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The Warren

So my new HTML5 project has been marching along. Progress was a bit slower over the holidays, but the game has taken on a lot more form and I feel pretty comfortable talking about what it’s going to look like at the end. I even decided on a title, after a bit too much deliberation: Ghost Planet.

Because there are all kinds of ghosts, you see

There are a bunch of different areas throughout the game, each with its own theme and type of challenge to overcome. Some of them are more closely related, and build off of another’s mechanics – some of them stand by themselves. All of them are connected to multiple different areas, so there’s no one path to follow – for the most part, you can choose in which order you find them.

But at the beginning of the game, there are only three areas that can be directly accessed, each one in a different direction, with a different mechanic, and a bit larger than the others. You could say these are the main branches from which the others stem.

Today, we’ll talk briefly about the Warren.

warren
/ˈwôrən,ˈwärən/

a densely populated or labyrinthine building or district.”a warren of narrow gas-lit streets”

I’m not shy about my influences – in this case, the Warren is inspired by the “Lost Woods” archetype from the original Legend of Zelda. Since then, there have been many variations on the idea, within Zelda and other games. Simply put, it’s a maze composed of lots of similar rooms with four entrances. Though the solution to the mazes vary, the thing that I find interesting is how quickly one gets disoriented because of the lack of reliable landmarks.

While many “Lost Woods”-type mazes require very specific paths, or will actually loop you back around so that you can never reach the edges of the area, the Warren is more “what you see is what you get”. Each maze is composed of a finite number of rooms, and there’s no trickery warping you around. There are many paths that will lead you to the exit…but finding it will still be difficult due to their layout. And while other mazes might happily spit you out at the beginning if you make a wrong turn, the Warren will let you move as far off track, or go in as many circles, as you please – so staying oriented is important.

But you’re not alone. Throughout the Warren are ghosts that will help guide you through specific portions. In this case, a ghost helps the player through an introductory section by giving them pretty straight-forward directions. But as you go deeper in, the mazes become larger, more hazardous, and the hints you get become a lot more contextual and vague, requiring you to do more leg-work to figure your way out. And not all of your guides will be so trustworthy…

Anyway, that’s the gist of things. I don’t think I’ll be able to cover each area in the game – especially when some have themes/mechanics that are probably better experienced first-hand. But hopefully this gives a bit of an idea what the game is trying to achieve. When I can, I’ll probably do a short overview of the other major areas, or something about the narrative in the game, such as it is.

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A short detour into the land of the dead

I’m working on another game!

…Okay, so I know I just announced working on another large-ish project a little while ago, and since then I haven’t made any updates for it – so it might seem a bit weird to announce another game right now.

But there are reasons! First of all, I’ve been meaning to write more about Familiar, but I just haven’t quite been able to figure out how. In the earlier stages I don’t have as much that I feel comfortable showing, and I can’t seem to touch the subject of Familiar‘s design or narrative without beginning a full-length novel about it. As the game’s visuals slowly climb out of programmer-art territory I’ll be able to show more, and hopefully I’ll be able to formulate my thoughts on what makes the game interesting before then as well!

Secondly, I kinda need a small break from Familiar. It has been slower progress than I had hoped (what else is new), and the amounts of writing/scripting for a narrative game kind of wear down on one. Of course, any big project will have times that you just have to power through, but I also don’t want to burn myself out if I can help it. I had originally planned to always have one small, small project on the side to keep some variety in my gamedev – I just shelved that idea and had been focusing on Familiar until now.


So, what’s this new game? Well, er, it’s a 2D game where you…walk around and talk to ghosts. So, no, it’s not really fresh new territory for me. It has been pointed out to me how ghosts tend to be a heavily recurring theme in my games, and the fact that it looks and controls similarly to previous games is not lost on me. (I will say that this was not originally going to have any ghosts in it at all and would feature a totally different setting, but there’s a longer story behind that…)

But it’s much more of a puzzle-y, exploration focused game than anything else. The dialogue will be very sparse in this case, and you aren’t going to be doing nearly as much talking with ghosts as you will moving them around. As you can see in the above GIF, the player can pick up and drop any of the spirits in the game, and it’s that basic function that the game will revolve around. While some of the spirits you encounter will be there to feed little crumbs of information on the story, or give you vague hints, many of them will have crucial abilities you’ll need to progress.

