Building the monstrous transforming puzzle heads of GNOG
GNOG is a game about monster heads.
Debuting on PC last month after intially launching on PlayStation 4 back in 2017, GNOG is about hiding puzzles and secret places within the cogs and devices lurking inside monstrous faces – about finding a narrative within the various mechanisms, creatures, and objects hidden with them.
“The main inspiration in the beginning was the Polly Pocket toys and Mighty Max,” says Sam Boucher, lead designer and artist for GNOG. “They had all sorts of little traps in them. There were hidden things and tiny bits and parts. It was fun discovering all the little details.”
This kind of inspired discovery within these varied monster heads came from a great deal of iteration and experimentation, with Boucher creating hundreds of GNOGs as he and the team at KO_OP sought to find the stories and actions contained within them, creating curiosity and means for exploration within seemingly-small spaces that would open up with so much detail as the player prodded at them.
Like the monster heads and the toys that inspired them, though, the journey to GNOG’s creation is also one of discovery, with the development team slowly working to find the game they wanted to create from these striking creature designs.
Solving puzzles inside monster heads is an intriguing concept in and of itself, but it’s nowhere near where GNOG started off.
"We didn't have a grand vision...game development was very iterative. We were figuring out how to make a game while creating GNOG."
“The game continually evolved from the start," says Boucher. "It wasn’t initially that we wanted to make a puzzle game with those big heads. When I was pitching the idea to KO_OP maybe five years ago, the idea was basically a sidescroller where you control a character who meets some strange totem-like heads that would have riddles and stuff like that. It would unlock certain regions once you solved the puzzles. It was also 2D in the beginning."
This concept seemed interesting, but as the developers worked at it, they soon found that they liked the idea of the heads and puzzles far more than the rest of the game around it. “We decided to just strip out the side-scroller part and keep the heads,” he continues.
With the initial concept scrapped, the developers at KO_OP could hone in on aspects that they liked better about the game. Not unlike moving from the outside of the monster heads to the moving parts within, the developer would begin to shed layers of the initial project and move ever-closer to finding what they were looking for hidden inside what they had created from the beginning.
With the platformer gone, Boucher’s focus turned in towards the heads themselves. “In 2D, I started making some concepts and illustrations to brainstorm what the look could be for the game. We decided early on that the 2D heads weren’t enough. We couldn’t put as many things as we wanted on a 2D head, so that’s where we started making the heads in 3D,” he says.
Despite this, there were still some vestiges of the platformer within GNOG’s ever-changing form. “I was making it with a friend at the time, as I didn’t know anything about 3D," says Boucher. "We started making more puzzles around those, and at the time, there was still a playable character inside the head. It was sort of like a point-and-click. You could give directions to the character inside and also interact with the outside like a touchscreen game. There were two control schemes."
“Then, we decided to strip the character, because that was a bit too intense for the production. Then, we decided to just keep the heads – the empty head without characters – and just start making puzzles with that. Gradually, we put some characters in, but you can’t really control them. They just live inside those heads,” he continues.
Boucher and KO_OP continued to shape the concept using the ideas they had come up with initially, but through constantly examining what they had built and their own capabilities, they found better uses that worked within their budget and within the evolving concept of the game. The characters that lived within the heads was still a good idea, but having two control schemes was too much, resulting in making the characters a smaller part of the game, but still present within the interactions inside of these colorful heads.
Paring a game down from its initial concept often just comes with the territory of game development, but this was getting to be quite extreme. A side aspect of the initial concept from five years ago had shifted to being the main part of the project, cutting away at almost the entire game to hone in on a single idea Boucher loved.
“Part of it was that I didn’t know what I was doing,” says Boucher. “It was our first commercial game, so it was very much like ‘We want to make a game, but…we don’t know anything really about making games.’ One of the programmers worked at a more Triple A-ish company – a mobile game company. That was more commercial. Otherwise, none of us had released any sort of commercial game, so it was really just hard to plan a game and know what the steps would be.”
This continues to mirror the monster heads themselves. The developer, like the player, began from a point where they are given a situation they are not entirely sure about, then tasked with coming to its end. Through allowing their curiosity and creativity to work freely within these confines, the player could find secrets, and the developer could find out what they wanted their game to be and how it would work. The puzzle of what the game could be could be solved with the pieces the developer had from the beginning, but they had to be examined and manipulated to find the answer.
“We were just thinking that we liked toy-ish things. We liked playing with stuff and watching it react. We didn’t have a grand vision of it. I think that’s why the game development was very iterative. We were figuring out how to make a game while creating GNOG,” says Boucher.
