Irregular Update 12

stained_glassFor the past few weeks I’ve been dealing with a family situation, so haven’t gotten much work done. But during that time, I’ve been reflecting on aspects of the game that still aren’t working the way I’d like.

I’ve been doing a lot of testing to make sure the puzzles are compelling and correctly paced, without soliciting a lot of feedback regarding the story or themes of the game. That’s because many of the key story and character animations are still so rough that they don’t read very well, and some of the imagery still, at this late date, isn’t fully worked out. But since I’m actually producing final art at this stage, everything better hurry up and get worked out.

In some cases its clear that the narrative pieces that are there aren’t merely rough, they’re also pointing in the wrong direction and deed to be changed. Since the art hasn’t been finished on these pieces, changes at this stage are comparatively inexpensive. So I’m devoting part of my time to thinking and refining my own understanding of exactly what each chapter is about, beat by beat, and how every component of every scene works within that.

Any part of the plane that doesn’t help it fly is just weighing it down, is probably an old writer’s saying.

 

“Weekly” Update 11

shrine01

Apologies for the long delay since the last update. In addition to various distractions, I think  I’ve been too concerned with making each update a thoughtful piece of writing, worthy of people’s attention. When I can’t think of anything to write about, or don’t have time to compose something properly, I tend to put off posting an update.

I must remind myself that I’m more likely to maintain this weekly update schedule if I allow myself to write shorter, sloppier posts. So I’ll just post some art each week and ramble a bit about something that may or may not be interesting.

Let’s see…I’ve done some more play testing recently and one tester raised an interesting point. Her feeling was that red herrings are unevenly distributed in the game. In the case of Gorogoa, a red herring is a location or object that the player can visit or zoom in on that seems like it might be part of a puzzle, but isn’t.

I’ve never really had a consistent policy regarding how many red herrings should be in the game. Illustrating non-essential locations is of course expensive, but in some cases it feels like it makes sense. When a scene contains an arrangement of several similar objects or shapes, only one of which is involved in a puzzle solution, I might make it possible to zoom in on any of the objects, even the ones that don’t matter. Otherwise there’s no obvious rationale for the fact that one object is interactive and the others aren’t. Of course, I could redesign the scene so that one of the similar objects is much more visually interesting than the others, but in some cases part of the puzzle lies in figuring out which parts of a scene matter and which don’t.

Which may be fine, but it potentially means that I should go back through the game and add more non-essential locations to sections that don’t contain any, so that the game doesn’t start out teaching the player that every object or location matters in some way, only to change that pattern part way through.

I’ll have to give it some more thought.

Weekly Update 10

I recently read an interesting article by Caty McCarthy at Kill Screen  about the use of “cinematic zoom” in games, with specific reference to the endless-zoomer Global Game Jam game reaching. McCarthy doesn’t seem entirely persuaded that the technique has an important role to play in games, so my first instinct was to put forward my own game as another example of the zoom in practice. But then I had to ask myself the question: does Gorogoa actually employ “cinematic zoom”?

I’ve claimed in the past that Gorogoa is able to make more use of cinema-like techniques than many other games, because within each tile the player controls something more like a camera than a character. Like reaching, the game employs many visual transitions that are only possible because the viewpoint does not represent the POV of an embodied being. Yes, it’s true that many third-person games allow camera control separately from character control, but Gorogoa pushes this disconnection much farther. I can swoop the camera all the way across a city to a distant tower, or dive fractally into a wallpaper pattern, or pan laterally through a cross-fade that joins two different points in time and space. Much of this would be nonsensical if we were looking through the eyes of a character physically present in the world. The camera frequently leaves the protagonist behind entirely, or looks into scenes where the protagonist is absent. To me this feels less like third person and more like first person without the person. Which sounds a bit like a movie camera, maybe?

Or maybe that’s missing the point of the article. After all, in reaching the scheme is just the opposite: the player does control the character on screen, and does not control the camera. That game derives much of its effect from its authorial domination of the viewpoint, and that by itself is very cinematic. Movies derive their power in part from the state of helplessness they impose on the audience, and reaching plays with this helplessness. So should Gorogoa be disqualified as an example of “cinematic zoom” or other cinematic techniques because the camera is controlled by the player, or should it be included because the camera is not in any way bound to a character?

