Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Worry of Newport Part 1 - Post Mortem Development Log

Welcome to my new blog for all future horror mods I create. First to be discussed as an introduction to it is my first mod, released only a little while ago, titled The Worry of Newport - Part 1. I am going to go through the entire development process, from beginning to end, in a precise manner in order to give you--the inevitable player--a feel for what I wanted to achieve while making this mod and how it turned out and how I feel post-release.

Without further introduction, I present to you the Post Mortem of Part 1.

The Beginning

The Newport project began four months ago when I decided that I wanted to explore further horizons beyond writing horror (which I had been writing up until that point for around two years). I decided quickly I wanted to create a horror mod that would put all my interests, methods and techniques for telling a horror story into an audio visual form. I only needed to come up with an idea for the mod, and I quickly delved into my Lovecraft catalog for inspiration, narrowing down especially hard on his story Shadow over Innsmouth. The first build of the mod was aimed to achieve a fishing port oriented horror story. Essentialy a pseudo sequel/spin on the game Dark Corners of the Earth. Beyond a few concept builds this idea never saw the light of day. Within a few days I took this concept and made it my own.

I instead took inspiration from my own privately written mythos, namely the "Gray" one, which spans four Horror Mystery short stories with little interconnection between them. Edgar Gray, the antagonist of The Worry of Newport, originates from these short stories. It was nice--and slightly creepy--putting a pre-existing character of mine into a game narrative without the player realizing this at all.

Essentially, I wanted to make the mod my own story and own atmosphere immensely quickly. The project went from homage to inspiration. Perhaps in the future I will revisit the Lovecraft scene? Only time will tell.


July 27th: Here we can see the first intended atmosphere. Brown and sepia tone with a bit of grey for unease. The pier destroyed and basic. This was the mod in it's first, most crude and basic, form. I wanted the entire map to take place on this little pier and essentially be a ten minute piece. Quickly, it would seem, the mod would increase in length dramatically.

Destruction and universal decay was a key development philosophy when creating the Port. I wanted, at the beginning, to hint at the sheer destructive force of what hit Newport while also using the fish and other imagery as a foreshadowing technique.  But it was at this point I knew that this would not work or be popular, so I took to the brain storming skies, and decided to graft the entire thing into my mythos and that is when phase two began of the development process.

August 5th: As you can see the entire visual pallet has changed. The time of day has gotten darker, the rain more sinister and sleeker (Hard to tell in a screenshot, I know.). A month after the first build in July was all it took for me to decide to take the project seriously and overhaul it with better visuals and lighting. It was at this point I still wanted to replicate Shadow over Innsmouth and, to be honest, I had it pretty down pat. The green and yellow would have worked perfectly in an urban setting, but it was not meant to be. I did not want my mod being an obvious homage to Dark Corners of the Earth and not much else. This is when all connection to Lovecraft died.

Phase Two of Development: Visual, Story, and Sound design

August 18th: Over the next week I took to completely redesigning the map to better suit the story I wanted to tell, the atmosphere I wanted to relay, and the distinct visual quality I wanted to impair onto the player. All references to Lovecraft were now gone, and it was my own project, which was compelling to me. It was night time, the lighting was more distinct and polished, the textures played better into the time of day settings and overall the entire thing took a vibe of it's own. Basically, the gap of "before and after" represents the two different builds this mod went through. The Lovecraft homage, seen above in the sepia tone july screenshots, and the gloomy and distinct ones now, being my own creation and story.

August 20th: This image speaks volumes about the project I think. The lighting, the angle, the fog, the quality of the image. Through the thick fog one can imagine the doings and plotting of creatures long forgotten by man.  You can almost hear the cries of Newport through the attack on August 5th, 1935, while the face of this port--this picture--stares sullenly, indifferent, uncaring at the bloodshed and raging fires.

Story Design:

The Worry of Newport's story is without fail it's most elaborate part. It was in the first parts of August I finalized it. The story is a very bleak and minimalistic horror mystery about two men conversing, with one retelling events to the other. In the opening narration they strike a deal; it is made clear the protagonist is our hero, suffering through an ungodly amount of horrors and woes to get to the point where he is at, and he has confronted our antagonist Edgar Gray. The deal is our hero will reiterate his entire journey up to this point, showing Gray the evidence and signs he has seen condemning Gray to death (who is in disbelief). And when our hero is done retelling, Gray is free to kill him.

This odd deal, delivered in a brilliant manner by my voice actor, kicks off the story. The player is dropped into the ocean drowning and from here seamlessly plays a retelling. As events happen, books are picked up, etc the narrator is telling Gray it. "I went to the dockhouse from there," for example, is said after an event leading to it happens. Instead of, "I should go to the dockhouse". Indeed, a past tense narrative is what binds The Worry of Newport. The player is in a retelling. They will be told, and expect, what is happening next but will be unable to deviate from the conventional narration.

This allows for an extreme amount of polish and concise narration at the same time. Since the entire game is a retelling visual details can be made oddly obscure. Waterfalls out of no where, mountains in the middle of the ocean, foggy and dreamy flashbacks, hazy memories retold, etc.

But enough about the narration. The story itself is about Newport Colony which had been obliterated before the player arrives. The colony is slaughtered and destroyed by creatures from the sea and a fierce storm. The reason why is the player's main motivation, to discover what Newport worried about all along, what Gray did to condemn them, and so forth.

