Development Diary #1: Introduction

After an unexpectedly busy year of freelancing I’ve scraped together some reserves, cleared a few months in the calendar and I’m finally making a start on a project I’ve been thinking about since I finished college: a point and click adventure game. I thought it might be a good plan to record some thoughts along the way, mainly in the hope that some of the ideas I have floating around my head can be pinned down by putting them into words, but I’m also trying to cajole myself into setting and sticking to some kind of schedule and thought keeping a diary might help with that too. There’s always the outlying chance someone else might find some of it vaguely interesting as well I guess, who knows? Let the waffling commence…

Back when I was in college I had a rather scatter-gun approach to work, especially during my final year; alongside the 3D for another student’s Sci-Fi short (watchable here) and a series of hand-drawn stings featuring a dancing bear wearing blue Y-fronts (unwatchable anywhere), I also undertook production of a retro style adventure game. Unsurprisingly, spreading myself around so thinly resulted in the quality of all the projects suffering. While, in the end, I managed to make it into film school on the back of my 3D work and the dancing bear got the odd chuckle at a couple of job interviews, the game hasn’t seen the light of day since. Calling it a game is probably a bit of a stretch actually, I didn’t get it anywhere near finished and the parts I did finish where so far from what I’d envisaged to begin with as to be embarrassing. Ever since then though, a portion of my brain has been continuously occupied with the notion that I should try again, so, finally, that’s what I’m doing.

I’ve been excited about adventure games since before I’d even played one; I remember seeing a screenshot of Maniac Mansion, that SCUMM UI, with all the verbs laid out at the bottom of the screen, was pretty mind-blowing when you consider every other game I’d played up until that point involved little more than running and jumping. It’s hard to put a finger on why, exactly, I thought the idea of opening a fridge to look inside was more interesting than being a ninja, or how the ability to talk to other characters had more appeal than shooting fireballs at them but I’ve been a fan ever since.

I have plenty of ideas (don’t we all?) but haven’t settled on a lot of specifics yet, there are a few things I really want to work towards though, regardless of what specific form the game eventually takes:

  • Emphasis on exploration and experimentation.
  • As few generic “use item” animations as possible.
  • No spoken dialogue.
  • To quote Rainier Wolfcastle: “It’s not a comedy.”

I think everybody starting on a game these days has to put that first one, I can already see pretty huge issues looming though, the reason most adventure games don’t encourage experimentation and exploration is the sheer amount of complexity that can arise from offering even limited, multiple options. The same goes for reusing generic animation, it would be great to have beautifully animated sequences for every possible combination of interactions but that isn’t likely to be feasible with limited resources. Again, this is a list of ideal goals to aim for, not precepts that the game lives or dies by, so perhaps I can find a compromise with some sort of procedural system? Reusing character animation with multiple objects maybe, or randomizing a selection of layered animation? Plenty of avenues to explore here.

The idea of having no dialogue stems from several considerations; in purely practical terms it means I won’t have to worry about localization which would be a pretty substantial undertaking for a game like this. Personal preference also plays a part, I’m not really a fan of voice-acting in adventure games, possibly because when I started playing them there wasn’t very much of it about, the first time I encountered any was the CD-ROM version of Simon the Sorcerer, being a fan of the Amiga version and having played it through multiple times previously, hearing Chris Barrie’s voice suddenly coming out was just plain weird. I suppose you could argue that if I’d played the talkie version first there wouldn’t have been any jarring disconnect, and I’m sure there are plenty of examples of excellent voice acting in adventure games where the performance really adds to the experience, but in a weird way that’s sort of another reason I don’t want it. It’s why I don’t like audio books, the person reading is making so many creative decisions for you, whether it’s something as obvious as a thick accent or a stammer, or just a subtle tweak in timbre, these are all opportunities for the reader/player to involve themselves in the creative process, tailoring their experience to fit themselves in a way an author could never hope to achieve. I love the idea of a bunch of people playing the same game with the same basic elements but with what is, effectively, an infinite variety of characters and narratives. That space, between what an author presents and how an audience interprets, is the most interesting aspect of any kind of artistic expression as far as I’m concerned.

The game isn’t going to be retro-styled and it isn’t going to be a comedy. I’m not saying it’s going to be beard-strokingly high-brow or completely devoid of smiling, I’m just not keen on making another knowing, self-referential sort of adventure game, there are so many already. Sadly, this means I will not be including a character wearing a badge that says “Ask me about Loom.” (although now I really want to…)

Finally, on the slightly more technical end of things, the game will be done in 3D, I’ll be sticking with what I know and using Softimage for all the modelling and animation. I’ve also decided to use Unity for development, primarily because a lot of the interface seems pretty familiar already; sitting down in front of it for the first time, making a few primitives and instinctively hitting ALT to move the camera about makes me feel so much more at home than the empty page of a text editor does, with its cursor blinking expectantly at me. I’m fully aware that at some point I will, of course, have to type a bunch of code somewhere, I just find having it attached to something visual from the beginning so much more intuitive than the other way round. To begin with, for simplicity sake, I’m only going to be focussing on PC, depending on how far I get though, I’d love to take a bash at porting to Mac and iPad.

Long before any of the fun stuff starts though, there is one pretty major hurdle to contend with: I don’t really have a clue how to do most of this! The first course of action then is to get stuck into some tutorials, so that’s what I’m off to do now! I promise future entries will be less rambling and may even have a picture or something, congratulations to anyone who actually made it all the way through!

If you have questions, suggestions or happen to know where I can get cheap, brand-name clothing, feel free to leave your words in the box below.

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