Archives for category: Game Design

No, we are not dead. But we are split up.

Now I suppose it is okay to officially say, given the distance from the project, that Kale In Dinoland was never meant to be taken seriously as a game. Nor was it ever a real GameBoy title. Whoops! Surprise! (not really)

The whole of Kale In Dinoland as a project was to overdramatize (and satirize) the indie developer and the pitfalls of retro culture in a larger sense. The extreme, design-limiting, even quality-detrimental commitment to the “authenticity” of our “source material” (GameBoy games) criticized the hollow belief that retro games were all somehow better than games are today. While nostalgia is impossible to get away from, such an unhealthy focus on games such as Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda: aLttP as exemplars of genre in an  era of radically different platforms (touch-devices) and consumers (the social market) is plain unrealistic and downright unoriginal for the game designer.

Of course, Kale In Dinoland wasn’t solely a satirical venture: its other aim was to establish a universe, somewhat subversively, which we (the Rotting Cartridge) could then capitalize on in further game releases, leading to the finale. That plan is still in effect. But how I go about achieving that finale, or whether the finale will ever be achieved, is no longer the constricting noose it once was. Put frankly, I am sick of the retro-ports theme. I want to design a game for iOS — for iOS, not for GameBoy and then pseudo-ported to iOS — that is also interesting to think about, and the complexity of whose UI does not directly conflict with its authenticity, because it seeks no authenticity.

So The Rotting Cartridge (me) is working on a new game. But I don’t know whether the game will come out. Right now I am only toying with the idea, testing the design in my off-time, writing a narrative. Those are the things intrinsically enjoyable to me. IF I do decide to produce the game, over the summer for example, then I would need to get a team together. For that I’m looking at Starmen.net.

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In an effort to appear less secretive and more identifiable, we’ve recorded interviews with each of the members of The Rotting Cartridge, so that the public can put faces to the magic. The first interview focuses (by his request) on J, the founder of TRC and really the creative genius behind the whole thing:

Stay tuned for a final trailer and release date on our first game/port, Kale In Dinoland, coming in February.

I bought and played Bastion the night it came out, having followed Supergiant Games ever since January, when I found a link to a game that – upon first glance – looked similar to an isometric RPG game I was set on creating. But Bastion was its own thing, which I soon found out during the developer videos at Giantbomb.

The reason I was so interested? Sure, the art was amazing – at that point I wasn’t aware the sound was as well – but the narrator. Here was a developer set on doing something new, set on bringing a baby into this world.

I guess with every new sequel to a sequel, I get queasy. There just aren’t that many original designs floating around right now – seems like everyone is dead-set on repackaging the same bullshit we’ve already seen with a different colored ribbon. People have compared Bastion to an old SNES game. I don’t see it. But what I do see is this freshness, and perhaps that’s what people really mean now when they call it an SNES game: an original game. For god’s sake, an original game!

Everyone I told about Bastion during this time wasn’t thrilled. They didn’t see the potential the game had, being caught up with the nth installment of whatever RPG series and reluctant to try an XBLA title. But this isn’t about how I was right and they were wrong. This is about why I, fundamentally, can’t look past Bastion’s ending.

(SPOILER ALERT)

When you get to the end of Bastion, the game freezes and you are offered – in a menu screen – two options, either to try and save Zulf or leave him behind. The reason I am so opposed to this is before the menu pops up, the game design is spot-on. Near perfect. Every part of the game felt enjoyable to me. But this – MENU – pops up, I’m thinking, “What is this? No “good-or-evil” menus popped up in the entire game!” All of a sudden I was shocked.

It may have been Supergiant’s tight development schedule. But I view the menu as a blunder, a smear on the perfect canvas.

Bastion is a game devoted to dynamically engaging the player through gameplay. The narration represents the epitome of this fact: he reacts to you, he talks to you, and you trust him. The entire game leading up to the ending moment was filled with direct engagement. You were told your decisions in the game, on the playing field, had meaning. And I was foolish enough to believe they would follow through on this design theme. I was wrong.

What should have happened? There should have been no pop-up. The player should have been able to either realize there was a choice, and choose, or not realize there was a choice. And that potential: for people to not realize there was a choice, and blindly trudge forward leaving Zulf behind only to later find out they could have saved him – is a moment I wished occurred in Bastion, one that I can’t look past.

