State of the Art – April 2018

Welcome to State Of The Art, April 2018 edition! This monthly progress report is written by Frank DiCola and is focused entirely on how the game’s visuals have improved in the past month.

Missed last month’s State of the Art? The March edition is right here.

Also, don’t be fooled by our last blog post. The “Easter edition” of our blog was actually just the Where Shadows Slumber April Fool’s gag for the year. We hope it gave you a few laughs! Don’t worry, we aren’t adding any of that stuff to the game.

SOTA-Discord

Sorry Caroline – no skins!

We all had fun making that, but now it’s back to work. Here’s the State of the Art!

 

 


SPOILER WARNING: This post contains screenshots, GIFs and videos of later sections of the game. If you want to experience them in all their majesty for the first time on your mobile device when the game launches, don’t read on!


 

 

 

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Mustard River

The infamous “mustard river” is now complete! These Levels used to be in real rough shape, but now I love the way our ashen rocks contrast with the yellow of the water. This World is home to Walkers, a mechanic we introduce in the first River Level. I won’t drone on too long, because I think these GIFs speak for themselves. Enjoy!

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Level 2-1, “Docks”

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Level 2-2, “Cage”

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Level 2-3, “Guide”

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Level 2-4, “Ebb”

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Level 2-5, “Ferry”

There are new Walkers, too! For a long time, the denizens of the River were weird copies of Obe in scraggly shorts. As you may have noticed from the GIFs above, I gave them a bit more unique personal features, such as different hats or clothing. Overall, they probably still look too much like generic video game zombies. Regardless, I hope people will realize as they play the game that these Walkers are to be pitied, not feared.

 

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Check Out Our Snazzy Level Select Menu

I’m really proud of the Level Select menu that Jack and I have been working on together. Rather than just do a few buttons with numbers on them, we really went all out to create a beautiful experience that takes you through the story of the game as you choose what Level you’d like to play. Check them out in action!

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When the full game is done, this menu will be the best place to track your progress. How many Levels have you completed? How many are left? Which ones would you like to return to, to show your friends? During gameplay however, the Player won’t be directed here too often, since Levels flow directly from one into the other.

 

 

 

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Polish: The Home Stretch

I have begun the process of finishing the game’s final 15 Levels. These puzzles have been finished for a while, and they even have some “first draft” art. However, as I say all the time, my goal for each Level is to make it look like my favorite Level, and make the player say “oh wow, I love the look of this one.” That’s a delicate process that takes a lot of time – many, many hours spent per Level!

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So right now I have just one of the final 15 to show you today, and you can see it above. This is in World 5, The Hills, and it’s called Cemetery. It features tombstones that turn into ghosts when you cover them in shadow. The theme of the World is putting these spirits to rest in their graves.

This Level is nearly complete – there are two tiny touches I’m dying to put in. First, I want to give that Draggable pillar a bit more personality. Right now it’s just a green hyperrectangle (Jack taught me that’s what a 3D rectangle is) but it should feel like it belongs more. Second, I want to add animated blades of grass that bounce and bob along with the rhythm of the falling rain. Personally, I think making convincing rain is more about the effect the raindrops have on the ground rather than seeing actual particles in midair. When it rains in real life, what’s easier to see: the rain in midair as it falls to Earth, or the water collecting in puddles on the ground or forming little rivers? Observe the world around you next time there’s a storm. I’m right!

Anyway, those changes all take a lot of love so I’ll be poring over it more this week before I head off to PAX East!

 

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Last But Not Least – The iPhone X!

I finally bit the bullet and purchased the iPhone X so we can test how the game works on its sleeker, thinner, taller (!) screen. The phone is beautiful and feels great, and you can see a proof of life photo above. Jack will probably have to do some programmer-fu to make the camera zoom out a bit on these phones, but that’s fine. I love playing on the iPhone X because of how smooth it is, so a little camera troubles are no problem at all!

That’s about it for this month’s art update. I wish I could have gotten a bit more done, but we had to attend SXSW earlier this month and I spent a lot of time preparing the art for that build. It was a great show, but travel always takes time away from being in the “flow” of creating artwork. Since I’ll be at PAX East this weekend, you can expect the same lame excuse next time!

We’re nearing the final days of working on Where Shadows Slumberwhich is a really weird thing to think about. I suppose we’ll still be doing a lot of post-launch stuff, but I’m not sure what I’ll do all day, every day once the game is done. Anyway, I know what I’ll be doing all day, every day in April… [ o_o] ART!

See you next month for another update!

 

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We hope you enjoyed this update about the game’s artwork. Have a question about aesthetics that wasn’t mentioned here? You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

State of the Art – March 2018

Welcome to State Of The Art, March 2018 edition! This monthly progress report is written by Frank DiCola and is focused entirely on how the game’s visuals have improved in the past month.

Missed last month’s State of the Art? The February edition is right here: click me!

SPOILER WARNING: This post contains screenshots, GIFs and videos of later sections of the game. If you want to experience them in all their majesty for the first time on your mobile device when the game launches, don’t read on!

 


 

 

3-1-Noria

A Whole New Aqueduct

Like the other unfinished Worlds in Where Shadows Slumber, the Aqueduct used to look pretty dumpy. It was passable, but the colors were lifeless and the geometry was too perfectly straight. There was nothing about it that made me love it. As the game’s artist, that’s a pretty bad feeling. I never want any section of the game to make me recoil in disgust. My goal, as I’ve said before, is to make every Level my favorite Level. When it comes time to add screenshots of this game to the App Store, I should think to myself: “How can I possibly choose!? All thirty-eight Levels are so perfect and photogenic!”

