An award-winning graphic designer, an independent game developer, a self-published novelist, a movie and video game critic, and everyday artist. Matthew VanDevander lives in the great state of Tennessee and is on a never-ending quest for the deeper meaning of life.
This last week I finished the art pass on the area I mentioned in the last devlog post. I settled on “The Gardens” as the name for the area, as it features flower gardens near the entrance, a vegetable garden to the south, and an abandoned grape trellis to the east.
This marks the end of a month for which the game was unplayable, since I have to break a lot of things when revising areas. Normally these types of revisions don’t take a whole month, but the metapuzzle concept here (mentioned in the last update) was quite technically complex, and I ended up having to pare back some parts of the design due to playability problems.
I still don’t want to spoil how the metapuzzle functions, but essentially, it was possible for the player to get the puzzle into an un-solvable state. I tried to resolve this in a very lightweight way that would (in theory) add some additional depth to the puzzle. However, once I implemented it. I realized that my solution didn’t actually work, and so I had to choose a more aggressive fix that eliminated some of the additional depth I had hoped to have.
I am still hopeful that I will come up with a way to add that depth back in, but I felt I had spent enough time on the problem for now, and the metapuzzle is in “good enough” shape. Certainly an improvement on what was there before.
So I’ve finished up six of the eleven major areas in the game, and the next obvious step would be to begin artwork on one of the others. However, I’m a little reluctant to immediately break the game again, so I plan on switching gears to puzzle design for a bit. I still need to take a look at improving the panel puzzles for the Gardens, so I may do that this week in addition to some of the other puzzle design tasks on the list.
Four of the ten major sub-areas of the game involve symbols embedded into the puzzle panels which the player figures out the meaning of over the course of the area. In each of those areas, there is also metapuzzle used for navigating that area. These metapuzzles require the player to solve multiple puzzle panels which interact with eachother in some way. Each area has a unique theme to this metapuzzle which is connected to the general theme of the area’s mechanic in some way or another.
I’ve had three these metapuzzles designed for a while now, but I’ve been spending the past week or so designing and implementing the fourth one. I’m also in the middle of ripping up the area containing it and doing a proper art pass on it, so the following screenshot is an example of something super work-in-progress:
I don’t want to explain too much of how the puzzle works, so as not to spoil things, and because I am likely to change some details as I continue implementing it. But the basic idea is that you can move the bridges between each circular platform and you use that to get around the area.
It’s been a bit of a technical challenge to get this puzzle implemented, and as of this writing, there are still a few features that are not set up yet. Part of the challenge here is that so much state can be changed across the metapuzzle, and it’s important to keep all of the state in sync.
The overall theme for the area is a terraced garden surrounding a dry lakebed. The major features of the area are still work in progress as well, but I have begun some work on the artwork for the entry terraces, which you can see below:
These will require some more detailing work, but the overall structure is more or less correct. The design of the stepped gardens is loosely based off the Hyakudanen at Awaji Yumebutai. In the game, the player will start at the stop of this stairwell as the entryway into the area. Once they get to the bottom, they will find some puzzle panels opening access into the metapuzzle section.
I’m mostly kidding about the title, but I’ve been putting the game out to some new testers these past few weeks (which is why I missed December’s devlog update).
Whenever I stop working on new things and take some time to reflect, I often get a bit depressed. I’ve mentioned this feeling during the previous round of testing and it’s similar feeling during this round. I feel accomplished in that I’ve made enough progress for the game to be worth evaluating again. But there’s still so much to do that it’s overwhelming to think about.
Looking at things at a high level, I’ve done a “good enough” art pass on five of the eleven areas in the game (although some of them I’d still like to make major tweaks to)
So that means I’m almost halfway done with the art, which is pretty good progress. But it also means that I still have the majority of the game to finish up.
It’s hard to make estimates on how “close to done” the design is because progress there is much less straightforward. With the art, it’s probably good enough to have art that looks decent and isn’t overly confusing. But with the design, there’s no “right” way for anything to be. It’s down to my personal decisions about what types of puzzles to focus on and how much should be required to progress in each area.
I also still haven’t put in anything resembling an ending, and I’m not even sure what that might entail. I think it’s rather hard to make satisfying endings to puzzle games. If the puzzles are too hard, it can wreck the pacing and just make the ending feel like a chore. Alternatively, if the ending is too easy, it can feel anticlimactic. Usually what works best is something that feels like a large change of pace from what came before.
To that end, I have a few ideas, but they are underdeveloped at the moment.
I’ll close out this post with a short clip of one of the areas that I’ve recently re-did the art for. It’s not entirely finished, but I’m happy with how it’s come along.
It’s hard to be sure exactly what to write about, since most of the work lately has been going into painting over each of the areas in the game. But this past month I’ve finished drafts of art for two major areas in the game, so I guess I’ll post up some screenshots!
