The Failings of the game Anodyne and moving on to Even the Ocean

Thoughts in game design from one big project to the next — a postmortem.


Joni Kittaka and I decided to start working on Even the Ocean around March of 2013, a month or so after we released our first large game, Anodyne. While there are many aspect we are proud of with Anodyne, hindsight from more than a year of post-release revealed a lot of problems that Anodyne has. This writing concerns ways we look to learn from those problems in developing Even the Ocean. This should be useful for everyone interested in the creative process behind game design, and it will be extra helpful if you’ve played through Anodyne (www.anodynegame.com), as well as a have a familiarity with Even the Ocean. Please read Footnote 1 if you aren’t familiar with the two games that make up Even the Ocean, “The Ocean” and “Even”, or what “The Ocean”’s Nature and Gauntlet areas are — this article mostly concerns “The Ocean”. The article also serves as a postmortem for Anodyne.

Here’s what I’ll be talking about:

Overly superficial portrayal of nature

Hard-to-grasp narrative backbone

Lack of interesting gameplay

Anodyne’s Cards

and the one I’ll start with:

No context for understanding the function of the auxiliary NPCs (Non Player Character)

Who’s the Seeing One? What were those circus people saying? Why am I in a circus? Why is this lobster speaking so whimsically? Etc. The sum of these questions can be very frustrating for some people, especially since Anodyne doesn’t offer any direct answers.
You run into a lot of characters during your travels, but none of them have anything relevant or useful to say. One of my biggest issues I had is that the dialog aspires to far more lofty and philosophical heights than it has any hope of reaching, ending up feeling pointless and pretentious, while at the same time completely throwing off the tone of the game. A lot of heavy subjects are brought up, from antisocial paranoia, to self worth and parental neglect, but they are never expanded upon or even discussed beyond a cursory overview (which comes across as forced and in poor taste). — Steam Review that sums up a lot of the negative feelings players collectively had

The auxiliary NPCs are secondary in main narrative function to the main characters, Sage, Briar, Mitra and Young. Auxialiary NPCs were intended to help create the ambience of an area through their words, via talking about themselves, or their surroundings.

Some players found the NPCs too whimsical, put off by some of the light philosophical themes they touched on, feeling they broke the tone of the game. I still don’t think the dialogue aspired to very high philosophical heights, nor intended to. Now, I think that category of player reaction is a symptom of the both player taste, personality, and Anodyne’s lack of giving context for why the NPCs exist. This led to the reaction that we were pretentious — I prefer the description “lacking in skill”, because these reactions came from our inability to present the NPCs well, rather than trying to seem clever or very smart.

Because the NPCs are presented in a difficult manner (i.e. it is hard to see the relation of what they are saying, to who they are, to where they are), some players get confused (others enjoy this kind of difficulty) . When it comes to Anodyne’s areas, my incorrect expectation was that players would understand that they are entering a different part of Young’s mind and to understand what purpose it serves, which is…crazy to expect people to understand! Part of this problem is the game doesn’t even acknowledge it takes place in Young’s mind, and that I operated partially under the world-building thought of Surreal Is Cool (which it can be…if done carefully. Mostly it just turns out to be a mess, at least in most games.), and that people would be able to understand why I juxtaposed area A with area B, etc. And so when the player is in the cliff area and talks to a golem who comments on watching people walk by on the ground below, the player can be confused (or pleased, depending on who you are) at why this golem is even here or what it might mean — and so on, for the rest of the NPCs.

Our solution with Even the Ocean is to try and make the distinction between auxiliary and main NPC more clear, as well as make the background of each area slightly more clear — done in part by having a more coherent overally storyline. Basically, we use a few more words in order to root the player in the context of what the area is. An additional bonus of Even the Ocean is that its world is not as “surreal” (surreal, at least in games, tends to be an excuse to have some sort of internally consistent world that isn’t presented well.)

We still want auxiliary NPCs to paint the themes of the area in conjunction with the rest of the game, but we want to be more active to avoid things like talking about a “Seeing One” (this was the first boss of Anodyne) without eventually giving information as to what it is, or failing to answer the 3 questions “Why is this NPC here/Why is this area here/Why am I here?”.

When you run into this Seeing One narrative thread so early on in Anodyne, it sets the stage for being somewhere between

1. Being delighted at the random dream-like nature of things

2. Adding onto frustration at lack of coherent plot up to this point

There’s “unknowns” about the Seeing One NPC, namely we don’t know anything about why it exists or what it’s doing.

