Supporting Characters and Their Voices

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A Few of the Historical Supporting Characters from Tombeaux

While a picture might be worth a thousand words, I have a feeling that a thousand words spoken by the right person – someone who possesses the talent and training to properly deliver a line – is worth even more.

Tombeaux is somewhat heavy on narrated dialogue. It delivers a large portion of its story through a single main narrator that we hear throughout the game. But just as crucial to that single voice are the musings delivered in the form of short dialogue snippets by the sixteen different historically accurate supporting narrators. I spent a large part of last spring and early summer refining these characters and the lines that they would speak.

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Historical Supporting Character Bios

Just as with a film or book, one cannot necessarily just sit down and begin writing dialogue for a character. It was important to me that these individuals were well-researched and authentic. Additionally, I wanted to make sure to have a small bio (with supporting imagery) for each character, so that I (and eventually, the actors) could more easily get into the heads of these people. In the case of well-known historical figures (like President Thomas Jefferson, who we hear reading one of his letters in my game), this was easy. I could fill in his name, age, gender, ethnicity, and even the year of the event/dialogue with a simple internet search. From additional research, I could also supply the bio with his educational background, speaking dialect/style, home, and occupation. Because I have placed these characters in the game as supporting observations and narrative (it is not required of the player to listen to their statements), their role acts to fill in holes left by the main narration, adding a level of depth for the particular player who wants to learn more. To support this, I’ve also assigned each individual bio with specific emotional states and themes that they would be representing in Tombeaux.

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Quote by Oscar Knapp, Steamboat Captain

While my main character is more opinionated and collaged from multiple facts, writings, and quotes (representing one voice of collective America), the supporting characters are either actual figures from history or a representation of a figure one would find in that era. For instance, I have people like Frederick Weyerhauser the lumber baron and the Ojibwe Chief Great Buffalo (Kechewaishe) speaking in my game. These are historical figures – icons – speaking in the game with either real things they said, or a collection of quotes and facts that were associated directlly with them.

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Quote by Kristina Nilsson, Swedish Homesteader

But in the case of many view points I wanted to represent in the game, it was very hard to find documentation on both a person and a specific quote. I often times had to find a word-for-word quote by an unnamed person and attribute it to the name of another person from that time period. For instance, James Johnston the lumberjack or Kristina Nilsson the Swedish homesteader did not have specific quotes attributed to them in history. Instead, I combined various quotes and facts from that period in order to craft lines that would have most likely been spoken by that person (or a similar person). Essentially, while some of the narrated lines were pure non-fiction, I had no choice but to dive into “creative nonfiction” for some characters, through historical research and inventiveness.

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Matthew Carlson

Once I had the lines written, it was time to start recording them for the game. While I recorded all the lines myself first, that was obviously only as a placeholder. Luckily, one of my closest friends, Matthew Carlson, is an actor and writer. In addition to having years of experience on stage and a graduate degree from NYU, he’s been focusing a lot of his current work on screenwriting. Not only was Matt able to lend his voice talents for one character, but he gave my script a much-needed overhaul, bringing it to a level of polish I could never have achieved alone.

[audio http://www.davebeck.org/Logging2Lumberjack_Carlson.mp3]

The lumberjack James Johnston (voiced by Matthew Carlson)

And, as if that wasn’t enough, he also offered to act as unofficial “casting director” for me, helping me to find the other 15 voice actors for the game. Before I knew it, he had reached out to his acting friends, and received affirmative responses from nearly every person he asked.

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Some of the voice actors from Tombeaux

The result has been amazing, as now my game is filled with a who’s who list of Broadway and IMDB, including Nicholas Carriere as Thomas Jefferson, Ray Baker as Frederick Weyerhauser, Gretchen Hall as a Swedish homesteader, and Kate MacCluggage as a park ranger (to just name a few!). Again, I have my good friend Matt to thank for helping Tombeaux’s narrative and voice talent ratchet from “amateur” up to “professional” in a series of a few months.

