Dev Blog – What Hanako Is, How It Started & What It Means To Me by Matt Canei

The Beginning and Meaning of ‘Hanako.’

Hanako began in 2008 as a college project. The summer between my sophomore and junior year was spent writing the initial design and doing research to start a team once classes started back up. My mother had just passed away in the fall of ’07 and I knew I wanted to do something to honor her memory, to show the world her love and passion for life, nature and creativity by writing the backstory of the game and integrating these themes in a symbolic way into the art direction and overarching visual presentation.

‘Hanako’ means “flower child” in Japanese, and is also the Japanese equivalent of “Jane,” which was my mother’s name. It is fitting as she always had vibrant flower gardens at my childhood home, and flowers evolved to be very symbolic of health, vitality, life and peace in the game’s scenery and presentation.

The College Years

After this initial push, I recruited a variety of classmates from SCAD and Tech to help me, two of which still work on the game as founding members today and I consider brothers: Lead Level Designer/Writer/Co-Designer Connor McCarthy and Lead Programmer Ajani Thomas. They were the first two members of the project, and the only original members still on the team. We worked about 16 hours a day on Hanako during college and it gained a lot of support from local developers, which as a student is always a big deal.

We ended up with a fairly solid prototype, but had our lessons learned and were humbled in many ways by the final pushes and where we had hoped to be. Graduation naturally had some of the team go their separate ways and as life got more hectic post-grad with new jobs and new life chapters, the game found itself on the shelf.

The Reboot

I never wanted Hanako to get shelved, and always felt a burning intensity towards finishing what I start, especially something like this, that’s so personal. In the summer of 2013, after two previous failed reboot attempts over the last few years, I reconnected with Ajani Thomas over a discussion about game art. After showing him a scene I had been working on, he asked “Can you make ‘Hanako’ look this good?” I answered “Sure, why not?” and that pretty much started the talks for a serious reboot. I messaged Connor and we started making forum posts and looking for new people to fill all of the roles.

A few month’s later we nailed down a solid team and started work again. This time is much different, as most of us have jobs during the day, myself included, rather than being a student able to invest a lot of time in it. A year later we’re still progressing with a team of pros and hopefuls scattered all over the globe working remotely in the evenings.

The Big Questions I Always Get Asked

The first question I always get asked, since I work in the game industry during the day as well is “Does your employer know you work on it? What do they think about it?” The answer is yes, my employer very graciously made amendments to my non-compete contract (a common agreement in the game industry) to allow me to work on Hanako in my free time. I think it’s important that what you do on your free time is up to you, it’s yours. As far as what they think about it? I have no idea, hopefully its supportive and positive, but I sense there’s probably some misunderstanding towards it and my intentions as well.

The second is “How in the hell do you work on games, then go home and work on games? What about crunch?” This is a tough question to answer, but the first part is being very deliberately compartmentalized. I attribute this greatly to my Wing Chun practice. Basically, keeping work work and keeping Hanako Hanako. I’m not perfect by any means, I take a lot of pride in all of my work regardless of what it’s for  but that’s the general approach. When extra time is needed, adjustments are made. Staying adaptable is just part of being a game developer, even though this is a bit of an extreme case.

The other part is eating as well as I can and although sleep is fairly minimal, making sure my body is tuned to operate well. One of my primary goals is to make sure my performance is maintained throughout the day. There are nights where its very hard to stare at 3ds max after working in 3ds max all day, but you have to remind yourself, in the moment, what you’re trying to achieve. Passion is a constant driving force.

What ‘Hanako’ Means To Me

Hanako is something that’s been a way to take losing the person closest to me and turn it into something positive and productive. Something that has allowed me to grow quickly as a leader and artist and the freedom to express creatively with no one to tell me what or how to do it. To grieve, honor and inspire all at the same time through this project brings me great peace and great purpose. Finishing this project and letting the world see it is one of the things I was put on this Earth to do. That said, this takes nothing away from my other goals or career. It makes me better, brings me closer to all of my goals, lets me learn all sorts of new skills and teach and exchange knowledge with a wider range of brother’s and sisters helping me on the journey. This is a dream that has become more than just my own, and it’s the most humbling experience I could ask for.

What We Hope To Achieve

My first, and primary directive is that nothing negative comes out of the project. We stand for learning, growing and hopefully creating a game that’s fun, entertaining but also inspiring and triumphant. We do not wish to undermine anyone’s other endeavors and work hard to be disciplined in our approach, much like the samurai of our game. This means, more clearly, that we’re not trying to compete or bring harm or negativity to endeavors related to our careers during the day; that we are able to give 100% in all instances that require our effort and time as individuals. It’s easy to claim “conflict of interest” since many of us work in similar fields to the project, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Hanako makes us better at what we do.

The second is that we can get the game done, of course. At that point anything else is a bonus. What I really want is for our players to be inspired to seek out their own creative endeavors, to not feel stuck by the status quo, and never be afraid to break past the boundaries society tries to force on you. If players have fun and also pick up a bit of the essence and soul we put into the game, then mission accomplished.

Lastly, finishing this game, personally, is sort of making amends and creating my own closure. I was a very selfish teenager at times, there were times where my mom needed me more than ever and I wasn’t as good of a son as I could have been. Honoring her memory and showing the world her beauty as a person through Hanako, is my way of telling her that I wish I could have done better, I’m sorry, but I know I can keep growing and all she would want is for me to do my best, do what I love and make her proud in spirit.