As some of you may already know we currently work on a new project, which was named "Morituri" for some time but has now the title Behind Stars and under Hills. Its prototype is co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union and the MDM.
Behind Stars and under Hills will be a Dungeon Adventure with detective elements and animal people. It puts emphasis on story and atmosphere, on interaction with NPCs (dialogues) and exploration. While there probably will be fights (of low complexity), those won't be the main focus of the game. Instead, players have to find hidden ways and items, translate scriptures, talk to the inhabitants, trade with them, circumvent and/or find ways around dangers (like enemies and traps), and use the light by placing torches.
There are no real hard facts to announce yet (hopefully soon though), but we started a picture blog for the project, especially for the prototype we currently work on. You can find it here. We post everything visual, i.e. drawings, scribbles, animations and screenshots from the game and the level editor. Our intention is to link the blog whenever we post those pictures on Twitter or Facebook, so people don't see a single slice of the game only, but can inform themselves more about the look of the game instantly. It also makes it easier to follow the project as long as we don't have a dedicated website.
In January 2017 Jana and I were part of the Global Game Jam, as usual. We had some doubts we'd do it again in Leipzig, because every year it gets a bit harder to wake up in the HTWK (the university where the jam site is located) without a shower or hot water at all. Yes, we're getting older. Our plans went back and forth between not going at all, or driving back home for the nights, or getting an AirBnB. In the end we did it as always.
Thankfully! Commodations aside, it was a very nice experience. A few days before we made some key decision for our jam entry, especially the choice of target platform: VR. As we don't own a full-blown HTC Vive or so, we made a Google Cardboard game for Android. I think it turned out quite well, because it was doable in the scope we aimed for, even though it was our first VR game.
The theme itself ("Waves") wasn't very interesting, but it slowly formed the direction of our game. When we began to think in terms of sound waves, we soon decided that some radio in our game would tell the player what to do. So you'd be in some kind of labyrinth, trying to find that radio by searching around and listening to its noise, and then activate it, because it tells you how to reach the exit. This became less important later, but it's still in the game. So while we don't feature "waves" promintently, the game was definitely inspired by it.
One of the first WIP screenshots
What we have now is an atmospheric stealth game where you play some thief or treasure hunter in a haunted mansion. You walk around, steal things (mostly valuables), evade scary ghosts, use keys, and find the radio and the exit. As the game is a Virtual Reality game, the player's movement is restricted to gliding between square floor tiles in cardinal directions. This is very similar to my Ludum Dare entry Wood for the Trees from last year, but this time the limitation was imposed to us because of the nature of VR games. Free movement was out of question, and a typical "magically beam to place" approach could have been a bit too complex for our first 48 hours VR game. In the end, the limited movement also helped to define the simple but effective behaviour of the evil ghosts, which don't follow you but patrol between the rooms in the same manner as the player.
As usually our games have a somewhat high entry barrier, one of our goals was to simplify controls. With a VR game this seemed easy to do - you don't have much different input methods anyway. All you can do in our jam entry is looking around and take stuff by looking at it for a short time, which is why Jana had the idea to name it Hands Off Thief, as you steal without using your hands... Initially I planned to have the same approach for walking around the rooms - an arrow on the floor tells you if you're allowed to walk into that direction you're looking, and if so, looking at the arrow for a short time moves you to the next room. But it turned out that this is a bit awkward, as you'd always have to look down to walk around. Now players have to activate the trigger (i.e. touch the screen of their phone) when the arrow is shown, which feels a bit more natural.
I prepared by reading articles about VR development for mobile platforms. It was helpful to know that there are some heavy restrictions regarding drawcalls and polycount in order to maintain 60 frames per seconds on a phone. This way I wouldn't be surprised by bad performance at the end of the jam. Thus, from the beginning the Unity project was set up to use cheap vertex lighting, and I programmed a simple occlusion culling i.e. only the room you're in and adjacent rooms get rendered. We also tried to minimize the amount of different materials for everything.
