Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sequence Breaker Dev. Journal # 6

The first mission of Sequence Breaker is nearly complete, and by complete I mean almost everything is in place and working, even if it all looks like a bunch of ugly circles and clunky rectangles at this stage in the game. As I prepare to start work on the game's second mission, I find myself faced with a rather peculiar challenge.

To recap: the point of the game is to present the player with a Metroidvania-style sequence and encourage them to break it by thinking deeply and creatively about the game and the level design. In a previous dev. journal, I said that this was akin to designing two games simultaneously: the game I want them to play (break the sequence) and the game that's in place to facilitate that (the sequence itself). And both games have to work, have to be playable and fun and well-designed. So, if I do my job right, there'll be a lot of content the player never has to see and is encouraged to skip over. Hold onto that, we're going to come back to it in just a moment.

Another goal in creating Sequence Breaker is to step up my presentation, and that includes using more of a narrative element than I have in my previous experiments in game design. For the first time, there are characters and dialogue, and at the center of the game is the mystery of what Mrs. Max did at the colony, and how those actions made her both a legendary hero and a widow.

The protagonist being silent, and her creator being endowed with an innate impatience of cut-scenes, the set up for the colony flashback mission that forms the bulk of the game is peppered through-out the dialogue: a passing mention of the colonies there, an oblique reference to what she's lost here.

So, instead of having a textbox solely and unrealistically for a character to bring up her past, my plan is to work these details into the natural flow of the more informative textboxes. For example, when Stanley Six, your assistant for the first mission, points out that your way is barred by a pile of rubble that can be removed with a nearby explosive, he apologizes for pointing out something so obvious to "the hero of the colonies". Otherwise, the player might feel like the backstory hints were being shoved down their throats, might start to resent it; fold it into something useful, and they don't feel like you're wasting their time.

And all this would be fine and dandy, if it wasn't for the fact that I'm designing two games-- one of which gives the player a linear sequence and, should they follow it, helps them along with mission assistants who'll pipe in information about, say, a pile of rubble that needs exploding, and the other, more non-linear sort of game, in which most of that first game's content (enemies, rooms, power-ups, and dialogue) is skipped over completely.

And therein lies the problem I'm grappling with at the moment: if skipping over content *is* the point of the game, how do I impart the necessary information and context without hedging the player in? And how do I make them curious about it without compelling them to play through the full-sequence in search of extra tidbits-- that is, without working against the desire to encourage players to think outside the box? It is, I think, going to be a delicate process, a balancing act that, at this moment, seems slightly daunting.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


My games are usually experimental; I take an unusual mechanic and seeing if the end result is still playable. And sometimes it takes more than one attempt to get it right; I think the original Side Saddle is something of a noble failure, while its boss-battle puzzle-shmup sequel better delivers on the original's essential game-play ideas. With my focus set so squarely on game-play mechanics, I've seldom had the time or the inclination to craft any kind of storyline to give them context. (And, honestly, what kind of storyline could there be for an abstract game like Side Saddle 2 or Ultrageist?)

But in Sequence Breaker, as I've said before, I want the player to have a more complete aesthetic experience, and story is a part of that experience. More than that, I feel that the big idea of the game is better served if there are story elements to give them context. "Shoot-out-the-side-in-a-vertical-shmup" is readily apparent from the moment you press the fire button; "find-ways-to-skip-over-content-and-do-things-out-of-order" is a little harder to grasp just by looking at a screen and pressing a button.

The World of Sequence Breaker

The player character, Mrs. Max, is employed as a "Sequence Breaker"-- a freelancer hired to find creative, clever, quicker solutions when a more linear solution, overly beholden to conventional logic, would be too costly or endanger too many lives. When, for example, a bad-ass space-marine squadron gets said bad-asses handed to them by the big ugly son-of-a-gun with twenty eyes and six mouths, a Sequence Breaker like Mrs. Max finds some sneaky way to avoid it altogether.

Athletic, resourceful, self-sufficient, Mrs. Max is a consummate professional, at the top of her game, having become the stuff of legend after an especially impressive mission she pulled off at "the colony". Where the colony is and what she did to earn her fame will be revealed in a flashback that is also the game's biggest mission. Think of the colony mission as being akin to the Pandora's Temple section of God of War, and you'll get some idea of how big it is in relation to the rest of the game.

But Mrs. Max doesn't like to talk about the colony mission. Her fame came at a price: the life of her husband. I'm well aware that "how-she-became-a-legend" isn't a good enough hook to hang such a huge chunk of the game on; "how-she-became-a-widow", on the other hand, might just do the trick.