If you read last week’s piece, titled Creating a Level: From Concept to Finished Product, the GIF above will look familiar. I chronicled the entire development of this Level (called Noria), from the time it was just a pencil sketch in Jack’s notebook all the way to our finished awesome Level. Here’s a look at the rest of the Levels in World 3, the Aqueduct.

 

 

 

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Level 3-2, “Tradeoff”

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Level 3-3, “Anchor”

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Level 3-4, “Torus”

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Level 3-5, “Island”

I won’t return to the Aqueduct before launching the game, but if you really have a critique that’s valid and you absolutely must make your voice heard, comment below this post and I will read it! Who knows – you may change how the final game comes out!

 

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The Dust Storm Is Here!

They say you should never have a favorite child, and I think that’s probably good life advice. But I think I do have a favorite World, and it’s the City. I really wanted to include something like this in the game, and I put a lot of love into these Levels. It’s a crazy World where we go through a ton of locales in just five Levels, from the “bad part of town”, to a military tower, to a luxurious palace. And this is all during a sandstorm!

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Level 4-1, “Slum”

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Level 4-2, “Alley”

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Level 4-3, “Tower”

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Level 4-4, “Fountain”

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Level 4-5, “Labyrinth”

What do you think of these Levels? We are bringing these Levels to SXSW, so your advice is more than welcome! Slam that comment section with your sweet, sweet critiques. I need them to survive o_o

 

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Hell Revisited

I’ve just begun polishing World 2, the River. We aren’t bringing this one to SXSW next week, so I won’t get a chance to keep working on it for a little while. But so far I think it’s really cool! It needed a modest redesign in order to make the aesthetic work and I believe I finally nailed it.

The biggest change is that the ugly Lincoln Log wall setup I had is now going away. I was never really in love with it to begin with. There was something too neat and orderly about it. This is a swampy river that leads right back to the hell-jail you just escaped from! It should feel gross, a bit disordered, and disorderly. To achieve that, I’m working with a toolkit of gnarly trees, rickety boardwalks, and custom ashen rocks.

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Here’s a sneak peek! What do you think… too much vignette, or not enough?

Still to do: redesign the Walkers to look like swamp denizens, add more motion to the clutter and plant life, and finish the remaining four River Levels. Expect that and more next time, in the April edition of State of the Art.

Thanks for reading!

 

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We hope you enjoyed this update about the game’s artwork. Have a question about aesthetics that wasn’t mentioned here? You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

Creating a Level: From Concept to Finished Product

For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a post about how we make Levels when working on Where Shadows Slumber. The only problem was a lack of documentation. I forgot to take screenshots of the early stages of the Levels we’ve completed so far. What I really wanted to do was show our audience the growth of a Level, from it’s earliest conception and then show the various stages of the design process along the way.

When I thought of this idea, I tabled the blog and decided to wait until I started on a new batch of Levels… and here we are! We’re going to take an inside look at Level 3-1, Noria, the first Level of the Aqueduct World.

 

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Step 1: Draw The Level

Every Level has a reason for being in the game. Noria is the first Level in the Aqueduct World, which makes it extra special. Whenever we design the first Level of a World, we like to communicate to the Player:

  • Why the World is going to feel different from the other Worlds in the game
  • What mechanics you’ll be dealing with in this World – especially new ideas

For the Aqueduct, we wanted to make it all about mechanical devices, switches, rotating things and whirring machines. Our game doesn’t exactly have a precise historical setting, but it’s fair to say it isn’t modern day. This gives us some leeway with technology. It has to work, but it can look really old.

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Jack’s notebook!

The Aqueduct World is all about Buttons. Buttons are Nodes that do something when you step onto them. There are all kinds of Buttons, but the most basic Button does a thing every time you step on it, no matter how many times you step on it.

To show that off, Jack designed a Level (above) where the only way to cast shadows and move the light was with a single Button. In addition to that, there are Buttons near each light in the Level to turn them on and off. The proximity of the light to the Button it’s attached to is an intuitive connection. These Buttons work like regular domestic light switches too, so it’s a cheap way of using existing Player knowledge about the real world and transmuting it into knowledge of our game.

When a Level exists in this form, the only thing we can really do is discuss it. Jack will attempt to guide a very confused Frank through the mechanics of the Level. I’ll try to poke holes in it (literally, with my pencil) and find problems with the design. We’ve never shown these sketches to testers because it’s too high-level for them to understand. If we like the idea of the Level, Jack makes a grey box prototype of it in Unity for us to test.

 

Noria-Greybox

This Level doesn’t look too special yet, huh? Just wait!

Step 2: Make A Grey-Box Prototype Level

With a design solidified, now we’re ready to make a version of the Level that can be played and tested. It doesn’t need to look pretty yet, so we use basic template cubes to represent walkable space. Affectionately called grey box prototypes, this technique is how we prototype every Level in the game. Watch a video of me beating the Level below:

As you can see, it’s playable in this stage, and everything works. You can solve the puzzle, which means testers can assess the strength of our design. (We just tell them to ignore the visuals.) We brought this Level, in this format, to AwesomeCon 2017 looking for feedback from players. When we show grey box prototypes to people, we want to make sure they can complete the puzzle. More than that, we want to make sure that they solved it on purpose instead of just by brute force. If we get good feedback, we proceed to Step 3.

 

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Step 3: Draw Some Concept Art

This might seem backward, but this is the time when I draw a concept image of the Level. Why do I do this after the Level has been prototyped, and not before? It’s because Jack knows best which Nodes need to go where, and I don’t. I need to take cues from him about where everything must be, which often includes the actual length and width of shadow casting objects.

