January 30, 2012
This is a story about team Dusk (which included myself, Wade Clarke) trying to develop the game eventually titled Unholy over 48 hours at the in-Sydney venue of Game Jam 2012, January 27- 29.
The brief of the jam is to form a team on the spot and develop a game from scratch within 48 hours related to a mystery theme which is only revealed when you show up. At the end, industry judges check out the games and dole out praise and prizes. This year's theme was given in the form of a picture, a ring formed by a snake eating its tail. The move from an English word cue (last year's theme was “extinction") to a visual one might have been made to help convey the theme to all participants around the world with equal force, getting rid of the English language issue.
My initial shock this year was at the explosion in attendance. While I guess 40 to 50 people attended last year's Sydney Jam at the Powerhouse Museum, this year more than 100 descended on the new venue of Rosehill Gardens Event Centre, a super high-ceilinged building beside a horse racing course. The jam was facilitated by the presence of the Sydney Gamers League: 350 of its members were having a networked game-a-thon in the Centre alongside the jam. Imagine hundreds of hardcore gamers and computers stacked in aisles for as far as the eye can see, with Modern Warfare 3 and Starcraft glowing on as many monitors.
Initially I was in a team with seven people, amongst them Tim and Jacqui who programmed our team's game Impacts last year. I'd also met Michael at the last jam, and had since done sound and music for his Flash game ZX Space.
Coming up with a game concept
As you've only got 48 hours, the organisers urge you to come up with an idea pretty quickly, then they hold a session where all teams pitch their ideas to each other. Jammers then have the opportunity to change teams if they like a different team's idea better or can find a better fit for their own skill set.
After a lot of frantic riffing on the snake-eats-self theme, our team's ideas for game mechanics fell mostly into the following three areas:
-- Playing a level multiple times and using your corpses as tools to progress through the level
-- Having ghosts of your previous plays help or hinder you on later ones
-- Having a series of characters die and play through the same areas (ala Eternal Darkness)
Over our catered tea (which was hardly stellar, and the first sign of the food hardships which lay ahead) our team split in two when one half came up with a new set of ideas involving a literal interpretation of the snake image; they would make a variation on the classic Snake game in which you don't control the snake but must somehow trick it into eating itself. It was called Ekans. Get it?
I was much more into the idea of making a horror game and doing something with ghosts, but what our two new teams agreed on is that they would share artists. That is, I would do sound and music for both games, and Michael and our new friend Leanne would produce artwork and animation for both games.
Members from both teams
Finalising the concept (OR DID WE?)
The ghost game team – which we called Team Dusk at some point – now consisted of Tim and Jacqui on programming, Michael and Leanne on artwork, Michael on animation and myself on sound and music.
Coming up is what I recall to be our initial game concept. I say recall because tracing the exact origins of ideas is always tricky (who came up with what and when?) and probably even more so over a crazy sleep and food deprived 48-hours.
The game is set in a village. Ghosts/demons are attacking the villagers for some reason. It's dark and scary and visibility is limited. The view is from overhead. You can try to flee the ghosts but inevitably one will get you. At this point, to survive, you need to attack and possess another human. When you're a ghost you have limited time to possess someone or you will die in a Game Over kind of way. To end the demon attack you have to find and put out 6 black candles hidden around the village, which were used by villagers to summon the demons in the first place.
Eating food at Game Jam
Food was sparsely dispensed over the course of the event (a euphemism) and not very good (euphemism). You had to hand in a voucher to get each meal, thus preventing you from stealing an extra two Weet Bix at breakfast, for instance, after realising that your breakfast of only the initial two Weet Bix had actually been a parody of a breakfast.
We had our own tea and coffee supplies in the Jam area, but no milk. The plastic spoons warped when you tried to stir your hot drinks with them. On day three I made an interactive sculpture out of three warped spoons, a coffee lid and a live fly.
Leanne drew our cast of villagers with her graphics tablet. Her style is quite manga-ish, which gave the game a Japanese look. We had whittled the cast down to three types: a man, a woman and a little girl. Leanne came up with the man's design very quickly and I was impressed, though I did make jokes that I wasn't sure that men had such fashionable facial hair in whatever time period this game was set in.
Uh, what time period was this game set in?
Our game's background story was still vague on day one. Was this village medieval-rural? 18th century? 19th century? Early 20th century? And where was it? I had kidded that I wasn't going to be policing accurate fashion and grooming for the characters based on when and where we set the game, but I did start thinking about nailing down a setting. It had to make sense that these people were superstitious enough to try solving problems by summoning demons.
Handily, Leanne's design for the little girl had her dragging a teddy bear, which forced my hand. I thought that if it was a genuine teddy bear, the game had to be set after those became popular (post Teddy Roosevelt). Our story was not dissimilar to something Lovecraft might write, so I figured we could set it in Lovecraft country in Lovecraft times. On a piece of paper I wrote "Dunwich, 1924." Then I wrote a succinct introductory story intended to be displayed at the start of the game.
