Check out the game here : http://www.ludumdare.com/compo/ludum-dare-30/?action=preview&uid=39080
It’s been two weeks since the competion, now is the time to sit down and think about what I’ve learned from the experience called Ludum Dare so far. Quite a lot, to be honest…
Before the war
To really understand our experience, you have to know where we come from, and, unless you’ve just run into us, you must already know that our lovely unpronounceable team is specialized in creating story-focused games. We’ve been making visual novel for some months now and I’d say we’re starting to get a hold of it. Since I’ve always wanted to add gameplay to make our works more interactive, I thought Ludum Dare would be a good opportunity to do so. The goal was clear : we had to make a game.
But, of course, jumping from mostly linear visual novel to full fledged game in a few days wouldn’t be that easy. So we decided to make a warmup game to practice. Soon, I had some assets to create a tiny prototype. The only thing missing was the code. Being a writer and a manager above all else, I was only able to code simple things and I had never done jumpscares before. So I needed the programmer. And he was so late to help me, I barely had any sleep the night before the launch. But we did it, we finished the prototype (with less features than I intended but, well, it was for practice purpose after all). Then the real deal started.
An incomplete idea : Escape paradise
Finding the right view to draw the garden wasn’t easy
I’m the kind of person who sucks at improvising. When I write something, I need time to think about the story I’m going to make so that everything fall into place. It could take weeks or months depending on the plot. So, I can’t just enter a gam jam like « YOLO, no preparation whatsoever », I have to at least have some kind of trail. And, luckily, I had an idea about what to do for the contest : a short horror story with some point & click elements. There would be this character trapped in a beautiful garden and he would have to escape but doing so would only uncover terrible things. It was a simple idea that needed work but I thought the theme would help me expand it. The first thing I noticed when I woke up early that Saturday is that the theme was way too vague for my taste. « Connected Worlds » didn’t hold much potential for me. I went with the « life and death » approach but wasn’t really satisfied with the result.
You must have noticed by now that I’m used to write games that lean solely on plot. Plot that sometimes has shock value (like what I did with Ambre) or is built to make people think (like Being Beauteous). But Garden of Oblivion wasn’t leaning on plot like my other projects, it didn’t even need a strong plot. It was relying on the mood, on the gameplay and eventually on the litterary references I put everywhere. Plus, I was too busy managing the artists and trying to code to be able to focus on writing a decent story. So I couldn’t really find a way to expand my idea like I wanted to, making the main character suffer a bit from this issue.
The main character : never say reven
Usually I tend to be very specific when I ask one of my artists to draw me an important character. Here I didn’t know what I wanted and I didn’t really cared. It could be a man or a woman, white or black, I didn’t mind one bit. I intended to ask Melow to be the character artist but she was a bit sick and couldn’t really work that much. Morsy offered to draw the MC instead because she was interested. Thing is Melow tends to draw cute girls whereas Morsy tends to draw alternative characters, so that little choice completely changed the way the character was brought to life. She was happy to experiment new things and asked me about the gender of that protagonist. Since I didn’t care and had trouble answering properly, she offered me to make the MC gender-neutral. And so, Reven was born without a gender, because we felt it was not a key element to the story (making writing a bit more difficult actually but it was interesting). Since I suck at finding names and I don’t like normal ones, I called Reven like that because it was « never » in reverse. Yeah.
From a sketch to the almost finished sprite
I was happy with my new designed character but that didn’t help one bit finding how to go into its backstory in depth (like, the reason Reven was send to Eden in the first place is briefly touched upon but not developped). So I didn’t, even though I really wanted to, due to the lack of time. Because of that, Reven is not that much of a well-rounded character, not as deep a others I wrote, and that still bothers me.
Puppies make everything better !
