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Strawhart: First Person Puzzle-Platformer

Edit: We just released a brand new trailer! (https://youtu.be/iuveQG58r3c)
https://youtube.com/watch?v=iuveQG58r3c

I wanted to share some stuff from Strawhart, our upcoming first person puzzle-platformer.

For environment design, we use a very minimalistic style backed by a monochromatic color palette, since our aim is to make puzzle elements immediately pop to the player’s eye.

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We’ve also been messing around with 4.16’s new volumetric lighting, which I think really enhances our atmosphere.

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This is a screenshot of the play area for one of our earlier puzzles. Most of the puzzle pieces themselves have been removed for the screenshot though, so as to not distract from the environment.

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Finally we have some concept art for one of our game’s characters.

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Thanks for taking the time to look at Strawhart. I’ll try and update this thread periodically as we keep working on the game.

I’ve got a quick update here just giving an example of how it looks when we transition some concept art into an in-game asset. I tried to attach a gif of the object, but the forums weren’t letting me so I just put up a quick video. You can see we iterated a bit on the first concept, opting not to make the final 3D asset so splintered and battered.

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This week I’ve got a WIP exterior for one of our larger buildings. We’re still going for the monochromatic look here with the buildings facade, only really accenting it with the slightly reflective windowpanes. The doorframe in the picture we made highly reflective, in order to draw the player towards it with a strong visual cue rather than a glowing path or some other artificial means.

Hi everyone,

Our Lead Artist recently posted what I thought was a pretty interesting breakdown of his thought process in taking an environment from a simple greyboxed room to something that tells a story.

"The first screenshot is from a build of the game that we brought to an expo to get some people playtesting our puzzles. All the textures here are just simple flat colors. As a player you get the impression that you’re in a big building, and you can navigate the layout, but that’s about it.

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The next screenshot is of the same room, but makes several big architectural changes in addition to the texture work being done. The second floor balconies have been extended the length of the corridor to give the players additional explorable space, helping to sell that this is a lived-in space and not just a box for puzzles. The large chandelier has been replaced with several smaller, lower hanging ones that follow the red carpet, and the archway in the middle of the room has been restructured in a bid to funnel players naturally in that direction. The floor has changed from wood to reflective marble, to keep the space feeling open and grand, despite being smaller due to the second floor overhangs.

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Since this rooms’ in-game function is to allow the player to be able to move between the various rooms and floors of the stage, its visually a little busier than most things we make. Since we don’t have to worry about puzzle readability, we can really leverage this part of the environment for worldbuilding. For example, the untextured portraits on the walls will eventually feature the manor’s residents."

Thanks for taking the time to read about what everyone working on Strawhart has been up to this week. I hope it provided a little bit of insight into our creative process. As always, comments are welcome!

I’ve got a short video this week showing a rope bridge that I prototyped out in blueprints. Over the course of a puzzle you destroy it, and can then climb up and down it. It’s a small thing, but I think stuff like this is important to have in a puzzle game. When you allow your player to destroy/repurpose the objects around them, it makes the world feel more alive and responsive. We’re trying to avoid the sensation that you’re just moving from “Big Box With Puzzle Inside A” to “Big Box With Puzzle Inside B,” and letting the player crash and smash their way between set pieces seems like a good way to do that.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=xO5EA6IcJuc

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGwQyat1H-I

We’ve been hard at work on Strawhart these past few months, and we are finally ready to release our first teaser trailer!

We’re planning on releasing a longer gameplay trailer later, but in the process of building our website (www.cyphercreations.com) we realized that we’d need a video to put front and center in order to give potential fans something to engage with.

The trailer was cut in Lightworks, with the footage rendered directly from Unreal.

The trailer also gives us something to cross-link across Facebook, Twitter, etc. At this point, we’re really looking to build a community for our game, as the more we learn about indie development, the more crucial having a vocal fanbase seems to be. To that end, we’ve also integrated a mailing list signup module into our site.

Please feel free to check it out and leave some feedback for us. We would definitely value the input of the dev community here. Thanks!

