Crash course
The origins of the game

The origins of the game

I thought it would be interesting (for some) to hear about what coming up with the idea for the game took. So here goes.

The inspiration

The Book.

Years ago, in 2012-2013, I was reading a book called The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy/The Affair of the Mutilated Mink/The Affair of the Thirthy-Nine Cufflinks: An Omnibus Edition. It was a collection of stories about a pretty reluctant detective solving some mysteries. The main thing I remember about it was that pretty much everyone was lying all of the time. The net of lies was revealed piece by piece as the book came to its conclusion.

I tried to imagine how it would feel to play such a story. To go around the mansion, interviewing people, with each interview being played as the person you are interviewing. But with a twist that as you learned more and replayed the stories (interviewed people again), they would play out differently.

First draft

My first idea for the story of this game was to super-scale this idea. I thought of a hotel, somewhere remote. Where you are coming to your own father’s funeral. You never knew the guy, but apparently he had died.

At the funeral, you could meet a bunch of people, young and old, who are there to pay their respects. Suddenly a mystery! Something something! You need to interview the people!

My idea was to use this frame to allow adventuring trough time, in various places around the world and to tell vastly different flashback stories that have some meta story that combines them all. I was especially interested in colouring the flashbacks to match the personality of the person doing the speaking. Someone might be blind, someone might exaggerate everything and his story would be over the top epic. I also liked the idea of mixing and matching genres. Some stories might be about getting ready for a prom, some stories might be from the war, some stories might be flat out horror stories told from the perspective of the serial killer. The working title for the game was “The Hotel”.

I produced a script for a prototype / vertical slice. It took place on a tugboat as boats are cool and it was a small, confined space. We never got to make the prototype, but the script steered my mind towards ships. The main puzzle was that you needed to finish a stew for the crew, and it was a special family recipe (not at all unlike the monkey island) but in the end you learned that you had deliberately poisoned everyone on board and that you were actually the bad guy.

I built the tugboat out of lego as a level white-box in 2015

Now there is nothing wrong with this Hotel / Funeral game idea! But one thing: the scope is huge! The locations are in different eras, so I can not share assets or characters. Each flashback would require me to do everything from scratch!

Hibernation

I never got around to making this game any further than that first high level design document outline without a clear plot. I was also, in my mind, heavily set on an art style that I was unable to produce by myself, so the project always required everyone’s schedules to match. I also was not a very good programmer and required someone to do that too. There was a small team of very capable people with me in the project in 2016, but it died away because we never got around to actually doing anything 😀

Then on top of that all I started to work on another big game idea I had: A tactical combat game based on time manipulation mechanics. It too had been bubbling in my mind for years and now it was time for that to happen.

Iron Danger cover art

After the combat game was finished, my brother had an idea for a point and click game he wanted to pursue. We spent some evenings building it on top of Adventure Creator. A framework for creating adventure games in Unity. I was doing the programming in that project and also learned the ins and outs of adventure creator during that time.

Adventure game prototype from 2020

This other adventure game project is great too and ongoing! We have about an hour of playable content (vertical slice) made with somewhat placeholdery background graphics in some locations and a lot of missing animations. But the conversations and puzzles and gameplay is there. I hope that that game also gets finished some day!

Learning my way around C# in some earlier projects and Iron Danger and working as the sole programmer on this prototype gave me the confidence that I can make a game in Unity alone. It was time to look into this flashback adventure game again! (For some reason all my ideas seemed to revolve around time and its perception).

My “perspective” 3D lit pixel art tech proto from 2018

This time I wanted to select and art style that was simple to produce fast and one I could do myself. I had the option of going 2D pixel art, or 3D. I eventually went with low poly 3D as it would allow me to use motion captured animations and physically based simulated stuff and would be very easy to make. Saving all that time on animation was yet another big chunk of effort removed from the project. I did make some pixel art prototyping first though. I really like pixel art! Some other day…

A page I did for a book in 2009. This is my first try at nicely lit flat low polygon stuff ever.

Now all I needed was a story!

Searching for stories

I had also put in a boat as the base of operations for Iron Danger. I loved the aesthetics of an industrial port area. In my childhood, the coolest movies had a scene at a shipyard, fishing wharf or some other similar industrial location. And water also is very beautiful to look at. So I knew I wanted all of that stuff in the game.

This time I also wanted a single location. And I figured I’d contain the flashback within the span of 1 to 2 days. So that the biggest changes would be the sunlight and I could make the most out of that single location. I would still keep the personalities and personal point of views of the people being interrogated. Also different people would naturally have access to different areas of this single location.

I talked about this with my wife. I said that I was finally ready to make a game alone as a hobby project on the side, but I needed a story set in one location and that location would be a harbour. She suggested that I could do a game about people stuck in a shipping container.

Rickety patchwork on the container ship

During PMQs, Ms Doyle-Price said: “To put 39 people into a locked metal container shows a contempt for human life that is evil. The best thing we can do in memory of those victims is to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.”

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-50150070 ↗️

Essex lorry deaths: 39 bodies found in refrigerated trailer

I thought that this was a strong idea. It would be a great mystery for my protagonist to solve. However, I wanted to distance the story from recent events and place it in New York. I also felt that 1990’s had a great retro-aesthetic that I wanted to explore.

An in progress shot of the cargo ship and ocean effects.

NEW YORK, JUNE 6 [1993] — This morning, in the frigid waters off Rockaway Beach, more than 200 Chinese illegal immigrants jumped for freedom off the side of a grounded freighter.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1993/06/07/human-cargo-is-hugely-profitable-to-new-yorks-chinese-underworld/ff3c1421-8fe9-4c95-ad3f-88fa5b5f2e91/ ↗️

HUMAN CARGO IS HUGELY PROFITABLE TO NEW YORK’S CHINESE UNDERWORLD

This location, 1990’s and the idea of people in a shipping container seemed to click. The reasons were different, but there was a story there. And interesting characters. Of course I would not use real events or real people, but I let myself be heavily influenced by real life events.

Searching for characters

I then set about thinking of who could be the main player character in such a story. At first I thought he could be a relative to one of the persons in the container. This idea stuck along for a while, until I googled how to write detective stories and found out that it is hard to produce a series of stories based around such a character. it would be best to go with someone whose job it is to solve mysteries.

The most logical main character would then be a cop. Someone who is sent to check out the harbour when there is a suspected crime. A crime that would not require force to solve, but detective skills and interrogating people on site.

The main character of the game. A generic cop-guy.
The side characters you get to play are the freakshow.

I also found great reference for characters you could interview, some great bad-guys and some fitting allies, but I do not want to go into that too much so I will not spoil anything.

So there you have it, the 8 years long incubation period of an adventure game! All of this before even starting to do anything.

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