There are different kinds of ‘unknowns’ that can be left unknown. An okay kind is the kind you have when wondering why someone is doing something. This is a normal part of interacting with other humans and is fine. You don’t know why the girl in your class is typing an e-mail, you’re not sure why someone has to go to the coffee shop after you’re done talking, but it’s okay — you still know something about the person from the interaction — that they are in your class learning, but you’re over the fact of not knowing everything, because you at least have some idea of what they are up to.

More problematic is the presentiation of The Seeing One. Something that seems like it could be significant but isn’t later explained in any way: the player reaches the Seeing One within 30 minutes into Anodyne, and doesn’t see the other information about it until one of the last dungeons (which still doesn’t give enough info). Then it’s never mentioned again! You don’t learn of why The Seeing One there (or if there is a reason), nor what it is doing. With Even the Ocean, we try to make the “Why this NPC is here” more clear, so that each area feels like a cohesive whole: you aren’t upset that the NPC is meaningless, because you know it has its own justified existence within some area. It’s not necessarily the best idea to explain everything, but just enough so that the NPC doesn’t just jump out of nowhere and confuse the player experience even more.

Frustrations from one NPC makes the frustrations with the other auxiliary NPCs worse, even if the others were fine. But one of the other big reasons why people find the auxiliary NPCs annoying is lack of context within a bigger story: the narrative backbone of Anodyne is unclear, so it’s hard for a player to tell what information is relevant for the main quest of Anodyne.

Hard-to-grasp narrative backbone

Unfortunately this initial air of mystery falls apart after you’ve progressed further into the game and come to realize the developers have no intention of ever answering or even elaborating on the many threads making up its haphazard plot. — (Steam Review)

I want to talk about the problems with the main NPCs. This problem is partially the cryptic nature of the dialogue (which stems from the initial prototype of Anodyne — be careful with your prototypes!) , but I think a bigger problem from the fact that the main dialogue events are spaced apart by hours of gameplay in Anodyne, and there is no way of looking back on what’s happened. If your game has some sort of story to it, it’s a good idea to both think about this in the prototype stage — how does your mechanics relate to the story and enhance it — and what is the pacing of the story in relation to the gameplay.

If people at least have a sense of where they are and why they are there within the game world and narrative timeline, then when the auxiliary NPC dialogue kicks in they can filter out “oh okay, this is not vital to the overall plotline, but may be helpful in understanding the game thematically”. Auxiliary NPCs in Anodyne require an overarching clear plot, but the overarching plot was scattered and sparse, not to mention hard to parse and left unsatisfactory by the ending. This caused that conflict between main and auxiliary narrative threads.

We tried to solve this in Even the Ocean through a more architectural way and a more superficial way. (One solution is to drop the overarching plot and only have auxiliary NPCs, but that is not where we want to go with Even the Ocean).

The architectural way is to base the levels and progression of The Ocean around a main series of events which are paced regularly, this also means giving some meaning to why you are visiting some place (vs. none as in Anodyne except for cryptic things Sage tells you.) By doing this, there’s at least some framework people can refer to when confused — “Oh yeah, I am clearly doing “X” right now for the purpose of Y”. For Anodyne, it was clear what you were doing — clearing a dungeon, but overall you were pretty lost with what you are actually doing it in terms of purpose, and the way the game talks with you sort of implies you were kinda dumb for not picking up on it.

The superficial way looks at the fact that the game is 10-20+ hours long and People Forget Things. There’s a ton of information coming into the player when playing a game, so it’s hard to remember details. There should usually be a way to have something to look back on main events of the game: journal entries, logbooks, etc. Some JRPGs do this nicely, I think the Tales series do this well — at least Symphonia from what I remember — also, sometimes life happens, you take a few days or weeks off of a game, but you don’t want to start over. So it’s nice to have a way in-game to remind you of sort of where you were and the general sense of what to do: though if this gets too specific, then you run into the game feeling like a checklist (which in some abstract sense all games could be checklists and Skinner boxes but there’s a level at which that is okay).

Some may say “But I loved the dream-like nature of Anodyne!” and that’s fine! I think there are ways to preserve such a thing, don’t worry. There’s still a lot of mystery to think about in terms of the origin of say, Even the Ocean’s world, etc, it’s just things are presented in a way where there’s a basic set of events to follow (with many auxiliary NPCs to talk with), in order to keep people not feeling lost or upset, and thus unable to engage closely with the game. Mystery doesn’t necessarily need to come from confusion and obfuscation.

So I think with Even the Ocean we’ve found a happy medium between a crazy all-out dream-like adventure and an overly scripted linear game where you can’t get lost and there’s very little to interpret.

Lack of interesting gameplay

Unfortunately fails to bring anything new to a very crowded table that results in but another poor attempt to recapture the magic of a classic.

