Here’s a quick pacing graph of the major points in the story of Buto. To the trained eye, it might appear that the story is 1) overscoped and 2) generic. This is indeed correct and an issue that we are surely going to address in the coming months¹. But I digress. As an overall formula we’re using the peaks of the intensity to deal with encounters where Buto discovers that a character they met in the previous valley of the graph is indeed controlled by Kabu.
¹This post was brought to you by absolutely definitely not writing any posts near the end of production and backdating them
As on might expect from a cinematic narrative game, the camera in Telltale’s The Walking Dead is incredibly detailed and polished. There are a huge number of camera cuts in the game so unlike many other games, the camera itself doesn’t move very often, and when it does, it seldom moves a far distance. There is constant subtle camera shake, emulating a hand held effect and many of the shots are close ups of character’s faces, portraying their emotions.
In many choice moments, time slows down on a dramatic shot, giving weight to the moment, while in scenes where the player is allowed to explore, the camera tends to move along a subtle rail. What’s interesting is that when the player has control over the character’s position, the camera prioritizes the mouse over the character, sometimes cutting off their head or legs depending on where the player is looking. The camera is also positioned so that the player never gets too close to it to cause it to break or look down directly which, as I’ve experienced with Buto, can be a rather sickening experience.
The focal length of the camera’s length seems to be quite close for the most part, I’d guess around 30-40mm, which is quite a lot more zoomed in than the human eye sees naturally and additionally also a lot more zoomed in than the usual 60-90 degree FOV in most games. Telltale’s The Walking Dead can get away with these unusual camera setups because the player never needs to navigate complex spaces. All exploration is done using the mouse and reacting to local spatial differences, meaning the player only needs to know what is directly around the character on screen space rather than 3D space.
There’s a lot of takeaways here that I can apply to the camera in Buto, especially in regards to taking full control of the camera in dialogue moments, cutting as required by the dialogue to better show off animations and emotions to make them much more engaging and interesting. In terms of the movement of the camera, it might be wise to make the camera tracking take into consideration the position of the mouse relative to the position of the player, so the game dynamically adjusts the viewport to show what the player is trying to look at. Additionally, as mentioned above, it’ll be important to place the camera waypoints in places where the camera will never look straight down, as that is a complete death sentence to players’ immersion.
Made a simple building with the insert XYZ Math Surface function in Blender. Cycled through different formulas to find something that looks cool, then I converted one of the meshes to curves and back to mesh to turn the edges into a frame. Popped it all into Unreal and populated the scene with some starter content, baked lighting overnight and thus completely missed the point of greyboxing. The temptation of pretty lighting is just too great.
In honour of Blade Runner 2049 being really really good, here’s a quick environment inspired by it. Made a city in LeoCAD using lego pieces as buildings, exported it as an obj, polished them up a little in blender and put them all together in a nice Unreal scene. Terrain was exported out of Blender’s ANT terrain and all the textures are starter content.
After finally giving in and playing through Braid¹, I can finally confirm that I indeed don’t like it. The character controls feel awkward and dated, the overall tone feels pretentious and I’m not a big fan of the art either. But anyway, we’re not here to rate games, so let’s talk about the game design in relation to The Witness, which I actually did enjoy² and see all the way through the end. While the tone in The Witness was still that of someone writing about you need a high IQ to understand the extremely subtle humor in Rick and Morty, particularly if you take into consideration the second secret ending, the gameplay feels a lot more evolved and polished.
Braid is a 2D sidescrolling platformer in which players spend a fair amount of time holding the shift key to rewind time in order to solve puzzles that range from being clever to being a complete waste of time. In comparison, The Witness is a 3D first person puzzle adventure in which players become heavily obsessed with lines and circles to the point of seeing puzzles in real life that range from being clever to being a complete waste of time, an interesting juxtaposition to the claim that the game “treats your time as precious” as stated on its Steam page.
In regards to how the games communicate their mechanics, The Witness is definitely a huge step up from Braid. For example, in Braid, the game tends to teach the player its mechanics by making them fail and then rewind. Rewind quite far, in the case of one of the early puzzles that requires players to kill all enemies in a set order to unlock a door that holds a puzzle piece used in one of the most unsatisfying minigames I’ve played since trying to make one myself. The Witness, in comparison, starts with a simple puzzle that sets the tone for almost all future puzzles and then moves on by introducing the player to more mechanics little by little. It is still possible to fail these, but unlike in Braid, the player can just leave them and try other puzzles. It’s almost like a Disneyland of sorts.
