So, BeMuse isn't finished, yet. In truth, it's barely even started. There are reasons for this beyond the usual.
Part of my slowness is from moving to Unity, fresh from having developed a library of stuff that did exactly what I wanted, exactly how I wanted, predictably, reliably and understandably. Now I have to do it all again, while constantly guessing why someone would do stuff like 'let's give the angle between two vectors A and B on a plane as always positive'. Ugh. (The solution is here, incidentally)
Part of my slowness is that I don't want to make 'just a game' this time around. Ideally - I don't want the player's experience of my world to end. I want to build something huge, and beautiful, and strange - a place to be inhabited rather than a simple collection of rules to goals to interpret and beat.
It turns out that this is hard.
Art Vs. Content.
It seems to me that the more content you put in a game, the less artistic it is perceived to be. It's like there's an agreed-upon continuum all the way from 'There's nothing to do - it's meaningful art!' all the way up to 'There's so much to do - it's just a game!'
If you're at one end (Proteus, Dear Esther, Journey, Limbo, Sworcery) then you're artistic enough to have established a world people are just happy to reside in for a while, and you leave it at that. Job done.
If you're at the other end (Zelda, Nethack, Minecraft) then you put in as much content as possible and are thus gamey enough to satisfy gamers, but somehow lose any potential artistic merit... because you're too much of a game (the development version of the 'friend zone').
If you disagree, just imagine Limbo with a hookshot. Go on. Imagine it. Right stick, angle it just right, press the right trigger: 'Whoootish!' Yay! Got to that tree top! Oh, dear! The 'fun' just destroyed the 'art'!
In the middle-ground between these two is the 'Zone of Meh': games which may have been developed with artistic intent, but where the form and nature of the play have colluded to make it too 'fun' to be 'serious'... or conversely not quite 'big' enough to be considered a 'best of breed' game. Incoboto sits here.
All silliness aside (and I'm really not serious about this graph), there's something to be said for understanding your own motivations, and how perception of content works in the current culture of gaming.
If you aim to produce something 'meaningful' you have to think long and hard about your content, and ensure that every single aspect of your work reflects that, or else is cull it. It is the opposite from my usual 'Kitchen Sink with a One Man Team' approach. If I were a logical, rational individual, I'd consider this (not really serious) curve, and carefully consider how big/complex to make my next game, weighing up every line of code and every art asset against how far into the Zone of Meh it may push me.
Fortunately, I'm not logical or rational, so you're not going to see much of that, here.
I did think it was worth noting, though.
BeMuse - inspiration, Sworcery and Splines
I've written about my Moomins fascination before, and how both Tove Jansson (and the polish animation team who brought her vision to life) have hugely inspired my work on BeMuse. So enough of that.
The one thing I haven't mentioned is the impact of Sworcery - or more specifically, this piece of Sworcery art had: "Slyve & Sworcery" by Slyve at Capy. I think it's wonderfully evocative.
When I first saw this picture, I loved the dingy world it evoked, and it reminded me how disappointed I was that Sworcery wasn't... just bigger. There's a lot to be said for a pared-down, clean and simple story, told well, but I really wanted to feel I could get lost in that world, and I really, really couldn't. This piece of art hinted at what might have been. In particular, I loved the big overhang cliff in the background. I wanted to walk there.
This got me thinking about cameras and splines.
Splines are really rather under-used in gaming; beyond providing camera paths, they're treated as a mere smoothing method for scripted objects. A decade or so ago, when the 2.5D thing was a big deal, games like Pandemonium and Klonoa used this basic technology to allow complex 3D explorations and visualisations of 2D environments.
The result was something that was easy to control, but not stuck to one single plane of movement. Sadly the practise rather died out, and now everything is either full 3D or 2D... bar Sonic, for better or worse.
As I was working on BeMuse, I realised that splines offer you a couple of other things, too:
1) They allow simple navigation of a 3D space. If you link several splines together, you can deliver all of the freedom of 3D world-navigation, while retaining the simplicity of 2D movement. Not only that, but the underlying structure of the splines provides a lot of pathing information for creatures trying to navigate on them. It is flexible enough to work with platformers or point-and-click adventures. Just don't expect Unity's physics to be friends any more, as spline constraint rather kills any hope of using the standard methods for moving objects... but hey! Splines!
2) They offer a unique method of terrain generation. Once you have a spline, you can loft it in all sorts of interesting ways, and use them to create organic, interesting geometry with ease.
In BeMuse I'm using both iTween and GoKit to handle my spliney needs, with a custom script on top to generate the terrain mesh.
iTween gives me the ability to find the length of a spline path. For some reason, GoKit doesn't have this.
