Tunnel Vision Games consists of five students from Aalborg University in Denmark: Benjamin Nicholas Overgaard, Gustav Dahl, Lasse von Fintel Sostack, Mathias Klitgaard Berthelsen and Philip Hundevad Nymann. They created See You On The Other Side as a project for the fifth semester on the Bachelor’s program in Medialogy in Fall 2013. It’s a 3D first-person puzzle game where lights and shadows are used as the main game mechanics. Gustav Dahl tells us about how to do a successful scientific project and an original game at the same time.
Medialogy is an education only few have heard about. As the name suggests, we learn about media and technology in all kinds of ways. Basically, there is a little about all elements that can be related to media and computers: programming, 3D, sound, film, interaction design, electronics, etc. Another way to describe Medialogy is that we are geeks with humane skills, i.e. we know how to implement systems, but also focus on how people use and interact with these systems. In other words, we are perfect candidates for game designers.
A Real Game Without Particular Hardware
Medialogy isn’t game education, but many students eventually opt for game development in one way or another. Unlike other universities in Denmark, Aalborg University has a big focus on project and group work. Each semester, we get to make a project based around a certain theme. This time it was Audio-Visual Experiments — Interactive Experiences. The theme was very broad, which meant that we could happily take it in any direction we liked, and we wanted to create a game!
During previous semesters, we had worked on games in various forms. But many, if not all, consisted of some kind of gimmick: a game that uses Arduino boards; an educational game with Kinect; a game that uses sound as the input device, etc. While in the project that later turned into See You On The Other Side, we were the five students who found each other and set the goal of creating a “real”, full-fledged game that didn’t require any special hardware. Why, you ask? Simply because we wanted to show the game to our friends and family afterwards, something we couldn’t do with previous projects due to the specific hardware requirements.
Challenge: A Game That Needs to be Science
The main dilemma was that we simply wanted to create a cool game, but, since we are university students, that game had to investigate some kind of problem in a scientific way. Mathias reminded us about a 2D indie game called Closure. Its premise is that the protagonist can only walk on and interact with objects that are in light. If things are in darkness, they simply don’t exist. Since we had courses about light and computer graphics rendering, we thought this was a really cool idea to explore.
Besides creating a game and being scientific about it, we also wanted to learn more about 3D modelling and shader programming. We had the latter in a course, while 3D modelling was something all of us have always struggled with. So we decided to take the premise of Closure and turn it 3D. This would introduce not only the light-dark mechanic, but a 3D perspective as well.
Breaking Pre-established Mental Models
Then came the chicken-and-egg problem: it is required that all projects work from a problem statement: something in the world/society that you want to solve/change. However, we just wanted to create an awesome game. Usually, you first define your problem, then find the solution. We did the opposite, having the game concept in mind and then trying to come up with some kind of problem related to that.
We defined our game as a puzzle with unique rules, and this led to a problem statement hint: how to design a game universe where rules are different from what you expect from the real world (e.g. how lights and shadows work). We wanted to explore both level design and puzzle design, to see if it’s possible to break the player’s pre-established mental models about how lights and shadows work in games.
In the end, we came up with the following problem statement for our project: “We assume a 3D game universe with some core rules: in this world, you – the player – don’t collide with unlit parts of surfaces, and you don’t cast a shadow. Do players who are not told the rules understand it just as well (or better) than those who are told the rules in the beginning of the game? Do they enjoy the game more or less if they are not told the rules in the beginning?
Making Puzzles is Harder Than You Think
While working on the project, the group was reading Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games by Tracy Fullerton. It focuses on iterative game design and prototyping. Therefore, we started making small paper prototypes to see what kinds of puzzles we could create with the light-shadow mechanic. It was a fun experience, but also harder than we expected. We thought we could easily make dozens of puzzles very quickly. However, it turned out that creating puzzles is way harder and time-consuming.
The Prison Escape
But our creation at this stage was still a very neutral puzzle game, without any proper context/theme.
Eventually, we understood that the big focus on puzzles didn’t suit our goals. Instead, we started thinking more about how our game should look and feel. This is how the premise about a prison escape appeared. Having a context made it much easier to start designing levels. We now had a basic idea for a simple narrative, and, unlike before, the levels were not isolated from each other, but gained a logical transition from one to another.
Unity Engine and Hatching-Style Art
We settled with the already familiar Unity game engine and its built-in first-person controller, and then the group split duties: some were looking into the light-shadow mechanic, while others were learning how to create 3D models in Maya.
We were studying computer rendering, which wasn’t directly related to the game project, but for that class, we had to work on a mini project to make use of the new knowledge. In the beginning, we were talking about how cool it would be to have a black & white art style similar to The Unfinished Swan. However, it turned out that this binary style made navigation in a 3D environment very difficult. Then our teacher Klaus Madsen came with a book called Real-Time Rendering (Tomas Akenine-Moller, et al.) that described a non-photorealistic rendering style called hatching. He suggested trying it, and we thought – why not? With the help from Martin Kraus, our supervisor for the project and a super awesome Unity and shader programmer, we started trying to implement the hatching shader in See You On The Other Side.