When Michael wasn't working on the snake graphics for our sister team, he took Leanne's village character artworks and animated them. He also came up with ghost versions for each character, and they all looked really cool. The ghost girl in particular was the kind to scare the crap out of you.
Sound and music Part 1
The first task I set myself was to produce music for team Ekans. One thing I realised about Game Jam last year is that you may have only a few minutes to demonstrate your game to judges and an audience, and you can really increase the value of your presentation with a good in-game soundtrack if one is appropriate.
I asked Dan on the snake team about what kind of music they might like. Their game was now set in an Egyptiany arena and had a crowd cheering on the player who was stuck in the pit with the snake. He suggested something jarring along the lines of the Kirk VS Spock gladiator fight from classic Star Trek. 'Duh duh duhhhh duhhhh duhhhh duhhhh duhhhh DUHHHH DUH DUH DUHHHH DUHHHH!…'
I thought that would be cool and funny and I went back to my laptop fully intending to go in that direction. As often happens in musicmaking, I ended up going not where I had intended to, but liking what happened where I ended up. I dropped in a 4/4 C64-sounding bass riff from Logic's library while experimenting, and that dictated the whole piece, just because I liked what was happening when I mixed it with Egyptian noises. The decision to continue with this piece and not go back to the drawing board was also the kind of time pressurised one you have to make often in Game Jam. I couldn't afford to lose the time I'd already invested in it.
To this track I added liberal doses of vocal yelling from various nations – Bollywood yelps, African chants, that kind of thing – to get a tribal feel happening, though the resulting mishmash was probably completely offensive to all of these cultures. I later pruned back some of the silliness and added my own melodic magic (™) to develop something that I thought would sound quite tense and exciting over the snake-in-the-arena game. When Matt from team Ekans checked it out and described it as "wicked and dark", I thought: "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!"
I had watched Tim and Jacqui do their programming wizardry last year, so I knew what to expect from them. They sit their computers side-by-side, work on different elements, occasionally merge them, occasionally communicate by ESP and occasionally by Tim raising his voice. Jacqui staves off sleep in general.
The main difference this year was that the process was less inscrutable to the other team members (or at least to me) because the gameplay was less inscrutable. The game we made last year was a high-faluting variation on Life, and there was no time for everyone to discuss every algorithm that was going to go into it. We just had to trust Tim and Jacqui to put it together, and they did. As a result, late iterations of that game kept surprising me with their new behaviours.
This year we had all discussed, argued about and contributed to the design of the game mechanics as a team, so as the code began to become demonstrable, we would look at each version of the game and see the things we'd talked about starting to function.
Screenshot of Unholy
Finalising the concept?
Late on the middle day, Tim told me he wanted to change the game design so that there would be a bunch of scene setting achieved through in-game dialogue before the part where you had to deal with the ghosts. Given the amount of time we'd already spent nutting out a design I thought would work, I was highly resistant to the idea; it threw up lots of new plot and game mechanic questions and contradictions that would all need to be solved, and change the nature of the beast so that you weren't thrown straight into a fearful survival situation, which I felt was a very pure mechanic well suited to the constraints of Game Jam.
We talked about all my concerns at length and were able to come up with answers to most of the new questions. For instance, when was the ghost attack going to occur now? We decided that initially the village could be a safe place and that the ghosts would be outside, but once you went out there (hopefully in response to curiosity piqued by the villagers' dialogue) you'd encounter a ghost and sort of set things off. Something I was adamant about was that ultimately, no place in the game should be safe. I didn't want the player to be able to hide in the village. I wanted the pressure to be on.
Of course what was intriguing about Tim's new idea what the prospect of recording some villager voices. Surely this would be a highly ambitious feature in a game made in 48 hours. Like he later said, “it's something you can brag about." I had also prepared myself technically pre-jam to record some dialogue because Michael had expressed interest in making a game including audio narrative.
I still had some misgivings about the direction change of the game, but since the solutions seemed feasible and the idea of doing dialogue was attractive, I agreed to it. Our challenge/problem now… at 2 AM of the final day, though you'd hardly have known it what with 400+ gamers and coders wide awake and still thrashing about in the building… was to get some people to perform the script Tim had written. We needed lines for the man, the woman and the girl. Cynical readers from Generation X will not be surprised to learn that most of the folks at Game Jam are men, so the first thing we did was approach the only woman who was both visible and awake at that moment, Jenna.
Recording the in-game dialogue
Jenna was famous at last year's jam for having built a robot; that was the interesting fact organisers wrote about her on the getting to know you sheet. We asked her if she wanted to record some lines and it turned out she wasn't interested, though she was encouraging of the idea that we should approach random non-jam gamers in the foyer, saying, "Hey, wanna voice a videogame?" – because she said that would be hilarious.
I can't deny that it might have been, but my sensible side thought we shouldn't. There was the potential for time wasting with people we didn't know and who weren't committed to Game Jam, but potentially a bigger problem was that the single location quiet enough for the recording of dialogue which Tim and I had scouted out and tested was in an unlit brickwork cul-de-sac outside the centre. Frankly, I would have been embarrassed to try dragging people I'd never met before into this dark alley at 2 AM with the promise of voice work in a video game.
