Betrayed Alliance Post-Mortem (Puzzle Design – The Squirrel Puzzle)

I heaped myself a bunch of praise when I looked at the Overworld Structure for BA: Book 1. As much as I enjoy patting my own back, today I’ll be moving my hand to my forehead as we look at some puzzle choices.

Plot and Puzzle Spoilers

The Squirrel Puzzle

This puzzle has three steps:

  • 1. Activate the puzzle by giving the squirrel the acorn
  • 2. Say “copy cat” to the squirrel and it will position itself to mirror your actions
  • 3. Make the correct sequence of steps.
Conspicuous, eh?

As a puzzle, it’s fine. Not earth-shatteringly good, not rip-out-your-hair-bad. The signposting to say “copy cat” is clear once you’ve heard the dialog from the soldiers watching the Whispering Caverns. The signposting for the correct sequence of steps is carved into the puzzle structure itself, which is also told to the player if they happen to “look at” the puzzle board itself.

What’s wrong with it?

The design feels arbitrary. Simply put, why is it there, other than just another obstacle for the player? And what reason is there for a squirrel?

It breaks the immersion when it’s just some random puzzle.

What’s worse is that it was designed with a story purpose, but very little made it into the game.

The puzzle leads to a hidden grove, meant to be a “special place” for the main villain (Gyre) and his wife, who had died before the events of the game. The spirit of the wife “haunts” the place playing music, which has led to the spread of the legend of the “Muse of the Mountain.”

The puzzle needing two participants was originally set up for Gyre and his wife to gain access to their secluded sanctuary. With her passing, Gyre had trained an animal to replicate the pattern so he could still gain access. I never devised a way to get this information into the game, sadly. About all that made it into the game were the rumors about the “Muse of the Mountain” which you find in an optional library book.

Why do the tiles make sounds?

From its inception it was designed to be a music-puzzle, where the player (along with the squirrel) would repeat the four chords of a song that could be heard playing if one listened near the entrance.

The woman/spirit the player finds is seen to play music and sings all of her dialog. The lore is that people can hear her singing, but Gyre cannot due to his heart being clouded with thoughts of revenge.

So what happened? I hadn’t considered the limitations of sound in SCI, particularly the ability to only play back one sound at a time. The idea was each block played a tone, but when the player and squirrel would step on two different blocks, it would play two sounds making a small chord. That didn’t work at all because it couldn’t!

A concession was made to add arrows onto the puzzle board itself and remove any correspondence to the notes and the solution. The puzzle became more of a dexterity challenge than a music puzzle in the end.

I have regrets…

While the puzzle is generally fine in a vacuum, I do regret how I poorly I translated the puzzle from design to execution. I feel it lost almost all of its story meaning, and most of its original puzzle design as well.

It wasn’t until about the last month or two before release I had (for other reasons) decided to use “SCI Audio” which would open a parallel program that plays music separately from the game program. This program did allow for multiple tones at once, but at that point, the puzzle was already in place and the release was coming too soon to go back and change things.

Redeeming features

Yes, I have regrets, but this puzzle still has some things going for it.

  • It adheres to the “find the lock before the key” rule, while also allowing you to play around a bit with it (if you give the Squirrel the acorn).
  • While the notes no longer matter, it is generally fun to play with them.
  • The player will typically go through a series of trial and error efforts like “pressing down all the tiles” before leaving the puzzle or solving it. It’s generally good if the puzzle’s not so easy the player gets it straight away.

Who cares what I think?

It’s your opinion that matters, not mine. I just made the puzzle, you got to play it. So what are your impressions?

Betrayed Alliance 2021 – Devlog – April (and Bad News)

It’s our quarterly update!

We started the year off right with a post on death and dying (in Sierra games), and worked on a lot of animations for that aspect of the game. Probably about half of the 30 unique deaths possible now have either animations or cute frames like you see below to accompany the player’s death.

We’re also looking into making some “inside” pics and buildings. We had a great Twitter thread explode with people posting their personal favorite “inside” shots. Check them out! Creating and furnishing these areas will be a big focus in the next couple of months as puzzle elements start coming together for the first major plot point of the game.

Semi-consistent art streams are in the works each Friday evening on my YouTube channel, depending on family demands. The following two images were completed almost from scratch over the course of 3 nights of Streaming. It’s a great time to come out for a few minutes or even hours and chat about Adventure games (or anything really)! While my usual schedule has me working on backgrounds once a week on Wednesday, adding a second day is a nice jumpstart for planning and getting things done.

