, , , , , ,

Eviction Notice direction and design notes

GDC17 was a great time, and I was happily surprised by the positive reception to Eviction Notice! Because of this, I want to share some of the core elements of design that drove me and the art direction that I pursued with this small-scale VR project.

Eviction Notice’s design premise is very simple. It is primarily a linear narrative where voice-overs are triggered by gazing at objects around the room, which causes them to vanish. The story is about a young woman who is being forcefully evicted from her home for political reasons. So the overall feeling is that the space becomes more claustrophobic as it empties out, even as you examine artifacts that bring up feelings of nostalgia, whimsy and melancholy.

Compared to some other interactive projects that I’ve created, the core design of the project remained the same today as it was from its outset. From the feedback the game received, it worked really well within the core strengths and technical limitations of the Oculus Gear VR (without controllers).

Here’s the first pitch I ever made on an open channel for the Dames Making Games #hyperreal game jam:

And this is an excerpt from my original game design doc, and further iterations of it really helped further tighten the core vision:

I went with an aesthetic that was developed from my other works associated with Vivid Foundry: Painterly, with colours like a more muted version of Wong Kar Wai’s films (In the Mood For Love, shown below). I wanted to create a sense of homeliness and of a fleeting moment in time (as sociopolitical impressions upon a person often are). Thus, the scene is set with a kind of smoggy, urban dusk.

I’ve always loved setting up lighting, and creating colours in both raster textures and shaders in Engine. Because this was built for mobile VR, there’s a lot more limitations for post-production, but it was thus an interesting challenge adjust the look between modelling programs and Unity constantly. That’s the fun part of being the sole level builder, to really have the fine adjustments and control over the look of the game.

Additionally, when I was travelling in East Asia in 2012, I spent some time with the Society for Community Organization, a non-profit organization for the life and dignity of those in poverty and an advocacy group for public and grassroots housing. I must’ve shipped back hundreds of dollars’ worth books from SOCO and overseas, many of which I offered to friends of the East Asian diaspora.

When reading their publications, I was struck by how the interior spaces photographed create deeply anthropological documentations to underprivileged groups, while simultaneously tell deeply personal, social stories about loss in family and community. I’ve also had the privilege of speaking to volunteers and locals there to discuss the plight of both the working poor and the shrinking middle class in East Asia, and the civil society ramifications of this. These themes thus embed inside my writing for the entirety of Eviction Notice.

These were originally research for Solace State, but some of my writing, stories and inspirations that didn’t make it inside Solace State made its way to Eviction Notice. Thus, the two interactive experiences share very similar visual language as well. In many ways, Eviction Notice is suffused with “happiness within sadness”, while Solace State is about “sadness within happiness”.* I’ve also studied civic engagement for a good few years both during and after my academic career, and sought to create an accessible story that doesn’t take the political complexities for granted. It was in having conversations with people regarding their expectations of public policy and civil society that helped me bridge the gap between writing academically to writing for interactive narratives. It’s conversations about family histories, their hopes and fears for the future, and how they seek to protect the things that are most important to them.

Thus, one of the biggest changes to the game from initial planning to its current iteration was actually the script. My friends Kwan and Jason offered the feedback that our early build with a voice-over soliloquy comes off as a lecture (which is only engaging if my politics are very similar to the viewer’s), as a cerebral experience rather than an emotive one. It led to one of my most important design changes, which was to implement an “I-spy” narrative framework to pick out the objects in a somewhat linear manner, with another voice in the room guiding the player.

Here’s one of the lines from my first script:

Compared with this one, after my design changes:

Following this, I’ve also had the privilege to work with Kaitlin Tremblay, whose narrative editing ensured that the dialogue is as evocative and natural as it can be. Afterwards, Chris Donnelly recorded Erika Szabo and I as the two characters whose voices now occupy Eviction Notice: Erika’s voice acting brought to life the owner of the flat, who is politically detained and fears for her possessions in her flat; My voice is that of her friend and the player character who helps her pack away her belongings.

Eviction Notice has proven to be an interesting project for me to direct, design and develop because of its small scope, but still maximizing emotional impact through visual and narrative design.

*Original quote about happiness/sadness attributed to Jungkook in a video behind-the-scenes about Run music video versus I Need U. 

