Turning the screw
So, we had to extend the development period.
And now we’ll tell you why we had decided on that, and where we’re standing now.
The situation is rather symbolic. We’ve often said that true creative work is not about self-expression and making stuff up, it’s about finding a right shape for a story that exists objectively, outside the artist’s head. This story and the underlying problem constitute a recognizable archetype, and the artist’s job is to see it, tune in to it – and impart it to their contemporaries (spectators, readers, players) most accurately and adequately. We defended this idea – with too much fervor, perhaps – in several interviews, articles, and debates, rather presumptuously reducing the role of the author of a work of fiction to that of a mere interpreter between the heavenly and the earthly, so to speak.
But, as Morpheus tells us, “ Fate is not without a sense of irony”. The universe has listened to us, and shrugged, and sent us an anonymous archive with a riddle encrypted inside. The metaphor has become reality, the idea has become flesh. It’s like we’ve been told, “Well, if you truly do as you say – not making things up, not pushing your own issues – then here’s a subject for you. Elaborate.”
There would be no answers to the classic “What for?”, “For whom?” and “How?” questions to the customer. It was not a commission, it was an order. Not a call, but a challenge. The first line in a dialogue where our game should become the last.
We’ve felt that. And so, though it seems strange, we no longer wanted to learn what was behind that letter – a supernatural force, a hoax, an inventive take on the good old “make-a-game-based-on-my-idea” or just a prank. We’re not interested in that. Figuring out what it all is, exactly is much more fun.
Thus working on this game had become a hybrid of creative process and historical investigation. And the difference between historical investigation and press or criminal one is that your sources are limited. There’s no one to question, no witnesses to call, no convenient clues to follow. You’re given a setting, a statement, and following the game’s unspoken rules (and it’s clear the mysterious sender is playing with us, or he would tell us more) that is enough to figure out “who owns the zebra”.
The game’s genre is reconstruction, restoration of a situation, of which we know very little. To be able to tell what had happened there after all, we had to begin with understanding what, in fact, was happening there first. We just had to create an interactive model. So we set to work.
January 2012. Finished basic documentation for the game. Decided that the archive (which on the whole is vague and obscure) can, after all, be divided into “clear” and “not clear” parts. To start the process, set the “not clear” stuff aside for the time being and work with things beyond doubt. We have: a house in the woods, guests coming from said woods, a lodger (an assumption, but a very probable one). Dawn as the breaking point. It all brings Don Kenn’s drawings to mind. The obvious conclusion: the player in our model has “just to survive till morning”. Time is the chief enemy. The guests are vague, which means the antagonist is unclear and the more random and less defined his behavior is, the better. The house is just being “taken over”, like in a Julio Cortázar short story.
March 2012. First build, code name Here comes the bogeyman! (inspired by aforementioned Kenn’s work and Goya’s capricho Que viene el Coco). Our principle: we do not wish to terrify anyone, we’re not making a horror game, and so we adopt a counterintuitive cartoonish style, we specifically choose an uncomfortable “flat” view of a platformer – a world like this should not have many dimensions, and we do not leave ourselves space for understatement. We need utter simplicity and irony – our safety pole in the mystical quagmire (to which we are naturally drawn). The build’s shortcomings quickly become evident: that’s a good start, we’ve found the right materials and settled into the house, yet too much still remains behind the scenes. It’s time to address the “not clear” part.
June 2012. Second build, code name Not Afraid. We’ve given the player the ability to build the house: it’s understood that the house is more than a mere building. A questionable attempt to “show” the Guests within the two-dimensional house and give them simple “just find the Lodger” intelligence. You could see the results on our promo art. The attempt had been initially announced as a trial, and we quickly realized it was a failure – because of an utter lack of respect towards our subject. Like mice would see a deity as the Greatest Mouse, it was pretending that “they’re just like us, only with six fingers” and attempting to attribute human motivations to something non-human.
