So earlier this week the 29th installment of Ludum Dare happened. This time the theme turned out to be the wonderfully evocative Beneath the Surface. Joachim and me had been meaning to join in for over a year now, and this time we managed to actually do so. However not together.
Joachim and his wife Mel joined the jam, which gave them 72 hours to build a game with a team. Their little piece is called Mars Station 23. Check it out! Considering this was Mel’s first time creating pixel art it turned out pretty damn nice.
I on the other hand took part in the compo part, which gives you 48 hours to build a game on your own. My little game is called Happy Birthday. It’s not a coincidence that my birthday is actually today. This Jam ended up being a very personal journey for me and I’d like to share it with you here. It’s going to be very candid and open. Also there will be spoilers for the game.
So, I started Ludum Dare knowing I didn’t have a lot of experience building a game completely on my own. Also I knew I had bunch of things planned on the weekend so I wanted to go with something really small. Having just recently played Electric Tortoise, which I enjoyed, I knew that I could do something of a similar complexity. I also still had the free version of the Unity Plugin Dialoguer lying around. This meant that this was a doable coding challenge and it would let me flex my writing muscles for a change.
So then, what could I write about given the theme of Beneath the Surface?
I quickly knew that I wanted to write about a conversation that could be only on the surface level, but if the player would want he could delve deeper and see what’s beneath the surface. I decided to deal with depression or sadness that’s hidden beneath the surface. This is a very personal issue that I’ve been dealing with for a while, one that has also impacted my creative side. In the last couple of months I’ve also had similar conversations with friends, from both perspectives. In essence this game ended up being a conversation with a weird sort of version of me.
Initially the game was supposed to be a real conversation, possibly even multiple spanning a few days. The idea was that it would be triggered by a serendipitous meeting of the two characters. However during development it eventually morphed into a single facebook-conversation (for pragmatic reasons) with the all too common “happy birthday!” post as the starting point. Posts like that are well-meant wishes and they are an excellent opportunity to get in touch with someone you rarely speak with, yet they almost never go deeper than a wish followed by a thank you.
So I had my start, my medium and my content.
I knew however that I wanted to make this conversation difficult. Talking to someone who has personal issues and is not very good at sharing is a bit like walking a tightrope. For me it’s finding the right mix of listening and providing some perspective when helpful. When I want to share, things take time and it’s sometimes better just to listen and not to provide lots of insightful advice.
There’s a lot of other things that can go wrong and that only make the other party feel worse. Some things I’ve encountered and others I’ve (unfortunately) practiced in the past. An obvious mistake is to not take someone’s personal experiences seriously enough. Or to outdo them by telling them how you’ve had it even worse in the past. Or by bringing in empty platitudes.
Because this decision between talking and listening is very important I decided that the the conversation always progress automatically, if you don’t decide on a line. This can be good in some cases, as your conversation partner keeps sharing, and can be bad in others when he’s left hanging.
So, then I went to work.
I started looking at Dialoguer and then adjusted it to build the conversation behavior I wanted. This meant mainly adding the wait times, the conversation history and adjusting the looks accordingly. This went pretty well. I was making good progress and feeling pretty good about this thing. The early sort of euphoric phase of a project, I guess.
However when the system was in place to build the conversaion I needed to start writing. And that’s when I pretty quickly hit a wall.
Whatever I wrote, I just wasn’t happy. I didn’t like my texts. Everything felt overly whiny. I was convinced nobody would care about this sort of self-indulgent bullshit. Why should they? Fucking artsy-fartsy crap. I tried to slog on but why would anyone want to play this at all?
Eventually I just gave up.
I put the project down and watch five episodes of The Wire to get my mind off it. I went out to a party and got drunk, yet the project wouldn’t really leave me.
In hindsight this is kind of funny for three reasons:
- I’m working on a game about being depressed and being dissatisfied with everything I’m working on because of that depression. And then of course I’m dissatisfied with the game I’m working on.
- I’m writing about loneliness and of course feel isolated. Everyone is having fun at awesome Ludum Dare locations, Jo is working with Mel and all I’ve got is my boring white Ikea desk and my monitor.
- I’m writing about the difficulty of sharing deeply emotional content. And of course I think it’s shit. I don’t want to bother anyone with my problems. The main reason I have such a hard time sharing my feelings.
So Sunday rolls around and I show the game to a friend of mine (Thanks Pepe!) looking for some positive feedback. It’s not enough though and I decide not to submit the game to Ludum Dare Compo. After all I didn’t work on in enough and most of the text is missing and a couple of other made up excuses. On Monday I think I could submit it to the Ludum Dare Jam but again chicken out.
However the itch remains.
Over the first few days of the week I talk to a few people about the game. Describing it and the ideas behind it. I feel silly doing so as it’s very personal, and I’m bad at this. But I know that talking about this helps me – I’ve learned that much.
And it did help.
Today I sat down, hungover from the early birthday celebration, to finally finish the game. I had to cut some content but now it’s done and I’m damned elated. Happy Birthday is not an excellent game and I don’t think the writing is anything special. But my journey has been.
I’ve finally managed to start a project and see i through the end, in spite of all the frustration and discontentment. After a long time of nothing I finally made a game again.
And god damn it that feels good.