Sloppy game design or a game that is challenging you to think outside the box? If there's one question that could sum up a lot of people's reaction to my latest game, Sententia, it would be that one. On September 11th, 2012 I released my third Xbox 360 game as part of the third annual Indie Games Uprising event that I also helped coordinate alongside Dave Voyles. From the very beginning the game was meant to be a small scale project to hone in and improve my game design skills... as I started to delve deeper into the project I found this meant a lot of experimental design solely based on feelings I wanted to communicate to the player. The game started with a single question I had: why can't a game emotionally move me like my favorite albums and films? Largely inspired by Gravitation by Jason Rohrer, Aether by Edmund McMillen and Braid by Jonathan Blow I set off on a 3 - 4 month journey to make a meaningful and hopefully impactful game.
For those of you unfamiliar with the game, Sententia is about the struggles to keep our imagination and creative spirits alive as we grow up - it's about the pains of being a person who likes to create things. You start off as a young creature in a forest with his father and grandpa who teach you how to build bridges to progress through the world. In between these bridge puzzles are platforming elements where you are confronted with other kids who can attack and destroy you with their own words. As you progress through "life's forest" you gradually become older, eventually becoming a young adult.
I don't want to explain every little detail of what the game means to me, or the message I was trying to convey exactly... but I will say that every single thing in the game has an "artistic reason" for being there. In the beginning there was a ton of dialogue planned for the game, including from the player's character, but I felt this was the equivalent of putting words into the player's mouth. I wanted the player to feel like he was the kid in the game, not playing through memories of another person. The only way I knew to not be forceful with the story was to put a ton of abstractions into the game. All of the main mechanics in the game are metaphors: the bridges, the platforming, and even the specific level designs were all made to communicate certain things.
In an interview shortly after the game's release I explained one of the mechanics, so I'll explain it one more time here as an example: I've been making various projects since I was a little kid... albums, short films, games... I've always tried to find whatever way available to me to create things. As I got older I found that I was using these projects as a way to move on and progress through my life, and the bridges in the game represent that. There's a bit more to it as the game progresses, but that was the starting point for the idea.
If you look back at a lot of games that have survived the test of time, many started off with similar artistic goals in their design. The precursor to Monopoly was The Landlord's Game designed by Elizabeth Maggie; she designed this game to demonstrate the brutal effects of land monopolism and how land value tax could remedy the situation. All of this was achieved through the mechanics of the game. I believe this is the key to making more meaningful games, we have to learn how to speak through the mechanics and not force certain narrative conclusions; the player needs to put the pieces together in their heads.
Preparing For Release
By the end of the third or fourth month of development, I felt like the game was complete. I spent a few more months polishing and doing some playtesting sessions with friends, family and other developers. I knew that the game I had made was pretty radical, I pretty much disregarded the status quo of game design in favor for making something that I felt communicated various messages, memories and feelings accurately.
During the playtesting sessions, I found the game had multiple personalities. When playing alone the game frustrates you, makes you think, confuses you, feels rewarding, feels happy, feels sad... But when playing with a group of people I found the game had an offbeat sense of humor that made it a blast to play. Everyone watching would laugh at the player when he would jump on a tile that would suddenly fall killing him. As he learned which bricks fell and progressed to the next level there would be even more laughter as the player would destroy an enemy with his own words only to find that he infinitely respawns, forcing the player to experiment with ways to get around the bully. Harsh and unfair? That's life. If the laughter could speak it would say something along the lines of: "Hey, you got screwed for no reason. Welcome to the real world."
I was aware that I broke a lot of game design rules with Sententia. Each platforming scene requires experimentation on the player's part to find how to get around the bullies. It's possible to just run through attacking, but I made sure it's extremely difficult to do this. The actual ways to get past these levels are usually very easy once you figure them out, and are metaphors of life lessons I've learned.
After a few final playtesting sessions I felt that the game was ready for release, and my vision for the project was fulfilled. I learned so much working on this game it's unbelievable: not only did I find my voice in games, but I felt like I finally made something that I could truly call mine; there's not a single game out there like Sententia, I had no other games to reference because there wasn't an example of what I was trying to achieve exactly.
For the past few years I've been plagued by this thing where I look at the clock almost every day when it's 9:11 AM and PM. Partially motivated by this and the fact that I was one of the first games that passed the peer review process for release on XBLIG, I scheduled to release Sententia on the second day of the Uprising: September, 11th.
