World Design of Journey to the Savage Planet

Journey to the Savage Planet (JSP) is a 3D first person platformer, where the player is set on a strange, undiscovered planet. The goal of your character is to confront the lifeforms that have inhabited this planet, and find enough fuel to leave.

Strange New World

A lot of the joy from this game comes from strange environments and creatures that the player experiences. With the setting of being stuck on a planet, the ideas and opportunities to a developer can be nearly endless, but to develop a meaningful world what it contains must make sense. In JSP, there are different forms of terrain that you progress through in this order: arctic tundra, sparse forest (with crystal caverns), desert plains, swampy lowlands, stony cliffs, and a gastronomic temple. There are of course various little areas that are between these themes, which helps blend the world into something more realistic. There isn’t a point in the game where the scenery doesn’t make sense from its other surroundings. For example, if you were walking down the city streets, you would be expecting for a jungle to be right in the middle of the road. JSP has succeeded in creating something unifying to make a strange world believable.

Flora and Fauna

In what ways do the developers create a homogeneous world? Lets first take a look at the different kinds of plants and foliage that the areas have. Within the arctic tundra, the only kind of plant that exists are the ones that drop seeds to help you replenish health. Having just this one plant at the very beginning of the game allows the player to focus on the plant’s properties. With it being the only one in a remotely empty room, the player can recognize what it is, what it does, and what to look for when they ever are low on health. The plant is also a bright yellow/orange that can catch the eyes of the player, and the large pill-looking seeds tells the player if the plant can provide health or not. This plant is seen throughout all of the game, since it is one of the most important plants out there.

There are also other plants that have importance as well when it comes to special powerups. The plants that do special things for the player are also split in multiple kinds of categories: world shaping and elemental. By “world shaping,” I don’t mean that the player is terraforming, or shaping the actual world. I mean that these items add new properties to the world. There is one plant that is a kind of bouncy substance so players can reach new heights. There is also a purple fecal looking substance that causes creatures to stick to it. Then there are the grapple plants that sprout along cliff faces to grapple to. These three plants are all found in a kind of cocoon/pea pod kind of plant that hangs quietly in the shadows. These plants also appear through the world, and are typically placed near where the player has to use them. The unfortunate design of these plants is that they all look the same, so the player isn’t sure what it contains until they break it open.

The more important, elemental powerups are very distinct from each other. The three different kinds are: bomb plants, acid plants, and electricity plants. These plants are special in that they also have “offspring,” which are the different stages in its growth (the game calls it child, teenager, and adult). These younger versions of the plants allow it to look like there’s a large area of them around, when really its only the adult type of the plants that you can harvest from. Being able to have a patch of the plants give them greater importance in the game because they take up more of the space on the ground, which can make them easier to find. It also presents a kind of life cycle to the player. By showing the different stages of life of an organism, the player gets a sense of progression as it understands the forms that the plants can take. In videogames, it can be difficult to show that the game world is its own living ecosystem. The player is only experiencing that world at a certain moment in time, so designers much plan out the history behind the world they are trying to create.

Mertroidvania

The designers use the special elemental plants as an introduction to what’s to come. A game that resembles this kind of powerup structure is the game Hollow Knight. In both of these games, the player is presented with a wide variety of paths from the start, but some of these paths are unreachable. The suggestion of these opportunities is what excites the player to start searching the game world in hopes to be able to achieve new goals. The term “goals” is very important here. Without goals for the player, what is going to want them to keep playing the game? Goals can be in various forms, from winning an online match, to being able to reach the end of the level. For Metroidvania games like this, (both Metroid and Castlevania introduced the style of multiple branching paths that are meant to be back-tracked after gaining new powerups, giving it its name), the goals of the player are how to reach the new location. Progress is then determined by the player’s ability to reach new destination by using the powerups they unlocked along the way. By having these powerups appear throughout the world, even in the earlier levels, brings a sense of cohesiveness to the game, and is exciting when the player realizes that they remember seeing these plants back in the beginning. While the world design succeeds in creating a continuous world, it also prevails in memorable areas.

