Last weekend I participated in Ludum Dare once again, but unlike the last three times, I didn’t actually manage to finish a game. There’s a few reasons why, so let’s pick apart what happened and see what I can take away for next time!
The theme for this Ludum Dare was ‘One Room’. I started the jam as I always did by writing down whatever ideas for games I could think of. I always try to come up with five to ten before even thinking about which idea I’ll choose.
Some of my ideas this time were:
- Escape a room
- Fight in a room that gets smaller
- Build a room – tower defense or something?
- One room, but with different dimensions/worlds, each similar but with variations
- One room over time – something story based with branching paths?
Every time I’ve done Ludum Dare so far, by the time I’ve come up with a bunch of ideas one of them will jump out at me above all the rest. This time was no exception; the last idea was the one that jumped out at me this time.
In the game I’d imagined, the entire game would visually take place within one room – the bedroom of someone whose life you would play out. As you make choices, items would appear or disappear in the room based on those choices. At the end of the game when the person dies, the room would be filled with momentos of events both good and bad that your choices had impacted.
That’s the idea at least! Some might argue that this isn’t a game since there isn’t really a failure state, and that it falls more into the category of interactive art or alt games. I wouldn’t try to argue that point one way or the other, my goal was simply to make something different from the usual top down shooter/platformer/simple puzzle games that you see all the time.
So What Happened?
In the end, I wasn’t able to finish the game. There’s a lot of reasons why that is, but I’ll start by going over what it is exactly that I did.
At first I wasn’t completely sure I wanted to go with this idea. From a technical standpoint it wouldn’t actually be very difficult to implement. It’s just a single room, some text boxes, and items that appear conditionally with some text attached to them. The art side would take a little longer as I’d want the bedroom to look very warm, inviting, and safe. I planned to do it in pixel art being that I’ve still not learned enough about drawing to do another style. I’d do a fairly low resolution to make it faster to draw. With the room itself drawn, all I’d have left is to draw the various items.
I knew right away that the bulk of the work was actually going to be in the writing. If the writing was badly done, the events and their intended emotional impact would fall flat and there would be virtually no gameplay to back it up. Essentially, what I’d planned to make was a Twine game with a visual component. It would live or die by the writing.
To be sure that this was the idea I wanted to settle on, I decided to write out a few of the events in the game as a test of whether or not it’s something I thought I could even pull off. Once I was satisfied with that, I committed to the idea. It was this idea or nothing, since I wouldn’t have enough time left to start from scratch on another idea.
I began by writing out a tree of possible choices the player could take. At the time, I thought that the best way to do the game would be to have branching choices so different players would have different rooms at the end and could compare them when they finished playing. In theory at least; most Ludum Dare players will just move on to the next game. A screenshot feature would be really nice to have if I’d gotten that far.
Too Much Stuff
I didn’t get very far into this tree diagram before I realized I’d never be able to create that much content. I simplified the design by deciding it would be a linear series of events. Each choice the player made would add or remove points in three hidden stats. The stats I picked were ‘happiness’, ‘social’, and ‘diligence’. The names and their effects hardly matter though since they’d be hidden from the player and were only there to vary the experience a little for each player. Certain choices would be hidden or visible based on these hidden stats which would create a weaker form of branching.
I continued on and wrote four of these events. By this time it was past noon on Saturday, I felt like I’d need at least 20 events total, I hadn’t written any code, I hadn’t made any art, I had to figure out exactly how the stats were going to impact what choices appeared or were hidden later on, and I wasn’t feeling at all motivated to continue. I decided at that point to pack it in and relax for the rest of the weekend.
What Went Wrong?
There were a few things that I can point to that caused this game jam to be a failure for me. I don’t think my idea was a bad one, but I think I’m the wrong person to execute it. I haven’t done any sort of creative writing since I was a kid. I felt like I was constantly drawing a blank trying to write something that would evoke an emotional response in the reader. That sort of writing is a skill I simply don’t have.
Something that I can take away from this is that creative writing is a skill I’d like to build on. When I finish Chaintanks, I plan on spending several months just building skills like drawing, or maybe composing chiptunes. Creative writing is another skill I could spend time improving. I doubt I could ever achieve a high level of skill in all of these areas, but it couldn’t hurt to try and build a more rounded skill set.
I want to say that scope was an issue here, but it really wasn’t. I realized very quickly that I’d planned too much work for myself, and cut the feature set down to a reasonable size. That’s something I can say I did well this time around.
Really the factor that had the most impact was my state of mind at the time. I wasn’t as enthusiastic about this game jam as I was about the last three. Part of that is that I’m starting to feel a bit burnt out from working on Chaintanks for so long, especially when I think it’s not a good game. The other part is some minor stuff outside of gamedev that was going on that I won’t get into here. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t feeling one hundred percent, and attempting to take on a task like creative writing was much more difficult because of it.
What Would I Change?
The next time I participate in Ludum Dare, I think I’ll avoid game ideas that involve creative writing unless I’ve taken the time to work on that skill beforehand. Also, if I’m not really feeling my best, I’ll avoid choosing any ideas that are overly taxing, or even go as far as waiting until the next jam.
Other than that, I still want to try out weird or unusual ideas for game jams. Last time I tried making a puzzle game even though I’d never done one before and it turned out much better than I expected. I don’t regret going after an unusual idea this time, even if it did end in failure. Next time, I think I’ll try doing something a little outside the box again!