Retrospective / by Mai Templeton

When I first began division III, I needed to come up with an idea for my project and all I knew was that I wanted to make some kind of video game. During my division II I explored my interest in 3D animation, which eventually evolved into a fascination with the video game genre. Video games spoke to me. Although I found myself squirming in my seat and struggling to focus on a film of any kind, regardless of how much I liked it, video games did not allow such passivity and demanded that I step in and take the reigns. I was captain of the story, a story, which would eventually become my own.

I have never considered myself a storyteller or a writer, so developing a plot for my game proved to be one of the major struggles I encountered during my Division III journey. I felt limited by my programming abilities, so crafting a game that would be compelling enough to play proved to be a challenge. Thankfully, the discovery of the visual scripting tool Adventure Creator by ICEBOX Studios made the lofty goal of creating a whole game independently with my shoddy scripting skills a much brighter looking reality. Without having to rely on others to script I took direct control of the steering wheel and was free to navigate the development of my game however I deemed fit.

During the creation process of my game I was heavily inspired by video games like Proteus and Eidolon. These two games did very little hand holding in the sense of tutorials and gameplay and really spoke to me in their delivery of content. The games’ emphasis on environment encouraged wandering purely for the sake of exploration.  With these type of games there was no explicit end goal. Their aim was simply to get players to explore the world around them, absorb their surroundings, and be immersed in the various artistic interpretations of different stories and lands. There was no boss to beat, no princess to save. There was simply the player and their environment. The world created was their oyster and they were encouraged to feast.

This is what I wanted my game to be like. Yet, I struggled with the decision on whether to make my game more structured with elements like goals or whether I wanted it be more like Proteus, or even one of the earlier games I had worked on called Wandering. In these two games players were simply dropped into a world and were left to figure out the rest for themselves. I wanted to model it after the latter but was worried that developing a game with no explicit goals or plot would alienate many players and encourage them to simply give up and label my game as “boring” or “directionless”. It was this and the nagging insecurity that my game design abilities weren’t honed enough to develop a game of that genre successfully that led me to develop an, albeit loose plot for my game. My thinking was that this way, players would be encouraged by story elements in order to progress through the game.  Looking back on it now, I’m still not sure whether this was the best way to go about it.

As deadlines approached I needed to create a story with which I could begin to model my game after. After trying to fabricate some original stories without success, I decided to draw from what I already knew: The folktales and myths that had always captured my attention as a child.

I had recently been given a beautiful hardback copy of a collection of Norse folktales from my father. The main tale featured was a familiar one from my childhood called East of the Sun and West of the Moon.  To dramatically simplify the story, a young girl marries a prince who is cursed to live during the day as a white bear. Things go wrong, and the prince is forced to leave and go live with his evil troll stepmother who lives in an impossible to find castle that lies “East of the sun and West of the moon”. The girl sets out to go find the prince and along the way collects golden items like an apple, carding comb, and spinning wheel, which later prove to be integral in her rescue of the prince. 

I knew there was no way I would be able to make a game out of the whole story, but I saw a lot of potential in a particular part of the story where the girl wanders through the land collecting a variety of golden items. These golden items would be a great goal item for players to search for in my game, even if their significance wasn't obvious.  Next, I took some creative liberties with the story by adding obstacles and aides in the form of other Nordic mythological creatures. After some research I decided I wanted to include the benign Norse gnomes (called Nisse), the hungry and musically talented waterfall spirit (Fossegrimen), and the deadly cousin of the waterfall spirit (Nøkken). The Nisse would serve as helpful NPC’s, which would provide players with pretty obvious hints on how to progress through the level whereas the others would act as obstacles requiring players to find specific items in the game world in order to satisfy their conditions and allow players to proceed to the next goal item. 

Although the whole process of story development didn't end horribly, I still feel that if I had had more time to develop a story without the time pressure of having to start actual development, I could have ended up with a much more coherent and engaging story for players to follow. It probably would have been even better had I had a writer but such is the nature of Division III. 

I often had to reign in my abstract and flighty ideas in order to keep the development of gameplay feasible for my ability level. I wanted so much more for my game but had to make sacrifices due to my limited understanding of the tools, time, and my sanity. This was ultimately a learning experience and if my goals were set too high I wouldn't have had enough time to learn the tools while also trying to make a full game.

My limited time resources and familiarity with the game engine heavily influenced the artistic aesthetic I chose for my game. I didn't want to worry too much about texturing, an area of 3D art I’m not too familiar with, so I fell in love with the idea of using a toon-shader. I wanted to evoke the same kind of aesthetic that older Legend of Zelda games like The Wind Waker successfully exemplified. This, along with creating relatively low polygonal models with simple animations blended well to create a very cartoony yet fantastical aesthetic, really jived with me.