There are four big locations in the world, each split up by smaller areas. The smaller areas themselves can have a completely different theme to the next. For example, in the second location, the player starts at a location called “Itching Fields,” which is this kind of moldy dry grass covered plain. The farther the player progresses, however, the world turns into a kind of swamp area with large mushrooms to jump on. These areas each have different kinds of flora and fauna, as well as their own color scheme. What’s fascinating is how the game takes a kind of creature and adapts it to each area. One of the more prominent creatures in the game, which are these flightless chicken-like birds with big eyes, are iterated upon throughout the world. In the arctic tundra, the chickens are woolly and have tusks, while in the forests they are pink and colorful like the plants and don’t have many feathers. By having the different types of the same kind of creature, the designers create clear differences of each area while also having a continuous set of recognizable creatures.

Bosses

While there are all these strange and exciting creatures, the boss battles feel a little lack-luster. Some of the bosses, which are just this large dog-like creatures, appear multiple times and feel a little copy and paste. These creatures are also frustrating to battle at times because predicting what they are going to do next is completely randomized. While there’s really only two different kinds of attack states, continuously judging the wrong one can lead to some anger-inducing battles. Since the game is in a first person perspective, it’s difficult to judge if something is going to hit you or not, so trying to dodge out of the way from attacks can seem impossible at times. I think the designers had a little trouble trying to balance difficulty within the game. For the most part, the bosses weren’t difficult, but extremely repetitive, where only certain parts of their tail would hurt them, but if you were facing it the wrong way, you missed your chance of attack. Most of the bosses were just various forms of target practice, which could get dull after a while. I think why the designers chose this method of battling is understandable, however. The player is only allotted one weapon throughout the entire game, with only a couple of powerups to help make it shoot faster or fire a more powerful shot. That means having the player persistently fire at the bosses while watching their health slowly trickle can become tedious. The target practice makes sense in a way, because it forces the player to view their surroundings and move around while avoiding attacks.

Grapple

A just have to step aside from all the world building and design and talk about my favorite mechanic in the game: grappling. I’m a sucker for games that grapple. I’m not sure what the reason is, but the act of grappling feels like you’re bring the world closer to you, and could feel like a trampoline that’s propelled by your arm. In “Journey to the Savage Planet,” the grapple is one of the core mechanics in the game, and is one of the most satisfying actions to perform in my opinion. There’s a lot of aspects to the game’s grapple that I think helped it out. First, when you launch the grapple, the player reins it in like you just caught some cattle with a lasso. Second, when you reach the point of grappling, you stop on the wall. I think this decision is kind of unique to the game because in most games a player would simply start to fall once they reach the end of their tether. Since the game is focused on platforming, being given the a moment to get your bearings and look around is nice. A third aspect of the grapple is its trigger distance. What I mean by this is the grapple icon can be turned on from a far distance away, allowing you to travel that distance. Because the game is a big open world where the player can see far off in the distance, I find it nice that a player can see a far away target and reach that point without too much difficulty. To relate the mechanic back to world building, the grapple might be the most important tool because it allows the player to reach great heights in a matter of seconds.

Thanks for reading! You can check out my other work at jordandubemedia.com, and if you’re feeling generous, consider contributing to my ko-fi. Have a great day!

Narrative Design in Oxenfree

After finishing the game last night, I decided to analyze the narrative behaviors in the 2016 game Oxenfree.

Oxenfree is a narratively driven horror game where you control the character Alex and try to stop dimensional ghosts from taking over your friends. Being narratively driven, Oxenfree has a total of 10 endings, allowing itself for multiple playthroughs. How the player chooses the dialog in this game I think is unique to other dialog games. In many dialog games, a kind of word block appears at the bottom and shows you a list of choices to take. In this game, however, there are different word bubbles that appear over the player’s head, and depending on which button is pressed (I played it on xbox), the story tree changes. How the narration is represented can be seen in the heading photo. Now I’m not going to break apart the story line and analyze the different changes, but rather take a different approach and look at how the decision making actually works.