This is actually beneficial. It gives me good constraints to work with. I draw a paper sketch and say, “OK, if everything absolutely has to be in this location, what can I do with it? What makes sense for the setting [Aqueduct] whether it’s man-made or organic?” As you can see in the drawing, the following ideas have been spawned:

  • Obe should enter from a pipe (bottom right) to match the cutscene that plays directly before this Level.
  • The pillar now looks like it belongs – it’s a crumbling structural element of the Aqueduct, a man-made structure in disrepair.
  • The mechanism by which the lamp moves left to right is not just a magical back-and-forth switch. Now it’s a waterwheel! Why a wheel? Google “Noria”…
  • The lights need to look like actual man-made lights since they are powered by Buttons on the ground. Why not lamps?
  • There are stone pathways going horizontally that have crumbled over time. Those need to be repaired by shadows.
  • The bridges going vertically are metal grates that allow water to pass under them. This is an Aqueduct, we can’t just have standing water blocked in!
  • There’s a back wall with a door. I like to give the Player as many visual cues as possible that the finish line is an actual exit.

The concept art phase is another chance for us to critique the design. If we know the puzzle is good, but it produces an awkward-looking Level, we have the opportunity to reconfigure things. Perhaps the exit needs to be in a different place? Maybe objects should be closer or further apart? Now is the time to match the design to the intended context, the Aqueduct. Once I have good concept art to work from, I proceed to Step 4!

 

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Step 4: First Aesthetic Pass

Now it’s time to take that ugly grey box prototype (sorry Jack) and make it look and sound beautiful! I’m ready to apply my toolkit of Aqueduct paths, walls and bridges to the design. Once the art is laid down, Alba and Noah have their first chance to put some audio effects into the Level and set the mood. It makes a huge difference: now the Level doesn’t sound like it takes place in a silent death vacuum! Creepy chimes and rushing water converge to give the Level a sense of place. Here’s a video of it all in action:

The Level doesn’t look grey anymore! That’s awesome. But… it also doesn’t look finished, does it? This kind of art would pass for a student game or something in a game jam, but we want to be an App Store Editor’s Pick and win a ton of awards. That means the art needs to be worth the price people paid to download the game. It needs to be extraordinary! It needs to be… polished.

 

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Step 5: Aesthetic Polish

Polish is a game design term for taking your finished product and finishing it again so it’s even better – much like shining a shoe with shoe polish. You want to make your Level shine! If you’re making an island paradise, it needs to be the most relaxing paradise the player has ever experienced. If it’s a scummy slum in a city, you need to make that slum as dirty as possible. Everything needs to be pushed to the extreme.

My personal philosophy is that I want to turn every Level in the game into my favorite one. Obviously, I know that can’t happen. But at least while I’m working on it, I can take something boring and give it life. Speaking of which, this is usually where animation enters the picture.

animate (verb)

1530s, “to fill with boldness or courage,” from Latin animatus past participle of animare “give breath to,” also “to endow with a particular spirit, to give courage to, enliven,” from anima “life, breath”

Animation is the most time-consuming part of aesthetic design, and it requires a lot of setup as well. It makes sense for this to come last. But it’s definitely the most important artistic layer. Bad video games tend to feel frozen and stale: great games are always in motion, even when everything appears still. I think our modern brains are conditioned to assume that a screen containing no motion is frozen, as if the app crashed. If you look at games with a high level of polish (Blizzard’s Hearthstone comes to mind), there’s always something moving around to give the player the illusion of life. The goal of polish is to make your game appear to crackle with the spark of life. See for yourself:

Pretty different, huh? Our water shader adds some much needed liveliness to the water, and makes it feel like a rushing stream. Buttons now move and bounce under Obe’s weight. An animated glyph on the ground lets you know where you’ve just clicked. The lamp posts are now chains dangling from the ceiling, which lets them sway gently on a loop.

The other perk of animation is that it allows you to add a third sense to the game: touch (or, feel). In a very real sense, players can only experience your game using their eyes and ears. But if you do your job right as a game designer, certain elements in your game will make the player feel things. Have you ever gotten hit in a video game and exclaimed out loud “ow!” after seeing what happened to your avatar? You didn’t actually feel pain, but something about the experience was immersive enough that it made you connect with your character. That’s what polish is for. That’s how games rise to the top!

 

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forever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever

Step 6: You Never Finish, This Goes On Forever

Here’s the dirty little secret about my strategy for artistic polish: I’ll never be finished. I will never finish this game. I will work on this game every day until I am dead. It doesn’t even matter if I’m improving the artwork, even if I’m actively making everything worse I will never finish anything in this game.

Whoops! That’s not what I meant to say. Where was I?

Eventually, you need to stop working on a Level so you can move on. This is always a heartbreaking moment in game development. If I could choose any superpower, I would choose a very specific one – the ability to do things on my computer without time slipping through my fingers like grains of sand into an endless void.

[  . _ . ]

You have to move on so you can finish the rest of your game, so when do you do that? It’s at the point where your hours of input are only reaping very marginal gains. People won’t spend an eternity looking at your Levels, so you shouldn’t spend an eternity working on them either. If anything looks truly awful at launch, you can always sneakily patch in fixes that you missed. Just say you’re fixing bugs. and blame the programmer!

Besides, I can always improve the artwork again when we remaster Where Shadows Slumber for BlackBerry…

 


 

I’ve been working on this blog post for too long, and now my hours of writing input are reaping only marginal gains. Time to end this post. Thanks for looking at this inside scoop into our process! If you’re wondering why game development takes so long, imagine doing this for all 38 Levels in the game. That’s not even including the cutscenes…

Say, that gives me an idea for another blog post!

