For the past few weeks, Jack and I have been working on transitioning from the Demo Version to the Final Version of Where Shadows Slumber. One of the finishing touches I’m committed to adding to our demo is a short cutscene that plays when you beat the game. Our fans are always asking us if the game will have some kind of a story. The answer is yes, it absolutely will! But the nature of mobile entertainment and puzzle games in general dictates that we tell a certain kind of story in a certain kind of way.
When we decided we wanted the game to have a story, we looked at other successful mobile games (see Monument Valley, above) as well as the games Jack and I usually like to play. It seemed that short cutscenes, placed directly after the player “achieved” something notable, were the best way to hold people’s attention. Jack loves listening to all of the audio books in Diablo 3, and I loved reading entire libraries in games like Morrowind and Skyrim. However, for a casual gamer, massive amounts of text can seem like an information overload. Not to mention, that creates a lot more work for our translator – which translates into a serious cost for us.
It’s also worth mentioning that mobile gamers don’t often play games with the sound on. Clearly, investing our time in fully voice-acted content wouldn’t be worth it. Who would ever hear it? When you think about it, given these constraints, we didn’t have many options.
- Mobile gamers can’t hear your game
- Casual gamers want a story, but not an epic saga
- Mobile gamers play the game in short bursts
- The more voice over work and text we have, the more we need to translate
Since the above four points are a given, we decided to have short cutscenes at the beginning and end of every World in our game to serve as end-caps. The action in each of these animated scenes will be completely wordless and textless, and tell a story through body language alone. Sound will be present, but it won’t be important. The cutscenes themselves each tell a unique piece of the story, and may even seem disconnected. This is all by design!
The Technology Being Used
All of the artwork in Where Shadows Slumber is done in a program called Autodesk 3DS Max. I’ve used many studios in my years as an animator, but this was one of the first I ever tried and something about it called me back.
3DS Max is used to create characters (modelling), paint them (texturing), give them bones and animation handles (rigging), and make them move around (animation).
Then, these animations play in real-time within Unity. So when you’re watching a cutscene, you’re really watching the game – not something that was rendered ahead of time as a series of images and played back like a film. It was important to me that we use Unity to its full potential, and always kept players “in the game world”.
Process: The Inverted Cone of Cutscenes
When working on a large project like this cutscene, it’s important to work in stages and have clear checkpoints. And make no mistake, even a cutscene that is 1 minute long is a large project! I have spent close to 30 hours on it so far, and I’m not even finished. The problem with stuff like this is that if you want to change something, usually you have to undo or throw out a ton of work. It’s important to make sure that doesn’t happen, and that you start with a wide range of possibilities but eventually focus in on what the cutscene is going to be.
For some insight into how a cutscene begins wide and then narrows to completion, look at this graph:
See the arrow – I am currently at the end stage of Principal Animation. That means the actors all have their general motions and you can tell what’s going on in the scene. But it still isn’t finished! Look at all of the other stuff that has to be done.
The reason things like cloth motion and sound come last is because, should we decide to change some of the Principal Animation, we would have to throw out all of that “detail work” anyway. So it just makes sense to save it for last and only work on it when the work at the top of the cone has been checked and locked.
Regrets So Far
You don’t work on a game without having some serious regrets. Every regret I have so far regarding this process has to do with time – something I did, did poorly, or did not do, that cost me precious time and made us push our deadlines back.
Giving the character cloth robes: I love robes. I love cloth. But I foolishly decided to give our main character cloth robes that must be painstakingly controlled via spider-leg-like bone tendrils. This process is maddening, takes forever, and never looks good. I regret not using Cloth simulation, something 3DS Max provides and Unity supports.
His dumb hand bones: This is something you would never know from watching the in-game cutscene, but the main character’s hand Bone (an invisible puppet-string object) is stupid, dumb, too big, and I don’t like it. I should have made them smaller. Also I think his left arm bends the wrong way. Let’s just say I ought to re-do his entire rig.
Link To World broke everything: I used a parent-child relationship to allow the characters in the scene to hold objects (i.e. the lantern, the urn, the chest, the scepter, the bowl). This worked perfectly! Except… for some reason, the first time I set up linking on my character’s IK hand setup, it wigged out and sent his hands flying off screen for every single frame of animation I had done previously. This was clearly some kind of offset error, but I never found a good solution. I ended up reanimating his hands halfway through!
People would rather have more levels anyway: The sad truth is, this is a puzzle game. People want puzzles. (“More levels!” – The Proletariat) As much as they may say they want a story, the truth is we’ll get more mileage out of working hard on puzzles instead. It may be that the cutscene is there for a different purpose. My own ego? Winning artsy indie game awards?
Everything mentioned here made me lose time and work on this far longer than I should have, making us weeks (if not months) behind schedule for a demo that was supposed to be done already. Perfect is the enemy of good enough! Live and learn, right? That’s the beauty of working on a demo first. I now know what not to do for the final game! Let’s just hope the damage hasn’t already been done by now.
Next Blog Post
By the time I have to write Part 2 of this blog, I should be finished with the cutscene. I can show it to you in full and we’ll do a bit of a postmortem on it. I can give you the short version of the postmortem now: the cutscene is a lot of work, there’s very little payoff (I assume), and the subject matter is controversial. Nevertheless, here’s a sneak peek at it to tide you over until then…
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Interested in hearing about the game, now that you’ve peeked behind the scenes? You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at contact@GameRevenant.com.
Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.