Decisions, decisions

As far as I can tell, there are really only two different ways the choices work: there is a timed choice, where the bubbles fade out if you don’t answer, and a stable answer where the game waits for you to make a choice. Let’s look at each one a little more closely:

Timing is everything

The bulk of the game features timed dialog segments. In these segments, the player is either given an option to remark to something that is happening, or to reply in conversation to the other characters. Not every timed choice has the same amount of time, however. There are times where the bubbles fade out quickly, and other times that take a long time to answer. The bubbles that fade out quickly usually represents a quick, witty remark that affects how the characters think of you, so it turns the decision making almost into a quick-time event, but with multiple choices. These timed responses can add stress onto the player as they try to quickly handle a situation.

It’s also curious to see that even though there’s only three choices presented to the player, there’s also another choice: not speaking at all. There were times where I didn’t like any of the choices being given to me, so I just waited until the dialog boxes went away. The only problem with this choice is I didn’t know how the game would react to that decision. By choosing the different dialog boxes, we can infer how others are going to react to what we say, but by not talking at all, the game is left to itself to make the decisions for us.

Think Carefully Now

In the bubbles that wait for you, the player is given time to think about the choices that they are about to make. Most of the time, these choices are very important, like when choosing who to bring with you to check out the other side of the island. By waiting, the game places emphasis on these decisions, allowing the character to have time in choosing how they want to vastly change the game.

Interactions

Most of the time, the player is having a conversation with the other characters. In Oxenfree, the developers want the conversations to be as natural as possible, so the other characters behave to your responses a certain way. When waiting for you to talk, the characters usually say “Hello?” or “Did you hear me?” as if they’re expecting you to answer. If this is during a timed dialog, the characters will just say something like “Oh playing the quiet game are we?” or something snooty like that. If timed correctly, the player can answer back with “Yes, I heard you, yeah i think you’re right” or something like that, where the player responds to the character’s questioning remarks. There are sometimes where the player just interrupts the conversation, either the other characters were talking about how the player is being quiet, or they were going off in a tangent from the conversation. Sometimes it’s disappointing to interrupt what the character was going to say; perhaps they were giving something away about the story, other times it feels like the player wants to get the conversation over with. Another way a player interacts is by making a decision, but only answering it at a certain point in the conversation, instead of interrupting the characters. Because of the variations in this system, the player realizes which conversations are actually important to the story, and which are world building, characterization fluff.

Besides answering the characters, there are also objects in the world to interact with. Because of the unique way the dialog works, players can move around while also talking, giving a more natural feeling to the conversation. When a player selects certain objects, when that object becomes available to select either during or after conversation, the player starts a new conversation about it. Sometimes finding an object progresses the gameplay, but other times it’s just for world building. When the object is important, previous conversations are interrupted as the game focuses on the next task. Other times, however, the characters will go back to their conversation with the player. There was one point in time where I was talking to a character and I wanted to drop the conversation, so I just kept selecting the different items in the room. The game, however, found this conversation important, so it brought it up again immediately after.

Interacting by leaving the different areas, or walking too far away, also causes different interactions. In the case of entering a different area, whole conversations can be lost behind, because certain conversations only happen at certain places (we’ll talk about triggers in the next segment). This can be a detriment on the game, because the player just lost all the important choices that they could’ve made. When the game wants the player to listen in on a conversation, the characters will sometime beckon the player to come back, like saying “Hey, why don’t you stay and chat?” These kinds of interactions are ways the game is telling the player that exploration isn’t important, and there’s no point rushing from area to area.

What makes it tick?

So we just described the different kinds of systems that are involved with the conversation to make it flow naturally, but how does it actually work behind the scenes? Note: with programming, there are multiple kinds of ways to complete certain tasks, so what I say may not be exactly what’s programmed, but it could be a similar system. Now, within the program, there are the different Update methods, which are just called every frame (so like 30 frames per second or what have you). Then there are Coroutines, which follow their own set of actions. To make it easier to visualize, just think of Updates and Coroutines on separate timelines: the walking and scenery effects in the game are on the update side, while the actual conversations are on the Coroutines side. By being able to aptly control the timing of Coroutines, developers can figure out the right timing for each conversation.

