On the Development of Bottles (Pt. 2 - Pre-Alpha Production)
What Story Are you Trying To Tell?
Once I gathered a team and began development in earnest, we quickly ran into a few problems. Though from a technical standpoint we were up and running quickly with a prototype, conceptually there were a lot of holes that ended up requiring us to do a few major pivots in the creative concept of what the game was.
The idea that had been shown in the prototype— the story of someone helping various people who had sent out messages in bottles to the world, where the player took on each message as represented by a level-in-a-bottle— was what we initially pushed forward with. We liked the openness that came from each level being a different location because it provided a creative freedom to try any setting, play in any space we could think of. The arc we had pictured was one where the player’s home base was a desert island in the middle of the ocean, and each bottle level washes up onto shore, one by one. Over the course of the story the main character would be helping all these other people and the final bottle would resolve this narrative by being a bottle belonging to the player character themselves; and instead of you playing as them to help other people, you would be playing as those you have helped in previous levels as they sought to help the player character. The narrative as a whole was a bit esoteric, sure, but the focus would be the gameplay, not the story. Or so I had thought— but we will get to that later.
I worked with my leads and one of our artists to come up with a main character who would be the person visiting everyone else’s bottles. An early decision was that we wanted a distinct human person, not an abstracted character or something so cartoonish as to be not interpreted as human. We also made the decision to have the character be AFAB (assigned female at birth) and non-white because representation is important to me as a creative director, and there’s no good reason not to put work out into the world that represents people who don’t often get to see themselves in the spotlight. After batting around more ideas and trying to figure out who this person was, we settled on Adi. Adi was a young adult. She was new to the working world, still out of place within her life, but someone tenacious, creative, and above all else, kind. The kind of person who cared deeply about others and would go through the crazy, strange process of helping them through mystical conceptual bottles, and who people would both be able to empathize with and see themselves in, even if she wasn’t a faceless, nameless protagonist.
The unfortunate thing about having any kind of specialty is that you’ll often start to see your own area of expertise as the solution to everything— a pitfall I definitely fell into when it came to developing the concept of Bottles. As a writer and as a narrative-focused designer, I went deeper into the existing concept and started building a world around it. How did she end up on the island? Was the island real or metaphorical? What if the island was of her own creation— a manifestation of loneliness in the midst of social isolation inherent in moving from the world of being a student to the working world of adulthood, and this entire game took place within her concept of the world around her and how her projected mental demons began spiraling out of control?
It’s evident how this quickly got off the rails. Me, in my high-Romantic-and-classical-Gothic-literature-loving English-BA-having self started crafting a strange metaphysical world that this story took place in. We started designing around the idea that reality was the setting, but the puzzles were caused by the things Adi was projecting onto the environment; and the deeper narrative significance was that she was her own worst enemy. At the time I did not see the irony.
We crafted a first level that took place in a subway station. I pulled from my time living in New York for the setting, and we sketched out a level in which the bottle acted as a kind of side-scroller mechanic that would encapsulate the whole level but be far more symbolic than literal. If it were a real object it would be shaped like a long, glass pipe. Adi’s obstacles took the form of nature encroaching on the urban environment: we had schools of fish schooling in an ocean that flooded the subway tracks, a peanut-butter loving octopus swimming through air as your guide, and finally a giant hermit crab decorated in bioluminescence that would block your way until hit with rays of moonlight. It was whimsical, colorful, and a thoroughly fascinating setup for a very involved, very intense story.
After receiving feedback from professors and advisors, some of which contradicted each other, it became clear I had to make a choice. Do I go for the more conceptual, narrative version of Bottles? Or do I set aside the immense story and return to the simple little mechanic that started it all?
I genuinely still like the idea I came up with for that eccentric world of colorful creatures and bleeding realities— but it wasn’t the game I had set out to make. In the process of trying to find the heart of what Bottles would be, I had delved so deeply into the narrative of a game that was really all about the beauty and fascination of a single mechanic.
So Many Ideas, So Little Time
After making the choice to pivot and getting my team onboard with my logic, we went back to the drawing board. The next concept similarly began as a potentially simpler narrative framework about a seaside shop full of bottles, but quickly became a strange and esoteric world all its own separated from time and space— so we decided to scrap that, too. Luckily the level design work we had begun was progressing without the strict hang-together of an overarching plot. There was a lot of designing.
In the interim we had brainstormed myriad ways in which you could take the core mechanic of rotation. We changed the shape of the bottle from a simple cylinder and found endless inspiration in containers of every shape and size, from bulbous rum bottles to flat flask-shapes to hourglasses and beyond. Changing that shape alone was a compelling way to manipulate the affordances of the player’s space, and furthermore to give character to the level by matching the bottle shape to a certain environment or mechanic. That was the origin of levels like “Office”, which was a flat bottle divided by cubicles and whiteboards that was navigated like a pachinko machine you could turn over and move through front to back or back to front. There were ideas of ways in which rotation could be linked to the progression of time in the bottle, and like putting a finger on a record and pulling it back, one could forward and reverse the movements of objects within the bottle along a set timeline to solve puzzles.