The game's conclusion is when the past tense becomes present tense. The narratives meet up, the retelling ends, and "what happens next" will be something the player cannot be comforted through or controlled. The entire story is handled in a way to create a sense of unease and tension, but also comfort through routine and having a narrator and knowing "Okay, he survived this, I'll be fine."

That is why there is so much power in having the ending be in real time.

Part 1 is precisely 40% of this story, but still providing a huge chunk of dialog and flashbacks to chew through. Part 2, which is still in development, will conclude that last 60%.

Continuation of the Development Process

August 31st: For almost all of August I was busy working with the same visual pallet I described before. I had tuned it to perfection for the project's purposes and was hard at work designing areas outside of the completed Port section. A phenomenal amount of ideas for game play areas died during this month including a cliffside level, a boat level, a caves system level, and so forth. The final three sections were a Port, a mountainside interlude, and the Forest.

The most interesting of features cut from The Worry of Newport is the monsters. External AI in crysis is ridiculously difficult to make and I could not make voxels, let alone code in lua and python. I opted to use a Jaws approach to the monsters in Newport to basically 50/50 results from the communities. You hear them, see them raging, see their physical influence or hear ito n the world, but never see them. This is a brand new idea that got birthed on the 8th and since I was around 35% done at this point in the map I could not waste TOO much time polishing it. 

The Team Grows

September 9th: From here the project grew and grew, first I was lucky enough to have Yonaton Habte approach me on September 4th about his interest in joining the project which quickly turned into a fluid partnership of me asking for music based on certain emotions or events and him scoring the project based on that. At this point I had the story completely written and panned out, but did not know then it would become a two part project. It was at this state that the project grew and grew, and I knew that I could not complete the project alone without some key partners.

Things began to slow down around the 9th. While I was hard at work with Yonaton discussing key music pieces and design, the map itself was starting to stagnate and inspiration was beginning to dwindle. I did not have a voice actor at this point and auditioning one for nearly a month lead to failure, and the fact I had four builds of the project before reaching the final one was a huge time waste.

Downward Slope

September 23rd: This was the week that I thought for sure I was in this project to a hopeless end. I offered all communities involved in watching the project unfold a chance to beta test the game thus far for me, to make it more polished for release. Three names showed up in my email box, I *needed* many more, and after a week of advertising this it never materialized. I got two key people in real life to come to my computer and play test for me, which was crucial in polishing out the many kinks.

There comes a point in all development cycles that all the parts are lying around on the floor and you're wondering what the hell to do with them all, and how to glue them all together to get what you want. I was at this point in late September. I didn't get to playtest it to the public so I wanted a voice actor to wrap the now horrible project up in my eyes. Four gameplay segments were in tatters at this point, the story was all over the place and incomplete (in game.) and a lot of ideas were coming and dying due to my limitations with the level designing program.

I found a voice actor on moddb and after auditioning for a few delayed weeks I began to take a new light to the project. But luckily a night of brainstorming and writing self-reflected notes to cross exam ideas paid off. I realized that I had to make a lot of changes for the project to see the light of day, let alone for it to be decently received at all.

This is the most crucial phase of a development process, at least to me. Being able to look at all you've made and being able to let go. Slow down, narrow down, make it fit into your brain and what you want to accomplish. I cut off two big areas, *completely* polished the story line and final progression draft overnight, and got hard at work finishing the last area--the forest


First WIP screenshots of the Forest above, cira middle of October

The Final Months

All through October I toyed with experimental ideas and, essentially if it were a movie, cuts and drafts. I changed up scenes, I adjusted progression, I killed off old ideas and realized that in order to make the project as enjoyable as possible I needed to crop it into two parts and make the game play more fitting to the story. I couldn't believe the groove I fell into but I swiftly finished up the entire project by the 25th of October, only needing a few weeks of polishing before I released it.

But all in all things were on the very high up swing. I will conclude this post mortem with the brevity that the project wrapped up on. On late October I realized I would not make my Halloween release date but for the better: I had found a phenomenal new voice actor who did over 50 lines in seven days. Yonaton's soundtrack was complete, and Part 1 itself was as polished as possible for what it was. All the loose ends were wrapping up and it was up to me to put them together and release Part 1.

My only regret was the lack of playtesting, which was the cause for the slight amount of backlash from the community in the opening two days. All bugs are now patched and addressed, but it was rough at first. 

My first mod was complete and released on November 10th, 2010. What originally was intended to be a Lovecraft homage turned into a functional horror mystery, completely devoid of homage or dedication to an existing mythos. It was fully my creation, my own story, my own brief window that I could have others look through.

The Worry of Newport - Part 1 was done. After months and months of trial and alpha builds, weeks of relearning and experimentation, bouts of lack of confidence and bleak outlooks, the project was done. For better or for worse. It is completely my first mapping and modding project for the public, and a very serious attempt at that. It is unbelievably concise, but I always believed in quality over quantity. In the last month of October I got a new voice actor, a new lease on the design direction, a more focused outlook on how to make it and of course, the sheer happiness of releasing it.

The Future

Part 2 will be discussed in future articles and most likely released in Q1 2011, or later. I can't really say, but what I can say is that I'm developing it now as we speak, so I'm not putting it off. If you disliked or liked this mod, if you want to discuss future projects or inquire on the development process further, or whatever you like--the comment box or my email is fully open.