[audio http://www.davebeck.org/Ojibwe4Jefferson_Carriere.mp3]

Thomas Jefferson (voiced by Nicholas Carriere) reading a letter from 1803

While the ideal situation is to record the lines in a outfitted studio, my voice actors were literally spread across the country from LA to NY. Since each of them only had a single 30-60 second line to record, we relied on earbud mics as the recording tech for the first run-through. After bringing the emailed files in to the free audio editing program, Audacity, I made some adjustments that followed a quick workflow tutorial that I found online. These adjustments allowed all of the tracks to sound relatively similar, and resulted in a fairly sufficient quality that I could bring in to the game. Once I overlayed the tracks on top of the game’s background sound effects and Joseph Fear‘s musical score, they fit perfectly. The dialogue and recordings have proven to be the perfect addition to Tombeaux’s dedication to authenticity and excellence, and I have over a dozen people to thank for that (especially my friend, Matt)!

Special thanks to all of my current voice actors: Steve Alm, Mike Ojibway, Chris Bolan, Nicholas Carriere, Lesley Shires, Brian Slaten, Rob Eli, Ray Baker, Matthew Carlson, Kevin Crouch, Gretchen Hall, Ben Graney, Max Santucci, Kate MacCluggage, and Ken Roht.

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A Big Week

As the late-October daylight hours become increasingly shorter, it seems that the frequency of my blog posts have an opposite effect. The school/work year at University of Wisconsin-Stout is now in full gear, and my chances to set aside time to post – or even contribute to Tombeaux – have become rarer and rarer.

But last week was a very busy week for both me and the game! In the period of about five days, I launched the Tombeaux website, released a teaser trailer, and gave a presentation to the IGDA Chapter in the Twin Cities.

For the actual website of the game, I’ve been working closely with my former student, Keith Catalano. Keith is a talented 3D artist in his own right, but also works full time as a interactive designer at Clockwork Media. I hired him to help with the development of Tombeaux’s site, as well as aid a bit on the identity of the title treatment and logo in the game.

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Main Page of Tombeaux Site, with title treatment

Working over the past few months, Keith has done a fantastic job in designing a site that feels fresh, informative and simple. I’m extremely happy with the result of the site, and the type treatment and logo hits the exact amount of subtle yet unique balance I was looking for in the game’s identity. I invite you to jump over to www.tombeauxgame.com at some point soon, to see the great job he’s done.

webshot1webshot2Screenshots of Tombeaux’s Website

Before I could make the site live, I wanted to have a teaser trailer ready for viewers to discover nested on the page. I was going for a very simple and short experience that incorporate a glimpse of the river scene at night (as experienced by the player at the beginning of the game) and a few shots of the cabin interior. After recording the gameplay with the awesome, open-source software that is OBS, I brought it into Adobe Premiere. I then overlaid the video with a snippet of the score being composed by Joseph Fear and a selection of narration by the main character in the game (voiced by Steve Alm, who is reciting one of my favorite passages by Thoreau, from Walden). I’m happy with how the teaser ended up, and plan to release a few more teasers in the next few months.

First Teaser Trailer for Tombeaux

Finally, I had an opportunity to present the progress and research I’ve made on the game thus far to my local IGDA Chapter last Wednesday. The IGDA Twin Cities Chapter meets on the 2nd Wednesday of every month at The Nerdery, a software design and development company located in Bloomington, MN. It was a great experience to be able to talk about the project to such a large group of peers in the game development industry, and received some great feedback on the game as well. I look forward to continuing to participate in future meet-ups for playtest opportunities and conversations.

IGDA Twin Cities Logo

Overall, it was quite a busy week for Tombeaux and myself, which resulted in more than one late or all-nighter to get things done on time! It’s now again time to hunker down and model more assets, so that I can perhaps have another new teaser to share with you at some point in the coming month or two!

