exhaust Postmortem

[As part of our project, mindful xp is committed to documenting our progress – part of that is creating post-mortems for our games. Post-mortems are very candid about game details, so if you don’t want a game’s experience spoiled before you play, reading these might not be in your best interest.]

Exhaust is a short flash game made in 1.5 days by mindful xp. The player holds space to drive a car. If the player lets go of the space bar, the car begins to drift off of the road. The game ends when the player realizes he/she needs to let go of the space bar and let the car drift off the road. The player is then presented a scene where the car drifts in an open meadow and the game ends.

Development

After we stopped development on The Path Taken (our previous game), we were concerned that developing meaningful games were taking too long. Was it possible to develop a meaningful game in a short time? Given that we had only a few days before we all left for GDC, we put our heads together and went out to eat and brainstorm for a simple idea we could execute.

We first thought about the theme of responsibility, or more specifically, the weight of responsibility. It felt like the weight of responsibility could easily translate to a game mechanic (for example the more responsible you are the slower you move). However the mechanic still felt weak – there wasn’t enough context for the player to understand the meaning just from the mechanic alone. We wanted to be more direct.

From responsibility we came upon the idea of letting go. Felix suggested having the player drive a car down the road to some unknown destination. However the player would never arrive at this destination. The player would have to let go of the controls and let the car drift off the road. Eventually the car would drift to a stop and come upon a meadow – a new place not on the prescribed path. We thought about changing vehicles or location but it felt like a car on the road was the most direct way.

What Went Right 

Rapid Prototyping: We came up with the idea organically, finished very quickly and were able to release before we left for GDC.

Polish: Because the game was so simple, we were able to polish the game enough for it to feel presentable. We were able to add bushes and signs to the road. To sort of give players a hint that they weren’t really going anywhere and they needed to make a conscious decision to let go, we had the miles left on the road signs stay the same.

Initial Playtesting: We playtested with four or five other ETC students. It felt like the idea was clear to them and they all eventually realized they had to let go of the car. Some testers thought it may have been possible the driver had committed suicide so we tried to design the scene change to make it more clear that this didn’t happen.

What Could Have Gone Better

Presentation: Because the game is so simple, it didn’t connect well with the general audiences of Kongregrate and Newgrounds. Most players just didn’t get the point or didn’t care about the point the game was making, or dismissed that it wasn’t even a game. Then again, Kongregrate and Newgrounds may not have been the ideal audience either.

Audience: The meaning was clear but only to people who were perceptive to the game and the design. The target audience was too small for the game to really make much of an impact.

Conclusion

While exhaust did carry a message, it was only clear to people who were receptive to the game. The meaning may have been too broad and in turn narrowed how meaningful it was to a select audience. The game was also extremely simple and began to challenge what people thought was a “game.” This caused people to reject the game outright instead of causing them to think about what was happening in the game. As a game developed in 2 days I think that exhaust was an interesting experiment in how meaning could be achieved in a short time.

  • It’s great to see you guys try out something so small!

    It felt kind of like a failure to me, though. It was polished for its scope, but to me simply not deep enough. I feel like I got it, but it just wasn’t worth the time I put into it. Personally I think this is less an issue of audience and more of effectiveness.

    Maybe it needs more *poetry.* Playing this feels like reading a few decent sentences, as opposed to a haiku, or a philosophical quote. Know what I mean?

    The 4-hour prototype The Lighthouse is a good example I can think of: http://www.mediafire.com/?gawqexnndakecw0
    Video if you want the spoilers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NfHq9c8yOlc

    Not much in terms of mechanics, but good “poetry” for its size.

  • Mike Christel

    I still think that consistency matters, and either the road signs should not update their mileage and the odometer not progress forward (a weaker effect), or the road signs stay vague (not concrete mileage) and you have the radio stations fade in/out and odometer progresses as is now.  The “hint that you’re not going anywhere” wasn’t consistently delivered if you have the odometer progress and radio station fade in/out.  I would have preferred a more complete Twilight Zone effect of not progressing anywhere by having the road signs remain vague to be consistent with the other cues leading to the tension of “am I going anywhere? I can’t tell…when should I give up, when is this experience becoming exhausting?”

  • Knowing that the only way to “complete” the game was to let go, and thinking that a likely outcome of this was suicide, doing so felt significantly more intense than I would have thought for a dumb flash game I was playing – somewhere between excitement and dread. Very Fightclub!