Tangaroa Deep Postmortem

Crossposted on my tumblr

I am still in awe at the amazing response that Tangaroa Deep has gotten from the community. I still feel really new to the IF community, so to have people like the game enough to vote it Audience Choice still has me reeling.

And since people seemed to like it so much, I figured I’d try my hand at a postmortem, as well as answering any questions people might have about it.

The First Idea:

I came up with the idea for Tangaroa Deep sometimes during IF Comp 2015. People who were at WordPlay last year might remember me mentioning wanting to do a submarine game that played with the Jonah style in Twine, and this is the result of that idea.

Honestly the entire reason I made the game was because Jonah existed. I’d previously played michael lutz’ my father’s long, long, legs and found the feeling of descending in the final parts of the game to be really effective in the Jonah format. I knew I wanted a game that went down, where the transition of descent was part of the mechanics.

So the original idea was a game called 72 Hour of Air where the player would have a large ocean map and every movement action would cost the player a certain amount of air. Ocean tiles would be randomized by level, so each depth would have a different set of creatures that the player might encounter. This, plus the limited number of moves, would encourage the player to dive multiple times and find different creatures and landmarks each time.

This did not work out.

Why It Didn’t Work Out:

Well firstly, cursory research showed that most manned submersibles don’t stay below the water for 72 whole hours which was a shame because I was really attached to that title.
But the big change came when I realized as I was planning out the different creatures you could find that my mechanics were not complimenting the player behaviors that I wanted to encourage.

I wanted the game to be an exploration game, where the player dove and found all these mysterious things and having the player only see a small portion of that per play-through wasn’t what I was angling for. (hehe angling)

Instead, I set out to make a game that had some replayability, but would still be satisfying for a single dive. I scrapped the air as action point mechanic, in favor of allowing the player to just look around.

The giant randomized map was also giving me a bit a scope creep, where I kept wanting to make the map bigger and bigger and randomer and randomer, all the while forgetting that I’d actually have to write all of that. Once I remembered, the game shrunk dramatically.

The final change from the idea of 72 Hour of Air to what would actually become Tangaroa Deep was the inclusion of Jackie. Most of my library so far had been filled with solitary games, games where you are alone and have very minimal NPC interaction. With this new game, I wanted to challenge myself, so I decided that I wanted to have a near constant interaction with an NPC throughout the entire experience.

With these changes made in design, I started writing.

Fun Tangaroa Fact: Some things that were cut out of the game due to size include: A giant jellyfish so big it creates it’s own ecosystem, Volcanic Vents, Skulls carved from pearls, and an underwater cave system.

The Little Paua Diver:

For a while I was just writing single page creature descriptions of all the animals you would find on your journey. Between each ocean level, I wanted to have a short cut scene where you would talk to Jackie before returning to the adventuring.

This took some doing to sort of mechanically (big thanks to &if for helping me out during this), but in the end I was able to have the “Descend” links creature a $destination variable that would be remembered, which would then spit your out at the correct location below you in the ocean. So if you descended in Sunlight 1, after the cut scene you would be in Twilight 1. Lots of if statements went into the making of that mechanic.

One of the cut scenes, around the middle, was meant to be a moment for Jackie to tell a small story, and provide a larger context to the themes of exploration and diving into the unknown.

Based on the real life shell divers of Japan and Polynesia, I began to write a story about a little girl who dove too deep and the consequences that came from it. It took about 10 drafts for a 500 word section, and was the part of the game that took the longest to write.

Before I’d written The Little Paua Diver, I didn’t have an ending for the game.

Afterwards, I knew exactly which endings would be in it.

Sometimes all you need is the one idea to tie everything together, and without this section, I wouldn’t have had the game I ended up with.

Fun Tangaroa Fact: The ship was originally going to be called the Cassiopeia, until I realized that I was setting it in the Pacific and the Greeks had nothing to do with this at all. So the ship got renamed the Tangaroa after the Polynesia sea god, Jackie got her Hawaiian last name, and nothing greek was seen here again.

The Endings I Ended Up With:

Hashing out the different endings for Tangaroa came from trying to predict player behavior and accommodate an ending for each route a player might logically take.

In total there are 6 possible endings you could have ended up with that I named thusly: The Coward Ending, The Surface Ending, The Tangaroa Ending, The Salt Ending, Come Out, and Stay In.

If anyone wants to know more about/how to reach any particular ending, let me know and I’ll talk about it under a spoiler tag. ^_~

Fun Tangaroa Fact: My personal favorite ending is the Salt Ending, but that’s just me.

The Look of the Ocean:

One of the hardest things about the game was getting the background to transition properly. In it’s default state, Jonah puts the text inside of a box separate from the page background and getting the whole background to be the right color and stay that way took absolutely forever.

But I felt that this was a very important part of the game, to have the player feel like they were descending by having the background darken as they went down. I also made sure to code backwards transitions so that people could rise and fall at their leisure. I ended up doing this with blank Twine nodes that just had a few empty spaces, a css tag and a <> link that would send you automatically to the point above or below you. Thankfully, this seemed to work out.

Another troublesome spot was the responsive gallery of creatures at the end of the game. Twine does not play nicely with view port sizes unless you start digging to see exactly which div you’re ending up in.

Getting it to work in mobile was an issue as well, as the large title font kept stretching the page until I used vw as a font measurement rather than em. I hadn’t even known before now that vw WAS a font measurement, but the more you know.

Fun Tangaroa Fact: Early ideas of the game were going to have bubbles continuously rising up in the background. This ended up being super complicated and processor intensive and was ditched, but not before wasting a lot of my time.

One Last Breath of Air

One of the very last things to end up in the game (it was even added after some initial playtesting) was the return of the air meter. I had basically built the whole thing without the air meter, but it still felt lacking. I wanted the player to be able to explore, but without the ever present danger of losing air, the paua diver story, and the endings, just didn’t have the same punch.

So instead of returning to the original idea of air as action point, I decided to make a fake air meter. The air meter in the game reflects your current max-depth. So it did drain the deeper you went, but it wasn’t actually restricting the player from continuing at any point. Aside from a single ending, it is actually impossible to run out of air.

Nonetheless, I found that this dramatically changed the way that players behaved and navigated the game. It added an element of tension, and made people stop and really think about their choices before acting, even if mechanically, it changed nothing.

If I learned anything from this game it’s that presentation can matter almost as much as mechanics, and that’s a lesson I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

What’s Next?

Not another Jonah game, that’s for sure. While I felt the style really fit Tangaroa Deep, I’m not convinced that Jonah is appropriate for all kinds of IF.

Still, I’m excitedly working on a game (hopefully) for IF Comp. Something again, with a few more NPCs. Jackie was a darling to write, and I want to keep exploring the medium and the different stories you can tell with the player.

So I hope this was helpful to some people, if there’s anything else you’d like to know or to have clarified, I’d be happy to talk about it!

What a wonderfull game! It has all the apprehension, tension and at the same time all the pull of the curiosity and joy of discovery of diving ever deeper into the depth of the unknown. I immediately felt reminded of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, or, obviously more appropriately, The Big Blue. All this while staying light and pleasurable throughout (an achievement impossible to myself).