[Insert Game Title Here]

Many artists struggle with the seemingly simple task of assigning a title to their artwork. I’ve often been guilty of giving something an “Untitled” moniker, so as to leave the interpretation ambiguous and allow the viewer to decipher the work, stripped of any hints or labels.  With a video game, this is a bit trickier, as the title serves a larger purpose than just simply occupying a placard on the wall next to the hanging work.  It is the name of the app, the anchor for the game’s opening menu screen, the name of the website (and/or blog), and much more. It serves as a unique representation of the work across the vast internet, in both game spaces and not-game spaces.  It is one of the most crucial aspects of the game’s identity.

Select Game Title Screens from “A Brief History of Video Game Title Design

So to say that I struggled with this task is an understatement.  I’ve been through multiple iterations and ideas, with a final title that (luckily) works wonderfully on multiple levels.  I want to speak about the background to giving my game the title of “Tombeaux“, to once again offer a peek into my process.

First off, it wasn’t always Tombeaux.  Originally, I had another very fitting name to my game, courtesy of a suggestion from an early playtester and good friend, Mitch Ogden.  He suggested the title “Depth“, as it spoke to the focus I’m giving to both the literal (water) and the figurative (cultures, histories, characters, etc) elements in my game.  It was a wonderful title, and the only problem was that another game dev team also thought the same thing, and was waaaaay different than me on their game and scope.  Unless I wanted to contend in the Google search-a-verse with an underwater multiplayer shark hunting game (and their blend of “tension and visceral action…in heart pounding combat”), I knew I had to move on to another title.

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Depth, a FPS about hunting sharks underwater…definitely not room for Tombeaux here…

In my research about the St. Croix River, I found an interesting reference to Father Louis Hennepin‘s travels up the St. Croix.  The 17th century French Catholic missionary had explored the Mississippi, and spent some time on the St. Croix as well.  His was one of the first attempts by a European to name the river in a publication, giving it the title of “Riviere du Tombeau“, translated as “River of the Grave” (he had witnessed a Dakota buried on the banks of the river after dying from a snakebite, so the story goes). As one can gather, the name did not stick, for both the event and name did not seem fitting for an entire river full of such life and energy (the origins of the real name of the river – St. Croix – is actually up for debate as well, with stories such as the shape of the river resembling a cross, people dying at the mouth of the river, and other tales that all lead back it most obviously being named by a missionary).

While “Riviere du Tombeau” did not fit as the official name for the St. Croix, it did catch my attention enough to research the name and words further, as my game does deal with death in a more conceptual sense. When I looked up the word tombeau, I was pleasantly surprised to find that while the original french word does in fact mean tomb (or tombstone), another definition exists, derived from this original word.  It turns out that tombeau (or the plural, tombeaux) can also be a musical composition commemorating the death of a notable person. Most popular in the 17th century, the musical genre tended to take the dance-like form of either a pavane or an allemande.

Through further research, I came across a number of composers and works that I found inspiring and very fitting to some of the same time periods as I was recreating in my game, namely the late 19th century. Some of the works by Gabriel Faure and Maurice Ravel seemed particularly pertinent to what I was looking for as a connection to my game. Faure’s Pavane in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 50 gave me the feeling of navigating a smooth-flowing river and contemplating the majesty of one’s surroundings.

Pavane in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 50 by Gabriel Faure

Additionally, I found both a pavane and a tombeau that piqued my interest by Ravel, including his Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a dead princess). While not penned for a specific princess, it served to express “a nostalgic enthusiasm for Spanish customs and sensibilities”[1]. He also composed a much more upbeat, lively memorial to a number of his friends who passed in World War I, titled Le Tombeau de Couperin.


Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a dead princess) by Maurice Ravel

These types of works were wonderful finds, both as a stronger foundation for my title and as inspiration for the music of the game. I am trying to integrate a strong element of music into Tombeaux, through collaborating with a local composer on the soundtrack (more on him and his work for Tombeaux in a future post!). While I have always had a great appreciation for music (on its own and in games), I have no training whatsoever in composition or playing, so this discovery was a great way to offer the composer a direction for the music that fit very well into what I was trying to get the player to feel throughout the game.