This looks beautiful! I can’t wait to see more. How long has this been taking you guys? I love the art style and can definitely tell this will be a fun game to play. Reminds me of a mix of Portal/Ocarina of Time/Oblivion. Great work!

Thank you for the kind words! We started this project last January, and have been working away at it ever since. I’m glad you like the style, it took us a lot of back and forth to settle on. We really wanted to have that old-school 64-bit aesthetic, but adapted for the modern era.

Hi again everyone! I’m pleased to be back with another update about Strawhart:

For this week, I wanted to go a bit more in depth about something our lead artist talked about on Polycount recently: how we go about designing our puzzle pieces to be readable to the player.

The piece in question here is called a “ballast.” Like almost all of our puzzle pieces, it can exist in three different states. What state the ballast takes depends on player input. The states are as follows

  • Default: The ballast is a simple box that can interact with physics, be carried around by the player, jumped on, and pushed around.
  • Amplified: The ballast becomes much lighter and floats upwards a fixed distance.
  • Concentrated: The ballast becomes much heavier and no longer can be moved. If it is in motion, it will damage or destroy objects that it collides with.

The ballast can fluctuate between these states nigh instantaneously, and there is no time limit for how long the ballast can stay in a modified state. Therefore, it became very important to communicate to the player when the ballast’s state was changing, and what effects the new state had.

First we designed the ballast’s default state. It is a translucent box that houses a strange substance. The substance inside the box is actually a separate mesh which functions as a morph target, meaning that it can deform into different shapes during gameplay. In the default state, the substance fills the entirety of the box. The object is simple enough here, and players are familiar enough with movable boxes in puzzle games that they could immediately surmise all of the use cases for the default state.
(Note that the materials and colors used here are placeholders)

ballast_default.jpg

For the amplified state, we had to communicate in a plausible way why a box would start levitating. Since our game is in a fantasy setting, this isn’t too unbelievable. When the player amplifies the ballast, the morph target inside shrinks into a small sphere, and we use a material offset to make the sphere pulse and ripple, like a water balloon (this way the object no longer seems solid). We also play an audio cue that sounds like a balloon rising.
These three factors all combine to communicate to the player that the ballast is now lighter than it was before.

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For the ballast’s concentrated state, our work was a little trickier. It is difficult to communicate an increase in weight to the player when dealing with a stationary object. What we ended up doing was making the morph target inside of the ballast swell up to the point where it exceeded the bounds of the original box. We then altered the ballast’s material instance so that the texture of the morph target appears similar to that of a boulder. In this way, the ballast is now associated to a traditionally heavy object, both in shape and appearance. The final thing we did was to swap out the audio cue for when the ballast hits another surface. Whereas the old impact sound was hollow and wooden, the audio cue for the concentrated state sounded like the heavy thud of a boulder. Since the ballast is now visibly larger, and sounds heavier, players are willing to try to use the object in new ways, like weighing something down, or using the ballast as a battering ram.

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Of course, art can only do so much and eventually it is up to the designer to communicate a puzzle piece’s function to the player. To that end, we introduce the ballast in a simple isolated puzzle, structured so that the player must use both the amplified and concentrated states to progress. We also chose not to introduce the ballast to the player until a few levels into the game. The reasoning behind this this was that in our playtests, the longer a player played, the more certain their reaction to a new puzzle piece was. In the early levels they would approach a new piece with curious timidity. But by the time of the ballast’s introduction, every player would immediately charge up to it and begin amplifying and concentrating.

Thanks for reading! Please feel welcome to post any comments, criticisms, or tips! Also, if you want to check out more Strawhart, we have an IndieDB now!

Hey everyone,

Jim here, I’m the lead artist on Strawhart. Just thought I’d supplement the ballast discussion with a quick gif of the morph target in action. Hope you enjoy!

Today I wanted to talk about our Hub world, and a little bit about the design philosophy that made us want to have one in the first place.

