Design Reflection: Creature in the Well

Hello! If this is your first time reading one of my design reflections; in this blog series I’ll be taking a look at three different “lenses,” or game design considerations determined by Jesse Schell in his “Deck of Lenses” app (which you can get for free), and apply these lenses to different games I’ve played. Please enjoy and feel free to leave a comment below about what you thought of the game.

Creature in the Well is an interesting top-down pinball like action puzzler with a wonderful minimalist, cell-shaded art style.

In this design breakdown I’ll be analyzing it through the following topics:

The Lens of the State Machine

To use this lens, think about what information changes during your game.

Jesse Schell, “The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses”

For being a cleanly-designed pinball game, Creature doesn’t have as many game objects as other games. What do I mean by “objects”? I mean the kind of intractable things within the game, including what the player sees on screen. There are roughly four different categories of objects that are within this game: the player, the ball, obstacles, and the creature.

The player is a scrappy robot that was long ago a worker at the factory located within the well. The basic action for the player is to move around and hit the ball by swinging their arms while holding objects like a bat or a club. There is another kind of “swing” the player can do, where they keep the ball in front of themselves so they can properly aim it. While spinning the ball in front of them, the ball gains a more electrical charge, causing it to go fast and rack up more points once it is hit. The player can move around freely, except when interacting with the ball. The player can also not fall off the edges of the playing field. Throughout the game, the player will find different kinds of weapons to use for both the hard hits and the spinning. Most of the objects are merely looks, but there are some that hit harder or show the player the direction of the ball once they hit it. There are also different capes that the player can wear that represent the different jobs of the robots (like electrical, or data science). These capes are also for looks. The last thing the player can collect are these broken power cores that can be fixed at the repair shop to “upgrade” the player. I believe the only thing that changes is how many points the player earns when they hit something. Since most of this game relies on the player’s ability to move and hit balls, it can feel like the whole upgrading and equipping of objects and clothes are fruitless in their efforts because they don’t change the game.

The balls are these kind of electrical orbs that must be hit against bumpers and obstacles to charge them with power. Depending on the room, these balls can pop up from certain locations in the ground, or be shot at the player through turrets. When the balls pass through red energy, they speed up in the direction they are moving, and can hurt the player if they come into contact with them while they are red. The player can get the balls out of this phase by hitting it or spinning it. Sometimes there can be many balls on the screen at once, and the player can hit and spin multiple balls at a time. The balls seem to have a mind of their own for the most part. Due to the strange angle of the top-down view, it is difficult to determine exactly how a ball will reflect off an object, and I have a feeling the balls are programmed to always reflect off objects at a counter angle. This means if a player would to try to angle themselves where they would hit the ball straight in front of them at a flat wall, the player would assume that the ball would reflect directly back at them while instead it would rebound at a 45 degree angle. This kind of improper judgement and almost random reflections makes it feel that the player has no control over game by how they can’t figure out where the ball will end up next.

There are various obstacles in the game, each with their own purpose. There are simple bumper panels that give the player points, turrets that shoot at the player, bumpers that shoot balls back at the player, obstacles that produce red energy that hurts the player, and pillars that send out a red shockwave that hurts the player. The game plays around with different ideas about these bumpers: sometimes there are time trials, sometimes they have to be hit in a certain order. While some mechanics are interesting, there comes a point where things start to get a little stale. Bumpers in this game aren’t necessarily “exciting,” they’re more or less these eclipse-shaped grey and white objects that cover the floor. There are a lot of times where rooms will have the same layout as a previous room, so soon it turns into the player grinding to hit these objects just to earn enough points (by points I actually mean electricity, but it’s easier to understand it as points) to open doors to the next room. Looking back on it, the developer could have possibly just made a shorter game with less repetitive rooms. While the overall time to beat the game would have been shorter, the game would have been more exciting to the player if there was a new scenario in every room.

The creature in the game is this big, lanky being that tries to stop you from powering the factory back up in the well. Essentially this creature is the boss at the end of every department in the factory, where the battles reflect the kind of obstacles you had to face throughout that section. While it hides itself mostly in the shadows, its tattered cloth-wearing arms and piercing eyes can be seen. While the player traverses through the level, its eyes are seen in the background, lurking in corners of the room. As mystifying as the creature is, it also suffers from reused assets. The room right before each boss battle has the creature perform the same animation where it reaches out and puts its hands on the floor. In the first few levels, the creature would tell of important information, but as the levels progress the creature’s dialog just boils down to “I’ll get you for this.” This statement is strange because after dying and failing in any of the rooms, the creature picks you up and tosses you out of the well. If that’s the case, if the creature really wanted to stop the player they could have easily done it the whole time. There is also minimal interaction between the creature and the player throughout the levels, so maybe if the creature swapped some bumpers around or caused a level to be harder that it was would make the interaction between player and creature more cohesive.

The Lens of Fairness

To use this lens, evaluate the game from each player’s point of view and skill level. Find a way to give each player a chance of winning that each will consider to be fair.

