I've written previously on the importance of finding unconventional inspirations for video games. I thought I'd share some of mine. These are videos I find myself returning to again and again, sometimes years after I first watched them.
Watch how much emotion these artists are able to wring out in just seconds of video, without saying a word. That's something we in games can do, and should aspire to. Indie-minded friends, we can go WAY weirder.
1) You Belong to my Heart
First, something from my childhood. Something Disney managed to release during the Second World War as a goodwill message to Latin America. I think it's fair to say that Disney is a company that banks on nostalgia, but this is so strange it's never mentioned anywhere. I'm talking about The Three Caballeros.
Here's Dora Luz and Donald Duck singing a song called "You Belong to my Heart."
Maybe it was the limited supply of children's VHS's at my local library, but I never got sick of watching this. I think the desire to collect strange flowers in space never left me, which should surprise no one who's played Gravity Ghost.
Apparently some contemporary viewers were scandalized by Donald's apparent lusting after a flesh-and-blood woman, plus some of the following scenes about a dancing cactus were not exactly in line with wartime morality. But little me didn't care about any of that, because space flowers.
2) Return as an Animal
At the Indiecade independent games festival in 2009, games journalist Brandon Boyer (who would soon be named Chairman of the Independent Games Festival), implored us game developers to incorporate unconventional art styles, unused aesthetics, and general weird stuff into our games. He shared this video, which I'm fond of watching at 3 in the morning. I find it very peaceful. I'm not sure why.
Gaijin games are perhaps best known for their Bit Trip Runner and Bit Trip Beat series, but it was a little-known prototype they released in 2011 that has the boldest aesthetic. Front and center is a flailing, skeletal astronaut, still wearing part of his destroyed spacesuit. I have no idea what the story is, but I was immediately drawn in by the premise.
4) Little Boat
This is a student animation by Nelson Boles. And oh my god, the emotion in this video. It'd bring a tear to a glass eye*.
*An expression I learned from Tom, a wonderful Scottish game reviewer who recently played Gravity Ghost.
5) The TV Show
You can watch this 100 times and you'll still find something new to notice. It's that good. As an example: I've probably watched this 100 times and I just noticed the colors in each scene match the colors of the TV test pattern.
It's rare to find something that makes you want to get up and dance, let alone something that makes you want to simultaneously jump through your TV.
I have no idea what this is, but Keita Takahashi linked to it once and now it is forever with me. Some of Gravity Ghost's unpolished, handmade look owes itself directly to this video. I think there is such a thing as overpolished. If you can't draw a straight line, don't. The wiggly line might be more interesting.
7) Molten Light
Trigger warning: The next two videos may be disturbing for some. There's animated blood, protruding bones, violence, nudity, etc. So if that's not your thing feel free to skip to number 9.
I've been a huge fan of Canadian artist Chan VanGaalen since I was in university. Not only does he write his own songs, he animates his own music videos and invents the occasional instrument. All his work is worth checking out, but Molten Light stands apart. To me it's the story of something so terrible it cannot be undone. Some people sing about love. And some people write songs where the chorus goes "She'll find you and she'll kill you..."
8) WOFL 2106
WARNING: This video gets LOUD. It's VERY sudden. I wouldn't wear headphones (seriously).
Some of the viewers on Vimeo experienced ringing in their ears, so please, turn the volume WAY down.
Okay, ready? It's by the master of the intersection of disturbing and cute, David OReilly.
Well that all got a lot more disturbing than I intended. Let's pull it back to something that's at least a little uplifting.
9) When I Grow Up
I cheated, this isn't an animation. But it tells a fascinating story almost entirely with environment, camera work, and mood.
There's a real gift in being able to take the familiar and everyday and twist it into something disquieting and foreign. Much of the darkness in video games comes from violence, but that's not the kind of darkness that most of us experience in our everyday lives. More common are the mundane horrors of living: family dischord, feeling cast out by friends, worrying about one's level of professional achievement, watching a loved one slip into dementia or disease. These are some themes that video games are just now starting to explore.