A lot of games do the whole “home base” thing, where you can go back to some castle or settlement after every mission and buy upgrades, talk to party members, or otherwise interact with your surroundings. Strawhart is an action-puzzler, and the puzzle genre makes use of Hubs quite frequently. This allows players to select from a myriad of puzzles to attempt at any time, rather than just proceeding through the game linearly. Hubs in this way are handy for allowing your players a soft workaround for when they get stuck on a challenging puzzle; the player can just go back to the Hub and try a different one.

While that is a nice failsafe for a game to have, it isn’t why we chose to include a Hub world in Strawhart. We really wanted to make a game where the player felt like they were in a living world and that their presence (or lack thereof) changed things. We also wanted the player to feel the weight of time when they came back from a long quest. To quote our lead artist, “we want the player to return home from some distant land and then be taken aback at how things have changed in their absence.” We also really wanted to avoid the “uncanny eternal summer” effect, where no matter how long a player takes questing elsewhere, or how far they progress, areas they previously encountered remain completely static, therefore breaking immersion. You can see examples of this effect in a lot of RPG’s where even after the main story tells the player that they’re a hero who just saved the kingdom, they don’t believe it because the game world itself doesn’t act like they did.

With these things in mind, we decided on a Hub world that would function as the beating heart of our game.

We dynamically alter things like time of day, weather, and the seasons, so that every time the player returns to the Hub, it seems like they are encountering the area for the first time. We do this in addition to more classic Hub changes like unlocking additional areas as the player grows stronger, and adding or subtracting assets based on story happenings. It’s a simple thing, but we also make sure that every time the player re-enters the hub, they do it from a new angle, ensuring that they get a different view of things.

What makes this feasible for us, aside from UE4’s awesome lighting tools, was the scope of the Hub level. We wanted the level to be quite compact, set in a location where seasonal changes would be immediately recognizable without having to individually model a million different assets. To that end we chose a farmstead nestled within a forest. The changing of the seasons is clearly communicated by foliage and crops, all of which are assets that can be re-used scores of times throughout the level.

The end result is a Hub that players are eager to return to so that they can see what new twist has occurred in their absence. The hub is given a sense of life, and hopefully, the “uncanny eternal summer” effect is thwarted.

Thanks for reading!

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Hello Everyone,

This week we did a breakdown on how the aesthetic rules of our game work, along with how and why we break them. The Screenshot above is a small diorama of props and kit pieces from our Manor stage.

I wanted to reference it as an example of how you can bend the artistic rules of your game. Our stages are primarily monochromatic, with a single hex color “anchoring” the stage’s palate and other colors acting as accents.The manor on the other hand, draws on burgundy and mahogany in equal measures. You can see this in the walls, in the tables, and even the floors.
The end result here is an environment that is by definition busier than the player is used to, thus breaking our own rule about simply colored environments. However, the manor stage is supposed to be an opulent locale, far removed from the standard of Strawhart’s world. By giving the stage the luxury of a second primary color in its palate, it helps convey this to the player.

Once we decided on breaking this rule, we had to acknowledge why it existed in the first place. We wanted monochromatic backgrounds so that the player would immediately be able to tell what objects were important when solving a puzzle. These puzzle objects would stand out immediately from the backdrop by virtue of color alone. The screenshot below is a collection of our first stage’s props in isolation, to give you an idea about the simplicity we’re talking about. Everything takes on an orange hue, with darker browns used to accent. You can see the same thing in the stage’s landscapes and buildings.

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With this in mind, we knew we’d have to design the stage in a way that maintained the clarity of our puzzles. To do this, we adopted strict, clean breaks between red and brown. The red of the walls is always above head level. Unlike in the staged assortment of props above, our rugs are at rigid angles and placed in the center of rooms, etc. This allows the colors to fade into the background for the player once they begin a puzzle. The background, while more complex, is uniform. This subconsciously signals to the player that it is just that: a background.

Thanks for reading guys. If you want more from us, you can check us out on twitter @Strawhartgame!

Hello All,

Just wanted to pop in and give an example of the effect that having a dynamic HUB can have. I talked about this at length a few weeks ago, but didn’t post anything showing it in action. In this GIF you can pretty clearly see the what I was referring to. We’ve basically just changed the dynamic lighting and made some candles visible, but it feels like you’re looking at two different worlds.

