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Fragments of Him prototype - designer's post-mortem: Scope, sexuality, and scripts
by Mata Haggis on 02/21/14 06:40:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Fragments of Him prototype, by Matazone & SassyBot Studio

Foreword by Tino van der Kraan:


A little over nine months ago, Elwin and I put our faith in Dr. Mata Haggis as he proposed that we should make a narrative game for the upcoming Ludum Dare game jam challenge. Ludum Dare is an online game jam event where developers around the world create a game, either alone or in a small team, under great time pressure. These games are encouraged to follow a theme that is announced at the start of the event.

 

The game that Mata had in mind was to be a narrative game. With the little game jam experience we had back then, we knew the scope had to be manageable if we were to finish the game at all. Mata explained we needed 3D characters, fully decorated indoor and outdoor scenes, several written and voiced dialogue lines for multiple playthroughs, and shader magic for some of the interactions. As you can imagine, we told him he was mad.

 

As with any mad doctor, he convinced us that this could be done and we were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. In retrospect, the faith has not been misplaced. As of this writing, Fragments of Him has been played over 28.000 times on Kongregate with a rating of 3,7 and received 4th place in Ludum Dare’s mood categoryout of 736 entries. It’s the responses in the comment section that personally thrill me the most. These responses convinced us that there is more to be done here. With Fragments of Him funded it might be a good idea to reflect on how the initial prototype came to be.

 

We are still very early in development and we do not want to reveal too much. What we can share is the complete post-mortem of Dr. Mata Haggis (@MataHaggis) , written roughly a week after the game jam. It takes you through the process that Mata used to create the prototype that is the foundation for the upcoming full version.

 

All text onwards is written by Dr. Mata Haggis.

 

Introduction

My name is Mata Haggis and I was the narrative & game designer/producer on the Fragments of Him prototype, our entry to Ludum Dare 26.

 

Since creating the prototype that this post-mortem discusses, Fragments of Him has been given funding from the Dutch government to go ahead into a full game experience. We look forward to sharing the progress on that project in the future, but in the meantime we hope that you find our lessons from the prototyping stage interesting!

 

I had never done a game jam before, so this was a new experience for me. I was fortunate enough to have two talented developers ask me to join their team. Between us we created a narrative game experience with one programmer, one artist (and his 3D modeller girlfriend for an evening), and myself in only 72 hours.

 

Below you will find out what a narrative designer does on a game jam, what a producer can do, and a little more about the decisions that I made when creating the title.

 

Before we go any further you should play the game:

 

http://www.kongregate.com/games/aceria620/fragments-of-him

 

Seriously. I mean it. This post will have a lot of spoilers very soon, so go play the game now and come back in 10-20 minutes when you're finished.

 

Done that?

 

Really?

 

Okay, let’s talk about the process…

 

Starting

The theme was minimalism, and I wanted to do a game with a very prominent story in it. I worked on several ideas in my head, but the one that stuck was investigating why a person would choose to live in a minimalist style in their house. The result of this was the idea that the lead character had lost their partner and couldn’t stand to be reminded of the loss.

 

In narrative terminology, the loss of the partner would be referred to as ‘the inciting incident’. The process of creating minimalist spaces gave me a gameplay mechanic too.

 

I pitched the concept to the team – one artist and one programmer – and I was fortunate that they were enthusiastic about it. There were several key decisions that are worth examining here:

 

Scope

The theme was going to need a lot of art. Specifically, the world was going to need a lot of models in it. I immediately said that the world was going to be stylised and colour coded: the protagonist (the ‘hero’ of the story) would be blue, and yellow would be used to indicate the dead partner, along with objects related to that partner. Everything else in the game was going to be white – this would allow the artist to focus on building the space and objects without worrying about texturing any of it.

 

In terms of showing figures in the environment, again I needed to keep a close eye on the scope of the project. I asked the artist to create one generic character model which would be used for both the protagonist and the dead partner. In every scene, these figures would be posed in a tableau (a static pose that suggests narrative action). In this way we could give a powerful idea of character relationships without the difficulty of animating figures.

 

For the programmer, there were a few challenges that I had to consider. The audio and subtitles would need to be displayed, there would need to be highlighting and signposting of affordances, and the most difficult task was probably going to be the final scenes where the gameplay mechanic (clicking to remove objects) is reversed. By keeping these interactions very simple, I could limit the complexity of the task that I was giving to the programmer.