 

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We hope you enjoyed this deep dive into our development process. You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter directly using the handle @GameRevenant, find us on Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

 

State of the Art – February 2018

Welcome to State Of The Art, February 2018 edition! This monthly* progress report is written by Frank DiCola and is focused entirely on how the game’s visuals have improved in the past month. If you are one of our beta testers, you’ve probably already seen this artwork firsthand. (Looking to sign up? Email me at contact@GameRevenant.com if you’re on iOS, or just go here to download if you’re on Android)

(*It’s been a while since I did one of these! We got so caught up in a bunch of year-end stuff with MAGFest 2018, I decided to wait until February to discuss the state of the game’s aesthetics. The good news is, this is a double helping of art updates!)

Without further excuses, let’s explore the major leaps forward we took since December!

 


 

 

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The Forest is Now Polished

Polish is a strange thing. You’re never really finished – you just keep making smaller and smaller increments towards perfection, never quite reaching it. Eventually you hit a point where the small changes aren’t worth it because they take too long and have very little payoff.

Check out this video of me walking through the game’s prologue:

The Forest is polished to the point where it’s worth polishing it! I only say that because there is an entire game still left to finish, so we can’t spend forever on the first few Levels. I will say though, I paid particular attention to these Levels because they are the first morsels of gameplay people will experience with Where Shadows Slumber. Leaving a bad impression here can permanently color people’s mental model of the game in a negative way, so it’s important to get it right.

 


 

 

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The Jail is Now Really Different

The next World in our “first time user experience” is a scary, lava filled jail where Obe has been taken prisoner. As he makes his escape, we teach the player about lights and the way they interact with shadows.

This World was quite difficult to get right. I still think some of it needs to be changed, but here’s where it’s at right now:

If you remember the blog post where I showed off the Jail World last time, you might be shocked to see that a lot has changed. I never liked the boxy, protruding walls I created for this World. It made it impossible to define complex shapes, and it cost a lot of polygons. As we polish the game, we also seek to optimize it, and that means giving your phones less information to compute each frame. Now the walls are much simpler, but still have a brutal “government building” quality to them.

Hopefully you support this drastic change! It’s the only World that’s undergoing such a dramatic shift, but I think it’s for the best.

 


 

 

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The City is Still Unfinished

To my great shame, the City World is still not polished. Some Levels (one in particular) don’t even look passable. That’s a problem I’ll try to rectify immediately, as the World is already late, even by our newly revised schedule.

What I can show you are two Levels still in polish-development, because I would like feedback from the general Game Revenant fanbase! Here’s the first City Level, called “Slum”, which got a big overhaul:

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And below is Level four in the City, called “Fountain”, which I don’t think I ever showed because it wasn’t in great shape. It’s still missing two key components that require very specific artwork: plants and statues for the fountain. Right now it looks very sterile, but this is supposed to be a luxury fountain / garden fit for a king! Check it out:

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This red color is a deep callback only diehard WSS fans will recognize [ ^_^]!

Comment below this post about these changes, please! This World needed a lot removed from it in order to look good. It had way too many colors before, as well as misleading stuff on the screen. It’s not done just yet, as I said, but it’s in way better shape.

 

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Spoilers Ahead

As we near the completion of the final game, I’m going to get a bit more secretive with these updates. I realize now that although some sections of the game look awesome, players may want to experience them for the first time inside the game instead of in a blog post. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop posting, but it does mean you can expect to see spoiler tags in these art posts from now on. I’m waiving that this time around since most of the updates are in the first 10 minutes of gameplay, but be warned!

In the future, read on at your own peril…

 

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We hope you enjoyed this update about the game’s artwork. Have a question about aesthetics that wasn’t mentioned here? You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

 

 

State of the Art – November 2017

Welcome to State Of The Art, November 2017 edition! This monthly progress report is written by Frank DiCola and is focused entirely on how the game’s visuals have improved in the past month.

<Don’t forget to add in some lame excuse about Thanksgiving before you post this>

Without further excuses, let’s explore the major leaps forward we took in November!

 

0-1-Header

The Game’s First Level, “Fallen”

It took me a while to get around to doing this Level, because there’s a bunch of triggers I had to animate and I didn’t feel like doing those. For the longest time, Level 0-2 has been our de facto “first level.”

Dec-5-Blog-Forest

But the game really begins here, along this spooky Forest path, where Obe first encounters the Lantern. You can watch the entire Level in the video below, since it’s so short. (Just ignore the missing sound effects and animation polish, all of that comes later.) Jack and I have a rigid philosophical stance when it comes to game design: we don’t like using text to tell players what to do. That’s annoying! So this Level is designed so that people can learn how to walk. It’s impossible to avoid picking up Obe’s lantern because he automatically does that when you walk on the first open space in the clearing.

This Level didn’t take too long once I actually sat down and did it. Since Obe can only walk around the center of the Level, and his light radius is quite small, there’s a lot of art I can intentionally ignore. This may seem lazy, but there have been times in the past where the opposite has occurred! I’ve done beautiful artwork around the edges of the Level only to be dismayed to find the light never reaches there, and players will never see it. But I still see it. In my dreams.

 

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Level 4-3, “Ramparts”

One of the most ambitious Levels we planned for the game has you scaling the ramparts of a city wall as you climb to the palace on top. It’s a transition Level, which makes it super important for the story. The first two Levels in this World take place in the slums, and the final two Levels in this World take place in beautiful palace gardens. We need a bridge in between those two, otherwise the jump from one to the other will be too abrupt for the audience.

Enter Level 4-3, “Ramparts,” a vertical bridge between two different worlds separated by economic class and power. It’s easier to show you than tell you! We begin on the street, with the dogs.*

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*Dogs not included

Then there’s the middle section:

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On top, we can see the palace architecture more clearly:

Dec-5-Blog-City-C

This Level took forever for Jack to make and for me to decorate. Even now, it still needs an extra coat of paint! The puzzle isn’t difficult, but the vertical nature of it means we need to cover up a lot of the screen. I want to put more plants closer to the top, which I didn’t really have time to do yet. Plant life would indicate that even in this barren desert, the wealthy King who lives in the castle gets to be surrounded by beautiful foliage.