The two major ones that I can talk about are checkpoints and waypoints.

In this case we can see a giant eye that the player can activate to set a check-point, which will determine where the player respawns when they run into a hazard (as I do several times in this case). These aren’t by any means a new thing for games – the only noteworthy point is that they adhere to all of the same rules as the other spirits you’ll run across. They can have dialogue, although in this case they don’t, and they can be picked up and moved around. This means that if you’re able to pick them up, you’ll be able to freely decide your respawn point!

And here’s a demonstration of waypoints – these come in pairs, and let you warp between the two spirits by interacting with them. In this case, I’m just using them to solve a simple puzzle by grabbing other spirits from an otherwise unreachable area to block the path of some enemies – but they’re really far more important to the game than just puzzle solving.

As I mentioned, a big part of the game is going to be exploration – wandering around, learning about the game’s areas, gathering clues from spirits, and figuring out where you are and what’s really going on. All of that means navigating over a large area, and a lot of potential walking. Unless, of course, you have a network of waypoints that can teleport you to the farther corners of the game’s world!

What I want to do with this game, and part of why I’ve gone out of my way to implement these two objects first, is because I want to make an exploration game where the player is given more control over how exactly they explore. Rather than carefully design the map with puzzles that have just one solution, carefully setting checkpoints where I think they’ll be needed, giving the player handy short-cuts and fast-travel options…all of that will be on the player.

The player will have to decide if they want to leave a checkpoint at a difficult area if they need to traverse it again and want a spawnpoint nearby, or if they want to carry that checkpoint with them to use for wherever they’re going next. They’ll have to decide what would be the most useful locations to leave their waypoints, based on their understanding of the game’s layout and where they think they’ll have to go. And while these are probably the most fundamental abilities, there are many others that will be used in the game.


I’ve been enjoying the diversion working on this game, and progress has been pretty smooth so far – by now I’ve only been working on it for about a week. Although it’s actually a totally separate code-base from literally anything else I’ve shown in this blog, as it’s an HTML5 game written entirely in Javascript, it has benefited from a project I worked on a while ago (and may or may not return to and write about here?).

It may not be the most visually or conceptually groundbreaking thing for me, but I think it has some promise, and I’m really looking forward to sharing my progress. I might be jinxing things, but it looks geared to become the shortest dev-cycle I’ve had thus far (excluding game jams), which is pretty neat in itself!

Announcing a new project – Familiar

Well, it’s been quite a long time since I’ve been in this position.  I’ve mentioned this a little bit on Twitter, but I’m now at a point where I can make it official – I’m working on a new game!

Keeping things simple, it’s going to have a lot of similarities to the games I’ve made in the past – a strong focus on narrative, characters, and mystery.  There are some areas in which I’m trying to use what I’ve learned from At Sea and make improvements, but there’s a lot of different ideas going into it, and it has some fundamentally different priorities.  So…what is it?

Familiar – A slice of life horror RPG

You’re not a ghost, this time – you’re alive for a nice change of pace.  The game centers around the daily life of Allie, who’s having a hard time balancing everything going on in her life.  Over the course of the game you’ll be making lots of decisions, whether that be how to handle awkward work/social scenarios or how to manage your time, that add up over time and dramatically change your play-through.

So why do I call it a slice of life horror game though?  Well, for now let’s just say that how you manage your time is really important.


It’s a bit hard to say how far into development the game is right now, but you can be sure that this is going to become a proper gamedev blog again as I make progress updates, share a bit more about the story/gameplay, and of course ramble on about the ideas and process going into this game.

I’m excited to be committing myself to finishing another narrative game, and I’m really looking forward to get to the point where I can share more of it with everyone!

Why Was I Dead at Sea: Overview

Well, this was a long time coming.  It’s been over three years now since I released Why Am I Dead at Sea, which is a bit disheartening considering what I’ve accomplished (or haven’t) since then – but what has been uplifting, and has largely inspired me to write a post mortem for it, is the fact that it’s still reaching new people and being played after being out for this long.  Some determined folks even managed to make a complete Russian localization of the game, which required not only translating the entirety of the game’s text, but also decompiling the game and rooting through its underbelly to translate some bits of text that were present in its code files!  Wow!

