59. Shrines and Ancient Ruins

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)

Shrine

This area is styled after a Japanese shrine and centered within a large lake.

Ruins

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!)

Bonus

Here’s a bonus screenshot of another area in the game.

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.

57. Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls

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. 🙂

56. Nose to the (Art) Grindstone

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.

But…well…I’m poor.

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!)

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.

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.

32. What I’ve Been Up To

Whew, it’s been a while! It’s dusty up in here.

Have no fear, Taiji is not cancelled. I just took a few months off from working on it, and somehow that few months turned into a few more. But now I’m back and ready to start working on this beast again.

I actually forgot to post an update that I should have a while ago: I did some art tests and a complete re-design of the starting area puzzles. I may cover those new starting area puzzles in more detail later. But here’s one of those early art tests. (VERY WIP)

Taiji_StartingArea_ArtTest


In the interim while I wasn’t working on Taiji, I was very active working on other things. So here are a few of those other things that you might want to check out:

Most recently, I released a short puzzle game called Polarization. If you like puzzle games (presumably you do), and sokobon-likes in particular, you should check it out!

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Polarization

I did a video essay about 2016’s DOOM and how it manages to feel fresh while recapturing the magic of the original.

And perhaps more appropriate for a puzzle-game interested audience, I did an analysis video of some of the early puzzles in the Jungle area in The Witness. This is a segment that I had to cut from the non-verbal communication essay that I keep threatening to release. I think it’s good, but the focus was too specific.

Hopefully you enjoy checking out some of these other things I’ve been doing lately. Keep your eyes peeled because I will be starting back on Taiji soon and will have some updates. I will probably stream some work on twitch as well, so follow me there if you aren’t already.

30. Long Time, No Stream

Since I’ve been working a lot at my day job, I haven’t had the energy to work on the game outside of the Sunday streams. Unfortunately, I also had to cancel a couple streams, so progress lately has been pretty slow. I also forgot to post a devlog update after this past stream. Oops!

This past weekend, I built out a full rough draft quality version of the “dots” puzzle area. Here’s a screenshot from the editor of the entire area as it currently exists.

roughdraftdotsarea

The player enters from the top left, learns the basic mechanics and then the area branches off into some variant types of puzzles which layer on some additional mechanics. This is good because it maintains interest and gives the player options, although the exact puzzles will need to be iterated on until they have a good sequence flow.

But even accounting for that future improvement, I still feel like the area is a bit too flat overall. It’s just kind of a bag of panel puzzles, without a lot of interaction with the environment. I don’t yet have clear idea on how to fix that, but I will hopefully come up with something.

Mostly this critique comes from comparing the area to the dice face area, which is perhaps the most developed area currently in the game. That area has a few problems of its own at the end, in that I don’t feel like I quite switch it up enough right at the end, but there’s definitely a good interplay between the core mechanic of the area interaction with the environment.

Next up, I’d really like to improve the walking animation for the player, and do some more concept art. Then I have some ideas that I want to try out as an alternative implementation of one of the other areas in the game.