Rebirth

Hello world!  Remember me?  I wouldn’t hold it against you if you didn’t.  I’ve had a lot of gaps where I said “This time I’ll really be much more active on my blog!” and then completely wasn’t, but this has been a long absence even for me.

Well, let’s catch up.

For one, I’m back in America.  My time in China finished just over a month ago, though in many ways it feels as if I just stepped off the plane several days ago.  I only spent a year there, but it felt like much longer, and it was surprisingly hard to say goodbye.  My time in China, especially the time at the end of my stay, and my return to the US would be enough content to fill ten subsequent rambling blog posts, but I have other things to talk about, so if it waited this long it can wait a little longer.

Why Am I Dead: Rebirth

For another, I’ve gone and released a game “Why Am I Dead: Rebirth”, a remake to the original.  If it seems like this came out of nowhere, that’s because it absolutely did.  I didn’t mention it anywhere once…just sort of silently slipped it online one night.  It’s a pretty comprehensive update, I hope; all of the art has been completely redone with more time and experience put into it, and the dialogue/story has been edited or added to substantially.  Lastly, the game is running on the source code of “Why Am I Dead At Sea”, which means the characters can have AI, the environment is more interactable, there’s more support for scripting, and things tend to be a bit smoother.

If you haven’t seen it yet, you can play it on Newgrounds here.

The Why

Why did I remake the original game?  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a free flash game being remade, unless there is some direct profit involved.  Well make no mistake, I am making zero money off of Rebirth.  I didn’t even bother to put in any ads.  So…why?  The simplest answer is I wanted a break from creating the sequel, but I was afraid of any side-project running away and consuming all of my attention.  This was a side-project I knew I could finish, and, well, I knew I would eventually get bored of.

The Art

You know what I really love?  Before/after comparisons.  So here are some images from the original game and remake paired up to show you the difference in visuals.  To be honest, updating the visuals was by far the most gratifying part of this project.

First up, the character designs.  On the top are the originals, and the bottom has their updated versions.  Though the differences might seem subtle at first glance I feel like the remakes are miles ahead in terms of readability and aesthetics.

WAID Redux!

Here are the full sprite-sheets for every character in each game side by side.  They get automatically resized, so I just put up the thumbnails; you’ll have to click on them to get the full thing.  The style of animation has been updated to that of “Why Am I Dead At Sea”, which means essentially double the smoothness.

Character SpritesheetCharacter Spritesheet

The last thing I’ll show is two screenshots of the same place in each game.  Note the updated dialogue UI, the inclusion of shadows, and the tweaked environment.  The floor is darker and simpler, making it easier on the eyes, and the walls use their color much more efficiently.

WAID Screen3 WAIDR Screen3

The Story

There were some aspects about the original game that I felt dissatisfied with, but left in because I felt changing they were too inextricable with the rest of the game.  The premise of the game and its basic structure is the same.  But I did make some alterations about how you actually progress, relying more on interacting with scenery at the right time instead of what I thought were non-intuitive and somewhat repetitive interactions with characters.  Dialogue had to be rewritten for this, and so some characters have different conversations and relationships.

One clear example (spoilers!) is that in the original, Randy opens up to Cricket and spills the beans about his whole past.  For this, you have to possess Randy and use him to confess to Cricket.  Doing this possessed as Randy doesn’t seem right, since as the player your dialogue choices should be inquisitive in nature, getting information out of the person you’re talking to; not the reverse.  In the new game, you possess Cricket and find some letters which you can then use to pressure Randy into opening up.  This fits the design of the game better, as you are always the one asking questions, which the game then answers.  But notably, it has the side-effect of changing Randy and Cricket’s relationship.  Instead of Randy trusting Cricket and confiding in him, Cricket simply squeezes the truth out of Randy.

WAIDR Screen4

There are a couple other changes like this, but even bigger than the things I changed are the things that I added.  I won’t go into a lot of detail about the new stuff, since that’s supposed to be found out by playing – but I think it’s fair to at least say how many endings the game has now.  The original “Why Am I Dead” had only one ending, but I hastily added a second one after putting it online.  “Rebirth” adds yet two more, creating a total of four endings.

The new endings add context behind the initial mystery and answer some questions that were brought up in the original game.  I’m not sure they live up to my own expectations, but hopefully if you’re the kind of person who worked hard enough to see the endings, you’ll be the kind of person to appreciate the new context.  And just to be clear, the things brought up in the new endings were what I had in mind when I made the original two years ago – I didn’t just come up with them on the spot!  So it is really canonical to the first game.

WAIDR Screen5

The Timing

This game was sort of rushed out of the gate, and there’s still work to do on it.  Yes, sadly, by that I mean there are some pretty scary bugs…though I will say it’s way better than the original was on its release!  In addition I didn’t add any API support for Newgrounds, so there’s no medals or even tracking on the game.

But I released it when I did so that I could cross-promote in the game.  Cross-promote what, exactly?  Why, none other than my Steam Greenlight page for the upcoming sequel!  That’s right, “Why Am I Dead At Sea” now has its own Greenlight page, which I highly recommend you go to right now and vote “Yes” on!

