The End is Nigh: Katabasis Design Thoughts

With only six weeks left to finish Katabasis, I’ve been thinking a lot about what exactly it is and what I want it to be. Throughout the process of making it, I’ve been continuously stripping it down. A big part of this is due to the constraints of being a student who has no idea what he’s doing half the time, but I’ve always been a proponent of the idea that constraints are beneficial to art, so I think that’s a good thing.

At the beginning, I imagined it being a sort of survival-driven Amnesia that focuses much more on the story and survival than the horror. You would have dwindling resources, there would be puzzles, and I was even going to have a little bit of combat. Slowly, all of that got cut. I think a lot of the ideas I had were pretty solid, and I’d like to return to them in the future (especially the survival elements), but I’ve realized that most of it would actually go directly against what I’m trying to convey in Katabasis.

Katabasis is all about things going on around and above you. Big things are happening, and you are intrinsically part of it, but you cannot take an active part in anything and you might not even be able to understand what’s happening. All you can do is look, and try to understand. But I don’t want to just tell the player this, I want them to experience it. I want the driving force for the player in Katabasis to rest entirely in unravelling and experiencing the story. As games like Dear Esther and Home prove, this is entirely possible, and story and emotion are much stronger when you strip out those game-y elements.

Traditional game systems–all those those survival elements and puzzles–are all about player mastery. The game is built on a system, and the player masters the systems to win (although the idea of an un-masterable system is something I want to explore in the future).   In Katabasis you don’t win. You only reach the end of the story. Any system for the player to master would give them power, and it is a game about being powerless. This is why I’ve decided to even eliminate puzzles, which were the last remaining game-y system. Puzzles are all about taking control of the environment and forcing it to allow you to progress. In Katabasis, this would make the player a master of the environment, when I want them to feel completely at the mercy of the environment.

Even player death won’t work. Checkpoints are another mastery system–if you die you keep retrying until you succeed, but getting near the end and dying and having to restart from the beginning would just be obnoxious for the player in this context. Plus, permanent death would ultimately be the same as checkpoints if players restarted the game after dying. The absence of death might take away a lot of the player’s fear of the environment, but I guess that just makes it a nice challenge to try to make it just as scary. If movies and words can be terrifying without the possibility of you having to stop and restart, it should be easy for games.

The only real game-y thing left at this point is the picking-things-up mechanic, as seen in this old trailer. The absence of puzzles renders it pointless it terms of design, but I’ve been hanging out to it with the idea that it adds immersion. It probably does add immersion, but I finally decided to get rid of it. The cons outweigh the pros. As it stands, it would ultimately just be more distracting than anything else. If you can pick things up, everyone is just going to keep picking things up, when I want them to really focus on the story and emotions. It’s really buggy, and since I don’t have the time (or even really the know-how at this point) to try to fix it up and make it work smoothly, that’s another reason to just cut it entirely.

The scary thing for me is that I have absolutely no idea whether or not I will be successful in what I want to do at all. This is the first game I have ever made, and for half of the process I had little focus, and even less skills. I hate to lower my standards, but I’ve gotten to the point where I realized that since this is for the most part a learning process, it’s perfectly okay if I screw things up. I’ve learned a ton in the process. I’m just excited to finish Katabasis and get it out there so I can see what works and what doesn’t.

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