Glasgow School of Art, Honours Project
2021 - 2022
"A Journey Through Love and Time" is a third person, music adventure game that I designed and created for my year-long Honours project whilst studying at the Glasgow School of Art, alongside my Dissertation Project. The game and narrative are designed in the likeness of an album, with each level representing a track of an album. The game is a sequential, non-stop experience - inspired by the album Confessions On a Dance Floor by Madonna, which is mixed from beginning to end. This concept is a twist on the traditional rhythm game format, as to apply more focus on the flow of the story and investment in character and narrative development.
The plot follows Arcadia, the lead singer of a nu-disco band, who is heartbroken after her partner breaks up with her moments before she is due to perform at a New York nightclub. Although devasted, she continues her performance, and our story follows her through the evening as she learns acceptance and hope.
Genre: Third Person, Music-Adventure
Development Period: September 2021 - April 2022
The project was our first self-directed, year-long endeavour which required immense project management through the use of design documentations, charts and boards. Progress was relayed back to lecturing staff on a weekly basis with self-scheduled meetings for feedback sessions. Documentation maintained by myself included a GDD detailing premise and inspiration, plot and story, characterisations, technical and gameplay descriptions, asset lists and planning, Gantt charts and miscellaneous documentation.
The visual direction and overall design of the project was one of the largest tasks I achieved over the course of the development year. Split between the design of the characters, environments, cinematic design and execution as well as the post-processing design. It was my responsibility to document the development of these in research, concept art, mood boards, storyboards and other forms of visual development. The process for this was repeated for the design of each unique environment and character that was planned for the final game.
I also attended local exhibitions such as the V&A Dundee's "Night Fever: Designing Club Culture" exhibition in order to be able to physically gauge the presence of objects such as signage, furniture and audio equipment, as well as collect information on graphic design, fashion and a foundation in the general history of club subcultures. Following this, I also obtained a few books looking at different musical subcultures as well as club and exhibition cultures - such as Future Fantasy (Petersen, 2017) and A Brief History of Acid House (Raval, 2018).
Assets for the project were almost entirely created by myself, with the exception of a small few effects. Arcadia, the player character, was one of the most complicated single objects that the game features, and was the first time I had properly developed a fully fledged character intended to be shot in the third person. The face for the model was kindly donated by a friend, Alanna Walker, and was scanned and processed using an Artec Scanner and the Studio application. The data was then cleaned-up using a combination of ZBrush and 3DSMax, and retopologised in Wrap3 using their node-based system. Similarly, as there was a large focus on the direction of the fashion and how this represents the characters world, the body was sculpted from a reference of a Barbie doll after considering a range of different mould forms and doll variations - specifically to imitate "fashion proportions". The see-through nature of the costume meant that the entire body form would need to be sculpted, whilst the costume would be a separate transparent object. The body was sculpted in ZBrush before being attached to the head and cleaned-up and the dress, along with hair and accessories was sculpted, retopologised and attached to the rig later in the process.
The body was textured in Substance Painter, whilst some of the textures for the accessories were hand painted in Photoshop (such as seamless pearl textures). The final textures are a result of a shader I created in Unity for a glassy, bubble-like effect.
During the early development and research phases of A Journey Through Love and Time, I wanted to look at a combination of a range of gameplay genres and styles. The primary objective of the experience was to execute the basis of a rhythm game that could be expanded in its narrative, story progression and investment of the development of characters. Specifically, I wanted to create a visual that could mimic the execution and realism that AAA titles often bring to the table, within the limits of the project being a solo expedition.
I have always had an affinity for albums with a continuous, non-stop flow of music and sound. This style is extremely prevalent in disco and dance albums, which naturally segued into becoming the genre that I wanted to tackle for the aesthetic and visual execution. From this, I built a concept of gameplay directly inspired by this idea of album-based sound design, similar to the execution of a musical. Each level is representative of a single track of an album, conjoined by the continuous mixing in between.
In the research phases, various games were used as a reference point for execution. Visually, the game takes influence from icons of the rhythm genre and surrounding music games, such as the energetic and fluorescent Dance Dance Revolution (Benami, 1998), the brightness and lightness of games such as Space Channel 5 (United Game Artists, 1999) or Rhythm Heaven (Nintendo, 2008), the bubbly exploration of subculture in Jet Set Radio (Sega, 2000) or Brütal Legend (Double 2009) and more contemporary examples, such as No Straight Roads (Metronomik, 2020) and Sayonara Wild Hearts (Simogo, 2019). There was also much consideration of theory and reading of literature surrounding genre, and I particularly enjoyed books such as Music Video Games: Performance, Politics, and Play (Approaches to Digital Game Studies) (Austin, 2016).