The first thing we did when we started the development was trying to find out how big the virtual rooms should be. Several hours went into discussions if the walls are too near or too far away, if the ceiling is too low, or if the texture scale on the floor is okay. Probably not everything makes sense in the final game; some things were kept for the atmosphere. Especially the lighting was a bit of a headache, until we went with strong darkness and the player having a point light at their center. Every ghost has two lights - on for his current position, and one for the target position. This way, a player can predict if the ghost soon will be floating towards them. And from time to time a lightning strikes (even when there's no window), so there should be enough to see anyway.
Of course we had some help! When he wasn't sleeping Björn Grunewald created some 3D models like the loot, and my brother Ludwig 'KingLudi' Hanisch - as usual - agreed to compose the music. Ludwig was in another city, and when I sent him some screenshots it was very late, so I wasn't sure if he was still willing to do it. But he sent a nice track in time. Afterwards he wasn't content with it, as it didn't quite play along with the visuals. The problem was that Jana and I were late in defining the atmosphere and couldn't send him a meaningful video, so he only had the screenshots with bad lighting as reference. A few days later Ludwig sent us a new, much more eerie track which fit perfectly, and I updated the game. You can play this new and better version by downloading the APK on itch.io.
Overall the Global Game Jam was cool; you might also want to have a look at the other games created at our site in Leipzig. By the way, one aspect I learned to dislike about the GGJ website is that you cannot edit your entry afterwards. I understand that they wouldn't want people to fake their entries, but it would be nice to be able to offer patches, or just add stuff you forgot.
We also might choose to register a jam site in our own city next year, because we found some potential co-jammers!
Disclaimer: the game was once known as SOLITUDE, but as this infringed some non-released game's trademark, we changed its name to SOLITUNE.
Today we release a new Rat King game called SOLITUNE. In the game you are leaving your day-to-day office job to become a shepherd. On your way out you meet a bunch of characters that are tangled up with their own issues. In order to progress you have to free them and hear their story. In exchange for your attention they will follow you further as sheep. It's a very personal and small art game I created over the last month(s) together with Friedrich.
I'm glad we were able to create SOLITUNE. Thanks to the funding of the Kunststiftung Sachsen-Anhalt we could effort to spend time with a non-commercial game idea. Sure, it does cost a capitalist bunch of $2, but it's more of a tip for playing the game. As a developer I was more free to do something personal without having sales numbers or a specific audience in mind.
Why shepherding after all? That's a long story: when you get disappointed with things in your life, you start developing escapist fantasies. I'm sure everyone has at least one idea what they would love to do. Shepherding is not really my secret game industry exit plan. I know it's a hard job. I know you can't go on vacations, or that you have no weekends and have to get up early in the morning.
Through two amazing books I learned quite a lot about being a shepherd. The first one is the very fun and curious "Schlepping Through the Alps" by Sam Apple about the Austrian wandering shepherd Hans Breuer. The second one is the wonderful "A Shepherd's Life" by James Rebanks. Rebanks is a tweeting British shepherd from the Lake District who could easily be the tourist attraction for the region. And he was my starting point to this project. Having those rough-romantic scenes with fluffy herdwicks (the kind of sheep he is attending to) in my timeline between all the indiepocalypse postings felt like an oasis. They remind me of my home village and the local shepherding family. And the sense of calmness that overcomes me when I'm driving by a sheep herd.
Shepherds are symbols for so many things and emotions: hard, honest work. An existence close to nature. (Can you imagine sheep raised like pigs?) A pure anachronism, to spend your time guiding sheep in times of robots, mass animal farming and automation. Not to forget: the Christian symbol of guidance and help.
On one of our cycling tours we coincidentally met a shepherd with his herd - Martin Winz. Not so coincidentally when you know that the family is responsible for the nature reserve area 'Franzigmark' near Halle. He guided us to the often held shepherding championships in Morl, near Halle. It's a meetup of regional shepherds, visitors and students of the shepherding class - Germany has only two of them and one is located in Halle.