Imagine the conversations as a web of Coroutines. By interconnecting the system with a series of true or false statements (called booleans, or bools in C#), the game can choose which Coroutine to call next when a player makes a decision. Using while loops, which are activate if certain terms are met, there the bubbles can fade out naturally, waiting until a player makes a choices. Within that while loop, there can be “if” statements where if a player presses this button, then this conversation is true and moves to the next Coroutine, or if a player doesn’t make a decision at all, move to something else. If a conversation is interrupted in the middle, it can check if there were any bools that were set off or not. I can picture a kind of game manager for the scene or conversation where it holds a set of bools and if there is a bool that is false, that set of Coroutines start. If you’re not sure what I mean, don’t worry, just imagine like if you were grocery shopping and you were following a list, but in the middle of shopping, a friends stops you to say hi. After that conversation, you go back to your list of items and proceed to shop.

When I talk about triggers in terms of programming, I’m talking about invisible boxes that the player can’t see. When a player enters or exits a box, an event happens, which could mean a conversation starts, or the characters beckon the player back to a certain area. Because the player can move around while also talking, triggers in this game are very important. It may seem like sometimes the characters start conversations with the player randomly, but a lot of the time it’s because a player walked into certain areas of the map. Triggers are also useful when a player gets close to an object and the selectable option and its description shows up. There can also be trigger boxes that are on the characters themselves. If the player is either following the character or the character is following the player, the game can determine how far away the player is by if they are in a character’s trigger box or not.

I could go farther in depth about all the programming and techniques used to make the game, but I’m going to keep it at that for now. Maybe sometime in the future I’ll try to recreate a level of another game, but we’ll see. You can check out Oxenfree here. What did you think of the game? What were you favorite bits of dialog? Let me know in the comments below! Have a great day, and thanks for reading!

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Design Reflection: Human Fall Flat

In this blog series I take a game I’ve completed and analyze design aspects randomly given to me from the Game Design: A Deck of Lenses app by Jesse Schell.

Human Fall Flat (HFF) is a physics based puzzle game with quirky ragdoll mechanics. The goal for your character is to reach the other side of the level by doing a bunch of tasks.

Today we’ll look at three lenses:

The Lens of the Avatar

The avatar is the player’s gateway into the world of the game.

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

In this game, players play as a kind of ragdoll in the form of a soft, clumsy Pillsbury dough boy. The way the character moves is a kind of waddling as it tries to walk with its limbless appendages. Both of their arms and legs are kind of stubby and a tad difficult to control, but in this game, the movability of the character is the most important part of the game.

By having a game called “Human Fall Flat,” it’s expected that the player will fail a lot because of the clumsiness of the character they control. The “Fall Flat” part of the name derives from the phrase “falling flat on their face,” like when someone trips. Would this kind of playable character be something for players to enjoy? I think for the most part, yes, but there are times where the character gets in the way of themselves, but more on that later. In terms of the player projecting themselves onto the character, it can be a little mis-matched at times. The character starts off as a completely blank slate, with no features at all. The player may enjoy this featureless persona, but the game is hinting at the fact that the player can customize their character. The whole act of customizing allows players to put little pieces of themselves in the game by having a character look how they want it to. The whole act of customizing a character can be a delicate balance. On one hand, there may be games that let the player customize their character in too fine of a detail. This seems to be the case in many RPG’s. There are other times where there are not enough customizable pieces to a character, like the developer didn’t create as many costumes to try on, or those costumes are locked behind a paywall. If a player doesn’t feel that any of their customizing choices fit with their own self, a player can feel a little disjointed from the game. At that point, a connection is lost between player and character. There’s a noticeable difference between a player saying “Oh no I fell off the cliff!” and “Oh no my character fell off a cliff!” Just by how the player describes the character they’re controlling show us how truly they connected are to the game.