As part of the development of the project, I found inspiration from a range of different sources - watching documentaries, reading relevant books and music publications as well as, most favourably, watching professionally directed recordings of pop concert tours. The inspiration for the base of the narrative was in part inspired by a well-known segment from the 2012 documentary "Katy Perry: Part of Me", which follows Perry's life both professionally and personally during what is regarded as one of the biggest and most impactful eras of pop music. In this scene, Perry receives a text from her husband asking for a divorce whilst she is in the dressing room of a stadium full of people waiting for her to perform. Although devasted, she continues with the show, despite being in tears up until seconds before the show begins. In this scene, she show a remarkable and highly respectable amount of endurance and strength that allows us to really emphasise with her. This was the kind of emotional stake that I wanted the player to be able to have in the character from the get-go.
To form this into a plot that coincides with the conceptual album-like format of the gameplay, I expanded this by using some ideas from films I've previously enjoyed, as the length of an album can be a similar length to a film and would therefore have a similar scale of time to develop the story in. Referencing the 1979 cult classic "The Warriors" (dir. Walter Hill), the plot takes place over the course of a singular evening and follows the player character as she makes her way home through the course of the evening.
In order to gauge a recipe for the flow of the narrative, I referenced several albums that I believe were integral inspiration for project and marked down the flow of the narrative arc and perceived thematic of both the individual songs and overall body of work. I charted the lyrics, energy and turning points of each individual song, and then associated these "musical energies" with environment types and colours and how I imagined them to feel visually represented. The primary inspiration for the project, Confessions On a Dance Floor (2005) by Madonna was the primary point of reference for the flow of the narratives energy - but other albums that I thematically referenced include What's Your Pleasure? (Jessie Ware, 2020), Róisín Machine (Róisín Murphy, 2020), Four Seasons of Love (Donna Summer, 1976), Club Future Nostalgia (Dua Lipa, 2020), Diana (Diana Ross, 1980) and many more - if you would like to listen to some of the music that inspired this project, a playlist can be found here.
Role and Responsibilities:
Creating and maintaining the project's Game Design Documentation, including specifications for design, gameplay, mechanics and goals, technical descriptions, platform and demographics information as well as the characters, plot and themes.
Creating and maintaining organisational documentation such as timeline overviews, process overview diagrams, asset lists, task lists with time estimations and prioritised with keys, as well as transferring this information into a formal Gantt Chart with tasks, dependencies and milestones.
Regularly documenting the process of design and creation through the use of personal journals, work in progress images and photo/video recording.
Conducting research into the historical background and premise of the inspiration, such as the history of the disco genre
Developing concept art using traditional art techniques, editing and developing concepts in Photoshop.
Created storyboards for both gameplay and cutscenes.
Conducting research into a history of pop star costuming and aesthetics, obtaining mood boards of various haute couture and avant-garde fashion house runway shows and individual looks, as well as looking at the work of current and up-and-coming designers. Complimentary to this, also researching the history and sensationalism of club fashion and the club kids of 90s New York.
Created a face scan from a model using the Artec scanner and processed using Artec's Studio software. Data was cleaned up in 3DSMax, ZBrush and re-toplogised using the Wrap3 node system.
Developed the body of the character through a mixture of digital sculpting techniques and manual modelling in ZBrush and 3DSMax.
Created character UVW's in 3DSMax, painted character textures in Substance Painter, as well as developing Shader Graphs for accessories in Unity.
Created a rig for the character using the 3DSMax Biped system, with full hair flexibility and drop earrings rigged as props.
Conducting research into several decades of club culture, attending exhibitions pertaining to disco and club design, reading books discussing the histories of different musical subcultures and research into the architectural and interior design of several prominent New York clubs during the 80s and 90s. Similarly, I coordinated research on spatial cinematography design and consolidated this this with my personal knowledge of popular culture (such as music videos and stage shows).
Created object UVW's in 3DSMax and painted object textures in Substance.
Conducting research into rhythm games and other forms of non-rhythm based music games, adventure games.
Developing workflows pipelines between the asset development and Unity implementation.
Scripting of the game system, including a third person character controller, scripting scene management and cutscene events, scripting audio triggers, manually scripting animation times and placements as well as camera scripting, alongside use of Cinemachine.
Animation: Implementing manual animation in Unity, combined with the free-use animations.
Created a range of different Shader Graphs within Unity, including glassy, bubbly shaders for accessories, flipbook textures to animate digital screens, silhouettes for NPC's and glowy neon signage.
Created the baked lighting set-up for all scenes in the Unity editor.
Application of post-processing affects and editing on a shot-by-shot basis.