There's a scene in this video, no more than two seconds long, in which someone (possibly meant to be the main character's father) looks on with disapproval. That's it. It's riveting.
I suppose that's not exactly uplifting, but hey, at least nobody died. Let's try one more.
10) The Parachute Ending
I considered ending with any of the following videos: Little Twelve Toes, I Say Fever, Don't Go Phantom, and Move Your Feet. But those all sit comfortably in the category of 'music video', without standing as works of animation unto themselves.
Great music videos are not the point of this post. To fit the criterion of 'videos I find myself revisiting over and over', I realized it had to be this one: The Parachute Ending by Birdy Nam Nam.
Once again, we're plunked down into a world that barely resembles ours. But watching this video is the feeling of being along for the ride.
The visuals remind me of playing King's Quest VII for the first time as an 8-year-old, wandering out into the desert, and watching my character die of thirst. Over and over. Until I realized that the playable map was a small island, surrounded by certain death. The only out was to solve the puzzles and survive - which included a terrifying interaction with a red-eyed spectre who the desert had already claimed. All this from a children's game. I was hooked.
I hope you enjoyed these videos, they're a huge source of off-the-beaten-path inspiration for me.
Also, if you haven't already, please consider preordering Gravity Ghost on our brand new store page. For a limited time you can preorder for $9.99 ($5 off the launch day price), and you receive 2 copies - one to give away to someone special.
I promise you: this game will be weird.
First off, exciting reminder:
Gravity Ghost will be available for preorder next Monday, August 26!
You can purchase it via the Humble Store on this very website. :) Please help us spread the word via Facebook, Twitter, or however you fancy. Our small indie team thanks you 100%.
Second order of business: swag. And not the kind that teenagers advertise on their t-shirts. The good kind.
Earlier this week I made dozens of little bottles with ghost foxes to sell at our Gravity Ghost booth at PAX. When I was a kid I would make my own toys out of polymer clay. Seen through that lens, my career choice is...unsurprising. :)
Here's what the process looked like:
This tiny fox in a jar shall be my muse!
Stab. In the background are some planet-like treasures to put in the bottles.
Keeping the foxes a constant size. Hey, Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, that's a good show!
With the prototype finished, I'm ready to begin mass production
This little guy sits comfortably on a penny
Just 64 more to go!
Craft station alpha. Nerdy poster art sold separately.
One of the bottles contains a girl instead of a fox.
Ready for baking!
Meanwhile, my good friend Renee fills the bottles with colorful sand, glitter, beads, bells, feathers, seashells, and tiny stars.
Great job, Renee!
Putting foxes in the bottles. They all fit because I am a wizard.
Always good to have on hand. ...Eh? Eh????
The universe gets revenge for my puns by having me cut dozens of tiny tags.
Ready for stopperin'! Time to get the hot glue gun and the plastic gems.
All done! That's a giant spoon on a regular-sized table, if that helps.
Teal or no teal?
Blue ocean of stars.
All that's missing is a new home. If you're coming to PAX, stop on by the Gravity Ghost zone at the Indie Megabooth, and one of these can be yours :).
Exciting news: Gravity Ghost will be available for preorder on PC, Mac, and Linux starting on August 26! Just in time for PAX. :) Check out these all-new screenshots we've made for the occasion.
In other exciting news, Gravity Ghost will have its own booth at the Indie Megabooth at PAX. So if you happen to be going, please stop by and say hello!
Continuing my proud tradition of splashing colorful game art all over everything, I've created a Pinterest page with all sorts of never-before-seen game art. I always enjoy scrolling back through my process work, and I figured y'all might find it interesting as well. :)
One last order of internet business: I created a brand new Facebook page for the game, if you're into that sort of thing. Or feel free to sign up for our mailing list below to be the first to know when the game is available for preorder. You can also follow me on Twitter. Thanks for reading!