One of the most validating parts in this entire process was the joy of seeing my designers take my base concept and extrapolate it in the most creative, fantastic ways. We were never at a loss for new and innovative level mechanics throughout the entire process. The problem was narrowing that down to things feasible with our time and resources, which were dwindling as weeks passed by. A lot of fantastic ideas were cut in the name of being able to take just one level to complete polish. Though I know it was the right call to make as director, I was still sad to see so much raw creativity set aside.
Why the Octopus?
Over the course of development, one thing became increasingly clear: we all loved our octopus. It was a model holdover from earlier iterations of the game, but the octopus had somehow become our mascot, our rallying creature, and when it came time to dream up yet another idea for what the overarching narrative of the game would be it seemed natural to use the octopus as a starting point. That’s how we came to our penultimate iteration of the story: the Octopus and the Shrine.
The story went something like this: once upon a time, there was a small town on a cliff over the ocean. For as long as anyone can remember, on the outskirts of town sat a little shrine dedicated to the local protector spirit that kept the town safe. The shrine was old and made of stone and had an octopus carved into it, and it was said that if you made a wish, wrote it down, and put it in a bottle to leave at the shrine, your wish would come true. However, wishes don’t just come true on their own; someone has to make it happen. Enter the helpful and dedicated octopus spirit that lives in the shrine. Playing as the octopus, you use the bottles as a microcosm of the querent’s environment that you can manipulate to fulfill their wish. The larger arc of the story essentially became one about emotional labor and reciprocation, and I’m sure you can already guess that, once again, we went off too far into the narrative for the game’s own good.
This version of the story has since been all but cut as well. However, it did lend us the framework we needed to pare down the level list we had into something more manageable. Also, it created a cohesive aesthetic that fit really nicely with the concept at large. All of that has stayed with us as we develop into the Beta deadline.
Experience Goals - Revised
In pivoting the story so many times, we had to solidify what about the game was going to stay the same, what was going to be the heart and soul that any new content we ideated would have to be supporting? After a lot of thought and discussion with both my team and my advisors, we came up with these three key words to use as our experience goals:
Every level should have surprises, and the result of those surprises should always seek to bring delight and joy to the player. Furthermore, everything from the controls to the environment should seek to satisfy that analog feeling so key to the original concept of drawing from physical objects and games.
In doubling down on the goals of creating a game that was surprising, delightful, and satisfying, we also made a conceptual shift that helped inform the way we thought about every level. Instead of focusing on the image of a message in a bottle, we began designing around the visual of a ship in a bottle instead. We were already making dioramas, so why not lean into that impulse? The joy of a ship in a bottle is the impossibility of it, the detail and intricacy and beauty of something small replicating a larger space. It slotted into our existing concept and mechanic perfectly. Even that little change of thought helped streamline our design process both mechanically and artistically, and in retrospect I wish we had decided to focus on that sooner instead of trying to shoehorn in messages and text where they weren’t fitting.
One of our chief challenges across the development process was our control scheme. These mechanics, in seeking to feel handheld and tactile, needed to be so precise and juicy while still being one-hand friendly. A problem we encountered early on was that creating an entirely gyroscopic control system got sloppy very quickly. The two axis were difficult to control, frustrating, and slippery.
In order to narrow down what we wanted to do, playtesting was key. My engineering team developed three potential sets of controls: fully gyroscopic, fully swipe-based, and a hybrid version that was swiping for rotation and gyroscopic for character movement. Putting those controls to our first playable build level, we gave all three versions to our test participants, sure to introduce them in a different order every time to prevent bias. Going in we weren’t sure what to anticipate with regards to what people would prefer.
Our results showed a relatively even split between the fully gyroscopic and fully swipe controls, but the one system that pulled ahead of both of them was our wildcard, the hybrid control set. It seemed that having some degree of precision with swiping combined with the tactile leaning of the left-right gyroscope ended up being a perfect combination for the experience we wanted to provide. It was a discovery we wouldn’t have made without some fantastic peer feedback and thoughtful user testing, and highlighted to me as a director the importance of putting your game in front of people who have never seen it during the course of development.
Something small that I am proud of my team for implementing is the left-right switching UI system. Because we set out to create a game fully playable with one hand, it was important to us that it be as inclusive as possible of all people, and that meant opening up one-handed play for lefties as well as right-handed folks. My UI team worked to create a UI system that could be mirrored at-will throughout the game, and even meant all gestures and swipes could be performed anywhere on the screen.