Once KO_OP had pared the idea down to just the puzzling monster heads, their work had only just begin. Turning a creature’s head into a source of curiosity, toy-like play, and puzzling mechanisms was still a challenge, tasking the developers with finding out how to create all of these interesting places in such a contained space.
To do this, Boucher would begin with a theme for each head. “It’s been a pretty difficult process with a lot of iteration and playtesting. About eighty percent of the game was just figuring out as we went, and nothing was going according to plan. The main vision every time, though, was me doing concept art of stuff that I liked, seeking atmospheres and moods I wanted to see in a game,” says Boucher.
“Every level in GNOG is very different. There is no connection between all the worlds. It’s just different themes, and you’re immersed in varied atmospheres every time," he continues. "That’s the vision I wanted. I wanted to explore as many different things as possible, visually. So, every head started as an atmosphere or drawing."
Each head would begin with the developer looking at it from the outside, peering in. To get at what was inside, Boucher created each with a certain mood behind the face, and from there, a narrative might play out in his imagination, one that could be explored as he peeled back layers and looked inside, opening up the head in his own mind before he could create what the player would see inside it.
“Let’s say, for the spaceship one. I was drawing a shuttle, and I was brainstorming what we could have in it. What kind of buttons it might have, and what could happen. In a shuttle, there’s a pilot. There’s controls to guide the ship. That informs what the puzzle can be in the end. I looked at what I could do with the pilot. Maybe there was a map of space and some planets. In the end, it became a research journey to find some planets. It always starts from a mood or atmosphere, then grows into a narrative,” says Boucher.
This was done many, many, many times. “At one point, I had so many ideas that I filled a wall at the office with all of the things I wanted to explore, and together, as a team, we pinned down the ones that we wanted to see," he adds. "I could have made anything. Could have made hundreds of levels if we had the money. We just chose the ones that everyone really liked, and then we started making a narrative for them."
Not that each idea he had up would tell a story very well. “There were some GNOGs on the wall that didn’t quite quickly convey a narrative that we could use," Boucher says. "There was a suitcase GNOG, and everyone thought it could be cool, but nobody could really find a narrative for it. So we just left that one there and started with one where we knew what the story would already be like. Something like a submarine, where we knew it would be like this, this, and this. There’s going to be a diver looking for things. The suitcase took too long, so we just dropped it."
It would be key to Boucher that he could sense the story unfolding in his mind as he looked at the design, and that the team could do so, too. If they could already feel that curious place unveiling itself to them, they moved forward with it, seeking the hidden stories inside, and with these stories came the mechanisms needed to tell that tale.
This, too, required the developers pare down an initial idea. Telling a complex story through mechanisms would require multiple styles of interaction, after all, but like the overly-complex initial idea they had begun with, this idea would create something overly-complex as well.
“Something that really helped during development was finding a language of interaction,” says Boucher. “In the beginning, there were so many types of interactions. There were different buttons, different sliders. So much stuff. It was very customized for each interaction, and it made the development of the game very hard. So, we decided to just do three things: sliders, rotations, and buttons. By nailing those down, we could easily tweak how they felt without putting so much work into a thousand different interactions.”
This meant the developer had to work the monstrous actions into three different inputs rather than create so many different means of control for each particular story beat, moving from a large idea to a smaller, more manageable one. With each step of focus, though, KO_OP was better able to refine what they wanted from the game and make it in an approachable way, rather than something more complex and unnecessarily difficult in its conveyance of what they wanted from the game.
“We just had fun with it. We just made stuff that felt like toys – that was joyful. It was made to feel colorful and fun, and that you could just play around with the head. It was like a 3D toy. Very tactile,” says Boucher. It had to be simple, even if they toy monster heads themselves would be anything but in how they would open up and let the players experience a narrative within.
It also had to feel like a toy, and not just because one could play games with them. This meant creating something players could manipulate and feel like they were actually touching. It had to be tactile while telling its story.
“We always said that fifty percent of it is sound, and the other fifty percent of it is the actual interactions. We iterated a lot on sound, and in the last year, we really found what kind of sounds would work with the interactions and make them feel tactile. Something that also made the interactions better was when you use a slider or rotation, lots of things happen outside that are connected to them. If I’m sliding something, like in the Spaceship GNOG, you see the ship tilting. It feels really good when you interact with something and see something move elsewhere,” says Boucher.
Playtesting and slowly cutting away at what they had would continue to provide solutions to how to make their game better, with Boucher and KO_OP taking a journey through their own idea that mirrors what the player goes through in exploring the game’s heads. It’s a continual focus inward, cutting away at the things covering the core idea as the player and developer share in a journey of self-discovery within these tiny worlds.