Development Insight #2: Game Design
Updated: Feb 9, 2019
Aside from leading the team, I am the game designer and narrative designer for Consumer. I am most proud of the game design and narrative design in Consumer. From the very beginning, I wanted to design gameplay and mechanics that have never been done before, while at the same time wholly connected to the narrative. Here are my insights through the development:
1. Simple design for complex systems leads to interesting and unified mechanics. At the brainstorming stage for Consumer, I know I want the design to be simple and elegant. Which means that all the actions in the game must be connected thus making them multipurpose, this not only makes the control more accessible but also easier to merge all the actions with the narrative. In Consumer, there are ultimately three main actions that the player can do, shoot, eat, and dodge. To make it simpler, I merged all three actions into one, movement. The movement is the only action that the player does in the game, but moving also means shooting, eating, and dodging. With this design, to improve each mechanic, all I have to do is to improve the movement system, which I will talk about in detail. However, once I have this elegant and fun gameplay, I can put it in complex systems of conflicts, enemies and environments that push the mastery of each mechanic. This way of design can create a more unified gameplay experience, while at the same time easier to use for narrative due to its simplicity.
2. Good movement is about impact During the development of Consumer, I was playing Spider-Man for the PS4, and the movement system in that game greatly inspired me. It is, in my opinion, the best movement system ever created in a video game. Since movement is the most important mechanic for Consumer, I analyzed the movement system in Spider-Man and implemented what I learned in Consumer. After examining the system, I realized that good movement design is the same as good combat design, is all about impact. In a combat focused game, to make the combat feel satisfying the animation and speed is the key. Most combat animation has three stages, charge, hit, and rest. By having the right frame rate for each stage, it can make the attack feel hugely impactful and satisfying. It is the same with movement, but instead of charge, hit, and rest, is more like, charge(decelerate), release(accelerate), and rest(decelerate). Then add momentum and ways to let the player maintain that momentum which rewards the player to keep moving. Contrast creates the sense of speed in movement. To feel the speed, you must first slow them down. In Consumer, there are two movement mechanics, zip and charge. Zip give the player a short boost in speed but has to recharge by eating or saving. Zip can be used to chain eating, to follow up shooting an enemy, or to dodge out of danger quickly. The charge is a charge up and release of longer and faster speed boost. Charging slows down the player and opens them up for getting hit, so they must use it at the right time, but when done correctly, it can be used to eat, dodge, and move across the map quickly. Overall, the movement system in Consumer is enjoyable and satisfying to use, and all about impact.
Level/Tutorial design is all about communication through interaction
The fundamental purpose of a level/tutorial is to communicate new information to the player through interaction/gameplay in a fun and engaging way. The first thing I do when designing a level is to define all the information that I want the player to learn by the end of the level whether it be new gameplay mechanics or narrative progression. Often, the best levels convey various information at once, teaching the player how to play but at the same time delivering a great story moment. After I have a clear idea and vision for what I want to achieve through this level, I will try to find the best way to deliver it to the player — thinking about how to make the gameplay and level merge with and compliment the story. Then I make the logical progression of the level on a diagram. Most levels/tutorials have a similar structure. First is the introduction of the new mechanic with story implemented, then to the application of the mechanic to give the player an understanding of what they can do. Second is to put the player into situations that they can only progress by using the mechanic to deepen their understanding. At this point, the narrative obstacle also gets harder for the character. Lastly, provide challenges that give a new perspective on the mechanic by allowing the mechanic to interact with other mechanics in the system. In this step, there will most likely be a boss fight or something that concludes this chapter of the story. With this structure, the gameplay experience is smooth and intuitive. By communicating new information to the player interactively and engagingly, the level has achieved its purpose.
1. Narrative design for Bullet-Hell games
Most Bullet-Hell games tell their story through environments and art. I have not played a Bullet-Hell game that has an impactful story. So I decided to do just that, make a Bullet-Hell game with an impactful narrative. It is easy to say but extremely difficult in practice. The main problem is that most Bullet-Hell games are Top-Down and action focused, so to create a narrative that fits the gameplay is difficult because most the time you can't see the character's face, and most the time you don't care. So I did the craziest but straightforward thing for Consumer, I designed every character with this problem in mind. The one type of creatures that looks great from a Top-Down view is the insects. So I made everything in the game insects, but to make them more human, I put faces on them. As to the reason and story behind this design, is explained in the game. However, this allowed me to have a character react in real-time while the players are playing. Then I designed characters based on the main actions that the player can do, and progress the story through death and dialogues. Because the game is all about speed and flow, I didn't want to break the flow by having dialogues during gameplay. Progression through death fits with the theme of the story, and it fixes this problem.
2. Using every action in a game as a design and narrative device
One of the things I learned through analyzing all the best games is that actions/interactions must be one with the narrative. Interactivity is the most important thing in games, thus to create a wholesome experience, the gameplay and the narrative must merge. In Consumer, I applied this to the teeth. Every single action the player does has an impact on the story. It also helps because the design of the gameplay is simple. In the game, the player has the option to contract and extract their bodies(Attack or not attack), this became the core mechanic for the narrative. I had the idea that what if the contracted and the extracted are two different characters existing within the same body? So the main characters of the game were created.
3. Characters that react and interact with the player's actions
The two main characters in the game were created through the main actions of the game, eat and kill, or contract and save; this makes each moment to moment gameplay meaningful because every player action had an impact on the narrative. The characters will react to the player's actions in real-time and during dialogue. They will take the player's action and give it back to them as feedback, and the story progress and change through each player action and choices, which made the experience impactful and meaningful. I wanted the player to gain awareness about themselves after playing the game.
4. A story without the fourth wall and going META
Consumer has no fourth wall in its narrative. It is something that I wanted to do because it is relatively unexplored, and by doing I mean going nuts and throw the whole wall away. (My writers hates me for it) However, sometimes the craziest idea bring the most innovation. The idea was that the player, instead of being a character in the game's reality, they will be a character themselves outside of the game's reality. The characters within the game will acknowledge the player as the player other than themselves. Which also means that the characters in the game's reality must know the existence of the player's reality. So the characters must be self-aware of the fact that they are in a game, and this is what I call going 100% META, which opens a whole new door for the narrative. Because the characters are aware, the player communicates with them through actions, and then all the mechanics have a narrative purpose. Most films and shows only break the fourth wall occasionally, that's because there is no input from the audience in any way, shape, or forms, but in interactive mediums, there is an interaction between the audience and the medium itself, which we can use as a storytelling device. Most great games have done so, but to completely break the wall between stories and realities is something that's not been done before(At least in my experience, which is why I made Consumer). I think this method of storytelling is unique to interactive art and should be developed more. I can see this work exceptionally well in interactive experiences for VR and AR since the fourth wall doesn't exist in VR and AR. Overall this is an idea worth exploring more, my next project after Consumer will be a VR game that hopefully push it even farther.