 

, , , ,

DMG Speaker Social: Talk on Eviction Notice VR Development So Far

I had a great time on the evening of 2016-Nov-19 presenting to the wonderful community of Dames Making Games! I talked about my experiences so far developing Eviction Notice with the rest of my team. Eviction Notice VR is a game that first began in mid-July out of the Hyperreal Jam that Dames Making Games organized! I covered some challenges that we had developing for the Gear, especially focusing on art and production and narrative design. I also mentioned what worked well for us in terms of feedback structure and keeping everyone motivated.

Thank you for such a warm reception and support from the community! Here are some Tweets and Instagram from the event.

. @vividfoundry showcasing Eviction Notice for the @damesmakinggames Speaker Social.

A photo posted by Jonathan Levstein (@jlevstein) on

Part of the team was also in attendance! From left to right: Chris Donnelly, Sound Designer; Erika Szabo, Voice Actor (Tricia); Kaitlin Tremblay, Narrative Editor; Tanya Kan: Director, Executive Producer, Writer, Game Designer, 3D and Texture Artist, Voice Actor (Lana)

evictionnotice_partofteam

, , , , ,

BMCAA 10th Unconference Talk: On Narrative Design

I had a great time presenting at U of T Biomedical Communications Alumni Association’s 10th annual Unconference on 2016-Nov-19! I presented a talk entitled “Designing for Narratives in VR and Visual Novels“. I talked about my modus operandi, and my method of designing from narrative-first then follow through with game mechanics, rather than the other way around. Along the way, I offered tips on how to hone in on a meaningful story, how to interview subjects to create great characters, and more.

 

Thank you for inviting me, BMCAA! 

BMCAA 10th annual unconference

, , , , ,

Halloween month brings a melancholic script to Eviction Notice VR

I am delighted that, since July 15, we’ve been working on Eviction Notice VR for the Samsung Gear. It’s something that we’ve contributed to whenever there is a moment outside of our regular work, and we have continually looked at ways that we can innovate on our way to tell a narrative story well.

eviction_161029_promoshot

One of the major changes was in creating a new narrative, one that moved from monologue to a much more conversational story. The vision of the game was always to clear a home due to a forced eviction for political reasons, and the player can piece together the culture within which this character lived. People who played the previous build found that it was cerebral and intelligent, but didn’t engage with the emotions. And it’s a story about forced evictions and injustices that can definitely tug at the heartstrings and make people care. The script that I wrote, in contrast, felt more didactic, almost like a political speech. So, after hearing this feedback and listening to the concerns of the team, I decided to write it so that it was a cellphone conversation between two characters, and the player is helping her friend pack up everything. This gave a level of narrative immersion that really helped tell a better serious story.

We also embedded some particle effects and visuals to make the space more interesting to look at. I think, in the future, the particles need to be designed better so that they all come from a similar style of art, so that you can really anticipate a uniform visual look.

Yesterday we showcased our game for the first time at Akimbo Toronto Arts Show VR Showcase. One of the amazing piece of feedback we got from the showcase is that, the first time a player heard the voiceover react to something that she did in the game world (that is, looked at a laptop to put it away), it made her feel like the voice-over represented her actions and the gameplay felt that much more immersive. Another great piece of feedback we recieved is that the soundscape gave an embodied sense of the enclosed interior. However, those who are unfamiliar with the VR medium did take a while to get used to the gameplay and the visual space. 

We’re still going to continue to explore innovations in game design and mechanics to hopefully make Eviction Notice VR that much more immersive. This is just one of the first steps for us to approach mobile VR storytelling!

Also shout-outs to some incredible Dames in VR, female-led teams who are doing some incredibly artistic experiences in Rift VR. Nicole Del Medico, middle, is showcasing Never Forget: An Architecture of Memory, and Kim Koronya is showcasing Globes.

, , , , , ,

Eviction Notice: Gear VR development at Hyperreal Jam and onwards

The #HyperRealVR Jam was one of the most fun and involved jams that I’ve ever had. And we are still working strong on our current game on the Gear VR: Eviction Notice.

It’s hosted by Dames Making Games at Gamma Space, a community that I’ve known for years for being incredibly welcoming and warm. Right away, I feel at home, even though our newly formed team on Slack have never worked together before.

