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Navigating the Maze Part 1

Navigating the Maze: A Postmortem on the development of Labyrinthine Dreams (Part 1)

(Digging through my old notes I found a postmortem I wrote of Labyrinthine Dreams six months after the release back in 2014 that I never published. I’ve revised it from the original note file but left the key points untouched)

The seed that became Labyrinthine Dreams was planted years ago. I was listening to the album Soundtrack to a Vacant Life by The Flashbulb. Many of the original ideas I have for games originate from powerful songs, or albums, that don’t have a lot of vocals to distract me. It allows me to associate the music with visuals, and sometimes gameplay. In this case though, a voiceover from the second track influenced the main image that the game would evolve around.

The second track, Kirlian Voyager, has a voice clip about the concept of a dream body. The dream body is the same we inhabit when in a dream state, but after death, we can never wake up from it. The music gave me a sense of space and I imagined a dream body floating endlessly through the cosmos in a bubble. This was the first image that would become the basis for the game.

Fast forward to early 2013. I’ve been unemployed for a year and working on a noir, action-RPG with commercial ambitions. My partner and I realize the game is not marketable after it’s been in production for 6 months. It’s a pretty heavy blow for me at the time, but then I hear about a contest that has a theme of surrealism. This reminded me of my idea for a dream game. The contest itself never ended up materializing but it got the gears rolling.

I shared the idea for the game with my partner, who I’ve been working with on game projects since 2005. He predominately handled the writing of our games while I handled the design and scripting. Initially I didn’t have a protagonist in mind for the game but he suggested we use Beth, a NPC from our noir game.

I created a blank RPG Maker VX Ace project, and started designing maps without much context. I still hadn’t worked out the mechanics at this point. At first it was planned to be an exploration, light-adventure game in the style of To the Moon.

I was doing research on dreams and symbolism, and the theme of mazes began cropping up. I liked the idea of the player navigating through a series of mazes to escape the nightmare they were trapped in. I did a deep dive on “logic mazes”, looking up examples online, and came up with the mechanics based on those. Many of the final locations were influenced by the mechanics.

The first area is a cursed forest that won’t allow you to turn left. The second area is a tunnel where you can only turn in the direction the arrows are facing. The mazes and themes would change as the story progressed, but there was one maze type that reappeared throughout the game–the Monster Maze.

In the monster maze a minotaur like creature pursues you as you try to make it towards the exit. For each move you make, the monster can make two, but the monster can only move closer to you, never away. You need to use your wits to outmaneuver the monster and try to lead it into dead ends, to open up an escape route.

Now that the mazes were in place, we could add a story to wrap around them. The mazes served as metaphors for events in Beth’s life, but we also wanted cutscenes in-between. The narrative became Beth’s story of her struggles surrounding her ambitions to become an artist, her father’s death, and facing her own mortality. It was an amalgamation of real life events that both my partner and myself were experiencing.

The core development of Labyrinthine Dreams was done over the course of a few months. Once it was complete, we shared it with our small game dev community, and made some improvements based on their feedback. Then we released the game to the public. I did some research on how to market indie games and began cold emailing a bunch of outlets and submitting the game to any site that had a form. The game got picked up by a few smaller sites, and had some favorable reviews.

Perhaps this small social proof is what motivated me to suggest to my partner we take the game commercial. To do that, we needed a complete graphic overhaul and custom music. I also planned on redesigning some of the puzzles. With no money to spare, we turned to Kickstarter. We asked fo the modest amount of $6,000 to cover all production costs. The Kickstarter kicked off in July of 2013 and ended in August. We barely hit our goal, with the help from family and friends.

The initial release of Labyrinthine Dreams to Kickstarter was only about 3 months. We estimated an additional 3 months to complete the remaining art and finish the commercial release. Not surprisingly, things didn’t go as planned. Next post I’ll go more into the long, painful process of bringing Labyrinthine Dreams to Steam.

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