(You can click any of the screenshots to view them full-size)
This area is styled after a Japanese shrine and centered within a large lake.
This area is an ancient ruin seated atop a narrow plateau. Some parts of the ruins have seen better days.
You may recognize this area from an earlier iteration of the art. Some parts of this area are still unfinished, art wise, and I need to add in the shadows. (I paint in all the shadows by hand!)
Here’s a bonus screenshot of another area in the game.
This past month, I’ve been both working on Taiji and crunching on promotional materials for Manifold Garden. (Which is out now on Apple Arcade and the Epic Games Store, by the way! You should check it out if you like puzzle games. I get no extra money if the game does well, so I am just recommending it personally.)
Seeing off Manifold Garden has been exciting. But turning back around to work on my own thing has been a bit depressing. It still has so much further to go before it will be done! I’ve been trying to keep my head on straight but it’s been a bit of a damper on my spirits.
The Breaking Point
Some technical aspects about the visuals in Taiji started to come unraveled earlier this month. One of the decisions I made early on was how to sort all of the individual graphical elements in the game. Although for 3D games, sorting is just handled as part of the perspective (except for translucent objects), in 2D games you usually set up an explicit sorting order.
In Unity, there are actually two systems you can use to handle sorting, the first is a sorting axis, which is equivalent to the Painter’s Algorithm: objects that are further away from the camera are drawn first and closer ones are drawn last.
The other system is Sorting Layers. These are just buckets you can put different objects into and you can set the order in which the buckets draw. My initial idea was to only use 3 sorting layers for the entire game: a layer below the player, the player layer, and a layer above the player. This seemed like it would work, because you are additionally allowed to specify a numerical sorting order for the objects within each layer.
The primary benefit of this approach is that it is player-centric. This means that I know that all objects in the “Below Player” layer will always be drawn below the player, and vice-versa for the “Above Player” layer.
But what happens if I want to have objects that are above the player at one point, and then below the player at another?
There are two types of scenarios where this problem might happen.
One is “vertical” objects that the player can walk around, such as trees. If we place them below the player, the player will be walking above the branches, and if we place them above, then the trunk will float over the players head. This problem is easy to solve by simply placing those objects on the player layer. In this case, Unity will fall back to the sorting axis and sort by distance. However, we can tell Unity to sort using the Y-axis, instead of the Z-axis. This means that objects that are higher on the screen than the player will draw behind them, and those that are lower, draw in front.
The other slippery sorting situation is when the player is underneath an area which they can climb up into. A basic example of this is a bridge over a canyon. The player might be in the canyon, walking underneath the bridge, but they can also climb out of the canyon and end up above the bridge, walking across it.
This scenario is challenging to achieve under a simple 3 layer (Below Player, Player, Above Player) setup. The only real way to do this is to either shuffle all the objects between the above and below layers, or have copies of the objects on both layers, and only enable whichever is appropriate depending on where the player is.
I was using a mixture of both of these systems up until recently. It worked, although it was quite cumbersome. You’re moving around of dozens of objects from layer to layer all the time, and you can’t even see any of the visual issues until you run around the game. But eventually you run into scenarios where there need to be more than two layers, and it all falls apart.
So I made the difficult decision to change the entire sorting system used by the game. Under the new setup, each area in the game has a sorting layer, and the player is moved from layer to layer as they walk around the world, always staying at order 0 in whichever layer they are in. Objects with negative sort values will be below the player in that sorting layer, and those with positive values will sort above the player.
This setup makes so much more sense. Since only the player ever moves around, I never have to worry about the environment looking any different than it does in the editor.
In fact, I feel like I should have changed things over much sooner than I did.
I think this particular type of mistake was misguided optimization, which is even worse than premature optimization. Instead of optimizing for my sanity, and the simplicity of building the game over the long haul, I tried to optimize for the number of layers without being sure that it would ever be an issue. It wasn’t a performance concern, more just an aesthetic one.
I think it’s important to accept that your game is going to be a big icky mess at some point anyway, so you just should just leave the cleanup until you can actually see what you’re dealing with.
In any case, things haven’t been perfectly rosy with the new setup, but I’ll leave that story for next month perhaps. See you soon.
Proof Of Work
Perhaps you’d like to see the work I did related to Manifold Garden? If so, you can check out the following links:
So, I’ve been continuing to bang away on the visuals for the game, which means I could just post up some more screenshots like I did last month, but I thought it might be more fun to do a bit of a technical breakdown of the waterfall effect in the game.
You can see what the finished effect looks like below:
So, there are obviously lots of references I can go to for waterfalls. Photo references, other games. I happen to live near quite a few streams and rivers, many of which have waterfalls.
