PART 1 of 2
OH MAN! I have been trying to get through a backlog of ideas so that I could finally get to this. I still haven’t gotten through my backlog, but felt like jumping to this anyway.
I myself have dabbled in game design and modding over the years. I haven’t done much. There’s various reasons for this including that I’ve never had quality, modern PC hardware. For most of my life I’ve only had outdated Macs handed down to me by family.
Nevertheless, I figured that with all the analyzing and critiquing of other games that I do that it was about time I did some postmortems of my own extant work (some of my earlier modding, game design, and programming, as well as games I made on my graphing calculator, have been lost to history).
The first thing I’ll look at will be a mod I made for the indie game Lugaru, by Wolfire Games (aka David Rosen) (the sequel, Overgrowth, is currently being developed). I made my mod way back in early 2009 and the forum post where I posted it still exists on Wolfire’s website.
So, to understand my mod I suppose I should describe the base game. But, feel free to skip this if you want to get straight to the postmortem.
Lugaru was an indie game about kung-fu rabbits fighting each, and also wolves. It was a simple game made entirely by David Rosen who was like 17 or something at the time
In Lugaru, the fighting system involves a context sensitive attack-counter system. It’s weird to get used to, but can be very versatile once you do. There’s also the ability to sneak up on opponents and stealth kill them.
You can also use knives, staves, and swords to fight as well.
If you’ve ever played Bungie’s Oni, it’s a little like that.
The systems in this game are actually pretty deep and emergent considering the simplicity of it (and that it was made entirely by one person).
Modding for Lugaru:
Again, feel free to skip this if you want to get straight to the post mortem.
Making levels in Lugaru was clunky and painful. There was no dedicated software for editing maps. The only way to mod the game involved activating a debug mode, deleting all the objects one by one from a preexisting map, and then placing new objects. Objects, and NPCs, could be placed by running the player character around a level and then creating an object wherever the player character was standing at that moment.
In hindsight I don’t know why I bothered with this at all.
In addition, the editing often introduced bugs and errors into levels that often made me have to start a level from scratch or abandon it all together.
I seriously don’t know how I had the patience for all this. I guess I had a lot of time on my hands.
I don’t know where I got the idea for this, but the basic premise was that you belong to an order of priest-assassins who worship some death god or something. When people prayed for someone to die the priests would hear these prayers and send out one of their assassins to execute the target.
The player character is an apprentice assassin who must complete seven assassinations in order to become a full member of the order. You are told who to kill, but never who was praying for the killing. The idea was that if you paid close attention to clues and environmental storytelling that you’d be able to figure out who asked for the killing in the first place. That didn’t work out so well however.
I didn’t change any of the art or textures. I just created new levels.
There were some consistent techniques that I tried to use to tell stories nonverbally.
This is a video game classic. Scatter some dead bodies in some meaningful places and you’ve told a bit of a story about what happened there.
How rabbits are dressed and what weapons they carry was something I used sometimes to tell a story.
Patrol paths and default positions:
In Lugaru modding, NPCs can be placed in static positions such as standing, sitting, or sleeping. They’ll remain in that position until triggered by the player. NPCs can also be given patrol paths that they will follow when they’re not aware of the player. I used patrol paths quite a bit to tell stories.
Map 1: Mission Briefing
Levels were mostly broken up by mission briefing levels called “the Last Castle” which was the stronghold of this assassin order. These levels had you talking to your mentor and getting information about the next mission. The levels also gave me a chance to kind of show the average life of these priests… sort of.
There was a main castle structure based on something in the original Lugaru. There’s a fighting rink. There’s some cubes sticking out of rocks which are supposed to represent the cliff huts of the assassin-priests.
In the original Lugaru a lot of the rabbit characters were named after plants, like Hazel or what have you. I played around with this trope by naming the principal characters Sage and Yew. Your mentor is named Sage because is an actual sage. And the player character is named Yew because he is you. I still think that’s kind of funny.
While I kind of like how each time the player visits the Last Castle there is something different going on and Sage is in a different location, this did cause problems. Often players just didn’t know where to find Sage, which was frustrating since that’s what you needed to do to start the next level. One time in particular you have to find Sage at the top of the castle walls which requires some annoying platforming.
