Shadow of The Ghost: a hero’s path COMPLETE POSTMORTEM
When I was tasked with designing a narrative-driven game I did not know much about all the effort and hard work that is put into the design process of a game. Yet, the one thing I knew was that it would be a fun challenge, as I would put all the knowledge I would acquire throughout the module alongside my motivation and work ethic to achieve the best result I could.
The first thing to be done was to picture the idea. At the time, driven by the passion for a game I had been playing, called Ghost of Tsushima, by Sucker Punch, I decided that I wanted to design a spin-off of that masterpiece. Before I settled on that idea, I had to evaluate its feasibility with the help of my lecturer. Beforehand, I was aware of some of the restrictions and challenges of designing a spin-off, so I knew I had to balance my choices carefully to create a product that would stay truthful to its “ancestor” but at the same time would be innovative and not just a poor unimaginative copy.
As with every other project, some features and concepts stayed unaltered from the very moment they were thought off, though this represents a minority when compared to the many other ideas that went through different changes during the whole designing process.
One of the biggest changes the game went through was defining its narrative type and how it suits the story. With the help of the concepts I learnt from the module and the explanations provided by my lecturer, I overcame the ambiguity I had surrounding the game’s narrative and understood the differences between the different types (of narrative).
The second challenge I faced was my inexperience I designing spin-offs. I was aware of the concept, I had seen great examples of spin-offs before, but I had never studied nor designed any. As I mentioned before, the balance is the key: I opted for re-using some characters but decided to change the setting; I decided to give continuity to a character’s story rather than explore their untold past; Adapting my narrative to fit a different genre from the original game’s without disrupting the content that was “borrowed”.
Lastly, the third major adversity to guaranteed success I found was writing about a culture which is not mine: the Japanese culture. This was my favourite part of the whole assignment as I was given the chance to research on a subject I enjoy, apply the knowledge gained from the module to tailor the narrative to better fit the culture, and shape the game around a central theme I was confident about.
Overall, my appreciation of the whole design process culminates in a fruitful success I will remember dearly and with gratification.
What went right
Two protagonists: from the start, the decision of having two characters from different backgrounds, ages and life achievements, who, on the other hand, would have similar backstories, experiences, and share a common aspect of their personalities and needs, was the right one. Pairing a long-forgotten legend who was forced to abdicate his honour to protect those he loved, with a young man who had suffered so much at such a young age, in a quest to find the meaning of honour, was proven successful even after changing core aspects of the game.
Engine: for me, it was easy to choose the engine in which the game would be developed. The choice (Unity Game Engine) was made based on my personal experience with the engine as it would be much easier to develop the game in an engine I am familiar with, rather than opting for a different one (e.g. Unreal Engine). The engines share some similarities and the differences they have from each other are not significant to the point that it would require me to learn to use Unreal from scratch to avoid using Unity.
Spin-off: the riskiest, and yet the most rewarding decision made during the whole process. Deciding to design a spin-off was one of those decisions that had to be well thought about, evaluated and carefully planned. Driven by my passion for Ghost of Tsushima, I decided to give their beloved protagonist, Jin Sakai, a new story, set after the events of the game. I was aware of some of the risks and adversities I would face, but I did my research on how to avoid making mistakes that would prejudice my game. From there, I added a second protagonist who differs a lot from Jin but, at the same time, would’ve shared similar experiences.
Sequence One: around the sixth week into the design process, I realised that the way both men instantly connected felt fanciful, forced, even absurd. They had no connection to each other in any way they knew about, so why would they suddenly take part in a journey that would “forever change their lives”? And that’s why I decided to implement a “prologue”. There, the characters would meet, link, enhance their bond, find a purpose for the journey, and only then would they part onto that marvellous walk around the beautiful Nagasaki prefecture. However, since my creative mind decided to keep adding more stuff to that prologue, it quickly turned big enough to become its own sequence.
Japanese culture and Shintoism: though Shinto had already been explored in Ghost of Tsushima, mostly as secondary/optional objectives during the campaign, I felt that its presence in the game did not accurately reflect the importance it had in society at that time. Therefore, I decided to centre my game around Shintoism and connect the protagonists through it by paying their respects to shrines and sharing their past. That was the opportunity I sought to research a topic I was already passionate about and apply my knowledge to the new story I made.
The connection between backstories and shrines: I was around the ninth week into the designing process and one of the personal achievements I had set from the start was to create meaningful connections between each characters’ flashbacks and their corresponding shrine. This meant I had to create ten different sets of connections, thirty in total, and they all had to make sense (at least a little). Picturing a triangle where the vertexes were a flashback from Jin’s past, a flashback from Katsurou’s past, and a kami and what they represent. Here is an image to help you understand the connection:
This was a very difficult task to complete as the accuracy had to be extremely precise, as I had no control over the events of Ghost of Tsushima (part of which compose Jin’s backstory), the kami and the Japanese culture, and had limited control over the timeline (as time is the same for every character). Regardless, I believe I did a good job!
What went wrong
Defining the narrative: from the second week into the designing process until around the fifth week I faced the biggest struggle I would come to have throughout the whole process. that was none other than defining the narrative type. My original idea was to create a linear narrative, as it would be simpler and easier to follow. Regardless of my efforts to try to make things easier for me, I quickly changed my mind and decided to have a more complex structure, story, timeline, and, consequently, narrative. That was the moment things went south: I started having questions and doubts about the different types of narrative and ended up making a mess in my head without being able to clearly identify my game’s narrative… Thanks to multiple clarifications given by my lecturer, I managed to understand the differences between story and structure, which resulted in the game having a linear structure and a non-linear story.
