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So as it turns out, people ended up liking the game Chloi Rad (@_chloi) and I made for this year’s Global Game Jam. Liking it enough that we won an award for ‘Best Use of Theme’ and got press over it.

So I think it’s time I write a bit about our game, The Polygraph

Image

The Idea

The idea for The Polygraph came to Chloi and I after we scrapped our first idea 8 hours into the jam called ‘Super Bank Robber Surgeon.’  It was a pretty silly idea of playing as a bank robber hiding out at a hospital, forced to perform heart surgery with the tools you used for a recent robbery This was what we had working so far:

superbankrobbersurgeonsm

Some of the tools were usable, and the patents arrived and left in an assembly-line fashion.

We literally could not stop laughing at that face we ripped from an old picture of Operation.

On the drive to our friend’s house on Friday, 3:30am , Chloi expressed some concerns about our design. Namely, the fact that our game had nothing to do with the theme of heartbeats. It was a funny idea that we ran with because we originally sought out to make a weird, experimental game (like Revenge of the Sunfish). But as it turns out, our game wasn’t even that experimental either; it was just Trauma Center with intentionally-bad MS Paint art.

We still like this idea, and I might keep working on it over the next few weeks for fun. But for the sake of the Jam’s theme, we needed a new idea. I declared that we had to come up with a new idea before 4am or else we were sticking with Super Bank Robber Surgeon.

Miraculously, we somehow came up with the idea for The Polygraph in 15 minutes: A Noir-themed interrogation with a simplified Bit-Trip Beat style of gameplay. We locked-down that idea and went to bed.

Gameplay Implementation – James

My biggest fear was that we wouldn’t have time to start over on Saturday, but after drafting our idea on a whiteboard, it didn’t seem too complicated. In fact, the one screenshot we have below is almost exactly what we had drawn on the whiteboard that Saturday morning:

The entire game!

Coding the game was relatively easy in Game Maker, the only thing I was worried about by the end of development was that there weren’t enough indications of states in the game. I chose to have the polygraph as a visible, real-world entity on the table rather than a super-precise UI, and for the opaque boxes around the text & gameplay to go from blue to red instead of displaying how frequently the anxiety-blips were coming.

The Anxiety blips (or just anxieties as we called it) were pretty influenced from Bit-Trip Beat. We had four different blips that would appear: simple speed, accelerating/decelerating speeds, disappearing blips, and blips that would hop back (and cause you to drive up your anxiety level). I was pretty happy with these variations given our one-dimensional gameplay.

Having a heartbeat sound on every Space bar hit was done well after we had the core gameplay down. I realized after playing that towards the end of the game, you would hit the space bar a ton just to make sure you were getting all the blips. We instantly saw the correlation and added a heartbeat sound. The result matched with exactly what we intended the game to be.

Art and Design – Chloi

We wanted to make something that would capture the helplessness of anxiety: the more you worry about calming yourself down, the more worried you become.

Every time the player presses the spacebar and misses a blip, the frequency of the anxiety blips increase, thus making the game more difficult. James’ addition of the heartbeat sound each time you press space totally solidified the concept. We hoped that the sound, combined with the way the mechanic itself works, would make the player feel as though the character’s panic was their own.

The more the player spams the spacebar in an attempt to capture the blips before they pass by, the quicker the heartbeat sounds, and the more frequent the anxiety blips become. It is exactly the kind of catch-22 that we wanted to convey.

Because we’d shelved our first idea and didn’t get started on this one until Saturday morning, I didn’t want to be too overambitious with the art, so I went with the best possible thing you can in that situation: MS Paint.

The noir theme worked to our advantage in a sense, because it let me do everything in greyscale. I got to stick with something minimal while still being sort of stylistic. I also didn’t want the narrative to be too overwhelming or complicated. I kept the gameplay in mind while writing it. The most important element to me was making sure the tensions in the narrative would be reflected by the rising difficulty of the gameplay.

Conclusion

Being the first game jam for both of us, there was a lot to take away from it. One of the biggest thing we learned was that simplicity is key to making these games. After making The Polygraph, we almost too worried to present it because of it’s over-simplicity compared to some of the other games; we just didn’t feel that The Polygraph was that exciting. It turns out that you don’t need a ton of particles or explosions or complicated rules to make something enjoyable. By creating a unique twist on the theme and putting a simple yet familiar environment, players were quick to identify with our game.

We also learned that health is crucial for these events. Getting a good night’s rest was essential to our success, at least 5-6 hours (not a FULL night’s rest, but you get the picture). This also includes food, which we ended up not doing so well with. Pizza tastes great, but it’s not very healthy to just eat pizza for lunch and dinner without any other nutrition in-between. Next time, we plan on bringing healthy snacks instead of candy, chips and energy drinks.

We also learned that game jams are a time to experiment, not a time to pump out the first funny idea you think of. I’m personally glad that we ditched the idea for “Super Bank Robber Surgeon”, as funny as it was, because it wouldn’t have been challenging enough. I felt that actually thinking about and working with the theme of “Heartbeat” was a great exercise as designers.

That’s about it for our Global Game Jam game. In other news, I have a new engineering job in San Francisco! More news about that to come!