Last week at E3 we had the chance to share the game with Kirk Hamilton of Kotaku. I admit I was a bit nervous - E3 is where all the megamillion-dollar video games show off their newest and greatest features. What would a game made by a small team have to offer that would interest a mainstream gaming news site?
As it turns out I needn't have worried. Kirk was kind enough to call Gravity Ghost "The Little Indie Mario Galaxy that Could." In the following video he interviews me about the game as I play through a few minutes of it (This is also your first chance to see some of the new planet types in action). Check it on out!
Since my latest post is about animation, I thought it'd be fun to make a video. Which I kinda know how to make. Kinda.
In a little over three minutes I talk about the drawbacks of hand-drawn 2D animation, the fun of working with a fancy animation tool called SmoothMoves, and the new life we're bringing to our ghostly heroine.
Now that we've got the story planets in place, I thought I'd give them a preliminary art pass.
Far away view (if you're concerned about spoilers, I'd avoid the zoomed-in view):
Closeup of treehouse:
It's nice to have something approaching the final color palette of the art in the game (especially as you fly around). And the fact that this isn't final art has been very freeing, creatively. The treehouse's line art is sketchy here, but I think that gives it a more lifelike quality. I'll try to keep that as we move ahead with more art polish in the coming weeks.
I often refer to the team that’s building Gravity Ghost, and it’s time I gave a proper introduction. Many people have helped out along the way, but at the moment there are four of us: Courtney, Ben, Mike, and Erin.
Ben, Erin, and Mike, seen here in our natural habitat: a coffee shop with free WiFi and a loose policy about loitering
Here are three questions I asked everyone to answer:
- What is your background (education, work, etc.), and what are your favorite types of games?
- What have you worked on?
- Why work on indie games/Gravity Ghost in particular?
Courtney Stanton, Producer
Courtney + screenshots from Hansel & Gretel: Lost, Fieldrunners 2, The River
Hi! I’m Courtney, and I’ve been making games for a few years now. My background is in project management (what the non-games world calls production), and I’ve worked with lots of different kinds of tech companies and teams, inside and outside the games industry. I’ve got a BA in Communications & Culture and an MS in Project Management, and my “day” job these days is working as a program manager for a pretty big tech company here in Boston, MA. My role on Gravity Ghost has been as a production consultant, working with Erin on the schedule, scope, and prioritization of tasks to develop and ship Gravity Ghost.
I like to play a huge variety of games, in terms of mechanics and narrative, but I mostly like anything that engages my brain in some way; this is also reflected in the types of people I like to work with when making games! I’ve worked on interactive storybook iOS titles, tower defense multi-platform games, and sometimes I go off in my own little corner and produce things in Twine when the mood strikes.
I like working with smart people who are good at what they do, which is how I started working with Erin on Gravity Ghost*. She and I were standing in line for a hot dog a few years ago and I mentioned that I was starting to think about doing project consulting for indie devs - a couple months later, she told me about a new game she was prototyping and I jumped at the chance to work with a talented person on an interesting project.
Production isn’t something that a lot of indie devs think they can afford to spend time on, and I don’t want to tell people they’re wrong necessarily -- as an indie, you know your game and your team better than anyone else. But for this project in specific, it’s be an absolute pleasure to see Erin and her team take a tiny demo that was more of a screensaver-toy than anything else and turn it into the amazing game that is Gravity Ghost!
*Editor's note: Aw, stop :)
Ben Prunty, Music and Sound Design
Ben + screenshots from FTL: Faster than Light
I'm Ben. I arrange sound into pleasing patterns for a living. I tried working at regular jobs, but I'm so bad at it that when an employer reads my resume, the company he's working for immediately goes out of business. Here are some jobs I've held in the last ten years or so: cleaning toilets, managing a GameStop, ripping apart about ten thousand computers at Google, unpacking shipping crates at 4AM, and helping volunteers record audio books for dyslexics.
Throughout all this time I was making music constantly and slowly working my way into the game development community. Then I made the music for FTL and now I don't need to keep a day job and employers no longer have to suffer.