 

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Paradise Begun

The game’s final World is a beautiful island paradise floating in the sky. This is somewhat of a story spoiler, but we’ve blogged about it before so I’m not too concerned. Read on at your own peril, I guess?

It’s taken me a while to return to this beautiful setting. Anything that comes last in a video game usually gets the least attention. It’s regrettable, but understandable. After all, if you see a movie in theatres, you often see 100% of it.  Unless you leave in the middle for some reason, you’ll experience the beginning, middle, and ending. But video games are different. Only a fraction of players make it to the end of the game, but by definition anyone who plays a game experiences the first 5 minutes. That’s why those first 5 minutes are so crucial and get so much special treatment.

I’d like to break the chain, if I can. I want people to feel rewarded for getting to the end of this difficult puzzle experience. Here’s the current progress on World 7, which I just started last week. They’re in rough shape at this stage, but you can get a sense of where I’m going with these.

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Level 7-1, “Ladder” is all about compiling a ladder from a bunch of broken pieces. The ladder comes together using the shadows from that conveniently specific rotating object. It’s harder than it looks! I designed this one and I forgot how to solve it. Good luck!

On the first landing, we get a chance to show off that majestic Bermudian inspired architecture I love so much. If I have time, I’ll even include a cool dude relaxing on a chair just to show how far removed this World is from everything below.

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Level 7-2, “Pond” is due for somewhat of a re-do. The major thing I forgot to include here was a pond in the center where that button is. We want some kind of a sacred grove with a sacred button because that’s how you solve this Level – you need to use the center piece in order to drag boxes around and cast the shadows you need to fix the ending staircase.

This is where design and aesthetics conflict. The pathways we need are very specific and jagged, but the “look and feel” we want is uniform and symmetrical. It’s a tough compromise. I’ll return to this one and remove that weird green rock path (a placeholder) and try to do something closer to my original “Toolkit” Level I posted so long ago:

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(This isn’t a Level in the game, but rather spec work I did a few months ago when I was beginning each World’s “Toolkit.” But that center pond is making a comeback, just wait for it!)

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Level 7-3, “Tower” isn’t very far along, but it’s such a cool design I thought I would tease it here. You need to see a video of it in action to really grasp what’s going on, so no more for you just yet! Be patient [ ^_^]!

 

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User Interface Sketches

Generally I prefer not to show off drawings that are not part of the game. But Jack and I just started on the user interface design, so it can’t hurt to show you a tiny bit of what I’m working on…

 

It may seem late in the game to handle this, but we decided long ago that we don’t want a complicated user interface. Above, you can see that our Levels contain all the features that a Main Menu would normally have. We don’t really like having a separate menu detached from the game, so you can access all the key stuff just by “pausing” the game.

Note: this is just a Photoshop design. We haven’t coded this in yet, and not all of the buckets you see above are necessarily being included in the final game. For example, being able to take a picture of the Level is an important social feature, but it’s not essential for the game’s launch and may fall by the wayside.

Interacting with phone features is a big pain and it’s one of the toughest things about game development. Making your game work on every single tablet, flip-phone, e-reader and seashell Kindle out there is a nightmare. Maybe we’ll write a blog about that topic once we get more into the weeds of cross-platform development…

 

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See You Next Year!

The next time you read this particular blog series, it will be 2018 and I’ll be recapping December. Man, where does the time go? This year has gone blazing by!

This month, I hope to finish World 7 and move on to polishing up each Level. That work is highly specific, which is why it was left until the end.

Polishing the Levels will intersect with working on the game’s cutscenes. That’s because some of these Levels have animated characters in them. I’d like to be sure that the animated characters I create work well in both settings, to save myself time later. So don’t be surprised if next month’s update is a bit of a mixed bag. That’s the way it’s going to be from now until the game launches!

 

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We hope you enjoyed this update about the game’s artwork. Have a question about aesthetics that wasn’t mentioned here? You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

State Of The Art – October 2017

Welcome to State Of The Art, October 2017 edition! This monthly progress report is written by Frank DiCola and is focused entirely on how the game’s visuals have improved in the past month.

Sadly, I was out of town for most of October on business trips to Texas, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Although I got a lot out of them, I did not get a chance to do as much artwork as I would have liked. Sorry that I don’t have more to show you!

Without further excuses, let’s explore the major leaps forward we took in October!

 

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World 5, The Hills

Cold, abandoned tombstones. Whining wrought iron fences, covered in moss. An abandoned log cabin, now in ruins. Suddenly, a chill in the air – snow begins to fall.

The Hills represents a turning point in our game, which is represented by the change in weather halfway through. I really love this setting and the mood it conveys, and I’m proud of how the artwork for this World came out. Every Level in the game will need to be “polished” before the artwork can be considered finished, and World 5 is no exception. But I think you’ll agree that these Levels are already looking pretty awesome!

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5-1, “Cemetery” – I can’t wait to change the temporary Phantom model [ v_v]

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5-2, “Family” – Not too much changed since last time, since this Level is so solid.

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5-3, “Ray” – I love how the log cabin came out here.

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5-4, “Drop” – This Level should look snowier, that’s coming later!

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5-5, “Rest” – Ignore the large A’s on this Level, they’ll be replaced!

My favorite little aesthetic touch in this World has to be the stone pathways. It took forever to get those right. I started with massive stone slabs, but it felt too video game-y. Then I went with smaller and smaller pieces until I decided to basically do a mosaic of little flat rocks. Let me know what you think in the comments!

