– Proverbs 16:18
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?”
– Robert Browning, “Andrea del Sarto”
The plan was ambitious from the beginning. I set out to make a 2D exploration game with RPG elements as an entry for a month-long competition at The Independent Gaming Source. I wanted to deliver something huge, something that would totally surprise everyone. My previous games (The Museum of Broken Memories and The Strange and Somewhat Sinister Tale of the House at Desert Bridge) had some very dedicated fans, but I wanted to reach a larger audience this time. I wanted to tell an epic story about humanity, about an Earth transformed by war into an alien world, about a small group of survivors trying to take it back, and about their discovery that the new world was not only terrifying, but also full of grace and beauty. Here was the chance to tell a story not only about the potential of technology to destroy, but also about its potential to create, to change, to make things better. A story that began with horror and ended with hope.
And so Phenomenon 32 was born.
The number one rule of indie game design is this: Play to your strengths, and make your weaknesses work for you. I couldn’t do 3D graphics, but that gave me the freedom to give the game a unique graphical style that represented the alien Earth. Because I had done a lot of work in theater, I knew I could get some really excellent actors to do voicework for me. A huge indie exploration game with voice acting! How awesome would that be?
I worked incredibly hard for the entire month, but as I began approaching the end, I realized something unpleasant. The game was … kind of meh. Oh, it looked fantastic, it was detailed and complex and … it was still kind of meh. I ultimately put its mehness down to feeling too removed. The horror and the grace and the beauty were all down there, but you were staring at it from high above, seeing only abstractions.
This was brought home with painful clarity when I tested a new game-making application called Construct. As someone who’s always been more designer than programmer, game-making software had always appealed to me as a concept, but the actual apps I’d encountered so far had seemed terribly unintuitive. Construct was a revelation.
I made a simple test level. You could move a little spherical ship around, jump, explore some interesting blocks. And this, just this tiny little test level, was better than the game I’d spent so much time making, because it let you be right there.
It was a bittersweet revelation, to say the least. I’d pushed myself very hard to make this version of the game; going in a new direction would mean missing the contest and finding myself once again in the too-familiar position of working on my own on ambitious projects that would never get any attention. But man, wouldn’t it be awesome to make this insanely huge platform/exploration game, with graphics in the style of my beloved Metroid II, allowing the player to really delve into this strange new world? With the help of Construct, I could do things that my meager programming skills would never let me do otherwise.
A huge, ambitious game made with software that hadn’t even reached 1.0? Bring on the challenge!
The beginning was glorious. The levels were huge, giving a very real sense of the vast spaces of the ruined Earth. The graphics were exactly what I wanted, poised between the bizarre and the just barely recognizable, flashes of familiarity in an alien environment. I could see the world grow right in front of me, like a living being … or a whirlpool.
Already I was making mistakes. They didn’t feel like mistakes at the time, and it’s hard to call them that now, but somewhere deep down I knew I wasn’t being careful enough. Making levels was so much fun, and the results were so hypnotically atmospheric, that I was neglecting to think about the overall design. The first version had a detailed research system, different types of atmospheres, radiation levels, and many other features. Some of these I’d already mentally deleted, especially those that hadn’t worked very well in the original. But what about the rest? Part of me assumed I could just carry them forward unchanged.
I knew that I wanted the player to gain various abilities that would allow them to explore further, yet I kept pushing the implementation of those abilities further away, concentrating on building the world. But how can you build the world if you don’t know exactly what abilities the player will have? Other questions were popping up and being ignored: I’d carried forward the notion of collecting four types of resources, but how much of each resource would be needed for what? Oh, I’d figure that out later.
Phenomenon 32 kept spreading through my life. I wrote more dialogue, got together more actors. I worked very hard on a beautiful and chilling intro that used various voices, from fictional characters to Carl Sagan to Malcolm X, to establish that this was a story about humanity. I worked and I worked and I worked, and the game was nowhere close to being finished. But the work was some of the best I’d done, layered and complex and powerful, and I knew that this game signified something special for me.