 

Sexuality

I voiced the lead character of the game, and I am male. In the game, the character talks about his dead boyfriend. I felt that the story would work perfectly with either a male or female partner character, but I also feel that non-heterosexual relationships are under-represented in gaming, and so I had a preference for making both characters male.

 

I described the outline of the story to the team and they had no feelings either way on the gender of the partner, and so we ended up with a story about coping with grief, where the lead characters happen to both be male.

 

When stories are told about the death of a non-heterosexual man (it is not defined if he was gay or bisexual), they often focus on stereotypical perceptions of gay lifestyle choices: drugs, promiscuity, clubbing, and of course HIV/AIDS. I didn’t want to tell a gay love story; I just wanted to tell a love story.

 

I know that the audience for any story will be predominantly heterosexual, with then lower proportions of gay, bisexual, transgender, and other queer-identifying players. Part of my goal was to ignore the non-heterosexual elements and to write a story that anyone could relate to; in doing this, I wanted to completely normalise the lives of the men. To do this, I choose to focus on the small and relatable things in people’s lives.

 

I suspect that anyone who has had a break-up, especially after living with a partner, can relate to the quiet sadness of removing one towel from the bathroom.  I think that feeling of sorrow is a universal experience that has nothing to do with sexual preferences, and that is what I wanted to convey in this game. In doing this, the sexuality of the characters became irrelevant in the sea of everyday memories.

 

As a side-benefit to the choice of going for a homosexual relationship, the artist only needed to make one body and animation rig, saving him a lot of time in the game jam time constraints!

 

How to write a good story quickly

I’ve been writing for several years and have cobbled together a system which works well for me. I’ve based it on several sources, but the main ones are ‘Save the Cat’ by Blake Synder and ‘Will Write for Shoes’ by Cathy Yardley.

 

Neither of these are high-brow books on how to create your epic masterpiece, but they are very focussed on creating a tight, enjoyable story.

 

I put ideas from the books together and now here’s what I use whenever I start writing:

 

Before the inciting incident: ‘Save The Cat’

 

Show the life of the character before life goes wrong. The character does something that makes you like them (‘save the cat’).

 

5% Inciting incident

 

 Something changes that forces the protagonist to act.

 

25% Plot point one: state the external motivation

 

What forces the protagonist to make this clear statement of their objective?

 

50% Plot point two: the low mid-point

 

It appears impossible to complete the external motivation, protagonist loses hope

 

75% Plot point three: Hope

 

The protagonist is given hope that they can fulfil their external motivation goal, but only if they truly dedicate themselves to it.

 

90 – 95% “The Black Moment”

 

The external motivation appears impossible to fulfil.

 

95% – 100% Resolution

 

The story concludes in a satisfying manner – this may be successful completion of the external and internal motivations (a happy ending), it may be a failure on external motivation but a success in the internal motivation (common in comedies, romance, or tales of self-discovery), success of external motivation but failure of internal motivation (common in tragedy and tales of self-discovery). It is not typical for a story to end with failure of both external and internal motivation – this is the total failure of the character to grow or succeed and makes an audience wonder why they spent their time with the character.

 

I use this whenever I write and it’s working out pretty well for me so far!

 

In the case of Fragments of Him, as with other stories I write, I began from a feeling and worked back to an inciting incident. The feeling was a person clearing away all of their belongings to create a minimalist living space – why would they do this? This question led back to the inciting incident – the objects were related to grief at the sudden death of a partner.

 

From there I worked through the template, filling in the gaps. For Fragments of him, it looks like this:

 

Before the inciting incident: ‘Save The Cat’

 

Scene – Park. Feeding ducks, narrator talks about how good life is.Two characters – protagonist is blue, the ex is yellow. All other objects are yellow too.The player clicks on objects (or parts of objects) in the scene, they turn transparent.

 

5% Inciting incident

 

End of first level – the player has been removing the polygons, when everything is transparent except for the main character – the partner dies.

 

25% Plot point one: state the external motivation

 

Scene – House. Protagonist wants to remove all traces of the ex from his life.

 

50% Plot point two: the low mid-point

 

Scene – Street . It appears impossible to remove everything – everywhere he goes there are reminders. He doesn’t want to go outside.

 

75% Plot point three: Hope

 

Scene – Office. If he can remove everything from his interior spaces he feels like he might be able to cope.

 

90 – 95% “The Black Moment”

 

Scene – back in the empty House. Protagonist is sitting on the floor. Ex appears behind… The protagonist feels like he will never be free of the memories, even when everything is gone.

