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.
It took a bit longer than I anticipated, but I’ve completed converting all of the puzzles in the game over to the new puzzle panel system I described in the last blog post. I probably could have made this a bit easier on myself if I had more deeply integrated the new system within the old one, but I wanted to keep things as cross-compatible as possible so I more or less have both systems working in parallel.
There’s a couple reasons for doing things this way, one is that I didn’t know how well it was going to work, and so I might want to abort the whole thing partway through. This is much easier if I didn’t break any of the existing stuff in the process. The other reason is that it’s just still easier to design new puzzles using the old system. I can just duplicate a panel and I don’t have to wire it up to anything for it to work. The new system, at minimum, requires wiring up each panel to it’s starting tile.
Going forward, I may choose to more deeply integrate the starting tiles, so that puzzle panels will automatically generate them as needed, and I don’t have to do any particular wiring. But going forward, it shouldn’t ever be as much of a hassle as converting everything was in the first place.
I also took this opportunity to heavily revise a couple areas in the game, in order to test out approaches to the art, make something that is a closer approximation of what the game might be like when finished, and encounter issues which I might not encounter otherwise.
Here are a couple screenshots of the “arted up” areas.
Overall, I’d say I’m fairly happy with how the artwork has been coming along. The game seems like it might actually not look terrible, and might have something approaching a unified art style. It is admittedly a bit time-consuming to get this level of fidelity, but I think the results speak for themselves.
The other thing that I’m doing this week, is another round of playtesting. I’m pretty sure the next development steps are going to involve cutting a bunch of puzzles. However, I want to get a more broad base of feedback so I can make more informed decisions about where I should let certain things stay in the game and what areas might feel too tedious or drawn out.
Apologies if you’ve been on the testing waiting list for a long time. Feel free to hit me up in the comments, or on twitter, if you’re interested in testing sometime soon. (Or if you expressed your interest a long time ago and are becoming irate)
I have to admit, I’ve been feeling a bit wore out lately. I haven’t worked full time on a game for many years, and it can be exhausting. No matter how much you love a project, it will always go through ups and downs.
I guess I would say that I’ve reached a new plateau. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction mixed with depression that hits whenever I hit one of these new plateaus. In one sense, the game is clearly better than it’s ever been, but it’s also clear how much I could still improve things. Reaching one plateau means I now have to plan the route to the next plateau.
I’ve already taken some of those first steps though. One of the biggest ones was making this overhaul to the panel interaction method. I had been putting that one off for a long time, as there were still so many easy wins in sight on the puzzle design. Now I have migrated everything over, and the puzzle design challenges seem daunting in comparison. I don’t lack for ideas, but I do lack somewhat for the energy.
In the diagram of flow state, I’d say I’m more in the frustration section than the fiero section. I feel a bit overwhelmed and stymied. I’m sure I’ll get back into the zone soon enough though.
So, after much deliberation and gnashing of teeth, I have finally begun…
…to write a new devlog post…
I kid I kid.
I’ve finally begun overhauling the way in which the player interacts with panels…to be the way it was when I first started building the game.
The visuals are a bit WIP, but I do think I want to adopt the look of the walkaround panels for these starting tiles, as they will mostly function the same way. The player has to stand on them to see the puzzle or interact with the starting tile, and clicking the starting tile or pressing the spacebar will depress it. Depressing the tile, in this case, submits the current state of the panel for solution checking.
Way back in 2015 when I first started working on Taiji, in order to create a simpler interface for interaction, I adopted a modal system wherein the player would walk up to a tile in front of each puzzle and press a button in order to be put into “puzzle mode”. In puzzle mode, their normal walking controls would instead move around a cursor on the panel (ala Tetris Attack, Lumines, and many action puzzle games).
Obviously I’m joking somewhat about the new system being exactly the same, but it is an interesting case where I believe when I changed the panel interaction to be free cursor based, with a secondary input controlling the cursor. I may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater somewhat. At least part of the baby.
See, the main benefit I can get by moving back to this “starting tile” approach, is that I can fit way more panels in a small world area. Panels that would have otherwise physically overlapped, can now be made to be only visible when the player is standing on their starting tile.
Obviously, this was not present in the first version of the panel system, and was instead sort of a “worst of both worlds” approach where the panels had to take up a large amount of world space, and the player couldn’t interact with them unless they navigated their avatar to the starting tile. (To add additional insult to injury, I had separate buttons for entering and exiting a puzzle, and exiting a puzzle before solving would reset the panel.