When I think about it, the game really is somewhat of a dance – the player finds themselves being led by the main narrator through a series of rhythmic steps which move back and forth between two distinct positions/locations, while also traversing through a number of different time periods. This movement urges the player to contemplate what they saw in previous levels as possibly now being no longer among the living, bringing in themes of death and feelings of remorse. So in essence, my game is comprised of a number of smaller movements that investigate and memorialize life, making each level their own type of tombeau. These experiences build on one another, resulting in the game that is officially titled: Tombeaux.

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Le Tombeau de Couperin, by Ravel

Cabin Fever

Kate Craig of Fullbright, showing her main reference for Gone Home – a Sear’s Catalog from the 90’s

I had the good fortune of attending an amazing talk at GDC this past March, featuring Fullbright’s Steve Gaynor & Kate Craig. They talked about their meticulous and methodical approach to level design in Gone Home (a game that is one of the many reasons I was inspired to pursue my project in the first place).  Kate Craig talked about how important it is to do your research and focus on what looks both good *and* believable, I immediately connected to her approach as a game artist and designer. Even better, Kate personally sat down with me after the talk and provided some valuable feedback for Tombeaux, much of which has shaped the game’s current state (thanks Kate!).

As I mentioned earlier, I am working on two levels that the player spends time in while playing Tombeaux.  One (larger) level takes place on a small section of something inspired by the St. Croix River, while the other (smaller) level takes place inside a small cabin atop a cliff, overlooking the river.  I’d like to talk a bit about the cabin itself, and how I’ve seen the design transformation of such a key level in my game. Although I’ve grown fond of the below screenshot, there was something that just didn’t seem right about it.  Having learned a lot about level design over this past year, I knew I had to (almost) start over with this scene.

Former cabin interior from Tombeaux

Prototype Screenshot of former cabin interior from Tombeaux

So with that said, I’m going to break my realization down into three distinct nuggets.  They might seem like no brainer’s, but I can honestly say I didn’t think about them nearly as seriously a year ago, and now I’m paying for it with having to do a major amount of cabin remodeling (literally!).

Real Estate Tip #1: Who lives in my cabin?

My game is filled with characters, dialogue, and embedded narrative.  While you don’t necessarily see the characters, you hear their thoughts and read their writings. What this means is that these virtual people need to live somewhere in my game.  Not just in a few lines of code or an audio file, but instead I want the player to feel like the characters were present just moments ago – the campfires are still smoldering and equipment is waiting for its owner’s imminent return. Regarding the cabin, it has a unique owner. While you as the player never meet this person, his presence is felt through the decor in the space and the words he’s left.  In fact, the cabin’s occupant is the main narrator of the game, speaking as if he is standing right next to you.

I’ve been working on bios for all of my characters, but due to his prominence in the game, he’s received a bit more attention than the others at this point. As a character, he is timeless and nameless, acting more as a representative of a collection of ideas rather than a specific person or opinion. Yet his dialogue hints at some elements of formal education and a high society lifestyle, with a longing for something more primitive and simple. I’m using Thoreau’s Walden, William H. H. Murray’s Adventures in the Wilderness, and elements of Teddy Roosevelt as some inspirational jumping-off points for his design.

Books & People who have inspired my narrator character

Books & People who have inspired my narrator character

When I designed the cabin last summer, I wasn’t thinking about characters enough. I was more focused on creating a 3D space than giving it “character”.  Sure, the grey-boxing doesn’t need “character” (or characters), but it still provides a large amount of drive to why objects rest in the space that they do (and why those objects are even there in the first place!). So, while my “2014 Cabin” served its purpose well through providing the player a place to navigate and also helped me to envision the style of the game, it was only surface level about its reason for existence.

