Posted on May 22, 2017
Void Quest post-mortem
Over the two weeks from May 5 to May 19, I worked on an entry for Adventure Jam 2017. Leary of taking two weeks off from working on Cascade Quest, I decided I could use the time to:
- Explore the backstory for one of the characters in Cascade Quest, and maybe unblock some creative hurdles
- Use this opportunity to get some feedback on the input system and style of interactions in Cascade Quest
- Flesh out some of the workflow issues and weak points I have with my engine.
To this effect, I used the same engine (built on top of Unity) that I use for CQ. Over the course of the jam, I made a bunch of improvements (or maybe let’s call them changes) to the engine to support new features.
I decided to do pretty much all the coding and puzzles first, and the art last. That turned out to be a good way (for me at least). I find art to be more predictable in terms of the time taken. This does, however, mean that for the first 10 days of the jam the game didn’t really feel like a game. Everything was so ugly to look at that it takes a lot of imagination to envision what the end the product will be. Luckily for a short project like this, motivation doesn’t really wane anyway though.
I took a lot of shortcuts in order to get the amount of content in that I wanted. A few that I can recall:
- The player can climb over a fence as a quick way to another room. Instead of animating this, I just wipe to black and wipe to the new screen.
- There’s a pickup truck whose engine needs to be started. To avoid having to draw door animations, I placed it so the driver side door was behind the truck as seen from the viewer (and I think I claimed it was missing, to avoid having to deal with “open/close” interactions).
- There’s a scene where you bury something. Again, instead of animating this, I fade to black and just do sound effects.
- A number of objects you have to pick up have no visible onscreen representation. They are hidden in holes, in vehicles, and so on.
- I use a very constrained view of things, so that, for example, you never see your full cabin from the outside.
Issues with the parser and object interactions
I plan to do a post about this specific to Cascade Quest soon, but some of the suspicions I had about flaws in the way I’m doing things became more real.
I am trying to come up with a clean and easy way to map text parser input to verb-noun-noun. A while ago I changed from this kind of code:
(if (Said 'take/paper') ; give the paper to the player, etc... )
to a more data-driven approach, where “features” are present in the current room, and have a noun associated with them, and then a “doVerb” method that handles various actions on them. Then there is a more generic piece of code that inspects them and figures out the right feature whose doVerb should be called. This more like how a point-and-click game would be structured.
It gets complicated of course, because “use gas can on truck” should map to “use-can-truck”. But so should “fill truck” (if you have the gas can). So features need a way to cleanly customize the way they map text input to verb-noun-noun. And it gets even more complicated when you have multiple objects with the same name. And even more complicated when you have inventory items that also have in-room representations.
This topic is too large for this port-mortem, but I’ll make a separate more detailed post about it.
Improvements to the engine
I made a number of improvements:
- I now support per-pixel palette remapping. This is how I manage to get the glow around the player when they hold the lantern at night. The source sprites and background are all in normal color – but then the global palette is switched to a dark blue one for the nighttime, and then the glow sprite uses a pinkish palette just where it is
- Related to the above, sprites can disable drawing to the visual screen, and simply draw to the “per pixel palette index” screen to cause the palette to change in an area.
- I support post-processing effects (really I should just move everything to the GPU, but…). Originally I was planning to use this to make it rain, but I didn’t end up putting that in. The only place it’s used is for the thing that comes out of the hole during the first nighttime.
Here I’ll just go over the backgrounds in the game, with my own comments on what could be improved (if you’re any kind of artist, I would love feedback in the comments).
A problem with many of my backgrounds in this game is the blankness of the ground. I need to have more texture and more variety (granted, this is the background without the sprites). I’m also not quite satisfied with the fence, it perhaps need to have higher contrast.
I didn’t quite know what to put in the background behind the bushes. Originally it was a cliff, but I ended up changing it to abstract trees, because I thought I could make them look scarier at night.
I do like the moss on the roof.
Next up is the room to the south of this:
I like the framing I have here. The orange leaves and the tree silhouettes. I used jagged sharp edges for the silhouettes to try to give them a creepier look (especially at night!). I drew this one second, and started to be more intentional about this.
I’m not happy with the tire tracks, but my limited palette was perhaps hurting me here. And again, the blank ground.
The burned house, I dunno. I needed to distinguish the wood planks, and that’s the darkest grey I have, so that’s really all I could use.
Next up is the front of your cabin:
Again, I used the orange leaves and menacing silhouettes to frame the scene. I needed some variety for the background – so not just bushes, but cliffs (they were also helpful for the story). I’m reasonably happy with the cliffs. I referenced Pedro Medeiros’ wonderful pixel art tutorials for these. Probably the moss in the cracks could have been done better.
Again, the blank plain grass and the relatively featureless tire tracks.
One thing I’m not happy about is the cabin. I think placing it straight on was not a good idea (although it made the door art easier). It would look more interesting if it were slightly off angle.
Finally, the cabin interior. I did this with less than 24 hours left in the jam. At first I wasn’t quite feeling it, then I got into a nice zone where I was really enjoying the art.
I was a little un-enthused when it looked like this to start with:
This was probably an hour’s worth of work, at least. Then I spent just a few minutes adding some “defects” to the walls and floors to break up the straight lines. Basically just drawing some black lines:
Suddenly, so much better! After doing this, I did a bit of the same to the cabin exteriors in the other backgrounds.
And with all the props:
My goal was to get a playtestable build ready by Wednesday (the 12th day of the jam), but that didn’t happen until Thursday. I managed to get two people to play (in total) about 2.5 hours of the game. This was absolutely essential and totally worth the distractions. I only wish I had gotten more people to play it. Even a simple parser-based game really needs a variety of people to try it to understand how different people will word things differently. As a result, the game is still fairly unpolished when it comes to accepting input. This kind of sucks, as one thing I want Cascade Quest to be good at is avoiding any “guess the word” issues.
I decided to build a WebGL version, since that gets more people playing the game. There were a few issues however. One, which I’ve encountered before, is that Unity puts two backspaces characters into the Input.inputString every time the backspace key is pressed and released. This messed up the text input, obviously.