Vodonaut is an Arcade Survival Horror about a Soviet expedition to an anomaly beneath the US Nuclear testing site, Bikini Atoll. Descend into the coral superstructure, armed only with your diving suits, its sensors, and its light. Evade that odd creatures, plot your movements carefully, and continue your descent... For it might be the only way you survive.
Arcade Survival Horror
Game Designer/Writer/ Level Designer/Game Director
Vodonaut was developed with a team of six for the Black & White Game Jam in two weeks. Serving as the team lead, I developed the base concept for the game, as well as the underlying mechanics and themes. I worked with and directed our artists on creating assets for us, while also building out the VFX systems that the game utilizes. Additionally, I built two of the game's three levels.
Owing to my team's previous success with Rat King, I was approached by Janet Yingxi-Lin who wanted to work together on the Black & White game jam. She was so enthusiastic, I couldn't turn her down -- even despite the fact we had crunched hard for the end of the term, and me and my fellow designers were all too wiped out. After a lunch at a local Thai resturaunt and brainstorming session, we had a solid game plan for the game, inspired by media like Sunless Sea and Made in Abyss.
The restriction of the game was that color could not be featured at all, knowing that, I knew we needed to make our mechanics very graphic. Vulnerability of course would be paramount as well to evoking that horror, and so I came up with out limited information systems. While at its core, the game is about navigating to the level end, you must use the tools you have in order to survive. Explaining the three basic forms of gaining information, the floodlight, the IR camera, and the sonar, the artists and I devised a way by which we could create separate versions of assets that would react differently. Check them out in action:
The floodlight is always on as the player moves around, and grants the player perfect information in a small cone. The floodlight also acts the only defensive tool the player has, frightening the darkness dwelling monsters and causing them to flee when its upon them. The downside to the light is that you yourself are slow and clunky, and you must orient yourself in the direction you wish to shine it.
The IR camera also grants the player perfect information, however this is at the cost of energy. While the IR camera is on, the player is able to orient quickly to survey the space around them. The thoughts for this tool was that it would be used for scouting, allowing the player to make decisions about where they might want to orient their light.
By pressing space, the player can use a small amount of energy to send out a sonar ping. This temporarily reveals the environment around you, as well as represents any lifeforms with a solitary dot. This was to be the most used of our tools and the primary means by which we would deliver horror to the player. A dot could be anything, and our intent was that our big enemy, the stalker, would appear on the radar as anything else would... Making it especially horrifying when you finally caught a true glimpse.
In addition to managing the production of the game from both the design and art side of things, I also worked with the FX system in the game. Knowing that this was going to be a horror game in a non-traditional format, the most important thing in my mind was to create a sense of immersion. When a player is immersed only then will threats produce anxiety, and only then will they be invested in surviving the trials we throw at them. I wanted the camera to feel like an old soviet monitor, and so I employed a number of techniques to accomplish it. The first was just a special mix of unity's built in post process effects, getting the lens distortion, bloom, and film grain to soften our 2d assets. The more complex system was the static that overlays over the screen, which takes a video and multiplies over what the camera sees as a special shader.
Cinematic, Intro, and Sound
While I am a game designer, I am also a writer, a side of me that is always pushing towards story, context, and potential -- even if it only ends up coming out in short snippets. While I may want to tell a grand story with plenty of time for small details, I also know that most players simply won't care to read, or endure long waxing narrative moments. Rather than lament, I welcome the challenge, and I always seek to provide small lethal doses of story that can set up our expectations, establish a mood, and overall invite you into the game world. From the very moment you boot up the game, Vodonaut is trying to invite you into the experience. I did the timing and transitions for the whole intro, as well as collected and edited all the sounds that we use in the game. The opening cinematic scripted, and storyboarded by me then handed off to our artists to create still images, and then lastly imported into Aftereffects to give it its base animation. There are actually a total of three in-game, one at each end of the experience to intro and close it out, as well as one used to establish the fact that you have been cut off.
Vodonaut was a project taken on at a time that was incredibly inconvenient. Both I, and my team of designers were extremely exhausted from work that we had been doing on our capstone prototypes, and yet we signed on to create a wholly different game together. In many respects we delivered a promising game -- but that is what it remains, merely a promise of what it could be. This has been an Achilles heel of mine for a while, where I might be able to sell an idea, an experience, but end up not having the time in order to make that experience actually enjoyable. The game in its current iteration is unbeatable, and the mechanics serve mainly to annoy the player rather than meaningfully engage them. All the pieces are there, but the way that they all connect simply isn't. But I haven't ignored the warnings of this experience, and now I endeavor to understand what makes the moment to moment gameplay of a game actually good -- the nuance of feedback, movement, and camera work no longer a utilitarian pursuit.