There's a danger inherent in such a plotline, a potential for maudlin and eye-rollingly sappy dialogue. It's a danger I'm trying to very consciously undercut by making Mrs. Max a silent protagonist, defined by her actions and what others say about her. My hope is that enough will be implied by the circumstances in which she finds herself and the observations of the speaking characters that she'll be more than a cipher, without losing some essential sense of mystery.


Because Mrs. Max is a silent character, I'm not employing dialogue trees or giving the player much autonomy over the flow of the story/conversation. But since the point of the game is to give the player autonomy over the story they're telling by playing the game, to let them control the flow of the levels in terms of how they choose to follow or break the sequence, I think this is a fair trade off.

And so, the game's verbiage doesn't really take the form of dialogue, but of monologues and soliloquies. And I keep these two terms in mind when writing, because the connotation that both have is of a speech that reveals something about the person giving it. And so, when Stanley Six, your "scanner" for the first mission, contacts you to let you know about the switch at the end of a hall, he's doing so in a way that reveals his intense nervousness and social ineptitude. When Myron Gas, your character's boss, gives you the outline for your mission, it's peppered with his cynical, sometimes vulgar, sense of humour.

These characters, and the others, are also intended to be foils for Mrs. Max: Six is nervous, but she's cool and collected. Gas is low and vulgar, she's stoic, maybe even classy. I don't want to be attributing too much to this or seem like I'm reading too much into it, but I do think the cast of characters that I surround Mrs. Max with will give the player some sense of who she is by dint of who she's not.

It's important, though, that I don't bog the game down in reams of text; I'm the sort of player myself who will skim over the writing and impatiently skip over cut-scenes because I want to get back to actually playing the game. My challenge is to to make the words relatively concise-- no radio contact/update should last more than a single text-box-- and to keep them engaging, make them something the player would actually want to read and take pleasure from.

And I think it's a challenge that I'll be able to meet. A couple of dev. journals ago, I talked about how I relinquished control of the music and artwork when it became apparent that I wasn't good enough. But writing is something that I do think I'm good at; I'm a published author, for chrissakes, and my superhero novel Jolt City won several awards in its original, serialized form. If there's any area of game design where I have some inkling of what I'm doing, it's the writing-- ironic, given how stringently I've avoided it in the past.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


In my last dev. journal, I briefly discussed the importance of a game's overall aesthetic experience-- a combination of gameplay, story, art, sound, level design, and what I would call the game's "presentation style". It's that latter aspect I'm going to be talking about today.

A lot of 2D platformers are also referred to as "side-scrollers", since the screen scrolls with the player as they move through a given area. Not so Sequence Breaker; each screen is a distinct entity, giving the player a full and comprehensive view of their immediate challenges. Once the player moves to the other side of the screen (or back), the camera switches to the next screen.

It's an approach I also used in my platformer Run Jump. That game revolved around what I would call "platforming puzzles"-- not puzzles as in, push-the-block-onto-the-pressure-plate, but puzzles as in figure-out-how-to-use-your-acrobatic-skills-to-overcome-this-obstacle: puzzles that are solved by platforming. If it had been a side-scroller, the player wouldn't have been able to grasp all the elements and thus wouldn't have time to consider all their options.

And while this game's "puzzle" elements-- that is, figuring out how to "cheat" and "break" the game-- aren't as pervasive as those in Run Jump, I figured that Sequence Breaker would benefit from a similar approach, and that the static compositions would make the layouts more memorable, more resonant, and perhaps even just shy of being elegant.

To emphasize this further, the game is presented in widescreen. Not the usual widescreen, but the really wide widescreen, the sort that always lends a certain classy and formal air when used in filmmaking. Cinemascope, the King of Aspect Ratios, is typically 2.35:1-- that is, the screen is twice-and-some-change wider than it is tall-- and my game is 640 pixels wide by 280 high, or about 2.29:1.

What the game might gain from such a presentation style it also loses in verticality. A vertical platforming sequence, like you'd find in the original Metroid, would be impossible; a long drop would have muted impact at best. Though each mission unfolds over a large series of rooms, most are going to end up connected left-to-right. The winding, corkscrewing layouts that sometimes make level maps aesthetically pleasing to look at in their own right are replaced by a series of long corridors stacked ontop of one another.

In an overhead action-adventure game, or a 3D action game, such an approach would be unforgiveable-- which is one reason why I wouldn't create such a game in such a long, horizontally-oriented aspect ratio. In a platformer, though, it feels about right, and I think losing those sort of vertical platforming sequences (which, let's face it, can get a little annoying at times) is a fair trade-off for what I hope the widescreen presentation will add to the experience.