*Due to circumstances, Friday streams are being rescheduled. A new time will be forthcoming.

We also had a vote for the tagline for Betrayed Alliance 2. So let’s see how it turned out:

So there you have it: “Betrayed Alliance 2: The Betrayening” is the runaway choice. Other great names included in the comments: “Electric Boogaloo,” “The Second Book,” “An Alliance Betrayed,” “Cruise Control,” and “The Rebinding.” It is clear I have been outsmartassed by my followers!

So here’s the breakdown comparing no to the last Update (January):

  • 56 Backgrounds “basically finished” (45 in January)
  • Story – Overall Plot Points are known – details for first 25% finished
  • Puzzles – Puzzles designed for first 25%, but not implemented in game.

You can also check out the 1-year devlog if you are so interested.

During this time I’ve also painted an oil painting inspired by Betrayed Alliance 2. While not strictly a game asset, a large oil painting depicting the two main characters can be seen observing a stained glass window. Could this image have anything to do with the plot?

Slowly we inch towards a completed game. Due to some “Bad News” I’m not sure about completion dates and I’m no longer projecting one. See below for details.

Last update I said the following systems list would be good until March:

  • Monday – Write/Design BA2 STORY
  • Tuesday – Write/Design BA2 PUZZLES
  • Wednesday – Work on Artwork for BA2 – BACKGROUNDS
  • Thursday – Work on Artwork for BA2 – ANIMATIONS
  • Friday – Draw artwork (Physical)
  • Saturday – Work on YT/Website
  • Sunday – Rest

I think I’m going to keep it the same for April and May. By May, I think it is imperative that I have the story (and it’s details) 100% as I am reaching the point where artwork assets are necessarily tied to story and puzzle beats. So next update will be a large milestone. Hopefully I am able to see that through.

And Now the Bad News:

At the end of March, I got pneumonia, which knocked me off my work schedule. Antibiotics, a steroid, and a week later, I’m feeling much better, but, while at the doctor, they noticed my blood pressure was high.

Having high blood pressure and being the father of 3 kids is not a situation I take trivially. I decided I’d need to make some lifestyle changes. While many of them are diet-related (eliminating soda and fast food, subbing my nightly chocolates for DARK chocolate, and eating more fruits and vegetables), one lifestyle change will be effecting my productivity.

I’m not fat, I’m pudgy! Being overweight and having high blood pressure are not the kind of siblings I want in my life, so one (if not both) need to go. Cardio is calling my name.

Since I work on Betrayed Alliance in my free time (and have a full time job with 3 small kids), slotting in a semi-daily 30-60 min routine into my daily life is going to take a toll on other activities.

Whoa! Whoa! Wait! I’m not waving the towel or throwing in the white flag. I’m just saying my “slow-motion” development of Betrayed Alliance just got a little bit more slow-mo-er.

This is a passion project, and you can’t stop love!

Betrayed Alliance Post-Mortem – Overworld Design

Overworld Thumb

Update: This article contains potential spoilers for Betrayed Alliance Book 1, which you can download free of charge here.

I’m biased. I made the game I’m looking at today. But that bias cuts both ways. No one sees the flaw in their art like the artist. Of course, the flaws the artist sees are usually not the flaws others find, but that’s where you can help. I’ll give you my perspective, then you can supplement it with yours!

All that aside, I’m going to talk about one thing I believe works well in the game, and that is the Structure of the Overworld and how it plays out for players seeking their goals. We’re not talking artistic direction here, but rather game design.

The Main Objective

After the first self-contained room of the game, you are plopped into the overworld and from there are tasked to “find the princess” (A very original video game goal, I know!). The wizard tells you the Princess is being held captive in the castle, but the way there is barred by excessive combat, and the game spells it out for you just in case you didn’t get the message in combat. There must be a better way in.

Better way in

So where to go? Well, if you ask any person in the game about the princess, they will all universally tell you they heard a rumor she was taken to a cave in the north east. So this becomes your first goal.

Exploration Along the Way

And it’s here that I think the game gets two things right in its design:

  1. The route to get to the cave will take you across the entirety of the overworld, and along the way you will run into many puzzles, some of which you can solve and some which you cannot. And because of that:
  2. It allows a lot of freedom to explore. This is something I loved about Quest for Glory 1. You are dropped in a town with very limited direction and you get to just go out there and find things. I wanted to replicate this feeling, but with more of a concrete goal.

