Orchids to Dusk Post-Mortem - Part 2
The below is cross posted from Pol Clarissou’s blog, you can find the original here
This is part 2 of the Orchids to Dusk postmortem — part 1, about my experience in Montréal with KO_OP, is here. This part is about intent and design choices so sorry about the smug talk and goofy english.
· · · part 2: ‘design’ · · ·
2·a: inspiration & backlog
The thinking behind the game follows a reflection i’ve been rambling about for a while already, focused on questioning the place of action in games and putting more focus on idleness / non-action, that emphasizes acceptance and sitting back. Games that offer players breathing room to stop and reflect, with a touch of nihilism (as in letting go and appreciating the tiny present moment without caring about the past nor the future). These themes were already present in my previous work, especially Even the Stars.
I was also strongly influenced over the last year by Merritt Kopas’ work (Soft Chambers, Lullaby for a Heartsick Spacer), which translated into attention paid to peacefulness and respect of the environment. I wanted to create an alien world that had an organic quality, something warm and noisy (but soft) in its texture. A place that feels welcoming and cozy, safe in an emotional way (like, comforting). Thus, forests that look like nests, and patches of lush moss and round foliage.
In the end, i want my games to leave room for conversation. For any kind of media, there can be a tendency to give no space for the audience to engage with the piece — to say everything, to leave no question unanswered, to only let people reflect on what they saw without bringing their own experience in. I try to leave that space available, to allow players to come to the game with their own backlog and let them fill the white space in a way that is meaningful to them. This means i ask for more effort and willingness from players — engagement is not immediate and seamless, the game doesn’t relentlessly pull them in — but it hopefully allows for more meaningful experiences, more personal ones.
2·b: global design & intent
Orchids to Dusk is about populating a forest in two stages: the first is to explore the world and the second to become part of it.
Exploration in this game isn’t a matter of going and seeing everything there is to see, instead it is about getting familiar with the mood, the patterns and the texture of that place — it is an atmospheric exploration about understanding and learning, as opposed to a punctual goal-focused one.
The second step (the helmet removal) is a continuation of that stance, where you reach osmosis with the environment after having taken the time to appreciate and comprehend it. You leave your current form behind to join the planet’s ecosystem in a literal removal of the barrier between you and that world, you let it corrupt your essence and build from it. Or something.
This is why it’s important that you have to wait before you can remove your helmet: that’s kind of a statement i guess, it says you don’t really get the game if you didn’t at some point just stop and chill, reach that “osmosis” state. It’s a bit extreme but it’s also one of the main things i wanted Orchids to Dusk to be about: you have to accept your fate and embrace the environment you’re gonna die in, knowing that you can’t see all of it anyway and that’s just the way things are. It’s a way to ensure this is acknowledged by the player. I wondered how much to tease this in the game’s descriptions and pitches (i still don’t really know) but i think it hits much stronger if you get it by yourself instead of knowing about it beforehand (though i do believe the game still holds up pretty well if you know the twist).
Orchids to Dusk is a networked game, but that isn’t made explicit within the game. The world of the game is persistent, and every player’s death changes it: players who run out of oxygen leave behind a corpse for other players to find, and those who surrender and remove their helmets turn into forests that can be explored.
The game puts players in a common movement and leaves no room for competition (or griefing), a result of it being asynchronous. It strongly limits the means of contact between players, but also makes it all more meaningful? (you don’t get to see who other players were or how they behave, but you can chose to make a tiny gesture towards them or not, even though they’ll never know about it).
Eventually, you end your playthrough by adding something for future players — the interest of the environment is built by previous players. The evolving landscape reflects the choices of the players (though there is a maximum number of forests from which on the oldest ones get overwritten, a technical constraint i sadly couldn’t get rid of (but that means the experience get more and more meaningful as the game gets forgotten and played by less and less people, since it’ll mean new forests will actually live a longer time before being too old, which i find kinda cool)).
A somewhat important side note about €€: the point of the game lies more in the metaplay (the environment growing and shapeshifting) than in any player’s individual playthrough, so it’d make little sense to have players pay for Orchids to Dusk (that’s debatable, but that’s the way i feel). Which is why i chose to release it for free.
ᵀʰᵃᵗ ˢᵃᶦᵈ, ᶦ ᶦᶰᵛᵉˢᵗᵉᵈ ᵃ /ᶫᵒᵗ/ ᵒᶠ ᵉᶰᵉʳᵍʸ ᶦᶰ ᶦᵗ ˢᵒ ᵖᶫᵉᵃˢᵉ ᵈᵒᶰᵃᵗᵉ ᶦᶠ ʸᵒᵘ ᵃᵖᵖʳᵉᶜᶦᵃᵗᵉᵈ ᵗʰᵉ ᵍᵃᵐᵉ, ᶦᵗ ʷᵃˢ ᵃᶫᵒᵗ ᵒᶠ ʷᵒʳᵏ~~ ᶫᵒᵛᵉ ᶠᵒʳᵉᵛᵉʳ ᵗᵒ ᶦᵗᶜʰ⋅ᶦᵒ ᶠᵒʳ ᵐᵃᵏᶦᶰᵍ ᵈᵒᶰᵃᵗᶦᵒᶰˢ ᵗᵒ ᶠʳᵉᵉʷᵃʳᵉ ᵖᵒˢˢᶦᵇᶫᵉ﹗﹗
2·c: additional things
· About the weird control scheme: i know some of us gamers would feel more comfy with a classic WASD scheme for moving around, but i wanted the game to be accessible. Since i’ve tried to get my dad to play a first person game it’s been pretty obvious to me that WASD is, like, the opposite of it. So basically it might be a bit less comfortable but putting all controls on the same device (the mouse) and needing no synchronisation between hands/devices at least makes the game technically playable for newcomers, which is super important to me.
· A bunch of people (esp. game designers) have wondered if there could be more interactions in the forests, more of a system — specifically, if forests or dead bodies could replenish oxygen so players could explore further and further as others left oases for them to refill. I went through these questions during development but didn’t implement any of these because it goes straight up against the point of the game — that there is no “surviving” here, that you just have that time to reflect and accept before you die. It would have shifted the focus of the game from the player’s internal reflection to “oh-is-there-a-thing-on-that-mountain-far-away-im-gonna-die-a-bunch-of-times-to-make-a-path”, which..? It’s not the point, and it’s trivial. These are, by the way, similar discussions to the ones i’ve had around Even the Stars: the game is about emptiness, finding a purpose in your own experience of simple things; yet bunch of people said they wished there were more of a quest system or stories within the game. That’d just go in the opposite direction with what i wanted to communicate — and again, make the game about some goofy story/lore instead of about what the player is thinking through their wandering, about that conversation between the player and the game.