Tiny game #7: Ascent – my first game jam!

This is my submission for the GameDev.tv 2022 10-day Game Jam – first game jam ever. It’s been intense, but totally worth it!

You can download a Windows executable (and the Unity source code, if you’re interested) at the above link, or play the game in your web browser by clicking on the image below:

click on the image to open the game in a new window – webgl-enabled browser required!

The theme for the game jam was “Death is just the beginning”. I’ve always been fascinated about the great circle of life – how life began from nothing, and evolves in a constant cycle of reproduction and decay, where the deceased provide the raw materials for the next generation of life. Struggle for survival and pressure to evolve.

So, huge concept, and almost no time – an ideal combination 😀

The major challenge (and charm) in doing these “game thumbnails” is to find a way to boil your highflying ideas down to a workable solution. Narrow the scope to a central mechanic that expresses the idea. And don’t forget it should be fun to play!

Game mechanics

What I came up with is a game about evolving a tiny deep sea creature, to eventually reach the surface and leave the ocean behind. It’s meant to be a rather chill experience, so the game play is not too tough. I had to throw away most of the ideas popping into my head all the time, but the major elements of the concept are there:

  • Your creature starts as a baby on a primitive level, feeding on the plankton floating around. It’s vulnerable at this stage, likely to get eaten by bigger fish.
  • Once grown up, go look for a mate! The only phase of the game where there’s some time pressure.
  • To produce offspring, the player needs to collect biomaterials left behind by deceased sea creatures. These get more complex as evolution progresses.
  • The baby becomes the new incarnation of the player, slightly more evolved, and the cycle continues.

I had this idea about a “spark of life” or “soul” that exists independently of the body. That made it into the game as a sort of failsafe:

  • When the player creature dies (gets eaten, for instance), you enter a “netherworld”, where your spirit needs to find a new suitable body.
  • Only baby creatures of your own species are suitable. Find one and the game continues, the only penalty being thrown back one evolution level.
  • Touching any other adult creature in that state means “Game Over”. The only way you can truly die in this game.

Lessons learned

These mechanics are still pretty complex, and not anything players will be familiar with from the get go. So, the major problem turned out to be how to communicate what’s going on to the player. All the required sprites and animations would have broken my back for sure – so in the end I had to resort to text messages explaining some things to the user. That actually worked out ok, and I ended up with “only” around 50 handdrawn sprites.

The scope of the game felt just right coding-wise: Develop the concept at speed, disregarding a lot of production code best practices, just to make it work in time. Knowing the code is discardable anyway made this a very relaxing and fun experience (of course, there was still cursing and pulling of hair).

Prototyping the prototype: I spent the first 2 days just thinking and making notes on paper. The first implementation used squares and circles as sprites, no animations. That approach really paid off, and saved a lot of time, even when the final result is still just a prototype.

This was the first game where I was able to add sound! Had to resort to free assets available on the internet, but it adds so much. Learned a lot about how to do sound mixing in Unity.

So what?

All things considered, I’m pretty happy with the result. Just exploring the concept conjured up a vision of “the real game”, which would be at least 10x larger, involve majestic underwater visuals, tons of cool creatures, more challenges, etc. This could look fantastic in Unreal Engine, with partly procedurally generated 3D creatures, lighting effects, and so on. There’s a project!

Also, I’m absolutely planning to participate in more game jams. It’s intense and exhausting, but a priceless experience. And who knows, someday there might be real commercial game coming out of one of these.