Into the Dark for You: A Postmortem

Finally I am getting around to writing a postmortem for “Into the Dark for You”.  “Into the Dark for You” [ITDFY] is the game I submitted this past weekend to Ludum Dare (#22) the 48 hour game design competition. ITDFY can be obtained here. It is recommended that you play it, if you can, before reading too far as I’m just about to ruin the whole game for you.

Theme

The theme for Ludum Dare #22 was Alone. I actually had no problem with this theme. A lot of people in the IRC chat hated the theme (a second theme of kittens was adopted unofficially), but Alone was one of the three final themes I upvoted.  I hadn’t spent any time thinking about the theme beforehand (I fully expected that randomly-generated would be the theme).  When the theme was revealed, I sat down for about an hour and the game concept came to me.

My thought process for the theme was that with a theme like Alone, I wanted to tell something of a compelling story. Further, I wanted to make sure that the story wasn’t totally depressing. After all, the theme was Alone, and I knew that people would make a lot of depressing games.  I had previously made a simple board game for teaching the concept of loss to children (a challenge for Ian Schreiber’s Game Design Concepts class a few years ago).  The game was about a group of children growing up and becoming independent, as the mother goes further and further away from their lives. I basically took this same idea and turned it backwards for the game concept. The focus was on the mother this time, and the child was slowly leaving the nest.

For my warmup week game, I made an entirely text-based game about a person grasping with a realization of one’s own madness (or something like that). I spent so much time working on the text system for that game, that I decided I wanted my game to be devoid of any text. I also wanted to keep scripted events to a minimum, just enough to let the player know what was going on at the start and guide the player a little when it wouldn’t make any sense. I wanted the actions the player was doing to tell the story, and I wanted the player to make up the story.  The result was something of a bare game. At times it felt silent (even with the music I included). Other times it felt loud and obvious.  Still, I think it worked, or at least I hope it did.

The Good

  • This is the third game I have finished this month. I don’t know what is going on, but I am loving how productive I have been.  Finishing a third game that I really like feels just wonderful.  Further, this is the first full game that I programmed from scratch. There was a lot missing from my weekend warmup game and I don’t think that could be considered a full game. ITDFY is a whole game, and I made it in C++. This is an achievement!
  • I have music and sound.  This is the second game I had music at all, and the first with sound effects. The first game I needed music because it was important to the characterization in the game.  In ITDFY, it was optional, but I managed to get it working.
  • I told a good story that has an emotional arc. I told it using expression and game mechanics, not exposition or lengthy cutscenes (although I have some scripted scenes in the game).
  • I love my little exclamaition point people.  Part of my problem was that I am not much of an artist, so I needed easy-to-draw characters, as well as characters that I could show changing over time.  Exclamaition points could be created programatically, so it was easy to animate them too.
  • I felt like I knew what I was doing, for the most part.  I didn’t try to tackle a new language at the last moment.  I didn’t set out to make a game way beyond my ken.
  • I got done early.  I was actually finished at about the 40 hour mark. Everything needed was in the game.  The last 8 hours were spent adding in extra things to make the game better.

The Bad

  • I’m worried that the game isn’t really much of a game. It’s a maze. It tells a story, but there isn’t really any challenge to the game.  I pushed this off with the idea that the challenge was understanding what to do next.
  • The game is a bit punishing. As you walk through the forest, there is a day/night cycle.  At night, the tiles are barely visible, if at all (water and stone a re visible, everything else not at all). This prompted me to add “sparks” to the game, which lit up the forest one level when used.  Sparks are the most game-like mechanic, being that they can be used as a score. The more you have, the better you were at the game. But the sparks don’t really fit the game very well.  The complete darkness was pretty punishing. What I should have done, instead, was reduce the visible squares at night, so you can only see a little bit of the forest depending on the time of day.  This was suggested by a commenter (nate427), and I totally agreed with it.  It would have greatly fit my game’s concept and title.
  • I wanted to do more with sparks.  At the end, I was considering making it so that a spark was consumed each night like food, and you could lose the game if you ran out of sparks.  I don’t know how I felt about this, though.  I’d also wanted sparks to be littered about the forest, but I had a really hard time getting them to randomly generate about, so I scrapped the idea.
  • I wanted to have obstacles, or at least something that required a bit of thought or skill.  The child was supposed to play a part in this, somehow.  This was a feature scrapped early on in the process, as the system I created really didn’t allow for it.
  • The game is shorter than it should have been. It was supposed to have four areas, the last of which empties directly into the child’s house.  I didn’t have time to make two more areas, mostly because adding in those two areas would have changed my tile set around (Tile Studio seems to put the most used tile first).  The child, as it is, does not reach full development (he’s only at stage three growth at the end).  I also feel that players wouldn’t have played the game as it is with two more levels.  The back-tracking would be just silly.
  • I’d wanted better movement in the game.  It’s square-by-square at the moment, but I really wanted free movement. I think square-by-square looks bad and feels old and gam(e)y.
  • The music isn’t the best. It doesn’t fit the game at all.  I’d wanted to use this music, but Wolfram’s terms meant that I couldn’t myself distribute the file. I ended up using AutoTracker-C, which makes great music for games with technology or action in them, but doesn’t really make good ambient music.  I spent hours tweaking the output in OpenMPT, trying to get it to sound at least decent (I don’t know that I succeeded). I might have been able to track my own piano/pan flute music, but I really didn’t have that much time.

Overall, I enjoyed making this game, and I have some great ideas as to where to take the game from here.

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