In truth, I could have waited on both “Rebirth” and the Greenlight page, since I’ve been busy traveling recently and wasn’t able to capitalize on either.  I should have contacted press and various websites about both developments when the iron was hot, but I’m only catching up on that now.  So really…bad timing, I guess.  But it’s up and getting eyeballs, so I guess that’s a good thing!

This post is already really quite long, so I think I’ll leave a more detailed look at the Greenlight and any developments on the sequel for my next post.  Which I promise will be much more prompt than this one was!

Stem to Stern #1: Narrative/Gameplay Structure

I had originally planned on opening up my series of more informative posts with a big post on AI, but since I’ve been mostly doing dialogue and cinematic writing, I’ve been inspired to make a post about the game’s overall structure instead.

StoryScreen1

Let’s start by describing the game in the simplest and most basic way possible.  The gameplay involves me throwing a huge amount of writing and text at the player, and having them search for the important bits of information in there.  Unlike other adventure/mystery games, there aren’t many puzzles or problems that if you can’t solve, you’re stuck.  In WAID you always had access to everything you need.  If you felt up to it, you could always brute-force through the challenges of the game by triggering every single dialogue and dialogue branch.

The challenge is to find the hints I’ve scattered in order to figure out which character interactions will get you on the right track.  Of course, the non-vital dialogues are both an obstacle in that they obscure what you need, as well as a bonus in that they can flesh out the story and give further insight to the characters.

Let’s take a look at the structure of the previous “Why Am I Dead”.  There is a wide body of what I refer to as ambient dialogue: the sum of dialogue which obscures the way forward.  There are also smaller pieces of story dialogue which are actually needed to trigger the ending of the game.  The way the game was structured, it could take you hours to finish it, or two minutes.

Image

How does this structure look for a longer game, though?  I would certainly like “Why Am I Dead At Sea” to last longer than that, whether “that” is two minutes or two hours.  So how do we make that happen?

There were two challenges that I saw going into this project.  Firstly, it seemed to me that a longer/larger game would run into the problem of overwhelming the player with far too much ambient dialogue far too quickly.  As it was, the original WAID wasn’t extremely navigable and could bring the player down time-consuming dead-ends.  Some people enjoyed this, but some did not!

And secondly, for a larger story I would want time to pass as the plot moves forward – that is, things would have to be a bit more sequential in order to make sure there was some plot.  In the previous WAID nothing happens without player input except at the beginning and end, which was fine…but in this game that severely limits the kind of story I can tell!

So I decided I wanted to taper the beginning of the game, bringing the player into the ambient dialogue slowly.  I also wanted to cut up certain parts of the game into self-contained ‘chapters’, in which there was only one entrance and one exit, so that some modicum of stage-setting could be done.  The resulting structure for Why Am I Dead At Sea looks like this:

ImageThis is accomplished, admittedly with some awkwardness, by restraining who you can possess and where you can go at the beginning of the game.  For the first two major parts of the game there is a substantial amount of optional dialogue accessible, but not so much that the player is drowning in it.  Objectives are hopefully much more clear.  As each new character becomes available to possess, however, the amount of ambient dialogue also increases.

This also allows for that oldest of design tropes seen so often in LoZ dungeons – if there’s a new character you just unlocked, you can be confident you will have to use them pretty soon.  I wasn’t allowed to guide the player in this way before!

StoryScreen3

And just as importantly, having certain choke-points for the story allows me to do things such as have small periods of time pass, or move characters move around, and so on.  This isn’t trivial.  A weird thing about the last game was that, to preserve an interesting pace, characters had to spill their guts to each other very quickly, without knowing anything about each other!  It was possible to suspend disbelief, but definitely felt off.  This time around I want dialogue to feel more organic, which means at least the illusion of some time passing.

So that is, in a nutshell, the layout of the game.

Anchors Aweigh

Quite a bit to cover this time.

New title.  I’ve decided to change the name of “Why Am I Dead 2” to “Why Am I Dead At Sea”.  It’s not a huge change, but a lot of thought was put into it.  I came to this decision primarily because this project really isn’t a direct sequel in many ways, and I wanted the title to reflect this.  In addition my hope is that this game will be able to reach a much wider audience than its predecessor did, and I don’t want anyone to think they will need to play another game to understand it.  It really is a project that I hope will stand on its own…so tacking on a number at the end didn’t seem to fit!

Though I feel it’s a bit on the wordy side, I went through innumerable potential titles and could find nothing else that more accurately described the spirit of this project than “Why Am I Dead At Sea”.

Screen3

Beta testing.  Though development time has exceeded even my wider estimates, I can happily say that I will soon be ready for closed beta testing / play-testing.

Given that the weakest area of my last project was the amount of bugs it had on launch, this is something I’m taking very seriously.  The last time, the only play-testing that my game had was from fellow developers on FGL.com, a website for other free browser-based games.  This was a big mistake!  While I’m eternally grateful to everyone there who helped me out, I should have really used it in conjunction with other sources, as I didn’t get enough feedback on the game to smooth everything out.