In the first mission briefing Sage gives a little backstory to the player character (who has taken a vow of silence until he becomes a full priest) and sets up the next mission. You are to go to a desert village and kill all the residents including the children.
The fact that you’re killing children on the very first mission kind of sets a really dark tone for the game, but I didn’t think of that at the time because of how cartoonish the game is.
Map 2 and 3: The desert village during the day, and then the night.
You start off looking down a hill at a cluster of “houses” with chimneys. Most portrayals of structures are going to be very abstract because of the limited modding tools in Lugaru. Thus, the houses are just cubes.
The chimneys were supposed to have tiny fires in them which would produce smoke. A nice effect if it worked, but because of some glitch the fires never actually show up.
From this vantage point you can see some different areas of interest and some rabbits patrolling those areas. There’s a grid of tiny bushes that is meant to represent a field of crops (maybe cabbage). There’s also a grid of trees that’s meant to represent an orchard.
The next level is the same level but with altered color values to make it look like its dusk. Half the village is out searching for something and they come back at dusk after you’ve killed everyone during the day.
So the most unique thing here is that I created rabbit children that you have to fight. In terms of behavior they are exactly like “adult” rabbits and have the same fighting skill. But they have less power, fewer hitpoints, and their bodies are different proportions.
In addition to making them shorter, I also made them thinner and their heads larger in proportion to their bodies than adults. I thought that was pretty clever at the time.
There are some decent design decisions going on here.
Most of the rabbits are far apart which lets the player take them out in small groups. There are some interesting areas to fight in. The orchard creates an interesting set of obstacles to work around, creates a little chaos, and which provides something to throw opponents into; of course you can lure the rabbits out of the orchard if you don’t want to deal with it.
The houses provide a similar arena where the player can use the walls of the houses to pull off certain fighting moves, or to escape from his attackers. The rows of bushes make it hard to sneak up on the rabbit patrolling them, but someone patient would be able to.
All in all, a decent map.
There’s a lot of nonverbal things going on in these maps.
Some children are patrolling the orchard representing that they’re playing there. An adult patrols the farm with a knife which represents she/he is working the crops. And an adult is patrolling the houses with a child right behind her which represents her doing chores.
In the next level, nighttime, the rest of the adults come back from searching for something to find the village empty. They all have patrol paths that send them to similar areas as the rabbits during the day. This was meant to represent family ties.
At night, the rabbit patrolling the orchard is meant to represent that the children patrolling the orchard during the day were his/hers. The rabbit patrolling the cabbage patch at night is meant to represent that the rabbit patrolling the cabbage patch during the day was his/her wife/husband.
If you walk past the orchard you’ll find a strange alter with three small pyramids. Two have dead bodies in front of them and are alight, but the third one is missing a body and doesn’t have a flame.
This was supposed to represent how the people of this village commit sacrifices to their god in order to get good crops, etc. You’ll notice that the sacrifices include an adult, a child, and someone is missing. This was supposed to represent how the villagers were going to sacrifice an entire family, but one person got away. That’s what the adults of the village were searching for: the rabbit who they’re trying to sacrifice.
If you count the number of houses and the pairs of adult rabbits you’ll realize that there are five houses, but only four pairs of adults, implying that they just tried to sacrifice one of the families of their own villages. “Why?” you ask…
If you run over some hills you’ll find the ruins of another village.
This is meant to imply that the villagers were capturing and sacrificing people from a neighboring village and when there was no one left they began to turn on themselves. The rabbit that escaped ended up praying to the order of assassins to kill her former villagers and that’s why you arrived.
A bit of a complicated story that I tried to tell and it didn’t really work given the tools I had at my disposal. In later levels I progressively abandon attempts at storytelling to varying degrees.
Map 4: mission briefing
Here you have to find Sage at the top of the castle walls through a bit of frustrating platforming.
You’ll see how various apprentices spend their free time.
There’s a scene where two rabbits patrol at each other holding staves, which is supposed to represent them sparring with each other.
Sage gives you your next two missions (sometimes I doubled up missions like this so I wouldn’t have to minimize the mission briefing levels I had to create).
Your first mission is to kill a blacksmith, his apprentices, and his family. The blacksmith works out in the woods, strangely enough, rather than in the city where all his customers are.
