Song of Life
Genre: Puzzle, Adventure
Project Role: Design Lead, Producer
Engine: Custom C++
What is it?
"Song of Life" is an angled top-down puzzle-adventure game where the player plays as "Ollie", a child living in the forest with their mother.
Ollie's goal is to clear the forest of "Silence" to cure their mother and restore the forest to its previous beauty.
For this project, I fulfilled the roles of design lead and producer.
For my designing responsibilities, I designed and developed the levels, puzzles, and the systems tied into the use of puzzles. Those systems included the passive and active hint systems.
On the production side, I organized and coordinated timelines to make sure that everything was completed in time for use by other teammates, if not sooner. I also scheduled and led all team meetings and meetings with professors.
The overall level layout of the game was designed to instill the feeling of being in a mysterious, mystical forest.
Each level was designed to fit within a 3x4 room grid. To express the idea of the maximum size of a level, the first level was designed so the player’s path was the longest it would ever be. The first level was also designed in such a way that the player rapidly learned movement, the base rule of the puzzles, and the hint systems.
This way, once the player reached the second level, they would know enough to have the second rule of the puzzles introduced. This level primarily used puzzles that focused on that rule to solidify the concept of how the puzzles work.
Given what the player had learned up to this point, they would have had a fairly solid idea of the goal of the puzzles and their primary rules. They would have also had an understanding of the hints and their systems, which would have allowed the player to complete puzzles of increasing difficulty.
The puzzles used for this game were based on the Japanese Masyu puzzles, where the player must touch all of the circles, without crossing their path while still following the rules of the circles.
The original Masyu puzzle is difficult to understand even with the text explaining how to complete the puzzles correctly. So, for "Song of Life", I decided that an easier puzzle method to signify the rules without utilizing words would be a better option for the player experience.
The filled-in circles in the simplified version used for this game told the player to turn left or right from their current bearing. The empty circles forced the player to move forward through them, then turn left or right from their current bearing on the next space. Outside of that, the player was not allowed to turn. For the purposes of theming, the circles were turned into two different colors of flowers.
In the second and third levels, the idea of bridges and tunnels were introduced. This added to the complexity of the visuals and space of the puzzles.
To build the puzzles that went into the levels, I started by developing approximately 100 puzzles with various layouts, hazards, and walls. From that number of puzzles, I whittled it down to a couple puzzles that would be best for the level. I based that decision off of where the puzzle was intended to be placed in the level, how far that puzzle was into the game, and what concepts had already been introduced.
"Song of Life" utilized two separate hint systems: a passive hint system, and an active hint system.
The passive hint system activated after a set amount of time. The active hint system was a hint system that the player could activate at any given time (assuming the player has hints available). Both hint systems gave the player an idea of how to proceed through the puzzle: the passive through illuminating the next two flowers, and the active through highlighting an entire path including the flowers. By having the more subtle passive hint system, it allowed players who wanted a challenge but did not want to surrender the pride of not using a hint to still get some help if they needed.
What went wrong?
From a design standpoint, this project was an abject failure. The puzzles were extremely difficult for players to pick up on, and the learning curve was too high. During playtesting, players didn't seem to understand why they had been able to successfully complete the first couple puzzles. The player also had to travel a long way to get from puzzle to puzzle in some cases, which, during playtesting, generated negative responses.
What went right?
From a production standpoint, this project could have been considered a success in that we were able to get a menu system and the entire first level in engine by the end of fourteen weeks. In this time, we completed design research, prototype art and audio assets, as well as developing our engine to a point where we could have continued building the game from where we were. All of this was due to effective use of Scrum boards, AGILE methodologies, and timeline management.
This project was suspended indefinitely due to the problems noted above, and we, as a team, decided it would be best to fundamentally pivot our design. This pivot meant we had to change the art, music, and the design of the puzzles, but the benefit far outweighed the cost. We also rebuilt the engine from the ground up to be more efficient and powerful for our new game, “I Am Gooey.”