Note: I’m going to change 5-4 to make it snowier. It’s odd that we jump directly to snow, and that was never the intention. I’m just not sure what to do to make it seem like it’s only snowing a little bit.

 

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World 6, The Summit

Obe ascends the snow covered steps to the Summit. Darkness falls and his lantern dims in the wintry air. Shivering, he makes his way toward the castle at the peak of the mountain. The journey will be over soon.

I’m so excited to show you World 6, the Summit. Inspired by snowy game-ending mountains like the one in Journey and the recent Tomb Raider reboot, the Summit World is a snowy mountain peak with an abandoned castle at the top. It’s just getting started, so these Levels are a little rougher all around. Essential polish things, like actual snow falling from the sky, are unfortunately still on the back burner! Check out what I have so far:

Level 6-1, “Pass” shows off the unique way World 6 works. There’s a hidden shadow world that occupies the same space as the ‘real’ world! Use your shadows to uncover hidden dudes like this walking guy, who can press Buttons for you. It’s one of the coolest things we do in the game with shadows, in my opinion!

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6-2, “Blind” – This Level is all about the secret World waiting for you in the shadows…

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6-3, “Chains” – I may end up moving the gateway toward the center and rotating it.

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6-4, “Watchman” – Finally, inside the Castle! Snow pours in through decrepit, broken windows…

There’s one more Level I can’t show just yet (6-5), because it’s a super work in progress right now and I don’t think you’d be able to see what’s going on. But this is World 6 so far!

What do you think?

 

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November – Returning To Skipped Levels

Observant readers of this monthly blog will notice that sometimes I skip a Level and never return to it. Those Levels haven’t been cut from the game! They just posed a significant challenge for one reason or another, and I couldn’t find time to dedicate to them.

The theme of November is going to be “returning to skipped Levels.” I won’t spend all month on that of course, but expect to see an assorted, seemingly random collection of Levels in next month’s blog post. It’s all part of putting everything together, which is more important now that we’re getting close to finishing the game.

 

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This is the kind of face that makes you want to say “That guy? That guy kind of sucks.”

Please, Criticize Me In The Comments

I don’t normally do this, but this is a call for comments! WordPress lets you leave a remark under each blog post. Please take a look at this artwork and give me some critical feedback. I always listen to it and it will really help to have a third, fourth and fifth set of eyes on my work.

You can tell me how much you love it if you really feel like it, but I’m mostly looking for ways to improve. Stuff like “this part looks a bit off” or “this color stands out in a bad way” or “this section looks unfinished.” That’s what I need to hear! Constructive criticism is welcome and encouraged.

I look forward to hearing from you below, and I’ll try to respond faster than I normally do. Cheers!

 

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We hope you enjoyed this update about the game’s artwork. Have a question about aesthetics that wasn’t mentioned here? You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.

IndieCade 10 Disappoints

Directly after my trip to Unite Austin, I flew straight to Los Angeles for IndieCade. I had never been to the show before, even though I’ve known about it for a few years now.

Ever since the Mr. Game! days, I’ve submitted games to their contest. It was a long-shot to assume that SkyRunner would make it in, but I thought we had a better chance with Where Shadows Slumber this year. I’ve never made it in to the showcase, and this year was no exception, but I’ve always wanted to figure out what kind of games IndieCade is looking for. On the bright side, they allowed me to show off the game during one of their show and tell segments! More on that later.

Jack and I went to IndieCade East a while back and really enjoyed it, so I thought I would do some field research on the main event and get some game testing in at the same time! Unfortunately, as I sit here writing this at my desk back in New Jersey, I’m struck by this awful realization: after 10 years in operation, IndieCade still doesn’t know how to put together a well-run event.

 

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Red Flags From The Start

Friday morning was incredibly stressful, and that feeling lingered on for the rest of the day. When I went to pick up my badge in the morning, I was dismayed to find a long single-file line that lead to a tent where one person was slowly handing out wristbands. As we all burned in the unforgiving Los Angeles sun, I started to freak out. IndieCade scheduled a talk with me and Oculus that morning and it didn’t look like I’d make it in time. Fortunately, Anita swooped in at the last second and just brought me to my meeting.

Oculus’ outreach team wanted to meet developers at IndieCade, and not just the ones presenting. Even though I’m working on a mobile puzzle game, I was able to meet Chris Jurney of Oculus! I tried to meet him at GDC 2017, but he was in meetings all day. But this time, I was the meetings all day >:). We discussed Where Shadows Slumber, and my post-release plans. Although this game can’t really ever come to VR, I do find the virtual reality medium pretty intriguing. They’re going to hook me up with an Oculus headset, which is insane. I’ll take it!

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From there, I went over to Game Tasting. Although Where Shadows Slumber was not an official IndieCade selection, they were nice enough to invite me to show off the game between 12 pm to 2 pm during the Game Testing segment. This is like IndieCade Lite, a quick look at some games that didn’t make it. To be honest, I liked the games near me even more than the ones at the official showcase! But we’ll discuss that more later.

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How can you say “get out, bum” to this face?

Due to some persistence (and my innocent baby face) I was able to get a second Game Tasting slot later that same day between 4 pm to 6 pm. In between, I saw a depressing talk about how Xbox Live Indie Games as a service is going to be shut down. That’s the first time I ever heard of that! It went offline the next day.

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After I fulfilled my obligations to IndieCade, I finally got a chance to grab dinner and explore around 7:30 pm. What I saw did not impress me. Although the Japanese American National Museum is a beautiful building, it makes for an awkward venue. Games seemed to be strewn about haphazardly, taking up space in crowded rooms while other larger halls remained inexplicably empty. Perhaps the most striking visual dissonance I witnessed was the IndieCade banner standing in front of a reproduction of a Japanese Internment shack. The banner screamed Enjoy some unique cool games! while the shack screamed Franklin D. Roosevelt violated the constitutional rights of over 100,000 American citizens and some people still say he’s their favorite president.

