So one of the first things I wanted to do before rebuilding Dear Esther’s levels from the ground-up was to first analyse the existing areas of the game which needed improvement the most and analysing how they could be improved upon.
I looked over a number of comments found on Dear Esther’s ModDB site and also from my personal experience playing the game and here are some brief bullet points that show a couple of the most common issues I found:
A common issue I found with the original level design, and something I experienced myself, was that it was easy to get lost and confused in some areas leading to frustration and would sometimes lead to the player to unknowingly skipping large parts of a level, missing out on important story driven elements essential to the Dear Esther ‘experience’. Here are a couple of examples of these problem areas:
In this area I decided to change the game play entirely. Before it was not obvious that the upper path is inaccessible (or so it seems) and that the route you have to take is down to the main beach, instead I have changed it so that the cliff path has partly collapsed but as part of a small puzzle you can access the area in-between by finding and placing objects across the gap. The aim of this is to not lead the player down a dead end and give them the opportunity to take a second route if they so desire. Upon bridging the gap they are rewarded by extra dialog and a view of your destination – the hermits cave.
This is more of an ‘Easter egg’ than anything else pertaining to ‘traditional game play’ as I feel the mod should be primarily focused on telling a story through your journey and the environment.
In this example the path becomes confusing, you are supposed to go right and travel down the valley; however there is no obvious indication of this and it is possible to take the wrong route and go straight to the next level missing out on some important dialog and visuals.
To solve this I made the section on two levels and continued the upper path around and down the valley in a way which directs you down into the hermits cave and in a loop around, sending you back up the valley on the lower path.
Visuals and Interest
Another common complaint is that the environment is visually very barren and empty with not a lot to keep the player interested as they travel through the environment. A lot of players subsequently became frustrated and bored when having to travel long distances with the slow-pace of the game and I found some even quit in frustration. I plan to combat this by creating a much richer, visually interesting environment, more densely populated, with more hidden messages and clues to the narrator’s back-story to increase the depth of the experience. At the moment my visual target is a photo-realistic one, albeit a slightly twisted, dreamy version of reality.
Sound and music
Another common problem with the original was that dialogue could sometimes overlap due to audio triggers not being placed optimally which would damage the immersion of the game. When rebuilding the levels from the ground-up I made sure to allow room for each audio event to trigger without overlapping. I do however need to investigate how best to trigger speech and music which allows for subtitles and is not affected by audio post processing effects – like being underwater. Right now the Ambient_Generic entity seems inappropriate for this.
Finally I found the volume levels of the dialogue and music were inconsistent causing some of the dialogue to be occasionally inaudible beneath the music. I have since gone through and normalised the volume levels of all music and speech as well as cleaning them up somewhat and it is already sounding much better!
Overall I think the biggest hurdle will be preparing the environment (Terrain in Source is a pain - I’ll be talking about this next week) and finding enough content to populate it with as to keep the player’s interest throughout. However I now have a concept artist on board who is inspiring me a lot with his work which i’ll be showing off in the coming weeks!