The Heart of the Sea
A game with branching choices that creates a unique, individual narrative.
Hello! My name is Chad Austin.
Over ~5 months, working two days a week, I created a small, incomplete game to bolster my skills as a game designer. I learned a lot during this time about the challenges of developing a game solo.
I'd like to share some of my learnings from this experience here, to both get my thoughts out and to provide an interesting read for anyone at least a little intrigued by game development.
Alright, with that out the way, where to start?
How did I start this game?
Well, I had some decent skill in the game engine Gamemaker Studio 2 already. I wanted to create something quick! Something easy!
Wouldn't take much time at all. So I set out to make a game in that engine, making a plan for a game I thought would indeed be "quick and easy".
However, I still wanted to make something unique. I had been toying around with game ideas where you are presented with many choices, and you get to feel and see that they matter. This concept is not at all original, but there is still a tremendous amount to
explore in this space within the industry.
So I made a Visual Novel. Different however from the traditional sense of it, this game would put the text in the forefront of the screen, with the art component of it being there to simply give you a small depiction of what is going on in the story. This way, I can get super granular with the choices made, really double down on making branching possibilities.
What should the story be though? "That's easy." I thought. "Let's just make a theme, and create small events within that theme. The "story" will be the choices the player makes, not a grand twisting story I've carefully curated for them!". (Remember this)
At this point I'm ready to go. I've got it in the bag. I decided this was an adventure where you play as a pirate captain searching for treasure out east, and began.
I've already made mistakes by this point.
But before I get into those, let's talk about the good!
What's awesome about this game?
I'm biased of course, but oh man there's a lot I love about what I made! Let's start by walking you through the basic gameplay loop:
Essentially, you visit locations of your choosing on a map, and within each location is unique text with choices to make along the way. Selecting a choice may result in a change in your current statistics (Ship Health, Crew Size, Reputation) or the gain or loss of an item you carry. Each choice provides a unique outcome from the other, and different events may occur based on the status of your ship.
After the text concludes at your current location, you're taken to the map where you can choose where to sail next. From here, you can see the locations you've been, upcoming locations, and little snippets of what may be in the location you're heading to.
The decisions you make in choosing a location should feel just as impactful as the choices you make in the locations themselves.
That's it! Your overall goal is to acquire a legendary treasure only known as "The Heart of the Sea" far to the east. It's possible to sink, lose your crew, or have other premature ends before reaching the end. So, choose carefully!
Now... let's get into the things I learned with this project.
Nailing the Core of Player Choice
An important mission this game tries to solve is creating a world where the player feels the impact of their decisions. In order to execute this properly, there's a few core rules I've learned to stick by regarding this:
Every player choice
Every player choice
hat this game does exceptionally well is that it
The best element in this game is that your choices are visually shown in clear, easy to understand ways. I really wanted the player to feel like their journey was unique. To give a sense of exploration, the sense that there's lots going on in the world.
With the map screen, the player can easily see the multitude of locations they're passing by. Yes, in theory they are only seeing a percentage of the game that way.
As seen briefly in the above .gif, there's a map in the game. To me, this is t