A second benefit I get with this change is that I can prevent accidental solutions by requiring the player to manually submit the current state for checking. Previously, the solution was checked each and every time the player toggled a tile. Because the player will most likely only press the “check solution” button when they think they might have solved the panel, the player and game will only ever be out of sync when the player was actually wrong. No more situations where you’re reasoning your way towards something, only to be interrupted partway through by the sound of the panel being solved.
As a final bonus, which I’m sure no one will care about, it makes the player avatar a bit more important in general navigation and puzzle solving. This fact may or may not be utilized later…
Since the last blog post, I finished up revisions on the other areas in the game and sent out a test build to a few people. Still not done getting feedback from that, but overall the game seems to at least be improving. So that’s good news.
Needless to say, there’s quite a number of things that I could write about. But since automated puzzle generation/solving seems to be a pettopic of mine lately for the devlog. I thought I might cover a little bit of how I adapted the automated solver to work for the “snake puzzles.”
There are two main types of panels in the game, if categorized based on how you interact with them. Those are the “toggle” panels, which you click on, and the “snake” panels, which you walk around on. I mostly refer to the snake panels as “walking” panels, but the name still sticks around in the code from the early development days when you weren’t walking on them.
In any case, because of the nature of the input method for the walking puzzles, the same brute force method of finding all possible solutions doesn’t really work.
Admittedly, there is probably a much smarter way of doing things than what I chose to do, but since I don’t want to spend too much time on the auto solver unless I really have to, I chose to simply take the approach of feeding the output of the current solver into a separate “pruning pass.” This works well enough, because all the solutions which are walk-able are really just a subset of the solutions that are possible using the click-to-toggle mechanics.
I chose to essentially take the output of the brute force solver and feed it through two rejection passes. One is a broad (and hopefully fast) rejection pass, which will never reject valid solutions, but will still leave some impossible solutions un-rejected.
The above grid represents a 3×5 solution state that we might be checking to see if it could be done by walking. I didn’t draw any symbols on the panel because it would be irrelevant as that part of solution validation is already done by this point.
So we take this panel and feed it into our first rejection pass. This broad and hopefully fast pass simply checks to see if all of the walked tiles (those would be the ones in white in the above image) are part of the same area. Since as the player can only step on tiles which are adjacent to ones they have already stepped on, this is a guaranteed property of all valid solutions.
Obviously, we can see that there are several different white regions, so this solution is not valid. But the question you might have in your mind is how I would go about that in code? Well, since I already have a function to find all the tiles in a given area, I simply look across the panel until I find a single white tile, call the function to find all the tiles in that area, and then I compare the count of tiles found to the total number of white tiles in the solution state. If they’re equal, then we pass it on to the next pass.
If not, we reject the solution as invalid.
int whiteTileCount = 0;
bool isValidSolution = false;
foreach(bool b in currentState)
for(int x = 0; x < width; x++)
for(int y = 0; y < height; y++)
if(currentState[x+width*y] && !lockedTiles[x+width*y]) //We only want to look at the area of white tiles
ArrayList checkedTiles = new ArrayList();
int num_same_tiles = 0;
FindAllTilesInArea(x, y, ref checkedTiles, ref num_same_tiles, true);
if(num_same_tiles == whiteTileCount)
//Could be possible, so we do further testing, we
//want to OR the values here, because if any spot
//on the panel allows the solution to be drawn,
isValidSolution = isValidSolution | IsSolutionDrawableFrom(x, y, tempState.Clone() as bool);
//We found a disconnected white area, this in and
//of itself will exclude this solution from being
//possible on a snake panel
isValidSolution = false;
So, we've rejected the previous state and now we will move on to another potential solution state (pictured above). This one passes the first test, as all of the white tiles are connected into one area. So that means it it will get passed on to the second phase.
In this phase, we walk through the panel, tile by tile, from all available starting points (the example panel starts in the bottom left), and we mark off each tile as we go through it. When we reach a branch, we follow out one of the branches until we have eaten all of the tiles. If we do not eat all the tiles by following a branch, that means there is a dead end in the panel and it is not walk-able.
Below is a visualization of this approach.
