Tuesday, 29 July 2014

How I Started My First Game

It wasn't even a video game!

Let's go back to the summertime of 2008, at least I'm pretty sure that's the year. A good six years ago now, at the very least. I was on holiday with my family in northern Portugal, somewhere I thoroughly recommend for both the cuisine, landscape and a very decent selection of beverages.

There were downsides though. My family likes walking. Hiking, even. Now, I'm not really opposed to it at all, and at the time I was very in shape, but it basically leaves my mind incredibly bored for several hours at a time as we trekked up a dusty trail, seemingly with no end. When I was a lot younger, my brother and I would invent fantasy scenarios and sometimes act them out, but by the age of 19 this was a bit . . . well I probably shouldn't even say childish. Not approved of by social conventions by our age? So I resorted to doing a similar thing in my head.

Spoiler: details of Avatar: The Legend of Aang follow. It's a great animated TV show with humour and panache for adults as well (at least, young adults). I recommend it!

I was thinking about The Legend of Aang (TLA, ATLA or A:TLA), and about how neat the concept of a set of elemental societies in their own cohesive world was. Unlike Pokemon, which restricts itself to a particular region at a time and didn't do a fantastic job of worldbuilding in general until the number of regions got excessive enough for them to realise they might want to connect the dots (there are only so many cruise ships in the world, yo). In TLA, there are four elements, Earth, Water, Wind and Fire, and each of these corresponds to a specific nation that the envoy of the World Spirit (or somesuch spirit) called the Avatar is destined to keep in check. Each nation has a specific style of shaping the elements (known as bending), inspired by certain classical forms of Real Life™ martial arts. It's set in a vaguely medieval period (late medieval into renaissance, as far as I can work out) and each of the individual cultures contrast fantastically (that's a lesson in itself) as the show is about building tolerance between these nations as well as averting a way/beating the Big Bad/doing awesome elemental stunts.

I was inspired thinking of a similar setting. Originally, I was simply wondering how the series would evolve into modern-day terms (something the sequel, The Legend of Korra, as worked on by advancing the setting into the industrial era), and then I got distracted thinking about if they could form proper weapons out of their elements (instead of just focusing it like a whip or blade), and then what our Earth would be like if people had similar abilities.

This is an opportune time to mention a good, recent Polygon article on stealing vs. re-inventing parts of another franchise - click here if you want to read it. The general gist, though obvious to some, is not to copy things wholesale, but to find the things that make that piece of media great and emulate that.

A pad of paper (once we'd gotten back from the hike), a pen and a few hours later, and I had a rough idea of this world, this parallel Earth (done to death, I know), but one where humans had the ability to harness core elements from the start. I modified some of them, at the time mainly in name only (but not theme) just to avoid direct comparisons. I later expanded on the reasoning for these changes and justified them. Even to this day I've been refining them, redrawing the base icons for each element and wondering if I could do something better. They are Fire, Ice (fire and ice have various links in mythologies, and I find it a better parallel than fire and water), Metal and Air (or Wind, I keep swapping them).

The main difference I had come up with was the ability to combine elements. Now, bear in mind this was before Magicka, or at the very least before I'd touched (or really heard of) that game. Probably not the first to do it, but I've played quite a bit of that game now and it's one of the first games that lets me combine elements in a neat and sensible (ish) manner. Open to suggestions if other games like it exist! This system went through years of revisions and updates, and isn't really relevant to this blog post, but I just wanted to mention it as the first major divergence from "The Legend of Aang in our world". A lot of the basic tenets, like the combining of elements, was thought up during this holiday to Portugal (it's amazing I found time to actually socialise and sunbathe, really) and I even starting on worldbuilding (as an avid reader and even amateur fiction writer, I've found the idea of a solid background setting extremely appealing when playing a game or even watching a movie or TV series), rewriting key areas of history from the point of humans having these newfound powers.

This continued for some time, undergoing at least one or two major lore revisions in the following year at university, before eventually it was something I shared with friends and acquaintances. In my final year I used the setting as a basis for my first actual game (in Unity 3.5) and this blossomed into a rough, unpolished but still high-scoring module. The general strengths were the character creation and the thought that had gone into the setting even considering it was a basic RPG template at the time. I look to continue this at some point, but I've gotten sidetracked by further work on this setting, or Phantasmagoria as I've come to call it. I've even been building a 2D sprite-based game based on the setting in Java to continue building my skills as both a programmer and a game designer. More on that in a later post :)

Games Development Project, Main Menu
Games Development Project, Main Menu

A random musing on a popular cartoon show turned into a project I've invested quite a bit of time into! It's taken several years to get to this point, but I don't mind that at all. I can't afford to work on it full-time, and I quite enjoy the relaxed pace at which I develop it.

Next time, the evolution of the Java project of Phantasmagoria, and why I struggle with Java even considering it's detractors in the world of programming!

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