Back to my reference on movement. There are a lot of situations in this game where the player has to do some fine motor movement to get through a level. This could include platform jumping, climbing up ledges, and steering cranes. The “fun” found in this game is from the character’s inability to be able to perform these movements well. Besides the player lacking limbs and having bouncy, gooey physics, the clumsiness also is in the controls. Both the direction of the arms and where the player moves to are controlled by the same control stick (I was playing on an xbox, it could be different on the computer). Now having to overcome this strange function of the mechanics can be fun, but there are times where things can become frustrating. This kind of game comes down to the perspective of the player. If a player is happy and doesn’t care to really reach the end, then the game can be fun and goofy as they fail multiple times. If the player is trying really hard to get to the end, however, I can see the player becoming frustrated as they try to not walk off of a crane while also trying to steer it.

The Lens of Resonance

To use the Lens of Resonance, you must look for hidden power.

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

What is it about HFF that makes the game special? I think the game really likes to advertise how players enter the level when they fail. When players enter, they fall through the air and belly flop onto the ground. By having the players constantly do this, the game is promoting silliness in its movements. The game is telling the player that things are going to be ridiculous and blown out of proportion, just by showing the player splatting on the ground.

The act of having the player fall into a scene tells a lot about what is going to happen. The game tries to tell the player that it’s fun to fail. If a player would have just entered the scene without any kind of dramatic entrance, then the players would lose the fun in it. By telling the player that it’s fun to fail, the game can get away with the player accidentally dying multiple times without being too frustrated. Having failing be funny can relax the player because they don’t have to worry so much about surviving. There are also times when players play with others and they try to get others to fail, rather than actually focus on the level. This turns into more of a meta game where players are climbing over each other and landing on top of one another. It’s interesting to see just how effective it can be to make failing a silly focal point of a game.

The Lens of Beauty

Beauty is mysterious. Why, for example, do the most beautiful things have a touch of sadness about them?

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

In this cell-shaded, polygonal world, what makes this game beautiful? Due to the layout of each level being a series of challenges, there are sometimes when you reach a high point you can see all the things that have to happen. It’s moments like these where the player is filled with excitement as the question the purpose of all the things that lay before them. Most levels have a theme to them, like a steam factory, medieval castles, and an ice level. The game plays on a lot of these kinds of themes, by having the challenges be integrated within them. For example, in the ice level ice cubes are used as platform devices, but they slowly melt if placed in the sun. The trick is in finding the shadows and trying to get the cube there before it evaporates. This causes the player to look at the level a slightly different way because instead of looking up around them, they are looking down at the ground for shade. Being cell shaded, however, has the objects lacking detail, and can make a lot of the levels seem kind of bland.

If the game portrays fun through its player movement and failing animations, it doesn’t try to portray it in anything else. Because of its lack of details, there are just areas with muted colors and nothing much to look at. For a game that’s about grabbing things and ragdolling about, the game tries to keep a seriousness to how it presents itself. The contrast between the silly movements of the player and how the levels portray itself could be funny if seen in more of a dry humor sort of way. There’s no part of the level that tells the player to be goofy. The only real goofy things are the players themselves as they waddle throughout. Perhaps it’s social commentary where even though the world can be daunting and serious, humans still have a chance to be silly. Part of me wishes there was some acknowledgement that the game knows it’s silly, perhaps the narrator at the beginning could speak some funny quips, or the scene could have an obnoxious color palette.

The music in this game is also something to talk about. Before going into the game, I thought the music would be lighthearted, like some quiet jazz squeaking in the background. Upon opening up the scene, however, I’m greeted with this giant swell of emotional strings and piano. On one side the music is nice, and tries to be elegant and professional, but on the other side it just doesn’t really fit what’s happening. If the game is trying to be completely serious with its theme, level, and music, then the developers nailed it, but is it what the game needs? Some would say the juxtaposition is funny when compared to the goofiness of the characters, but personally it dampens my mood to have fun. The problem with the music as well is that it goes away, so there are moments where you’re just walking around and you can only hear the thumps and bumps as you run into things. Perhaps the developers wanted to accent on these sounds to help accentuate how clumsy the player is, but the lack of audio and connection between the seriousness and the silly just adds to the blandness of the game.