I can’t help but feel as if my inexperience concerning the more technical side of game development, like coding for example, cost me a lot of time. While I spent extensive time troubleshooting an issue with a menu or button, I couldn't help but feel that if I were savvier I would have had the problem fixed earlier which would have left me with more time to dedicate to art. This was recurring insecurity I grappled with throughout development, as I would sometimes spend multiple days trying to fix a problem or simply trying to make an interaction work in game. It was much harder for me to predict the time it would take for me to complete certain tasks related to development since a problem could sprout up at any minute and I would have no idea how to fix it until I scoured the internet and posted in forums. Even then I would receive mixed results and more often than not I would resort to pure trial and error until I got something to work how I wanted it to. Granted, there was nothing better than the feeling of getting something to work exactly how I wanted it after hours or days of hair-pulling and desperate troubleshooting. The elation and pride I felt from those moments was one of the reasons I was able to push through the many more hours of development I had ahead of me.

Although it was a slow progression, as I added more assets into the game world I couldn’t help but feel wonder at the little world I was creating. It was empowering, creating an environment of my complete own design. It was like seeing the fuzzy fabrications of my imagination come to life. Better yet, I could even walk through it and experience it through a much more tangible medium.  In addition the satisfaction I got from overcoming design obstacles that kept me going throughout the year.

Confliction was a common emotion throughout the whole development process of my game, and that emotion took center stage as my deadline for completion approached. I had immersed myself in the world of Unity and had dedicated so much time to learning how to use it’s tools in addition to Adventure Creator’s that I often felt that the art was taking a backseat. This was hard for me, especially considering my game design was initially staunchly set in the visual art side of production.

In previous projects I had only my art to worry about, and when I had worked on an asset enough to feel good about it, all I had to do then was pass it off to a programmer whose responsibility was to implement it into the game. Naturally, this method of task allocation would allow me more time to nit-pick my 3D models and animations to perfection. In contrast, my project did not allow such a dedication to the visual. I had to delegate my time between multiple elements of game play and design and this proved to be a constant struggle for me.

In addition to programming, the 2D visual aspect of game development was new to me. I had to think about things like fonts and whether they were thematically appropriate, legible, and aesthetically pleasing. I also had to think about how menus and buttons were set up- aspects of developing a game whose importance I had initially underestimated. I also didn’t realize how long it would take me to develop these assets to meet my criteria.

An in-game screenshot from the development my game East Of West Of comparing the use of two different fonts. 

Writing dialogue and instructions were their own can of worms. The ability to communicate goals and intentions through words presented in a lightly worded yet engaging manner was difficult. Instructions couldn't be too wordy and dialogue hints from NPC’s couldn’t be too obvious or bland so that players would skip through them or progress through the game too quickly. It took several play-tests to come up with dialogue that served my purpose and even now I’m not completely happy with it.

Sometimes I felt as if I had cheated myself out of the opportunity to grow my 3D art and animation skills due to the project I had chosen and all the other more technical aspects of it, which demanded precedence. I was itching to flex my animation muscles but I had to prioritize. I mean, what good is a game with pretty art and environments if you can’t so much as move a character to walk through it? Still, I couldn't help but grapple with these feelings as I would in the lab and see others working on magnificent pieces of animation while I struggled to implement my comparatively simple models and animations into my Unity scene.  

I know for sure that without Adventure Creator I would not have been able to develop my game to the quality it is now. Although it granted me the power to program without having to actually code, sometimes I felt frustrated by its limitations. When I ran into an issue or interaction I wanted to implement into the game that Adventure Creator didn't necessarily support or acted the way I wanted it to, I either had to settle for how it was or spend hours or days finding a workaround. This issue came into play when developing my inventory menu and making its interactions deviate from the way the script was written. At one point I couldn't get the mouse cursor to unlock from the center of the screen (first-person orientation) when the inventory window was up and then switch back to locked during gameplay. This was an issue I still couldn't resolve after days of working on it so I had to find a less than eloquent work-around in the form of instructions lining the bottom window of the inventory. Another example of my difficulties lay in syncing sounds to animations, in particular the Fossegrimen. Adventure creator did not have a lot of support in the way of audio, so I was limited in the way I implemented sounds and got them to work with the animations. I settled with creating a generic violin animation for the Fossegrimen which would loop and would hopefully read as him playing, kind of like how they used to do it older N64 games.

A video taken from The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask displaying the looping animation used with music. 

Despite all of my complaints and insecurities the fact of the matter is that I now have a playable game with a start and finish that I can truly say I made on my own (with a little help of course). Had you asked me  in September if I really thought I could complete the game with an aesthetic true to the one I imagined I would have laughed, joking that while the game may have had art, I would doubt it would be playable. Now I can say I have proved myself wrong and while I may not have been able to dedicate as much time to things like animation and art as much as I would have liked to, I developed a whole other set of skills relating to the technical side and nitty-gritty parts of game development. I can surely that I can walk away from this Division III with a greater sense of confidence in my game development skills, because I made a game from start to finish!



*One can find more about the journey of East Of West Of's development by visiting my Trello page here.*