I'm not a big fan of folk festivals, but should you ever have the chance to attend a shepherding contest, go there! Even though we so absolutely looked like outsiders, people were friendly and open to answer all the questions we had. Why do I point this out? Well, shepherding is - probably like every other profession - a bit elitist. The 'fake geek girl' of the computer games industry comes to my mind from my own scene. Here everyone has a shepherd's staff and hat as a symbol of being part of the scene - a trained professional with their own herd and two dogs.
Character Design: In Morl I got so much input! I found my game concept growing between the point where I started from - cheesy shepherd romance - to mere simulation, to get all the information I collected showcased somehow. In the end I did something in-between. My shepherd is more of a symbol for guidance and "being on your own" now. And he became female, which is only logical considering that SOLITUNE is a very personal game.
First I planned to have an old, grumpy shepherd, a stereotype I have in mind when thinking about shepherds. The reason is the old shepherd in my village. Though in hindsight he had any right to be like this. We were annoying little kids, destroying old trees by using them for climbing and my dog wasn't well trained at all when we collided with his herd. But that's a whole different story. In Morl I met a class of shepherd apprentices (all of them girls) who made me change the character completely.
The Others: Another idea I had early on was that the shepherd's herd would consist of humans. He would leave everything behind, also in part because he was annoyed by humans. But when finding lost ones on his way he couldn't help but take them with him. Every character is a stereotype in his own way. Partly I'm annoyed by this kind of people, but I'm sure they are also part of myself. All of them are somehow hidden or occupied and you have to solve a puzzle in every room to free them, and then let them talk. If they always know that they will become a sheep is up to your interpretation. The same goes for the shepherds intentions - I think if his intentions are positive or not are mostly up to you, though I have my own motive in mind, of course.
Perspective: In most cases my game ideas are fleshed out pretty quick, but I quarreled with the perspective or point of view for the player. At first I wanted to create an open-world-like scenery, where you can freely roam to explore and find your future sheep. But as so many indie games used this kind of game style or at least I played a lot of them, I decided I wouldn't want to make just another colorful wood exploration game.
My second approach was a third-person view, where you would walk through offices that got weirder. I skipped this one, because you could never really see all the sheep at once or have any sense of progression. I think it was Friedrich's suggestion to keep the same office and only change it slightly by walking in and out. Moreover do we both love the diorama style very much, with the dollhouse overview - which is also perfect to see all your sheep at once.
Programming: The programming was done by Friedrich. He used Unity from the start. Our biggest problem, something you might underestimate with such a small project, was the pathfinding. A number of moving characters that in best case don't run into each other needs a good pathfinding system with dynamic navmeshes and local avoidance and so on. Expecting to need a more flexible system than Unity's in-built one, Friedrich used A* Pathfinding Project by Aaron Greenberg. Unfortunately downloading and implementing an asset seldomly works right out of the box, and this one offers quite a few parameters to tweak.
Music: As for most of our games, Ludwig 'KingLudi' Hanisch created an amazingly atmospheric soundtrack for SOLITUNE, too. We closely developed the mood for every room together. I would tell him what the character or room is about and in return Ludi created a song. You can purchase the complete album via Bandcamp or by adding $2.50 to the game purchase on Itch.io.
Exhibition: Until January, 15th the game is showcased in the exhibition "Fantitastisch #2" in the Kunststiftung Sachsen-Anhalt. The opening was amazingly colourful and fun, with kids and their family trying out all the books, games, pictures and products exhibited in the rooms of the gallery. I already did so many exhibitions at big trading shows like gamescom, but with the showcase in the gallery with other artists I was really excited. Especially to see how a game would be perceived which wasn't exclusively made for children like some of the other works. In the end, everything went pretty well and it was amazing to watch parents play together with their kids and discuss the game. Mission accomplished! :D
Tell me how you liked the game and what you think about the intentions of SOLITUNE's shepherd!