This was my capstone project for the completion of my New Media degree, spring semester of 2010 and the University of Maine, Orono.
[REN] was many things, but at the basic level it was a simple game of expansion and growth. The Player started off in a room in which there was only one door, but no doorknob. Through trial and error you would exit the room into a labyrinth of more rooms and puzzles similar in design, but gradually increasing in complexity. You were alone on a great structure that had to be fixed so that it may travel to other structures and contact the other people trapped within their own little labyrinths and help them gain control of their structures. Eventually you would amass great schools of thousands of these little structures and learn more about what happened to you and everyone else: why everyone had simultaneously lost their memories…or was it only you?
There were Ten levels in [REN] spanning from one single small room to landscapes screaming in scale larger than our galaxies – very surreal and neat. Original concepts depicted actual spaceships zooming around through space which evolved later into amorphous, scuttling organics living on the inside surface of massive hollow shells of planetoids called Orbs: I preferred a fantastical view of reality, one where the Player could guess the physics of the universe based on strange intuitions, and not based on the laws we normally know. Many headaches accompanied the design process.
Naturally, this was only half of the game. I wanted replayability, I wanted to play around with technology that would make the game different every time to play, without revealing an underlying pattern too easily: Procedural Content Generation. still too easy, I wanted the player to invest more into the game than that. Eventually we came up with a plan where the details and flow of the entire game was seeded by a piece of writing submitted by the Player at the very beginning: one page of anything.
Style and statistics were analyzed, number of sentences, words, average number of letters or types of letters within a sentence were stored and used to determine aspects of the game. How chaotic rooms would be shaped, what was inside the rooms, how difficult the puzzles would be later on. Even the very atmosphere of the game would change, phrases in the writing such as “it was a dark and stormy night” contained keywords that affected the probability that lighting would change…and more.
Some Conceptual Sketches and design plans for REN:
DEVELOPMENT OF LEVEL 3: LABYRINTH
Development of [REN] was a slow, exciting process: almost everything was procedurally generated, few models were to be constructed by hand. With the exception of the Doorframes themselves, everything in the following images was generated by code.
Alex Karantza, another good friend Sean Edwards and I had been working on projects such as Invasion and The Combat Series for about three years previous, along with many other smaller, less serious endeavers from years before. We were at a point where I, the designer and director of this specific project could comunicate with Alex, the programmer, at the same level without the general misunderstanding and fighting Artists and Engineers go through on most projects.
The design called for Ten Levels: Paper, Room, Labyrinth, Structure, Collective, Economy, Mesh, String and Wall (Yes, one is missing, you counted right). These were seperated into three Worlds: Paper World, Room World and Orb World. Alex started work on Room World first: a massive maze of rooms connected together by doorways that had to be unlocked through various means. Merely thinking about this posed several problems: How were rooms placed? Would you start with one room and branch out from there? How were they connected? Teleporters? Would the “hallways” actually exist? Could the rooms be stacked over each other? Should the player be allowed to jump or climb? Would gravity change in the rooms? Could a room be upside down or sideways? Could rooms rotate and move on their own? More headaches.
Alex came up with the idea of creating a subdivided sphere first, and manipulating the vertices in spots by certain magnitudes to generate “bulges” to make it appear as though the Player was inside a giant mass of bubbles intersecting with each other – which was the goal. These bulges could be anywhere, and were different every time a room was generated. Scale variation and complexity of rooms was to be worked on later when Writing was taken into consideration. For now the important parts were there: every room was different, now for the texturing and shading.
Placement of the Rooms and connecting them together was solved by one of the most surprising things ever: Alex is an avid fan of NetHack and drew inspiration from a found dungeon generator algorithm that placed rooms on a grid, connected some of them together randomly, and had a start and a finish. I was worried that the Grid of roooms would be too obvious, but once in the game we found that the Player would easily lose track of their sense of direction, masking the system.
The Rooms were connected by hallways with doors on the ends of them, walking through was a trippy experience for the Player.
Now for the Gameplay itself.
This part of the game was puzzle heavy, getting from one room to the next required the unlocking of doors, and doors needed something called “Ink” in order to unlock. At the beginning of the game, the player is dropped in a single room containing two hovering spheres, one Green and one Red, the Player was to then discover that they can draw on the walls to connect the “working” sphere to the “locked” sphere, thusly unlocking it. I proposed direct texture-painting, Alex had a better idea: ribbon trails that could later have creepy vector shaders applied to them to make them move slightly or display the amount of ink left in a given Sphere. The end-product was all we needed for a working prototype for the Capstone Presentations.
Finally, we presented the workings of our toils, half of Level 3: Labyrinth. Gameplay was incredibly incomplete as half the elements had yet to be put in, the Invasion Engine remained in its eternal state of incompletion and time constraints overwhelmed us all among other things. Buggy, but somewhat polished enough to present at the Capstone Fair, [REN] cooly strutted the basic mechanic of drawing on walls to connect “orbs” of “ink” together so that doors may be unlocked. It was actually a hit with the people who showed up to the Fair, several children were addicted to the game (until memory leaks sucked the framerate out of my desktop and the engine had to be restarted). As a last bit of fun, Alex dumped in little fluttery pieces of paper with some of my concept designs on them that the Player could pick up and look at when not dragging ink across the ceiling and floor.
We attempted to continue the project over the summer of 2010, but Alex was much too busy, the Invasion Engine was much too broken, and alternatives did not give us the options we needed – namely the procedural components. I plan to return to this project someday when I can afford it, the experience was awesome and [REN] had so much to become.
Capstone Advisors included: Rapheal Diluzio and Joline Blaise. I also had the pleasure of having Alex Karantza, a friend going to Rochester Institute of Technology for a Masters in Computer Engineering as programmer. Other helpful people include Nick Rucker, Sean Edwards and my Capstone Classmates who really helped the concept move along.