Lack of expertise: though I am extremely satisfied with the finished document, I am aware that there is always room for improvement in everything, especially in those you do not master. The lack of expertise in narrative, games design, GDDs, and several other aspects that could have prevented mistakes made during the whole designing process. When reflecting on the work I made, I fully understand that those same mistakes that were made due to my inexperience are the same ones that made me learn how to avoid them. The reason I decided to include this entry as something that “went wrong” is merely due to the time consumption and lack of quality it might have caused on the whole process and/or finished product.
Adapting the mechanics to the time that was given: please, have in mind that this entry concerns a conceptualized developed game rather than its design, as the ideas shared here were thought off having the development of the game in mind. Around the seventh week of designing, a new problem appeared. As you might know, one of the most challenging parts of conceptualizing a game is understanding whether or not the mechanics and features are “do-able”. That is something the designers have to discuss with the developers. Well, in this case, to keep it realistic and as a “possible future game”, the designers and developers sat around an enormous table with just one sit and discussed. They agreed that, even though the designing team is “fairly” ambitious, the developers lack some skill (as well as time, sanity, and the number of members) to meet all the expectations. Therefore, one of the features that had been thought about from the start had to be cancelled. That was the case of the combat system, which would be implemented as the main mechanic for the flashbacks, where the player would control the second protagonist when he was young (which wouldn’t be less epic if he was to remain old, trust me). Developing an accurate and enjoyable “action-based combat system” would be too challenging for a solo developer (at least for me), which would result in a deficit of quality either there or somewhere else in the game (due to prioritization of features, something the Agile approach relies on).
Remembering you, reader, that at this time the content of the flashbacks had not been completely decided, meaning that it would eventually be altered, improved and re-written. This meant that some of the actions the player would experience in each flashback were still to be conceptualized. Hence, the solution that was found is in no way less epic than the one that was ditched: animated fighting sequences with quick-time events! Timely input based pre-rendered animations and shots that would test the player’s reflexes and response times while they get to watch amazing fighting shorts where a brave man swings his epic sword around and beats enemies to death (or until they are very tired)! Isn’t that great? Yup, I know it is!
This section refers to significant changes the project suffered which are neither something that went wrong or right, as it meant that a bad feature required a change to be transformed into a good one.
Katsurou’s backstory (flashbacks): there was a problem with how Katsurou’s backstory would be implemented… at first I thought I would do it after each Jin flashback, but I had to re-think the idea as the game’s action would be very unbalanced: there would be parts of the story where the player would just wander around with nothing to do and whenever they got to a shrine they would have an epic moment of getting to know everything at once. This reminds me of the approach taken on Shadow of the Colossus, where the player crosses large empty fields of nothing to get to a boss fight (colossus), making the journey exhaustive to reach the peak of the action. Do not censor me for despising this approach, it is nothing personal against the PlayStation’s classic, I just thought it was not the right one for my game…
So, to solve this issue, I decided to have Katsurou’s backstory told during the journey. At specific points, mostly where the actions performed required little concentration/effort (e.g. meditating, eating, walking, etc.), Katsurou would tell his story (through small chapters, like Jin’s) and reflect on the chapter he had heard from Jin’s story.
Katsurou’s realization of Jin’s past: another thing that had to be changed with the changing of pace was the “when does Katsurou acknowledge that Jin is the Ghost of Tsushima?”. Prior to the implementation of Sequence 1, Katsurou would have recognized “The Ghost” as soon as he saw him. However, this had to be changed to keep the action interesting, as the events that occur in the late-ish stages of the game are highly influenced by Katsurou’s realization of who Jin truly is. If you are wondering if the fact that Katsurou recognized Jin through his clan’s crest would not directly lead to him understanding that he was The Ghost, I made sure that Katsurou never addressed Jin by his first name (at that time), keeping Jin’s name anonymous.
Weekly records from my Medium.com profile
Week 12 (25/01/2021–31/01/2021)
It is almost finished! Well, at least the Microsoft Word document with all the written content. This week I focused on finishing the missing sections of the report, improve all the other sections (where needed), re-write some of them (mainly those where I paid little attention to detail or those written at the start, as was the case of the Synopsis), and polish the document (indexes, section titles, introductory paragraphs for each section, and adding a few more things).
For this week, there were really no downs other than the time it takes to polish everything (which is more than I expected). As for the ups, well, having the written elements of my document pretty much finished is something to celebrate!
So now, the only thing missing is to convert all my document to Adobe Photoshop so I can really make everything *beautiful*! Oh, and some more storyboards…
Week 13 (01/02/2021- 07/02/2021)
I spent the last seven days polishing the document, designing new storyboards, arranging the moodboards, and last but not least, changing the document from Microsoft Word to several Adobe Photoshop documents. This last task was, by far, the hardest one, as it required extreme precision and care when polishing since this is the final version of the document. Hence, I carefully revised everything I wrote on the Word document and opened Photoshop. It took me about 5 days to finish everything…
I am glad to say that this week had only ups: everything went well and according to schedule. My hard-work and my perfectionism trait bonded to create a document I am proud of!