I will be exploring different areas of research that have helped me develop the direction for Banished From Beyond, and games of commonality that have inspired my design philosophies and ideation from a gamefeel and aesthetics point of view.
I’ll also be discussing areas of research regarding different independent game development teams and projects, their different workflows throughout the production pipeline, how they maximize output with limited resources and people, and how they arrive at big ideas from small beginnings. This area of research was highly important as it gave me and the team the inspiration to pull off a massive production and concept with the serious restriction of working as a 3 person team for 4 months before a gaming exhibition.
For preparation, I decided to watch a development diary series by Ninja Theory, the creators of ‘Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’ (2017). This development series shed light on the communication of ideas and their execution among small formations of people and their networked responsibilities and functions.
It helped me understand the importance of each stage of production, from early testing systems to more finalized vertical slice polishing. It highlighted why each stage was important and how it propagated the next stage of production with clarity of design direction and general coherent team perception of the core vision for the game.
Another point I picked up during the watching of their early environmental design phase was their fast blueprint “construction script” iteration time directed by solely one individual. Their lead environment artist used a modular approach to a dynamic and adaptive set of environmental construction scripts for fast environmental creation and somewhat procedural content generation. This allowed for the level artist to produce interesting and natural looking environments with a fast and efficient workflow, drag and dropping foliage and environmental assets into the level with customizable parameters and placement seeds, resulting in large areas being populated by detail quickly, with only one person.
This was a vital insight into workflow efficiency as we would only have 2 level builders for the vertical slice of Banished From Beyond and only 4 months to produce a level each. I myself had much less time to produce a level because I was juggling all other elements of the production, from character creation to lighting, gameplay feature updates and placeable tech art features for level designers and much much more. So creating a set of powerful procedural gameplay placeables was important for a fast and interesting level building solution. I later produced “Assemblers” as a result of this discovery, which is explained and detailed in the main “Production Two” blog entry.
In reflection of the video and article above with Tameem Antoniades, Founder of Ninja Theory, I would observe that it is clear there is an increase in the accessibility of powerful software packages and hardware capabilities as time has moved on and allowed for independent creative variability and freedom amongst increasingly smaller teams of creative people. It has increased an individual’s ability to produce high-end digital content, this has been a natural progression of the tech and digital creative industry so far, and will most likely continue in this direction as 3D printing, and VR headsets become a social norm, for good or for bad. As a result of this trend, software packages are more readily available to the public, allowing smaller and smaller game companies and sets of individuals across the world access to powerful tools, which in turn indirectly lowers the cost of producing, in this case, AAA standard video games. In layman’s terms, This is due to the increasing bang for your buck you get for each new generation of software and hardware.
It’s been a long time since the days of Unreal Engine 1 (1998), which could only be licensed by a large enough game company with reasonable funding, now the most powerful game engine in the world, Unreal Engine 4, is free to all who wish to learn and develop games.
Unreal Engine 1 (1998)
The possibility of an independent AAA standard production seems to have left an embryonic stage and become possible for small dedicated teams to achieve, as clearly evidenced by the sub-section of Ninja Theory’s team, birthing Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (2017). This possibility is held close in mind when developing Banished From Beyond, as it gives us legitimacy as a small team and practical scope for a vertical slice production schedule.
The “independent AAA model” also highlights the importance of identifying your game’s unique qualities and capitalizing on them as much as possible whilst removing any fodder or superfluous features that detract from the core selling points or aesthetic of your game. This is clearly important as small teams just can’t compete with the budget of a real AAA studio; unique and clear emphasis is really the only strong attribute of an independent title in competing against the big budget AAA titles that release established IPs every year.
“Unique and clear emphasis”, I wanted to expand on this particular idea I stated as I knew it would be important in conveying a complex aesthetic and world for Banished From Beyond, seeing as we have very limited resources. Along this query, I bumped into the design philosophy of “Design by Subtraction” or “Subtractive Design” (Fumito Ueda, 2000). A kind of minimalism that requires the removal of anything unnecessary that doesn’t serve the core themes or aesthetic of the game experience, which is great to hear for tiny teams!
Fumito Ueda was the creative lead on ICO (2001), Shadow Of The Colossus (2005) and The Last Guardian (2016). Throughout the development of each game, he utilized the concept of Design by Subtraction, removing unneeded features such as combat mechanics and complex environments, leaving the end product minimal in its content, but powerful, focused and rich, creating an immersive and memorable world for the player.
Each one of Fumito Ueda’s games has an extremely iconic yet simple aesthetic and visual language; ICO, a boy with horns protecting and guiding an angelic girl through a massive castle battling against shadowy demons. Shadow of the Colossus, a young man riding with his horse “Agro” through open earthy landscapes taking down giant mythological beasts in order to save a girl. And The Last Guardian, the relationship between a young boy and his giant friendly pet beast as they explore the verticality of an ancient world lost in ruin. Each of these games has a clear and singular focus, an emphasis on a central aesthetic and theme that permeates throughout their system design and content, removing all unnecessary distractions in its wake.
