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Dec 04 2017

Cthulhu Writer Post Mortem - Ludum Dare 40

I made a game for Ludum Dare 40 at the end of last year and now the results are out (for a little while now I’m slow) and I thought I’d write some thoughts about it.

Ludum Dare is a 48 game jam competition with strict rules: You’re only allowed to be alone and you must make everything at the jam yourself. No loaned assets, no sounds from libraries, nothing. (At least, for the compo, there’s a softer jam without these restrictions as well).
It’s a bit of a renowned jam within the game development community, and many games that later became fully released games started from it, and otherwise it’s just a good way to try to make something different without using what you’ve made before.
I’ve been wanting to do it fooreever, but it never fit. Every weekend I was literally doing something else (and I often noticed it was coming too late to plan around it) so I had to miss it frequently over the past two years or so, but this time I saw when it was coming and kept the weekend free.

So, I made a “Cthulhu Writer”, a Horror Typing Game.
Which sure wasn’t quite what I expected!
And here it is. Have a play before you read if you want, because the rest of this article is going to talk about the game as if you’ve played it:

https://ldjam.com/events/ludum-dare/40/cthulhu-writer

Hope that wasn’t too scary!
I was the first to be surprised I had made a horror typing game at all, so let’s first look at how that ended up happening, and then I’ll talk a bit about what I think about the game now, a month later, and then some final thoughts on how I did in the jam itself.


The Process

So, I started out with the theme: The More You Get, The Worse It Is.
Woof. I was… not a huge fan of this theme from the get-go.
And it took a bit to get where I wanted. But I started jotting down notes and got some breakfast and got back to it, and began listing down things that get worse if you have too much of it. Money? Resources? Time (that one’s weird, but I actually had an idea for it)? Death?
And then, most likely because I had just read a Lovecraft-inspired story at my writer’s group, I happened upon Knowledge. In Lovecraft literature, generally, the more people know about what’s actually going on in the world, the more insane they get.

So, that was an idea.
And simultaneously, I had this idea of infiltrating a security system to get something, and the more of it you have, the more noticed you will be—typical stealth/hacker stuff.
And that’s where the idea begun: With the codename Cthulhu Hacker. There is knowledge in the world you are trying to get, but the more you get, the more terrible everything becomes.

The node system came really quickly after that, inspired by Uplink’s node-hacking, which actually is not at all similar to how my game works, but there was just something about that feel of a node-based game I felt worked.
So I quickly made a random node-generator, that (for those interested) is super basic: It generates a random number of nodes (within parameters), places them randomly (but checks there’s space between each other), and then draws 1-3 lines between them. I made sure there was always 1 because I thought that meant they’d all always be connected (Turned out that wasn’t the case, but that’s getting a little too technical).

And this was born:

Yay! [press to see the gif]

So how should you travel to and from nodes?
Then the typing mechanic came in pretty quickly, as it made sense. It makes you feel a bit like you’re hacking at least, you’re typing things, and not just clicking on nodes.

What to type? The names of the nodes. What are the names?
Well, that’s where things started to take a turn towards horror.
I looked up a list of names of the gods and old ones from the Lovecraft mythos, and lo and behold, there it was.
I had the names of my nodes. As an added benefit, these are often super awkward to type and not words people usually write, which added a bit of extra wonderful challenge.

I spent most of the Saturday implementing this, and created the basic mechanics for what happens when you pass through nodes, the scoring, etc.

However, it was when the sounds came that made it true horror.
Holy shit those sounds did so much.
I made the sounds late Saturday night because I didn’t want to program anymore and thought that I might as well do some game feel and audio instead of squeezing it in last-minute like you usually do at these things.
And I got an idea for it pretty quick. I knew I had to make all the sounds by myself (by the rules of the jam) and so I knew I had to use the tools I had available: My cheap USB microphone and Audacity. I ain’t a sound designer but I’ve picked up a fair share of tricks from friends who are, so I knew two things about the sounds immediately: I couldn’t make any sounds that sounded “good” (as in, high fidelity) and I could do a lot with really simple recordings.
So I started recording some basic stuff with me drumming on my table and trying to find something I liked, and then I got the idea of tapping my nails lightly on the table which gives this very tiny tapping, typing sound. Recording that up close with a microphone renders it almost uncanny already.

Then the whispers were a natural fit for the Lovecraft theme but I went a little extra mile no one’s ever going to notice: I took some of the texts from the Wikipedia entry and translated them into some eastern European language (Ukranian or Romanian I think) and read that as quickly and as phonetically as I could (and botched it entirely I bet).
That I layered on top itself a few times and also with a recording of me whispering the same text in English which creates the atmosphere of the many, many whispers at once. The English was done with the idea that occasionally you actually hear a word you understand amongst the gibberish which just makes it sound even more unnerving—a tiny detail I doubt anyone noticed but I really like it!