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Recreation of Japanese internment shack (left) and IndieCade’s banner (right)

It appears that this is their first year in this new venue, so I’ll cut them some slack on that end. They need to find their footing by next year’s IndieCade though, because this could really sink them. Many times, the exhibits on Japanese-American history were more interesting than the games being shown next to them. I don’t know why IndieCade has chosen to distract attendees from their games by putting them right next to compelling American history displays. Many times I found myself walking away from the dry non-games being exhibited to read more interesting plaques about Japanese immigrants coming to America. Perhaps the choice of a museum is to remind everyone that games are art and not just commercial products, but the venue put unnecessary strain on a show that’s already hanging by a thread.

 

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The Main Showcase

The main showcase of IndieCade had some of the strangest games I’ve ever seen. I believe that is the point of the show – to showcase the odd side of video game innovation. There were role-playing games that used only food and speech as a medium. Some games had unique controllers (like a giant inflatable sphere you played inside) that could never be mass produced and sold, which is why they can really only be displayed at IndieCade. A few games required large spaces to play in, or elaborate setups like a mock office area. As my friend said to me on Saturday, “IndieCade is good, because if they didn’t showcase these games, how would anyone else find out about them?”

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He’s right, of course. However, these games lose their power when stacked on top of each other like this. Although they may stand out at a conference like PAX East, at IndieCade everything blurs together into a politically left-leaning parade of grad-student quality propaganda. It’s hard to stand out when you’re put next to 29 similar games in a room titled LOOK AT ALL THESE THINGS THAT ALL STAND OUT!

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“The Hackers of Resistance (HORs) is a queer transfeminist hacker collective of artists, activists, researchers, cyborgs, witches, and technologists, of color.”

The strangest thing I “played” was an interactive experience called “Hackers of Resistance” that took place in a 10 x 10 area enclosed by pipe and drape. The designers of the experience decorated the room like a makeshift hacker den out of something like Mr. Robot. As we hacked our way to destroying the Trump administration, I couldn’t tell if I was taking part in a delusional liberal fantasy or brilliant conservative parody. (Seriously, read that caption again and tell me that doesn’t sound like something Kat Timpf would write)

Given the setting, I decided it must be the former, but the dreadful acting of the performers kept me guessing until the very end. Since this game is essentially an interactive installation that requires a physical space, you can see why IndieCade is just about the only place it could be setup. That’s fine by me! But I can’t help but think that IndieCade is doing its political messages a disservice by painting them as obscure. Think about it – they’re highlighting the strangest elements of the left-wing game industry and then purposely branding them as “weird” and “strange.” Don’t they want their political beliefs to be seen as mainstream instead? In its desire to seem weird, it makes them seem weird, too.

I’m quite used to blatant political messaging in the game industry these days, so that wasn’t even my biggest problem with IndieCade. What bugged me is that the show seemed dreary. The showcase was supposed to stay open until 10 pm, but by 8:30 many developers had abdicated their booths. I don’t blame them – many said they had been there since 4 pm. Giving people a long shift like that at the end of the day is bad planning on the part of the organizers. I would have liked to play more, but the venue depressed me. Around this time, a show like Unite would just be getting started with fun parties that last until 1 am. IndieCade was like an old man who was up past his bedtime at 9 pm, and went up to bed before his guests went to sleep.

 

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It’s Not All Bad

Before you think that I’m just a mean-spirited wet blanket who flies across the country to have a miserable time on purpose, let’s talk about my favorite three games from the showcase!

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Bit Rat is a cool futuristic puzzle game for PC where you play as a rogue A.I. construct trying to escape your company. I didn’t get a chance to play it because the tables were always packed, but you should check it out! The pixel aesthetic really works for the type of game this is, and the puzzles seemed quite difficult.

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Keyboard Sports: Saving Qwerty is an absolutely hilarious PC game where you use the keyboard to control your character’s position. That may not sound special, but I mean that quite literally: you don’t use keyboard keys to issue commands like “go right” or “go left.” Instead, the keys on your keyboard are mapped to physical locations within the game! See the tutorial level above, for example, where the spacious couch (hehe) is mapped to the space bar. There’s always an overlay on the screen so you can kind of gauge what to do, but it’s constantly changing which adds to the humor.

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Detention is a point-and-click horror puzzle adventure game set during a dark period in Taiwan’s history. I could have used less jump scares, but the overall experience is really tight. The actual mechanic this game uses for its monsters is one of the creepiest I’ve ever seen, but it’s apparently pretty common in China. You hold your breath to avoid being captured by ghosts! I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s very scary and I wish more games would do stuff like this. Incorporating folk tales into games is a great source of inspiration.

These three games showcase what IndieCade should be about, in my opinion. Alternative control schemes like the one found in Keyboard Sports are innovative, but still accessible to a wide audience. Cultural inspiration, as seen in Detention, doesn’t have to be overly preachy. Games can be weird and still be very well-made and polished, like Bit Rat. Too often, games at IndieCade use their “strange” identity as a shield to protect against the criticism that all game developers have to deal with. There’s no excuse for bad artwork, buggy code, or toothless gameplay – the label “indie” does not mean “I get away with delivering a lower quality product.” Anyway, instead of castigating more of IndieCade’s worst offenders, I’d rather show off the ones I enjoyed playing. Best of luck to these three games!

 

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By Sunday, The Nominee Gallery Vanished

By the final day of IndieCade, the Nominee Gallery was closed because an unrelated event was taking place in their room. (It seemed to be a Japanese-American dinner honoring some of the elderly in the community, but I didn’t pry too much.) Standing outside the venue, I heard quite a few people complaining.

