Posts

, ,

Solace State in Netherlands, New York… and soon, Seattle for PAX West!

Summer 2018 has been a season to remember for Solace State!

In May, Solace State brought on board Gabi (@UndeadOoze) working full-time as a programmer from May through the first week of June, then part time for the rest of the summer. We also worked with Silverstring Media (@Slvrstrng), narrative consultants, and Seage (@Seageart), 2D character artist, on contract throughout the last few  months. Everyone has been contributing their utmost; Our first ambitious milestone was to make a submission to Indie MEGABOOTH. Indie MEGABOOTH for PAX West is one of the most competitive pavillions in the world to apply to showcase indie games to excited consumers.

 

In June, we continued to polish this build, and by the last week of June, I travelled to Utrecht, Netherlands, for the INDIGO 2018 Expo on June 29, along with 40 other games. Run by the Dutch Game Garden, most of the games are by the Dutch, and some are from European developers; Solace State was the only one invited from North America. From the event, we connected with Utomik, had three pieces of press, and was selected by XGN.nl as one of four best-in-show games. Later in July, Utomik even followed up to connect with me to do a live-stream!

 

 

On July 13, less than two weeks after my Netherlands trip, I traveled to New York City with an updated build to Game Devs of Color Expo that took in some of the earlier feedback to improve on its choice mechanic. We had been periodically improving on the game build since it has had a lot of public exposure and concentrated feedback from local devs. I also did a talk about how Solace State became a social impact game (full stream here). Both the game and talk were well received, with Solace State mentioned on 7 publications and shows, including Kotaku, NPR, Polygon, and Intelligame Radio. It was shortly after this trip that I realized how much I need someone to help me on vlogging, video promotions of development, and marketing in general.

 

 

I received some timely feedback that my business and marketing plan are weak, which is actually a blessing because it coincides with my gut feeling about how I should structure my company and project. After consulting with Ryerson Transmedia Zone (TMZ) Mentors, TMZ teams such as Blackout, Paere, and Cherrydale, non-profit leaders, friends working at tech titans, and other published interactive digital media studio owners in Toronto, I refocused on sharpening the company’s vision to create an audience-community that encourages social healing and advocacy for marginalized stories.

 

 

The hard work paid off. In July I received a wonderfully surprising email: That I have been invited to participate at Indie MEGABOOTH. I will be showing the game with new build additions at PAX West, in Seattle on Aug 31 – Sept 1, at the smaller, more experimental pavillion Indie MEGABOOTH’s MINIBOOTH!

 

 

Please stay tuned! After PAX, we hope to keep building more content and perhaps even a vlog or two about my experiences travelling to show our new Solace State demos!

 

Peace and love,

Tanya Kan

 

, , , , ,

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!

[fts_vine id=i50dM6IpUEw,i506K5nOl09 maxwidth=400px space_between_photos=4px round_thumb_corner_size=3px]

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.

Scar Tissue Narrative Interactive Story Video game presentation at Dames Making Games, Tanya Kan and Mikki Benaglia
,

Scar Tissue from TOJam 9

While buried with other work obligations, I was really pleased to have the chance to work with some really talented people at this year’s TOJam 9, the largest game jam in Toronto. For the uninitiated, it means that participants in teams of their choosing have 48 hours the weekend of April 25 to 27 to create a game from start to finish. For TOJam, there was a great creative atmosphere of students, aficionados, and professional game developers all collaborating together. The point is to try something new, or work with a new team, to put together a playable prototype. If it doesn’t work, it’s okay! It’d still be a productive weekend of experimentation.

Platform art by Mikki Benaglia

We created a team with Eric Roberts as Programmer, Oskar Pruski as Composer/Sound Designer/Artist, Mikki Benaglia as Artist, and me, Tanya Kan as Designer/Writer/Artist. Because Eric Roberts has a lot of experience with 2D games, I was inspired to try my hand at designing a 2D game as well. He told me to stick with my strengths, which is writing and art direction, while I am simultaneously trying something new. I feel like this is a great advice for many jammers, especially for those, like myself, who have not played the designer/producer role under a jam’s time constraints. As such, I designed an interactive novel-platformer game hybrid, under Eric’s advice. The whole idea is that whatever one player goes through narratively will not be the same experience as another player’s, even if the number of platforms is static.

The story is about a superstar so stressed out by the pressures of her industry (and plastic surgery) that she skips in and out of time, and creates disarray of her “private” life as a result. The narrative itself has been living with me for some time. It first inception was in my little Twine experiment, Sound is a Spectrum, which is playable (but narratively incomplete) on this site.

Scar Tissue Interactive Game spreadsheet preview of dialogue

As also recommended by TOJam organizers, we came prepared with a list of programming priorities. I also created a spreadsheet of all of the game writing/dialogue and corresponding art assets. I created a Grooveshark playlist of the atmosphere that I was trying to set. On Google Drive, I defined the look of the game with reference images with consultation with Mikki, and then we all tried out these experiments at the jam itself! Eric went with an engine structured around 2D called Godot, currently in beta, as he wanted to test drive it at the jam.

Jam version of the game is available for download on itch.io, but is unfinished:
Scar Tissue as created at TOJam in Godot, programmed by Eric Roberts, designed by Tanya Kan

After the jam, I realized that I quite like the idea behind the game as a free release. As such, Mikki and I have continued to adapt the game. We changed the game engine from Godot to Unity, even though the languages are not compatible, because I am trying my hand at programming for the first time. I went with Unity because I really like the documentation and community that Unity has to address most of my questions, and I know that the Engine is flexible around the development needs of my future games. It was definitely an interesting learning curve to say the least, but not as much of an uphill climb as I feared! The other part is also that I can ask silly, simple questions of my Toronto friends about programming.

 

ScarTissue_Prev02

ScarTissue_Prev09

Now, for this new version, we have a lot more art assets to augment the story. Each platform is meant to have a different visual design to hint at the story inside each of its collectable dialogue boxes. Mikki designed and illustrated about 2/3rds of the platforms and they inspire me to have better design for those that I am in charge of! We tightened the art style so that it is more unified in the fashion illustration meets Dadaist hybrid. I am also playing around with the inclusion of some harder-to-reach platforms so that we get more narrative variety, and have some great friends to help out with the programming side!

ST_DMG_01_sm

Mikki and I were very kindly invited to present our game at Dames Making Games Speaker Social, where we shared some of our design considerations! It was a fantastic experience, where we received positive and constructive feedback. Thank you DMG and Bento Miso! Here’s the unabridged Powerpoint slides if anyone’s curious.

Update 2015: Scar Tissue is currently on hiatus.

, , , ,

Video: Babel first tech demo in UDK

Babel is a single-player 3D video game that encourages the player to explore and solve puzzles to piece together a complex, narrative-driven world. This world is set in an alternate-history, current-day Hong Kong. This vertically structured urban jungle will tell the story of a people with contrasting cultures and ideologies, with dreams of improving their social standings, coloured by their personal ethics and fears. As you search for a missing friend, you are drawn into a brewing discontent between an underground group claiming to speak on behalf of the people, and a conglomerate that owns most of the city.

I’ve since changed the art direction for this significantly, since I created this in a few days in time for an ideation roundtable with local game devs! Nonetheless, it shows some of the themes that I will be developing for, even though I will likely change the Engine from UDK to Unity.


Please view in full screen in HD for optimal quality. Thank you.