One of the rules of puzzle design is “don’t put the key before the lock.” If the player solves the puzzle before even seeing it, that’s not a good sign. So in the normal course of things, you’ll want to come upon a problem, then discover a way through or around it.

Overhanging cave

For instance, in Betrayed Alliance, you will come upon a cave elevated above the ground. Climbing to it is the first intuition, but it doesn’t work. Players will tuck this place away in their minds and come back later if they finds something that might work.

Another example along the way is a tile puzzle with a squirrel. This time, however, the solution was provided before the puzzle (assuming the player investigated the area before arriving here). Players will find an acorn and then they will run across this hungry squirrel. The next step is evident. Players give the acorn to the squirrel and the squirrel activates the puzzle. But there’s a snag – the puzzle still isn’t solved, just activated. So after tinkering with the tiles for a moment or two, players will leave with another mental note. Again, they’ve found a lock, but don’t yet have the key.

Mitigating Frustration

“But won’t this become cumbersome or frustrating to players?” I hear you asking.

Yes it will be! If every time a player comes upon a puzzle or obstacle with no way to solve or bypass it the “exploration” part of the game will lose its luster because the “interaction” part isn’t working well.

To avoid that feeling, I wanted to make sure there were things players could do and succeed in along the way. For instance, there is a shovel players are able to find on their way to the cave, and there are a couple places where they are able to use it to successfully fill in their teleport map (which will make backtracking to the puzzle locations later all the easier). Additionally, players can discover four of the five missing library books along the way to the cave, play up to three mini-games, best soldiers in combat, and talk to different characters discovering new things about the world and the plot. In this way the player isn’t frustrated with the locked areas because not everything is a locked area.

When players arrive at the location of the cave, they’ve already traversed (or at least could have) the entirety of the overworld and found four areas they can’t access, but now can be on the look out for ways to progress.

All the while through to the first area the player has found plenty to things to occupy their time and fill their hunger for success. The feeling of not progressing at one of these areas is mitigated by the fact that there are still more areas to find.

That frustrating feeling of “not knowing what to do” is usually triggered not by a puzzle itself, but when the player feels they’ve “been everywhere” and “tried everything.” That’s when things get truly frustrating!

Size Does Matter

One final thing that works in this game’s favor is that the Overworld map is not cripplingly huge. I think if it were doubled in size, having the player traverse the entirety of that distance would become disorienting and the multitude of blocked areas would be hard to keep in mind all at once. Having the southern area blocked by soldiers was mainly due to the fact that those assets hadn’t been created yet, but even if they had been, having them blocked for the first part of the game would still have been a good idea.

The Rest

After the cave, the game becomes far more linear as it’s now a matter of visiting the “off-limits” areas from before and discovering their secrets and solving their puzzles. I think that’s where the game falls into some “less-than-good-design” traps (It’s hard to just say “bad design” when I’m talking about my own game!), but analysis of that will have to wait for another time.

That’s my analysis of the overworld structure in Betrayed Alliance and how it plays into the puzzle structure in a positive way. The first part of the game is very open and free, and the first quest takes you across the whole overworld, presenting many of the games puzzles before you find the solutions.

I’m not saying it was perfect of course, and perhaps you have some other thoughts or considerations to share!

Who REALLY Killed Adventure Games?

Line up the suspects:

An Experience:

Adventure games were quite popular at the beginning of the video gaming revolution and the reason to me is clear: Adventure games offered a kind of gaming experience other genres couldn’t come near: the Experience of Exploration. Graphical Adventure games let you walk, run, and fly through strange and big worlds in a way no other genre could. I define the “Experience of Exploration” as the feeling one gets when they feel they can “get lost” in a world. Great books and movies do something similar, but video games offer a level of interaction that make this experience all the more rewarding.

Other genres of games couldn’t replicate anything like this experience. You had Mario-style platformers, but they focused more on arcade-style mechanics than the experience of exploring a new world. Metroid was about exploration, but it was a fairly lonely experience, and the landscapes, while cool, were rarely anything more than platforming or fighting backdrops. Fun, for sure! But the exploration aspect was not quite what the Adventure game genre could offer. Final Fantasy and other RPG’s did a better job at achieving the experience, but interactivity with the world was far more limited and stats grinding the and focus on random combat did hinder the experience for many people.

Adventure games were the only place to go to get that Experience of Exploration, at your own pace, on your own terms (or the best a type-parser or mouse could get you). But something changed, and it’s still changing. And I think it’s the real assassin of the Adventure game genre.