We’re still working on Kale in Dinoland! There’s a part of me that doesn’t believe it will ever be complete but… that’s nonsense. Here’s a more recent screenshot of a later area in the game:

Kale in Dinoland Screenshot

Kale’s sprite might still change at this point. Also if you noticed this game is a port of an old GameBoy game called “Kale in Dinoland”, but now that I’m looking at it I should explain that it does not perfectly emulate that experience because that would be boring. Nevertheless, I’ve tried to limit the design. Like some platformers of the day, Kale in Dinoland has doors that lead to single screen sub-levels containing a power-up or item.

Despite efforts to limit resources and pixel precision, there is undoubtedly a difference in screen real estate with the iPhone that heavily influences level design. For instance, a non-scrolling sub-level in the original is more square. In the iPhone version, I have from the top of the d-pad to the bottom of the health bar: in other words, super widescreen. So a lot of the levels focus on diagonal climbing (since looking for an enemy is the most optimal), almost none on downward progression, and the sub-levels reflect this extreme widescreen. I’ve had to cut some of the falling levels from the game.

The second difference, which I’ve tried to correct for the most part, is speed. In the screen above Kale is riding what I call a “Dog,” which can move horizontally pretty quickly. In GameBoy games, the character’s horizontal speed was capped much lower, so the limited level space could be maximized with enemies and obstacles. But I think the speed improvement will be welcomed by those that play it.

The last comparison is the save feature. Saving in the original Kale in Dinoland? Nonexistent. No save feature today? Almost nonexistent. So yes, Kale will have a save feature. But only as much as I believe GameBoy games would have saved — There are 6 areas in Kale in Dinoland, and after you finish one, your character returns to the world map and you are allowed to save. Meaning, manual saving. I’m still not sure (maybe it’ll be automatic?), but it will definitely only be after you beat an area.

In order to progress through Dinoland, you must beat an entire Area before you can save. Don’t worry, they aren’t that long. But they aren’t that short either. This also means individual levels aren’t selectable, because fitting multiple level select screens and a save feature for 50+ levels on top of a 6-area world map is not realistic to the GameBoy’s capacity.

At any rate, don’t take the ‘original GameBoy platformer’ out of proportion – it is heavily influenced by the original game, but I cannot deny that there are differences.

This is part two of an x-part series summarizing the design of one of the greatest games of all time, SOTC. Part 1 can be found here.

Welcome back to Design Theatre! Today, we’ll take a look at how Shadow of the Colossus (SOTC) was designed in its first major sections of gameplay.

There are sixteen bosses in Shadow of the Colossus, each with a unique twist on the “stab its vitals” formula. The first boss, a giant wandering colossus with a club, is by far the easiest, only requiring the player to climb up its leg and stab its head to defeat it. However, at this early point in the game, the player doesn’t yet know they have to do this, and since the player has likely never faced something this large in a game before, they panic. The battle serves as a tutorial, teaching the player the fundamentals of how to defeat a colossus, without giving them all the answers. For example, it is hard to imagine that the latter bosses of the game require the player to utilize their environment in creative ways to defeat them, yet the goal – climb the colossus and stab it with your sword – remains the same. From this section we learn:

#5. In the beginning of a game, introduce a short-term goal that shouldn’t change for the duration of the game.

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There’s plenty of great games that, for one reason or another, passed me by during the course of my existence. Shadow of the Colossus? One of those games. And now since SOTC comes up in almost every discussion on “video games as art” or as film or as an example of good design, I’m pressed to sit down and finally play it.

First of all, if you haven’t played it yet, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR GET A COPY AND A PS2 AND PLAY IT ALREADY!! ^__^ No, seriously. You’re missing out. Now then..

Shadow of the Colossus starts with a very long cutscene that plays like a film, despite its graphical rust. We see a man on a horse climbing a precarious ledge, and then follow him to a huge bridge over a canyon. This opens up a few questions: Who is this man (boy?) on the horse, where is he going, and most importantly, where did he come from? As far as I’ve played, not all of these questions are answered, though we do learn where he is going. This leads to the first lesson of Design Theatre:

#1. Open with questions.

In case you’re designing a game with its own story and world, take a lesson from SOTC and open with questions, easing the player into their place in the world, while simultaneously immersing them in it. Half-life 1 and 2 do this: the player starts on a tram car, with someone talking, and while this dialogue alludes to events in the game world, it opens up many more questions than it answers. The original Halo also does this, with Captain Keyes and the AI Cortana exchanging dialogue without speaking to the player directly. In fact, even Braid does this, opening with the protagonist silhouetted against a burning city: why is it burning? Where am I? The answer to Braid’s question is answered at the end of the game, which nicely transitions back to the burning city after the epilogue, concluding the narrative and making the game seem complete.

