[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.]
Emptiness is a flash game made using the Flixel engine in around 1 week and a half by me (Dan Lin). This game was an experiment to see if a game can be more meaningful if there is only one creator. The player is a square who has lost its center and the player needs to navigate through a dungeon and make friends in order to successfully find their center.
I tried approaching making a game very organically and just thought about what was on my mind. I wanted to make a game based off of the feeling I get when I realize (and even though I might already know) that I’m not an important person. There is so much in the world and you are only a tiny tiny part of it. I guess there were also feelings of self-doubt and depression that weren’t related to this but caused me to think about this topic more. So how could I get this feeling out so I could express this to other people? Or how could I get other people to feel this way?
I started off with a couple of ideas that I tossed around. One was the idea where you could play as multiple people, but every time you die you start with a new character and you see the previous person’s gravestone. Another idea was to have the player kill people and then they would move into the victim’s perspective and learn all about the person they killed. These ideas felt too vague and I wasn’t sure if I could program these technically in a week.
I decided to go on the idea of the “bigger picture.” It would be an exploratory game similar to Small Worlds by David Shute where as you explore the world you get smaller and smaller. The difference was the player would be a fully detailed square, I guess representative of someone (I guess that would be me) who seems unique with many skills. However as you walk out of the world and you zoom out the details in the square would slowly get smaller and smaller until you’re just a one color pixel just like everyone else. You could only walk left and right, and if you tried walking back left the world would still stay zoomed out. So the premise was in the beginning the player felt like they were better than everyone else but then realizes that they are not. There would be people who would always stay the same thing. For example in the beginning there would be someone saying that you were unique, but after you just one pixel, the same phrase is no longer true.
However this idea was also vague and I began to run into various roadblocks and questions that the game couldn’t stand up to. First of all there was a technical problem that I couldn’t grasp for whatever reason. This was that the scale of the square had to go down as the square explored this world. This meant that the world had be to really really big in order for the square to scale down to one pixel. I was scared that this would call for a really big map that would slow down the game. Flixel also isn’t good at zooming out with the camera and I didn’t want to try and modify Flixel’s base so I decided to scale things manually. And to make things worse since I didn’t want to use a huge map I decided to take a small image and scale it up and then use that as the map. So this meant I would have to keep track of how zoomed out the square was as well as how zoomed in the map was. Then I would have to scale down the square and scale up the map as the player explored the map. Anyway it got really confusing for me and was a mess I didn’t want to manage (but I did get working). At this time though I did take the time to make a short looping background music using a tracker which I hoped working with what I was expressing in the game.
There was also the design problem. First of, the player needed to feel like they were better than everyone else. I realized this was usually an end state of a game, where there is a process and time taken so that the player feels like they were better than they were before. I could show that the player square was more detailed and cool looking than everyone else visually but it felt weak. There was also the problem of exploration. The map was just an black and white image that I planned on coloring in. But the rate at which the square moved was linear and before the square reached the end the player could already see most of the map. Unfortunately I wanted a moment where the player could see the bigger or whole picture, sort of an evolution of what the player thought of the world (aka the world is not black and white). To try and fix this I decided maybe the player could also move up and down. However this ended up causing even more technical difficulties that I felt were a waste of time to try and fix so I scrapped the whole game idea and started over.
This time I didn’t really know what to do. I liked the idea of running into someone and then having them say something encouraging to you despite what you might be doing. I went to “things I think about when I feel depressed” and thought about how I perceive myself as a big jerk. Or I guess my fears of how others might be perceiving me. This was also related to a feeling that you get when you are working in a team but then feel like maybe everything would be better if you just did everything yourself. In this case I felt like maybe I was just using my friends for my own ends and after I didn’t need them that would basically be the end of the relationship.
From this I thought about pushing around friends in a top-down dungeon. From there I thought about holes your friends could fall down into and then the hole would fill up, allowing you to walk over them. And then from there I thought about how the player should try and help out his/her friends first before realizing he/she will have to sacrifice his friends in order to move on. So why did the player need his/her friends’ help? There needed to be a goal, so I decided it was because the player has lost his/her soul (and maybe that’s why he/she is willing to selfishly sacrifice his/her friends) and had to find it. But I felt that was a bit too blatant. I was still planning on using squares so I decided the soul would be the center of the square.
So then I first designed a map where you were surrounded by friends and they would follow you in a dungeon. On the side of the main paths there were holes so you had to maneuver your friends around the holes, but eventually you would come across a path where you had to continually sacrifice your friends in order to move on. After some playtesting with Mike and Felix it was clear that this wasn’t really getting across very well so I decided to redo the map. There was also a bug if you were controlling a lot of friends at the same time you could easily push yourself through the wall.