There are so many different aspects of making and releasing the game that I’ve had time to think about and reconsider – what worked, what didn’t, what I’d do differently – that I’ll probably need to split this up into several different posts.  Different people will probably also be interested in specific topics, so it makes sense to cut it up.

Disclosure: Every game’s story is different – mine probably more than most – and there are so many variables and unknowns for each game release that I wouldn’t try to turn my experience into a how-to guide (or even a how-not-to guide).  What I write should be taken at face-value, and not some sort of larger parable.  Later on I’ll probably go into what I might have learned, but this should all be taken with a grain of salt, and an understanding that I’m speaking for myself, not for what I think anyone else ought to do.

With that said, let’s dig into it.


Bird’s Eye View

Let’s start with the basics.  Why Am I Dead at Sea is a mystery/adventure game that was released in 2015 for PC/Mac through Steam.  I started working on it in early 2013, so it saw a little over two years of development, although there were several breaks in that span for multiple reasons.  At that time I wasn’t tracking my development hours very religiously, so unfortunately I don’t have any hard numbers for exactly how long I was working on it when accounting for the breaks.  It’s very likely that if I was able to work on the game at a consistent pace all the way through, it would have been in development for a shorter time, but that’s just a hypothetical.

The inception of the game is pretty straightforward, as it was a follow-up to the original flash game Why Am I Dead, which I released in 2012 as a free web game.  I didn’t take the game very seriously at all, as I created it mostly to familiarize myself with Flash/AS3, so I was surprised when it received positive attention and interest (and that surprise has been well-documented in this blog).  So, after a brief period of trying out other projects that succumbed to scope-creep pretty quickly, I decided it would be a good idea to try my hand at a sequel to the flash game, this time taking it more seriously.  My main goal was to jump from making a small freeware game to a premium game  – similar to the first, it was mostly meant to be used as a learning experience, although this time I was just upping the stakes and production a bit.  My initial timeline was six months – which, obviously, didn’t work out.

I blogged on and off during my development of the game and it has some of its history scattered through different dusty corners of the internet, but the short version of its development is thus: during most of the two year span where the game was in development, I was preparing for, or in the process of, living and working abroad in China as a part-time English teacher.  The decision to do this checked off a lot of boxes for me, such as wanting to travel, having extra time to put towards the game – but most importantly, it financially supported me through pretty much all of the game’s development.  I returned to America in the fall of 2014, and from that point on I used what little I had saved from that job to house/feed myself through the last stretch of the game’s development, up until the game was released on May 11, 2015.

SeeTheWorld


Doing the Dang Thing

That’s the synopsis, but there’s a lot more that could be said about pretty much every step of that period, and why I went the route that I did – but I don’t think it would be controversial to say that this was an, uh, interesting path I took to work on the game – and not one that I would necessarily recommend or use as a model for anything, really.  My decision-making was less focused on a larger plan for myself or the game, and more on a short term view of what could help me finish the game.  Once I missed my six month timeline and realized just how far off that estimate was, I began to have doubts of whether I would finish the game at all, which became larger and larger over time.  Although this wasn’t a game that I felt needed to exist, or that I had some deep personal drive to create, it was still important to me that I finish it, since that was my entire original goal.  It’s extremely common to see projects come and go, unfinished and forgotten, and I didn’t want that to happen to me in this case – I felt that if I didn’t finish At Sea, there was no guarantee that I would finish the next project I started, or the one after that, and so on.  So, a lot of my motivation was less focused on the game itself and more on my ability to fulfill the commitment I had made in the beginning.

Of course during those 2+ years, a lot changed about me, the game, and my expectations for it – when I thought I would be working on it for six months I obviously expected a lot less from it, and planned to sell it around the price point of $3-5, with really no expectations on its success, or any definition of what success would be, other than completion.  The side-effect of it staying in development for so much extra time was that I inevitably grew more attached to it, and despite all my best attempts, I grew emotionally dependent on the game reaching a certain level of success, which I hadn’t really set the game up for in its inception.