NEXT TIME: Storytime

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


I'm going to be blunt: I have all the artistic skill of snail trying to wrap its slimy tail around a half-eaten crayon. But I'm also a stubborn autodidact who wants to do everything himself, and has only recently begun to rely on other people.

My reluctance to do so comes from my experiences as a filmmaker; until you've been there, you can't imagine how frustrating it is to get into an editing room and find out that someone else forgot to turn the mike on. Depend too much on others and you can get burned; depend on yourself, and you've no one but yourself to blame when things go wrong. That's the way I prefer to work, or at least it was until I started making films with my wife-- the only other person I trust with a camera.

Bringing this back to games, I've made it a rule from the beginning to rely on myself for every aspect of the game's creation, from the art to the level design to the coding (minimal though it may be, as I utilize the Game Maker engine) to the music.

If my artistic abilities are crude and perfunctory, my musical stylings are even worse-- atonal blisters that would give even John Adams pause. It quickly became apparent that my ear-violating "melodies" were not only irking players, but indeed tipping the scale towards outright loathing. And so, after my first few games-- most of which, lucky for your ears, are no longer online-- I started outsourcing my music. First, I took baby-steps and downloaded a free pack of songs by a composer named Lateksi2-- his music, for example, adorns both my platformer Run Jump and the original Side Saddle.

Then, I went looking for brand-new compositions and got submissions from two different composers. One of them, Nathanael Crane, I've used for both Side Saddle 2 and Ultrageist. The other, C. Filipe Alves, will be working on the music for Sequence Breaker.

I might have went into my search for composers thinking of the music as background, a necessary filler; as a filmmaker with fairly Dreyer-ian ideas about the importance of visual rhythms, I tend to avoid music altogether. But working with Nathanael, and listening to Alves's other compositions, I've come to see my composers as vital collaborators, co-creators, whose music is not filler but an important part of the game's over-all aesthetic experience.

One argument you hear a lot, and an argument that I used to make in my game design articles, was that if you took a current generation game and just replaced all the artwork with blocks, it would still play the same, it would still be the same game deep-down, so pretty graphics really don't matter. But such a game wouldn't feel the same. The vibe would be different. A Super Mario Bros. with Intellivision graphics might still control like Super Mario Bros., but it wouldn't be bright-and-bouncy, wouldn't feel like Mario, wouldn't play like Mario.

Aesthetics matter; sound and picture and story aren't more or less important than the gameplay, but rather all tangled up with it, all working together to create an experience that's hopefully worth having. Players complained that my blocky graphics for Ultrageist felt kinda dead in the game's black play-space. A day later, I had implemented the current "growing circles of overlapping colour" motif, and not only did those complaints lessen, but I found myself that the game was more fun, more entertaining, more engaging with this simple addition.

And it's with a renewed devotion to crafting not just a gameplay experience but an aesthetic one that I've come to face facts: if I suck at art, I shouldn't be doing all the art for Sequence Breaker. I've already secured the services of one artist for the player character's sprites, and will soon be looking for people to bring my enemies and backgrounds to life while I concentrate on the game's story, pacing, and level design-- areas that are, at least in theory, ones in which I've demonstrated some slight modicum of talent.

All my games have been largely experimental, and small-scale. For this game, I intend to break this sequence of my own design and to create something with a bit more polish, something that provides the player with a somewhat fuller and more satisfying experience.

NEXT TIME: Widescreen.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


Setting aside some gorgeous character sprites created by a very talented chap who goes by the handle Captain Ricco, Sequence Breaker is still in the wire-frame, big-ugly-blocks-in=place-of-art stage of things, so you'll forgive me if I withhold any actual screen-shots at this point in the process. I do, however, have this:

It's a room-by-room layout of about a third of the game's first level. At the moment, the game is divided into two missions, one being relatively small and somewhat linear and the other being much larger and free-form-y. The second is really the heart of the game, the first more of a tutorial, as it were. More on that, and the challenges it presents, in a later dev. journal. Right now, I'm going to go room-by-room here and, without giving too much away, try to explain how I'm designing two games at once. I hope this isn't too boring or wonky, but if it is, my apologies.

To state it simply, the first game presents the player with a sequence and the second dares you to break it. That first game and its sequence unfolds as follows:

Positioning ourselves in the room labelled START/MAP, the reader can probably deduce that the room is both the point in which the player starts the level and that it contains a map indicating your current position and that of your objective several floors down. To get from this top-floor to the bottom, you have to travel two rooms to your left, but the very first adjacent room contains a long bed of spikes. The player's radio-assistant explains that the force-bridge that should be covering the gap has been cut off, and that the switch to activate it, in classic video game fashion, is at the other end of the floor.

