Using austerity as a creative tool
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
On one hand, everybody likes to read indie developers' success stories. They are inspiring and a source of motivation. On the other hand, there's also an underlying interest in reading about the failures of indie developers that ended up on bankruptcy, be it for learning from their mistakes or simply due to morbid fascination. Both sides have the perfect ingredients for writing a relevant text.
By the end of the month, twenty years will have passed since the development of my first videogame under the DevilishGames brand and I would have loved to write an article about one big hit; unfortunately, none have been accomplished during this time. I would also be interested in writing on a big failure, but after enduring the videogame industry throughout 20 years (the last 13 years doing it professionally while paying the salary of 5 or 6 people monthly), I believe I can't talk about failure either. Basically, surviving is our speciality.
You will probably be thinking that "surviving" doesn't sound very exciting (and normally it isn't), but sometimes surviving in an industry as ever-changing as the videogame industry you must reinvent yourself by exploring paths that you wouldn't dare to enter any other way. Path to Mnemosyne (on sale the 26th of September in Steam) is an example of this and I want to make the most of this text to tell you the birth of the idea and how we developed it.
Bringing back the thrill
Even though we evidently wish that all of our independent projects would turn out to be profitable, reality doesn't normally end up that way. In order to survive in the videogame industry in DevilishGames we develop lots of advergames, serious games and gamification actions using our agency, Spherical Pixel. This makes developing indie video games our first evasion route of daily work.
After King Lucas, our last indie game, was launched by the end of 2016 we weren't able to recover our investment. This forced us to accept all the incoming commissions and to abandon our personal projects in order to recover our economic losses. Although my team is very professional and always accepts third party projects without complaining (or at least I think so), halfway 2017 after many months of only working on commissions, the morale of the team was starting to deteriorate. As time passed it was getting clearer that we needed to recover that plus of joy that brings working on your own projects. We needed a new indie project!
Necessity is the mother of invention
King Lucas resulted in the loss of our entire financial cushion. This made clear that at the time we started thinking of an idea for our next independent project, the financial factor would be very important and that the approach had to be austere.
During my job as a producer, game designer and graphic artist I have never considered financial limitations as a restraint for creativity, but as an entry point to set up criteria to start working with.
Criteria such as "narrative" or "innovation" are related to me and my teams' curiosity but other principles such as "minimizing the quantity of dialogs" (to avoid spending too much on translations), "make the most of our teams capabilities" (to avoid outsourcing), "create something appealing at first glance" (to compensate the low marketing inversion) or "use the least possible quantity of characters" (to save on animation and graphics) were crucial while building a peculiar narrative and playable experience such as the one of Path to Mnemosyne.
Infinite Zoom and sequence shot
If you've watched the Path to Mnemosyne trailer you may have felt something weird about the camera's movement. That's because the camera never moves, it just zooms endlessly to follow the main character.
Why did I choose to do it this way? Well, I was born in the 80s. I loved everything that was related to the audiovisual world and spent a big chunk of my teenage years going crazy on music videos from the 90s and early 2000. Visually, the video clips from Blur, Fatboy Slim, The Smashing Pumpkins, The Chemical Brothers, The Verve, Jamiroquai or Björk were an unlimited source of inspiration. If I remember correctly, the first time I saw anything like an "infinite zoom" was on the videoclip "Zehn Kleine Jägermeister" from Die Toten Hosen. Some years later I saw it on "Seven Nation Army" from The White Sprites and the effect astonished me.
Some time later, I saw the effect again in the opening sequence of the film Limitless. Since then I couldn't get out of my head the idea of creating a video game with the "infinite zoom" effect and thus, a sequence shot.
When I started working on the project, one of the initial criteria that I had self-imposed was to "create something appealing at first glance". So I decided that this might be an ideal chance to dust off the idea of the "infinite zoom", suggest it to the team and check if they liked it. At first they looked at me weird, but after showing them a little prototype that I had developed in secret they started to see it clearly.
Since the idea of creating a enormous image with all the stages of the game and zoom on it didn't seem very feasible, we opted to create a series of "modules" with a width of 4096 pixels that connected between each other. In total, the whole game scenery is built of around 200 of these modules.
The complexity of the essential
Once I decided that the "infinite zoom" was going to be the main foundation that we would build the game on, the next step was to run various sessions of brainstorming to shape the story and the gameplay.