NotThatGood

When I returned to America, I devoted all of my time to finishing the game and preparing for its release.  This involved going through the (now obsolete) Steam Greenlight system and contacting press about the game, with seriously mixed/underwhelming results.  The game ultimately did pass Greenlight, but not because it received the required number of votes – instead, I got the news that it was accepted onto Steam at what seemed like a completely random time.  I imagine my game was far from the only one that had this happen, and that Steam was loosening up the requirements of Greenlight to make the way for a self-curating storefront and the current “Steam Direct” system.

No matter the reason, being on Steam was very good news, although by that point it was no longer a guarantee of some baseline amount of sales.  And after what felt like an eternity of missed milestones and failed goals, I was finally able to pin down the game’s release date!

So, May 11 rolled around, I hit the big green button, and a nice chunk of my life was released unto the world.

PushTheButtons


The “Post” Part of the Post-Mortem

So…how was the release?  Well, considering how many of the comments/reviews of the game mention it being “unnoticed”, “underrated” or “not well known”, you can probably guess where this is going (or if you used Steamspy you don’t need too much guessing), but let’s put some numbers on it.  The game launched at a price point of $9.99, with a 20% discount for the first week, so basically $8.  In the first month it just broke $3K in gross revenue, with between 300-400 copies sold.  This at least covered what I spent out of pocket to produce the game, so, that’s something.  In the next four months it would go on to sell roughly an additional 100 copies, bringing it to $4K.

A bit later on I’ll cover my reaction to the game’s release and reception, but for now I’ll just sum it up as “not good”.  But the point I want to make right now is that, counter to all of my expectations at the time, the game’s release was a very tiny piece of the larger picture.  The overwhelming majority of the game’s revenue, sales, and general fan reaction or interest came a long time after its release, with comparatively little effort (if any at all) on my part.

WAIDAS_Sales.PNGHere is a quick li’l graph of the lifetime sales for the game with the hard numbers removed (I don’t think I’m allowed to disclose those, though I don’t think I’m really that important that I would get in trouble).  The game earned nearly twice as much in 2016 as it did in 2015, and only slightly less in 2017.  The game was released quite a bit into 2015, but even if we adjust for this, that would mean that the game’s revenue remained constant throughout the next year, and still held up reasonably in 2017.  We aren’t finished with 2018, but it’s looking to keep pace with its preceding year as well.

That’s the revenue, but you’ll notice that the units sold increased dramatically more than any change in revenue.  A lot of this was due to the game going on deeper and deeper discounts in later sales, but a lot of it was also my decision to cut the game’s base price down to $5 later in 2016.  I don’t have the math on hand to prove this, but I believe the price reduction did lose revenue, as the increase in sales wasn’t enough to offset the lowered price.

But my decision to reduce the game’s price had little to do with revenue, and I expected that I probably would lose money this way – my main goal was simply to try and get more people to play the game!  And looking at it from that perspective, it wasn’t the worst move.  There’s a larger conversation about how we value games and pricing in general that could be had here, but really I just wanted more people to play the damn game.

The delayed nature of the game’s sales can be seen by looking at days of note:

WAIDAS_Sales_tail

This is a chart of revenue/unit sold for the game up to 2 years after launch.  It’s obvious here how sales/discount has impacted the money/unit ratio, but there are some other things I really want to point out – the peak day for revenue was in spring 2016, a full year after launch, and the days for most copies sold are in summer 2016 and spring 2017.  The opening day is also only the 3rd highest in this 2-year span, with two periods in 2016 topping it – and even the deeper discount in 2017 gives it a run for its money despite the much lower selling price.

This is the “long tail”, a phrase and concept that I tragically was not fully aware of until after the game’s release – although in this case it looks less like a tail and more like a heart rate monitor, or something.  By now, this trend is probably well-documented, but believe it or not almost all of the post-mortems I had access to leading up to my release really focused entirely on the first few months of sales and spoke of nothing else.  So, experiencing it firsthand was kind of a surprise.  Oh, and that spike in spring 2016 which holds the record for revenue?  That was a steam sale that I started completely randomly.  There was no particular reasoning or timing behind it; I just scheduled it, and it happened.