Your second mission is to kill an aging actor, and if anyone gets in your way you should kill them too.
Map 5: The Smithery
You start off looking over the smithery. Unlike the “houses” in the village this is built more like an actual building. It is still very abstract, but you can actually go inside the building.
This is a pretty dynamic level. The blacksmith patrols near his forge while his wife and child sleep on a cube that’s meant to be their bed. The apprentices patrol in and out of the building.
The three apprentices have patrol paths of various lengths that lead out of the smithery and then back in. A player who just runs into the smithery may start off having an easy time fighting the blacksmith, but then might become overwhelmed as the apprentices return and join the fight.
Alternatively, the player can take out the apprentices one by one while they’re alone on their patrol paths. However, this means you have to fight the sword wielding blacksmith after being weakened.
The player can also get up to the roof where he can jump down on enemies.
Or, he can even jump down the chimney.
This last bit is more for fun than strategy since the blacksmith hears you as soon as you hit the ground.
Some of the apprentices are armed with knives (representing tools of some sort) and, as I said, the blacksmith is armed with a sword.
The sword being the most powerful weapon in the game the player can attack the blacksmith first to get the sword, thus risk getting caught by multiple opponents if he takes too long.
Or the player can be more conservative and save the blacksmith for last.
The level gives the player a lot of interesting decisions to make on how to approach the level, and it gives the player room for a variety of playstyles. I’m very pleased with it.
The blacksmith has more clothes than the apprentices. He also has a leather bracer on one of his arms to protect him from the forge. He carries a sword as a sign of his higher status and also as a representation of what he’s working on.
The apprentices patrol their paths without pause. The blacksmith stops and pauses at each point on his patrol path before continuing. This is supposed to represent the more calm and thoughtful personality of the older blacksmith. He was supposed to be patrolling between his bucket (of water, even though there’s no water in the engine), the anvil (just a block), and the fire (which never shows up because of a glitch).
The patrol paths tell you a little about the duties of the apprentices. One patrols to what is supposed to be a well and then back to the smith, representing that he’s getting water for the forge. One patrols to a stack of horizontal trees, representing that he’s getting more wood for the fire (even though I think forges use coal fires not wood fires, but whatever).
One apprentice patrols very far to an arrangement of rocks that’s supposed to be a cave where he’s getting metal for smithing.
When the player entered the cave this was supposed to trigger some text dialogue that clued the player that a spirit lived in this cave imbuing the metals with powerful properties.
The idea was that this blacksmith built his smithery next to this magical cave to take advantage of the special metals. However, the spirit was angry about its cave being despoiled and so it prayed to the assassins to send someone to kill the blacksmith. A weird idea I know, but I liked it.
Of course, none of that really gets hinted at because the text triggers never worked.
Map 5: the theatre
You start off next to a sign that was supposed to trigger some text, but that never actually worked.
If you run straight you’ll encounter three rabbits who are established as theatrical rivals to the actor who is your target. Past them is the theatre, and I actually like how I kind of made it look like a stage.
The target is carrying a stave on stage, so the player can actually sneak around and kill him first to make it easier fighting the remaining three rabbits (its really hard fighting multiple enemies in Lugaru without weapons, sometimes even with weapons is difficult).
If things are getting difficult, retreating to the stage can give the player a better area to fight in.
There’s not much to say here. You just kind of run around fighting people.
The idea was that this aging actor wanted to go out with a bang, so for his final performance he prayed to the assassins to have himself killed as his final performance. He wants to be really dramatic so he’s still going to fight back though. He wears black and white, stark, somber colors in anticipation of his own death.
His three rivals are there to beat him up (and beat you up because they think you’re his new partner). The clothes and physical proportions of the three rivals all were supposed to tell some sort of story about their personalities, but I don’t even remember what they were anymore.
This was pretty boring and lackluster level.
Map 6: mission briefing
Some rabbits are listening to a lecture by a mentor.
You find Sage supervising a couple of rabbits patrolling laps (a punishment for something they’d done). Sage makes some joke:
Then he gives you a mission to go into the desert and track down some bandits, and open a box they’re carrying.
The desert is in the middle of a sandstorm.
Which leads to one of the best received levels of my mod.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2