I have been asked a lot of times what kind of game is Path to Mnemosyne and to tell the truth I actually never know what to answer. Initially we approached it as a graphic adventure and we included the ingredients that we thought were necessary (story, hidden hints, puzzles, etc.). We tried to avoid using enemies, cliffs or any other element tat could "kill" the main character but as development advanced, the game took its own shape and transformed in something difficult to classify by standard genres.
The criteria related to low budget like "minimizing the quantity of dialogs" or "use the least possible quantity of characters" led us to the creation of a story in which only 3 characters intervene: one being the main character and the other two represented by voice-overs. We limited the quantity of dialogs to 40 or 50 sentences, omitted any kind of introduction or initial explanation to the story and simplified the tutorials and the interfaces as much as we could.
I believe this search for starkness is far from being a disadvantage. It contributes in a big manner to generate feelings of confusion, uneasiness and curiosity in the user and makes possible that the narrative and the sensations go beyond the playable experience.
A good example of the effort put in eliminating any superfluous detail can be seen in the transition between the "splash screen" and the gameplay (which happens without navigating any menus). A transition in which we metaphorically tell the player that he/she is submerging inside the mind of the main character.
Expressing ourselves through the trace.
According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the main factor that drives users when buying video games is the quality of its graphics. With a graphical team comprised by 2 senior artists and an intern it was pretty obvious that our fight wouldn't be centered around amazing shaders and realistic 3d models. It would be focused in creating a something different that would fend off the hateful graphical comparisons with AAA games or higher budget indies.
During my student years in the EASD Alcoi at the beginning of the year 2000 I learnt a lot about technique, but I believe that the most valuable lessons I picked up were about history and the interpretation of artistic movements and artistic works (Yes, my teenage me was one of those that thought El Guernica could be drawn by a child). Fascinated by how the artists expressed their emotions and feelings distancing themselves from the objective reality, for a long time I soaked up all the knowledge I could about surrealism and especially of German expressionism.
The driving force of existential anxiety and the strength of the emotional impact from the German expressionists engravings adjusted perfectly to the story we wanted to tell. The vigorous and aggressive traces paired up with the black and white contrast would be very useful for concealing the joints between the different scenario modules. As if the previously stated wasn't enough, this graphical style was faster (and by extension, cheaper) than drawing a softer and more pretentious fully coloured art style.
With everything said in mind, we chose the expressionist style with some touches of surrealism and drew all the stages. For the main character we did various tests. We wanted her movements to be fluid but also that she looked like she was hand-drawn, so we opted for rotoscoping (we drew over the pre-rendered animation of a 3d model made with motion capture).
Enjoying the journey
I've already commented that Path to Mnemosyne is a project designed to bring back the excitement to our team and to enjoy during its development. Even though we started designing and programming when we had some ideas for the mechanics of the puzzles and the script was finished, we decided not to make a closed game design document. This way we had some additional freedom for including new ideas and mechanics that popped out our minds. Not having a game design document may had proven to be pretty dangerous on a larger scale project, but since the project was "small" and experimental I think it worked out quite well and this allowed us to include new mechanics until the end.
Another thing we didn't care about while creating the game was its duration. We prioritised the variety of the mechanics and tried not to stretch artificially the total playtime using puzzles specially difficult or repetitive. There's nothing superfluous in the game: the illustrations that make up the scenarios, each sentence in the dialogs, the music, the auditory illusions such as the Shepard tone and lots of things that I haven't talked about in this article have a reason to be there. We want all the players to enjoy the journey and to complete the story without getting stuck. Path to Mnemosyne isn't a difficult game if we talk about it playability but it's true that it requires some effort from the player to assimilate and interpret its messages
When we published the first trailer of the game a user said “It looks like a piece of s**t to me. The typical game that uses originality in order to hide its weaknesses”. Even though I don't agree that the game is a piece of s**t and the comment is quite rude, I understand its meaning and quite probably a lot of people think the same. To all these people I will say, you are right. My work as an indie developer consists in transforming a budget of just around $35.000 in a new, different and memorable playable experience while making up for the lack of budget by experimenting, innovating and by trying to be original.
Although it would be hypocritical to say that I wouldn't have liked to have more budget to develop the project, it is also true that without this exercise of austerity Path to Mnemosyne would be a completely different experience and not necessarily better.
Path to Mnemosyne will be released the next 26 of September on Steam and some months later it will arrive to PS4, Switch and Xbox One thanks to the publisher Hidden Trap. Add it to you wishlist!