For instance, my earlier cabin design didn’t even have a bed, sink, or toilet. Instead, I decided to make a closed-door in the room, that would hint that those things were behind that door.  But what do you think everyone wanted to do when they saw that door (and how frustrated they got when they couldn’t do that thing)? Remember, although you think you’re making this game/level/cabin for yourself (or a fictional character, like above), that is only part of it – the true judge of its merit will be the player.

Screenshot of Old Cabin Interior (Maya)

Screenshot of old empty 2014 cabin interior (in Autodesk Maya). Brown door leads NOWHERE.

Real Estate Tip #2: Who is going to visit my cabin?

While designing your virtual space for a virtual character to inhabit is important, it is also crucial to consider how guests visiting your space will react to the world you’ve created.  I boil this down to two questions to ask: Will the player be able to navigate my world efficiently? Will the player believe in the world I’ve created?

Regarding efficiency, I feel that the design of my cabin was fairly straightforward – in both cases I used simple geometric footprints for my layout (long rectangle in 2014 and large square in 2015). While I would have loved to create a more unique blueprint, I thought about the location and timeless period that this cabin is found in and realized that I needed to forego luxury and spatial design for minimalism and efficiency (I have decided to add some outbuildings to the cabin that the player would see when outside, to add some more complexity to the design in a different way).

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2015 (filled) cabin on left, 2014 (empty) cabin on right (Autodesk Maya Screenshot)

While my 2014 cabin was visually interesting due to the objects, textures, and lighting, it didn’t make any sense as a living space.  It was long and narrow, lacking half the things you’d normally find in a cabin, and confused the player with an extra door that never opened. In my 2015 redesign, I’ve attempted to create something that is more open, yet feels extremely compact (borderline claustrophobic), to give the sense to the player that someone had lived here for a long time. There is now a single point of entry/exit to the cabin, and I’ve tried to lay out the objects in a way that feels like someone has been accruing memories across multiple time periods. While half of the objects have yet to be modeled, I already feel better about this space, for both the player and my narrator (half of the objects are already modeled, but I haven’t applied the textures yet, as I need to update all of them for Unity 5’s materials).

New Cabin Interior (Grey-box), 2015

New Cabin Interior (half modeled, half grey-boxed), 2015 (in game screenshot, Unity)

Real Estate Tip #3: How much inspiration does my cabin need?

A trend that I’ve been (happily) noticing in-game design lately is the amount of research – or pre-production – people are doing for their games.  While this has always happened to a certain extent, devs and companies are starting to realize that the more seriously we can take our medium from the beginning, the more likely others will take it seriously as well.  Whether it be the AAA studio who flies their devs to Florence to research Renaissance Italy, the mid-sized game dev company who uses on-site photogrammetry to create the majority of models for their game, or the artist who uses a Sear’s catalog as her style and image reference guide, people are doing solid research these days, and it is paying off ten-fold in the final product.

Objects from the Pine Needles Cabin, Modeled in Maya

Select objects from the Pine Needles Cabin for Tombeaux, Modeled in Maya

As an academic, I take research very seriously. When you add my obsession with details and rule-following to the pot, things can get out of hand really quick.  This actually happened last summer with the cabin, as I decided to recreate the exact cabin I was living in, down to many of the objects in the room. While this was a good exercise in observational modeling (and I had access to great texture references), I simply got too caught up being inspired by my surroundings.  The environment I was creating wasn’t making sense for the player and fictional character, and much of that was being driven by the exact place in which I was eating, sleeping, and working.  While the residency at Pine Needles was a monumental and crucial element to envisioning and starting Tombeaux, it took a lot of of user (play)testing, self reflection, and research to realize that it wasn’t the right fit for my game.