Weekly Update 9

quilt_patches01Well I’ve done it again. I don’t mean missing my weekly update schedule, although I did do that again too and I apologize. I mean that once again I took a deep dive into a piece of visual art, spiraling down into tiny crevices of detail, and spending far more time than intended.

I should know better than this by now, and for the most part I’m able to avoid this sort of indulgence. But in this case it was due to a creative block–or maybe it was a technical block. I needed to depict a particular object (the above images are a clue) with a lot of textural detail, and I wasn’t sure how to suggest that detail without actually recreating it. As I’ve said before, abstraction and simplification in visual design are the products of insight, and when I find myself working too hard on details, I worry it’s a sign of a cluttered and chaotic mental workspace.

But I think what’s compelling to me about these images is that they are abstract on one level, while being composed of precise physical detail on another. There’s something appealingly absurd about it. Or maybe it’s fascinating to peer down through multiple layers of authorship. It’s authorship of authorship. Windows within windows.

At least this scene is an important one in the game. It needs to make an impression. It needs to be vivid and colorful.  I’m not spending all this time on background details that no one will notice or that end up being cut–something I have definitely done in the past. Still, it’s time to move on and begin moving more quickly again.

Weekly Update 8

doorwat_sketch01I’ve been a bit sloppy about these weekly updates since the start of the year. That’s partly because I’ve been working mainly on pencil art, a process which doesn’t yield a lot of deep thoughts worth writing about. And that’s exactly what I like about it. Pencil drawing and subsequent coloring in Photoshop is blessedly, gratifyingly mindless. Or rather it engages different parts of the mind than game design or programming–quieter and more supple parts. That’s why in the past it has so effectively seduced me away from those more challenging tasks, and why I didn’t allow myself to do any pencil work on the game in 2015. If I scanned a single drawing for the game last year, I don’t remember it.

This doesn’t mean all the design problems are all solved. The ending remains a bit of a mess. I’m just taking a break from thinking about that tangle of issues for a while so I can regain some perspective and talk things over with other people. There’s plenty of the game now that I don’t have time to alter even if I wanted to, so it’s safe to proceed with finishing a lot of the art.

As much as i enjoy it, it sure is a slow process. I had forgotten how slow. I’m still getting a sense of how much work remains. But at least I’m working in a placid state of mind for the time being.

Weekly Update 7

calendarSometimes it’s a mystery even to me why development of this game has been such a time-consuming process. So I thought I’d take a look back at 2015 and recall what I actually did during the year.

Toward the end of 2014 I thought I was closing in on a finished game, although chapter 5 wasn’t really built yet, so I don’t know what gave me that confidence. In any case, there was a bigger issue; while traveling over the holidays, with the opportunity to reflect on the project from a distance, I decided that the design had gotten fundamentally off track. Chapter 4 as a whole was built on a broken concept. Though it had some beautiful moments, it was confusing and inelegant, and wasn’t working to advance the story. I’d spent most of the second half of 2014 trying to force the chapter to work, iterating though countless different approaches to each puzzle. But at the end of the year I decided to scrap it all and start over.

I spent roughly the first four months of the year remaking Chapter 4 with a totally different structure. I kept a few of the puzzle ideas from the old version, but everything else was reinvented. It took a few more revisions over the course of the year, but in the end the chapter is perhaps the strongest in the game, at least structurally.

The newer version of Chapter 4 has fewer puzzles, but there’s a good reason for that. Every moving part in a Gorogoa puzzle is a separate scene. In a more conventional adventure game, a puzzle might involve several inventory objects, but in Gorogoa your “inventory” consists of tiles, and each tile contains both a location and a part of the story. The story can only generate so many meaningful scenes without feeling over-stretched, so this limits the number of puzzles the game can support.