 

95% – 100% Resolution

 

As the player clicks to remove the ex from the House scene, the protagonist’s colour changes, blending the two into green – the ex has become part of the protagonist. The player clicks through the scenes, where the transparent objects are back. As the player clicks on the transparent objects they turn green too. This goes much faster than the removal.The protagonist understands that the ex is part of him. Things are different, but life will go on in a new way.

 

As you can see, I’ve used the basic structure from the template to create a narrative arc that is satisfying and also that integrates with the gameplay – at each step I have made sure the interaction with the game adds to the plot.

 

I chose locations where it would be viable to have few characters in the scene because of the limitations on the art scope.

 

Dialogue

There are three variations of most of the instances of dialogue in the game. These are chosen randomly during each play through, giving a slightly different experience for each time.

 

The dialogue was written with three key events in mind:

 

  • The start of a level
  • Removing a particular object or a percentage of objects
  • The end of a level

 

The start and end triggers would give the main plot points, and the objects would trigger smaller memories.

 

I recorded the audio in a make-shift audio booth constructed from a pair of curtains and a clothes rack on a €100 digital microphone. It’s not ideal, but it did the trick. I then edited the sound files into one or two sentence chunks with some antiquated software. This was very laborious and time consuming for me, but sometimes design requires this kind of repetitive grunt work to get the project done.

 

Other audio

Ambient audio and music is absolutely essential in selling any emotional experience: I believed this going into this project and now I am utterly convinced of this. In every scene there are several audio triggers built into the environment that work in a very subtle way to make the spaces feel more believable.

 

I have a suspicion that the audio space of a game may be more important than the visual style when it comes to creating emotional resonance. Most of this work will never be noticed by the player on a conscious level, but that it exists in the mix is important. In the apartment, did you hear the muffled footsteps of a neighbour going down the hall? Or in the office, did you notice the sound of typing outside the room, or the noise of a plane flying past overheard? Probably not, but they’re there, and they help you feel that the space you are in is alive.

 

For the music, I found a wonderful website of free music: https://musopen.org/

 

Everyone on the team instinctively felt that a piano score would suit the mood. I tried several pieces and found a 14 minute piece by Chopin that fitted the feeling I wanted to create… Then I had the laborious task of trying to cut it into pieces that would loop naturally.

 

Sound effects were more difficult: I wanted to get musical notes again but failed to find a copyright free source for these, and so I used generated audio tones with echo effects on them. It’s not ideal, but it does have the advantage that they contrast clearly with the ambient and musical soundtrack of the game.

 

Environmental storytelling

To begin with I found a lot of reference material for the spaces that I wanted to create for the game. I recently went on a trip to London (possibly the greatest city in the world for any form of storytelling) and had decided that the story would be set in a location similar to Knightsbridge and Hyde Park.

 

We set up a shared Dropbox folder and so all of the reference material was instantly shared across the team.

 

As the artist worked, we often talked about ‘exactly what kind of lampshade would he have in his office’ or ‘what does he have on the side in his hallway’. Every time I was asked a question like this I would always think back to how I imagined the characters to be, what kind of people they are, and what their priorities are in life. Wherever possible, the art was always created to support the characters: if it didn’t say something about the people that owned the object then we would keep looking until we found a better, more expressive choice.

 

Sometimes the artist would create a space that inspired these choices. He modelled the handles on a drawer for the apartment in a particular way that made me realise that my characters were a little old-fashioned in their choices, or the filing cabinets were placed away from the wall in the office, and I would see that and decide that the character might have dropped a book down there but felt too depressed to be bothered about the effort of retrieving it. This iterative loop was very rapid, where I fed the artist ideas, and his responses inspired me to understand my characters more.

 

Interface design

We wanted to keep the interface minimal, but there needed to be various elements to help the player understand what they needed to do. These were designed by me, but implemented by the programmer on the team.

 

Here is a list of events and the feedback I designed:

 

Reticule – not on object: Reticule is white
Reticule – on clickable object – (before second house scene): Reticule is yellow
Reticule – on clickable object – (during second house scene): Reticule is green
Reticule – clicking on empty space: Reticule pulses blue

 

Note that I also designed negative feedback (when the player clicks but there is nothing to remove from the game at that point). It is always important to make sure that the player knows when they are doing something wrong! Audio cues were added to support the visual positive and negative feedback systems.