GoKit gives me the ability to move an object at a fixed speed through an entire curve. For some reason, iTween doesn't have this. If you bunch up your points an object will move slowly through that section of the curve. Separate them out and the object whizzes through them. Using both these libraries at the same time gives me the flexibility to do exactly the things I need until someone out there realises that this is a silly situation and fixes them (well one of them, anyway).
Here's how BeMuse started out, before the spline stuff went in:
Here's an example of one of my original experiments with the spline-generated topography. Note the fat, curvy form of the terrain:
And here's what it turned into:
Art Vs. Content Part 2: Animal Crossing, Slenderman and The SCP Foundation
So, having decided that content is unappreciated in serious circles, and that a lack of content is inimical to my own development style, I wondered if there was a third way. After wracking my brains for a while, a return to Animal Crossing showed me the path out of this dilemma.
Animal Crossing is an attempt to provide players with an alternative life of (limited) bucolic bliss. I am aware that for others it's a pointless waste of time - but they're just wrong. In giving the players simple tasks, and then slowly changing the environment and personalities around them the developers have made the world itself an oddly meaningful, constantly changing wallpaper - a background for your otherwise humdrum activities.
At the same time, I also discovered Slenderman and the SCP Foundation. Both are new mythologies that the internet population has riffed upon, extended, interpreted and folded back into the original stories. Fiction-forms like this have bred stories, movies, games and other media, all from the basic premise of taking a tall-tale, and finding ways for the audience to riff on it and then feed that back.
Admittedly, this is not new to games. Both Starseed Pilgrim (or ??? as I like to think of it) and the Roguelike game Unreal World use some aspect of uncertainty to elevate their games. Starseed Pilgrim is wilfully obscure in every way. Conversely, Unreal World is a fairly straightforward pre-Minecraft 'crafting RPG' where magical rituals have no fanfare, no special effects, no indication at all that they work. But one performs them anyway in the hope that they actually do something useful. I've experienced bountiful hunts after performing a ritual. Was it luck? Is there anything hooked up to the spell casting code? Who knows? I do it anyway just in case (and thusly, all the religions of the world were born). Best. Spell system. Evaaaaar.
Hello Kitty meets The Exorcist - or 'A Game for Liars'
So, after all that, what is BeMuse about? It's a little clearer than Starseed Pilgrim, but hopefully not so transparent that it falls back into the Zone of Meh, or all the way into 'Just a Game' territory.
The aims are:
1) Provide a large, explorable world with lots and lots of locations, and lots and lots of odd things in it: statues that rotate and make unsettling piping sounds, scrawled symbols on trees that change with the phases of the moon, skulking creatures that come out at night to perform weird singsong rituals, brightly coloured clouds that wander across the world as if on the hunt and alter things they come into contact with, weather patterns, variable time-of-day, strange phases of the moon (including 'Bitter', 'Querulous', 'Maleficent' and 'Craven'), and many other factors that change during play. There's going to be a lot for the casual tourist to see.
2) Fill the world with Demons, hidden everywhere, to be combated by understanding and manipulating both them and the world they inhabit via arcane rituals you learn about throughout play. Some rituals are lies. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Demons will swallow your soul. Demons will try to trick you.
3) Establish a feedback process by which people can lie and rumour-monger freely, about places they've seen/found a way into, which ritual behaviours work, what the effects are, which Demons they've seen, where they were seen, and how they were defeated etc.
This last part is critical. The plan is to fold back the most interesting lies people tell, so that they become truth.
There will be only one score/aim; the number of secrets you have found. Some of the things you find may not actually be secrets. They may be lies.
A part of the inspiration came from an old Clive Barker story, where the main 'monster' (always Barker's favoured protagonists) utters the lines:
"I am rumour. It is a blessed condition, believe me. To be whispered about at street corners. To live in other people's dreams, but not to have to be."
Remember how kids are all told that if they say Bloody Mary in a mirror 5 times, she'll come and get them? Remember how you kinda didn't believe it but never did this because it was silly definitely not because I'm scared no definitely not that.
I'm hoping to get a bit of that going in the game.
By making this game in this particular way, I'm hoping to disconnect content and art - or more, disconnect the amount of content and the perception of art. There will be no one simple core gameplay mechanic. There will just be a world, the unknown, mystery, malice and the sound of screaming, oh God the screaming please make the screaming sto...
Fluttermind’s director, Dene Carter, is a games industry veteran of over 25 years, and co-founder of Big Blue Box Studios, creators of the Fable franchise for the XBox and XBox 360.