Going back to SOTC, the opening cutscene then fades out perfectly into the title screen – it does not upset the mood of the game by fading to a black screen with a spinning logo, as was – and sadly still is – a cliche of console and pc games. Portal 2’s story was fantastic, but the proliferation of loading screens was downright ridiculous. When designing a game with loading screens, please don’t upset the carefully-crafted mood of the game each time a load screen pops up, or the bulk of the game’s content will be lost in the moments after the load screen as the player tries to recollect their composure. So I’m making this the second lesson of Design Theatre:

#2. Never let load screens upset the mood of the game: hide load times whenever you can.

This is an oft-overlooked lesson. Say what you will about Apple, but if they ever made a game, be sure that minimal load screens would be a top priority. Why? Because Apple cares not just the product, but the presentation of the product, and treats both equally. For those who played the original Mass Effect, the infamous elevator scenes – where the player had to ride extremely slow elevators that masked level loads – are NOT what I mean when I say “hide” a load screen, since some players knew they were waiting for a level to load. SOTC hides its loading from the player extremely effectively, as there are little to no load screens during the course of the game. (You might have not noticed the game loaded anything at all!)

When our hero finally steps off his horse, we see him carry a girl (who looks his age) to what is presumably an altar, and sets her there. What is interesting about this scene is that you may not have noticed the girl at all until this moment, which serves to renew interest in the story after a quite lengthy opening sequence. It is implied through an anonymous talking mask that she is dead, and our hero has ventured into the land of the colossi, (that was apparently so dangerous a giant bridge was built over it) apparent immortals whose physical incarnations can only be killed by a mortal with an ancient sword, which our hero conveniently yields. Here, our questions start to be answered, but more questions are raised.

The scene is actually a cleverly-disguised tutorial section, which explains to the player the goal of the game (kill all 16 colossi to bring a dead girl back to life), foreshadows the shadow spirit’s role in the story, provides narrative incentive to play the game (“But read this, the price you pay may be heavy indeed.” What price? Death?), and tells the player that the sword is important to gameplay (“Raise thy sword by the light”). This leads to the third rule of design theatre, which is relevant to story-based games:

#3. Intertwine the tutorial into the story. The meaning of important plot objects should parallel their meaning during gameplay.

For example, the opening cutscene shows the player that they are alone with their horse, who enables them to travel long distances together – exactly what the horse is used for during the course of the game. The idols need to be destroyed — the colossi need to be destroyed. The sword allows our hero to hold some power — only the sword can kill the colossi.

Once the player moves on to the first area, we must leave Agro (the horse) behind, and climb our first wall. When I first got to this section my friend and I couldn’t figure out where to climb up, but once we discovered that the moss can be climbed, every other climbing area was relatively easy. What we didn’t know at this point was that the visual distinction of climbable surfaces (furry materials) shows the player how to defeat the first colossi, without telling them directly: climb up the fur on his feet. Notice that the designers could have shown us the first colossi and then told us during the course of battle that “fur can be climbed,” or even show us (by panning the camera or something), but instead make us show ourselves before the first battle even begins. This is our fourth lesson:

#4. When introducing a new gameplay mechanic, let the player show themselves how it functions.

The ability to let the player show themselves how or why something is separates games from film and books. It seems natural that the progression of entertainment goes something like so:

  • Books tell the reader; they speak directly to the reader, but they can only produce imperfect images because every human interprets words differently. English teachers tell you it is better to show than to tell in stories, which comes naturally to films.
  • Films show the viewer (if they are good films!); they show the viewer exactly what they mean, but the visual conception of the world is usually concrete. Great films usually go against the viewer’s visual conception of the world that the protagonist lives in – in Taxi Driver, (spoiler alert) this is when De Niro shaves his head into a mohawk, tries to kill a politician in an army jacket and then goes on a violent rampage. In The Shawshank Redemption, this is when Andy reveals that he’s been carving an escape passage behind his pin-up posters.
  • Games let the player show themselves; the player, through experimentation and logical thought, can deduce the meaning and function of elements in the world. In level 1-1 of Super Mario Bros., you know to jump on Goombas to defeat them, use Mushrooms to grow and hit ? blocks to uncover power-ups and coins. None of this is told to the player from a third party – the player discovers the world for themselves.
This marks the end of Part 1 — but don’t worry! ^__^ Part 2 is on the way! Whereas Part 1 focused heavily on story and the first steps of a game, Part 2 will focus on the colossi battles and their presentation.