Exterior & Interior View of 2014 Cabin Inspiration

2014 Cabin Inspiration (Exterior & Interior of Pine Needles Cabin)

Now a year later, I’ve realized that – in addition to the lack of connection to the subject I was attempting to recreate – I simply don’t have time to be so exact and anal-retentive about everything.  I’ve got A LOT to model and texture, and while that cabin is very important, I can’t lose sleep over how many inches wide the windows each were (yep, I was approaching it like an engineer instead of a level designer!). So now, I’ve reconfigured the cabin’s exterior shape to be loosely based on a simple pioneer cabin.  The interior seeks out another source of inspiration: I’ve discovered the work of Eastman Johnson, who spent most of 1856 living and making artwork on Lake Superior, among the Ojibwe people and the fur traders. He sketched a few cabin interiors that I’ve found particularly pertinent to the look, feel, and time period that I’m hoping to achieve in Tombeaux’s cabin (and river) environment.  His sketches, combined with a late 19th century cabin exterior is shaping up to be a better fit for the game.

Exterior Interior

2015 Cabin Inspiration (L: Homestead National Monument, R: Eastman Johnson Sketch)

So, just as the mantra has been for the past few posts, a lot can happen in a year.  Although it sometimes feels like I’m taking two steps forward and one step back, I think it will be worth it in the end. It is my hope that the player will walk into the cabin and immediately feel my intentions for the designing the space, through their observation of a strong narrative, thoughtful visual layout, and solid research foundation.

Ideate. Playtest. Repeat.

I’ll be honest, when people ask me what it is I do for a living, I take a small amount of pleasure in seeing their response when I say: “I make video games and teach game design”. Even though it is 2015, I still – more often than not – get the look from someone like my career is akin to what the people in the below video do.  This is most likely due to their lack of understanding behind the process behind game dev, and not necessarily the lack of respect for the medium (although the two can be connected, of course).

Game development is very similar to any other field of design or development – there is a problem or challenge put in front of the designer, and it is their job to solve that issue in the most efficient and interesting (and in my case, aesthetically pleasing) way.  People do it everyday. Product Designers make objects. Architects make spaces. Graphic Designers make images. Engineers make bridges. Game Designers make experiences. Some of those experiences can be profound and life-changing, while others are as shallow as the money it earns is deep.

I frankly don’t know where my game stands on that spectrum I outlined above, but I’d like to think it leans closer to the profound than the profitable. The challenge I gave myself was fairly straightforward: I wanted to design an experience that incorporated my interests in history and the environment into a digital 3D world that could be experienced by nearly anyone (including the 6-year old digital native that is my daughter, the 20-year old twitch-gamer that is my student, and the 70 year old tech-challenged person that is my mother). While it might be straightforward, it isn’t necessarily an easy “I can design that sucker in a day” sort of project.  This was going to take time, and I discovered that it was going to take more and more time the further I dove into the research, ideation, and game engine.

With this in mind, I wanted to outline a few key stages I went through in the beginning (and still am returning to), as a way to explain my process a bit better.  None of these are inventions by myself or new elements to the game dev world – in fact, one would probably be hard pressed to find a single successful game without these elements embedded into its process, so for any experienced game designers out there reading this, I hope you’ll be patient during this primer.

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Select Slides from Tombeaux’s Game Design Document

The Game Design Document

Simply put, every game needs some sort of game design document (GDD or design doc for short).  Some take the form of wikis, others a google doc, others a pile of papers, while others are through a slideshow/PDF.  This doc is essentially the “manual” for the developer(s) to reference and use throughout the process. Due to a game being so freakin’ huge and bridging across so many disciplines, this document is literally the 10 (plus a few hundred more) commandments brought down from the mountain (and heaven help the person who decides to stray from those commandments!).  This doc includes objectives, mechanics, narratives, level layout, game flow, playtesting, sound info, and dozens of other things pertinent to the game’s functionality and playability.  To use one more analogy – this document literally is the blueprint for the entire game.  The more you can solidify this document in the beginning, the less likely there will be issues like crunch, communication breakdown, or feature creep, later on.

