Early Frost Warning

For those who missed the announcement on the show or on Twitter or on Facebook, I made a game.

It's called Early Frost Warning and you can find it here if you like. This isn't a plug post at all, however. I wanted to talk a little about the process.

My game is small and amateurish and personal. It's short and hand crafted. But it's still a game, it's still an interactive doohicky that youc an play from beginning to end and have an experience, so a lot of the insight I gained through the experience seems relevant to game creation as a whole.

I started the game as a school project using Unity. Unity is the go-to simple, yet powerful, game creation tool. I spent about five weeks doing my best to learn it and though it is powerful and seems like it might be managable eventually, it's also very difficult. Most of this comes from a presumption of scripting language proficiency. There are tutorials available for the scripting languages Unity uses (C and Java) but being a total novice to this stuff, I was in over my head.

Given that my game is mostly about looking at stuff and thinking about it to tell a story, I really just needed to figure out how to make a text box pop up on examination. I had my little house furnished with free Unity Assets. I had my little avatar who could move around. But I couldn't get him to think about stuff. I thought about doing it all via voice over but that sounded exhausting to me, both as a player and as a designer. I needed to come up with something new.

Though I didn't have any experience scripting, I did have some experience with basic game design via Gamemaker and RPG Maker. I knew that, to oversimplify, games are about setting up variables, tracking them, creating boolean pathways dependant on those variables. Games are lots of if/then statements. Is the player pressing A? If so, jump. (Or in that case, player.move (+1X/+1Y) or something like that).

What I needed was a slightly easier interace. Something that would meet me in the middle. And that's why I decided on Adventure Game Studio. AGS is a rickety old engine that makes Sierra style adventure games. I knew a Sierra style game would be more work than I was able to do. I'd have to do spritework (I'm not a great artist) and I'd have to deal with animation cycles and the like. And really, the reason for the 3rd person perspective for a lot of those games was that your proximity to things mattered. Not so in my game. So I settled on a style similar to those old MacVenture titles that I love so much.

As referenced above, I'm not a great artist so I needed a work around for the art. I started making extremely simple Atari style graphics but realized that I needed slightly more definition. I then did white line on black background Mystery House style visuals. Again, it didn't quite look right. Eventually, I settled on photographs of my house, heavily altered to look like noisy, low res old PC graphics.

The game is based on a short story I already wrote, so the outline was done, but I needed to adapt it. Take exposition and replace it with image and inner monologue. I needed to figure out what the articulation points were, what moments of interactivity were important and which weren't. I needed to compose a soundtrack.

Those things were easy but time consuming. The hard things turned out to be the things I thought would be most simple. How did I make the name of the item hover over the mouse (I didn't want pixel hunting). How would I program the logic for the one actual puzzle in the game? I ended up reaching out to a nice fan named Sean for help but I still spent hours after this point.

It's amazing that even for a product this modest, dozens of hours were spent. I'm still feeling pretty proud of my little game and I'm specifically thankful to have made it now when short narrative experiences are acceptable and distributable (that's a topic for another blog). I guess my point, which ties into the meandering nonpoint of my last entry, is that making a game is fucking tough. Even one as short and simple as Early Frost Warning.

If you do decide to download it and give it a shot, let me know what you think. I hope it makes you sad.