I think the game is a lot of fun, especially when playing with friends who are also wanting to be goofy. I wish the game focused more on being silly rather than having a serious side to itself. Of course it’s always the players that bring the fun into the game, but it’s nice to have a game that encourages the fun that the player can have. While the falling feature is funny, it’s the only feature that is.

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 Human Fall Flat 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!

Psst! If you liked this blog and you want more, please consider contributing to my Ko-Fi. It helps me make new and exciting media like this blog and you get a game in return! Check it out here

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!

Psst! If you liked this blog and you want more, please consider contributing to my Ko-Fi. It helps me make new and exciting media like this blog and you get a game in return! Check it out here

Design Reflection: What Remains of Edith Finch

Warning: Spoilers!

So in this blog series I’m going to be analyzing different games that I’ve played to completion, or played enough to fully understand (some online multiplayer games can’t be completed for example). I’m not exactly reviewing the game, though thoughts and opinions may come up, I’m more analyzing the game and noticing its design choices.

The way I’m doing this is by randomly selecting cards or “lenses” from Jesse Schell’s Deck of Lenses, which asks the developer design questions about their game. I’m actually writing this roughly 5 days after completing the game, but ultimately the goal is to be able to both play a game, but also analyze it at the same time. This kind of experience is how Schell put it in his book: The Art of Game Design: “When you enter this state, it is almost as if you have two minds: one moving, engaged in an experience, and one still, silently observing the other. […] It seems to be something like the Zen practice of self-observation, and it is not unlike the meditation exercise of trying to observe your own breathing cycle.”

So with Zen in gaming being my ultimate goal, my job now is to try to analyze a game as quickly as possible. This doesn’t mean analyzing the game itself, but how I feel and react when playing the game.

To move things along, this post will consist of 3 randomly chosen observations:

The Lens of Venue

The places that we play exert a tremendous influence on the design of our games.

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

It is truly amazing to randomly get this lens (it WAS random, I promise!) because What Remains of Edith Finch is all about what surrounds you. In the game, you are tasked to travel back through your home that you left long ago, uncovering the unspoken stories about each of your family members along the way. The way you uncover these stories and the way you experience these stories are all tied into the different parts of the house.

Part of the enjoyment of this game is finding all the different secret passageways that are unlocked through handles in hollowed-out books. This game is very linear, so “finding” the passageways isn’t difficult, but as the player, it felt like I was discovering a brand new world.

While I could get wrapped up in describing all the intricacies and details that were placed in the set design, let’s talk about what the set did for the game. Each family member of the Finch bloodline has a very strong theme: an uncle’s bedroom is covered in space and flying gear, an aunt’s bedroom is covered in her own movie posters. The bedrooms themselves almost describe the lives of those that inhabited it. Each bedroom held that owner’s story, and the player would walk around reading these stories, which turned into small little games. It feels strange to call these segments “mini-games” because they more felt like small set pieces rather than a game. Some set pieces were more intricate than others, while some just had the player flip through a hand-drawn flip book. What became more interesting than the story, was how the house opened up more after the story was done.

One of my favorite moments in the game was right after you complete Calvin’s story where he “learns to fly” (I’ll try not to give it away too much). The character you’re playing as then says something like “After that incident, his mother roped off the room, and his brother joined the army as soon as he was 18.” Having to walk back through the room to get to the next, I started to notice this long, red velvet rope outlining the center of the floor. Then looking up, I saw the two brothers painted on their bedroom door, one in a space suit and one in a military uniform. Above these photos shows scratches in the door where they were measuring their heights as they grew older. Recognizing their meaning, the scratches above the space suit only reach a certain height while the one in the uniform went up higher. Just these little details in the set made these stories feel so real in how they all tied in together.