There are some step learning curves for some members of our team that they tackled with grace, quick thinking and flexible adaptation. Chris Donnelly created some amazing voice-overs and ambient sounds, and helped scope down the project to hone in on the key lines of dialogue that our 3D objects are associated with. Kat Pavlov did an amazing job by creating a lot of assets within the 3D low-poly game arts pipeline for the first time, including a table, laptop, two pill bottles, florescent lights, first aid kit, radio, and takeout box (that’s 8 objects, you heard). Ksenia Eic breathed life into the game space with some very nice textures within a low-poly pipeline that is completely new to her too! Mic Fok made sure everything works with coding wizardry, linking sounds and interactive objects together, that the fading and highlighting shader works and works beautifully. And I did a bunch of 3D stuff like bunk beds and the room and textures, mentored the others on 3D modelling and texture work, did general quality control, level designed the room together in Unity, tried to make sure the narrative script made sense, and probably made rambling dad jokes.

Eviction_JamPrefinal

The assets we’ve managed to create within the time of the jam (recycling some walls etc. from Solace State).

We did a bit of preparation work days before the jam. We knew going in that it would be a narrative and artistic experience focused on creating memories and feelings in the player, rather than a VR game about skill and gameplay. As such, because we only had two nights and three days to have a working game, we decided that it makes sense for me to do the narrative writing ahead of time to create a preliminary list of art assets that require 3D models. We had decided to have a fully custom modelled environment where you can interact with all the objects that your gaze lands upon. Once an object is active, the voice-over would tell a story about the memories behind that artifact.

The game started from an idea about cultural disappearance due to a forced eviction. This small scope allowed us to focus on a small space that can still be ripe for exploration and lots of detailed objects. I wrote a story that drew from the idea of the disenfranchised classes and their lack of political opportunity in a city full of corruption. In this way, it ties itself thematically to my larger project, Solace State. The game allows you to hear voiceovers of the protagonist as she picks up the items around her tiny flat, exploring shared communal memory across generations.

Eviction_160813_FarBuildingTest2

Adding different lighting and some new assets, including exterior building facades, outside window (Aug 13 update).

This was a really adventurous project because none of us have worked with the Samsung Oculus Gear VR on Android before. I have never developed for mobile, although I have some experience with the Oculus Rift DK1 and DK2. Thankfully, with Mic Fok’s familiarity with programming for Android, we created a level that demonstrated our main mechanics and feeling of the game at the jam. I also insisted on a low-poly pipeline because, at the time, we weren’t certain what hardware limitations we may be running into. This proved to be very helpful, as all of the art assets we created during the jam can be used again with baked lighting instead of realtime lighting, the latter which was much too heavy to perform for VR on the Note 5.

As of the second week of August, 2016, we are currently working hard on adding more presence to the experience. Right now, as you complete interaction with the artifacts, they fade away, until you are left with an empty room. We are adding more features that activate more interactivity through the gaze in VR, to make the experience more dynamic. Although all of the story has been written and recorded, we are adding more 3D assets that associate with those voiceovers.

, , ,

[Press] Kill Screen: Look out for Solace State

Killscreen_Screenshot_875

I’ve had the honor to be interviewed by Conrad at Kill Screen. Our interview focused on how my political philosophy brought about an unusual aesthetic and game mechanics in Solace State, as well as many of my narrative designs and inspirations. It was such a fun conversation, and I’m so happy that a publication that I’ve been following for years has interviewed me!

Read about it here! 

An excerpt:

I caught up with Kan as she was returning from a talk about Solace State and the politics of affect at the Different Games Conference in Brooklyn. “The idea is that you affect others and others affect you consistently and continuously,” she said about Solace State. “There’s not one root cause of events, as is in contrast with, for example, Marxism and its modes of production. It’s much more indeterminable. What this means is that politics [are] very open and political change is bound to happen.”

 

, ,

Solace State: New development build, press, showcases, talks

A lot of new things have happened since my last update! I have been so busy lining up new builds, collaborating with new specialists, and also organizing around travel and work-vacations.

New Build

Pushed a new build in first week of April that has a new, tighter script, with completely revamped 2D art and new camera functionality. The demo build is about 20-30 minutes long gameplay, depending on how fast you read.