The code to do this is somewhat more complex than the first pass, and involves a recursive function:
public bool IsSolutionDrawableFrom(int x, int y, bool testState)
testState[x+width*y] = false;
bool returnVal = false;
if(x > 0 && testState[(x-1)+width*y]) returnVal = returnVal | IsSolutionDrawableFrom(x-1, y, testState.Clone() as bool);
if(x 0 && testState[x+width*(y-1)]) returnVal = returnVal | IsSolutionDrawableFrom(x, y-1, testState.Clone() as bool);
if(y < height-1 && testState[x+width*(y+1)]) returnVal = returnVal | IsSolutionDrawableFrom(x, y+1, testState.Clone() as bool);
if(returnVal) return true;
foreach(bool b in testState)
//if we reach this point, we've hit a dead end somewhere, this
//means if find a lit tile that's disconnected from somewhere we
//could walk to, then this solution must be untenable;
if(b) return false;
That's pretty much it for it this week. Perhaps next week I'll discuss a spoilery meta-puzzle thing I've been working on lately. Although if you'd follow the development live on twitch, you'd already know about that!
It’s been too long since I wrote a devlog entry. Mostly this has been because I’ve been doing a lot of nitty gritty puzzle design stuff, and I try to keep the blog posts fairly high level so that people can read without getting too spoiled on specific puzzles. I’ve been working through the checklist for the next test build, which involves time-consuming revisions to most of the areas in the game.
The most recent area I’ve finished revising is the “dice” puzzles. Here’s a birds-eye comparison shot between the area “pre-revision” and after. The right version is the new and revised area.
You’ll notice that the overall structure of the area hasn’t changed too much, but internally there have been a lot of changes. Both some entire sets of puzzles have been added, as well as some of the earlier puzzles have been cut or moved to other areas.
I thought it might be fun to put this image alongside the previous revisions of this area, so you can see four different versions of the same area side-by-side.
Needless to say, the area has continued to evolve over the years, and will most likely see more changes in the future. The continuing level of flux is the main reason why it’s all still using prototype graphics. Luckily I feel like things are starting to congeal a bit more, so I should be able to start “arting it up” pretty soon.
There are 60 puzzles in the newest version of the area, although it may change to where the player is only required to solve a much smaller subset to “complete” the area.
Speaking of completing areas, I added a fun little effect that happens when you finish an area. This gives the player a bit more satisfaction at that moment and leaves them with little confusion as to whether they need to do more to finish the area.
I may or may not get it in for the next round of testing, but I’d also like to add a warp that allows the player to warp back to the central hub area after finishing a world.
Something else that I spent an inordinate amount of time on over the past month or so is implementing a mouse cursor that exists in world-space instead of screen space.
This means that when the camera moves, the cursor will be fixed relative to the world. For example. if the player was interacting with a puzzle panel, and the camera moved, the mouse cursor would continue to hover over the tile on the panel that the player was originally pointing it at.
You can see a comparison below, screen-space is on the top and world-space is on the bottom. The mouse cursor is represented by a fairy.
This is good because it allows me the flexibility to move the camera without having to worry about negatively impacting the players experience.
However, since I’ve had some people complain about the possibility of this being disorienting or annoying, I’ve decided to maintain the old cursor system in parallel with the new one, until such time as I decide that the world-space cursor (or the old one) is better and I don’t need the other.
For the past several weeks, besides working a bunch of Saturdays at the day job, and chopping up a bunch of firewood (I rely on wood heat in the winter), I’ve been busy with some logistical behind-the-scenes stuff on the game. Unfortunately, that means not a ton of progress has happened on the game proper.
The project is reaching the stage where the list of planned tasks is ballooning faster than I can keep up with it. Although I have quite a few new ideas and mechanical changes that I’m excited to implement, I need to address the problems that I already know about before I add any new ones to the list.
Therefore, the next step will be to focus on finishing a test build. It’s been over a year(!) since I last sent the game out to testers. I’ve done a tiny bit of spot testing here and there, but the game just hadn’t changed enough to make a full test worthwhile. There are still large sections of the game that I know how to improve but I just haven’t gotten around to yet.
I also started working on some music sketches, and I’m relatively happy with the initial direction there. I’ve attempted music for the game a few times already but never found anything that really clicked. There are also some pretty harsh constraints on the things I am even allowed to do with the music. I don’t want to spoil things too much, but Taiji can be very subtle with the clues to puzzles so it’s quite easy to accidentally create red herrings while just trying to make things look or sound interesting.
Now I have a few pieces in various stages of completion, but it will be a while before I want to share anything publicly yet.
Mostly been revising puzzles the past couple weeks, so not much I can show that’s not spoilery. However, I did do a bit of concept art to figure out how water will be represented in the game. Obviously it’s all very placeholder, but I’m happy with the direction things are going.
I promised in the last blog post that I would write a bit about how optimizing the solution-finder paved the way for puzzle generation.
The good news is that I worked on the game a lot in the past week. The bad news is that I still haven’t gotten the offline puzzle generator entirely working. Since it’s a relatively low priority task, and I wanted to ship another quick build to a few people over the weekend, I set the puzzle generator aside in order to make improvements to the starting flow in two of the areas of the game.
