Hootlin is a game prototype created in about 5 weeks for IAT410: Advanced Game Design. We started by defining a concept, moodboard, and experience, then we prototyped and tested our game iteratively.
Tools: Flash & AS3, Photoshop, Illustrator, Pen & Paper
We were asked to tailor our game to two BrainHex types. These archetypes define common player behaviours. After taking the test ourselves and reading the details of each type, we decided to target Seekers and Masterminds.
Our mechanics needed to be well documented and prioritized so that we didn't run out of time without having a core mechanic functioning. We split our ideas into a core mechanic, primary mechanic, and secondary mechanic. This was a living document that we updated as we iterated.
Our assignment was to create a game with one key innovation. After the initial concept phase, we settled on the notion of sound - we wanted blend an ambient and generative soundtrack with a physics platformer.
We needed to run two playtesting sessions for Hootlin. One with the first working prototype, and one with the second. We gathered 5-7 participants for these tests and ran them through our game to find usability problems or game mechanics that were not working as intended.
The initial game concept came about while the team was brainstorming ideas on a snowy Vancouver day. Reflecting on the quietness and beauty of the snow, we eventually arrived at the idea of a game where you collected snow and threw snowballs. Since we were confident that a 2D platformer was within scope, we ran with it.
"Imagine standing alone on a snow-covered plateau, hearing nothing but the howling wind. This is the sense of immersion and isolation that Hootlin, a 2D physics platformer, will create."
In developing our concept, we took inspiration from many sources. However, we carefully analyzed the mechanics of two games in particular:
From LIMBO we took the idea of atmosphere and platforming. We liked how it used a very specific art style and sound design to achieve a feeling of loneliness and isolation. Additionally, it is masterful in introducing puzzle mechanics and then building on them to create more complex levels.
We took inspiration from the Brian Eno-produced iPhone app called Bloom. This app lets you tap on the screen to create shapes and sounds, which repeat and echo in the background. In doing so, you can create your own soundscape. We decided to integrate this into Hootlin's gameplay as our core innovation.
This is an early sketch of the first level of Hootlin. Here I explored mechanics such as enemies, spikes, jumping and swinging, and pushing, then combining those mechanics in an extraordinary situation to create the snowman boss fight. In this design the player could either kill him or rescue his carrot nose from an icicle and then pass without harming him, furthering a sense of player agency.
We targeted two player types as defined by the BrainHex classification system. From their website, BrainHex is a "new player model [that] depicts gameplay behaviour in terms of seven key elements in the human nervous systems - the hippocampus and sensory cortices, the amygdala, epinephrine, norepinephrine, the orbito-frontal cortex, the hypothalamus, and the nucleus accumbens." We knew we wanted to built an immersive platformer, so we chose two types that would compliment such a game.
Check out BrainHex at brainhex.com
Seekers like finding strange and wonderful things. They show curiosity, sustained interested, and love stimulating the senses. They like games such as Okami, Shadow of the Colossus, and Zelda.
Masterminds like solving puzzles and devising strategies. They try to make efficient decisions. Masterminds like games such as Animal Crossing, Chrono Trigger, and Half-Life.
Platforming underpins the game. Hootlin is able to walk, run, and jump between platforms with physics applied - acceleration, friction, and more. We wanted this to feel fun and playful.
After thinking about how to add variety to snowballs, we decided to let Hootlin throw different sizes that travel different distances and have unique sounds. He can use them to kill enemies, solve puzzles, or just make music.
We turned enemies into a risk-reward scenario to allow players some agency. Skilled players can try to platform around enemies and save them, which unlocks happier sounds. Alternatively, players can kill enemies which unlocks bad sounds. We wanted to keep players in a state of flow - allowing them to choose when to up the difficulty by saving enemies or simply continue by killing them.
Exploring the use of sound in games, we built a choice mechanic into the game; killing enemies would unlock darker sounds in the user's sound bank, while skipping over them would unlock brighter sounds. The sound bank was then linked to the mechanic of throwing snowballs, whose audio would repeat and fade into the background. Our core innovation is that of a unique soundscape, created directly by the player's decisions and actions throughout the game.
Early in development we discovered that Hootlin was the Inuit word for "the sound snowflakes make when they touch the ground". We used this concept to develop our pitch, as well as to name main character. Here are some early audio tests we did to help us define what the game would sound like.
To convey the feeling of loneliness and immersion that we desired, we decided to employ a diegetic UI. All of our button prompts, hints, and controls were embedded into the game world, such as in this example of tree carvings. While this design sometimes proved problematic in play testing, we believe it could prove effective with further tweaks to the design.
We tested our game twice with two sets of real players. We ended up making difficulty adjustments, moved save points, removed some character types, and various other tweaks. Our biggest challenge was conveying the choice to save or kill enemies.
We changed the "destroy" state of an enemy to accommodate two outcomes: saving or death. Upon saving, we play a "lift" animation and the happy sound that was unlocked is heard. Upon killing, the enemy turns black and melts, and the bad sounds that was unlocked is heard. Lastly, when we introduced the character of Aurora as a guiding spirit, we used her in the game's intro to demonstrate that enemies could be saved. She jumps over the initial enemy that's on-screen, and we wanted players to try it themselves upon encountering the next enemy.
Upon testing our second prototype, all of our key measurements increased - players found the sounds more interesting, the level of challenge was more appropriate, and overall enjoyment increased.
Our game was nominated for two awards. First: a Canadian Videogame Award, in the Best Student Game category. Second: the SIAT Showcase award in the Interface Design category. Unfortunately, we didn't win the Canadian Videogame Award but the experience of going shall not be forgotten. Fortunately, we won the SIAT Showcase award and had the chance to demo the game to dozens of people.
"Student projects can be some of the most innovative, entertaining games available. Simon Fraser University student project Hootlin succeeds in maintaining that welcome stereotype, quietly blurring the line between Limbo and Electroplankton along the way. Well 'quietly' may not be the best way to describe it."