Opposed to the Guests interpreted as “monsters”, the Lodger – willing or not, but having to follow laws of the game – had to become a “warrior”, too active and too skillful. That was an obvious lie, there was nothing like that in the original setting. The build has turned into some kind of tower defense with the player required to build the house as an efficient obstacle line.
That was a wrong direction, and it had to be rejected. We got carried away with the simplifications and could not stop in time. The Guests ought to be addressed in their own terms, so we take the game into the familiar field of symbolic imagery – we cannot “think for them”, but we have the right to assume what our protagonist thinks of them and how he interprets the situation within his head.
September 2012. Third build – No-one Escapes. Righting the list. The game is transferred into the Lodger’s head. The necessity to create AI for something by definition uncontrollable remains a problem, but we seem to have found a way around it. The emphasis is on the fact that the Lodger does not even have to understand what it is and why it acts like that – for any contact with the Guests, even a “mental touch”, leads to certain death.
As a result, the “if I don’t see it it’s not there” principle becomes the player’s only viable strategy. Main objective: stay sane, set your falling apart world back into logical chains. A separate interface introduced for “thinking”, the player is given certain parameters (Fear, Migraine, Fatigue), which are constantly changing, depending on where he is, what he sees, what he does.
The result is a fussy logical puzzle. Seeking in logic salvation from insanity, our hero is playing with himself and acting as though nothing is going on. There are no inner contradictions – and quite a few interesting situations in such a game, but it’s definitely not what the Originator wanted from us. We have just avoided the problem for the sake of playability. Reject.
End of 2012. We just need to stop and think. In October we suspend all work for about a month. This month passes in attempts to reconcile game logic with the obvious illogic, irrationality of the initial situation – interspersed with our curses along the lines of what in blazes we got ourselves in. These attempts prove fruitless, we realize there can be no such compromise, and in November we make a decisive step aside, because at the very same we come to a new level of understanding what happened to the maker of the archive. All this year long we’ve been researching creepy tales and urban legends of all manner, looking for hints and similarities, and looks like we’ve found our answer.
Fourth build or Build-13. We design a new build, this time going not general-to-specific, but vice versa. We put in specific situations, using the original data, and then carefully add on the game, letting the player decide what to do outside given situations. A “narrative” game (where you have to solve the riddle and find a way to win) turns into an “existential” one. The stakes are on the believability of the model and of everything in this model being in its right place. The Guests’ AI is as unpredictable as is possible to have – and still have a game.
In January 2013 something strange happens. We find another mysterious message – on paper this time, in our mailbox. Nothing links it to the initial sender. It can well be a prank by someone who already knows what kind of game we’re making. Yet in the context of our “two-line dialogue” theory we can assume that the investigation is over and we’re on a right track.
So we go with this last version. Now we’re doing the fine tuning – building inner dependencies, regulating many non-structural yet very important factors: travel speed, lighting intensity, the Lodger’s ability to do this or that in a certain situation (e.g. in a dark or lit room). The genre remains the same – a game of hide-and-seek.
You may ask why we had to make all those erroneous builds to realize we were moving in a wrong direction. Couldn’t we have figured it out at once, composing the very first documentation?
No, we couldn’t. First, this story purposely touches on the builds’ flaws, but don’t forget there was quite a lot done right in all of them – and we keep that, and each build leaves a kind of “cultural layer” in the game. We leave that information behind the scenes, because revealing it would be a spoiler. This story looks too much like a premature post-mortem as is.
Secondly, developing a game is not like solving an equation. As you are making a build, a lot of in-game factors pop up, like “too much fuss is killing the mood”, “here’s a distracting motivation”, “the actions are getting too automatic”, “inaction becomes the best strategy” etc., and all these factors depend only on how the various gameplay elements, both programmed and interactive, “get along”. If you’re working not with a ready game clone but with a new version, the process is unpredictable.
You may also ask whether all that work up to October 2012 was in vain. Of course it wasn’t. Because in the end, the answers to all those unasked questions to our supposed customer have been found.