 

In the world, we had highlighting in yellow, the colour of the dead boyfriend, to show objects that could be clicked on. There was a yellow bar at the top of the screen that got smaller when the player removed more yellow objects, and on the title screen the buttons were highlighted yellow when you started the game.

 

After testing with a non-gamer, we found that this still wasn’t sufficiently clear, and so a pink outline was added to objects that could be clicked but were too far away…

 

Which still wasn’t enough, and so we added a timer that means that clickable objects pulse slowly yellow after the player has been on a level for two and a half minutes.

 

Bug tracking

I created a spreadsheet of the bugs for the game, allowing us to test, iterate, and improve all of the game over the last twelve hours of the game jam. It seemed trivial when I started the spreadsheet, but as the day wore on it proved to be invaluable in helping us focus our attention.

Lessons for game jams, and limited-resource games development

I need to upgrade my audio recording equipment and learn some more modern audio software. This part of the process was extremely time consuming and I feel that the quality of the audio could have been improved too.

 

Try and arrange to get a good actor involved if you can! My vocal performance is sufficient, but I think we could have added more emotion with a more powerful performance.

 

Convey the most difficult scenes, in terms of mechanics, more clearly to the programmer and as early as possible. I don’t feel I did a good enough job in getting across my idea for the ending of the game at any early enough stage, resulting in pressure on the programmer at the end of the three days. If I had handled that better then maybe the ending could have been more polished.

 

Even with all of the highlighting on the interface, we still get comments that people find it frustrating to find the last object in a scene. What can I learn from this? Well, SIGNPOST ALL TEH INTERACTIONS! And that MOAR SIGNPOSTING STILL is one way to go. Really – it’s hard to convey just how much highlighting of is needed to adequately smooth the whole experience. Of course, this has to be balanced to not break the mood of the game, which is tricky. The other option would be to allow players to progress after they have got most of the objects and not require 100% completion… I don’t know about that. Many people like playing to completion, but I suspect a narrative game needs to remember that the story is more important than 100% completion. Believe me when I say that this balance is something I will think deeply about on future projects, both game jams and full development projects.

 

Testing the game resulted in big improvements on the interface. I definitely want to do this for future game jams – I think this probably doesn’t happen often for game jam creations due to the tight time constraints, but I’ve seen the value that this added to the product and I encourage others to do this whenever possible.

 

Conclusion

I’m very proud of what we have created. As the first few comments began being posted, about players starting to cry while going through our game, I couldn’t help but think of Steven Spielberg when he said that games would only be art ‘when somebody confesses that they cried at Level 17.’

 

I’ve made games where you rip the heads off of space marines, and games where you slam cars into each other as fast as you can, or where you control a monkey in a spaceship collecting space-bananas. I’m proud of those games in their own ways, but this game was very personal for me – it was my first attempt to put mature writing into a gameplay scenario.

 

We have all felt loss at times, or incapable of coping with grief, and it’s easy to forget that this is normal. We are supposed to feel like that sometimes, and we just have to learn how to cope with it. SassyBot and I put together an experience that helped people to contemplate the universality of this, hopefully also stepping beyond stereotypes of sexuality to show how the common events that make us human unite us more than the differences that appear to push us apart.

 

I wanted to convey a message about acceptance and hope, and ultimately make people feel that there is always something more to look forward to. I have always believed that games could do that, but Fragments of Him has proved this to be true, at least for some players. I feel incredibly inspired by this experience. If you are feeling jaded with your time developing games, I highly recommend challenging yourself to create something that you believe in, perhaps in a game jam if you are pressed for time, and maybe you’ll fall in love with the potential of our medium again.

 

My thanks go to Tino and Elwin from the award winning SassyBot Studio (http://sassybot.com/) for asking me to join them on this adventure, and thank you for reading this post-mortem of our game.

 

About Dr. Mata Haggis:

 

I’m a games & narrative designer with over ten years of experience of making both indie and AAA games, and writing for games, television, webcomics, and print. I occasionally blog about games on my own website (http://games.matazone.co.uk/) and reblog onto Gamastura here.

 

Since 2010, I have been teaching the next generation of games developers on the IGAD (International Games Architecture & Design) programme at NHTV University in Breda, The Netherlands. It’s a very highly rated course, taught entirely in English, and if you’re interested in learning more about games development then I highly recommend it: http://made.nhtv.nl/

 

Follow me on Twitter: @MataHaggis


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