The Real Killer – Hardware:

As the years went by, games were getting bigger, better, and more advanced. Adventure games did evolve with the hardware, but their main gimmick, the thing that kept most people coming, was that Experience of Exploration. And while Adventure games could get bigger, better, and more advanced just like everything else – their gameplay loop never fundamentally changed. Nor could it change without becoming something fundamentally different.

“So what?” You might say. Adventure games were getting “better” with the upgrades of hardware. They could have better music, bigger worlds, more detailed backgrounds and sprites. “How’s that a bad thing for Adventure games?”

The problem wasn’t that Adventure games were getting “better,” it’s that the other genres were getting better at the same time, and the hardware upgrades allowed them to also start planting their flags in Adventure games’ sacred spot – the Experience of Exploration.

While it is true that platformers didn’t mechanically change that much (bigger jumps, longer jumps, 3D jumps! etc.) the change in hardware allowed them to expand into territory that once only Adventure games roamed – the Experience of Exploration. A platformer like Mario 64 could now be both a joy to explore while also having a gameplay loop that was more “fun” than your typical Adventure game. An Action/Adventure games like Zelda: the Ocarina of Time now offered a great world to explore and interact with, but also featured, again, mechanics that are typically more “fun” than standard Adventure game inventory puzzles. Horror games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill also boasted creepily fun adventuring through zombie/demon infested locales with a added benefit of “fun” combat/resource management.

As Al Lowe said in his article on the death of Adventure games:

“To a certain extent, adventure games’ key elements have been absorbed by the other game genres. Action games, shooters, and RPG’s have all adopted many of the characteristics of adventures.”

And all of this happened at the beginning of the 3D consoles’ history. The Playstation debuted in the United States in 1995. Three years later Adventure game Grim Fandango could win Gamespot’s “Game of the Year” and have universal critical acclaim, but still underperform financially. Now that 3D consoles are into their 5th generation, the opportunity to make non-Adventure games that capitalize on the Experience of Exploration has only widened.

Adventure Games in the Modern World:

Where does that leave Adventure games? They used to have the market cornered on a really lucrative experience – that of really getting lost in a world. While Adventure games haven’t been evicted from this design space, they now share it with any genre that wants it, thanks to the greater flexibility hardware progress has made possible.

Adventure game fans are a comparatively tiny, niche community now. Passionate for sure, but the heyday of Adventure Games as a truly mainstream contender is gone, and I think it’s because what it did best was an artifact of hardware limitations. Now almost any genre of game can offer the Experience of Exploration AND a gameplay loop that appeals more broadly to the general population.

Note: I’m not saying that the gameplay loop of Adventure games is “bad” or “not fun,” only that its appeal is more limited in the general population. Many people love the Adventure game gameplay loop!

Is there anything left that makes Adventure games unique? Yes!

  • a “go-at-your-own pace” gameplay speed (usually). Most adventure games let you explore and interact with things without pressuring you to get things done before you are good and ready. There are usually little to no arcade-style dexterity challenges. Some people enjoy that leisure.
  • Inventory and environmental puzzle-solving. This is the main gameplay loop for almost all adventure games. In my experience, these types of puzzles are what separate the proverbial sheep from the goats (the people who like Adventure games and those who do not.)
  • Narrative storytelling as a focus. This is one feather Adventure games still have in their hat that many other genres don’t. Open world games tend to be more about creating your own stories within a wider narrative, and platformers like Mario still don’t need deep storytelling. Even the Zelda games with all their deep lore spanning 35 years of games, still don’t make narrative story-telling front and center (except perhaps Skyward Sword). Adventure games still live and thrive on their storytelling.

Adventure Games – Dead or Alive?

Some people would say that Adventure games are indeed alive and well. I think those people are correct! I chalk that mainly up to the internet’s ability to connect people to their tribes. Adventure game enthusiasts are all around us on the internet and they are an amazingly positive community. But it’s a small community, and Adventure games don’t in my opinion (as a stupid blowhard on the internet) have much power to regain their status as big sellers in the videogames market.

Did you guess “hardware” was my killer at the outset (or did you think I was blaming Grim Fandango because of the picture)? Am I wrong? Tell me what you think!

Sierra Deaths were Great (and How to Make Them Greater)

It’s a bold statement given the great frustration that dying can cause in the old Sierra games, but let me lay out why they were great and how to make them even better.

The Good:

My thesis on Adventure Games is that the Experience of Exploration is the highest goal the developer should aim for instilling in the player. A large part of that is an interesting world, but not just interesting – Interactive. If something “sticks out” in the art, the player better be able to interact with it, and hopefully in clever and interesting ways.