And so, the player embarks to the right, confronting her first enemies. These enemies are shorter than the player, thus necessitating that you position yourself on a lower platform before firing. With the most basic type of enemy, a small, unmoving blob without any kind of attacks, this is a piece of cake. It's a little trickier for his slightly-larger brother, who, while still stationary, spews out bullets that fling upwards before fluttering down at his sides. To defeat him, the player must get into position, fire rapidly, and then get out of the position before its bullets hit you.

The next screen takes this basic principle but ratchets it up considerably, also adding those sort of annoying moving-around-a-block-type enemies into the mix. On the previous screen, there was a health power-up (ala a Zelda heart container) at the end of a passageway the player couldn't reach; that passageway continues through this screen.

On the following screen (third from the starting point now) the player can see a way to access this passage, but it, too, is blocked by a bed of spikes. Perhaps the player can reach it after they turn on the switch, which is now tantalizing close. There's more to this screen, however; in order to progress to the right once more, the player must use a sort of spin/feathering move to extend their leap.

A brief digression: my earliest conceptions of this game had at its center an extremely nimble and athletic protagonist, able to wall-jump, wall-slide, dash through crevices, and a host of other parkour-y kind of things. I scaled it down considerably, not because they presented particularly difficult programming challenges (for wall-jumping and even ceiling clinging are vital parts of Run Jump) but because they gave the player too many options. And, don't get me wrong-- giving players options is the idea, and it's part of what the meta-gaming at the heart of the concept is all about-- but I realized I would be spending so much time explaining all these moves and turn the first level into one boring "now test this skill" after another. It might also overwhelm the player; if you give the player a dozen different moves and then say, now try to break this sequence, it can get pretty frustrating. But if their repertoire is intuitive and easy-to-grasp, they'll spend less time scratching their heads and more time figuring things out.

And so, I took away the wall-jump, the wall-slide, the dash-move, all the sort of parkour/free-running cliches. Now, it's just the basics: run, shoot, jump, with one simple-to-grasp wrinkle-- tapping the x-button in mid-air will execute a spin-move, slowing your descent.

Since I want to make sure the player is aware of this skill, I needed to put it fairly early in the first sequence. This particular spot, after the first two action-rooms but before the first mini-boss, also gives the player a bit of breather. I don't think it's usually a good idea to put a mini-boss right after a tricky bit of combat; the change-up gives the player a chance to relax and also builds up a subtle sort of anticipation.

And so, the next room is the mini-boss, which asks the player to move from a safe position to a dangerous one, attack, and then move back. The mini-boss has thirty hit-points, more than one would usually assign for such a creature, and there's a reason for that, so hang onto it.

After the mini-boss, we find the switch for the force-bridge. In that same room, there's a very small and easy-to-avoid bed of spikes. And you might ask, why put a tiny bed of spikes in this room with the switch? The reason is, as soon as you pull that switch, all the spikes in the stage are bridged-over. Whenever the player pulls a switch in a game, he or she should be able to see the results instantaneously. This is important, so I'm going to bold-face it in case you're just skimming along:

Whenever the player pulls a switch in a game, he or she should be able to see the results instantaneously.


Now the player back-tracks, and as we all know, back-tracking can be a pain. But it also can be a lot of fun, and it can be used as positive reinforcement. Now that the player's pulled that switch and the threat of the spikes are neutered by the force-bridge, she can take the high-road, breezing through the screens, avoiding enemies, and nabbing that health power-up, boosting their max HP. It further rewards the player for accomplishing this particular task, has them feeling good before they get back to the spike-bridge they wanted to cross in the first place.

Crossing the bridge, the player can now descend to the second level, only to find, one room over, another obstacle: a glowing barrier. There's no assistant this time to tell you where to go, because, this being a 2-D sidescroller, the only other choice is to go left.

Passing the elevator, there's another map room. Since I'm going with maps built into the physical terrain instead of in a menu, it's important that I include at least one map on every floor/wing. More than that, though, it tells the player that the room below is a dead-end, meaning that it probably contains the solution to that barrier.

And, voila!, it does, in the form of a laser or ray weapon. In the room with the power-up, there's another barrier, and on the other side of that barrier, another health booster. Firing into the barrier dissolves it momentarily, allowing the player to pass through it and get that health boost-- by now, she's doubled her hit-points. And, again, I put the barrier in the room with the weapon power-up so that the player is immediately aware of what it does and what it can do.

For the same reason, I put a couple of the enemies from the first floor in this room. While they took a few shots apiece before, a single laser-beam cuts both of them down in one fell swoop.