The big gong sound that plays every time you start a level was made with a pan lid, of all things. For some inexplicable reason, I remembered I had a pan lid that has an incredible sound when banged lightly, and so I found that and tested that, indeed, it was pretty much perfect. Banged it a few times, recorded it, and barely had to do any processing on it (although it was layered IIRC with another sound of my heaving my breath quickly).

Finally, the last touch was done in Unity: The increase in loudness when you approach the climax of each level is done purely by turning up the volume and the distortion of the sounds. That’s it. Distortion is an immensely powerful effect that normally should be used with caution, and I was a little afraid it was too powerful (since it became really loud) that I only ever allowed it to play at max distortion for about 0.3 seconds, and then it would cut to the next level (with lost health) – which then cut all the sounds, leaving only eerie silence.
It was when all these sounds were in I realized I had made a horror game. It was a bit of a weird realization: I didn’t even know a horror typing game could work.

I went to bed that first day with that and decided to sleep on it.


The Sunday was for polish and making things feel good.

So I put in backspace. (Yes. I put in the ability to delete characters from your input string. God, that was super, super necessary) and made a bunch of particles (because that’s about as good as I can make programmer art) and added a few extra effects like the text that slowly increases in size in the top left and balanced the level difficulty (as well as fixing a node creation bug that would’ve been pretty bad to have in).

Then I got some playtests in late in the day and confirmed that it was indeed as creepy as I had myself experienced (and thus, leaned into).

Then, Sunday night I made the last little bit, and sort of stalled and didn’t make too much more, but instead elected to take it easy with the submission and make a few final touches here and there.

So without further ado, let’s get into the second section.


What I think of the game


The Good:

Sparse Mood
Successfully made a mood with really few effects. There’s sound, there’s a little text, and a few colors. But it feels really gripping and genuinely terrifying, although absolutely nothing insane happens. Am very pleased with that.

Sound design
Am really happy with how that turned out. You can do a lot with audacity and a microphone! I made pretty much all the sounds in one hour and they all turned out to create so much of the atmosphere.

Scoped super well
I was done with every core mechanic on the first day, which is the dream.
Even didn’t quite know what to do Sunday evening, because everything I had scoped for got done and didn’t want to start anything big.

The Bad:

A Few missteps in polish
Could have spent more time polishing, probably.
I got a bit tired that Sunday evening and could’ve done more. There’s a few graphical things I could’ve polished up better, I think, but graphics is still not my strong suit.
Finally, a lot of people complained about the needlessly large texts that appear when typing a name, which blocks the nodes. I had heard the feedback but was too stubborn to change it. But now, looking back, I should have. It doesn’t help the atmosphere that you get frustrated because you can’t read something.

The Difficulty Curve
This game is fairly simple, then spikes hard in difficulty once you get about 6-8 nodes, whereafter it just becomes physically impossible.
Would have maybe liked one more twist in there. Another wrinkle to ease the difficulty out and give the player something else to think about before it just gets super hard.
However, my (few) playtesters didn’t note it as a problem, and I didn’t get any comments about it, so maybe it was not as much of a big deal as I thought.

The Name
I couldn’t think of a good name when I had to deliver. I’m kinda sad about it. Cthulhu Writer is okay, but nothing special, really. It’s just a generic description of the game--it doesn't really capture the theme or strike anything especially interesting when you see it.

So, what did the rest of the world think?

The Ratings

I was very impressed with Ludum Dare’s rating algorithm, which is based on the idea that if you rate other people’s games, your game is more likely to get rated by other people. And I saw the effects of that immediately. I took a couple of days where I rated some games (to a total of 31—a little less than I’d have liked, but a decent amount), and from the moment I did it, people began playing my game as well, which was a cool feeling. And all throughout I got great comments that praised the atmosphere and the sound design of the game.
One of my favorite comments was by @rialgar who started by saying “That was a horrible experience. Well Done!”—which goes to show I nailed what I was going for.

In general, all the comments were super positive and people seemed get it, which I am very happy with.

And then the final ratings were announced and they look like this:

That’s pretty damn good for a first attempt!
20th in Mood!
22nd in Audio?!
I’m well pleased with that.
And an overall rating of 3.5 and generally not a rating below 3 is something I’m pretty satisfied with.
It seemed the game definitely resonated in the areas I focused on and that is good enough for me.

One thing is that I didn’t get a lot of votes (only juust the 20 needed to get rated at all), which is definitely in part because I didn’t rate as many games as I could have and did little to no promotion outside rating myself. I’ll see if I can do that better next time. Although, a Horror Typing game is a niche market already so I’m not sure whether the mass appeal would have helped any.

Regardless, I went into this jam with the hope that just one person played and liked it and I got far more than that, so I am very pleased with the overall result.


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