A few of the bigger influences on this effect are the waterfalls in the Zelda games Breath of the Wild and The Wind Waker. You can see examples of both of those below:
I’m actually not a huge fan of the look of the waterfalls in Breath of the Wild, but the way in which the effect is technically achieved is fairly obvious there, and so I consider it somewhat of an influence on my approach. Really, both of the above waterfall effects, as well as the waterfalls in Taiji are essentially a variant on a basic scrolling texture effect.
Below on the left, you can see the source texture I use for the bulk of the waterfall effect. And on the right you can see and what it looks like when scrolled across a distorted UV map. ( A UV map is what tells the graphics card which part of the 2D texture to draw on each part of a 3D model. In this case, the UVs are stretched in the shader, with the underlying geometry just being a flat rectangle)
So the basis of the effect is that I overlay two copies of this texture, with different offsets and slightly different scrolling speeds. These form the white foam layer.
After that, I make two more layers, only these scroll much faster and are partially transparent. This forms a second layer to go beneath the white layer.
Both these layers are composited together and then overlaid (at a lower alpha and with a fade towards the top) onto a screen-space gradient that acts as the water’s base color. The gradient is subtle but resembles the reflection of a blue sky.
Alright, so we now have the base of our effect, and can add the edges. The edges are just another scrolling texture using the same distorted UVs as before. The left and the right edges are just mirror images of eachother, offset a bit along the direction of scrolling. The UVs for the edge texture are also pinched in a bit at the top of the waterfall. Below, the original edge texture is on the left and how it gets distorted and scrolled is on the right
The black area of the edge texture is used to mask off the effect so that it can be composited into the rest of our effect and blended in. We add a slight fade to transparency at the top of the waterfall and we’ve completed the base effect.
At this point, we add a churn effect to the bottom of the waterfall, using particle systems. One system is emitting large circles which shrink and fade out, the other system emits smaller circles which fly up and then are killed off when they cross the bottom edge of the waterfall. You can see the two particle effects separately below.
When we put it all together, we get our full waterfall effect:
Thanks for reading, hopefully this was an interesting dive into some of the technical art that I’ve been doing lately for the game. 🙂
So, the gameplay is getting close to something resembling an overall rough draft. Most of the areas that I want to put in are playable in a rough form. This is great, but unfortunately hides the fact that I’m still way behind on the art and the music.
The past month has therefore been focused on trying to “art up” as much of the game as possible. I’ve still been quite busy with the “part-time” contract job I mentioned last month, so I’ve gotten less of that done than I would’ve liked to. But in any case, progress has been made.
Here are some screenshots of areas as they’ve come along so far.
Obviously, everything is still very WIP, and these screenshots should not be considered indicative of the look of the final game. There’s still a lot to be done, but I’m pretty happy with how these areas are coming along and the overall aesthetic.
So, the next question is: “What about the music?”
There are currently only two tracks of real music in the game, which is (needless to say) quite a bit less than I think a complete game should have. However, I have found it somewhat difficult to get a handle on the musical style for the game.
I think there’s two main reasons for this. The first is that it’s just plain hard to come up with themes that are strong, dramatic, and not too grating to listen to for a long time. Essentially the same challenges as any game.
The additional problem that I think Taiji has is that I have to be a bit careful about the types of music that I choose, to not accidentally draw too much attention away from the puzzles, or introduce any red herrings.
I presently find myself quite stymied by the music, but this is not the only time in the history of this project that I’ve found myself stuck on one problem for quite some time. Progress can stall for a while until I get a sudden breakthrough and then things start progressing very fast.
So, I will either end up finding a good way forward soon, or I’ll have to look into hiring a musician. I’m not opposed to seeking more experienced help here. Music, to me, is the heart and soul of a great game, and great music can carry much of the weight of a game’s tone and atmosphere.
In any case, don’t submit your resumes just yet. I may perhaps find my way.
See you soon with another post (ideally before the end of the month, as I need to make up for the fact that I’m a month behind!)
Apologies for being a bit late on this devlog entry. I’ve doing a little bit of super part time contract work for the past several months, to give myself an occasional mental break, as sometimes problems in Taiji just need some clock-on-wall time for me to really solve effectively. Anyway, that contract work got unusually non-part-time the past two weeks, so I didn’t end up writing the devlog post when I meant to.
Recently I finished up the mainline puzzle set for a new area in the game. I call these puzzles the “line” puzzles, which may give future readers a hint as to what I’m talking about. I think it came out quite well for a first draft, and I really only need to do the mix-in puzzles with some of the other mechanics in the game before calling it a finished draft. There’s probably some serious ways to push on the concept, particularly at a meta level, but I’m glad there’s something approaching a finish line for that area. In any case, I don’t want to spoil the details of that area, so I’ll keep it all a bit mysterious. However, I need to actually talk a bit more in-depth something, so I’m going to discuss an area that has been in development hell for years: the sound puzzles.
