2013 IGF student finalist Pulse paints a canvas not with color but with sound. It is a first person survival game where echoes trigger the now-blind player's memory, along with clarity provided from the noises and reactions of fuzzy creature-companions.
Here, Vancouver Film School Game Design student and programmer/designer for Pulse Maxwell Hannaman discusses his team's research and inspiration behind creating a game starring a blind character. He also explores how blindness as a mechanic was both constraining and creatively freeing.
What development tools did you use?
The engine we used was Unity3D version 3.5x. We also used Monodevelop, Photoshop, Maya, Pro Tools, and ZBrush.
How long did you work on the game?
We had a production period of three months, and we released to PC and Mac.
How did you come up with the concept?
We knew we wanted to do something experimental, and went through various brainstorming sessions that spanned the genre spectrum, usually involving video and image references. One of the videos that came up was a short animation piece called Out of Sight. The video mirrored a lot of ideas we were already throwing around relating to visualizing sound, and inspired us to move forward with the idea.
What games served as inspiration or research to you into how you wanted to explore the mechanic, and how so?
Honestly, we didn't really look for inspiration from other games to explore the mechanic. We had a pretty solid vision of what the core of the game would be from the outset. We looked to other games for inspiration in story, gameplay challenge, and general design techniques. For example, in Pulse there are beasts in the forest who are also blind, and would like nothing more than to gobble you up.
We looked at stealth games like Thief and Metal Gear Solid for some of the interaction design with these beasts. Experience-focused games such as Amnesia and Journey also played a role; helping us to create an impactful atmosphere. It wasn't until much later in the design process that we actually looked around for similar games just to see what else was out there.
Pulse seems a bit like The Unfinished Swan but with sound/vibration used to "paint" the world. Do you consider that a fair analogy?
The Unfinished Swan is an interesting one. On one hand, it does play a lot like Pulse, especially in the areas where you throw water in the pitch-white-- the base mechanic is pretty very similar. What's really different about the two games is the atmosphere. The Unfinished Swan has a much lighter atmosphere; this is immediately apparent if you look at a couple screenshots. The default state of their world is white, and ours is black. They're both perfectly valid explorations of the mechanic and it's really cool that they bring up such different emotions.
How did you research the medical condition of blindness, and how did those results impact development?
We read into research and a number of short stories on the experiences of the blind, such as In the Mind's Eye by Oliver Sacks, and H.G. Wells' short story The Country of the Blind. In fact, we were introduced to a member of the blind community who has blind sons who also play games. We spoke with them about how the game might be regarded and what they thought about the mechanics we described to them. They also explained to us how they "saw" the world. These things had a pretty big impact on many of the decisions we made. Specifically, the sense of not knowing what's right in front of you, potentially being terrified to go forward, but doing so anyway. We tried to bring forth that fear of the unknown without making it a shock-value horror game.
How did having a blind character constraint your game development? How was it, if at all, creatively freeing?
Imagine for a moment that you're in a forest with a thick blindfold on. As you walk around and run into trees and trip on rocks, you get a general sense of the space your in, because your inner ear keeps track of your motion, sounds, and balance. From that you can determine rough distance and direction enough to slowly get a sense of the space you're in. Unfortunately in games, we don't get to use our inner ear function, so when we take away something players take so much for granted like sight, things can get a bit choppy.
Originally when we had people playtest, they wouldn't be able to get out of the first area. It was too disorienting and hard to make a mental map of their surroundings. For some time we even toyed with adding a pseudo-minimap or compass of some sort, but ultimately we didn't want any UI elements to interrupt the blackness or the reveals of the world. We came up with a number of subtle hints to keep players moving at least somewhat in the right direction. We also made sure designer-placed sounds only ever revealed areas that would draw the player forward.
As for creatively freeing? What you see on screen is a mental reconstruction of the main character's world around her. We used that idea to create a more fantastical view of the world. The geometric terrain, unexplained gears, giant fans, and doors coming out of the rock display the world as it might be recreated from the half-forgotten memories of a child who lost her sight. The various creatures could be actual animals, but this is how she sees them; the helpful ones are adorable little puff balls, and the less friendly animals are black lumbering beasts with evil spirit masks. We would really like to play with this concept more, as it's potentially one of the strongest elements of the concept.
How did you ultimately settle on the Mokos' design? The huge eyes seem important in being able to convey all the emotions you want them to show.
Lala Fuchs, one of our artists, came up with at least 40 different designs for the Mokos. We showed them around to friends, instructors, and other students and asked them to choose the cutest, most adorable ones that they would never want any harm to come to. We then chose that version to be the one you sacrifice to the beasts in the game for the sake of your own survival. Indeed the size of eyes did seems to correlate with the ones higher on the cute list.
What are your thoughts on how Vancouver Film School's Game Design program can prepare students for independent game development, especially?
VFS Game Design is particularly great at impressing on you the importance of networking. During our development at school, we had a ton of contact with industry professionals and made many new friends whose opinions became vital to the design of the game. While a strong network may be great for getting you in the door at a big AAA studio, it's even more important for the indie developer who needs playtesters, media contacts, and people willing to help out. At VFS there are courses specifically aimed at all periods of production.
Coming out of VFS Game Design you have a very good idea of the effort required to make even the most simple of games, which is something many new devs vastly underestimate. Finally, in the closing months of the program, you get a taste of what small team development is like when you're actually developing your final project.
What made you decide to get into making games?
Although each member from our team comes from a different background, we all came to VFS with the belief that games can be more than simple 'fun'. They are engaging in such a way that can be harnessed to create some ridiculously powerful experiences. Take games like Bioshock, The Walking Dead, and Journey. Yep they have many classic game elements, but they each deliver a compelling experience that utilizes the interactivity of games to push that experience to the next level of awesome. You can't quite get that attachment in any other form of media. That's why we make games.