July 1st, 2014
Play Here (in browser)
“The Cave of Ātman is a sequential strategy RPG puzzler inspired by games such as Fire Emblem (GBA) and Jeanne d’Arc (PSP). A band of brave warriors find themselves summoned to a mysterious cave following a short tremor. As they descend the cave’s many floors, they unearth a secret that rests deep inside their souls.”
– Game Description
The Cave of Ātman is a game I developed with my brother, Chris Johnson, and my games analysis buddy, Hayden Davernport. I did the game design and graphic work, Chris did the programming and project management, and Hayden did the music and sound effects. I came up with the idea early last year after I finished working on Game Design Companion: A Critical Analysis of Wario Land 4. Chris put the framework together over Christmas after I pitched the idea to him, I’ve been working on it on and off since January, and Hayden joined in March after we completed work on Starseed Observatory.
The idea evolved out of a series of notes I’d written on Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together (PSP), Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones (GBA), and Jeanne d’Arc (PSP) shortly after I finished the final edit of Game Design Companion. Since I’d been playing these three SRPGs at roughly the same time, my observations kind of congealed together. Before I knew it the only way I could cover all three games without heavy repetition and overlap: a three-in-one game repair.
Long story short: I discovered that many of the RPG systems in SRPG games (leveling, equipment, and custom unit selection) deconstruct strategic gameplay, and that the only way to maintain pure strategic gameplay is to remove these elements completely. No matter whether the RPG systems are heavy (Tactics Ogre), medium (Jeanne d’Arc), or light (Fire Emblem), they still place a strain of the strategy. In this sense, there’s an inherent conflict between the two halves of this sub-genre.
Another point that I often returned to in my mini-case study of the genre was Jeanne d’Arc‘s excellent Burning Aura system. After attacking an enemy, an aura appears behind the enemy. Players can then move a unit into the aura tile to launch a critical attack. I love how this system adds new strategic wrinkles to the game whereby you manage the spacing of units with various attack ranges so as to combo up critical hits. The only issue I have with Burning Aura is that the auras fade away at the end of each phase cycle and so, with only a handful of units at your disposal, you can’t create very deep chains. I wondered what Jeanne d’Arc would look like if the auras stayed around a bit longer.
With these two ideas in mind and my repair job turning into a game of its own, I started planning my own SRPG. As I was thinking through the potential unit spacing, attack combinations, and suspension elements, I realised that I could distill this concept down further into a puzzle game, and thus The Cave of Ātman was born.
It’s actually not like Jeanne d’Arc – The beauty of Jeanne d’Arc‘s Burning Auras is that enemy units can be attacked multiple times, and they usually have enough health that you need to attack them a few times. This anchors the spatial jig-saw around a central point. In The Cave of Ātman enemies die in one hit, assuming you’ve got enough aura, and therefore the puzzle challenges are centred around hot potatoes that move through the play space. The natural dispersion of enemies on the battlefield, where they might not always be in near reach, also makes it hard for the Jeanne‘s auras to be suspended across interactions (never mind the turn-based limitations). As I developed the rules for The Cave of Ātman, I realised that in order to turn the concept into a puzzle game, I had to shed some of Jeanne‘s identity and push the project into an alternative design space. The end result is more “inspired by” then “developed from”, but that’s cool.
The Particulars – When I write games analysis I always focus on the details and the power they have to influence a work on the whole. This is something that I found difficult to translate into game development. It’s easy to come up with ideas; the hard work is all in the implementation. Chris, who had the task of putting my ideas into code, would often ask for details on things I hadn’t originally considered.
Heavy Handed Tutorials – When I playtested The Cave of Ātman with a group of games analysis buddies, almost everyone said that the tutorial levels were so heavy-handed that players could complete them without even understanding what they were doing. Through their analysis, the group had unearthed a piece of me within the game. As a teacher (my job), I like to always be in control of my class and ensure that the students are getting enough feedback. I hold myself to the same teaching standards that I find in my favourite games and often compare my performance with those games. In this case, I hadn’t realised that my approach had been to the detriment of the learning design.
Planning Ahead – I had a clear understanding of the game I wanted to develop and the game we made turned out just as I envisioned it would. Having a clear understanding of the design space and also keeping everything limited (single turns, one enemy type, etc.) made it easier to work through some of the challenges that cropped up during development.
If you haven’t already, I encourage you to give The Cave of Ātman a go. Share it with your friends too. I’d love to hear your feedback. I don’t have any grand ambitions to get into game development or anything like that, this was just a hobby project, but I have put up a new page on the site which lists my background in working on games. With the Starseed Observatory and The Cave of Ātman finished, I can return my focus back onto writing, so expect some more of that soon. Big props to Hayden and my big brother Chris for their hard work and commitment on the project. 🙂