Don’t worry, I won’t spoil very much about the details, other than to say that there are some puzzles in the game that focus on sound. They’ve been put on the backburner mostly because I was a bit worried that they wouldn’t be much appreciated. You see, audio puzzles in games have a bit of a shady reputation. Even the audio puzzles in The Witness, of which I am a big fan, tend to be derided by most players as “basically impossible”.
But recently I decided to dust off the old concept I had for them and implement something a bit more complete than my first prototype.
The initial reaction from playtests has been…well, not great. I’m still not sure whether what I’m doing is just not working, or if it’s just not found the right players yet. I’ve more or less decided that I’m willing to accept if only 10% of players actually enjoy the area, as long as they really do enjoy it. The last thing I want is for everyone to like “the idea” of the area, but for no one to have enjoyed it. So hopefully some players will enjoy it, and as for the rest of players, at the very least they should be able to complete the area with the help of some assist mode features.
It’s actually a bit hard for me to decide on the exact form that the puzzles for this area should take. I am certain of the core idea, as it is something that is fundamentally interesting to me, connects to something real outside the game, and something that is a natural fit for the puzzle style of the game. But there are probably two or three decent ways of implementing that core idea, and I’m not certain I’ve chosen the best one for my first implementation. I’ll have to think about it some more, and perhaps give it some more of that patented clock-on-wall time.
I think one of the best superpowers that a designer can develop is a sense of comfort with things sucking for a long time. The longer you can be comfortable with some part of the game being terrible before deciding to cut it, the better chance you have of stumbling on some good ideas on how to improve the area.
With that said, there are actually 2 or 3 areas in the game that I’ve been a bit stymied on for a while. I’m more or less twiddling my thumbs on those concepts, hoping for some inspiration to strike. If it doesn’t, I may strongly consider cutting those areas from the game completely. I really hope that I don’t have to though, as the core concepts for the areas are interesting to me.
One somewhat irritating thing is that other people who’ve played the game advise me that these areas in question “have a lot of potential” and that I shouldn’t cut them, but fail to have any insight on how to capitalize on that potential. In the end, game design can be a very solitary journey.
A bit of a short one this month, but I’ll try to be on time…next time!
So, this past week I spent a few days polishing up the character movement and animation, primarily focusing on adding running animations. The results are as follows (Recommend watching at 60fps):
I’m pretty happy with the running animations, although they do make the walking animations look a bit cheap by comparison. I figure most players will just toggle running on and play the game always running everywhere, so it’s probably fine if the walk animation is not as developed.
This week, I’ve also been trying to think a bit more concretely about the big picture ideas for the game, including story and world design.
Right now the world design of the game is pretty much non-existent. Everything in the game is just laid out in the way that was most convenient to fit everything together without overlaps. However, I’d like to do something that has a much more overlapping and interconnected feel.
My ultimate inspiration for world design is Dark Souls (wait wait don’t close the browser tab). I don’t necessarily want to attempt that game’s scale, but one of my favorite things about the game’s world is how you head off in a long winding direction that you think you will never come back from, only to find an elevator that takes you straight back down to the central hub area, unlocking a massive shortcut in the process. This creates a wonderful sense of surprise and is a real tangible reward for exploration. And the best thing about it is that there’s almost no cheating involved in the 3D space of the entire game world.
If you’ve played the game, you probably already know all about this. But if you haven’t, here’s a good look at the world of Dark Souls using a map viewer tool:
Now, obviously this is a very high bar to attempt to reach, especially in a 2D game, but it has at least got me thinking about what types of tools I will need to accomplish anything even remotely close to that. (More on that perhaps later)
Secondarily, I’ve been thinking a bit more about what I want to do about story. What store do I want to tell with the game, and what methods of storytelling are appropriate, both to the style of the game, as well as my limited resources (I am the only one making the game, after all).
I’ve been pretty stumped on this, as I don’t want to resort to JRPG style characters who simply stand around and bark repetitive lines if they’re not involved in a cut-scene. Nor do I really want to put text in the game at all, if I can help it. Luckily, inspiration struck this week when I was watching my girlfriend play through Journey. I had played the game years earlier, but the way in which the game communicates a clear story through entirely non-verbal means struck me.
As with my inspiration from Dark Souls, I don’t necessarily want to emulate Journey’s scope, and I don’t plan on putting cut-scenes in the game. (Or, at the very least, they would be extremely minimal at the start and the end of the game.) In particular though, I’m interested in how the game uses murals hidden throughout the world to communicate a backstory element. So, you may see a similar approach in Taiji, as it’s a good cost-effective and unobtrusive approach.