Topologist_OutsideFlatView_875_sig

 

Programming

I am seeking some help in programming from Andrew Traviss (Fate Tectonics). He’s designed an isometric camera track system that replaces my previous one so that I can tween on a path. Hacking camera sequences are no longer on a linear path, which opens up so many new ways I can design the 3D world.

3D Art

I am the sole 3D artist in the foreseeable future because of the uniqueness of the hack isometric camera sequences and how I can structure the level build around that, and also putting in the ergodic text associated with my narrative. This build had more texture optimizations and some extensions on primarily the Airport scene (first scene in the game).

AirportArrivals2_AprilBuild1_02_875_sig

 

2D Art

A 2D fine artist, Ian Hsu, is very happy to provide conte illustrations for character art. This includes both gestural, full-body drawings as well as character expression portraits. It finally matched the look that I had in my mind, to create a more “mockumentary” or editorial look.
I also illustrated clickable objects in the same style and medium. They are then edited from photograph by me and put into the 3D game world as sprites and buttons.

MemHack_ChloeRebecka_NewCharArt_01_875_sig

 

Showcases and Talks

I talked about the influence of political theory on my game design for Solace State at two conferences: Intersections Cross-Sections Graduate Conference & Art Exhibition (henceforth ISCS, run by Ryerson and York University), and Different Games Conference in Brooklyn. The reception was very positive, and had some good playtesting feedback as well. People are excited to know more about the story and are curious about what they would find by the time they do find Rebecka, and what happened between the main characters.

At ISCS in March, I had to showcase an older build that is very similar to the one shown at Canadian Video Games Awards / Bit Bazaar. At Different Games Conference, we were showing the improved art and camera mechanics for the first time.

Future talks and showcases

I will be attending IndieCade East with my talk and a show-and-tell slot for my game. For more information on my upcoming talk, please click here.

Press

I am very lucky this spring to have received coverage from two different publications:
Femhype asked me about my process and methodologies as a game dev [see part 1 and part 2].
Kill Screen conversed with me about Solace State’s theoretical influences, narrative, and why I designed the gameplay as I did [see here].

Both of these interviews were a lot of fun and the journalists asked some really interesting questions! They also created interviews that had completely different angles, which was really interesting.

Killscreen_Screenshot

, , , ,

[Press] Femhype: Blanket Fort Chats with Tanya Kan

I have had the honor to speak with Miss N at Femhype about my unusual game development process and especially about what drove the development for my 3D Visual Novel, Solace State. Read the two-part interview here: [part 1] [part 2]

Miss N: A lot of your work revolves around narrative-driven games.
What drew you to making those kinds of games?

Tanya: I’ve always just made sense of the world through stories for as long as I can remember, as soon as I had the language to form sentences. Undergrad especially sharpened my desire to shape narratives through the study of media forms and power in governance. I’ve always wanted interactive ways to talk about society—even if they happen to be imaginary ones. And governance itself can be seen as having a structure that has constant rules and standards of play.

And much more! I really enjoyed this interview because Miss N knows just how to ask such interesting and diverse questions! Thank you, team at Femhype!

Also received some love and coverage from Hand Eye Society’s Toronto recap in their March and February newsletters. Thank you to @gollydrat for the wonderful writing!

 

, , , , ,

Solace State: Reflections from Bit Bazaar and the Canadian Video Game Awards

This post has been a long time in coming! My game dev and related work have been thriving. It’s been quite an adventure in December and January: I had a great time showcasing the first build at the Canadian Video Game Awards with Bit Bazaar, and I continued working on some build ideas for Solace State. I took some time off during the winter holidays to relax with family and friends, managed to catch a cold, started writing some short stories, and began a new teaching job at university in intro to 3D game arts. I also started networking a bit more to see if there are any local collaborators who can help me with character art, localization and programming.

On Dec 5th and 6th, Solace State had its first outing with Bit Bazaar and the Canadian Video Game Awards Fanfest. Surprisingly, the vast majority people played through a 20-30 minute gameplay demo, which was beyond my expectations. I had set up the demo so that people can skip between scenes and levels if they wish, and practically no one took me up on that offer (unless they were manning a booth and had to run back to their responsibilities).

BitBazaar2015_Playtest1_875

There were many experienced devs who shared their insight and feedback to me, and is it ever so valuable! Many people enjoyed the main game mechanic, namely the “hacking-scrolling text environment”. Most people seem to enjoy that part of the gameplay more than the straight-forward visual novel mode, and have asked if that part can be longer. They also “get” it right away as long as they know which keys to press (arrows or WASD), which means that it’s only been my communication about it on devlogs and social media without gameplay input that has been the real problem.

