Ohhhhhh God I think I just woke up from a two month coma or something. Sorry for the incredibly long delay, sometimes after you finish a really big project you don’t want to have anything to do with it ever again. I’m happy as a clam that we finished Ascension, but damn did it kill my motivation to make games for a while. ANYWAYS, I’m pretty sure I’m back. I’m going to suck it up and finish this post mortem, and then its on to bigger and better things!
Two months ago I said I was going to spend this part talking about our intentions for the original game. I’m still going to do that, but I also want to tie that into how I feel the game fared after release. I won’t stretch this out into four or five parts, I’m going to finish it here. Y’all ready?
Working on Ascension, my biggest goal was to create an immersive horror experience that rivalled some of the big names in the genre. I wanted to play the survival horror game alongside Resident Evil, Silent Hill and Amnesia. We all knew it was going to be tough, if not impossible. We were making a 2D game in a 3D genre. There’s a reason most horror games are in three dimensions: it’s waaaaay easier. When you work in a side-scroller perspective like we did and Lone Survivor did you have to get a bit more creative with your scares. It’s hard to have the player feel the same degree of connection with the player, and as a result sound design and simple scares are less effective. We can’t work as well with basic human paranoia, like “Oh Jesus I heard a sound behind me I should look something might be coming”.
We honestly had no idea what we were getting into when we started working on this game. The amount of design required to BEGIN to form a proper atmosphere is monumental, and it wasn’t something we had any experience in. We just assumed that if you put the player in a dark room with a bunch of monsters, they’re going to feel scared. It doesn’t work that way, not in the slightest.
I’m pretty sure I mentioned in the last part that our original game design focused a lot around enemies. We wanted to flood each area of the map with different types of monsters, and make combat a focal point. You would have a variety of weapons and would have to go on quests to kill the monsters. Looking back on the idea, I can’t help but laugh. For starters, the concept was far too ambitious for a tiny team of 3 highschool students. More importantly, though, we didn’t understand then that over saturation of enemies is a one-way ticket to ruining the atmosphere.
We learned a lot about this when we put out our initial Halloween demo. We watched friends and strangers playing the game and getting bored. The combat was too frequent and too tedious. The enemies didn’t pose much of a threat, and even when they did it was more of an irritation than a fear. We hadn’t tapped into that instinctual fear.
The two or three months following the demo were spent rapidly revising our initial plans, though to be more correct I would say that the rest of the development cycle was spend making revisions. Up until the last few weeks of development we were changing and removing things that were artefacts from long ago.
There’s a lot I can say about the changes we made during that time, but there’s one important change that we didn’t decide on, it simply happened. The game slowly transformed from a survival horror to a psychological horror. We put more and more focus on the main character. We changed him from a blank state to a fleshed out PERSON. We gave him a history, motives and fears. It’s up to you to decide how well we accomplished that, but it was a definite step up from our previous concept. The game stopped being about killing monsters and started being about Atticus.
We let the game take us where it wanted. We didn’t make intensive plans this second time around, we simply worked. One of us would come up with a great idea for a room or an area or an extension of the plot and we’d bring it to life. It was organic, it was fun, and it was free. We weren’t working from some instruction manual, we were flowing. It was during that time that most of our good ideas shone through. Atty started to lose his sanity, not because we designed him to but because that’s where the game took us. A lot of our ideas surprised us as much as it surprised the players. There’s a certain joy in that.
Two months and a handful of days after the game finally came out, it’s interesting for me to look back on how things turned out. The entire time we were making Ascension I had this crippling fear that when the game released it wouldn’t make any splashes at all. That was the worst case scenario. I would’ve been fine if it released to outstanding hatred and low scores. The only thing I didn’t want was to have nobody care at all. I’m happy to say that my fears were groundless.
As I’m writing this, Ascension has been downloaded over 6000 times and the trailer has been watched about 14,000 times. For a lot of people that isn’t going to seem like much, but for us as a team it’s an outstanding success. A handful of big-name websites and reviewers featured our game, a lot of people made lets plays, and the general consensus was that we had made a pretty decent horror game. I can’t complain about anything; my dreams were fulfilled.
The thing that hit me the hardest with this particular game’s launch was watching complete strangers playing our game on Youtube. Never before had I seen a Let’s Play of a game I’d made. Never before had I heard a stranger say my team’s name aloud. Never before had I heard someone yelp with fear, and then burst out in nervous laughter while playing Ascension. It was foreign and exciting. It was all I ever hoped for.
I don’t know what the future holds for us as a team or me as an individual. We could go on to make giant waves in the industry. We could also fizzle out and never be heard from again. Whatever happens, though, I hope I never become jaded. I hope I never lose that simple giddiness when watching people play my games. I hope I never become too accustomed to all the buzz that I start taking features and reviews and Let’s Plays for granted. I want to always feel equally as excited. In a world where a single Youtube video can be seen over a billion times in less than half a year, I hope that I’ll always be thrilled to see my own trailers get a thousand views. Every single comment, download, praise and criticism is and should always be precious to me.
For everyone that played Ascension, whether you hated it or loved it, thank you. You guys make all the stress and frustration and self-hatred worthwhile. I love you all.
Hopefully the next post I make will start us all on a new adventure.