If you want to see more examples of the HUB world lit at night, there’s a couple over on our IndieDB.

Thanks for reading!

Hey Everybody,

Thought I’d share what we’ve been working on in honor of Screenshot Saturday.

We spent the week overhauling Strawhart’s foliage system after we decided that our current tree’s simply weren’t conveying the atmosphere we wanted them to. The stage above, Westharrow, is set in a forest, and features a lumber mill, secret clearings, and a shadowy village. However, with our previous foliage (which you can see in previous posts) the idea of a forest simply wasn’t popping to mind when people played the stage.

We identified the problem as being twofold. First, our current trees did not create a canopy, or any overhead cover at all. You cant have shadowy paths, or that sense of exploration without a canopy. The second problem was that our current forest was too still. People expect movement and chaos from the natural world, and our old efforts weren’t conveying either of those things.

So, to solve the first problem, we made our trees much, much bigger and added leaves. The leaves were really tricky as we wanted to stay true to our 64-bit aesthetic, but still make use of what a modern engine is capable of doing (In actual 64-bit games, their forests usually consisted of a single blurry tree texture stuck on a plane, tiling over and over).

Our first solution helped us find our second. Now that we had leaves, we could add a wind sway to them, to help give the entire area a shimmer of motion. We re-did our bushes to be in line with the new look of the trees, and gave them and the grass that same sway. To compliment it further, we added a simple falling leaf particle.

That’s about it. Thanks for reading! If you want to see all of our previous screenshot saturdays, they’re on our Twitter.

Hey all,

Haven’t posted here in a while, although we’ve been hard at work on Strawhart in the mean time! I wanted to share a little dev writeup we did on the thought process that went into crafting Strawhart’s first-person puzzle gameplay:

"From the start, we wanted to design puzzles that allow players to harness their creativity. This can be as simple as learning to use an old tool in a new way, or as transformative as turning a narrow abyss into your personal playground, but it’s that sense of creative discovery that is at the core of Strawhart. Pushing your boundaries and growing more powerful through sheer human ingenuity is a feeling like no other, and one we’ve tried to harness.

We’ve shaped our puzzle pieces around this central principle of enabling players’ creative sides. Each piece has multiple modes that you can toggle between at will. To get an idea of what we’re on about, we’d like you to check out the Spring Pad, one of the earliest puzzle pieces you’ll come across:
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In its default, un-powered state you’ll be able to pick up the spring pad, move it around, and re-orient it however you like. Hit it with a blast of concentrated magic though, and it’ll send you soaring through the air. Use an amplification blast, and instead of launching you, the Spring Pad will emit a vortex, drawing everything in the vicinity towards it. Here’s a short video to show the basics of the Spring Pad in action: https://youtube.com/watch?v=0rxGf2HIKF4

We hope that little snippet was enough to get you thinking of all the ways you can use Spring Pads, whether you’re traversing the woods of Westharrow, or exploring the dead city of Valecrest. Of course, the Spring Pad is merely one puzzle piece of many, all of which interact with each other in surprising and subtle ways."

Thanks for taking the time to read up on how Strawhart is coming along. Please leave a comment and let me know what you all think!

Hello everyone if anyone has any questions, feedback or suggestions please let us know or feel free to reach out to us we’d love to help or answer questions.

Thank you!

  • Jim

Really excited to share some more gameplay in gif form! I think this one really shows off the sort of fluid, feedback-rich solutions we look to have in our puzzles. We wanted to make sure they player felt like they were doing something special when they were executing a solution.

As always, please let us know what you think!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGwQyat1H-I

Hello everyone! To celebrate Halloween, I wanted to share with you Strawhart’s latest gameplay trailer. I think our aesthetic is very much in keeping with the season, so I hope you enjoy it!
Our game is an action puzzler in the spirit of games like Portal, but with our own distinct visual style. If you’ve got any questions, comments, or criticisms, they’re more than welcome. Here’s the direct youtube link:

https://youtu.be/iuveQG58r3c