“I was going to see the Nominees on Sunday, but they’re gone!”

The only thing more disappointing than not enjoying the official showcase is being robbed of an entire day to experience the official showcase. It’s just another bad choice by the staff – why wouldn’t you make sure your main showcase runs all three days? They were forced to do this because of the previous bad decision to host the event in a busy museum. Fortunately, I saw all I needed to see of the Nominee Gallery. But put yourself in the shoes of someone who bought a Sunday pass!

 

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The Talks Depended on the Room

I stand by the statement above: your experience going to the panels and talks at IndieCade will vary wildly depending on which ones you attended. The deciding factor seemed to be the room you chose.

I quite enjoyed the puzzle talk by Linelight creator Brett Taylor and Semblance creator Ben Myres. There was a talk about how to make “AAA Indie Games” by husband-and-wife team Tristan and Aby Moore. “50 Ways to Fail in VR” was a ton of fun, a great talk by Mike Murdock about hard lessons learned making virtual reality games. What did these games have in common? They took place in small classrooms with a simple projector screen and whiteboard. They also filled up quite fast!

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Brett and Ben tell us a bit about their games before their fireside chat about puzzle design.

The talks that served only to waste my time took place on the main stage; a large theater-styled presentation area with a massive projector, a tech booth, and tons of audio equipment. The IndieCade staff seemed woefully inadequate at operating this room. One talk started fifteen minutes late due to technical difficulties. At one point, ten minutes deep into technical drama, an exasperated technician scolded at the audience:

“Does anyone have an HDMI to VGA cable?! That’s what’s holding us up here!”

…as if I flew across the country and booked a hotel in an expensive area of Los Angeles just to personally hand-deliver you a cable you had months to purchase. Seriously, dude?

 

It Gets Worse Before It Gets Worse

But by far, the worst talk at IndieCade was the final one with Keita Takahashi, of Katamari Damacy fame. This was supposed to close out IndieCade with an intimate chat between the audience and a veteran game developer. Instead, it served to expose more flaws in the organizational structure of IndieCade. Find it online if you want to waste 50 minutes of your life.

I don’t have anything against Mr. Takahashi. He seems like a cool guy, and he has a wonderfully child-like sense of humor. But they evidently didn’t give him an agenda for this talk, because he began by trying to find his childhood home in Google Earth. As he struggled to do this, I realized both he and Brandon Boyer were trying to run the talk via their mobile phones for some inexplicable reason. This would become a recurring feature of the talk – waiting for the screen to slowly load whatever was on their phone.

The decision not to give Mr. Takahashi a translator was also mind-boggling. I felt bad for him – English is not his native language, and he is not fluent by any means. With no talking points or written speech, he spent half the talk fumbling around in Google Maps until that got old and they transitioned to Question and Answer time. It’s a shame they didn’t focus more on the few interesting bits of the talk, like his inspiration from Japanese sculptor Taro Okamoto. Without a solid plan, I can’t blame them for bombing on stage. When it comes to stuff like this, I usually blame whoever is at the top making the decisions that cause people to fail.

 

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Next time, Visit charming Little Tokyo, but skip IndieCade.

The Final Verdict

I’m not going to submit my games to IndieCade anymore, and I can’t see myself returning to the show any time soon. If you’re still interested in it, follow my guidelines below and I can help you avoid disappointment.

Should I attend IndieCade? If you live within walking or brief driving distance, there’s no reason not to go. Don’t spend money on a hotel or air travel, though. This show doesn’t deserve national or international attention in its current state. As a local show, it would be pretty awesome though.

What kind of pass should I get? I can’t see any reason why you would need more than a single day pass, probably Saturday. That had the biggest crowd. The games were all there. Besides, your wristband could probably get you in on Sunday too. They were all the same color.

Should I submit my game to IndieCade? Unless your game is as weird as some of the other stuff they highlight, don’t bother. There are two caveats: If your game is brazenly political and decidedly left-of-center, you’re good. Also, if you can modify your game to be super weird just for this show, go for it.

Will I fit in at IndieCade? Probably not. For a show that brags about its inclusive nature, it operates more like an exclusive club. IndieCade isn’t for everybody, whether its organizers want to admit it or not.

 

IndieCade Isn’t Fun

Before I went to IndieCade, I didn’t think all games had to be “fun.” I assumed that was a corporate label slapped on the industry that only applied to mass market games. “Games don’t need to be fun! It’s enough if they’re just engaging, interesting, or weird” I thought to myself. Oh, Frank-of-Last-Week… you were a fool!

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After playing scores of dull games at IndieCade, I’ve flipped my stance. I think fun is more important than ever, especially when you’re trying to make a game that deals with hard problems. I saw a lot of games that promised to tackle heavy issues (“this is a game about dealing with mental illness,” etc) but the only things the player could do were (a) walk around a 3D environment and (b) look around a 3D environment. That’s not innovative, and it doesn’t keep its promise either. The Spaces exhibit at IndieCade featured at least three of these. We wouldn’t stand for that if a AAA studio did that. Why do we accept this from indies?

What I think they’re missing is that fun is an important numbing device that helps people through painful topics. Without it, your work will just end up stressing people out and repelling them.

That stressful anxiety I felt since Friday morning was still with me by the show’s end. I felt it as I left the museum and passed by the ghostly faces of Japanese-American prisoners one last time. Death seems to haunt IndieCade, and I wonder if the show will be over for good sometime in the next few years. You’re either growing or dying, and IndieCade did not project strength during their 10th year in operation.

 

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Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber. The views expressed in this blog post are his own and do not reflect the opinions of anyone else on the Where Shadows Slumber team.