What’s that got to do with dying?

Deaths add interactivity, even if “negative.” If the world is too static, it’s boring. If there’s a man-eating plant, it’d be a shame if it didn’t eat you when you get too close. Even though a hazard like this isn’t “positive” in the sense that it helps you progress, it adds another element of immersion, and one that adds a little apprehension and tension.

Bonus points awarded if you can use a death-hazard for positive uses too. Space Quest 3 does just this with these little alien pods that suck you up and eat you if you wander to close. But, if you’re clever, you can lure your enemy into the same trap, adding even another layer to the interactivity resulting in the elusive feeling you’re looking to instill in the player: delight. That feeling when your Experience of Exploration meets with your cleverness.

Hints: Death sequences also yield a great opportunity to distribute a hint. If a death is the result of some “less-than-perfect” line of play from the player, it could mean that the player could use a bit of assistance. Hence the death text is often humorous (to soothe the player’s negative feelings toward dying) and insightful. Sometimes the hint is veiled and sometimes it is more direct, depending on the situation.

Speaking of bad feelings.

The Bad side of Sierra Deaths

Loss of Progress – This is usually the worst part of dying in Sierra games and has led to the mantra, “save early, save often,” which seems a bit of cop-out on the side of the designers. The ability to save anytime is really a fantastic feature that I’ve always enjoyed, but it puts a lot of responsibility on the player, and when many players were young when they played these games, the idea of saving the game each room wasn’t second nature. I wonder how many people quit these games after losing progress…

The Fix: For Betrayed Alliance 2 I’ve implemented a simple solution to this problem. Each screen autosaves the game. If you die and haven’t saved lately, you can just start the room over fresh all while allowing the player to make use of the “save anytime” feature.

Unfair or unforeseeable Death: Frustration can also come from lazy or incompetent (or just plain sadistic) design. King’s Quest 4 had a dark cave. No problem! You have a torch – but the problem is the torch doesn’t illuminate much, least of all a surprise chasm that claims your life through no fault of your own. Deaths of this nature must be avoided if you wish to keep the trust of your player.

The Fix: Be careful how you design deaths – make them fair and avoidable.

Random Chance of Death: Unlike real life, death should be predictable, not based on random number generators. Walking in front of a knife being thrown in Quest for Glory 1? That death’s on me! Running into a randomly generated shark in the water in King’s Quest 4, that’s just frustrating.

The Fix: Avoid randomness is death events. If randomness is necessary, make sure the player has some way to manipulate the variables. Perhaps King’s Quest 4 could’ve featured an item that warded off sharks?

It Just Feels Bad to Die: Dying sucks not only because you may have lost progress, but because it means you failed. Where’s the fun in that? This feeling is often subverted with a fun animation, funny dialog, and hopefully a well-placed hint for the player to understand where the mistake came into play. All of these things were present in the classic Sierra games, but a friend of mine developed an idea which I think transforms death’s “feeling bad” experience to something positive.

The Fix: His idea was to tally the amount of deaths and their unique causes in a list.

WHAT!? A list of failures for the player to be disappointed by? That’s your fix?

Yes! But what it really does is turn deaths into a collectible! If you tell the player how many unique deaths there are, don’t you think they’ll shoot to find them all? I’m even thinking of adding some “hidden” deaths for the more intrepid players!

Conclusion

Dying is mechanic that early Sierra games were known for. Some franchises used them with greater success than others. The designer’s goal is to maximize the feeling of playing in a living (albeit dangerous) world, while at the same time minimizing the frustration that can come from the mechanic. If the dangers can be used for immersion and creative puzzle-solving, that’s even better.

Sierra’s death design could have benefitted from a “nicer” approach to game-saving. An non-intrusive autosave is my solution. I’m also eager to see if the “death as collectible” idea is as popular with others as it is with me.

Let me know.

Betrayed Alliance 2021 Devlog – January

I know what you’re thinking: How’s the 2022 date holding up for this game’s completion?

My internal answer: Dude! Is January in 2021! How’m I supposed to know?

My public answer: Things are going great! We’re right on schedule! And thank you for asking by the way 🙂

Last update was 3 months ago when the project turned 1 years old, and the word “project” is still far more applicable than “game.” That being said, I am happy with how things are moving. I know the way I’m going about the game is a bit unorthodox in that I’m spending a lot of the time on the artwork and animations now, instead of rigging up the game with simple graphics and getting the puzzle structure set up.

