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  • Design Challenges: Children Of Morta

    [03.03.20]
    - Hamid R. Saeedy

  • Enriching the Characters

    The cutscenes carried the load of characterization, which by their very nature aren't very suitable for transferring background information and to set the scene for the narrative. So we also decided to utilize other mediums to enrich our characters.

    We needed to present the inner thoughts and attitudes of the Bergsons to make them seem more believable and real. So we went with mental state bubbles which seemed like the appropriate medium for representing the characters' state of mind. The Bergsons' thoughts would float above their heads which had been previously implemented in many games before it; so that wasn't much of a challenge except for maybe figuring out the order and time in which these thoughts would appear. To this end, we created a categorization system that would reveal the thoughts of the Bergsons depending on story events that had taken place inside the house and levels. However, there was the possibility that many of these events would overlap. So we decided to redesign the mental state bubble system to also include a priority system that would prioritize a certain thought depending on the importance of the situation a Bergson was in. This addition caused the thought bubbles to appear based on a predetermined order and relevant to the events of the game.

    A family journal for the Bergsons was added around the tail end of the production cycle; in other words, when the characters had enough depth to cause the player to want to learn more about them and their background should they be very interested in the story. And so, backgrounds were written for each of the family members to make their ambitions and emotions seem more realistic and justifiable.

    The Issue with Creating Art Assets

    The burden of creating art assets for the narrative sections of the game proved to be highly challenging during production. In fact, considering we only had 2 people working on the art, any changes to the narrative would warrant recreating many art assets. Obviously, the game's story, as well as the many cutscenes, carried a significant toll in terms of the art that needed to be made. Even though we actively tried to reuse certain scenes, there was no shortage of specific animations that needed to be created from scratch.

    The quality of the pixel art was another important matter for us. For example, the opening cutscene was the cause of much debate around the office. The cutscene opens with Grandma Margaret's nightmare which had a different resolution from the rest of the cutscenes. However, this was not the only cutscene that had a different resolution; the last cutscene of the game also varied to a degree in this regard. This cutscene was both different in terms of its resolution and shot angles. Though overall, the game's isometric view was rarely changed during cutscenes. Truth be told, this kind of change in the shot angles was only used in certain predetermined places which overall made it in sync with the totality of the game and other cutscenes.

    Changes in Narrative Systems

    We almost had every necessary narrative medium for the game near the end of the final development phase. Story cutscenes, Home Interactive Events (HIEs), Mental Bubbles, and also the narrations for each starting room would be a suitable opportunity for delivering relevant story information to the player and remind them of their goal. We initially assumed that if the right content is shown at the right place and time, then our work is done. But that was merely an assumption. Many designs and prototypes were created that involved countless tweaks and revamping sessions.

    One of the more serious matters during this time was the overlapping of narrative moments. This wasn't something to be overlooked. All in all, there was a very high chance for the player's narrative experience to be significantly altered depending on their skill level. In order to deal with this, a series of prioritizations were implemented in the narrative system depending on the number of events. This prioritization decided which cutscenes or HIEs would be shown where and at which time; what the sequencing of the mental bubbles would be and how many times they'd be shown; and which starting room narration would be more important at that point and time. All these systems were constantly being tweaked well into the final days of the project until they were suitable for the game's narrative proportions.

    Near the end, we still had reservations regarding our design choices since none of us had that much experience with such complex narrative systems. Although, the feedback we received during the final months was really heartwarming and made us feel a bit at ease. Still, there were many parameters to be considered in these decisions some of which were contradictory at times.

    7. Could We Have Created a Better Experience?

    Now I will discuss my thoughts on choices and assumptions regarding the design; which even if we don't designate as contradictory, had some faults in narrative, gameplay and ludo-narrative aspects, three of which I will detail below.

    Costly Assumptions

    When you're a small indie team, you need to find your niche in this saturated market where indie titles get trampled over every day. As a result, you can't really disregard the trends in the market. Children of Morta entered the fray with bold claims of a narrative-driven roguelike and mesmerizing art on Kickstarter; we presented certain early claims in an effort to secure funding which later became our base assumptions in creating the game. Claims which if pulled off successfully would put us on the map next to critically acclaimed games in the genre. One of our most important claims was the total number of playable characters.

    We had six playable characters on our roster in addition to a character made in honor of our most generous backer. Considering our art team, indie status and the graphics we were going with, we needed to take this offer and the serious issues that came with it into account. In fact, we took on loads of expenses for each of the playable characters, both from a narrative perspective and their fighting styles. Half of which we could've spent to introduce more variety in enemies, bosses, challenges and also in-game events. Regardless, we were trying to make a narrative-driven roguelike with pixel graphics not an ARPG with a rich cast of playable characters.

    Occasional Vision Disparities

    Due to structural issues in team composition, the game's design suffered from a lack of unified vision which could've been used as pillars on which the game could be built upon. Hence many important decisions that needed a clear-cut and economically feasible approach were taken in a chaotic swirl of brainstorming and discussion sessions of designers in a very vague way causing them to fall short. Some of these decisions didn't meet a favorable end and at times would be scrapped with numerous prototypes. In other words, if we had a general overview to base all micro-decisions on, it would in turn decrease decision-making costs and lower total costs, focus the design team better and also shorten the development time of the game.

    Ludo-Narrative Shortcomings

    Combat and progression systems saw numerous prototypes up until the end of the project, some of which were referred to above. Very few of them made the final cut and luckily, they blended well with the narrative. Some, like the Bergsons' family traits system, even though they could've been made to have a more active role in the game, remained the same and adequately took form in the narrative. Some systems like the fatigue system could have potentially helped enrich the family's relationship but due to the problems mentioned it was not implemented and was only presented in the UI.

    The need for a more meaningful and mature display of the Bergsons' in-level relationship was vividly felt by most; leaving them to want more. Although, there were numerous attempts to fill this gap by introducing events to highlight their relationship; it still wasn't enough. In the end, many of them were cut due to time constraints not leaving enough time to figure out design complexities and lack of polish.

    8. Conclusion

    The design and development of Children of Morta had a lot of ups and downs. Most of the design issues we encountered are mentioned above. Regardless, with all the structural problems during the development of Children of Morta, I feel that we were able to create an adequate synthesis of roguelike characteristics and RPGs. But to what degree and in what form these characteristics were implemented would need a separate piece so we can explore all of its details.

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