In my defense, the table actually isn’t very crowded at all. Zelda-likes are a very rare breed, which is counterintuitive. Nor is it an attempt to recapture the magic of a classic. I can understand hoping a game would be that way: the power and draw of the escapism of nostalgia is strong.

What’s actually important to draw from that quote is that Anodyne’s gameplay is not very interesting.

Anodyne’s gameplay was hardly related to the plot, or in the way it was, it was pretty boring — you have a broom which is not a great weapon and you kill things to talk to Briar at the end. There’s your metaphor! Killing things to save something! It’s one we’ve seen before, anyways. fighting to save someone…or save yourself, or whatever. The gameplay is Zelda-like and Zelda-like gameplay is actually pretty boring unless done really well, not to mention Anodyne’s dungeons aren’t great….my fault…but

with Even the Ocean we had some thematic ideas in mind, but we went with the ones that best fit the gameplay (which came first). The gameplay is imitating the sort of thought processes that go into when a person is doing something related to the themes (balance in all aspects of life), and we think those will work well subconsciously with a player when engaging with the gameplay, plot and aesthetics (music/art). But more on that in the next blog post, where I want to talk about those three layers in more detail.

As a sidetrack, if i were to “Fix” anodyne’s gameplay (And I would never bother to do this except as a random thought experiment), then I would likely have changed the dungeons to focus less on uninteresting puzzles and platforming, and more on small legs of tense combat (interspersed with checkpoints, probably). I think that would play to the themes of Anodyne better: dungeons are just a mishmash of elements with no core idea to hold things together. Alternatively a more puzzle-focused combat might be neat.

Overly superficial portrayal of nature

This part relies a lot on my interpretation of Anodyne as its creator.

The presence and function of nature — nature as something untouched by man — in Anodyne worked with the ideas about Young as a character looking for a form of escapism — however, the way nature is presented implies that Young has no ability to perceive an escape from that escapism, since these are the calmest sections of the game, the innocent playfulness of the nature areas implies that escapism is one of the solutions to Young’s difficulties. At times the areas feel a bit lonely, which I hoped would convey that Young should leave, but the aesthetics are very relaxing! So there’s a problem.

An alternative escape is presented with the ending and postgame — that Young should go back into the real world rather than bumbling around the dream world. I think that the way nature was framed (as completely juxtaposed to other areas like creepy urban structures) implies too much about escaping being the solution for Young, especially to most players since the ending and game’s plot and world are unclear.

Our solution, which I think has been unconsciously happening throughout Even the Ocean, is to more carefully think about the presence of nature. If we’re trying to talk about everyday human themes, then nature should be represented and interacted with in some way that plays to those ideas: thus, we want to make the element of human visible within the nature areas of Even the Ocean. Instead of offering the nature areas as an innocent escape purifying us from urban life (which is impractical and ignores all the complexities of urban living), we are trying to look at the nature areas in terms of something that humans have to co-exist with and maintain, not because of the primary reason of nature having an “untamed beauty”, but more for the ideas of what is a most realistic solution to what we coexist with every day: the air, ground, water, etc. Neither nature or urban is inherently better than the other. I don’t want to propose abandoning the city as some black and white ideal: one of the main challenges with Even the Ocean will be avoiding a naturalistic fallacy claiming that the natural parts are better than the urbanized parts.

Since Even the Ocean requires nature-like areas to function correctly, we need to be keen on what sorts of unconscious implications we might be making to the player, what sorts of perceptions we might be reinforcing. I want to avoid “Visual Primacy” as much as possible in my games (trying to get around to an article about that and Monument Valley…), which is when a game focuses upon initially pleasing beauty which is so pleasing to the extent that it causes the developer to ignore other aspects of why the art is relevant within the game as a whole, or expects the art to carry more than it can.

With Anodyne, the roof scene (though very short) helped as a nice contrast with the innocence of the nature — it supported the idea of urban as having good aspects. But, the urban areas in Anodyne tend to be creepy or decrepit…reinforcing the idea of Young needing to escape, but not presenting a healthy solution for that.

Cards

Anodyne has cards, which the player needs to collect to progress the game. They are hidden in dungeons and other game areas, and depict an enemy or NPC in the game, along with a funny description (these are a type of ‘extrinsic motivator’.) Cards have zero explanation other than they need to be used to unlock gates (for some reason), and the character Mitra even knows where they are all placed. You could interpret this to be that the cards represent Young understanding Young’s mind and that opening gates are milestones in that process…but it’s a bit of a stretch. Why couldn’t they just be gated off through story events? At least things would have been forced to be clearer.

Sometimes the game can feel better if there’s a sense of risk/reward in collecting these things. I think it works okay in something like Super Mario Bros. with gaining extra lives, but in a game like Anodyne that doesn’t operate on extra lives and where respawning is just a slap on the wrist, looking around every room of each area turns from something potentially interesting to a chore, when players are missing cards, turning an adventure into a checklist.