Speaking of Puzzles, I’ve been doing a bit of thinking on the subject. Maybe I’m the odd man out when it comes to adventure game puzzles, but I find that they oftentimes get me feeling frustrated and disenchanted with the game. It seems that I prefer the exploration and running into quirky creatures and characters more than solving puzzles.

I have to imagine these musings are shaping my conception of Betrayed Alliance 2. I’m not saying I’m axing puzzles or anything of the sort, but I think that’s maybe why I’m spending most of my work-time on the artwork side of things – I’m currently more enamored with the idea of creating these places to explore.

Ok. So what’s been accomplished these last few months?

  • 10 more backgrounds finished – bringing the in-game total to 45, which is approaching Betrayed Alliance Book 1’s total of 56. I’m imagining I’ll have somewhere around 80 or so this time around, making a bigger and more beautiful game.
  • All the major character Sprites have been completed (although due to a data corruption, I did lose 1 character that I will have to re-animate)
  • I’ve rigged up a couple of rooms with some light “puzzle” elements. Since the forest is going to be so big (and there’s no fast travel map this time around), I’m coming up with some ways the player can use to connect areas for easier traversal.
  • I’ve put together a feature that will count the various deaths of the player, which will make “death scenes” akin to a collectible – Hopefully that will soften the blow of dying!
  • Speaking of dying, I’m happy to say BA:2 will have an autosave feature which will save the game each screen (using only one save slot) to negate one of the bigger headaches of some Sierra experiences.

I think that’s about it.

January is great because it’s always a new beginning. Some people wonder how I can stay motivated for over a year on the same project. Part of the secret is probably some mental tweak I have that makes me obsess over things. The other is that I don’t set goals (and when I do, they usually fail), but rather I set in place systems. Here is my January systems chart, which will probably also be good all the way into March.

  • Monday – Write/Design BA2 STORY
  • Tuesday – Write/Design BA2 PUZZLES
  • Wednesday – Work on Artwork for BA2 – BACKGROUNDS
  • Thursday – Work on Artwork for BA2 – ANIMATIONS
  • Friday – Draw artwork (Physical)
  • Saturday – Work on YT/Website
  • Sunday – Rest

Each day I look at the systems list and I do some work on that particular aspect of the game. Whether it’s 10 minutes or 2 hours, whether I want to or not, I do something, and do that for long enough and things get done! I’m waiting for the day when the project “feels” more like a “game” than a project.

Betrayed Alliance – Year One Devlog

Short update – Artwork is getting done faster than in the past and of better quality than Book 1.

This year’s accomplishments:

  • Screens of art that are “basically done” are at about 35
  • Major Plot points are in place, but not the details
  • Betrayed Alliance Book 1 – patched and polished

Longer update, well here we go:

Sept 3 2019 I publicly announced continued work on Betrayed Alliance. I don’t anticipate it will take as much time as book 1 to complete. I announced Book 1 way back on April 7 2007 and it was released Dec 24, 2013…a six-and-a-half-year development! Of course, that wasn’t consistent, intentional work. Months and sometimes years went by with no work to show for the time – work was very intermittent. It was when my first son was born, I got the sense that free time was something I would be kissing goodbye, so I wanted to finish what I started. I looked at the project and determined that it was near 1/3 complete, so I set out a 6-month timetable and set to work. And I got it done, albeit a bit buggy! With that I washed my hands of the project with no intention to come back.

I have to say Betrayed Alliance Book 2 (the next 1/3 of the game) is developing in a steadier and more fluid way than Book 1. Part of it is probably maturity and a more developed idea of what I’m doing. When I first started on Book 1, it was very loose. The story-line wasn’t deeply thought through. Stolen princess. Knight to the rescue was all the story I needed.

Betrayed Alliance Book 1 had about 56 backgrounds, in 6 years. Book 2 already has about 35, so the workflow is going better.

mirror falls art comp

So what was the catalyst that made me restart? There were a couple of highly motivating factors. First, every so often I would get some feedback from people playing Book 1 and that would light a fire under me to finish the story. Second, I saw another SCI-like game gaining some attention and it looked gorgeous! I mean, I thought my artwork was pretty good, but this game just rocketed past in terms of quality. I’m talking about the Crimson Diamond by Julia Minamata. It looked like there was a lot of energy and excitement about an SCI game, and that made me think that people may actually want more of this kind of game (as long as the quality is there). By the way, you should check out her free demo on Steam:

There’s nothing to motivate like a little inspiration (and a dash of envy!), so I’ve redoubled my efforts to make my artwork better, and I think it’s paying off. The time I spend drawing the rooms is definitely more than I used to, but I think it shows quite a bit. That being said, Julia’s Crimson Diamond is still in a class of its own in my opinion.

