"On the Origins of Grey Block"
So, inspiration comes to me in strange ways. I don't really have a way of controlling it, that creative itch just comes and goes as it pleases. That can be frustrating, but to me it also makes the experience far more special. I have found that listening to music through headphones tends to help. The substitution of real world noise, with my own personal selection of "noise" creates something of a soundtrack to life, in that very moment - especially in public. People-watching with music and headphones helps me see, I dunno, things. Yea, that's weird and hokie, but it's the only way I can describe it.
I had started down this path with a massive idea, and I knew early on that it was untenable. I kind of wanted to see how far I could get while maintaining a healthy state of denial. Like at what point would living in that state of denial eventually become something I could no longer deny. It was a fun and probably psychologically regressive exercise that I think the game dev community can surely appreciate.
So, I had been thinking that I needed to start with a smaller project for some time, but I just couldn't friggin' come up with an idea.
The inspiration fairy visited me on an airplane. I was listening to Scary Kids Scaring Kids (btw, I might try to incorporate music into this as much as possible going forward, because music is so damn important to everything) and it just happened. Like all "great" (quotes indicate sarcasm) ideas, the story for Grey Block began with an ending. I began picturing this cinematic version of an ending to a story about a guy in a psychiatric hospital and the faucet just opened up. Interestingly though, I showed restraint. I didn't abandon my current project immediately, I kept at it, kept learning, but also kept refining this "psych hospital" thingy I had bouncing around my head. The goal was to see if it had staying power, I wanted to see if it could stick even after the general excitement of being first inspired. Call it a "cool-down" period.
Spoiler alert: It did.
Performing the course-correction was not easy. As I said in an earlier post, this was exactly what I was afraid of - losing interest quickly and not finishing anything. So, I got an outside opinion from my (now) wife. I explained everything, laid out my fears, gave her the pitch and she was really supportive, but also provided something of a conditional - that I would plan my approach and execute it, essentially bounding my project scope and clearly documenting it. Scope-creep was also something that I was extremely sensitive to so this wasn't foreign to me. The project had to remain small, it couldn't grow into something huge. The game was going to be a 4-5 hour experience, and it would be sold for practically nothing, because that's how I'm going to get lots of people to play it...
That's a funny insider joke about indie dev naivety, right? Here's a better one:
It was going to take me 9 months, max. Not a problem. I can do that. pfft. EASY. Oh, and I would be working on it with about 4 hours/night after my day job...
Truthfully, I made a lot of progress early on. I created a game development doc on Google Docs, that I still somewhat use. I created an animation list, and pulled everything I could from Mixamo (https://www.mixamo.com/#/), and I used the now discontinued Adobe Fuse Character Creator to create my character models. I had already been using Blender, so I was able to incorporate that tool into my pipeline. In something like a week, I had all of my pre-production pipeline complete, and I was ready to start actually working in Unreal Engine which was very much an "eat the elephant" type of exercise. Something I realized about 9 months into my game development journey was that I hadn't actually worked with the engine at all.
So, I started with small bites, I was careful not to overwhelm myself, and I played a few tricks on myself to ensure I stayed interested. The funny thing is, after a little while, I didn't have to trick myself anymore. I really enjoyed it. I began to enjoy and find satisfaction in parts of the process that I never imagined I would.
What's that? You want to know what the tricks were? Fine...
#1 Don't look at anyone else's work. On instagram, on twitter, whatever. Don't subscribe to it, don't seek it out. Focus on what you are doing. Since I had no clue what I was doing or capable of producing, the "not-so-great" stuff you'll see will demotivate you, or cause you to go back and try to perfect your own work so as not to look like ...that. And the really great, like incredibly amazing work that some others put out will make you feel completely inadequate, which will also kill your motivation.
#2 Use MY character model to create with, not the Unreal Engine mannequin. This was important to differentiate my work from the others I had seen (in violation of trick #1), in that mine was a real thing. It wasn't a pet project, or a school project, or something I was just playing with. My game was real. Grey Block was real. Theo's story would be completed and told. So from early development onward, I was using my main character model for everything - feature development, AI, debugging, what absolutely ever. UE Mannequin was locked in a box like The Gimp in my project.
#3 "Vertical Slice" Yup, create a small slice of the game to what you think is production completion. This was super, super important to me, because I needed to know what visual quality I could achieve on my own. If it was total shit, I was going to abandon this altogether. This trick contains a sub-trick which is "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." Another important mentality here. Understand developing to a point where you can squint at the product and see what the finished thing will look like. I had a lot to do, I couldn't waste time perfecting my rag-dolls, or my blend-spaces, or my lighting bakes. I needed to get everything to a point where I and maybe someone who believes in me could see what the finished product would look like.
If there's a theme that can be extracted here, it's that I was at war with myself. I was constantly looking for ways to protect myself and the project from my worst impulses. Being a human is fucking hard, folks.
I'll continue this by explaining certain pieces of the game development in more detail, but I'll leave you with some concept-to-creation photos of one of Grey Block's maps.
Level design was a challenge for me. I only knew what I knew based on what I had played, and I hadn't tried to create an interesting game level before. I did however have opinions on what I found to be immersive levels, and I had a vision for what I wanted Grey Block to look like.
Have you ever played a game where your exploring some ancient city in "almost" ruin, and you have to jump, swing, slide, crawl, and platform your way through? Have you ever at the same time thought, what poor fucking denizen of this city had to do this to go to the market? That, to me is an example of an interesting game level that is immersion breaking.
For Grey Block, I felt that since "action" isn't a huge part of its core-gameplay I could likely swing in the other direction. Grey Block's maps could be more practical, and have different types of obstacles that were more closely tied to story elements.
A key part of Grey Block's universe is that mental health was "rescued" by private industry in the late-80's. As a result, all of those beautiful, monolithic, Kirkbride-style psychiatric hospitals depicted in Hollywood were not left to rot. They were purchased by Venture Capitalists, maintained and updated over time. So the architectural style of Grey Block should look like what would've happened if you took the old Kirkbride style architecture and today's industrial-chic interior style, loaded them into opposite ends of the Large Hadron Collider and launched them at each other at light speed.
There should be plenty of explorable hallways with high ceilings, big windows, curves and cinch points with lots of boojie, impractical stylings that I find appealing for some reason. The image below is what I started from.
Not much, but there's a centralized nurses station which the player must find a way past in order to get to the stairs. This would be accomplished by killing power to the hospital, a mechanic which made it's way into the game. My knowledge here was limited, and I couldn't go on a scouting trip, so the internet and some google searching helped out quite a bit.
Fergus Falls Hospital in Minnesota seemed to align most with my vision for Green Valley Psychiatric. The campus is beautiful and sprawling. The curvature in the building would give the player plenty of floorspace to navigate. So I started from there.
You'll notice in Grey Block, that there are no external shots of the hospital. That's intentional. Doing so would've taken me (a programmer) a lot of time to reach a believable solution, and I simply didn't have that time to give. So the ROI was never in my favor.
Using the above shots, I tweaked my approach and came up with a sketch for a main hall that I liked, shown below.
Notice there's some curvature in there, but with an extension in the middle. The extension would be a new modern wing added by Green Valley's funding partner Cobalt Venture Capital, and the additional, experimental research wing added by Theo's father David Church - known amongst the patients as "Grey Block". This sketch was enough for me to produce something digitally.
That's an early top-down render of Grey Block's main hall. Some of it being obstructed, because you'll just have to play the game to see what it really looks like ;)
Thanks for reading! Let me know if this was helpful or you just enjoyed it.