Once you have a puzzle solver, making a puzzle generator is actually pretty straightforward. Really all you have to do is plug in random layouts into the solver until you find some that are solvable.
This is already good enough to generate a bunch of solvable puzzles, but it’s a rather blunt tool. It will generate duplicate puzzles, and it doesn’t tell us which puzzles might be worth looking at.
To prevent duplicates, we could generate puzzles in a way that never produces duplicates in the first place. However, this could mean that for any given stretch of time, we could be stuck in a local minima of uninteresting puzzles.
Finding interesting puzzles usually involves a lot of intuition, but generating them could be considered analogous in some ways to a hill-climbing problem. I don’t want to lean much into the analogy, so I’ll just say that since we are hoping to find interesting puzzles that are not very similar to each other, it is good to be as random as possible.
With random puzzles, the only way to prevent duplicates is to keep track of all previously generated layouts. This way, when we want to generate a new layout, we just keep generating layouts until we find one that we have not used already. Since we are already keeping a list of all solvable puzzles, we can easily keep an additional list of all puzzles tested, and check new layouts against the list.
The only real concern here is a trade-off between memory usage and performance. Keeping the list of all tested puzzles in memory will eventually use a lot of memory, but writing the list to disk and parsing that list over and over could be time consuming.
For the time being, I’ve decided to go with the in-memory approach. This simplifies a few things for now, and I can always write things out to disk later.
I chose to use C#’s built-in HashSet collection type to store all the previously generated panels. The benefit of this data structure is that it should be the fastest built-in type for checking if a certain item is on the list (although I have not profiled this).
Currently, puzzles are stored as several arrays. However, for testing the puzzle generator, I’ve just been generating one of these arrays: the symbols array, which stores any symbols that might be on the panel and is just a 1-dimensional integer array of size width*height. (I use a single dimensional array because I’m relying on Unity’s built-in serialization to save the panels and it does not natively support multi-dimensional arrays. I could take the time to write a custom serializer, but I’ve just been accepting the cognitive overhead of doing x+width*y every time I want to do a lookup.)
An annoyance that I immediately encountered when attempting to store generated panels in the HashSet is that when doing the following:
bool done_generating = false;
//symbols is an int
//previousPanels is a HashSet<int>
symbols = GenerateNewPanel();
//The panel is unique!
done_generating = true;
previousPanels.Contains() would sometimes let duplicate panels through. That is to say, it would declare that a certain panel state was not in the HashSet when it really should have been.
I would have expected to get hash collision problems, and have panels get rejected as duplicates when they were not, but for some reason the opposite problem arose. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps there is something funny going on with the implicit call to symbols.GetHashCode() since it’s an integer array (You can find the implementation in the reference source code, but I don’t understand it enough to tell what went wrong). Perhaps I don’t understand hash generation well enough in general.
In any case, I averted my eyes from whatever madness was happening there, and just passed a string in instead and moved along.
One other important thing to consider in my specific use case is that puzzles can sometimes be rotated or reflected duplicates. What I mean is that the following three puzzles are identical, as the solution gets rotated and reflected along with the symbols.
Checking for these duplicates is really just a matter of comparing all possible manipulations of a generated panel to the HashSet before declaring it unique.
The Cream of the Crop
Once you’ve got a list of unique puzzles, the problem then becomes how to sort through the many generated puzzles to find ones that are interesting.
This is the thing that I have mostly not finished. I began by keeping track of how many solutions any given puzzle had, as generally speaking, puzzles with only one solution are more interesting to me (although not always more interesting to put in the game, for various peculiar reasons) than ones that have several solutions.
However, I ran into a strange bug where the number of solutions is being incorrectly reported during puzzle generation. I spent a few hours trying to track down some fault in my generation code, or in the way in which I was serializing the finished puzzles to disk.
My best hypothesis at the moment for the location of the bug is that it has to do with the solution validation code. When checking if a puzzle is solved or not, I am assuming that the panel has been completely initialized. This is usually a safe assumption because panels don’t have symbols moving around at runtime (yet?) and because if I move them around in the editor, the panel gets reinitialized when I’m done.
However, inside the puzzle generator, I’m not re-initializing the entire panel when the symbols change (primarily as an optimization). This may be causing the solution checking to fail because some state has not been properly set.
More on that later. I won’t guarantee that I will be back in the next post to talk more about puzzle generation, as I am beginning to hack away at the tasklist for the next real test build(!)
The list is only 11 items long, but they’re big items.