But I think it was both of those factors that made me want to get back to work: feedback from Book 1 and inspiration from Julia.

So, I’d like book 2 to be complete by 2022, and I think with the production schedule I’m keeping that it is possible, even if a bit ambitious. As a solo-dev, there’s a lot of different work to do, and I’m planning on making some big changes, which will require me to learn new ways of doing things that would’ve been simple and easy in the past, but the trade-off will be important.

Mud Slide to Flower

In addition to production, this past year I’ve been trying to get “out there” a bit more on social media. What’s the point of making a game if no one knows you’ve made it? Some of it was easy because I already followed a lot of the people in the adventure gaming world, but despite my general dislike of social media, I’ve endeavored to expand my social media footprint. And it’s been really great, to be honest! I’ve started following people and watching their streams, and I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment out of it. And that’s really great, because I found it to be more about making friends and having fun than what I was dreading it might become, marketing – which I just am not fond of. I was also worried that spending time on Twitter would slow down my productivity as well, but I think it actually increased it because it’s fun to share artwork or animations and get feedback, which just makes me want to get more done.

An aspect of this has also been Youtube. I endeavored to put out at least one video a week as well. Part of this was me wanting to record my own game for play-testing purposes, which actually worked really well for me (although I’m sure it’s not that great a watch for others), and the other part was that I wanted to play through the other fan games that had never gotten any exposure and probably nobody knew even existed. There really weren’t that many however, and many of them aren’t even full games, but I wanted to play through these games as well as the classics to get some inspiration for what I was working on as well. The problem now is that I’ve played the small library of fan-made SCI games, and my YouTube consistency has begun to wane.

Untitled

The last big effort that I accomplished in this last year was updating and polishing Book 1. If I was going to make Book 2, people were naturally going to want to play Book 1 first, and I knew that the experience needed to be the best possible. So I did my best to fix all the bugs I could find, and polish the game and user experience. I ended up with a 10-page document of fixes/additions. Here’s a truncated list:

  • I drew a new Title Screen (Thank God!)
  • I added a difficulty setting
  • Updated the Menubar to show more info
  • Drew new animations for death scenes and death icons
  • Fixed a couple insidious save bugs
  • Added addition side-character for more backstory
  • Added more dialog possibilities / hints
  • Added a couple sidequests
  • Added a few artwork touch-ups
  • A way to cheat at Sailboat Extreme (a highly requested feature!)
  • Many bugs squashed and misspelling quashed

So that’s about it! It’s been a year full of work and lots of motivation. There was a month or so when the state of the world (pandemic) challenged my efforts (“why are you working on something like this at all? What does it matter?”) But I got over that with the mindset that quitting wouldn’t suddenly bring any additional meaning to my work, and would probably end up in personal dissatisfaction. I know motivation for projects wax and wane, but I’ve learned the systems necessary to keep at it. Sometimes motivation is earned by hard work, not by happenstance.

statue

Story in Games – The Witness [The Blank Slate Character]

blank slate

Video Games are unique…in a bad way!

Blank Slate Characters
Video games are the only storytelling art form that consistently makes use of the “blank slate” character. they rarely speak or show any personal character motivation or emotion. In theory the player is supposed to superimpose himself onto the character to increase the immersion. From a storytelling perspective, I think this is incredibly wrongheaded.

Chrono Cross, for example, while being a great game, spent a huge amount of time making each of its 40 or so minor characters have distinctive speech patterns, but gives us a main character who doesn’t have any lines at all. Leaving the main character in this state does nothing to enhance the game’s story or emotional impact. It fact, it’s the game’s weakest point.

The Witness’s Blank Slate Character
The main (and really only) character in The Witness is a blank slate character, but it may be the one game where actually enhances the story. It’s an unconventional point of view, but The Witness is an unconventional game and its storytelling is likewise.

So why does the blank slate work for The Witness:

  • You start the game in a state of absolute ignorance. There is no opening cut-scene that explains the world/struggle/war. You are dropped into a dark tunnel with no explanation and you must piece together what’s going on from there. The character’s blank slate mirrors this experience.
  • The game’s story isn’t about the game world. The “story” in The Witness is literally about your experience, not the characters!
  • There is no character motivation in the game, only your own desire to solve more puzzles and explore more areas.