To make a perfect purgatory for our poor Reven, I wanted cute animals to keep the character some company. I asked Melow to draw them inspired by some of the real life plushes I have (hey, stuffed animals are great gifts). Finding names was once again tricky so I went with whatever popped on my mind. Hence the duck being called « Duck McDuck » (I suck at names, remember), the otter « Lotte » and the fox « Fox-tan » (Firefox reference, I guess). The rabbit was more difficult, I racked my brains and decided « Humpty » fitted (he has a big head, he looks like an egg-man to me). Giving them personnality went quite easily. I’m just a bit dispointed we didn’t have the time to make their sprites change expressions outside of dialogues. Another time, maybe.
The turning point or « What went horribly wrong »
Hopefully the artists were really motivated and they worked really hard throughout the weekend. One was kinda sick but managed to do some drawings nonetheless, one was staying at my house and hardly took any break and the other stayed late at night to finish as much as she could. The first day was kinda misleading because I had time to tweet a lot, to show people some screenshots, everything seemed to go alright and all. It was definitely the best day for me and I enjoyed the full community experience. But I hadn’t made much progress on the script and was behind schedule, which was an alarming sign. I had to work really hard the other days to make up for it. Thing is, while the graphists were advancing well, Roganis, our musician, wasn’t getting anywhere because of a huge block. He did what he could though and managed to produce some tracks for the game (you can listen to the unused track in the trailer video BTW). But, well, otherwise, everything was going well, right ?
The duchess looked a bit off on the first sketch, so we made a more modern version.
Not really. The biggest problem was that the code was way too complex for me to handle alone. So I couldn’t even start to write all the little interactions I wanted to make or even ensure we had something playable. I was worried sick because in two days, the programmer almost hadn’t showed up. When he finally helped me a bit, there were TONS and TONS of bugs to fix…and he only came the last night to do so. I was on the verge of giving up. He wanted to try his best though, so while the others had finished and gone to their well-deserved rest, we stayed together to finish the game. But we were lacking time so much we could barely add the gameplay part. So the entry we submitted that night at the last minute was a linear story whithout any polish and full of bugs. Like a story-less visual novel. The empty shell of a game, if you will.
Making a half-game really frustrated me. After a day of rest, to sleep a bit, I took the following day with the programmer to fix some of the major bugs (turned out game wasn’t beatable). And I worked hard later that week to finally add what I wanted, while asking him for some help. It took us three more days at a normal pace.
Garden of horror
When I thought of making an horror game within 72h, I knew we had to work hard on the backgrounds to offer many variations, including creepy ones. Noone could have pulled it better than Orties since she loves scary things so much. The last version of the garden is especially…lovely. It looked like one of Saya no Uta’s. But, we couldn’t make the animated bits right away, since I needed my programmer for that, so the glowing and moving part are only in the post-jam version. As well as the jumpscares actually. I fiddled with some sound effects and animations to make those. I feel the game wouldn’t have much sense without them. An horror game without jumpscares is just too sad. Say hello to the scarecrow !
Puzzles, puzzles, puzzles everywhere !
Surprisingly, we had fun with making the puzzles. Morsy had difficulties to understand what I wanted at first but she managed to make really pretty drawings. I only asked for simple ones but I can’t complain when I see how the knife and axe ones turned out. Even the extra puzzle looked great. Coding them wasn’t too difficult either, so the main task was really more about making the interactions on the background.
And then, there was the riddle… I was planning all along to insert one into the game but in the haste I had to come up with something real quick and we couldn’t ask someone to test the result for us. So, in a predictable way, many players complained that the clues weren’t clear and that they had no idea how to pass it, showing us how important it is to ask someone to play your game beforehand X).
So, what can I learn from this mess ? To begin with, it was obvious that our first time adding gameplay would be painful, and it has been. We learned the hard way that making a game isn’t just putting some assets together, you have to test the game over and over again to correct bugs and make it work for real. What seems like a short and innocent bit of gamedev actually takes you A LOT of time. But it’s that testing phase that makes the game feel alive. But the experience has been enriching and I think we’re now more ready to add gameplay in our stories. Maybe for another edition of Ludum Dare ? Who knows…