So instead we dragged people we knew out there – me, Tim, Dan, Michael and Leanne. Tim's brother Dominic came along just to laugh at us, I think. Jacqui came along but was dead on her feet. We took turns trying different lines from the script, recording into my Macbook which was perched on a recycling bin in the dark. While I have directed actors in the past, I am certainly not one. I think Dan obviously has some performer in him. I don't know if he has any acting experience, but you could believe that each take with him was potentially a different person, one of those people being Dr Evil.
In the dark we ended up missing one of the lines, but otherwise we got everything we needed. I then worked on editing this dialogue into useable takes until 5AM, at which point I broke for a four hour nap. Listening to the recordings vindicated our choice of that quiet cul-de-sac; they proved to be extremely usable in their raw form, with almost no background noise and no need for post production other than level matching. They weren't even recorded with an external mic, just through the air into the Macbook's internal mic.
Having a shower
No showers were available until late on the middle day, at which point you had to book your shower and be marched down into the bowels of the facility if you wanted one. I got to use a shower set aside for female jockeys. I deliberately chose that one because when else does a man get to go into the female jockeys' shower at a race course? Never, that's when!
Sound and music Part 2
I love making Silent Hill-like music, and I also like making dismally sad sounding string music, so on the afternoon of the middle day of the jam I put the two styles together to come up with the in-game soundtrack loop for our ghost game. A low string grinds away beneath a bed of wailing and rattling. A harpsichord-like synth plucks a few notes overhead occasionally, and eventually the violin comes in with the sadness riff. I was extremely pleased with this track.
After the design change to the game involving the addition of dialogue and atmosphere-building in the village, I decided I would make a twin piece of music which would sound similar to the first one, but be the safer "pre ghost attack" version. It uses one of the same strings and some of the same riffs, but contains no supernatural noises and is in danger of being pretty. It reminds me a bit of the town music for Diablo, which probably isn't a surprise because our game has a slightly Diablo feel in the village, and Tim also mentioned the game when trying to describe an aesthetic for the lighting to Leanne.
I also created three soundscapes for what we called Ghost Hell. When you become a ghost, all the sound is blotted out except for a horrible noise from the ghost world, which should repel you and encourage you to try to get out of the ghost world as quickly as possible. I made a soundscape for each of the male, female and girl characters. For the man and woman, I used massively slowed down sounds of anguish and combined them with irritating tones and rattling. In the case of the girl, I slowed down the sound of a bunch of children cheering to about 10%.
Coming up with a freaking name
I wanted to call the game Black Candle but Tim really didn't like that. We thought of going with our team name, Dusk, which seemed evocative and to suggest all those being on the edge of one area (life, ghost life, death) and entering another ideas applicable to the game. But admittedly, there was no dusk in the game, only night. There was also talk of naming the game after the demon you would eventually defeat, but I'm glad the demon was never named or seen properly, and that as a result I never had to argue against this particular naming idea which I disliked intensely! We debated "Possession", but eventually settled on Unholy. Michael wasn't crazy about it, but he was outvoted.
The final product
By the time of the midday judging on day three, the game was about 85% complete in each of the three areas: art, programming and sound. Some sounds hadn't been put in (footsteps for instance) and the audio proximity alarms for the ghosts, and the reaper who kills the ghosts, weren't in either. A really neat addition, however, were the character portraits which appeared whenever you spoke to someone. And thanks to a random name generation library, every character had a unique period name which would appear alongside their portrait. Plus the names changed every time you played! The Japanesey artwork and RPG-ish dialogue really made the thing look Japanese.
The main thing that was missing was the programming for the candles the player is supposed to find to be able to win. In other words, the mechanics were in, but there was no goal. Obviously we still had a lot that we were able to demonstrate to the judges – people wandering the village, giving their dialogue, ghosts wandering around and attacking people, the reaper attacking ghosts (an awesome effect involving screen jitter and a huge black hand reaching from the ground as he comes near - Jacqui has a way with the effects) and the possession mechanic. We had to give our presentation about four times to different judges.
We didn't win any awards after the judging, but I definitely like – and am impressed by – the game we made this year. We do plan to add the candles and tidy up some of the programming and sound issues after Game Jam so that we will have a finished game. Compared to our game last year, Impacts, I'm more impressed with the volume of content we got in this year, especially at the level of quality that we achieved. The entire village map and graphics, including roofs which disappear when you enter the buildings. Three animated characters and their ghost versions. The reaper hand and his special effects. The ghost hell sound effects and a two-piece musical soundtrack, though the second piece wasn't implemented by judging time. We created all this stuff from scratch in 48 hours. Leanne had not worked on a complete game before, and I think secretly she was a bit of a star with the volume of excellent artwork she gave the team. I look forward to seeing and hearing the final iteration of the game.
Download Unholy here (Windows only atm, Mac build coming in future)