Game Makers Tool Kit 2019 came around and I wanted to take it seriously. We watched the previous winners to see what stood out. I had found a Phaser template I was happy with which sped up the iteration. I had my Kenney asset packs all at the ready. Because of the timezones the theme was announce early Saturday morning New Zealand time so Friday was filled with anticipation.

The theme was 'Only One'. The examples in the announcement video were about only one screen or button or bullet. I didn't have any ideas that gripped me for only one mechanics. I was a bit worried about having a lack luster use of the theme after last years GMTK result so I went on a different tact and decided on making it about the narrative of only one. This was a bit of a risk since the GMTK channel is focused on game design and mechanics. Looking at previous years, the past games that had done well were also mechanic focused.

There were a couple of games which helped inspire the game play. I wanted to do my own take on Loneliness by Necessary Games. This is a minimalist experience which gets its message across with simple graphics and mechanics, allowing the player a lot of interpretation into what is going on. Another inspiration was Thomas Was Alone which is a simple platformer with abstract shapes. Through the mechanics, juice and an awesome narrative it transforms into a heartfelt story. Both of these games show that you can create a touching game with minimal graphics which is what I set out to do.

The goal of the game was to go up the screen meeting people, similar to Loneliness. As you had negative interactions with others, it would harm your mental health, represented with angry black lines around you and becoming more lethargic. There would not be a fail state, but hopefully the player would be looking to minimise the harm to their avatar. I also wanted to end on a hopeful note, showing that a single act of kindness can turn a day around. The aim of the first cut was to have a solid minute of gameplay then wrap it up and polish it. I wanted to set aside a decent amount of time to make it great so I didn't try anything ambitious mechanically.

The control scheme I went for was a top down driving game, where up makes you go forwards and left and right rotate you. This ended up causing a bit of confusion in play testing as it is not obvious where your front is and players were expecting up to go up the screen. For the different types of non player characters, I gave them a unique colour and I tried out different mechanics. I wanted each one to feel impactful and make them all feel like unique personalities. One happy accident was for the big shout I made a mistake with my vectors. The original aim was for it to push you away but instead it turned you and pushed towards the bottom of the screen. This prevented your progress and meant you could not push past them which I liked more so it stayed in.

For the art I followed a similar path to Shark Bait with hand drawn art. Having minimal drawing skills the art is quite minimalist. I drew a number of frames for each person so they would have a scribbly look. I had some ideas for mechanics that didn't make it in which you can see in the sprite sheet. For the colours I chose a blue green spectrum for people who are cold towards you. Greener for more interactive and darker for more of an obstacle.

I had been listening to a lot of Kevin MacLeod's creative commons music in preparation for the Jam and the start of the piece Crossing the Divide had caught my attention. This hit the perfect tone for the end of the game. Another track Despair and Triumph fit the bill for the main part although one streamer thought it was laying it on a bit thick. For this game in particular the music really sells the feelings I was aiming for.

At this point, with an hour to go, the game was playable. There were circles of 2-5 randomly selected people along a path. At the end you met your friend and hit the end screen. I created a build and gave it to my friend Aidan. He had some great feedback that it was not clear what the different people did. I quickly hard coded the order to introduce them one at a time rather than randomly spawn which was obvious in hindsight. This lead to a really nice progression and a bit of a story as you came across increasingly aggressive people. Another point he made is that it was possible to get though to the end without getting hurt. This lead to adding the final obstacle to get through.

This was the first time I had used particles in Phaser so it was a learning experience getting that going. My original idea of the stars swirling around you was toned down a bit so I could get it done in time. It has been great watching people play and seeing that when they feel that hope is lost during the final hurdle they catch a glimpse of a star and push through to the end. I put the stars in the game gif to help hint that there was a goal to strive for.

I was blown away by the feedback I received from the other jammers. I still come back and reread the comments. I guess there is something about going through the trial of making a game under a challenging time limit that builds comradery. The in person feedback has been mixed. Some people have found it too abstract or that the story didn't gel with them. For others though it has been a profound hit which has been great. It is the first time that I have made something that has really resonated with a group of people.

Finally, it managed to get a finalist spot in the 2020 Freeplay awards across the ditch category. It was a cool experience to watch the awards with my game in the running. I was also proud that it was won by fellow Dunedin dev IndyDevAndy's delightful Leap of Leaf.

Lessons Learnt

You can tell a powerful story with simple art.
Having less ambitious mechanics gives you more time to polish.
Get as much play testing feedback as you can.