There’s a lot of narrative problems with the cards, a lot of stretching has to be done to make them fit in with the game (like, why do the gates in the Nexus light up when you’ve found all of the cards? Where do the clever descriptions come from?).

Players can roughly be thrown into two buckets (as with all categorizations this one doesn’t work perfectly, but we’ll go with it) — just wanting to finish the game, or wanting to be completionist — either in the acknowledged-by-game sense (given a completion percentage) or the self-fulfilled sense (will explore till game’s features are exhausted).

The way cards work in Anodyne is enjoyable for those who tend to be more completionist. These are players who liked the post-game content of finding additional 13 cards. As for everyone else, there isn’t much narrative rewards to the cards other than funny descriptions and memories of where you’ve been on the quest: the cards serve as sort of motivation to look around the areas and not just rush through the game, but they don’t get much out of the game other than finishing it and being confused — and if you are confused, looking around the areas can be boring and frustrating.

This contributes to an upset player mindset, which also colors the perception of the rest of the game more negatively.

If I wanted to re-do this part of the game, I would have likely removed the cards entirely, or left them in but made them optional (perhaps just leaving them for the final post-game gate). Maybe we would have just replaced the treasure boxes with coherent auxiliary NPCs — that seems best, as completionists would enjoy finding them, and those who are less completionist would still get something out of it.

For The Ocean, we are almost entirely removing collectible items, except for some abstract keys (items needed to progress story) which exist for the sake of pacing and aren’t overly difficult to find. We were originally going to hide collectible items that the player would then use in an optional garden area, and hide these around the nature area. This ended up being a lot of extra work, but also it made the nature areas feel like checklists. Instead of a player perception being “I’m going to move through this area and learn about it” it goes to both that, but also “Oh yeah I’m moving through this area to collect things so I’ll be thinking about that primarily.” The mind is then cluttered with the repeated “I need to find the items..I need to find the items”, and then we have the same problem as in Anodyne. If we went this route, we’d still have players who are okay with it, but it almost certainly would be a complaint in others.

Because The Ocean doesn’t have any collectible items, instead we hope that the level of motivation of looking through each area isn’t going to be forced upon the player, but will be created depending on their interest level. Hopefully all players will get to an interest level where they want to go and talk to at least a godo portion of the NPCs and get better understandings of the areas they are in, but this isn’t demanded of them. if the player desires, they can go onto the next task in order to progress the game. We also don’t have upgrades in The Ocean, mostly because there didn’t seem to be any useful way to put it in without damaging the overall game — the balancing of the energy bar is enough of a mechanic to design around.

In Summary

We’re approaching each issue in a healthier way with Even the Ocean so I hope we’ll have a better, more engaging and accessible ( to all levels of interpretation) game. We’ll see.

Join me next time on Part 2 where I expand on how we are architecting the gameplay, narrative and aesthetics of Even the Ocean…more on visual primacy, etc!

We’re on Twitter — http://twitter.com/eventheocean / http://twitter.com/seagaia2 / http://twitter.com/jonkittaka

Or ask us questions — http://ask.fm/eventheocean http://ask.fm/seagaia2 http://ask.fm/jonkittaka

Footnote 1: I recommend playing the free demo ( http://seanhogan.itch.io/even-the-ocean-motion-demo-1 ), and watching this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DmpCZLypREU, or visiting www.eventheocean.com As a quick summary, The Ocean is the larger part of Even the Ocean, it’s a longform adventure platforming game. Even is the smaller part of Even the Ocean, dealing with vignettes in the life of a woman named Even, set in a contemporary day city. Players can choose to play either of the two games and switch at their will. We haven’t started developing Even very much, instead we are deep into the development of The Ocean right now.

The Ocean is made of two main types of areas that the player moves through nonlinearly — Nature and Gauntlet areas. Nature areas are more open in that they are not focused on going from point A to B and instead have NPCs to talk to that work in conjunction with moving around the area in a more freeform manner (Comparable level design would be Knytt). Gauntlet areas are linear, and they focus on linear sets of challenges with checkpoints in between (These are most similar to traditional platformer levels like Super Mario Bros. or Super Meat Boy).

The gameplay in the Ocean focuses around changing the physics of the player through interacting with traps and lifeforms in the environment, and gaining energy. The players “energy level” ranges from 0 to 255, at 0 or 255 energy the player dies. There are two types of energy: purple and white. Purple energy makes your energy level go more towards 0, white energy makes your energy level go more towards 255. The closer you are to 255 energy, the higher you jump but slower you run, vice versa with the closer you are to 0 energy.