[Erik Svedang, the creator of the 2009 Independent Games Festival Grand Prize winner Blueberry Garden, shares the thought processes and inspirations that shaped his atmospheric exploration-based PC indie game, which he calls "a small stepping stone in trying to help evolve storytelling in games."]
I was a bit reluctant to write this text at first, since I don't think I'm the best person to pick my own game apart. I'm a creator, and not a game critic, and obviously what I'm going to write about lies too close to my heart for me to really see it clearly.
Initially I was going to write a regular Gamasutra postmortem, which would have solved the problem to some extent. I could have focused on obvious mistakes such as releasing a game with no saving functionality, ridiculously high system requirements, and extremely limited buying options in today's video game market.
I resisted this, though; it's not what I am interested in. I'm primarily a game designer, and since the rest of the world clearly has moved beyond my level of amateurishness I will just promise to do better in the future and move on to look at the more interesting points of my game.
When I set out to create the game, I almost completely looked at it as an experiment, or rather two experiments, combined into one whole. First of all, I really wanted to create a game where the underlying world was a working ecosystem. I imagined many creatures with different behaviors eating, mating, dying, etc. -- completely independent of the presence of the player.
Secondly I wanted to see what I could do with the idea of telling a story solely through interactivity, the "holy grail" of our art form. This would include not forcing the player to do anything she didn't want to do.
In other words, she would have total control over the actions of the player character. In my mind this meant to not use any cutscenes, descriptive texts, or triggered events -- all meaning of the story would have to emerge from the systems of the game (and these systems would have to be general). This would turn out to be a very difficult thing to do, indeed.
I started the actual production in early 2008 as a part of my final thesis at the bachelor degree Game Design program in Skövde that I went to at the time. As I worked along on my game and people got hold of the trailer and my working version, it became increasingly clear that I could not look at my work as completely academic or self-fulfilling. I realized that people would actually want to play my creation (and even pay money for it -- gasp!)
This of course presented me with some interesting problems, mainly concerning the length of the game. This text aims to look at these two main parts of the game (the ecosystem and the interactive storytelling) in separation to see how well they work on their own. After that I will discuss how they combine into a game and how they represent some possibilities for creating meaning through interaction.
The idea of having an ecosystem in a game is naturally nothing new. It has been done many times before and I should have taken a better look at existing examples to be better prepared for the daunting task I had set up for myself. The reason I wanted an ecosystem in the game in the first place was that it's one of the most interesting and easy to understand real-world systems with emergent properties.
For some reason it speaks to the human soul that we're just part of a greater circle of life. Also I wanted to beat Peter Molyneux by putting growing trees into games before he succeeded.
To make the ecosystem "real" I decided that it had to be simulated in all places simultaneously, without any difference if the camera of the player was there or not. This is something that I think many people that are new to video games take for granted, but gradually learn that "that's not how it works in games" and eventually come to terms with.
I wanted people to be able to bring real-world knowledge into the game and make use of it there. One could even say that my goal was to make the game easier for a person used to surviving in the woods than for an experienced gamer. Sadly (and predictably) this failed... I think I will try again someday.
To be able to build this kind of system I realized I needed elements like plants,seeds and creatures. This in turn made me understand that some kind of physics simulation was necessary; gravity had to pull the apples down from the trees, so tospeak. This is where things got messy:
This article will not discuss programming, so suffice it to say that constantly simulating all the physics in a big, freely explorable world is not a great idea, especially not if someone is going to use the computer to play a platforming game at the same time. This was clearly one of the things where my academic interest and artistic vision was prioritized, with the players of the game paying the price. In a way, I think it was worth it though; it really is an area of computer games that needs exploration.
I have had some clever people giving me pointers on how the simulation could be simplified to make it more manageable. This could involve running a less accurate version of the physics in far off places in the world, for example.
I don't want the game to work that way though. For me, a huge part of the experience is knowing that everything is "for real." In Blueberry Garden the tree falls in the forest even if no one hears it. This might not be the route for the future of game design. Maybe you could even dismiss it as utterly meaningless. But now I've at least tried it and can go on with my life.