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  • Postmortem: Arbitrary Metric's Paratopic

    [09.18.18]
    - Doc Burford
  • We were hoping we'd make rent. We didn't expect to make a game that would show up on Rock, Paper, Shotgun's "Best Games of 2018 so far" list. We didn't expect that we'd be one of the best-rated horror games on itch.io either, but here we are. How'd we do it?

    Hi, I'm Doc Burford (@forgetamnesia on Twitter). Together with my friends Jessica Harvey (@oysterFAKE) and Chris I. Brown (@Lazarus_Audio), we developed a game called Paratopic.

    Last fall, I found myself frustrated in my own game development skills. I started thinking through some quick exercises I could experiment with to improve my technique, posted a few of them on Twitter, and one of them caught Jess' eye. Jess hit me with a counter-proposal: why not make these vignettes into a small little game we could sell on itch, and each pay rent for the month? To get the game out in time, Jess offered to do the heavy lifting up front, building a framework that we could develop more content from. If people liked it, we'd make more, and Jess would help me with the skills I was looking to improve.

    We were faced with a challenge: how do we make the development worthwhile as a small team of (initially) two people with no real existing footprint, especially on a budget of literally nothing?

    Obviously, we would need to avoid doing something with a lot of competition. Plenty of indie games do walking simulators, games with almost no gameplay to speak of. We decided to make a sort of anti-walking sim, a game with the same narrative-heavy approach but a lot of different gameplay mechanics, like driving and photography. By building on what walking sims did, we'd create a project that differentiated itself from the rest of the market.

    Jess and I agreed to do something free-form. Because we didn't have infinite money (quite the opposite, we had zero money), we'd outline the game's basic shots once we knew what we could do, stick to those, but allow ourselves a lot of room to experiment within that shot list. This experimentation led to some really cool moments, like a scene early on where a character's facial details shift and distort, or another where a character's head opens up like a flower, revealing another, smaller head inside. This improvisation aspect allowed us to get a feel for how to work together and see if our styles would really gel.

    Early on, we didn't spend a lot of time talking about commercial possibility for the game. Because we assumed we wouldn't make a lot of money from it, we just didn't see the point. We decided to make something cool, unique, and interesting, but how it might perform commercially was never a big discussion.

    We spent a lot of time talking about tone. I'd come in hoping to get a sense of anger, helplessness, and dread, because this is ultimately a game about poverty. Smuggler, for instance, drives a beat up El Camino-looking car, is clearly trapped in a dangerous job he hates, and lives in an apartment so small he doesn't even have a toilet. Over time, we dialed back on the anger and focused more on dread. At the gas station, for instance, the attendant asks Smuggler who he's traveling with, and Smuggler tries to dodge the question; if you look outside during the second gas station sequence, you can spot the silhouette of the monster who killed Birdwatcher earlier in the game.

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