So what’s it all about then, this game? It’s about life. It’s about how you see the world. It’s about patterns.

There are scattered around audio logs to listen to. But they don’t really fill you in on what’s going on, although in a very expanded sense they tell you everything.

I won’t go into any more detail because this is not a game to have spoiled in any way. It is a game only to be experienced, and truly witnessed from a purposefully blank slate.

Graphic Novel Reivew – Brody’s Ghost

Brody's Ghost Collected EditionBrody’s Ghost Collected Edition by Mark Crilley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought Brody’s Ghost after finding out about it on Mark Crilley’s youTube channel.

Mark Crilley’s youTube channel has literally hundreds of videos helping people increase their art knowledge and skills. I bought Brody’s Ghost to get a better idea of how to layout a graphic novel. But I wouldn’t have done that if the story didn’t seem interesting.

In fact the story was extremely well told. I finished the collected edition in under 24 hours. It had fun, sometimes funny, thoughtful characters that I really enjoyed reading about. I found myself wanting to read on even when I had more pressing things to be focused on – the sign of a good story.

The storytelling in terms of scene structure and overall story arc was also fairly great. The art style really lent itself to a fast-paced story.

I only had two small issues:
1. Brody’s character arc wasn’t super strong and

[Spoiler]
2. Talia’s power to possess Brody to get him out of 2 really bad situations was introduced very late in the story and because it wasn’t referenced or foreshadowed earlier made it feel extremely “convenient.” To be fair, how it “worked” in the climax was a great idea though. I just wished it had been foreshadowed or mentioned earlier in the story so it didn’t come out of nowhere and give off that “how convenient” feeling.
[/Spoiler]

Final thoughts: Highly recommended. Very interesting story and well told. Building tension was good and it led to a super exciting climax that I had to try hard to restrain myself from turning the pages too fast so that I could appreciate the artwork better.

View all my reviews

Kubo and the Two Strings – Movie Review

Unique. Gorgeous. Ambitious. Flawed.
Kubo and the Moon
I don’t see movies in the theatre often. My life is exceptionally busy. But Kubo was one of the handful of movies that I made it a point to get out and see (and support). Its rating on Rotten Tomatoes was quite high and I’d heard a lot of good about the film, so I was super stoked to see it.

Given the hype did I leave the theatre with as much enthusiasm? Yes…and No…but mainly Yes.

coraline-mainparanorman

Full disclose. I loved Coraline and liked Paranorman, two films from the same studio (Laika). They made Boxtrolls as well, but I was never interested in that one. I had high hopes for Kubo. It’s probably too early to rate them, but I think I’d rate Coraline over Kubo…with Paranorman coming in 3rd and Boxtrolls not in the running because I haven’t seen it.

Kubo and Moon King

What worked:

  1. There is much in Kubo to love. In a year of sequels, prequels, reboots, and superhero movies, I just love it when something comes out that is completely off track. Kubo has a creative story that takes its cues not from what is current, but from what is eternal.
  2. It’s themes are deep. When characters in a “kids movie” ask each other their views about what happens to a person when they die, we’ve reached the level of storytelling where the writers treat their audience with respect. I love it.
    Kubo and fam
  3. Character development was superb, with one small falter. From the get-go you are on Kubo’s side and really empathize with him. The connection was easy to feel.
  4. The world they created was immersive and a blast to be in.
  5. The technical artistry in this movie is staggering. The movie is so gorgeous. It was amazing to see in the end credits the work they had done on one of the creatures in the movie. Very cool inclusion at the end that is a nice sneak peak into how it was made.
  6. The comedy relief was executed very well and actually reminded me of how well humor had been pulled off in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It wasn’t just there to be there, it was casual, funny, and peppered in just when the story needed it.

So, I’ve been praising the movie a lot. So what is the flaw?

The villains and the theme.

Kubo aunt

The antagonist’s motivation is not well communicated and when he shows up for the final battle, he wasn’t interesting and I couldn’t connect with him at all.

I think that damaged the theme as well. In the final confrontation Kubo basically screams the moral of the story at him, but it didn’t resonate. The drama up to that point felt so real and earned, but when it came to a head with the antagonist, it didn’t connect.

My final thoughts are that I love this movie, but wish it didn’t hiccup in the end. The first two acts of the story were so great and immersive. I loved the characters and themes building, but like Kubo himself failing to give a great ending, the story seemed to rush its final battle in a fairly generic way.

One last thought about the ending – when it reveals how the story was named…perfection!

If you’re interested, check out the trailer: