Semicontinuity (A framework of analyzing videogame space)

I found myself thinking about the Dark Souls trilogy, again. Maybe one day I won’t have to think about them again… here is my attempt at exorcising them. Okay. I’ll refer to them as 1, 2, and 3 here.

So the other day I wondered some things. In particular:

  • I had meticulously (and wastefully) platinumed 3. Then why do I have little impression or sense of wonder when recalling it?
  • Why does 2 stand out as the most fascinating and exciting in my mind, even if I only played through it once?
  • Why despite 1’s first half being so strong, is it still not as memorable as 2?

I skimmed a speedrun of 3. It’s easy to see why it’s less memorable than 1 or 2. It has a fairly standard and safe art direction (undead decrepit stuff, dreary boring high fantasy). Environments out of that genre that don’t mystify me (sprawling castles, medieval villages in visually dense cliffs, swampy woods, European halls, catacombs…).

I can recall many of the spaces and levels in detail, but I don’t have the tinge of awe and jealousy I tend to get when being impressed.

Drawn in contrast to 2, some other reasons surface. 3 is far more world-design continuous (here on just continuous) than 2. 

See the Appendix at the bottom for definitions of the terms I’ll use in this post – hyper-, normal-, semi-, and discontinuous. I’ll assume you sort of understand what I mean by these terms going forward:

Okay, so Dark Souls 3 – or just 3 – the game is split into three chunks – Castle, Forest, and Snow Castle. There is a break between Castle and Forest (where you fly, conveying a sense of descent into the world), and a break between Forest and Snow Castle that’s articulated by a level (catacombs, conveying a sense horizontal-plane traversal into the world). These chunks are nearly hypercontinuous within themselves – while they’re not open world, there are handfuls of mutual vantage points, things are detailed and realistically sized. (3’s three chunks are circled here:)

Dark Souls 1 is roughly similar to Dark Souls 3 in continuity, but it takes place in a vertically oriented world. We could pick apart definitions as to what extent these two are continuous, but my focus isn’t on those games. Still, this glass model by Twitter use @rigmarole111 captures 1’s world well: Notice that the game has four strata: the top-level areas – Anor Londo, Duke’s Archive, mid-level areas (Sen’s, Parish, Burg, Garden), lower-level areas (Blighttown), and subterranean areas (not pictured). 

People love 1’s first half because you’re exploring the middle and lower-level areas, totally on your own, shrouded in mystery, and the game is good at helping you create connections between the world (as you play for the first time the structure is not at all obvious). The goal of the game is initially to reach Anor Londo, but you’ve got to explore all over before you get there, and many closed off/difficult paths will tempt you.

I would say 1 gestures at hyper-continuity at times, but actually some of its major mutual vantage points are faked (to good effect), and I would classify it as actually closer to normal-continuous. That is to say, none of its connections are confusing or baffling. If we are walking down, we’re going to the underground, and reach fire-y lava areas. If we go up, we go towards grand, royalty castle areas. It’s standard videogame world stuff (see any castlevania game), executed well in 3D.

Still… it’s not as inspiring as 2 to me. Why? By most popular accounts, 2 is a ‘mess’. The areas don’t make any sense, they connect randomly, there’s no ‘blog-worthy shortcuts!’.

Here’s a world map of Dark Souls 2, where I’ve highlighted the game’s paths.

A few notes:

  • Everything spirals out from Majula, a seaside village.
  • Game Structure:
    • Collect 4 Important Things at the end of 4 paths, located in: Black Gulch (deep dark area), Iron Keep (fire castle in mountains), Brightstone cove (church/caves near a settlement near the ocean), and Sinner’s Rise (moonlit fortress near the sea)
    • Visit Drangleic Castle, go deep deep down all the way to Undead Crypt
    • Go way way up to Dragon Shrine
    • End the game at Throne of Want (in the castle)
  • There’s basically no crossover between main paths and there are barely any mutual vantage points

2 varies from 1 because 2’s world is representing an entire continent. There are little to no mutual vantage points because as you walk from one area to another – even without loading screens – you might be implied to travel miles. The player is going on a world-spanning adventure, much like a JRPG, just without the game giving us the abstraction of a world map to make that feel more coherent. We walk through a mysterious tunnel from Majula to Heide’s tower, and emerge 10 miles away. A quick trek through some woods and a small cave system shoots us out at a shore all the way at the other end of the world. An elevator at the top of a poisonous windmill takes us to a fire-y lava keep. And so on and so forth.

Because 2 is missing a world-map-esque abstraction layer, the game world inevitably connects in some confusing ways. Walking 100 meters can actually imply travelling all sorts of distances. Thus 2 has inconsistencies to how you travel between spaces, and it approaches being discontinuous, and thus becomes a semi-continuous game at times.

Back to Dark Souls 1: while playing, you are oriented within the world. Even as you uncover new places, you’re still aware, roughly, where you are vertically within the game’s world, and if you’re not aware (perhaps as you go to blighttown for the first time), a mutual vantage point (Great Swamp to Undead Burg) comes along and situates you within the world. Or if you wandered into Demon Ruins early and are disoriented, you’ll still become oriented once you see Demon Ruins from Tomb of the Giants.

As a player explores a game’s world, tension slowly builds as they sense they’ve drifted far from home, far from the familiar. And within this tension is where lack of continuity can be used to achieve various effects. Connect the player back to a familiar place and let them feel grounded. Or lead them further and further from the familiar, connecting areas in surprising ways.

2 doesn’t do anything to situate you within the island unless you go and look it up. It’s just one area after another, and the sense of endlessly going deeper into some fever dream of a continent. You just pick a random direction from Majula and keep going and going and going, and it feels like you may never reach any end point. You just know you’re either “sort of far” from Majula or “really far” from Majula.

Eventually, you do hit the end of a path, and the magic wears off, and you get one of the 4 magic items and go on to find the next.

This kind of semicontinuity is fascinating to me. It happens when a game establishes a consistent physical logic but then chooses to break its rules at certain times, or to at least not be consistent in one method of arranging the game’s world. Dark Souls 2 creates fairly continuous areas such as Forest of Fallen Giants, but at the same time does absurd things like having a well take you to a rat-infested catacomb, which THEN takes you to a poorly-lit cave with shambles of wooden housing, and finally some eerie, green cave. Nothing in the game really explains how this connects spatially to the rest of the game (unlike 1’s Lost Izalith, which you can see from elsewhere in the game). Instead, 2 is content to shove you from one area to the next. 2 feels like the randomness of some old videogames’ worlds, but expressed through a detailed 3D world with no loading screens. It’s full of interesting and inconsistent ideas, and like some Twitter mutuals put it – feels like playing a romhack of Dark Souls.

2 is the most memorable for these reasons. You take an elevator down from the top of a castle, and for some reason it shoots you out into a sprawling, blue, underground lake:

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s another elevator which takes you to an underground crypt.

In another section, a mansion sits off the side of a road: you then take the world’s tallest elevator up to a floating set of islands and dragon temples. Now, these strange transitions extremely memorable just because of how bizarre they are, peppered in between fairly reasonable transitions (e.g. walking through misty woods, to forested pathways, to some shady ruins). These moments are strange because the game has lots of non-strange transitions (like the interior of Drangleic Castle), and the game plays them both off as normal.

What semicontinuity gets at for me is the exciting ways we can represent our game worlds as designers. There’s no need to adhere to any one formula or idea: the ways areas are connected can be carefully thought through and become expressive.

It’s something we thought about while making Anodyne 2: Return to Dust (Spoilers ahead.. if you quit Anodyne 2 after 1 hour this is a good time to go finish it!!).

We initially establish a videogame-y logic to shrinking into people located in the 3D world, putting the game in the vicinity of normal-continuous. But as the game goes on, it’s revealed that the linkage of “3D character” and “2D world” is not always paired. Iwasaki Antimon takes you to a mailbox of a person Iwasaki obsesses over. The fur of a dog-creature ends up being a village you reside in for weeks. The desertnpc takes you to something completely unexpected. Pastel Horizon, Minorma’s Orb and New Theeland connect through an alternate Anodyne 1’s Nexus. The notions of space and how they should connect shift from a straightforward videogame-y premise to something disorienting and discontinuous. Anodyne 2’s continuity shifts as you get further… and it uses this to suggest a certain location in 2D as further away.

These sorts of formalized techniques can be used hand-in-hand with the story themes to make certain ideas resonate stronger with the player. For example, putting Dustbound Village inside a nano area makes you wonder about the rest of the 2D worlds you’ve visited – and gets you to rethink what you’ve learned about your role as a Nano Cleaner in Anodyne 2’s world. The strange large areas in the Outer Sands break down an attempt at a ‘logical’ understanding of Anodyne 2’s world’s fabric and suggests something that exists on a more fantastical layer. Thinking about and using continuity in different ways can create different headspaces for a player to inhabit as they read what you’ve written or prepared for them to play through.

Anyways, all degrees of continuity can result in interesting games. On the hypercontinuous end, we could have an exploration of a single bedroom, not necessarily sprawling and repetitive corpgames. Or an exploration of a single town (like in Attack of the Friday Monsters). There’s no right approach to making games or picking the level of continuity. But if you’re designing games it’s good to find some approach that you care about.


Appendix on defining continuous/etc

As always, game design theory is… sort of made up, right? These ideas may bear fruit when analyzing certain games, they may be worthless for others.

I’ll define continuity as a game’s tendency to have unbroken, realistically-sized spaces that you travel through without many cuts. On one end of the spectrum, games can be hypercontinuous (painful accuracy to real life – exteriors of buildings always match the interiors, the camera never cuts, there is no fast travel). I don’t know of many large games that are hypercontinuous, but the majority of recent open-world corporate games (corpgames) are close to this (Breath of the Wild, God of War, Grand Theft Auto).

Or games can be discontinuous – levels connect with seemingly no underlying logic (Yume Nikki, Goblet Grotto, Chameleon Kid).

But most games tend to lay in the middle – normal-continuous. This is when a game employs the standard set of breaks in its spatial traversal that we expect: a JRPG brings you from a world map (abstract) to various towns and dungeons. We traverse the world both concretely (through dungeons and towns) but also abstractly, through a world map. However, to the player, it’s always understood where you are in this world and the game generally intends its world to be remembered as a continuous space, even if it may change the level of abstraction from time to time. Normal-continuous represents what today’s commonly accepted practices are in terms of how a game articulates its transitions from one area to another.

Hypercontinuous

  • Characterized by a game whose spaces have an experience of moving about them that is very close to real life.
  • Likely to not have restricted levels (e.g. you can walk anywhere)
  • Exists at big and small game scales: From “See that mountain? You can visit it!” to “spend a day sitting in an apartment.”
  • Usually 3D, just because 2D more or less is always an abstraction from “realistic” representations of 3D space

Normal-Continuous

  • Most games. E.g. JRPGs with world maps, visual novels with different areas
  • Spaces may not be ‘realistic’ in representation or connection
  • a player can make sense of where they are in the world most of the time, because areas are connected with consistent logic and the game makes an effort to let the player situate themselves (through a world map, etc.)
  • travelling between areas is consistently represented and has consistent outcomes. E.g. when a game has 3D houses you can enter, if you enter the door and then always enter an interior area, the game is following its own rule that “Going into houses leads to an interior space”. A continuous game is unlikely to violate this rule. Other rules could be – Doors take you to new areas, doors take you to the same area if you re-use them, etc. A discontinious approach would be that sometimes a house’s door takes you to a beach or something

Semicontinuous

  • Either a mixture of discontinous and normal/hyper-continuous approaches, intentionally (or not ) breaking ‘good practices’ and breaking the sense of logic to its game’s world

Discontinuous

If a game never situates its player in a familiar place, but shows one surprising locale after another, it enters the realm of discontinuous, like dream-exploration Yume Nikki, labyrinthian platformer Chameleon Kid, semi-procedurally-generated 0n0w (https://colorfiction.itch.io/0n0w)  or  spiraling 2D/3D maze 10 Beautiful Postcards (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68N1udqRrvk) , or various early PC games that didn’t seem to ‘care’ about player’s navigation or “good practices”. Games that use this approach can explore unique feelings, sometimes terrifying. Digital space within discontinuous games can be implied to be infinite and unknowable, and that’s a very interesting situation to place a player into.

In choosing not to embody a place and be hypercontinuous, a discontinuous game begins to embody an abstract sense of feelings depending on the game, but also the game opens up more space for a player to relate *their* spatial memories with that of the games.

Anodyne 1 is somewhat discontinuous, by way of Yume Nikki’s influence. And I think it’s a big reason why many people remember its world and take away different things – in a discontinuous game world, a player is left to form many of their own associations based on what images and text the designer provides.

As a game changes its digital space from more realistically connected to more discontinous, the world may feel unknowable, a fever dream of unrelated parts and images that seem to go on endlessly, a fearsome nightmare or dream, all contained within a few bits on a computer’s hard drive…

(If you liked this post… I’m on Twitter! https://twitter.com/han_tani . I also run a discord for my game studio Analgesic Productions at https://discord.com/invite/analgesic

Or… join our studio’s newsletter and check out our games at https://analgesic.productions/!

Interview – The Body and Spirit in Anodyne 2

This interview of me originally appeared on Ludica mag. I answered in English and the interview was translated to Italian. https://www.ludicamag.com/il-corpo-e-lo-spirito-in-anodyne-2-return-to-dust/

I’ve reproduced my original English answers below.

Ludica Mag: The first Anodyne was a Zelda-like RPG (being it based on puzzle-solving) a bit extrovert (like Undertale) and a bit weird (like Lisa). (Do you agree with this description?) Anodyne 2 is a very different game: how did you work to expand the original concept in this direction?

Sean: I think Anodyne 1 is a game that, despite its flaws, has a very unique atmosphere that very few games have come close to replicating. What we borrowed from Anodyne 1 was symbolism through the dust, a generally fantastical and at times tense atmosphere, and the general surreal juxtaposition of the game’s levels. In Anodyne 2, we combined this surrealism with a story conceit: the areas are so vastly different, because they are the interiors of characters. We aimed to keep that surreal, whimsical feel, but make the game far more communicative with the player on a narrative level.

L: Playing Anodyne 2, I find it a very original gaming experience. How did you ‘give birth’ to this story about the dust, the vacuum cleaner, a 3D world that contains 2D worlds that sometimes contains other 2D lower-res worlds? It’s something at the same time viscerally bodily (since Nova physically enters the 3D bodies to access the 2D worlds), powerfully metaphorical (everybody has its interior life) and very speculative, as imagining other dimensions can be (from the 2D world of Flatland to the 26 dimensions of the Bosonic String Theory!).

S: Marina had a prototype of a platformer where you shifted between 3 sizes. Dust came from Anodyne 1, Vacuum Cleaner came from an ‘evolution’ of Anodyne 1’s broom. We generally like to find some sort of ‘traditional’ game mechanic that makes the game interesting enough in a tactile way to pull the player through the game’s story, and vacuuming/sucking worked (a bit inspired by Kirby.)

From there we brainstormed certain ideas we wanted to explore with the Anodyne series’ surreal landscapes – eventually we came to the idea of putting the ‘action’ into 2D and the exploration into 3D – thus taking advantages of the efficiencies of both visual formats. 3D is easier to quickly make a vast feeling world, 2D is easier to create little one-off action sequences or dungeons.

At the same time, we came up with the story themes we were interested in – the trappings of religious or familial structure, the power of communities, and used that to build the core story of The Center and Nova, exploring the island, etc. The ‘shrinking’ idea ended up being a great way not only to tie the process of ‘cleaning’ into the main story, but a fun way to create self-contained substories that were also interesting on their own.

LM: There’s lot of existential /metaphysical /religious (C Psalmist!) references in this game. Many NPCs wonder about their place in the world, their past lives, and their destiny. I’d like to hear more on this topic.

S: For the NPCs you clean we generally started with the thematic framework of: early NPCs would have very ‘straightforward’ cleanings, though they wouldn’t quite be fixed of their problems. Blue Vale NPCs would be more complicated… cleaning wouldn’t change much of anything. As the game goes on we wanted to draw more complications with the idea that ‘fixing’ someone can be something that’s straightforward.

The general existential tone and quirky NPCs is a tonal choice we use for the Anodyne series – it fits into the vastly diverse landscapes and levels.

The religious ideas mainly come from Marina, partly from her background of being raised Christian, the various literature she read growing up, and extensive experience with the Bible. Generally Anodyne 2 deals a lot with considering how to deal with your life under certain social structures, and ‘religion’ is a common one to think about. There’s also the general notion of control with The Center, or corporate working life with C Visionary.

L: The 3D world has a graphic that reminds me of the first PlayStation games. This is interesting (on Ludica there’s an old article that invites the developers to keep exploring the aesthetic of polygons in the first 3D games, comparing them to the brutalist architecture and its exposure of structural elements), so I’d like to ask a) the reason of this choice and b) how you designed the world (also with which development tools) and c) if you were inspired by any particular game.

S: a) We think it looks good, and it’s also faster to make. It also works well with the surreal setting we have – it’s easier to convince people they’re in a fantastical place, as their brain has to do the job of filling in some details. It’s like how a visual novel screen can be really, really tense and immersive… just with words and a single image! Other reasons: art and level design workflows with HD art quickly become too hard for small teams, and also, it’s a lot easier to make a visually unique game with ‘lo-fi’ art.

b) The world was designed based on the story’s needs – as Nova becomes more complicated of a character, the world and levels almost seem to fall apart and break logic in the Outer Sands. Cleaning becomes a much more morally dubious affair. Earlier in the story, when Nova has a simple mission and thought process, the levels are almost too straightforward (Cenote).

For making them, Unity and Blender. 3D worlds I’d sometimes block out in Unity, or sketch on paper, then Marina would create the final 3D area using tools or whatever, adding decoration. Same with 2D areas, but using tilemap systems. We’d always have visual moodboards/discussion of the area before Marina created final art or I created music.

c) We were inspired by many games for small aspects (e.g. some visual ideas borrowed from Panzer Dragoon Saga, Shadow of the Colossus. Some game ideas from 2D zeldas, Kirby. Story tone ideas from Nier, LUCAH), but of course for the more innovative ideas (streamlining a game across a 3D world, designing how exactly 2D/3D works) we had to innovate and figure that out ourselves. Our inspirations list is quite large and spans not just film, literature or games, but also experiences in real life communities or friend groups, etc. So, I would say there isn’t one influence that takes precedence over the other. We tend to use influences more like moodboards, vs. worshipping/paying homage to one platonic ideal game.

L: What about the choice to insert some meta content in the form of commentaries and prototypes?

S: It’s good for developers to be transparent about how games are made, so I always look for nice ways to fit unused content into a game. The way some developers want to create this perfect, 1 hour condensed experience with no flaws is a little odd to me – games are imperfect and a sort of taped-together medium… I think it’s important to reveal how humans are behind each game.

In our case, Metaclean framework also gave an opportunity to enhance the story ideas of C Visionary and motivation. I also want to explore the idea of ‘canon’ existing in works like games… to suggest the idea of there being a ‘grey canon’ where certain parts of the game are both true and not true. A bit of the extra areas like no such scene goes into this – the idea that you can choose to read some of the extra areas as ‘canon’, or not. While obviously I want to include a ‘canon’ story, I do think there are interesting thematic things you can do by including story elements that don’t cleanly fit in, leaving some room for interpretation. I don’t always like doing that with games, but it does work in some cases like Anodyne 2. A game is a bizarre, bizarre thing. There are so many aspects that are never explained or make sense in games. Why can Nova double jump? Where do those coins go? So it feels natural to extend those questions to the written story itself.

L: The meta game content also refers to the need to contain the budget, and now I’m dreaming of what this game – which is really great as it is – would have been if you had unlimited funds. There’s something important that you could not develop?

S: Something I think about a lot is my philosophy of releasing games. Is it better to release two games in a decade, or 10? I believe it’s 10. Or 20. I think art that takes forever to come out is inherently flawed, it presupposes that there are fixed truths to the world that can be spoken at any point in time and hold power, if the developer only spends enough time and money on it. A game that takes 5 years to come out – certainly it might be ‘good’, but there will be an inherent mismatch between the social situation of its release period, and its development. That is, if the developer is even thinking about these things, which often they are not.

Er, that is to say: If we hire a person, they can 1. help us make the game bigger in the same amount of time. Or, they can 2. help us make the same-sized game faster. I don’t think #1 makes sense. Anodyne 2 would overstay its welcome. If the game had a structure/pacing which was longer, maybe #1 would make sense. But I like 8-10 hour games.

#2 is a valid use. If we had unlimited funds, surely we could make Anodyne 2 sized games faster. Yet… they would be fundamentally different, shifted by the bigger team of 3 or 4. Of course, Marina and I could completely direct this new team member, but it feels better to let them contribute equally. There’s also a danger with more labor, and it’s that you won’t be making as many interesting design compromises or simplifications. A lot of our game’s unique identities come from us working as two and needing to simplify and strip things down, vs. just ‘okay’-ing everything because you have the labor to do it.

So, I think that potentially I might one day entertain working with 3 or 4 people, but not soon. We don’t have the money, and seeking funding makes life just a bit more complicated than I’d like. It creates higher sales goals, too, which compromise the decisions we can make with the game. I’m happy if people can make interesting games with teams of 3 or 4 or more, but it doesn’t seem the right path for us now.

L: The soundtrack is beautiful and is perfect for the scenarios it accompanies: how did you work on the music of Anodyne 2?

S: I made it with Ableton Live. I usually use Ableton’s built-in synthesizers to create my own instruments, or sample manipulation, which is how I achieve a unique sound. There’s a lot of factors I consider when making a song, but generally I think about what aspects of the visuals, the story, the gameplay – of a certain level – that I can enhance with the music. Then I draw upon my knowledge of music to try and find reference songs that have aspects of them that would fit my goals, and I borrow from those references and mix them and come up with a new idea. Sometimes this is as little as a 4-second percussion sound in a song, or sometimes it’s as big as a chord progression… what can be useful is often unexpected, so it’s important to listen to a lot more music than just Chrono Trigger, haha. I try to draw in a lot of influences. I think fans understand that, but my music rarely gets praised via awards or blog posts or whatever, even though it’s better than a lot of music that does win awards! Oh well, that’s okay – I’ll just keep making good music… hahaha!

Why Anodyne 2 Is Not A Niche Game

At last, I can breathe! Anodyne 2’s been out for almost 3 weeks. The excitement and stress has died down, and I’ve returned to more of a ‘research’ and  ‘planning’ phase for my next project.

First, I’m happy that Anodyne 2 has had universal praise. Countless videos, podcasts, streams, tweets, comments, etc – confirm that Marina and I succeeded in creating something valuable, unique, inspiring, humanistic. Something that communicates at the surface as a fantastical tale, but directly draws upon our experience with family, love, and our lives’ overlaps with the worlds of academia, the art industry, local activism, service industry, and even things from analyses of wrestling to Taiwanese cultural practices.

Soo….that post title. “Anodyne 2 Is Not A Niche Game.” What do I mean? Let’s put the focus on something that people who like the game have also said:

“Anodyne 2 is niche / Anodyne 2 is not for everyone”

We see this sometimes when reading reviews. Occasionally it’s at the end of a review that gave us like a 73 or something and then said the music was pretty bad, or like at the end of a highly praising review that then somehow turns out to be an 82 even though on the same site an AAA game with ‘a few flaws’ gets a 96, but sometimes we hear it from people who otherwise like the game!

Our running theory is that this is a way of expressing that you liked the game but inherently understand that the game is odd relative to today’s popular games.

To that line of thought, I’d like to also ask: what kind of game is “for everyone?” For what it’s worth, I’d like to assume for that something “not being niche” means it’s “for everyone”. I can see how that assumption falls apart but let’s just assume it doesn’t, because I’m tired.

Usually the type of game being contrasted here is something made by Nintendo – something that’s so well-known, so common, that we don’t really question the nature of it, we accept it as is, accept it as being the norm. Okay. Let’s do a quick comparison experiment, of Anodyne 2, Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey and Animal Crossing. In my experience I’ve never or rarely seen someone (being reasonable) say the last three “Are not for everyone” or “are niche”.

 

CONTROLS

Ano2: Move, jump, spark, talk, turn into a car. Also has 2D controls: move, suck, shoot, talk.

BOTW: Move, jump, attack, pick up, talk, glide, super jump, bow and arrow, throwing, swimming, etc, often under combat pressure.

Odyssey: Move, jump, long jump, high jump, triple jump, hat throw, hat jump, spin, not to mention 10 other movesets from things you possess. Often under pressure to perform with platforming.

AC: Move, jump, talk, pickup, arrange furniture.

 

GAME DESIGN

Ano2: Talk to characters, find character to enter, walk around a 2D dungeon with light puzzles and combat. Explore 3D to find cards. Turn into a car and ride around. Follow a single main questline. Read a lot of words.

BOTW: Manage health, temperature, armor, durability resources. Scavenge and craft for items. Manage multiple overlapping side quests and questlines. Fight in real-time combat. Search for shrines with physics or combat puzzles. Survive. Ride a horse. Explore dungeons that move and rotate in 3D. Talk to townsfolk. Complex, multi-detail-layered map. Read a moderate number of words.

Odyssey: Explore complex 3D environments in search of Moons. Use many moves to find them. Avoid dying by falling into pits or being hurt. Fight bosses in real time combat. Read map markers and follow side quests. Read a few words.

AC: Manage your time and money resources to accumulate the correct furniture and items to decorate one’s house with. Meet and manage relationships with multiple townspeople while also paying off a loan. Search for items to complete museum galleries with. Engage in t-shirt making and maybe the stalk market.

Note: AC is less demanding dexterity wise than A2, but I’d say AC has more complex things to remember.

 

PLAYTIME

A2: 8-12 hours.

BOTW: 50-60+ hours.

Odyssey: 20+ hours.

AC: Eternity, if you’d like.

An interesting thing to notice is that rarely someone might say Anodyne 2 had poor pacing… because we changed the texture of the gameplay for 45 minutes. But inherent in here is that for some reason, indie games don’t get free passes to be spend time in certain ways. Sure, an AAA game can blow 2 hours on like making you talk to every single minor character in the game before progressing, but if we don’t get our pacing perfectly right for a little bit it’s a tragic misstep or something!

Story Complexity

A2: Straightforward storyline, themes complex enough for adults.

BOTW: Multiple characters and historical storyline, though still simple.

Odyssey: There is no story, until you read into The Cap

AC: None since it’s a life sim, other than the story you craft yourself about the town

While A2 is more inaccessible reading-wise than the other games I chose here, and I have read various valid and interesting critiques of the plot, it’s not like this is a unique problem – there are plenty of popular JRPGS with complex writing/reading (Nier Automata, Final Fantasy 10, etc).

Someone said the story in Anodyne 2 is confusing, and, besides the fact that it is remarkably straightforward, have you played Dark Souls (which I love) and see what *that* game’s vague story gets away with being praised for?


To me, it seems like those other games generally have more complex requirements and expectations. Anodyne 2 on the other hand is much more relatively beginner friendly, other than having a lot of words to read.

In conclusion, it may be better to say is that “Anodyne 2 feels unfamiliar, and may be uncomfortable *if* you’re looking for an experience similar to the more popular console games.”

If you’re reading this and did write a review saying niche or ‘not for everyone’… I’m not mad at you personally, please don’t worry! I just wanted to bring up this issue I’ve seen in a few places.

Okay, Sean’s lecture time over! Let’s end with a quick chart to summarize my points. Basically, I do think that what is “for everyone” and what is “not niche” is generally defined by what is selling the most and the most heavily ingrained in our culture, but I find it more valuable to redefine or interrogate what those terms mean.

hardchart.PNG


 

Well, let’s end this with some reviews I quite liked reading.

And some reviews of the OST, a first for me!


Other than that, I did prepare a bunch of data on sales… but nowadays I feel uncomfortable with that level of transparency. So I haven’t decided what/how much data to share, but I will say (giving vague ranges)

  • We’ve sold between 1k-10k copies across all platforms
  • Our Steam wishlist to first week sales conversion rate was about 0.2 (in case you’ve read Jake Birkett’s blog posts)
  • We did a coupon campaign for owners of Anodyne 1 getting discounts on Anodyne 2, where possible. In particular on Steam it drove a lot of sales so I’d recommend it.
  • We paid off our development costs already (a number in-between $40-90k)
  • We’re not, and are nowhere near being indie millionaires
  • We do have middle/upper class backgrounds and should be held accountable for that, should we ever accumulate a ridiculous amount of money or power. I’ve recently amassed a sizeable twitter following so I’m still learning the best way to handle using that outlet since I’m not in the promotional phase for one of my games anymore. My current intuition is it would be better to put our money towards existing game organizing efforts (rebind.io, other criticism sites, perhaps localization funds for non-English games), versus building up Analgesic Productions (our company.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh no! Sparseness in 3D games

Lately just thinking about – the transition of 2D to 3D. What happens with that.

9fy0ew

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Something I’ve thought about as I’m a few weeks from being done with Anodyne 2 is that it’s easier to create an explorable space that can capture your interest 3D, there’s just a sparseness problem to it all.

That 2D Harvest Moon image above looks quite empty, but it still feels like a visual whole. The noisiness of the tilework creates a coherence, a cozy sense of ‘farm’. something about the 3D in the upcoming friends of mineral town remake – looks bizarrely empty. Now I’ve seen the trailer and some shots of it (like the towns) still look nice. But just when it comes to one-off areas in 3D games, they’re so so expensive.I think 3D presents a unique challenge when adapting 2D. Because 2D games really “work” by reducing a lot into a flat plane, and when you unflatten things, you get all this bizarre empty space you have to account for. like see the harvest moon. you can just pixel art a mailbox and wood dividers and stuff, but for 3D boom you have to model and texture all that crap. and most of it is just colliders.

Some games don’t account for the emptyness and you get weird just like… empty places.

How do you account for empty space? Well, to me it seems like:

  • throw money at it, which basically means throwing PEOPLE at it, which means uh oh! now you have ridiculous commercial expectations so this doens’t seem to be a great way to go about it
  • throw time at it (“my 20-year love letter to shadow of the colossus! oops now the universe has heat deathed”)
  • ignore the problem and hope it goes away

REAL FARM (thanks gamefly)

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TIME AND ETERNITY (thanksgamestop)

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now i’m not saying that an empty feeling game is a problem, but moreso that i think that if a game feels really empty, the ‘spatial feel’ is a dimension of a 3D game you can use to your advantage, so it’s better to figure a way out than just well, not doing anything. Not to mention that having a huge 3d space to fill is anxiety inducing and spending time just throwing assets at it doesn’t really make the game better… idk.. 10 art assets in a 3x3x3 meter room can be more expressive than 10 art assets in a football field, is what i’m saying

so the last option is

* do something about it.

don’t really feel like saying much, but i think shadow of the colossus MUST have seen a similar problem. they went ‘Oh shit, there is so much fucking space to fill in 3D! fuck. we are fucked. wait what if empty space was the point. haha’

As much as banjo kazooie is equivalent to intentionally forgetting your wallet at home after driving to the grocery store, you have to give credit to these early 3D games for being good about space management. Things are kept relatively small and dense. say what you want about good old BK but those levels did have a sense of place and personality, even if it was well, banjo kazooie.

but back to anodyne 2, because I enjoy talking about ourselves. so if you pick up the game next month, there are these interior areas. i call these ‘mistakes’ JUST KIDDING. they’re wonderful but they were EXPENSIVE to make, in terms of time. when you get to Cenote city, that place was.. expensive. marina had to fill it with too many buildings. we then found that SURPRISE outdoors naturey areas that are sparse and hilly are easier to make! hm. should have done that more often. but at the same time, nearing the end of development, I am lagging behind so maybe that giant city bought me time to do all the random programming stuff I needed to do. but that’s a different issue – coding uniqueness and time… sigh, we are still learning so much about how to be careful about time…

anyways, in anodyne 2by modeling a few rocks and ground textures and using a general environmental shape concept, we made pretty neat 3D areas that are big-feeling but still feel like that sparseness is intentional rather than a big ‘oops haha empty’. sometimes it’s a matter of slight terrain variance to break up flat ground perceptions. othertimes visually ‘messy/dense’ textures (like anodyne 2 has a lot) help to create denseness. idk. there are a lot of tricks. Some of the outdoors nature 3D areas in Anodyne 2 could have gone faster if we had better tools, but then we’d need a tools programmer..

Ring

Here’s an area we took out of the game. Well, not really – we used many of these textures in the game in a similar area, but this picture specifically does not show up in the game. There are a few ground textures, grass texture, then a single rock 3d model copy pasted a bunch. The structure on the right was expensive to make because we didn’t even use it in the final game (except the red huts). But it was a learning experience for 3D asset making I guess.

also the other way we dealt with it was moving gameplay heavy stuff into 2D, so you don’t spend all the time in 3D, but that also has various production issues that blah don’t feel like talkign about.

I made the mistake a few times over Anodyne 2 dev of creating these small, one-off areas in 3D that are just entrypoints into 2D levels. I think they were wastes of time. Memorable, maybe. But I’ve been playing Yoshi’s Crafted World, and every single level is this disconnected singularity of 3D art assets that has no connection to later levels. Like a visual explosion.

At least in Anodyne 2’s case, all our areas are connected so we have the coherence benefit of those one-offs still fitting into a big picture. The next time we make a game we can be more careful about these things. In the case of AAA extravagance like Yoshi, you just have a gigantic grab bag of these little party poppers of levels… which look traditionally BEAUTIFUL but there game is just boom boom boom visual explosions so I can’t remember much actually. plus it’s a simple 2D platformer so i don’t really remember the spaces much

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It’s funny, another game I’ve been playing is the opposite of Yoshi – 10 beautiful postcards by thecatamites. In some ways there’s a parallel I see between Yoshi and this game in that from a visual standpoint, both are games where you are constantly whiplashed between visually distinct and dense areas. In Postcards you’re travelling in an almost endless maze of colorful areas, but they have thematic overlap. In Yoshi you’re just going into one random mechanic-fest after another. it shows just how much money large Yoshis are wasting on these set pieces when there isn’t a drop of meaning to be found in terms of the bigger picture. On the other hand…

Postcards is interesting because it presents an example of what would happen if small-sized (or in this case solo) developers did a huge amount of unique visual content. Of course when you’re a small team you can only polish so much, so Postcards has very traditionally ‘unpolished’ visual art. which for me doesn’t matter at all outside of various commerrcial implications – But it goes to show that there is an interesting effect in scale, meaning arising as multiple distinct spaces start to connect to each other, like reading one word after another…

Anyways the point of this is for the love of god don’t make an 3d game with big open spaces unless you are okay spending a lot of time.

alright, not really going to edit this. good bye, time to go finish anodyne 2… ho ho

 

“Sequel”

For the better part of a year I’ve been developing “Anodyne 2: Return to Dust” with Marina Kittaka.

5 or so years ago, I did an interview about Anodyne 1. I said there wouldn’t be a sequel. Well, now it’s 2018 and, last I checked, I’m sure making a game called “Anodyne 2”. Did something change?

Back then, I was against making a traditional sequel, where we would do mostly the same thing but with new levels. That’s why, instead of just being “Anodyne 1 but different levels,” Anodyne 2 is more the next installment in the “Anodyne Franchise”, like Final Fantasy or Zelda games. Kind of like Nier: Automata, Anodyne 2 is a standalone game, and differs in some ways from the original, but has its commonalities, some narrative continuity, and can be understood more deeply if you’re familiar with the original.

Why didn’t we do a traditional sequel, like Pokemon Gold, Banjo-Tooie, Spyro 2, Dark Souls 2, or most other corporate game sequels?

In this life, we only live so many years. There are certain skills – like making 3D games – that I want to hone and learn, and if a game is entirely just Anodyne 1 again but some additional content and new dungeons, I don’t think that’s the best way to spend my time.

Plus, an “Anodyne 1-2” would be weird. There’s not a great way to create a sequel that incorporates Young. For the most part, Anodyne 1’s story was one and done. Of course, maybe in 5 years I’ll be making Anodyne 1-2 and eating my words. Time changes odd things.

Eh, also, trying to replicate the experience of Anodyne would just lead to it being overshadowed. If you really want Anodyne again… I understand where you’re coming from, but your dream of having a new experience that makes you feel exactly what Anodyne did, is, sadly, impossible. Even if we made the best game ever that was really similar to Anodyne, it would be overshadowed. Anodyne 2 will be a good, memorable time, but it’ll be different.

Some things in life just happen once. In transience is beauty… something, something. Different flavors are good. Spice of life. Etc.

I can’t just keep making more of the same – this world can’t keep doing more of the same.

I think a ‘sequel’ or series installment succeeds when it reflects upon the components that made its predecessor good, and then responds to that material in an interesting way. Nier is a great response to Ocarina of Time. Anodyne is a great response to Link’s Awakening. Likewise, Anodyne 2 is a response to Anodyne. We learn from it, tweak some mechanics, add some new gameplay, remove some gameplay, and incorporate the current narrative ideas and themes and stories that we currently really care about.

As another similarity, the high-level game structure of Anodyne 2 has similarities to Anodyne, but 3D gameplay replaces some of the 2D areas.

The reason Anodyne 2 isn’t just a new IP is because well, the 2D levels play like Anodyne, NPCs are designed with Anodyne’s style in mind, you won’t be able to predict where you’ll go next, etc. The plot is overall clearer but it’s very much still a surreal, dreamy fantasy. Cards and Dust make a return but with different uses. There’s shared elements, just like in a Final Fantasy or Zelda installment. So, it’s called Anodyne 2.

Names

I should mention, we were considering calling it “Anodyne: Return to Dust” or “Anodynia” or something like that. Perhaps one of those choices would show more integrity as to what “Anodyne 2” really is?