Second, the constructive critique of primarily other gamedev community members have helped me re-scope. A lot of the times, what I see as less-than-ideal in the game are also highlighted by fellow devs. It seems that I’m not far off the mark with my own self-assessment.

BitBazaar2015_Playtest2_875

On Writing

As much as I’ve been writing in some academic or professional capacity for about 9 years, writing for a visual novel game is a different beast from all the creative writing that I’ve hitherto completed. I tend to write much more like a novelist than a typical comic book, where a lot of the key identifiers of the protagonist is clear on the first page. Of course, there can be twists and back-stories down the road, but nonetheless, key motivations are already set up in the first ten, fifteen minutes. Solace State doesn’t quite have that. That’s not necessarily game-breaking, as narrative-driven games like Gone Home and arguably Dear Esther has created a much more gradual reveal of their characters’ vivid colours and internal contradictions. But I do need to balance between what I save for later, and what I reveal in the first ten minutes of the game.

On the flip side of the coin, I also have to remind myself to keep conversations and scenes to be more organic, and less utilitarian to the greater arc of the plot. Without a doubt, there should never be “filler material”. But, I also strive to describe those moments and beats that reveal something intrinsic about the characters and how they feel to each other, what they mean to each other. It’s these little moments where relationships can be built, and can fall apart.

What’s interesting, of course, is that games are becoming more of something that doesn’t get consumed in one sitting, whereas plays and films are. The middle ground to all of this is to emulate some inspirations from television drama, which takes a more episodic approach to its narrative arc. At least, this is the way that I have framed it, and it has helped me acknowledge which scenes may have too much detail, and others not enough screen time to develop the right emotional beats.

Again, it’s worlds different from writing an article or novella; My usual playgrounds, where a single line can leave one breathless with its impact.

BitBazaar2015_Playtest3_875

On Art

There’s a few people who have pointed out the incongruity of the semi-cartoony character art with the rest of the universe, including the 3D environment and the tone of the writing. I happen to agree with them.

There are a few approaches that I would like to try out:

  • Realistic-styled graphite pencil or ink sketches in black & white , which I am capable of producing myself, but can take half a day for a single expression
  • A digital painting in lino-block style in black & white, which I or another artist can produce, and doesn’t take as long as the graphite pencil sketches. This would be in a similar style to what’s already produced in the mood trailer from Feb 2015
  • Collaborate with photographers and a lot of modeling talent. This requires a lot of upfront collaboration and is highly reliant on what kind of new faces and talents I can find. I’ve started making some inquiries into this. It may be the most expensive, but may also be the one that creates the nicest effect, giving the game a semi-mockumentary feel. It might also cost me less time (see prototype below)

SS_BunkerHack_GirlCutout01_Sig_875

People seem to love wandering through the 3D environment as a purely artistic experience though, so I’m not going to change anything there. Just going to add more content!

On Design

With some feedback, I’ve decided to do a prototype of hack scenes that are more primary, cutting out the traditional dialogue format and UI typical to visual novels. There should be textual puzzles that must be solved within its bounds, as well as clickable objects to reveal more narration and dialogue. This is to ensure that the requisite narrative dialogue is met. Each scene should have an intertitle explaining Chloe’s goals, in her own words, so that the player knows what to expect in terms of narrative goals and broader trajectory.

In practical terms of the intertitles, the textual puzzles, and the clickable objects, it means that I should maintain a key plotline by consistently (re)defining where Chloe might find Rebecka with new sources of information. When we start off, we discover gradually who Rebecka’s last contacts are.

On Programming

Key stuff on the to-do list: Upgrade from 5.2.4 to 5.3.x; Create Save and Load variables; Create a history log for dialogue; Create a variable mini-encyclopedia for all characters and places as they populate in the narrative; Improve on the pause screen.

, , , , ,

Acolyte – Wizard hands game at GGJ 2016!

What a blast at Global Game Jam 2016! My teammates Douglas Gregory, Brent Mitchell and I wanted to create a VR experience during the jam. We had Oculus DK2 and Leapmotion devices on hand. Amazingly, GGJ’s 2016 theme was “ritual”, and the idea of wizard hands felt like a great excuse to try the Leap with the Oculus!