This time I realized the holes could lead to some puzzle mechanics so I decided to limit the amount of friends to different sets of puzzles in the map. Essentially I tried setting the map up so that the puzzles would introduce the player to the mechanics and system – you can push your friends around, they can fall into holes (and you can too), and you can control your friends. The last puzzle was the biggest puzzle and was also the shift in perspective. It looked like you had to sacrifice your friends to get through. I wanted to give players a choice though – so I had an alternate path that circled around the room before you could enter. However the exchange of sacrifice verses time felt cheap – it was too easy. So before the center I added blocks your friends could break for you. However your friends couldn’t help you that much – so I limited how much your friends could help you before they also lost their center and were exhausted. This made it more clear that you were using your friends, and also hinted possibly at how you may have lost your center.
I then also added the friend blocks between certain puzzles to make sure that the players would always have at least one friend with them. I also realized that the puzzles were also able to express the difficulty in managing a team. The puzzles weren’t really puzzles if you were by yourself, you just had to avoid the holes. But as you have more friends with you, you had to figure out how to have your friends avoid the holes. Sometimes you have to arrange them in a specific order in order to get them through the puzzle. I was also able to add text to the friends when you bump into them as I had originally intended.
After some feedback from our project advisor, It was clear that the game also needed a real ending. At that time the game just ended after you collected the center and showed how many friends you had and how many were in holes and how many lost their center. When I had another playtest later with a friend he mentioned that he felt like the stats felt impersonal and took away from the experience, and I agreed with him. But I still needed to make an ending. I felt like at that point the ending had to feel conclusive but not worth it – after using your friends, it shouldn’t be a good ending. If you did save all your friends though, I felt like there should be a slightly different ending. So eventually I made 4 different endings.
The first ending is if you fall into a hole. You shatter and have to start over. Eventually this was too punishing a death because then the player would have to start from the very beginning, so instead I just had the player respawn. This also let me have the player’s hole crack more and more if you fell into a hole or over-used a friend. However if you push all your friends into holes and then die, this will end the game because you can’t continue without any friends.
The second ending is if you collect the center but have pushed your friends into holes or caused your friends to lose their center. When you collect the center, it just causes the hole to crack even more on the square. Essentially this means you have what you want but it wasn’t really what you needed – you are essentially broken as a person.
The third ending is if you collect the center without causing any of your friends to fall into holes or lose their center. When you collect the center, you are whole (pun might be intended) again, but you are sorry for using your friends to get to your goal.
The fourth ending is an Easter egg. If the player understands the system, he/she should realize that this system is depressing and not exactly realistic. They should try and break the game. So if you control enough of your friends in a certain position you can push yourself through the dungeon wall. Then if you walk around the outside of the dungeon you will see that there is a secret pathway with another friend and another center. After you get your friend out of this long pathway you can collect the center. This way you let your friends really help you to get out of this situation.
What Went Right
Feedback: I was able to get a lot of feedback from advisors and friends at school. I also realized that because Kongregate and Newgrounds might not be the ideal place for the game , why couldn’t we try some place else like Tigsource? This turned out to be a very good idea and people from Tigsource offered a lot of useful feedback and even suggestions on how to make the game better. If I were to develop this game further some of these suggestions would definitely be on my mind.
Iteration: I felt like what made the game work was because I was able to start over while taking what I felt worked (and avoid what didn’t work) from each previous iteration. From the first iteration, I took the concept of bumping into friends and them talking to you. In the first map I took the concept of sacrificing your friends but avoided (or attempted avoiding) dragging the game out by continually sacrificing them. I felt like sacrificing was something the players got right away so having that as a repetitive action numbed the meaning (however repetitively using your friends added to the meaning).
Meaningfulness: I think that this game was very successful in getting meaning across. At a base level it is really clear that you are using your friends even though I never explicitly told anyone this. At a deeper level people begin to think what using your friends means for the individual or what the game’s systems meant to them.
What Could Have Gone Better
How to make the game more engaging: I didn’t plan on it but the game is very long. It takes me about 30 minutes to beat the game with the 3rd ending, so I can imagine how much longer it would take for other people to beat the game if they didn’t lose interest. This was also clear in the feedback as most people did not finish the game, but understood what it was getting at. I feel like it would be better if they did fully finish to game to better get what the game was getting get, so I guess the problem here is that the game is meaningful but as as engaging as I would have hoped. However there were suggestions in the feedback on how to make the game more engaging.
Emptiness was able to carry a message through simple mechanics and puzzle design that is easily extendable. I think the game also underlines the importance of narrative and visuals in context to the mechanics. I’m not sure the game would have done as well if the friends didn’t say anything. However because the friends talked, the mechanics felt much stronger in carrying through the meaning.
I feel like meaning is more approachable by an individual and so ideally should make a more meaningful game. For me design-wise it was easier as I was more aware of what was going on in the game and personally may have relied on intuition for a lot of the design choices.