But, you have to also look at it from the perspective of us not being Square Enix or Nintendo: it’s going to be far, far more confusing if we don’t put the 2 in there. As an indie, someone might perceive “Anodyne: Return to Dust” as a DLC package! If we use “Anodynia”, that won’t get eyes as fast as “Anodyne 2”. With the ‘2’, it’s obvious that it’s

  • Related to Anodyne
  • A separate game

The ability to call something “Series Name: New Subtitle” and become popular relies on being a series entrenched into culture. We don’t have that clout. So yes, to an extent it is a branding decision, but I hope that makes sense given our hope to continue past Analgesic Productions’ 7th birthday.

Even with this disclaimer, I can predict the exact wording of some negative reviews due to us ‘veering too much off course!’. Well, if that future reviewer is out there, well, I hope you like being screenshotted and used as a joke 3 years from now.

Anyways, I’ll end with this:

We’re the people who made Anodyne 1, Even the Ocean, All Our Asias. We’re dedicated to making excellent work.

Would you really expect us to just make the same damn thing a second time? I hope not!

“Complex”

Every one of the 80 or so collectible dragon in Spyro the Dragon’s remaster is uniquely modeled and animated. They each appear for about 10 seconds on screen. It’s a fact that these dragons are entirely pointless to the overall game and that the amount of work that went into them borders on reckless.

Recently Marina and I have tossed around the term ‘complexity’ when it comes to making Anodyne 2.

Complexity is easiest to explain on the level of visual art. It’s the trap for beginner game developers, especially those attuned to visual art but not other aspects of design. It happens when any of the following get too big for the artist to handle.

  • Number of art assets in the game (characters, enemies, environment objects)
  • Number of animations per art asset
  • Art style

If there’s too many art assets or animations, each asset takes longer to revise, and overall art production takes longer. Risks a revision. Art style being elaborate just makes that worse. Imagine hand-painted or pixeled backgrounds. The iteration takes a very long time. This is why if you see a game with an extremely complicated art style and a tiny team, you can bet that it is probably not coming out soon, or if it does, its design might suffer given the difficulty of revisions or iterating.

This applies to game design, too. For every thing the player can do, you’ve gotta somehow fit that into your game. That’s something to think about. If it needs to be clearly communicated, is it? More playtesting. More bugs. It also creates tasks for the programmer. Or, it creates art to make or music and sound to make.

It also applies to writing. Too many main characters? Now you have even more plot arcs to write, more cutscenes to make, more balancing to do with where you read them in the game. Oops, now the programmer has to code all these things too! More chances for bugs. More things to tweak. Good luck! You’ll need it. Have fun remembering all this alongside the 100,000 other things in the game.

Now, is it worth working 10 years on a game? I don’t think so.

My game Even the Ocean is a textbook example of this happening, stretching out a game’s development to 3.5 years. By not properly setting a good scope for the game within pre-production, we waffled around, resulting in numerous design, writing, and art revisions. The game was also too big – too many cutscenes, maps, levels, mechanics. If the game was drastically shorter or scoped down, these revisions wouldn’t have been as numerous or time consuming.

I think we’ve recognized this while working on Anodyne 2. I think, inevitably, some things will be and have been more complex than I think necessary. Some steps we’ve taken:

  • No dynamic music (less music and debugging to do.)
  • No autosaving (less bugs related to saving in weird places or at weird times.)
  • No baked lighting (less time spent making art in areas)
  • Very simple combat (simplifies the possibility space for 2D mechanics)
  • Reusable boss patterns (reduces programming time)
  • No collectibles outside those that advance the main game (reduces design, testing, coding, writing time)
  • Removing extra supplementary cutscenes we used to have planned (reduces writing, coding, etc)
  • Some level design tricks which I can’t talk about yet (reduces art time as well as design time and code and everything really)
  • Using Unity, saving tons of time on tools programming
  • Use of ‘fade text’ to simplify and reduce cutscenes and animations. This is the use of fading partially to black and displaying text on top, describing a cutscene, rather than actually programming and animating what the text describes.
  • Few custom shaders (less coding!)
  • Very simple models and textures (quicker art!)
  • Relatively loose main story (after the first hour), meaning the player less often must be guided by hand-crafted cutscenes (less coding, writing, etc!)
  • Few main characters, reducing complexity of the script (easier writing!)
  • Minimal platforming mechanics in 3D, due to the difficulty of debugging 3D physics and camera mechanics. (less coding!)
  • Many NPCs share animations or only have a simple bob. (less art!)
  • Little need for optimization thanks to most Unity scenes being small/separate. (less coding and bugfixing!)

Of course, the game is still ridiculously complicated and stressful to work on! Even with all these simplifications! Part of it is inherent to the genre we picked – a story-driven adventure in 3D and 2D, which often requires lots of unique assets.

But imagine if I had all of the above to worry about, too.

Anodyne 2 wouldn’t be coming out next year, that’s for sure.

Remember, your game doesn’t need to be complex to be good. Your ideal version of your game is not necessarily the minimum it needs to be good.

Also, a lot of this matters less if your game is much shorter. Keep in mind complexity mainly becomes a problem based on how long your game is. Also, this advice probably applies most to games that could be called similar to Anodyne, Even the Ocean, Anodyne 2, All Our Asias. I don’t know how to make an elaborate roguelike game.

A lot of what I’ve outlined above falls into a ‘lo-fi’ production ethos – trying to find shortcuts where possible and work within your capabilities. Trying to work commercially, like with Anodyne 2, does make things harder as we have to make some compromises (like putting in extra polish in parts because it helps with marketing the game). But…

I hope we can deliver Anodyne 2 on time! I’m always worried about it… but at least, this time, I’m thinking about these things.