To date, the game has sold over 10k copies and grossed over $30k, and it’s still puttering along as new people discover (or circle back to it?) it every day.  I could take this moment to compare it to other games and how much less it sold than them, but instead, I’ll compare it to its first several months of sales, the period that I previously thought was indicative of the game’s success.  But that ended up only accounting for 4% of units sold and 13% of gross revenue, and those numbers are getting smaller by the day.

So… is this how a sales chart should look?  Probably not.  Should it look like something else?  Maybe?  I don’t know.  Could it have done better? Or worse?  Could I have done things differently?  This is entirely too many questions.  All I really want to get across is that the game initially did worse than I expected, and then later on, it did better than I expected.  My main takeaway is that my expectations are not worth a whole lot, at least not when I’m doing something for the first time!

And none of this is even mentioning how much more player reaction there was after the initial release period.  Sure, the game was written about in a bunch of online outlets and got a few reviews, and there were a couple of videos or lets-plays close to launch, but so much of player reviews, word-of-mouth, streams, lets-plays and general fan reaction has been spread out sort of evenly between launch and the present day, usually with spikes around the big sales.  To date, the most-viewed video of the game is…a Russian lets-play of the game starting in August 2017.  And by far the most thorough, detail-oriented and interesting analysis of the game is an hour and a half long video from early 2017.


Next Up

Well, that was a whole lot of words, way more than I was planning for just an “overview”.  But guess what?!  There’s still way more I can talk about!  For this post I tried to keep it a bit tidy and informational for those who really just want the facts, but later on I plan to descend deep into self-indulgent rambling about my feelings and personal take-aways from the game.

about-face : a post-mortem

It’s weird to go back to writing about smaller games, but refreshing.  As small as about-face was, it is a “finished” game (in quotations because I still have a patch that isn’t live yet).  Finishing things is pretty important – I don’t think it’s actually the most important thing, but it’s really high up there.  And every time you finish something, you usually learn some stuff, because it is one of the primary ways of getting feedback.  So, what have I learned this time around?


What went right

It’s always nice to start with the positive.  I think some things went well with about-face that are worth mentioning.

1. Scope was controlled

about-face never expanded in scope – there were some things that weren’t part of the original idea that made it in, but they didn’t lengthen the game’s development significantly.  There were huge delays in the game’s development, but more due to personal interruptions, losing focus and switching to different projects.

2. The mechanic worked

General feedback has been that people have had fun with the game and often play it to completion.  It isn’t a long game, but the mechanic was interesting enough to hold peoples’ attention and was a strong motivator for people to finish it.

The idea was to take a very simple mechanic that still had a lot of space to explore, and that didn’t require lots of other sub-mechanics to make it interesting.  This made the game very fun to design as well, because I was able to be laser-focused on that one concept and make everything around it.

3. The art/sound/motif worked

about-face palette

The game’s entire palette.

I wasn’t sure how people would receive the style of the game.  From a production standpoint, this game definitely isn’t my most ambitious work.  The game mechanics, art, and sound are all very minimal, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if that was counted against it.  Luckily though, people have appreciated it for what it is.

What went not right

1. The ending

I think this is a weakness of mine, because for pretty much every game I’ve made the ending has not been received as anticipated, for better or for worse.  In this case, some people were not even sure if the ending of about-face was actually the ending or not.  Granted some people liked what I did, but when something creates unintentional confusion that’s always a failure in design.  There are parts of the game that I had envisioned as cues for the game’s ending – the final areas of the game take a step back from the mechanics earlier in the game, and serve more as spectacles than anything else – to me, this was the game gearing up for an ending, but none of this was backed up by any other cues in the game.

I think ultimately, I made a lot of assumptions regarding what people would be thinking as they were completing the game, which turned out to be wrong!  I need to spend as much time with narrative cues as I do with the rest of the game’s design.

