you are in the spider zone

exits are NORTH and WEST


return home

elegy for an unfinished game

I'd like to pull back the curtain for a moment. Not just pull back the curtain and show you the little James Franco that pilots this big machine, but like. Tell you a lot about this James Franco giant head machine. Bad start, I think.

I've kinda been looking for an excuse to write a postmortem for a game and I guess this is a reason.

I think my only mention of this project is in the listing? It's only got an icon and a short blurb, so I'll do some groundwork. My work schedule is largely dictated by myself, working on whatever. So to keep myself from burning out from unpaid work, every 3 months I take a break from my main project to make something shorter. Usually, it's just a game jam. In August, this produced dream museum, a game which I stand by as being pretty good.

In November 2018, the wheel rolled around from main project, to break game again.

I had just played Jesse @SuperBlizzard's long live the axe, and started to dig into 10S, though it wasn't really my thing. And I had replayed Celeste, which remains my favorite platformer of all time. And between all that, the droll control scheme of boxgame, in which you walk around and talk to things, started to get to me. I was already implementing minigames into boxgame so that you would break the monotony of a bird's-eye view with some buildings and bugs, and I wanted to make something tactile. Something... gamey.

After playing a lot of andsor's Slipstream and feeling refreshed about how good it was to play a systems-oriented game after playing mostly games that treated fiction and systems as two separate things (even Celeste, a good game does this to some extent) I developed some weird opinions on games that use diegetic justification as a shame guard for things that are overtly videogamey, like Hollow Knight stopping you from having a map, just so that Cornifer can sell you one for 250 Geo later, and it was a half-formed idea that I really don't know how to express in terms that aren't super pretentious.

So I wanted to make something that kinda stuck it to the idea that "videogameiness is a bad thing, and you should use fiction to cover it up". This is more or less how the idea was born - "dead rubber", a tennis platformer that used its status as a videogame to stick it to the idea that being videogames is bad. This was a problem for a lot of reasons, but most of all, I don't know anything about tennis.

It followed Halley and Faye, two tennis players, as they uncovered a world just behind theirs, that, while already dead, may have held some secrets...

The game was made up of mostly single-screen rooms that made up levels. The core gameplay loop went through a couple iterations - there was one where it was overtly puzzlegame-y, where there was a fixed location that tennis balls spawned, and the tennis ball you hit around didn't have gravity on it, so the challenge of each room was figuring out how to both get to the ball, and hit the ball into the goal. The first issue here was thinking this was fun.

With it came more issues - a tennis ball can be hit in a lot of directions, and create a lot of angles that can be fun to hit things from. I playtested with a controller, since I loathe using the keyboard for things I don't need to, like typing.

Binding shot directions to the 8 major directions was... uninteresting to me at first. I liked the idea of being able to shoot in every direction an analog stick could reach. In the builds of this game where that mechanic exists, it's so much fun, since the freeze on hit was just long enough that you could hover in the air, shooting relentlessly at increasingly precise targets, and I love making precise shots and platforming around like some kind of Metroid. It was a good concept.

Here's where something definitely went wrong: BEING A SOLO DEV. My biases definitely did hurt this game because I didn't want to implement a cursor, since using keyboard and mouse for this was even more appalling than just keyboard. It just feels so wrong and I know I'm not valid for this but augh. It's just. Bad. All computers should come with a standard 360 controller. We'd achieve world peace that way. But this is not a perfect world. So I reluctantly bound the shot angle to 8 directions.

The next iteration was gravity - this also sucked. Specifically, I realized a lot of the gameplay when the ball didn't have gravity was watching the ball move from place to place, watching as it bounced into every place on the map and just did its thing. So my solution was to put gravity on the ball. After that, there was one really good room that came out of it, and a whole lot of bad ones.

Here's the good room.

So eventually, Austin (director of dream museum) came by and said "Why not make it like a Mega Man, but you only get one shot instead of 3?" and that did it. That was the final thing I needed to shift into maximum overdrive and get the game into gear. Along with that, the ball exploding on contact was a good addition that really helped.

There were a few planned areas and bosses:

The first four bosses were based loosely on the living beings seen in Revelation 4:6-8, because that kind of shallow Biblical allusion is shit puzzle-box narrative theorists eat the FUCK up and I imagine dead-end allusions are anathema to the kind of person who treats things like a puzzle box, like how in Homestuck, Karkat died and then came back 3 panels later, and it didn't mean fucking anything. Along with that there were various other sorts of puns. Though since I'm not going to finish this game, the only way to really convey this is to explain them, one by one.

The game started with Halley beating Faye, the player character, at a tennis set, but the two of them having time to play another match even after Halley had won. This was the literal title of the game - "dead rubber" is a term used to describe tennis matches played in a set that's already been decided.

A recurring shape is a skull with one eye - this is from the Cyclops machine, that was used to electronically determine whether a tennis ball had gotten out of bounds.

In the Tower was Hawk. In Revelation 4:6-8, the living beings that gets seen is actually an eagle, but I changed it to be a hawk, so that it would be another pun, on the Hawkeye system that eventually replaced Cyclops.

A recurring motif was the idea that there was nothing at the end of this journey. Along with tying into the title, the last thing in the journey was The Egg, a big MacGuffin that doesn't really do anything. The color palette allowed me to have two shades of black - one was a dark purple that I used for pixel art, and would read as black when compared to other colors, as well as true #000000 black.

The ending scene, which was one of the first, and unfortunately only, things I wrote out, was Halley and Faye, holding their legs over the edge of a bottomless abyss, leaning against this egg as they come to terms with the fact that they both went on this journey for the other, and that they loved each other a lot. They'd then kiss, and the egg would crack open, fade to white, and they'd be back in the tennis court they started in, but it'd be out of the player's control, aside from advancing dialogue. They'd go on a date and that'd be the final scene.

This is a pun on the origin of the term "love" meaning no score in tennis - the "fun" but questionably true history is that it started as zero, and then was read as l'oeuf, which means egg in French, which sounds like "love" when said aloud by someone who isn't French, tying the ideas "nothing", "love", and "egg" all together into one convenient Gainax Ending bow.

This was by far the toughest thing to actually build to, since I wanted it to be comprehensible, but the glue that holds this scene together is either lore, or themes. And I very distinctly did not want lore in this game, since the idea of having a lore wiki for a game that is intentionally about how much lore wikis suck made me gag, and the themes I was playing with didn't really get expounded on or reach a point where they made sense here, unless the theme was "lesbian love is magical" which is a theme that acts as an undercurrent in all my works but isn't particularly prevalent here, I guess.

So ultimately, I stopped working on this game not because I had no idea what to do with it, or the foundational game work was busted, but the things I wanted to do with it were narrative things I'm not really up to doing at the moment. There's a lot here, and a lot I'd like to do, but those things require a deft hand that I just don't have developed. Overscoping is a big thing, and I'm zeroing in on the right size game for gamejams as we speak - this week's 7DRL entry was the closest I've come to being on the mark since dream museum. And with that, I think the most important takeaway from this is that having coherent themes doesn't stop your narrative from having fractal-like complexity that must be managed more than anything else.