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How Spirits Work: Documentation

Brief updates: I (pentagonbuddy here) am back from a vacation across the country! But you won't see any updates to the game until after October, since that's when the IGMC ends. We can't exactly release an expanded version before the contest is over! That being said, we're still working on this, although I have another project I'm committed to finishing. (Any Demon Slayer subs reading this, sORRY...NOT THAT ONE...) I'm sure both of us will talk about plans/progress on updating old levels and working on new levels.

One thing we both want to talk about it just the way that we made this game. I'm an advocate for open development -- just telling people how we did something and maybe inspiring them for their own games. So here's the start of a series of posts about How Stuff Works. The beginning of any game is not, in fact, in the game editor, and there's prep work that happens outside of it.

Documentation is important. That’s nothing new. For Free Spirits, we ended up with quite the pile of files, and I’m taking a moment to tell you some things about the main one. This document is currently 16 pages and 5566 words -- it was our guiding light for the first few weeks of development.

Our guiding, mint green light. (the mint is easier on the eyes than white!)

Eventually, we got far enough in development that pausing to update the design document was kind of a hassle, and we had more specific documents to record information that we needed to keep track of. When we first started, however, there were some core ideas that shaped the whole game:
  • We were interested in a combat system that was overall non-violent
  • We wanted an emphasis on family and chosen relationships
  • We wanted a fairly simple set of gameplay mechanics

From this came the weird visual novel/rpg hybrid that is Free Spirits! These ideas were never formally written down (until now), but Em and I talked about these things and just… kept them in mind at all times.

It was surreal when we thought about it and realized we had an RPG that didn’t really need stats or equipment or levels, due to how short it was and how the combat hinged on progressing through choice branches instead of thinking about damage output.

There was A LOT that was cut/changed/modified. An original draft idea was Lana using baked goods as part of her skills, complete with a magical portable oven for on-the-fly baking.

Once we had the general idea of how encounters worked, we had to think of ghosts to use for them. These were the questions pretty much every ghost started with:
  • We’d want to know at least a name and cause of death
  • Do they know they’re dead?
  • What is it that keeps them around?
  • Trying to work in the concept of “growth” in some way.

There were even unused ghost ideas! One example:

"Rich person who ate a bad batch of caviar and got food poisoning. They do realize they’re dead after a while, but demand tributes to make their passage to the afterlife more comfortable"

There's also things like sprite/portrait poses we thought about and I didn't get the time to draw:

  • Walk cycle (4 direction)
  • Crossing arms and shaking head
  • “NYEH”
  • A weird laugh

It’s nice knowing we have the time to add in the ever-important “SVETA FOCUS” emote.

a good approximation

The main design document (THE DOC OF DESIGN as google docs knows it) was not the only bit of documentation. There's separate files for a skill/item list, many separate files for various dialogue, a file of potential resources we could use (such as links to graphics and scripts), and a calendar spreadsheet we used as a schedule. We totally didn't stay 100% on schedule, but the purpose of all of this was to keep us on task and focused on what we were doing... as well as when we wanted it done by.

Probably the most important documents outside the game editor, aside from the dialogue scripts, were the flowcharts. Those formed the backbone of each encounter...which is something I'll leave for Em to talk about!

Here's the main takeaway: write stuff down! Plan ahead! Seriously. Even if it's a jumbled mess, just getting your thoughts out there can help you develop them. I know it's game dev 101, but here's an example of why it works. Sure, there's lots of em and I trashing up our own design doc with things like "lana doesn’t get a radio until 2067", but having a main design doc to write down our ideas got us to refine them from absolute trash into pretty great trash.