2. The resolution

This is a weird one.  The game was meant to be a pretty small resolution to complement the simple visuals, but what I ended up with was uncomfortably small and kind of a pain to look at.  The weird thing is that part of this is because my IDE was actually displaying the game at a larger resolution than I had configured and applying AA (despite my attempts to hard-code no-AA settings), so 99% of the time I spent playing/testing the game was with a larger resolution than it would be in reality.  This is particularly annoying, because without using AA, the only way to make the game larger is to just scale everything up 2X, which is unfortunately a bit too large.  So, the only real fix is to change the game’s aspect ratio, without messing up the gameplay by making the player’s vision too small.

I guess the take-away here would be to try the game out more on the actual platform it’s being played on, and not just in the dev environment.

3. The controls

Some of the feedback was on the game being too slippery, and the gravity being way too high.  The former was easy to fix, but the latter is tricky because all of the levels are designed around the player having a specific jump height/speed.  So obviously, changing the player’s physics can have consequences on level design.

These are pretty big deals, because moving left/right/jumping encompass all of the player’s controls.  If those aren’t on point, there’s a problem with the core of the game.  Ideally, I would identify any dependencies the game has – in this case, how the level design is very closely tied to the way the player controls – and get early feedback on those elements before they’ve become fleshed out.  In this case, the problem wouldn’t have been a problem at all if I had identified that gravity was too high before I designed and iterated through all of the levels.

Back, forth, back, forth

Yesterday morning I did the seemingly impossible – I finished one of those games I mentioned earlier!  In fact, it was largely because of the “Odds and Ends” posts I made a little while back, that I was reminded of how close I was to completion on some of those projects.  It made it harder to justify leaving them alone.

I added a bit more content to about-face, polished some issues around the edges, added some extra sound and tweaked the levels, and now it’s live on Newgrounds!

GameImage

The game’s logo, one place where I break resolution.  The horror!

And there it will stay for a while.  I guess it’s sort of an unofficial limited-time exclusivity for Newgrounds, because I like the site…well, a flash game can never be truly exclusive, even when site-locked…but the point is I like uploading stuff there first, okay?  It also gives me time to gather user-feedback and adjust the game accordingly before I put it in other places.  After all, it’s easier to make 10 small changes in one place than 10 small changes in 10 places.

My plans for the game are extremely small, as it was a game I made for fun (and anyway I don’t have faith in how much traffic a flash game can pull these days).  I’ll make some changes to the game as needed, and then move on.  It’s not my most ambitious project, and as my previous posts have indicated, I have a couple other things that I’d like to continue working on!

Thankfully, people have largely enjoyed the game for what it is, and it’s sitting around 3.5+ stars at the moment which is about as much as I could ask for.  It feels really nice to put a smaller game out to the public and be getting more user feedback, and I’m glad I decided to finish this game before continuing on other projects.

I definitely learned some things through development/release of this small game, which might be worth writing up in a bite-sized post-mortem.

I could also talk about the message/theme of the game, but really, the whole point is minimalism, so it would be more fitting to let the game speak for itself on that matter.

Reflections on story/characters in “At Sea”

For a while I’ve wanted to post some reflections on the characters/story of At Sea: or more accurately, reflections on how players have reacted to different parts of the game.  It seems a bit weird to be writing about a game that I’ve released over a year ago, but the fact is it is still my largest released project to date, and chances are if you’re reading this, it’s because you saw Why Am I Dead At Sea somewhere!

Some of this might be interesting to those who have played the game all the way through.  Certain things that were intended but may not have been communicated to the player, remaining questions the player may have after finishing the game, and random musings.


NOTE, if you haven’t played the game yet, this will have SPOILERS so you should not read it if you care about that kind of thing.  I will “white out” some of the big stuff (select the text to see it) but the entire game consists of twists/reveals, so talking about the story in any capacity will contain spoilers.


1. People really don’t like Xu, huh?

One thing that I feel like I could have done better with was making Xu a more sympathetic character.  Watching people play the game, a lot of people really dislike her, I mean, a lot, and that wasn’t exactly what I was anticipating.

I mean, she’s not what I would call a great person.  Even in the very first conversation you have with her, there are clear hints that she is being deceptive/manipulative.  But the game’s overall opinion of her is meant to be roughly neutral – she has flaws, but is ultimately a good person.  Unfortunately, I don’t think her dialogue depicts this side of her as well as it could have.