Basically, what the shader does is make everything look hand-drawn. It’s achieved through a post-processing effect on the camera that interpolates through a collection of hatching textures. The more lit an object is, the less strokes it will have (appearing white), while objects in shadow will have more strokes (and thereby appear darker).
To our big surprise, the hatching style made the game look much more interesting and less generic. You probably recognize the “Unity feel” that many games have, mainly because people use the same standard shaders. We were really happy to have created something that stands out.
The More We Removed, The Better it Became
The university encourages us to test early and often. This helped us streamline the levels and make them easier to understand for players. We found out that the more we removed from the game, the better it became. This might sound counter-intuitive, but we discovered that many of the small details and props just drew attention away from the core experience. Therefore, we focused on the most significant elements in the game, so many of our previous 3D models were scrapped.
Enjoyment and Understanding Doesn’t Depend on Rules
James Gee in his book called What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy lists some guidelines that good games should follow. Inspired by his work, the first level was designed as an isolated prison cell room. Only when the player understands the concept of shadows, i.e. that he can walk through surfaces that are in a shadow, can he escape and get to the prison hallway.
However, it turned out that some people just didn’t get the concept of walking into shadows, so a hint system was implemented where small signs would show up after some time to suggest what to do next. We think this is an elegant solution, since the signs never give the answer directly, but just point to what to do.
Lessons from this experience: test early, and test often. Also, be aware of what you are testing: is it the game mechanic, the level design, pacing, difficulty, or something else?
We ended up with 30 test participants, where half have been told the rules in the beginning (as said in the problem statement), and the other half just played the game without any introduction. It turned out that there wasn’t a significant difference in either player’s enjoyment nor understanding of the game.
The Power of Reddit Virality
In Medialogy projects you are required to do AV production. It’s a video showing and summarizing the results you’ve gathered. However, we wanted to make a more traditional movie-like trailer that would motivate people to try out the game. So we made two videos: the one in the beginning of this article, and a full playthrough showing two people playing the game side by side for comparision. The latter was not so interesting to look at, but it revealed the differences in playstyles when the rules were provided/not provided in the beginning. After we uploaded the first video to YouTube and shared it with friends and family, we thought it would be cool to put it on Reddit. None of us has much experience with Reddit, but we decided to try and see where it goes. You often hear about games going viral thanks to Reddit … maybe the same thing could happen to us?
I put a link to the game’s trailer on Reddit and asked the rest of my group members to upvote it. Later that evening, when we were writing our report, we got contacted by a game journalist from the Danish website Gameplay-Online. He saw our creation and wondered if we would like to participate in an interview. Of course we said yes! A few hours later, a really nice article about our game appeared.
Things started to snowball. IndieStatik wrote about the game, and people began posting Let’s Play videos on YouTube. We didn’t even ask them to do so, they just did because they saw the game on Reddit and thought it looked cool!
One of these Let’s Plays, created by RockLeeSmile, has over 4000 views! This is pretty amazing if you keep in mind that we didn’t expect anything like this AT ALL. We knew we created something to be proud of, but couldn’t even imagine we would ever receive so much exposure on the Internet. Besides this, one of the group members got the chance to travel to Germany and present the game at a storytelling workshop.
Today, we count more than ten Let’s Play videos on YouTube, as well as multiple posts on indie game websites. When you have zero expectations, this is a lot!
Visuals (and Being Free) Do Sell a Game
I think the main reason why See You On The Other Side got so popular is that we put it online for free. We’ve never thought of taking money for the game (how could we, it’s just a university project!), and apparently this approach helped breaking down the entry barrier for a lot of people.
The only thing I regret is that my website didn’t count the number of downloads, so we have no idea of how many have actually downloaded the game. Later, I installed a plugin that counts downloads, but the initial download peaks have long surpassed.
People praise the game for its unique mechanic and especially the hatching art style. To us, it was more of a coincidence, but to everybody else, the art became the defining element for the game. Visuals do indeed sell a game.
Despite the fact that the game is quite short (10 – 20 minutes of gameplay), most people seem to enjoy See You On The Other Side a lot. They ask if we are going to take it further and develop more on it. As for us, we really don’t know.
We’ll be like Marcus “Notch” Persson
Anyway, we wouldn’t be graded for how good the game itself is – we’re to be judged for how we approached and tested our problem statement. Luckily, the exam went well. Everybody from the group received A’s. The censors considered our game concept interesting, and, even though there were many things we could have done better from an academic point of view, we were able to present arguments for how and why we tested the way we did.
However, during the last part of the exam, we were asked whether we’ve heard about something called “the rockstar syndrome”. As you can guess from the name, it’s when people start to have unrealistic thoughts about themselves, become cocky and overconfident about their skills. Of course, this was said tongue-in-cheek and as advice for our future careers. We then talked about how Markus “Notch” Persson handles his fame and fortune from Minecraft in a very humble way. If we ever become “real” rockstars, this is how we want to behave: stay close to the ground, make games because we love it, not because we want to be rich or famous.
At Casual Connect Europe 2014’s Indie Prize Showcase in Amsterdam, See You On The Other Side was awarded as the Most Innovative Game. The game is currently available for Windows only, and can be downloaded for free at Gustav’s site.