For instance, the reason there were game-breaking bugs at the end of the game is very simple: out of all the people who played my game before it was released, I think only one person who gave me feedback actually reached the end!  And then when the game was launched and I was scrambling to push out new fixed versions, I didn’t have anyone but myself test those, either…so they sometimes ended up creating new bugs.  It was a mess!

This time I’m going to be much more proactive in getting feedback, gathering a wider pool of testers, and putting the game through play-testing longer.  My plan is currently to find volunteers who would be interested in the type of game I’m making, and offering incentives for their help (obviously a place in the credits being one of them, but ideally other things as well).

Screen6

Marketing.  Around the same time that I start beta-testing, I will have enough assets to feel comfortable in making a serious effort to publicize my game.  This will mean a teaser trailer, a website launch, a Greenlight page, and loads of other stuff.

My plan for publicizing the game is a two-parter, since I feel the game is in a bit of a grey area.  It has a lot of elements that I think would appeal to a smaller, but more dedicated audience — which means that the sooner I start talking about my game, the more likely I am to reach that audience.  But my game will also be very cheap and on the smaller side — which says to me that most people will only give it their attention once, and if it isn’t available then, they won’t pursue it later.

So my compromise is to release everything I can to publicize the game as early as I feel comfortable, with the sole exception of a free demo, which I will reserve for the day that the completed game launches.

There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I’m definitely reaching an exciting stage now where the game is taking shape.  Hopefully by my next post I’ll be able to show a teaser and the game’s dedicated website.

Some more art for WAID2

I feel I’m a bit overdue for an art update, so here’s a twofer; two new characters in one post!

I’m not sure I want to go into great detail about each character whose art I finish, since I think a big part of the game will be figuring out about them as you play.  And a lot of times they won’t be at all what they first seem, so it’s a bit hard to come up with non-spoiler descriptions.

First up is Xu:

Second is Marcurio:

I’ve already tried to mix up the pace/mood of the characters’ walk-cycles, so hopefully the animations are still clear.  It definitely makes things more interesting, and I generally walk away from each character having learned something new about animating.

Also, here’s the typical spritesheets for both games, old and new, side by side.

Cricket     RevisedAltonanim

WAID2 Design Peek #1: Character AI

Things have been a bit crazy, and I unfortunately haven’t been in a position where I can work on my game full-time.  Without going into detail, my hope is that in a month or just over a month I’ll be settled down and can have a routine.  The problem has been as much a lack of free time as it has been a lack of consistent environment; it’s really hard for me to treat development seriously when I’m not in one place long enough to develop a routine.

But I’ve been chipping away at it as much as I can.  Though I don’t feel comfortable at this point showing the progress I’ve made, I can at least talk about it.  For each new post, I’ll give a compact description of something I’ve done or am doing, and more importantly, what I think it will add to the game.

For this update, it’s character AI.

Why Am I Dead occupies a weird space in design.  It plays out like a mystery-adventure, but uses the mechanics of RPGs for interaction.  Because of the former influence, the game will take place in a very confined area that the player becomes intimately familiar with.  Because of the latter influence, all objects and characters must be visible whenever you’re in their vicinity (unlike in adventure games such as Hotel Dusk, where characters often pop in and out only when the story demands it).

For a longer sequel to Why Am I Dead, this means you’ll be seeing the same rooms and the same people a lot.  You’ll get a feel for the whole space.  Partially in order to avoid the feeling of claustrophobia, and partially to create the impression that you’re in a livable environment, I decided that the characters would have to be very proactive regarding where they are at any given moment.

That is to say, having completely static characters that only move when you control them won’t cut it for a larger cast and a longer game.  The characters will all have to move on their own, and not in the way they do for RPGs (randomly and aimlessly); they will move around the ship in routines, and even when you aren’t present.  During different parts of the story, they’ll be in different areas depending on what’s going on.

On the plus side, this means:

  1. Characters won’t be stuck in weird poses for the whole game.  It would break immersion if several days pass in the story but you find that two characters were apparently staring at each other the whole time, because that was how they were when you left them. 
  2. The setting is more convincing.  Towards the beginning of one story day, maybe people are getting breakfast in the diner.  Towards the end, most are probably back in their rooms.  Maybe someone is taking in the night sky outside.  You don’t just see spaces, you see them being used.
  3. More opportunities for character insight.  Mannerisms can be added to characters’ movements; frenetic pacing when a character is stressed, for instance.  It might also say something if a characters is just inside their room all the time, or if they’re always walking around everywhere.

And on the negative side:

  1. LOGISTICS.  Adding these features is relatively easy, and already works for the most part.  Getting them to work as intended will take time.  I imagine traffic jams in hallways and people dry-humping each other all over the place for a while.
  2. If I overdo it, finding a character that you want to possess could be frustrating.  This is a matter of making characters’ movements intuitive and scaled to how much you’ll probably need to control them at the point you’re in.  Given the relatively small environment though, this shouldn’t be a huge issue.
  3. If I underdo it, I could hit an uncanny valley of AI, a la The Truman Show.

Like I said, this is already mostly implemented, as it was one of the first things I started working on.  Getting it to work smoothly will be a challenge, but I think it will add a tremendous amount of personality to the game.