Taking the elevator back up and moving back to the first barrier, the player then finds themselves in a timed puzzle room revolving around firing the laser at the barriers. This is intended to further acquaint the player with the weapon, and to mark this floor as "the laser beam-heavy section of the level". I find that such a theme gives a game a better sense of flow and of place.

I also want the player to feel powerful with this laser beam, which is why the next room has a whole score of low-level enemies that can be taken out, every one of them, with a single shot. The following room pits the player against not one but two(!) of those thirty hit-point mini-boss creatures from the first floor. And they, too, are downed in one fell swoop. That's why I gave the first one so many hit-points. He was difficult, frustrating, time-consuming, and now? Now, he's reduced to a mere goomba by my laser-beam.

Having taken you through all this at some considerable length, I hope I've not only demonstrated some principles that could be useful to other independent game designers, but also given you some idea of the time, effort, and thought I've put into this first game-- the game that actually only exists to create a context for the second, for the "real" game that tasks the player with finding a smarter, quicker, easier way.

And, indeed-- it's possible to get the laser-beam before fighting that first mini-boss. It's possible to get to the third floor without flipping the switch or gaining the laser-beam at all. It's even possible to get through the entire first mission without picking up a single item or killing a single enemy.

All these things are not only possible but actively encouraged; when you first come to that pit of spikes blocking your access to the second level, your radio-helper will tell you about that switch on the other end, as I've already established, but he'll also say, "though I think you can probably figure out a better way if you put your mind to it" (or something to that effect). I also plan on implementing a trophy/achievement system that challenges you to, say, "clear the level killing no enemies" or "getting zero percent of the items" or "in less than one minute". And the player, confronted with that, will hopefully say to themselves, "Okay, so let's figure out how I do that."

The trophies, the dialogue, the title, and the steep enemy/platforming difficulty inherent in playing game number one is all intended to encourage the players to get good at game number two. And that couldn't and wouldn't work without having a playable, reasonable, well-paced game number one in place.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


My next game is called Sequence Breaker. The name comes from the practice, especially prevalent in Metroidvania games, of doing things out of the proper order and/or skipping over chunks of the game entirely, usually by exploiting some incredible feat of gaming skill to get to places you're not supposed to be just yet.

In that the game is intended to encourage the player to look closely at it and to discover ways to "cheat", it could be considered something of an extension of Ultrageist.The difference is that Ultrageist, by dint of its three minute time limit, kinda bends the player to its will. If you don't figure out the little tricks, you don't get any farther in the game. Ultrageist was in many ways a deliberately frustrating game, in which nothing was explained to the player-- pretty much the antithesis of how one should go about designing a game. Certainly it was a very different process than Side Saddle 2, which was play-tested up the wazoo, as the various "making-of" videos can no doubt attest.

So one thing that sets Sequence Breaker apart from Ultrageist is that it's not being built to frustrate. The point of the game is to think more deeply, to tease out loopholes and then exploit them, but the game doesn't punish you for not figuring it out.

Another difference is, of course, that Sequence Breaker is a platformer. Shmups, by their very nature, only have a handful of rules and types of interactions, and as a result the potential for "bugs", loopholes, and exploits is relatively limited. Platformers, on the other hand, are complex enough to support this kind of meta-gaming on a large scale, and also to deepen it beyond Ultrageist's simple "at this part, do this" and "here, you do that". Too many of the levels took the form of this sort of schematic puzzle, and that's something I want to avoid in Sequence Breaker, something that I think the metroidvania formula will perversely help me to avoid.

Metroidvania games, after all, take the form of puzzles-with-obvious-schematic-solutions themselves. This ledge is too high, so we need a high-jump power-up, which is behind this wall of ice, so we need the melting ray, which is on the other hand of this lava pit, so we need a grappling hook. All that, just to get to the other side of a ledge. It's fun but also somewhat mindless, and not really all that "non-linear".

But by presenting the player with that sequence, and telling them, hey, see if you can break it-- it's right there in the title! (not to mention the dialogue)-- my hope is that the player will start really thinking about the game's rules, their character's abilities, and the "unintended" ways those can interact. As such, I find that I'm really designing two games-- one very tight and linear, holding the player's hand every step of the way, directing the experience as best I can, and a second one, that's looser, more non-linear, with multiple avenues for the player to pursue if they're not afraid to give it a shot.

And while that second game is what Sequence Breaker really is, what it's intended to be, the first one isn't just an after-thought, nor can it be dull. Because if the player chooses to play the sequence from start to finish, it still has to work, make sense, and provide the player with the pleasures inherit in the genre. And that will be the subject of my next dev. journal.