Okay, just a little bit more, then I’ll move on. It’s good to note that the game WANTS you to look at the scenery; it knows its correlation between the stories and the setting. How does it draw the player to look at the scenery, couldn’t the player breeze through the game without looking at anything? Well the short answer is, no. For one, the player character walks really slowly, so it’s not like the game can be ran through so quickly. This choice could maybe be from the developers wanting to extend gameplay, but I think ultimately it is to slowly read to you the player character’s thoughts. That brings us to two; what the narrator says actually appears in the scene. This means that if the player character were to say “I remember playing near that stream,” the screen would turn around from wherever you’re facing and look at the stream with the same words she spoke hovering above it in the scene. This means the game FORCES you to look at stuff. Obviously the designers believed the scenes they created are important, otherwise they wouldn’t have taken control of the player’s view so fiercely. With all the illusions to books, opening secret passageways held by books, books lining the whole house, the last room you go into is the reading room, the game itself is basically a book as you read the narration that floats around your head. While normal books contain merely pieces of paper, this booksaves you the trouble of imagination and comes up with its own world for you to explore.

The Lens of Control

This lens has uses beyond just examining you interface, since meaningful control is essential for immersive interactivity.

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

In this lens, there are two parts: what the player does to control the character and the level of control the player has on their surroundings.

In Edith Finch, the control scheme is very simple. During the regular gameplay, the player moves around with the left joystick (I played the game on an Xbox One), and interact with objects by pressing the right bumper. With only two inputs, it the game seems pretty straightforward, but I question the interaction button. In most games, the A button, or X button on the PlayStation, is the simple interact button, not the right button. First learning this, it felt un-intuitive to a typical player. Why did they choose the right bumper button? One possible answer could be that they chose a button that is present on all the major consoles. While the A button is not seem on every controller, the right bumper is, so porting the game to different systems would be easier. Another possibility, one that is more intriguing, is how a player presses the button. Since the button is located on the top of the controller, the player would use their pointer finger to press down on it. By simulating the motion without the controller, we notice we are making a kind of pinching motion, like we’re trying to pick something up. In the game, we are mostly picking up objects, or lifting up hatches, so by pressing the bumper button it feels natural to see things being picked up in the game.

The affect the player has on the surroundings is very minimal. The game is more like a museum where the player can look at things, but not really touch them. The only time a player really interacts with something is during the minigames. These little games are also minimal in their actions, from taking photos, to moving your legs back and forth on a swing set. The choices players make in the game serve no real outcome at the end. The only real choice the player can decide upon is whether they look at each story or not. In a way, the player is pulled along through the game, having no real choices they can make themselves. I think it would have been interesting if possibly some stories had varying endings that skewed them just a bit. Reflecting back on the whole game, it feels a little disappointing knowing that the player never really had any choices in the game.

The Lens of Meaningful Choices

When we make meaningful choices, it lets us feel like the things we do matter.

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

Going off of the Lens of Control, there’s really no choices that they player can make. This can be for a reason, however. The designers may have wanted the player to experience the story in a very specific way, and without a direct guide for the player, the story could have become mixed up and confused. Experiencing the stories in a certain way is important because it adds to the pacing of the game. If the player was allowed to go to any story they wanted to, they could accidentally choose the last story and get the ending to the game before really digging into it. Since a lot of the scenery reflects the stories, if the player was able to access any part of the house, say the graveyard, the player wouldn’t have understood what all the gravestones meant. While the gameplay may feel restrictive to the player that wants to go and explore, the game wants the player to take their time and experience things only when the game is ready for the player to.

The lack of choices doesn’t mean the choices we make aren’t meaningful. The whole game is about uncovering the stories about each of the family member’s death, so to the player character the choices the player makes are really meaningful, even if the only choices are to read the story or not. Video games are all about the player’s choices, so when there is a limited amount of things we can do, the choices we make are that more important to the game.

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 “What Remains of Edith Finch” 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!