After reworking chapter 4, I went on to build chapter 5, which took another several months. Chapter 5 will undergo the fewest revisions of any chapter, I think. Presumably that’s because I had the benefit of more experience when designing it. It’s at least based on a sensible concept. It’s probably a bit simpler overall than Chapter 4, but that’s fine with me. Better to avoid trying to shoe-horn in puzzles or sequences that make no narrative sense.

I then doubled back to overhaul much of Chapter 3, which also had major issues with pacing and guidance. The changes weren’t as all-encompassing as they were for Chapter 4, but they were significant. And again I removed more material than I added, resulting in something leaner and more coherent.

By November I had built a rough version of the game’s finale and had something that was playable from beginning to end. Since then I’ve been improving the gameplay in response to play-testing, while working on the story. The end sequence is still rough, but I now have a concept for it that I’m happy with.

Looking back, I do feel like I’ve gotten at least a little smarter and faster. I’ve built or majorly revised about two thirds of the game in the past year. In retrospect, I spent much of 2013 and 2014 in the weeds, unsure of what the game was supposed to be and trying different approaches to no avail. But now my vision has coalesced and momentum is on my side. At least that’s how I feel at the beginning of this year.

Weekly Update 6

Oops. Missed last week due to holiday travel. Sorry about that. And I’m still traveling, so this one will have to be short.

At the moment I’m working on adding five new puzzles to the game’s final sequence. This might seem inadvisable, considering my earlier decision not to make any more major modifications to the design. And maybe it is inadvisable, but I’m carefully limiting the amount of time I put into this effort. I’m not sure if any of these puzzles will make the final cut, but I think adding them is worth a try.

In fact, the puzzles I’m adding are very simple, and involve revisiting locations and images from earlier in the game. The goal of these puzzles is not to be challenging, but rather to control the pacing and impact of the finale. I felt that it was too easy to blow through the end sequence without focusing on what is going on. The puzzles are designed to help with that, and also reinforce the narrative.

This will be a good test of whether I’ve learned anything over the years, whether I’m able to “fail fast” and decide quickly if these new design elements are going to work. I’ve already thrown together four of the new puzzles, and I certainly did not take the time to make them beautiful. The whole ending of the game remains ugly and awkward, but I’m trying to figure out what approach is going to work by studying things in this ugly state. In the end, if the new material doesn’t come together, I can fall back on the old design. So you may or may not ever see what I’m working on!

Weekly Update 5

facesIn the last several days I’ve been showing the game publicly, first at the Whippering Indie Cup in San Francisco, then at GX3 in San Jose in conjunction with Gamenest, my coworking space. This is the first time in a while that I’ve exhibited the game, and it was a big morale boost. From time to time I need a reminder that the game can still create excitement and delight in people seeing it for the first time. I’ve shown my work to other developers of course, but feedback between developers tends to be a bit more detached and analytical, as I think is normal for practitioners of any craft. There’s nothing like the immediate, open-faced reaction of someone on a show floor.

It’s true: a stranger is less likely to tell you to your face that something is wrong with the game, even when asked. Why put yourself in the uncomfortable position of delivering bad news to a jittery, emotionally-fragile-looking developer, when you can just smile and walk away? Consequently, in-person reactions from the public are generally skewed toward the positive.  For that reason it’s important not to overindulge in this kind of feedback. But it is possible to tell a genuinely enthusiastic reaction from mere politeness, and this is useful information.  When you’re working on something very closely for a long time, it’s just as easy to lose track of what’s good about it as it is to overlook its flaws.

As for the game itself, the puzzles are flowing better than before, and the story is just starting to come into focus for people, although it needs more work. It’s still possible in the early stretches of the game to solve many puzzles more or less by trial-and-error, or even by accident. I’m constantly tweaking things to make this less of an issue, but the state space is simply too small in the early going to completely prevent accidental or brute force solutions. The number of configurations the game system can be in is limited by my ability to add new locations or animated moving parts, both of which are expensive. Adding to the challenge is the fact that the player can’t physically interact with any part of the game world; they can’t change the numbers on a combination lock or turn valves on steam pipes. etc. If I want to build a combination lock, I have to build it out of multiple connected scenes carefully designed to fit together, which has all kinds of other cascading ramifications. And I’m not sure I want that sort of heavily combinatoric puzzle anyway. In later chapters, puzzles are designed to discourage brute force solutions, but I don’t have the resources to go back and overhaul every part of the game to work this way. Besides, I’ve always thought of the game more as an artifact full of secrets and surprises than a finely-tuned sequence of challenges. I hope players feel the same way.

