Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Creating ‘Take A Walk’ for Soundplay

One Month
Yesterday our new game Take A Walk was launched; the fifth release in the Soundplay series, produced by Kill Screen for Pitchfork, and funded by Intel. It’s a music video game, which is like a music video but playable like a video game. It feels like something very new and exciting to be doing, making games in collaboration with bands, and we were very lucky to have the opportunity to work with an awesome track by an awesome band -- Passion Pit.

The production of this game was a non-stop sprint from beginning to end. Something strange happens when you spend all day in your studio and rarely make it back home before midnight. That lived-in quality that we take for granted starts to diminish, a little each day. After a week or so you return home, only to realise that the atmosphere of home has migrated to the place you spend most of your time. Studio and home switch, and sleeping becomes a brief interlude in that strange place equipped with the shower and the kitchen.

As a studio, we’ve worked on short projects before. Every design company does it; a job comes in, and you evaluate, can I fit it in among all the other things that I’m doing? Something like sorting mail, you hope to pack the big things first into your schedule, and then sandwich smaller projects in to keep things varied.

Graphic design and illustration scale in such a way that a small job is just that, small. A logo here, some typesetting there. But videogames are a bit different. Even when they appeal to a simple look and feel, underneath the surface there’s so much stuff going on. Programmers and artists labour to create something that delivers a consistent experience, and sidesteps any question of how.

To return to the the post room metaphor: games are generally big packages, and the people making them have a good sense in advance of when they’re coming and when they’re being delivered. It’s an interesting challenge to create a game quickly in between other big jobs. In addition to the challenge of making games because of their technological complexity, there is also the social complexity of making games -- of bringing several different people together around a common goal.

With all that in mind, we happily took the opportunity to create a game in collaboration with the game culture company Kill Screen, to be delivered from start to finish in just under a month. When the project is exciting then good sense and organisational platitudes go out of the window; you commit all your resources to making the project happen.

After a couple of false starts connected to problems with the music approvals process, we kicked off the project mid-July, with a delivery date of the 12th of August. We had a month to create the game. Crazy. The appeal of game jams and short sharp festival workshops have distorted just how long it takes to make an interesting game, and a month certainly isn’t long at all. Add to that the pressure to make an engaging game that will honour the band’s song and the Pitchfork/Kill Screen project.

Some interesting things happen when you push to make a good game in a super short period of time. The traditional categories of pre-production, production and post-production break down a little, and it becomes much more of a process of iterating around a set of valued principles that you’d like to see in the final playable game.

The Design
We knew that we wanted to build our entire concept from the premise of ‘taking a walk’, and we wanted to have the character change to reflect different stages of the song, creating a strong sense of connection to the track as it played. We also knew that we wanted to explore the stylistic concept of backing playable content with video, which we have been toying with for a while.

We started to think about images of walking, and seized upon two different references. The first was the image of evolution as depicted in illustrations showing the development of humans from apes, or sometimes from primitive cell organisms to higher order lifeforms. We found these images interesting because they have a peculiar sense of time. They show change over millions of years, but also show what looks like a group of apes taking a walk.  

The second key reference for us was the image of a mother bird (in this case a duck) leading her ducklings in single file. In games like Yoshiro Kimura’s Little King Story where the king is followed by a number of villagers, or Pikmin for example, a strong sense of walking is communicated, because while your eye follows the movements of the main character, you’re also simultaneously taking in the individual nuances of the followers. Taken together, they create a single busy movement that is very appealing to the eye.

So for Take a Walk we combined these two intriguing walks, the walk of evolution and the walk of family, into a single statement. As the player played the game, they would evolve over time. They would also gain a small group of followers, who would represent the different stages of evolution that you’ve achieved. Taken together, we create a surreal family for the player to lead through the world of the game.

The Passion Pit song is very much about the struggle of ordinary people against circumstances they find themselves in. We knew that we wanted to capture that sense of struggle in the game, and so we played with the idea of having hazards in the world that would collide with the player-character. These would deplete the number of followers you had, or alternatively cause some kind of score attrition.

We knew that we wanted the player to get through the whole of the song, and therefore finish the game. How annoying is it when you go over someone’s house and there is a great music video on tv, and they change the channel! We wanted to avoid that feeling of abrupt stopping that comes with game over, because it feels so violent when you’re playing along to a song. With that we knew that the experience of hazards that impact negatively on the player were at odds with the goal of creating a game that was an enhanced experience of the song.

Because of this, we knew that we had to create a sense of struggle and challenge in another way, and in response we explored the idea of the ‘flight’ that the player can achieve though a second press of the button mid jump. We created a jump by holding and releasing the button, which created a great sense of anticipation and helped you to plan your jumps in order to collect pick-ups. Sometimes however, as the level moves along, you realise you’re not quite where you need to be in your jump in order to get what you need. Through the double jump ‘flight’  the player can put in the extra effort and struggle to get to where they want to be. I put ‘flight’ in quotation because each of the characters in the game can only partially fly, they’re pushing themselves to resist gravity and win. In this way we hoped to create a sense of the struggle of the song without succumbing to the conceit of hazard objects or enemies that would have worked against the needs of a music video game.

The video underscored the ideas of evolution and development, by pulling together images from mid 20th Century archive material. Through a series of hard cuts and jumps in time, the video that sits behind the gameplay tells the story of an evolving world, from primordial floes to the biological detail of fauna to consumer America and finally to outer space. We found that by dropping shots in from the top of the screen we could maintain impact in the video without interrupting the gameplay.

There are silhouettes that sit between the video and the character, and also in the foreground. These were necessary to create a visual break between the character and the video, and to also ground the locations of the video in some sense of a landscape. We also found that through the design of the silhouettes we could suggest locations and ideas about each stage of the song.

These elements and concepts are the basic building blocks for our game. We also pushed for a strong 2D hand animated style, because we love it, but also because it allowed us to take the rhythm and bpm of the game and express it in fundamental movement of the character. Everything pulses with the beat of the song, so that we could deviate from that in play and still feel that connection expressed at some level.

Striking a balance between the play style and the visual treatment didn’t follow a thoroughly planned pre production script, but rather a constant process of iteration, whereby we produced a number of assets that would make up a section or scene, and then pushed to get them into a playable build as fast as possible. Only by getting our work into a build and playing could we make improvements to the implementation of each feature. For instance, the number of frames in a jump animation, or the density of the silhouettes, or the cutting style of the video. All these elements were iterated on through a process of getting something, however rough, into the game in order to make adjustments and work efficiently with the programmers.

We’re very happy with the game and are excited to see so many people playing. We hope you enjoy the game!

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