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Sitting down to brainstorm for the BBI Jam, we began with a laundry list of possible mechanics, and notes about themes / settings we liked. Mechanically, many things jumped out at us as potentially interesting: grappling hooks, messing with gravity, genetics / evolution, to name a few. Thematically, something that immediately captivated us was this concept of a person tasked with collecting deep space wreckage.The idea developed as we discussed the feeling of loneliness, the primal fear of the black emptiness, and the ever-present danger of being in space. We took mechanics from our list and “tried them out” conceptually with the theme, settling on a few that worked well in the context. Very quickly, Hello, Collector grew from this process.
We settled on a few key design pillars to evoke the experience we wanted:
- – Consistent high tension / anxiety
- – Present the Player with risky choices
- – Have moments of terror (but don’t make it a horror game)
I’m going to discuss the Grapple Hook mechanic in Hello, Collector, and how this mechanic exemplifies these design pillars. The Grapple started simply as an interesting way to get from Point A to Point B. However, it ended up surprising us with how well it delivered exactly the experience we wanted, and more.
The Grapple is the Player’s primary method of traversing the floating pieces of space junk. They simply points toward the target location, and hold down the Grapple button. A magnetic “hook” attaches to the target object and starts pulling the Player to the target. When they are close enough, the Player disengages the Grapple and “grabs” onto the object, where they become fixed to the surface like a fly on a wall. From here they can plan their next “jump”.
Grappling hooks are fun in games, as evidenced in titles like Bionic Commando, Zelda and Just Cause. They have high agency, letting Players transit the world quickly and fluidly, accessing areas they couldn’t normally. They engage a Player’s predictive faculties, challenging them to gauge arc and speed. They provide opportunities for puzzle-solving. Grappling hooks are compelling for similar reasons that make guns and gun-like interfaces ubiquitous (hello Portal). Grappling is a limited form of teleportation, where guns and other long-range interactions are a form of telekinesis.
In Hello, Collector, the environmental context changes the dynamics of the humble grappling hook. Unlike, say, Just Cause 3, where failing use of the grapple is predominantly an inconvenience, in Hello, Collector this could send the Player hurtling into the void. Tumbling into nothingness is a terrifying prospect. As the Grapple is the primary method of moving through the world, this tension is ever-present. Simply by surrounding the Player with empty space, this mechanic now fulfills every one of our design pillars. Each use of the Grapple is charged with tension and risk, with the prospect of terror. However, the Player can attenuate the frequency of this tension, clinging to an object as long as they desire between jumps to “catch their breath”.
Beyond this there are more gameplay benefits to the Grapple. For instance, it has a built-in risk-reward mechanism. Grappling over short distances minimizes the risk of failure, but increases the time it takes to get around. Grappling farther moves the Player around faster, but introduces much greater momentum, a shorter window within which to grab target objects, and increases the amount of force when careening off objects.
The Grapple also has several natural layers of mastery to it. Failing and falling into space is nerve-wracking to a new Player. To a veteran, however, it’s a simple matter of re-orienting and grappling back, though the complexity of this maneuver varies based on the situation. As a Player become more familiar with using the Grapple, the amount of tension on average lowers, though the prospect of slipping away into the nether is never fully eliminated.
It also becomes clear, over time, that using the Grapple in small bursts to quickly grab and release objects can be used to impart small corrective forces to the Player’s drift. We don’t provide the Player with any thrusters to translate their position (they do have control of their rotation). So, using the Grapple in this way allows an experienced Player to almost “fly” through the space, rather than leap-frog from object to object.
Ultimately, We retained all the typical fun and engagement of a grappling hook, but it now comes with an extra layer of risk, tension and challenge. At first, the Player feels like a fish-out-of-water, clambering slowly and awkwardly through the world, or flinging themselves inadvertently to their doom. Eventually, they come to feel like Spiderman-in-space, soaring gracefully between obstacles. The catch being, of course, that even Spiderman is not impervious to becoming lost to the vast, crushing emptiness of space.
The Grapple was extremely successful considering the very short design and implementation time we had. We also hit on success in other areas, as well as some shortfalls. On the positive side, the limited art requirements of the space setting meant that we put a lot of effort into just a handful of assets, so the Player’s helmet and HUD, the skybox and the debris floating around all look extremely polished, and help immerse the Player in the setting. We also settled early on an effective way to utilize audio to emphasize the sense of danger and anxiety; one of the few sounds the Player hears is the breathing of their character, which quickens in high-pressure situations. Small vocalizations when colliding with an object also help sell the sense of impact. Regarding tone, the bleakness and desolation of the setting is offset nicely by satirical messages from the Player’s in-game employer, introducing a nice touch of dark humour.
Of course there are also areas would like to have improved. In general the Player controls are rigid and clunky; we didn’t find a very good solution for how the Player climbs hand-over-hand once they’re on a piece of wreckage, resulting in poor control when trying to crawl on top of objects. Players also find themselves easily disoriented in the 3D playspace, which might be mitigated by UI indicators for orientation, and large-scale environmental landmarks. In some ways these flaws enhance the sense of clumsily exploring a zero-gravity environment, but ultimately we would have liked to iron them out.
In the end, we’re extremely proud of the net result of the week-long jam; it’s a short but enjoyable “demo”, heavy with a unique sense of isolation and dark humour. The small set of core mechanics are interesting and engaging to use, and it’s easy to see how a full-fledged game could grow from simply providing the Player with new obstacles to traverse with those mechanics. The simple yet mysterious narrative also resonated with people. It hints at a very personal journey for the Player Character, as they venture further and further at the behest of their distant Employer. Internally we would all love to learn more about The Collector and what sort of mysteries they uncover on their long, lonely mission through the black and empty void.
Article by Elliot Hudson
That’s it for the game jam articles! The team at Blackbird enjoyed the game jam and we definitely got a lot out of the experience. Down the road we might explore these concepts further, or do another type of game jam.
Thanks for reading.