Hypnotized by the world I was building and caught in the belief that this game was it, this one would be my breakthrough, I ignored another opening whirlpool.
Construct had a memory leak. It was big, rapidly approaching humongous. And now the crashes began. But it was just the development environment, not the game, so everything was all right. Right? Right.
How many times did I post to my website that the game was almost done? Yes, it would be done next week. In two weeks. Next month. I believed it, too. Then it crashed again. By the end, it was crashing after every four actions I took.
At this point, a rational person would have stopped. I was running out of time, money and endurance. But I was lost in the ruins of Earth. Not finishing the game now seemed like a death sentence. It had to be done. It had to be finished.
I was going mad. “This can’t be happening!” I would scream as I hit another bug. “This isn’t programming, it’s magic! How can the same code work here and not work there?” Sometimes I’d break into tears, other times I’d start laughing maniacally. About 30% of the time I was simply being an idiot. The rest of the time, much more frustratingly, I’d managed to find another exotic bug in Construct.
I poured my life into Phenomenon 32. I worked 10 hours a day, every day. On some days it felt like a religious experience, on others like the worst torture imaginable. I began losing perspective. When you have to restart the program twenty times to do any major changes, anything that doesn’t actually stop the game from working seems too insignificant to think about. The control scheme still uses the weird random buttons you chose when you made the first test? Oh, players will get used to it. Special technologies the players can reconstruct by collecting data containers are spread around the map in a way that makes half of them available only five seconds before the endgame, and therefore basically useless? Redistributing the objects would drive you mad, so better just leave them where they are. Collision detection on the ship and the terrain is so precise it creates an accidental half-functional wall climbing ability? Why, that’s a feature! Besides, all this is trivial when you’re trying to figure out why Construct insists on making some of your creatures walk into walls when others apparently have the wisdom to turn. (Hint: even the greatest pre-1.0 software is likely to have bugs, moron.)
When I first tried to release the game, it turned out there were game-stopping bugs that only showed up on some computers. The saving system had to be replaced completely. The resource requirements for research needed recalculating (see how that worked out?). It was a mess.
More work followed. I shudder to think about all those months, all that frustration and hope. Game development is almost certainly the hardest of all art forms.
The journey fits the destination. Phenomenon 32 is the strangest game I’ve ever made. Like the world it portrays, it’s hard as hell, complex, huge, and unstable. Some people can’t get it to start; others lose their saves halfway through; still others finish it without a single crash. It has grace and terror in equal amounts.
Initial reaction to Phenomenon 32 was catastrophically negative. The game was too hard, too confusing, too unstable. I was arrogant for making the file size so big. Who releases a game with voice acting, anyway? I got hate mail.
Eventually, the game started finding its audience. Players explored the empty cities, observed the strange creatures, and went on a long and strange journey. They discovered the amazing work done by the actors involved, and the hours of music by B.L. Underwood, and the reason I chose to do the graphics as I did. Positive reviews appeared. Some praised the game as the best indie game of 2010. Most never heard of it. I continued getting hate mail. Life went on.
Phenomenon 32 was not the hit I’d hoped it would be. My next game was a Flash remake of an older game of mine called The Infinite Ocean, and it got more plays in its first half hour on the internet than Phenomenon 32 has gotten in its entire existence. How’s that for perspective? In time, Phenomenon 32 did open new doors for me, but first it broke my heart and ripped out my guts. It sits there now, waiting for future patches, and I don’t know what to think about it.
I love it. I hate it. It’s a masterwork. It’s a disaster. It’s life, I suppose.
But one day … one day I will go back.
Jonas Kyratzes is a writer, director and independent game designer. When he’s not working, he plots with a small black feline and rides the solar wind. He also has a website (http://www.jonas-kyratzes.net), but it smells of mushrooms.