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Trim the fat on that design doc

I decided to go with a powerpoint/google slideshow for my design doc, so that I could rearrange the doc easily, integrate a large amount of media, and have it easily transfer into a pitch doc when speaking with others about my game.  In what started out as a relatively thin manual, my design doc grew into quite a large digital tome.  Perhaps this was due to my academic background of insisting on references and footnotes, or my artistic side wanting to see big, beautiful images throughout the doc.  Regardless, I’ve been able to cull it down to about 70 slides now, which feels like a good number.  While the initial work went into putting it together last summer during my Pine Needles residency, I’ve spent time over this past year refining it, largely based on the research and playtesting I’ve been conducting.

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Map from sketchbook of cabin interior level

Map Making & Level Design

If one’s goal is to create an environment for a player to explore, a birds-eye view map to visualize that overall experience is probably a good way to start.  I have two environments to explore in Tombeaux (and the player continually returns to both of them): an outdoor river level and an interior cabin level. While I went through a bunch of different iterations, I decided to move in to 3D with two sketches I had made early in the process.

I was aware that my vision might be larger than what was possible for making this game, so you can see that I immediately sliced off about a quarter of the cabin interior space (above), as I know that virtual spaces always feel larger than they actually are in the engine.  While you can’t necessarily see it in the river map, I also ended up squashing down that entire level too, to make the overall exploration area like that of a square shape, rather than a tall rectangle like it is below.

river_map

Map from sketchbook of river level

Grey Boxing

From this point, it was time to jump into the game engine to get a feel for the virtual space I had envisioned.  Using my maps as blueprints, I dropped down various boxes and other primitive 3D shapes, so that I might begin exploring the pixelated, lo-poly beginnings of the world of Tombeaux. Normally, this is called grey-boxing, and while I basically did that, I went a bit further with some shapes, as well as colors and shaders, so that I could begin to envision sillhouettes and color palettes into the game (which quickly became much more muted and less Minecraft-y, after seeing them in engine!).

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Grey …err… Colored Boxing

Playtesting

It’s my opinion that one of the biggest mistakes that game developers make is that they push playtesting back too late in the pipeline.  Picture this: near the end of the game development process, your game is like a giant, 15-ft tall snowball careening down a mountain at 250 MPH.  It is a lot easier to stop that snowball and rebuild it when it is near the top of the mountain, before it has gotten too big or started going too fast. Playtesters – people who aren’t associated with your game who could play it and provide you with some feedback – will help you avoid those last-minute snowball messes.

I’m a firm believer in playtesting your game from day one, which means you must have outside people play your game.  From those first playtest sessions, I learned about how to change the levels, tweak controls, reconfigure narrative, and even slightly change the direction of the game’s objective.  Those first two weeks of playtests were crucial to a smoother development pipeline down the road (and a big thanks to Emily, Josh, Simon, Amy, and Mitch for your help!). I’ll return to speak more about playtesting in a later post, in which I’ll dive into my reasoning, inspiration, and approach to the playtesting process.

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My kids, playtesting Tombeaux

Hopefully these short summaries about specific elements in my process have helped you grasp a bit more about the game dev process.  Before one can start actually playing the game as it was meant to be played, there is a great deal of research, design, iteration, and testing involved (not to mention all of the coding and art!). If only it was as easy as those guys said earlier, and I could just “tighten up the graphics a little bit” – but what’s the challenge in that? 😉

Summer 2014: Pine Needles

Pine Needles Cabin on the St. Croix

Looking up at the Pine Needles Cabin from the St. Croix River

It all started in May of 2014, during a fellowship with the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Pine Needles Artist Residency. I had the privilege of staying for an entire month in a small cabin that overlooked the St. Croix River, a setting which serves as the driving inspiration for the game’s environment. I had actually been here once before for a month in 2010, in which I created a 3D animation inspired by the St. Croix, so getting to return here was a very special experience for me.

