Groundhog Day with a Heart of Darkness

It’s been a strange kind of a month at the Fishbowl. Paul and I have been present less than we’d like, due to day jobs and illness, and even when I’ve been here I’ve had the sneaking feeling that something wasn’t quite right. All this came to a head a week or so ago, with Paul and I having separate revelations about the problems inherent in our current plans.

For Paul, it was assessing project proposals for some games students that returned the term “over-scoped” firmly to the forefront of his consciousness, and he has once more taken to uttering his classic phrase “we’ll put it in the sequel”. For me, it was my time showing off Flatland: Fallen Angle at the Indie Games Room, down in Adelaide-town, that brought things back into focus. I realised again how much people like that game, a fact far more surprising than it should be.

In that darkened room I watched player after player sink into that strange world of polygonal brutality, and almost all of them emerged smiling. And that made me realise just how much the game we’ve been building since then fails to learn from and improve on the strengths of its forerunner. The stealth puzzles we’ve been doing, as well as David has crafted them, seem blandly linear and slow when compared to the helter-skelter ride that we originally built over three energy-charged weeks.

So, what to do? After some initial clashing over planned direction, we decided to seek the assistance of our former colleague, design-guru Dan. And so the three of us took a weekend morning, propped a whiteboard in the sun behind Dan’s block of flats, and emptied our brains in the form of removable ink.

What was great about Fallen Angle, that we want to preserve? What is the absolute essential core of the gameplay that we want to keep, and what is merely gravy, or worse – features added for the sake of more features. We started with a descriptive phrase:  “A Tactile Arcade Adventure with a Heart of Darkness”, and by the end of the morning we had that core whittled down, and laid out as three layers, like an underdeveloped onion.

In summary, it looks like this:

  1. “Tactile Arcade” refers to the mechanics, the important bits of which are the physicality of the movement and the shape-breaking. We want to emulate the hectic feel of Fallen Angle, but improve on precision and predictability, in order to ease player frustration.
  2. “Adventure” describes the feel of traversing the designed environment of the flat world – how the encounters and levels build a sense of place and story, that sense of expectation that exciting things lie ahead. It’s the player versus the world – at its core, this is an equation that should be easy to understand.
  3. The “Heart of Darkness” bit is all about mood and storytelling. This is the dark, noir-esque atmosphere that tempers the big, bold feeling of “adventure”, giving it an edge of wrongness. We want the player to have a sense that there are forces both out in the world and within the character that are pushing them inevitably towards a dark fate.

Back at the office, we outlined the plan to the team. They seemed amenable, but somewhat dispirited by the idea of “starting from scratch”. Which isn’t exactly what we’re doing, as we can use a lot of what we’ve built and learned over the last months, but it can certainly feel that way. I sometimes get the sense that I’m Bill Murray, waking up to find that it’s Groundhog Day once again.

But it’s a all a learning process. With practice, Bill learns his lessons and in the end he overcomes and releases a high-quality game. Or he gets the girl – I forget.

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