In conclusion, Braid and The Witness, both made by Jonathan Blow (and other developers, of course), are games that draw quite a lot from a theory of game design that isn’t really for everyone. It’s evident however that with the development of Braid, a lot of lessons were learned leading to a much more polished and refined product in The Witness. I’m looking forward to seeing what sort of wild ways of wordlessly telling the player they suck we’ll be seeing in future games.
¹Well, the demo. Well, actually just the first few minutes of the demo until the game became too frustrating and I stopped
²Or rather let’s call it a love-hate relationship.
Unreal is one beautiful beast. All the materials in this scene were generated from simple photo based diffuse textures. Let’s go through the lot.
The stucco and concrete’s albedo texture was made by bringing the original into Photoshop, colour selecting all the shadows and bumping them up a little with the levels adjustment. The normal map was made by desaturating it, running it through a high pass filter to smooth out the flat areas and then applying the new Photoshop generate normal map filter. The material itself is just a simple Albedo/Roughness/Normal setup with some modified texture tiling thrown in.
The wood floor is basically the same deal, except the normal map was softened out a bit by multiplying it by 0.5,0.5,1. Additionally, the wood’s roughness texture was sharpened a little with a CheapContrast node and broken up some by lerping the result with a bright grunge texture.
The metallic wall was made by simply using a scratchy grunge texture, upping the contrast and inverting it and plugging it into the roughness channel with a flat base colour and a metal value of 1.
Finally, the lights were made with an IES texture applied to point lights nested inside default sphere with a material that has a flat white base colour and emissive multiplied by 8 which is set inside a fast glass material with fresnel refraction. Add post processing, done.
The Kingdom Hearts series is known for its notoriously complicated plot. Really, it’s no surprise that mashing two franchises with dozens of worlds together into one story will lead to a bit of a mess. I loved the two main games of the series growing up, so over the last few months I’ve made it my mission to play through the entire series from start to finish in order to finally understand the story since Kingdom Hearts III is likely coming out within the next decade. It’s been a rough ride as anyone who was unfortunate enough to having to listen to me rant about my love-hate relationship with the spinoff games can attest to, but I can finally say I’ve made it through it¹. I could probably write another post on the hit and miss mechanics of the side games², but as the terrible pun in the title implies I’m more interested in the narrative side of things today.
I just attempted to sum up the overarching story but struggled to do so in under 2000 words, so the gist of it is this (mild spoilers): the Disney worlds alongside other, Square Enixy worlds, are pockets in a reality that has been separated by a cataclysmic war enabled by several bootstrap time travel paradoxes that is somewhat implied to have been fought between children that have turned to the darkness and the successors of the people responsible are now tasked with avoiding the second season of world ending keyblade war using keyblades that were born out of a convenient pun before but also during the apocalypse and the majority of the games are about trying to stop various iterations of the same person tasked with avoiding the second season of world ending keyblade war from bringing on the second season of world ending keyblade war in order to become god through the power of bootstrap time travel paradoxes.³
I’m probably doing the narrative a disservice by trying to sum it up like this, but it might help prove my point, which is that the way the writers of the Kingdom Hearts games have gone about building their world from a one-off experiment into a long running franchise is absolutely fascinating to me. I like to think of it as a masterclass in retcon, since I doubt all of the narrative was planned at the time the first game was made but there are enough places in the first game for later ones to hook into and explore the story further, like the mysteriously unexplained brown hooded person showing up to signal the end of Sora’s world in Kingdom Hearts I and then going unmentioned until 6 games later when he is revealed to have been (spoiler, I guess) Xehanort all along, creating a jumping off point for the time travel/dream world narrative in Kingdom Hearts 3D (Dream Drop Distance).
All in all, this shows that when building a world, it’s incredibly useful to hint that there is more in some places when there really isn’t as it can be built out to ridiculous extents later on. If the brown robed character hadn’t been introduced in the first game in the series, the later games wouldn’t have had that convenient narrative hook to dive off from to explore the dream worlds further.⁴ So really, if you think there’s an avenue you can explore later in any story, be it game, novel or D&D campaign, don’t close that door by explaining all the things that you might not even know about yet. Insert a hook and leave it for later. It seemed to work out for Square Enix alright.
¹Almost, anyway. As I just found out Kingdom Hearts Χ: Unchained, the last cinematic based on the story of Kingdom Hearts Union Χ[cross] (in itself a re-release of the browser game Kingdom Hearts Χ) is actually the equivalent of a deleted scenes reel, so I’ll still have to play through Kingdom Hearts Union Χ[cross], but since that one has the shifty free-to-play mechanic of punishing players for playing too much per day unless they cough up cash, progress on that will be pretty slow.