The only thing you really need to know about me is that I've beaten God Hand. This act required a superhuman level of insanity and masochism. I suffered approximately 40 heart attacks and still get post-traumatic stress whenever I think of any one of its many, many boss fights, but now I can solve almost any problem with punching.
I hope I can punch the Gravity Ghost soundtrack into something vibrant and wonderful for you.
Michael Stevenson, Programmer
Mike + screenshots from Red Frame, Snail Break
I'm Mike, a programmer, educator, and former stop-motion animator. I started making games as a young kid, often building simple point-and-click adventures in HyperCard on an old Mac. I loved creating worlds, and this extended into all kinds of different media. In college I focused on film and animation, and spent a couple years as a professional stop-motion animator and prop builder.
During my transition from animation to game development there was one particular experience that stood out: while showing my film Pigeon Pilfer at an animation festival the kids in the audience would often yell at the screen in an attempt to guide the main character, but the film wasn't able to communicate back to them.
I realized that most of my creative ideas were actually much better suited to interactive experiences. It wasn't long before I stumbled upon the indie game development community - it was chock full of awesomely creative and technically savvy people who shared similar goals. I felt at home right away, and my career as a indie game developer was born.
When Erin showed me the prototype of Gravity Ghost last year I was immediately drawn to it. The game cultivates the sort of player experience that I'd wanted much more of: exploration and discovery, without violence or urgency. It's something I had to be a part of!
Erin Robinson, Game Design and Art
Erin + screenshots from Spooks, Nanobots, Little Girl in Underland, Puzzle Bots
Hey it's me, Erin!
This is my 8th year making games. I make indie games because of their unstated promise: that any universe you can imagine, you can create - and share with other people. A game is so different from a book or a film - when my work is done I can just say, "Here's how to move around" and give someone a complete world to lose themselves in.
I occasionally teach college courses in Unity/C# and game prototyping, because I love to see the worlds that other people create. It’s my third year of teaching and I hope I get to keep doing it for the next 50. I am always floored by the creativity of students. An offbeat game made in two weeks, to me, is more interesting and special than the latest multi-million dollar shooter.
I started my career as a psychology major, planning to become a neuroscience professor. I worked as a research assistant in a lab after I graduated (incidentally, if you ever want to hear how great the hippocampus is, hit me up). I decided research wasn't for me, but conveniently, I already had a publishing deal with Wadjet Eye Games to make my first commercial game, Puzzle Bots.
I learned to make games by collaborating with people I met on internet forums. My job - “independent game developer” - didn’t really exist when I got started, which I think says a lot about how much our industry has evolved. To me, it's also a sign of how hungry the gaming audience is for creativity.
Adventure games are good at creating experiences where story and gameplay are inseparable (and I love them), but I think adventure games as a whole are pretty broken. There's still no elegant remedy to the problem of 'what happens when I get stuck?' I’m still really interested in trying to tell a story through interactivity - and puzzles are only one of many ways to do that. At the start of this project I felt ready to try a new approach, so I made a physics game with story elements.
Gravity Ghost is the culmination of all my ideas about game design from the last decade. It’s a game about running, jumping, flying, and being a different kind of hero - one who must create, rather than destroy. I’m curious to know what you’ll think of it - and hopefully you won’t have to wait long. The game is scheduled for release in 2014 (yay!) and we’re all super excited about it.
In-game art is a strange beast. It needs to be detailed enough to look good in screenshots, but iconic enough that a player speeding by knows what's happening. Often what a player sees is different from what the developer sees. Even people watching the game over someone's shoulder perceive it differently.
An example that springs to mind is the realistic gore in Left 4 Dead 2. When I first saw the game I was struck by how much more graphic it was compared to Left 4 Dead. Yet when I played, I stopped perceiving that entirely - once a zombie was down, I never looked at them again.