Upon release, the game was met with a negative response from the XBLIG circle of reviewers and gamers. It managed to start a lot of controversy over various issues, but as some say, any press is good press and I think it's great it got people talking.
My favorite thing during release was a group of reviewers who were stumped on the last bridge puzzle of the game: none of them could figure it out and many of them furiously emailed me demanding I tell them the answer. Eventually one guy figured it out, the word spread, and I got some hate tweets about how I am a crappy game designer for randomly including a new mechanic without explaining it. I was cracking up the entire time, because I was hoping something like this would happen! The last puzzle in the game is about how easy it is to get stumped on something we have done quite a bit and feel we know inside out, but really the answer is right in front of our eyes and just requires a little time to process the information given to us. I find that this is a common problem with creative people, and based on people's reactions I feel like I nailed the feeling.
During release week I was very confused and discouraged about what was going on. I stayed away from the internet completely because I dreaded reading stuff about the game and even myself. Everyday I'd wake up to some type of lengthy blog post or discussion about how I am a pretentious hipster that no one should support because I suck or whatever. The reviews of the game confused me because I could tell from what they said I achieved what I was trying to do, but it was like they didn't agree with my thought process and would then pan me with a low score. Journalists who were so excited to talk to me prior to the game's release suddenly stopped talking to me, since I was no longer a good story for their site.... just a ton of stuff I didn't know how to respond to, so I did the humanly thing and got away from it all to think about what these things meant.
As time went on I found people posting interpretations of what the game meant to them. Reading those things had to be the most validating moment of my entire life... I went off on a limb with this game, and here were people that fully understood what I was trying to do! I read unexpected things like how one person thought the game was about being a pacifist, all the way to people who pretty much nailed my own interpretation. Every once and a while I still get feedback from someone telling me that they found the game to be powerful, interesting and some have even told me the game challenges the video game medium. Cool! These things mean more to me than a stupid review score, and as the months went by the positive reactions started to slowly stack up.
During January of this year all of the Uprising games were promoted on the front page of Xbox Live for a few days, and during the second day of the promotion a picture of Sententia was the first image you saw when logging on! Days later I got the download figures and saw a huge number of people had played the game. What was even cooler was that after the promotion the game was nowhere to be seen and I was still moving around 500-800 copies a day... it seemed the game was spreading by word of mouth!
A few days later, Sententia was in the Top 20 Most Popular list for indie games. It stayed there for almost two weeks. At the end of the month I had outsold all of my previous games combined and had reached a ton of new people... which was the most rewarding part of the experience.
I don't think I'd label the game a cult smash hit, but there's definitely a small group of people that have really gotten into it; it makes me smile to think about the game having a cult following... it seems like it's kind of happened!
I'm sick of games that want to glamorize killing and war. I'm sick of games that degrade women. I'm sick of "fun" games that try to addict you for hours and give you nothing meaningful in return. I'm sick of games that spoon feed me everything like I can't think for myself. Really, I'm sick of a lot of things that have become widely accepted in this industry, but thanks to a lot of awesome smaller individually made projects I'm convinced there's a lot of potential in games that hasn't been fully explored.
Unfortunately, a lot of designers and gamers are brainwashed into thinking games have to be a certain way... they have to feel balanced, fair and always inform the player of every little detail. Most importantly, they have to be "fun", which is a super vague word (art game is a vague word too by the way), if we keep running with this philosophy I think it'll be an even harder struggle to expand video games into unexplored territory. The good news is that things are starting to change, and it shows with the recent success of games like Dear Esther, Proteus and Antichamber.
I can't put into words all the things I learned with Sententia, but I wrote this with the hope that it will be informative and helpful to others that need a kick in the right direction. Do I think the game is perfect? No. There are things that could be improved, but for what I set out to do it's exactly the way it should be. I'd rather see games that try new things and stumble along the way than games that repeat the same formulas we've been using for the last thirty years.
The more I release games the more I understand the reasoning behind people like Terrance Mallick, who never give interviews or talk about their work. The social aspect of doing this stuff sucks. The video game industry needs more games unaffected by public opinion and feedback; games made by human beings, not machines. We need more games made by individuals that have a single vision that drives the project.... you know.... an artist.
- Michael Hicks (@michaelartsxm)