This analysis really made me focus on the core aesthetic I was trying to achieve with my design for Banished From Beyond. What exactly did I want players to feel? Why was it important for them to feel a particular way during their play? Will players resonate with the themes and overall aesthetics I am going for? Will this experience be formative, memorable, engaging or perhaps even insightful? During the design and “player experience goals” documentation I wrote in February, I asked myself these questions and more. The line of inquiry really helped me whittle down the essence of the experience I was trying to create, that as well as constant playtesting and feature iterations to further experiment with what ‘felt right’ and what did no longer belong. Details about this area of development will be explored and explained in the later blog posts, as this one focuses on research and inspirations.
As soon as the story part of the design document came together, I understood I had to research the time period and visuals of the historic event that the game was based on; 1666, The Great Fire Of London. This event provided an interesting set of themes that would allow for strong visual communication of human suffering, desperation, and spirituality, the core themes of Banished From Beyond. I began by looking into some documentaries that would allow me to absorb information about the event and the time period, what it was like to be in that situation and the panic that ensued throughout London, as well as the aftermath.
The documentary displayed above educated me on the series of events that led up to the Great Fire and how it spread throughout London, providing historical accounts of personal losses, how people were injured and most importantly, what London looked like and how the housing, churches, and cathedrals were all destroyed in the process. I took a specific interest in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the biggest cathedral in London at the time. It talks about how it burnt down towards the end of the fire and how exactly it did burn down, providing details about architectural failings and how it collapsed in on itself. This information would allow me to brainstorm future level design ideas as the general idea for Banished From Beyond is an ethereal purgatorial revisiting of the events and major buildings sites but in an otherworldly memory-generated realm.
During the documentary, one of the accounts of the civilians in the Great Fire stated that they saw piles of charred black limbs and bodies near Saint Paul’s Cathedral, this evocative yet disturbing imagery would help me reinforce the essential themes that I set out to explore. More specifically, this helped my concept and design of the “Corroded Soul” character I created later on in production, as the generic enemy type the player must stealth past many times over in a variety of levels.
To explore a more otherworldly, ethereal representation of these events as levels and general visual elements, I began research into how I’d achieve such an aesthetic. Now there are the obvious top choices for inspiration and research, Alice in Wonderland, Pan’s Labyrinth and the like, but I wanted to keep my research level-design oriented, meaning I’d want to look at existing games that achieved such visuals with their gameplay, layout and interactive elements. This area of research would be far more useful to me rather than researching directly from film or books because I needed to focus on their functionality and play space potentiality as I only had 4 months, and this research was mostly intended to inform my practical development and level design for Banished From Beyond.
The first example I dived into was Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009). The level design of the Scarecrow sequences in this game really captures the mood of an ethereal otherworldly reality, the world of the scarecrow. The concept behind the design of these levels inspires a similar design concept I had in mind for behind Banished From Beyond; that of an otherworldly place that doesn’t exactly represent the real world, but a version of it, skewed by perception and, in Batman’s case, insanity.
It is important that elements of the design in the video above are understood and separated in order to take inspiration without unintelligently “copying” it; these aesthetic elements are the following: partial architecture that conveys the broken nature of an otherworldly reality, heavy winding wind and vortex to express the danger and velocity of the world, illogical events that convey the broken sense of reality Batman is experiencing and harsh lighting, colour palette, and shadows to depict a macabre sense of foreboding and omnipresent danger to the scene.
This analysis would later inspire the development of my level in such a way, that I’d end up creating specific blueprints and game features that depicted an adaptive sense of ethereality, of every changing, evaporating architecture. These blueprints would end up being “Assemblers” and “Floaters”, the development of these gameplay features are explored and explained in a later blog.
The core themes and aesthetic of Banished From Beyond were of a dark gothic purgatory breaking down its own architecture, shifting in the shadows and reforming it as monstrous disturbing formations created from the pain and suffering of the purgatory’s trapped souls. I wanted to compile a general mood board that would help in later development as a colour palette and aesthetic reference point.
Below displays the mood board I created based on available images on Pinterest under “Gothic architecture”, I shifted the colour palette from cold to warm to allow for a range of different ideas to form viewing it. The purgatory level would seem monotonous if everything was tinted solid blue, so I made sure that ideas for more hopeful or firey areas would also be apart of the general aesthetic and design of the levels.
Like a concept artist would, a very quick glance at a mood board can provide you enough visual information to start generating new ideas, layouts, and narratives for your own level designs. I did just this technique alongside my level editor window, glancing back and forth constantly, allowing the design language to seep into my visual library and inform my placement of objects and general layouts.
With the inspiration to begin and the research behind me, I was ready to achieve the overall emphasis, themes and aesthetics I wanted to express, with a minimalistic ‘Design by Subtraction’ philosophy behind every creative choice in and out of the game engine.