If anyone reading this came out to see the game at either event, thank you so much! Your interest in the game is what keeps me going.

Weekly Update 4

I have to keep it brief this week. I’m preparing for The Whippering Indie Cup on Thursday, where I’ll be showing the game and giving a 12-minute onstage presentation to an audience and a panel of judges. I’m a little shy about showing the current build, since a lot of the art is still rough. I used to have a bad habit of producing polished art too early, and as a result I ended up throwing out a bunch of expensive finished work. So nowadays I work with temporary art as a matter of discipline, but the downside is that not everything is as pretty as I want it to be when showing the game.  I’ll just have to trust people to understand.

While working on my presentation, in the back of my mind I’ve also been considering a new approach to the game’s ending. The ending has been one of the hardest parts of the game to get working, in a dramatic sense. But I’m excited to try this latest idea, once the show is behind me. That’s about all I can say about it.

Weekly Update 3

transition_demo1This past week was a short one because of the holiday, but I spent most of that time working on the game’s ending. It’s still the roughest part of the game, and it’ll be a challenge to make it dramatically and thematically satisfying. That’s partly because the story is told out of chronological sequence, so that the underlying act structure is folded back on itself. Roughly speaking, Act 1 (in the traditional sense) is told in parallel with Acts 2 and 3. Or maybe Act 1 and 2 are told in parallel with 3? Storytelling is not an exact science, nor is my understanding of it exact. But I think that in order to make it work I need to carefully manage foreshadowing throughout the game.

I know that’s all frustratingly abstract, but I can’t go into much more detail without spoilers. So in order to escape the realm of hand-wavy abstraction, I’ll discuss one specific, concrete visual challenge.

I decided that during several scenes in Chapter 3, we should see the main character writing and drawing sketches in a notebook. I wanted us to see the drawing itself appear, more or less stroke by stroke. My hope was that this would help focus the player’s attention on key story moments, and allow the character to more vividly relate what’s going on in his head. Besides, the process of seeing a drawing come together is inherently compelling; it has a built-in suspense to it. It also reiterates the process by which the hand-drawn world around the character came into being.

I needed an approach that was relatively simple and inexpensive. I wanted to start with the finished drawing, then tell the system how to animate the construction of that drawing. I’m sure there’s a better solution for this problem out there, but here’s what I came up with

prog_fig1I use two gradient images to create an animated mask that progressively reveals parts of the target image (shown above with a solid background though in reality it has a transparent background). In each case the darkest part of the gradient represents the part of the image that is to be revealed first, and the lightest part is revealed last. The coarse gradient divides the target image into large chunks, controlling the order in which sub-sections of the target appear. The fine gradient controls pixel-by-pixel how each sub-section is drawn, which is used mimic the movement of the pencil.

A problem I still have is controlling the relative speed at which each section of the drawing appears. Currently each differently-colored section of the coarse gradient takes the same amount of time to fill in. This creates an overly-mechanical quality, as though the drawing were being done by a machine, as in fact it is. Maybe I’ll scale the drawing time of each subsection based on the number of pixels it includes? Or add a third image to control timing? What I can’t afford to do is hand-tune every stroke. I don’t think.

Another, non-technical issue is that drawings actually take a long time to draw, even when they’re quite simple. Watching the character finish a drawing may try the player’s patience, even if we’re only talking about 10 seconds or so. On the other hand, speeding up the drawing process too much makes it seem unrealistically fast. It’s surprising how much human character and intention can be seen in the movement of pencil strokes, or how readily the absence of that humanity is detected. It’s another thing to fiddle with.

You know, for some reason the word “coarse” never looks right to me.