Reflections1

2. Alton hogs the early parts of the game, and was the hardest character to write

I’ve seen players grow weary of him and his character-arc, which is understandable.  To progress through earlier parts of the game, you have to spend a lot of time with him.  Personally, this is my least favorite aspect of the game from a narrative perspective.

In general, Alton has been the most difficult character to write, and his personality/story arc have gone through multiple dramatic changes over the game’s development.  Originally, Alton came off as a much worse person in the script, and reacted quite differently to certain events in the story (for the worse).  The initial conflict between him and Xu was meant to be, essentially, a re-enactment of the game’s larger conflicts/themes, on a very tiny stage.  But conveying all of this was difficult, because Alton is the first character you meet and play as, and is sort of the tutorial character.  He also seems like an okay person at the beginning – he has flaws, but they are flaws often given to an “underdog” protagonist.

So I was very worried that players would falsely interpret Alton as the underdog protagonist, and that his opinions were those of my own, or the game’s.  I ended up rewriting a lot of his dialogue to reduce the chance that he would be interpreted this way.  This ultimately made his dialogue less substantive – he simply has a lot less interesting things to say.

3. People wanted to know more about the protagonist (ie the ghost)

A common complaint is the lack of closure on just who exactly you are.  This is half-intentional, but something that I could definitely improve on.  There are obvious challenges – you are dead, you have lost all memory of your past self, and the other characters in the story didn’t know much about you even when you were alive.  So, opportunities for character-development are scarce.  One option would have been flash-backs as you recover pieces of your memory, but this was outside the scope of the game.  It could also disrupt the focus of the game – ultimately, the protagonist is not supposed to be the center of attention – that place is reserved to the cast of the living.

Reflections2.png

Okay.  That’s cool…I guess…

I will say that the ghost does have a full back-story and character – it’s not for lack of these things that the ghost’s former personality is vague.  It was more of a conscious decision not to go too far into those details.  But there is something in-game that tells you a bit more about the protagonist, which isn’t laid out very clearly: when you go into the “minds” of Darryl and Gwen, and pose as someone they knew – the reason Smilla is able to speak as if she were these people is because she went through the same problems they did.  So when she poses as Darryl’s wife and speaks in first person, she’s not actually talking about his wife – she’s literally talking about herself, and something she went through at a previous point in her life.

4. What could have been

I’ve already mentioned that Alton went through some rewrites, but what else was planned and got changed/removed, or what wasn’t planned but made its way into the game?

  • As far as rewrites, Darryl also saw the large majority of his dialogue get replaced over the course of development.  He initially was a more upbeat, personable character who cracked jokes to everyone on the ship – then in chapter 3 it would be revealed that this was a facade.  But it never really felt convincing to me.  It gave his arc a twist, but it didn’t actually make sense.  The whole point is that he’s apathetic, so the idea that he would spend energy pretending to be anything else didn’t add up.  So, wise-crack Darryl was replaced with dour Darryl.
  • I had always planned on full possession, but the implications of this mechanic from a story perspective were unpredictable and at some points I felt I had written myself into a corner – or worse, into a situation where there were too many possibilities to account for.  Most of the events in chapter 4 were changed in development as a result of the diverging possibilities.  The entire section where Gwen is put under suspicion and has to be proven innocent was added very late as a means of re-focusing (or limiting) the player’s agency.
  • On the other side, I had never planned on being able to “upgrade” your ghost form so that it looked like your former self, or the possibility of interacting with people while in your ghost form.  This means that I also never initially planed the instances where you go into the minds of Gwen and Darryl and fully unlock them by assuming the role of someone from their past.  In retrospect, the game seems like it would be really incomplete without these parts, and they actually didn’t take very much time or energy to create, so I’m very happy that I added them.
  • You probably wouldn’t know it if you didn’t play through the game multiple times, but the epilogue for the game is different not only depending on what ending you get, but also some of the decisions you make earlier on.  The same characters will have a conversation, but the direction that it goes can vary based on how they’ve interacted throughout the game.  This was another last-minute addition to the game that almost didn’t make the cut.
  • The “bathroom ghost” was yet another last-minute addition to the game.  I wonder what % of players have actually found this part, and what they made out of the ensuing dialogue.