Jesse Schell, “The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses”

The mechanics of spinning a ball and being able to launch it in any direction in front of you is slightly strange and can take a little of getting used to. It’s interesting, but I think being able to stop the ball at any time and re-direct it almost makes the game feel “easy.” Of course this game doesn’t get easy near the end (we’ll talk about that in a moment), but because the player has such power over one of the most important objects in the game, the game loses its sense of difficulty.

The progression of difficulty is of course gradual, as to have the player get used to how things function. The problem with the mechanic of launching a ball, however, is that a player can’t really practice how the ball can reflect off of different objects, making each level different each time it is done. While a player can practice dodging red energy beams or balls, they cannot predict that other factors of the level that are not directly affecting the player. This can leave a player feeling a loss of control, so instead of having the player feel powerful by controlling and launching the ball, the player feels powerless to the obstacles that surround them.

While moving throughout the levels, the difficulty in terms of how easy it is to die ramps up dramatically near the end. There was one point in which the creature was flinging balls charged with red energy at two shockwave pillars, and the player has little to no time to avoid being hurt. Luckily a player can create a checkpoint right in front of a boss. Unfortunately, however, the whole boss sequence has to be replayed over again. I can understand that the developers want to make their game difficult so players wouldn’t breeze through it, however I’m not sure they considered how many times a player had to die and what steps they had to take every time they did.

Every time a player dies, the player starts outside the factory in a small town. The player has to walk back into the factory by going all the way through town. There’s also a pool on the left when entering, which heals the player. The way the pool heals is by slowly raising their health bar back. The player then has to walk back up to the level selector platform and walk across the bridge to enter the level. All in all, it takes about a full minute or two before the player can try a boss again. If the player dies before the boss, they have to traverse through the level all over again to get to where they left off. If a game was planning on being difficult and the player had to die a lot, having the player go through 3 minutes worth of walking around to start a level again can be infuriating.

The Lens of the Player

To use this lens, stop thinking about your game, and start thinking about your player.

Jesse Schell, “The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses”

So from reading this design review you’ve probably come to the realization I have mixed feelings about this game.

On one hand, the art is amazing; pleasing to the eyes, almost a combination of hand drawn and cell shaded textures. The audio is also well done; I love the moments going back into the town because of the bittersweet music that plays.

Okay,okay, these design reviews aren’t suppose to be about my personal opinion about the game, it’s really analyzing it for its design choices, but I can’t help my feelings about the game bleeding into the design analysis.

Who was this game for? Players that like both pinball and hitting things? To me, the gameplay really feels like those billiard games where you would pull the cue back and line up your shot. This game’s focus more about accuracy rather than keeping a ball out of the wormhole like pinball.

What are people expecting when they get into this game? Well just by going off the title and title screen alone, it’s fairly uncertain what is going to happen. The game gives an ominous air about exactly what the creature is and what it does. All we really know is that the creature want turmoil for those that woke it up from its resting place. The awe about the creature soon starts to wear off as players progress through the game, soon becoming more disgruntled at the creature than questioning what it is. The problem with keeping the creature in the shadows is that even the game doesn’t know what it is. The creature is never fully seen, only its eyes and arms are shown the whole time. I would have at least liked to see maybe a scary face or something at the end, something to give me reason to stop its torment.

This game is not for everyone, especially if pinball isn’t really your cup of tea. In my case, I found whacking balls and hitting bumpers were oddly satisfying for me as I was playing it. This game skipped all the bad things we don’t like about pinball: the ball falling down the wormhole causing us to loose, the constant but precise movement of the flippers. Instead the game focuses on what excite players the most about pinball: the initial launch of the ball in the beginning, and hitting the bumpers to score points. With the pleasant, smooth art, and the continuous positive reinforcement from the bumpers, this game hits all the points to have it a satisfying game.

It’s unfortunate that the designers decided on duplicating rooms and assets to help earn the player more points. I wonder what kind of game this would be like if it was more of an “art game,” where there was no dying. It could still require skill, and perhaps some more intricate level design with railways that guided the balls around. The game is satisfying to play, but by having to deal with the death sequence and the repetitive rooms and assets, those satisfactory feelings become nulified.

If you’re looking for a game with cool art and a want to whack things across the room repeatedly, then Creature in the Well may be for you. If you’re looking for a casually fun pinball game (that’s actually pinball) may I suggest Yoku’s Island Express to try out.

Thanks for reading! You can find the “Deck of Lenses” by searching for it on the app store. You can find Schell’s full book “The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses” here. Try Creature in the Well for yourself here! What did you think of the game? What were your favorite and least favorite parts? Let me know in the comments below. Have a great day!

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Author: Jordan

Hello! I'm a developer, designer, composer, and musician. I also love popcorn and peanut butter M&M's. While I'm always busy working on some kind of project, never hesitate to reach out and say hi! I'll see you on the inter-webs!