” Ishii says. “It was a dream.” The cast also includes BAFTA award-winning actor Cissy Jones as Hazel, Baraka May as Amira, and Michael Scott as Damon.
Story and game iteration was a running process; the team tested play and cutscenes on a shared Unity build, tweaking on the fly. Even in the recording studio, actors would sometimes improvise lines, or ask Cifre and Ballou to rewrite on the fly over Slack. The storyline’s pliable nature meant the actors would often play the same scene numerous ways. The scene in which Tara proposes, for instance, offered Lohman an especially engaging challenge since the game offers seven potential suitors. “Every time I recorded the proposal scenes, I was a giggling mess,” says Lohman. “The scope of representation was so fun, and I’d perform differently with, say, Kim than I would with Amira or Wesley. I feel like I got to help create seven lovely love stories.”
It also helped that the actors shared a near-eerie similarity with their characters. Lohman had recently gone through a rough break-up and has an honest-to-goodness Grandma Hazel; Ishii, like Kim, is a queer non-binary Japanese/Chinese/American with a side shave.
For its actors, Wylde Flowers was more than a job — it was an avenue to connect with a real-world community. “I’ve never worked on a project so thorough in its representation of diversity,” Lohman says. “I do believe that (games) have the power to change someone’s mind, because gaming makes you live in someone else’s shoes. That’s powerful.”
“This has spoiled me for life,” laughs Cifre. “This came at a perfect time, when people were looking for these kinds of experiences. This game is about community, and it’s wonderful to see it resonate.”
In other words, the experience was just a bit magic. “It was such a culture of supportiveness and kindness,” says Schofield. “It was lightning in a bottle.”
Behind the Design is a weekly series that explores design practices and philosophies from each of the 12 winners of the 2022 Apple Design Awards. In each story, we go behind the screens with the developers and designers of these award-winning apps and games to discover how they brought their remarkable creations to life.