IMG_20160131_191728414_crop

We created an experiential game named “Acolyte” in Unity where you learn how to spell cast from magic books. With the Oculus Rift and Leapmotion, you use gestural controls and head motion tracking to find spellbooks that fly off of nearby shelves, and cast spells to pay homage to three god statues. Your hands are swirl in front of you in smoke form. A clap forms a magic circle that creates fireballs, and you can also telekinetically grab and launch objects around. Even the bookshelves and podiums can be set on fire! When you play with the peripherals, you feel like you’re actually creating magic out of thin air – Wizard hands!

All three of us have always wanted to try incorporating the Leapmotion into our development, but none of us have ever tried it before. A weekend jam like this was a great way for us to explore the tech’s usability and functions. So, on the Friday evening of the jam, we had a leisurely dinner and brainstormed a lot of different game design ideas. All of us wanted to create an experiential game where the player can just try new things in a kind of meditative or pensive pace. We didn’t necessarily aim for a win/lose state for this sort of game. Doug plugged in the Leapmotion hand gesture capture controller and we got to see it in action for the first time that Friday night. Just played around with it, no coding in Unity yet, but started thinking about what gestures might work better than others, due to readability of the sensing tracking device.

HiTeam_SM

Unfortunately, next morning, we ran across technical difficulties at our jam site due to incompatibility of the drivers with the Oculus DK2, and we had to relocate across the city. So it wasn’t until 5pm on Saturday that we actually got started on the game development itself. We had 24 hours! Within that time, we managed to squeeze in more than just one game mechanic, and also had a pretty game world to look at. The particle effects that Brent and Douglas created that had a depth to them are just amazing to look at in 3D VR! They really pop. The smoky wizard hands look responsive and really fit a magical game milieu.

We had other things that we wanted to include, such as three separate spellcasting powers from the magical books to correspond to each of the god statues. We’ll just have to develop that at a later time! Also this gem:

When using the fire spell on the butterflies: …What if they turned into FIREFLIES, because SCIENCE?
– Brent Mitchell

This jam was such a great experience for me! I am the 3D artist on the team. I haven’t jammed for over a year (and had completed four playable game jam prototypes in the past), so having that different rhythm of thinking about games was like a great reset button for me. As Douglas said, jams are a great way to set aside the perfectionistic qualities, something that I am still learning to do. I also love our brainstorming sessions, it’s a great way to ease into a whirlwind of learning from Brent and Douglas work out the technical and design details of the game mechanics.

 

The cool thing as well is that each of us have now influenced how an actual playable game prototype looks, plays and feels, from concept to realization. It’s so magical to be able to do that over the course of the weekend! I’d definitely recommend working on a team for any first time jammers, it’ll definitely inspire how you approach game making in the future!

Rawr!
– Tanya Kan

, , , , ,

Solace State: More scene assets

More scene assets have been added onto my Unity build since the last post. This is because I’m creating my first showcase demo build for early December! I will have a table at a fan expo with my art prints as well, and it’ll be a great opportunity to gain some valuable feedback from players and members of the dev community. As I want to retain some surprises for people who want to try out the game there, I’ll just report on the following below:

I’ve put in all of the dialogue and narrative in the first 5 scenes, with the proper pacing and click-based interactions. However not all of the 3D and 2D assets are done yet, as I have been working on each of the priorities for each scene. Here’s a screen shot of the second scene! There’s still some foreground UI animations that I’ll need for this scene for the protagonist’s passport. This scene also animates cinematically, as though from the protagonist’s first-person perspective.

SolaceState_Sc2_Word2_875SolaceState_Sc2_Word4_875

Additionally, I want to expand on the second game design that I was experimenting with. It represents when Chloe is hacking and finding out more details of a place. The camera goes into orthographic view in this mode, and you can move around using WASD keys to read snippets of text in the environment, that might disappear or appear depending on where in the environment you are. Later on, I might have some basic point-and-click puzzles. I kind of like this different way of perceiving a 3D space that isn’t first-person, to illustrate that the “hacking” Chloe is doing unnatural, and also gives her an incomplete picture into the world.

It’s also got a somewhat abrasive aesthetic that mimics a glitch image, especially when done to whole buildings.

