75. Putting the Ends Together

I am still working on the Endgame area. I had hoped to be done with it by the end of last year, if you can believe that. So I would say things are progressing quite a bit slower than anticipated. With that said, the puzzle design for this area is now complete, as is most of the art, so I’ve just been assembling the pieces that I’ve created. Wiring up the bits and the bobs, so to speak. I’ve been doing a lot of this on stream, compromising a bit on my desire to keep everything about the Endgame unspoiled, but I think it’s more important for me to be able to focus and get the Endgame area done as quickly as I can.

Here’s a spoiler-free screenshot of some of that:

Once I finish the Endgame, there’s really only one large task left on the list, which is the Mill. So, in spite of being behind schedule, there’s still a decent chance that I can ship the game roughly on time. As I regretted in the previous devlog post, I do wish there were more time for me to polish up stuff and re-do bits I’m not as happy with as I could be. But alas…

One major thing that I’ve had to cut is simultaneous console ports of the game. The current plan is for the initial release of the game to be PC only, and then I will do one unannounced console port as soon as is reasonable. It would help me a lot with determining where best to focus if you would answer the following poll.

73. Website Updates/Ending Puzzle Games

Since you’re reading this on the development blog, you’re probably already aware; but I freshened up the home page to be cleaner and more informative for newcomers. There’s also some nice links at the bottom to all of the places you can find Taiji around the internet.

Speaking of which, you can now join the Discord group and chat with other folks who are excited about the game. We’ve got room to grow, so I hope you’ll consider joining our little community!

If you have any suggestions or complaints about the website or the discord group, then you can leave a comment on this post or talk to me on Discord and I’ll see what I can do!

Working on The Endgame

Taiji’s ending involves some puzzle concepts that I don’t want to spoil, so this article will be spoiler-free as far as Taiji is concerned. However, I will need to discuss some other game’s endings for context. Spoiler sections will be marked if you want to skip them, you may be able to pick up enough with context.

Because I want to keep the ending a surprise, I haven’t been able to work on it on my livestreams. But bouncing between working on art for the livestreams and working on the endgame prevented me from being able to do the type of Deep Work necessary to get the ending right.

However, as I’m heading into what should be the final year of development, it is urgent that I have this part of the game design worked out, so I’ve been taking a bit of a sabbatical from livestreams so that I can focus on getting the ball rolling here. This past week has involved dusting off some code that I haven’t touched in almost six months.

What Makes a Good Ending?

Making a satisfying ending for any video game is a challenge, but I think I puzzle games are a particular enigma. With action games it can often suffice to cap things off with a particularly difficult boss battle. But what is the equivalent of a boss battle for a puzzle video game?

The most straightforward interpretation might be to simply have a really hard puzzle to cap things off, but this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role that boss battles serve. Boss battles are not simply “the normal gameplay, but harder.” Instead they offer a different type of gameplay than the rest of the game. The boss enemy will usually have complex movement patterns that require memorization, and may change over the course of the fight, or perhaps the environment will become involved in the battle in a way that it previously hadn’t.

The important takeaway is that satisfying endings require a change-of-pace. There ideally needs to be a shift in the gameplay style, context, and intensity. How you choose to accomplish this is really up to you, but the point is that although a hard puzzle may suffice for the ending to a smaller subsection of your puzzle game, it cannot be relied upon on its own to create a satisfying final coda.

So, let’s take a look at some of the methods that other games have chosen in order to achieve this change of pace. One of the most common methods that I’ve seen is to introduce a timer of some kind.

(mechanical spoilers for the end of Portal and Portal 2 follow)

Both Portal games, for instance, end with boss battles where the player must solve a series of portalling challenges in a limited amount of time. Apart from a bit of a forced mechanical trick at the end of Portal 2, both games don’t introduce any new mechanics at the end and instead have the player exercising basic puzzle skills that they have mastered earlier in the game, with most of the challenge coming from the time constraint.

(end Portal spoilers)

The problem with puzzle games having time-constrained challenges is that they can devolve into a sort of worst-case scenario if you’re not very careful about designing them. If the puzzles are too much of a challenge or the time limit is too aggressive, players may find themselves repeating one of the least replay-able forms of gameplay besides horror.

(I mean, I’m a huge fan of puzzle games, but it’s an obvious fact that you often get much more out of replaying action games due to the dynamics of the gameplay than you get out of replaying a fixed set of puzzles, even in a fantastically well-designed puzzle game.)

(mechanical spoilers for The Witness follow)

One possible way of resolving this problem of repeatability is to introduce dynamics into the puzzle gameplay. The Witness does this with procedurally generated puzzles both in a small subsection of the Mountain ending, and in large form in its hidden Challenge area. Although the player must repeat the Challenge many times in order to succeed, because the puzzles are different each time, the player is never doing the exact same set of gameplay events through their many attempts.

(As a side note, if we consider The Challenge to be one of the endings, The Witness actually has three different endings: The meta-puzzle gauntlet inside the mountain, the time-limited challenge, and the sky lounge ending. Perhaps The Witness is “covering all the bases”, having multiple endings which might satisfy different players in different ways.)

(end The Witness spoilers)

There are lots of different approaches that have been attempted with puzzle game endings, and I won’t rule out incorporating some aspects of what other games have done into the ending for Taiji, but it is my plan right now to attempt something that I have not seen done before.

With that said, it is a large design and tech challenge and it is still in the nascent stages as of the writing of this article. But if I can pull it off, I think I will have created something that I personally can be satisfied with.

Oh, there’s also a another ending. 😉

62. Metamusings

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.

58. Arts and Crafts

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.

The player can go up those stairs at the top of the screen and then walk over the bridge.

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:

Mood Trailer

Manifold Garden Instagram (Daily Videos since July 18)

Edge Detection & Anti-Aliasing Comparison 2015 vs 2019

Architectural Inspirations

Now Available Trailer (Although about 80% of this was Derek Lieu, and I just polished it up and replaced a few shots)

I also did a ton of odds and ends stuff that I can’t really take the time to list here, but suffice to say it’s been a bit busy.

55. The Sound of Music

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!

54. A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off

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.

53. Revisions Completed

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.

New Art!

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.

Testing

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)

The Plateau

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.

(diagram from The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook)

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.

52. A New(?) Interaction

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 “new panel system for 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).

The original panel system for the game (apologies for the mouse cursor)
(character art by @martin_cohen)

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…

50. Dice Area Revisions and Other Fun Stuff

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.

Left: Old   Right: New and Improved!

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.

Progress? The earliest version is on the left, and latest on the right.

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.

Area Completion

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.

Puzzle obscured to prevent spoilers.

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.

World-Space Cursor

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.