Bars Postmortem / Journal Thing
First off I want to thank everyone who commented, critiqued, recommended, and retweeted Bars. I'm glad a game I worked on could bring a smile (or hopefully a smile) to so many faces. That's incredible.
I'd also like to thank the jam organizers at Extra Credits and all the other jam participants. This is one of my favorite jams to jam in and the culture of self care and friendliness and support that surrounds the Extra Game Jams should come standard with all jams.
Finally, I want thank Joe Kenneally for the amazing songs. I don't know how he keeps doing it.
Okay, here's the deal with Bars:
The Inspiration - Cowboy Lizardperson With A Jetpack
When I first heard the jam theme I had just finished five hours of hiking and was dead tired and had no idea what to do and figured I could probably just skip this jam.
Then I got some sleep and started thinking about the theme, "Connect," which I took as a command. Like, at all costs you must connect. I thought about desperately trying to reach someone and not knowing if you can.
So I thought about this little cartoon character in a bar in the middle of nowhere and they get a text from someone and they can't respond, so they grab their jetpack and get as high as they can to find cell service.
And as I started doodling out this little cartoon idea, I remembered that I suck at drawing. There's only like three or four things I can draw but one of them is this lizardperson I've been doodling in my notebooks since middle school.
So cowboy hat because bar in the middle of nowhere.
Lizardperson because that's 25-33% of the things I can draw.
Jetpack and cell phone because connect.
And that's just how it is. The bar in the middle of nowhere was cut and replaced with a dungeon because I wanted to emphasize the "searching" and "finding" aspect of the game idea, and not just have a game where the only direction is up.
The Audio - Alone In The Dungeon
The songs are fantastic and I'm blown away that Joe knocked out two bluegrass (bluedungeon?) bangers in two evenings.
The man is a legend.
Joe plays in a bluegrass band called Cousin Bobby and when I texted him to talk about the soundtrack I thought, "Hey, our protagonist has a cowboy hat, maybe we could do a bluegrass sound!" We hadn't really leveraged Joe's insane bluegrass skills for any of our other projects mostly because Joe likes to stretch and explore new genres with his game soundtracks. That's why we did funk for Eleazar.
I also knew that despite being an incredible singer and songwriter, Joe hadn't really gotten a chance to write lyrics since starting Cousin Bobby. So, as casually as I could, I suggested he "Try something with vocals."
He sent me the first verse of Alone in the Dungeon that night and I just beamed. I don't really know what my games are going to be until I hear the music. Hearing the song was seeing the game.
Songs with lyrics posed an interesting problem. If you loop the song incessantly, the song loses its power. The songs had to be rewards for progress and not punishment for dawdling. They couldn't loop.
To speed players on their way to new songs I made some dungeon ambiance designed to make players feel isolated and a little creeped out, to contrast the warmth of Joe's songs.
The dungeon sounds are my crappy electric stove heating up a tea kettle (bitcrushed), me doing some yoga breathing, and the first few guitar bits of Alone in the Dungeon all layered and paulstretched in Audacity.
In hindsight, this "dungeon ambiance" mix I had made was a little too... hellish? Scary? I probably could have pulled it back and just done basic white noise, but I love the contrast of the safety of the songs and the foreboding isolation of the dungeon noise.
A better artist could have done it with more subtlety but you got me instead!
Finally the sound effects were hastily made in SFXR. Some people hate SFXR. I love the heck out of it. I also love doing foley and recording my own sound effects but I don't always have the time or the right project for that. Emphasizing the videogaminess was important for this project's tone, so I used SFXR.
Mouse Controls and Platforming - Why Would You Do That?
I didn't anticipate mouse controls would be the most contentious thing about this game but here we are!
Initially I knew I wanted the player to move the mouse for the "Find the SIgnal" puzzles because that mimicked waving a phone to find cell service pretty well. When I figured out the game wanted to be a platformer I started designing it with keyboard controls but it seemed a little awkward to switch from keyboard to mouse and I knew this game would be very, very short and simple (with no weapons) so I moved the platforming controls over to the mouse to keep things all on one "controller."
Additionally, the little lizardperson I animated was constantly looking at their phone and I felt like a little distance rather than precise controls would make the player like the character more and sympathize with them, rather than make the player feel like the character.
Was this pretentious? Yes. This whole postmortem is. Sorry.
So the original intent was to keep things simple, intuitive, and evocative but "simple, intuitive, and evocative" does not mean "precise ."
When people play platforming games, one of their main methods of interaction and expression is through movement. Precise movement controls bring players and characters closer together. This closeness also pushes out the perception of the game developer's influence. When controls are precise and challenges are clear, players take responsibility for failure. When controls are floaty and challenges are unpredictable, players perceive the game and game developer as unfair. Frustration happens.
I think at least. I don't know. These are just my thoughts.
When I released version 0.01 I got some feedback that, hey, maybe the mouse controls were just frustrating and not evocative and, unfortunately, I think that's mostly the case here. If I were to do Bars again, perhaps as a longer game with more time for a tutorial, I would have found a different way to evoke what I wanted to evoke and would have ditched the mouse controls.
But despite having keyboard movement already programmed, I kept the mouse controls for the quick tutorialization, for the sliver of sympathy that they perhaps(?) evoked, and because I think they made the game interesting to talk about. I'm proud of the polish that goes into my jam games, but I think jams are one of the few spaces in gaming where making an "interesting" game is more valuable than making a "good" one.
That might be an admission of defeat but I still love this game.
If you would like to play the game with keyboard controls and compare the two experiences for yourself, there is a secret room in the bottom-right-most corner of the map that activates the keyboard controls. Let me know what you think!
Thanks for reading. I hope this was at least a little interesting. SuperTry has other games. You should check those out. Maybe buy Haque?
Kevin Cole, Designer/Developer SuperTry Studios
PS: Bars was made in Game Maker Studio 1.49999. I couldn't find a slick way to put that in there.
PPS: Also every sprite in the game has four animation frames to give it the nervous jittery look. I just drew the same thing four times, for everything. I miss pixel art.
PPPS: Also the cactus boss fight was actually going to be a real boss fight but people on twitter loved the cactus so much that I knew it'd feel wrong. The boss fight was mostly coded but untested. I like what's in the game way, way better.
PPPPS: Throwing the gun away at the start is a super self indulgent wink at Else Walker.
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Postmortems are for dead things Kevin, and this game will live on forever in our hearts or something.
Also the game is still listed as "In Development", that's not something I'd say about a game that's "dead".
GG man, honestly the way they played it in stream did not do this game justice