Much of Gravity Ghost is spent flying through the air. I knew I wanted as much contrast between the planets and the background as possible. I've increased that contrast several times now, and it's always made the game better.
Consider this very old mock-up I did:
I began by trying to simulate a handcrafted feel. The sky and the planet are different colors as well as different values: the planet is dark, the sky is light. But just by looking, could you tell me which part of that planet you would land on? (The answer is you'd land behind the 'hills', on a round collider). What about the trees, would you collide with them, or are they just for decoration? It is visually ambiguous, which was no good.
Notice the large planet in the center. Here, I've added a texture to the round collider, so at least it's clear which part of the planet you'll land on. The other planets still have curvy surfaces though. And what do the different colors mean?
It turns out the only planets that actually do anything different are the light blue ones, which behave like water. I was trying to add variety to the designs of the planets, but I only created visual noise. People thought the red planet was dangerous (actually, nothing in the game is dangerous). And the darker planets blended right into the background, even when the game was in motion. Oops.
To get away from the texture-heavy art style above, I tried re-imagining what the game would look like with a clean vector style. This isn't bad, but the ambiguity about the collision is still there (do you land on the hills, or not? Would you think you were going to crash into them, if you were flying towards them?). And there's still some problems with contrast. The planet surface is very light, but the planet center is the same value as the background. Clearly this wouldn't solve my contrast problem. Plus the idea of doing custom art for each planet seemed exhausting.
You may remember this image from an earlier post. Here is the beginning of our terraforming mechanic. Each planet represents a different possible state for a planet to be in, having been terraformed by dirt, water, seeds, or a combination thereof. When I tried this art in the game, I discovered I really liked the way the white planets contrasted against the dark blue sky in the game. I cleaned up this art a bit and this is what we got:
Okay, so it turns out the only handy picture I had was this joke image about Gravity Ghost's secret 'bikini mode.' Anyway, the planets (sans bikini, oh la la) stayed in this state for more than a year.
This image was in our first blog post about the game, and I would look at it often. As you can see, it's shaded more like it's a sphere, unlike the white planet above, which is flat. I finally decided to update the flat planets to look round, and this is the result.
The moons are now shaded like spheres, and they have flat images overlaid for the various terraforming states. Lots of people asked me if the water planets were sawblades that were going to kill them. Video games have ruined all of us, forever.
Gravity Ghost now has some new planet types, each of which required unique art. I'm back to my initial problem: How do I create art that stands out from the background, yet is visually distinct enough that a player flying by can identify everything clearly? Other games can play with the profile of distinct game elements, but I'm afraid it's all circles for me.
Here's what the planets look like now. Can you tell what each of them does without checking the filename? If you can't guess, I don't blame you - it's an ongoing evolution. :)
We've been busy! A quick update on what we're adding now that the core gameplay is done:
Not just a title screen - everything from the save menu to the in-game UI elements now have to be added. This is a chance to add a bit of visual back-story to our ghostly main characters, Iona and Voy. Space friends 4 life! (4 death just sounds morbid to me).
This is a guardian, a magical creature charged with protecting the galaxy from unruly gravitational anomalies.
Running and jumping in an orbital space opens up some interesting gameplay possibilities, which I'm now exploring. For example, a level in which you only have one jump to collect as many flowers as you can, together with several ghostly apparitions.
Levels in the game are arranged into constellations, which you unlock as you go. You'll notice the first constellation is linear, which suits the early-game tutorial levels well. The next constellation allows you to try different levels if you happen to get stuck on one.
I ordered 200 of these babies before GDC, the Game Developers Conference, and I successfully gave away all of them. It turns out the answer to "Would you like a sticker?" is always "YES!" Even if you're a grown man. Especially if you're a grown man.
One last thing: if you never want to miss another devlog, please feel free to sign up for Gravity Ghost: The Video Game: The Newsletter here, or in the box below:
It'll also be where I post information about sales and download codes when the time comes. For now, it'll be for sharing devlog entries/puns. Good news for devlog enthusiasts/dads.