Thursday Sep 22, 2011
What’s that? Fear? On a Nintendo DS? You’d better believe it and even if you don’t we have the good folks from WayForward tell you all about their project plans. In our second blog about Aliens Infestation, the team talks about how they crafted the experience and came up with new ways to frighten and disturb players. Read on!
Level Design and Crafting Fear
Adam Tierney (Director, WayForward):
So now that WayForward has signed on to develop the Aliens project with Gearbox and Sega…what next?
We’d initially pitched our publisher on a Metroidvania-style exploration game, which seemed to fit the license. For those that aren’t familiar with that term, it refers to the backtracking, lock-and-key nature of games like Metroid and Castlevania. Rather than rushing forward, the player is forced to search for specific objects, which allow them to bypassed previously-locked areas, and expand their game world section-by-section. The world of Aliens is filled with memorable gadgets and technology, so it was very easy to come up with locks and keys in this sense: welded doors, xeno-gunked passages, key cards, etc.
We knew early on that it was important to play up the ‘hidden passages’ aspect of the films, in order to give our creatures a believable method by which they could leap out of the floors and ceilings. So each of our game environments has two areas: the main floors, and the air ducts above and below those floors. Players essentially ‘warp’ between the two types of areas each time they step through a hatch in the ceiling or wall. By locking the players out of standard paths, and forcing them to hop into these confined, dark enclosures (often barely tall enough to crawl through), we limited the player’s options are (hopefully) created unsettling situations.
The other things those air ducts allowed us to do was connect the Xenomorphs’ world to our own. In most of our game environments, there are multiple alien Queen hives hidden in between floors, accessible only air ducts. Creating these nooks was a fantastic opportunity to play up the organic composition of those areas, in stark contrast to the more structured, angular environments of the human-built areas. In fact, we even split the art load between two different pixel artists (Mads and Telemachus), so that the two areas would feel very foreign to one another. These hives would play a critical role in the game, in regard to rescuing captured squad mates (but more on that later).
Another critical element was creating situations where the player would lack confidence, and fear what’s ahead of them. This proved to be one of the biggest challenges in a tiny, pixel art game on Nintendo DS. Could a 2D pixel game be scary? Was that even possible? We decided to focus on two areas of the game to foster our fear: visibility and resources.
Regarding visibility, we felt that if we could prevent players from seeing their adversaries, or seeing the full environment around them, it would make them apprehensive about moving forward (in spite of the pixel art style). This was accomplished first, and most directly, by occasionally turning the lights out. Many areas of the game are completely dark, and block the player from progressing until they’ve located a portable light source. Even then, the flashlight (once located) will only shine a thin beam forward, in the direction the character is currently facing. It does nothing to illuminate what’s behind or above the player, unless they turn to face in that direction (which then obscures what’s in front of them). By limiting visibility dramatically in these sections of the game, we were able to cultivate that uncertainty in players.
Our xeno spawn systems helped elevate that unease even further. Basically, the two primary ways that xenos can appear in this game are: slinking out of the shadows, or popping out from the floors/ceilings. The first approach is a subtle, uneasy entrance. A xeno is wedged into the architecture (as it was in the final scene of Ridley Scott’s alien). The player knows it’s there…or do they? The hidden xeno will remain lodged in the wall, completely still, illustrated in a way that matches the sci-fi art style of the environment. It’s not until the player passes the creature, that it slinks out of its hiding space, engaging them in combat. It was important to never cheat the player in this regard: you can always see highlights of the alien resting in its nook; they aren’t totally invisible. But because of the complexity of the environment’s art style, players can never be completely sure if something is there, without getting close and checking it out first-hand.
The other prominent xeno entrance is leaping out at players. Instead of having our xenos just standing around, waiting for the player to approach and attack them, they’re more often hidden in the floor and ceilings (just as in the films). If the player rushes through an area too quickly, the xeno will leap out, knocking them down and brutally attacking the player as a punishment for their impetuousness. Instead, the safe player must either proceed slowly and cautiously, so that they have (just) enough time to dodge when a xeno bursts out, or they must learn to perfectly time a dodge roll, in order to zip past the creature just as it bursts forth. Playing sloppy and failing to adequately take either approach will result in pretty quick death.
When the player gets the Motion Tracker, this heightens the fear even more, with the player now able to tell roughly where those aliens are hiding, and inching toward them very, very slowly with the anticipation that they’re going to jump out any second. Sometimes, giving the player more information can actually make them feel less confident.
The other area of the game we felt we could build fear, as mentioned, was in resources. Nothing’s frightening when you can unload unlimited Smart Gun ammo against your enemies. So with the exception of the single-shot pistol, every weapon in the game has a limited amount of ammo (even the pulse rifle). By forcing players to spend their clips cautiously, we’re able to milk the action. Rather than unloading wildly on a creature (and risk wasting a few shots), the player learns to fire in short bursts. Doing this, of course, takes longer to kill each enemy, and allows each enemy to get closer to the player than if they’d just held the firing button down continuously. In this sense, our enemies will force players to backpedal while firing (another important mechanic, detailed in the next section). So now rather than tearing through enemies, the player is blasting out conservative rounds, praying that they’re got enough ammo and (hallway space) to destroy the creature before it slices them to pieces.
Once we had the mechanics for these elements figured out amongst the team, we were able to proceed with confidence that our game (while pixel and handheld) would be intense. And ultimately, the formula for nailing each of these elements was right there in the original films.
Metroidvania or Lock and Key – Gameplay explained
Cole Phillips (lead designer):
As fans of the Metroid series know, the Alien films had an influence on many aspects of the game. From the pacing to the art style to even similarities in plot devices, Metroid has always given off that ‘Alien vibe’. When we were tasked to design a new 2D side scrolling Aliens game, I couldn’t believe it! I’ve wanted to make a game of this type for some time, and thought this would be a great opportunity for that.
We decided to combine the action shooter genre with ‘MetroidVania’ style lock-n-key progression. The Aliens universe proved to be an ideal candidate for the treatment, rich in weapons, gear, and enemy lore. Metroid always felt a little more real to me than most platforming games. We decided to add a sense of realism to our game by adding features more commonly found in tactical titles: Slower movement, limited ammo, magazine changes, taking cover, blind fire. I always appreciated the tempo of the Metroid games and thought the same approach could work well here.
Exploring was also a big part of the MetroidVania experience and we tried to provide that same feeling by really making a maze out of the guts of the Sulaco. It’s hard to look at the in-game map and not be reminded of the maps in Super Metroid.
Posted by Clumsyorchid in Aliens: Infestation on 3:51:39PM Sep 22, 2011
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