This residency provides artists and writers with the opportunity to have complete and total focus on a project for a set amount of time. With no outside distractions, not another human/house for miles, and a view overlooking the river, it is the perfect scenario for an artist like me to dive into a project. Granted, there’s no studio or high-speed internet access, but it does provide the solace one might need to work all day (and often into the night) on a project.

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Looking uphill from Pine Needles

I spent the first week of the residency hiking, reading, kayaking, researching, sketching, and ideating. Since my normal (seemingly endless) work schedule of replying to emails, attending meetings, grading projects, and filling out expense reports was still present in my mind, I needed that week to decompress and start fresh. The surroundings of the area helped me dive headfirst into shedding my usual work routine. The lush green saturation of the forest was enhanced by the varied browns in the sandstone cliffs and tannin-soaked waters of the river. But just as the natural environment provided inspiration, I could sense the human impact and history of the area too. I saw it in decrepit staircases leading down the steep embankment to the river, eroded initials carved into rocks and cliffs, and the litter left behind by those recreating on the river in previous days and even decades. It was this intersection between the natural environment and our human race that fascinated me most – how this particular river has acted as a meeting place, life source, and highway for a multitude of humans and their distinct cultures across numerous centuries.

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Left: Initials carved into the cliffs, including one by the cabin’s original owner.   Right: Eroded steps leading down to the river

I wanted to capture that feeling in a way that others could experience what I did. After those initial days of finding my footing, I began the long process of creating Tombeaux. I would spend the next three weeks working on the project daily, from roughly 8:30am until 10:30pm, taking short breaks interspersed throughout the day (to avoid any physical side effects that come from sitting, typing, and clicking in one position for too long!). I knew that my only chance to really make progress on the game would be these three weeks, so my goal was to have a completed game design document and fully working prototype of the game (I’ll explain these in more detail later). After the residency, I returned to work and – beyond extensive playtesting and design doc refinement – I would not have an opportunity to make large amounts of progress on it until the following summer (of 2015).

So, as it is likely obvious by now, the game owes a lot to Pine Needles. It’s surroundings helped inspire the game, its cabin provided the space and solace I needed, and the residency program (and the people that run it) helped me find the time to start to make Tombeaux a reality.

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Interior of Pine Needles Cabin on my first day (and my cat)

and so it begins (albeit a year late)

My name is Dave Beck, and I’m an artist and professor living and working in Wisconsin. I’m writing this blog for you. I hope this peek into my development process will give you a better understanding of my project (which I’ll introduce below), and possibly inspire you to follow and learn along with me on this journey.  I’ve got a lot of lost time to make up for, so before I dive into the “now”, I’ll start with the “then”, much of which happened over this past year.

On that note, I really should have started this devblog a year ago, when I first began the project.  But then again, I had no idea that it would grow to such the monstrous behemoth that it has, filled with so many design doc pages, polygons, pixels, sounds, and lines of code!  The project I’m talking about is Tombeaux. 

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Tombeaux Blog Header

Tombeaux is a video game that I am creating.  It is an interactive experience that explores the convergence between cultures and the environment across a few hundred years of midwestern American history, taking place on a small section of the St. Croix River (which serves as part of the natural border between Minnesota and Wisconsin).  Through exploration, the player discovers new objects, environments, and narratives, all of which cause reflection upon our history and our future.

Map of St. Croix River, by Kmusser, based on USGS data, via Wikimedia Commons

As an artist, I see the medium of games as having a fantastic future in contemporary art and new media. It’s a wonderful way to educate, entice, and entertain an audience in ways I’ve always wanted to do with other media, but just couldn’t fully accomplish. I’m making Tombeaux for a variety of reasons, many of which I’ll expand on in future posts. I’ll talk about my inspirations behind the game, the development process, the factual research fueling its content, the collaborations supporting its creation, and other things that provide interesting angles about Tombeaux.

It’s already been a heck of a ride, and it’s only halfway there.  I hope you’ll consider joining me for this last leg of the journey.