Finally, I’ve asked a new collaborator to come on board to create some additional character art for me! My original illustration style was softer and didn’t have as many interesting postures and expressions. So we’re exploring a more graphic look for the characters that are also more visible on smaller screens. Additionally, it makes it more manageable for me to focus on 3D assets, writing, and putting the game together. (See: “Rebecka” at left.)

SolaceState_Sc3_Chat1_875

solace state
, , , , , ,

Game design elements for Solace State

Solace State is in its early production stage. It is an interactive novel where you play as Chloe, a young hacker who must navigate a near-future metropolis to re-unite with her friends, and contend with both the tyranny of the great and the sectarianism of the many. For more information, please see the recent re-introduction post here!

What does it look like? The new screen captures from today show the game mechanics and art style which will stay consistent for most of the rest of the project.

In Solace State, you play from Chloe’s perspective. The core mechanic, as described in a previous post, remains simple and unchanged: You get to chose some of her dialogue and actions through contextual buttons, to try to develop and maintain trust or exploit a character or social group. This plays out in a branching narrative, similar to many story-driven games and interactive fiction.

HoloDesign_UnityPrev02_sig

95% of what will appear on the screen are events through her eyes. This includes the room that you’re in, to the computer hologram pop-ups that greet you. This was a design decision that took a while to articulate, since I do want the protagonist’s face to show up now and then, but I also want to maintain immersion of a singular perspective.

This is a first design for the UI, where one character talks to you. The character will have expressions to match what they are saying, but will generally be static, similar in style with many Visual Novels. The self-cam shows Chloe’s face or nearby proximity as appropriate for the scene, and sometimes no image feed at all. Since this scene is early in the game, I chose to crop in on her eyes and reveal her full appearance over time.

SS_ChloePierFlatInt_UnityPrev03_ColorGrading

This UI design is still preliminary, and there will be other configurations in other scenes so that the holo-screens do not block a particular focal point in the background. The background is fully 3D in Unity 5, and takes advantage of its physical shaders, and therefore can include atmospheric effects such as shifting light rays, reflective moving surfaces, and much more.

IsometricBrutHall_Gif_Looping
The second major game mechanic that I’ve been testing lately is the ability to find key information and extrapolate emotional narration from our main character without the use of flashbacks. This one is structured around Chloe’s playground – her hackspace – and lets the player scroll through an isometric space to find and read information. Another design consideration is that I have to consider how to write for something that will likely be read out of order – an interesting premise! The player also pieces together the architectural space gradually, which can give more flavour or clues as to what the narrative slices are about.

*Note: The grainy, blurry quality of the GIF above is because it was very compressed for web! Rest assured that the textures look better in Unity realtime, or as a Video file.

I’m quite excited about both of these gameplay trajectories as Solace State starts feeling much more interactive! Thanks for reading!

, , , ,

Solace State: A re-introduction

A lot has changed over the past months for how Solace State looked, told its story, and played out. I had expected development to be a thoroughly transformative process, and it has not disappointed me. I read up on a number of studies that examined political resistance, as well as cyberspace as the new frontier for civil struggles, and it led to a number of broad changes both to narrative and to gameplay itself.

Here’s a new introduction to the project…

TitleManifold_Subcaption_size

The Premise
“Our future, our design!” In 2038, Abraxa Harbour city-state is hailed by its wealthy as the crowning jewel of thriving markets and cosmopolitan culture, at odds with the increasing number of destitute who live in the shadows of its skyscrapers. But this is the year that even students and workers see their future dwindling away, and they rally to form a society different from what the city’s strongholds have authorized. A young woman, Chloe, is in many ways an outsider, a newcomer who finds Abraxa full of forbidden and cryptic histories. But she must strike deep into the storied urban streets in order to reunite with her friends, who have embedded and braced themselves to defend their livelihoods. Can she reunite them across ideological divisions, or are some of them better off alone with their ambitions? With her machine-aided perception to see into reclusive worlds and associations, how will Chloe negotiate her hopes and fears in the midst of turbulent revolution?

Visual Novel Features

  • A unconventional story set in a sci-fi city that focuses on the human stories of negotiation and social trust
  • What dialogue and actions you chose matters to the outcome of the game and the characters around you
  • Hand-drawn characters and handcrafted 3D backgrounds
  • Unique introspective scenes where you must “hack a 3D space” to find the internal monologue

Why a game?:
Solace State is an imaginary vision of participatory citizenship and negotiation between some very differing groups of people. It makes sense that players can engage with the narrative through various menus of choices that are reflexive of their own values. The sci-fi elements of the story allow the protagonist to quickly wrest information from the world and make strategic decisions. But most simply, this is a game with a story about people who often feel like outsiders, who are overlooked, but can come together to create new emergent livelihoods. Because I want to portray both utopic and dystopic elements, I feel like a game form can give me the greatest range of affective outcomes and not just show one tone or atmosphere, given that you can chose a path in the story. Above all, the players can interpret whether the story is utopic or dystopic themselves.

Game Engine:
Built in Unity 5, so that I can take advantage of the asset store for visual novel tools, as well as full 3D engine and realtime lighting capabilities.

Pt 2: History of Development:

I started ruminating on the idea of a game about a futuristic student-led society since early 2013, when I had just completed a game arts & VFX internship in Hong Kong. I was traveling in East Asia and was having conversations with friends and artists there about our histories and civil identities. In Nov-Dec 2013, a group of friends and I put together a 5-minute playable level in Unity as a proof-of-concept. Back then, the game was called Babel. It featured point-and-click puzzles and voice-over narration in a 3D environment built for first-person exploration.

Something didn’t quite grasp the agency and atmosphere that I wanted to convey in the first playable demo. The puzzles weren’t very good, and each of us in the team were considering longer-term job opportunities at the time. We put the project on indeterminable hold. In Fall 2014, outside of a couple of short-term freelance engagements, I returned to developing this game.

After some consultation with programming and design friends, I realized that I really needed to hone in the script first for it to be a narrative-driven game, and that my gameplay will be informed by the key characteristics of the narrative. This may seem counter-intuitive for a lot of general how-to-dev guides that demand focus on gameplay first, but for me, interaction cannot be divorced from narrative action in a text-heavy game. Finally, it did not seem like I was fighting with gameplay ideas that could barely move past the prototype stage because the narrative seemed like flavor, not a key feature, and that was not necessarily something I wanted to produce for this particular game.

Thus, through the remaining months of 2014 and early 2015, I drafted a cyberpunk story with an outline for the general arches of narrative action. I had a much better grasp of what I was going for, and Solace State as a name reflects both sci-fi and political overtures. I created a trailer in Feb 2015 to solidify the atmosphere and tone. I knew clearly what I want to highlight for Solace State: Conversations and building relationships and trust between characters. Which brings us to now: As a solo developer, I currently balance my time between design, game engine work, writing, and artwork.

Art style (a continued odyssey):

In Dec 2013, the game was a 3D exploration puzzler, and the models were realistically proportioned but had a very painterly texture to them.

BabelDec2013_Set2_size

By Feb 2015, I have found a simpler style: Banksy-like graphical style with painterly 2D backgrounds.

SolaceState_Trailer_OutOnStreets

 

Now, I’m finding an in-between: 2D illustrated characters that will have more diverse facial expressions and a hand-drawn look. I am experimenting with 2.5D backgrounds and 3D scenes.

AirportScene_Prev_01_size

Shown above: A Ren’Py prototype from Aug 2015. The art got a bit too convoluted, and I want a separation between characters and backdrop (kind of like Disney’s different styles between character and background art).

SS_A1S2P4_ErgodicArchi_UnityPrev007_sm

This is a realtime prototype in Unity, created Sept 13, 2015. I want to see how I can push this with 2D flatty character art.

, , , ,

From Babel to Solace State: A concept trailer

Solace State is the new name for Babel. With this change also comes a new mockup concept trailer, with a new illustration art style that I believe is more distinct and carries consistently through. It’s created right in time for GDC 2015.

After consultation and a lot of thought, I came to the conclusion that Solace State is a much more descriptive title for an interactive novel video game. The story remains the bedrock even though my prototype game designs have changed.

Solace State is a coming-of-age story about a young woman’s reunions across a troubled hotbed of ideological dissent. She will come across challenges that bend the very fount of many people’s hopes, dreams, and fears. The city which she knows and does not know may censor secrets, or share too much.

Please watch the trailer in full screen, with sound on. Enjoy!