by Sina Gorski
by Sina Gorski
Whoever has a favorite video game character probably has formed an emotional attachment. So how come that so many games feature animals, but rarely does anyone proclaim them as their favorite character? After all dogs (or cats depending on taste) are better than people, right? It sounds like the combination would make sense:
Take an animal, give them something meaningful to do, so the player interacts with them and tadaaa: twice the amount of emotional attachment and a more popular character.
But for some reason it rarely works that way.
This central question drove the development behind Mátki, a twin stick hack and slay, which focuses on the connection between the player and animal companion.
Why people rarely have deep emotional connections to animals in action-focused video games became the central question and obstacle throughout the entire development for us: five bachelor students from Animation & Game at Hochschule Darmstadt in 2018.
Part of the development team were:
In addition, sounds and music were provided by Ole Ohlendorf, Boris Hofmann, Simon Haase and Gabriel Arlauskas.
Like in every new project more questions popped up than could be answered at first. Why do we rarely cry over lost companion animal ins games? Or even remember their names? Does it even make sense to increase the emotional attachment? And if yes: how?
And how do you design a game for which you have no references in the span of four months with only five people?
The trick is lots of research and a solid concept.
First of all, you can’t give meaningful answers to questions without solid background information and second, a team needs a plan on how to reach a goal, even if you don’t know whether it will work out in the end.
So, based on those two universally acknowledged truths, we started to research cultures around the world, which are famous for their close relationships with animals. Not only did their ways of life inform us why human-animal-connections are important to people in the first place, but they also provided an appropriate reference for our game.
Based on the results we decided to model our game setting after the Sami People of Scandinavia, who live with and depend on reindeers.
Research: Check. What about the concept?
To define the vision for the project and subsequently the goal we would work towards, the entire month of October 2018 was dedicated to concept development.
We set ourselves the goal to develop for PC with controller, focus gameplay and story entirely on the emotional attachment, to liveblog the entire thing and to somehow each write an individual thesis and research paper at the same time.
Sounds like a walk in the park, doesn’t it? :D
Let’s start off with the story for context.
The short version is that Ravna and Varis meet, are chained together by magic and have to fight their way up a monster-infested mountain to save a human settlement. They also become friends along the way.
Audiences tend to connect better to characters who have agency, meaning, hopes, fears and something that stands in their way. So our animal companion got more attention during the concept phase and by the end we had a solid plan.
Varis the magical and highly intelligent reindeer grows up in a herd with normal reindeer. Frustrated that he can’t really talk to his herd, but can’t really communicate with humans either. This frustration peaks during bad experiences with his handler and he decides to leave for another village only to discover, after a long and dangerous track down the mountain, that they don’t want him either and then get’s stuck with a young Sami girl named Ravna to top it all off.
Then we found a problem. It’s well and good to have traits in a character but how do you COMMUNICATE that? Human characters, can just talk about their experiences, but how do you convey this nonverbally with an animal character? With the exception of Trico from The Last Guardian references were scarce and so was time and resources. Varis had the personality of an old man grumbling into his beard at the beginning of the game, so even if we had had a way to recreate the range of expression of reindeer Sven from Frozen (Disney) he would have most likely scowled the entire time anyway. So facial expression was not an option.
The solutions we came up with were cutscenes, sounds and scripted events.
Small scripted events in which Ravna talks to Varis gave us the opportunity to convey information about Varis and his feelings through either Ravnas comments themselves or Varis’ reaction to them. Those events were placed at save points, which in our setting are represented as small camps, so the player would have the time to focus on subtle things like reactions.
Varis would react through sound or, since he is intelligent enough to understand humans, through drawing figures and symbols on the ground with his hoof to get his point across.
The physical position of both characters also grows closer over the course of the game as they become more emotionally connected. We intended to include simple animation like head tilts during as well, but sadly had to cut them due to time.
So far for the story plan. Next is Gameplay.
We knew that gameplay in itself would be the trickiest part, since useful references for our ideas were even scarcer in existing games than for story.
The idea was that both player characters would be bound together by a spell for the entirety of the game, and therefore forced to cooperate during fights against the monsters.
This magic bond formed the basis for gameplay and the subsequent development, but made it hard to reference other games.
The advantage this approach brought though, was that it forces the player to use both characters equally and give them equal attention. When humans and animals fight together in games, usually the entire focus is on the human, while the animal is driven by an A.I.
By giving both equal value during gameplay we theorized that it would increase the attention the player would give the animal and this way strengthen the bond. After all you are more likely to have a positive connection to a valuable team member on other team-based games too.
This basic core loop positioned us somewhere between the twin-stick and Hack & Slay genre. The latter usually provides a range of attacks the player can choose from and combine. So, during November 2018 the team’s Game Designer Simon Meckel and Programmer Marian Brinkmann worked together to develop four attacks specifically for the unique playstyle the magic bond required. Since we decided early on during development that our controls were designed for controller it made sense to limit the abilities to four.
Those abilities could then be separately assigned to both character, which gave players the freedom to combine two of those four abilities at any time and to switch between them whenever they wished.
Especially unintended mechanics were discovered through combination.
For some abilities to work Ravna and Varis have to wrap the magic bond around rune stones, which can be found all across the map. The player also has the option to draw Ravna and Varis close together by pressing in both sticks, if the distance between them becomes too far. This combined with the simple damage ability of the bond resulted in the player tactic of wrapping around a runestone, activating the attack and the drawing Ravna and Varis together. Since they can’t get dragged through the stone they instead circle around it and deal damage to everything that touches the bond along the way.
The feedback from play tests told us that yes, the mechanic was indeed enjoyable and not only this, but they spawned the local multiplayer version of the game. Two students at one point decided to split Ravna and Varis so that each of them would play one character.
On the same controller!
The result was two full grown men glued side by side, bickering their entire way up the mountain over who was responsible for which attack. They gave very positive feedback.
While the feedback for the project and thesis itself was overwhelmingly positive within the University setting, this did not necessarily mean that players from outside would think the same. Or would they?
Lucky for us, we got the opportunity to display the prototype at three different exhibitions after it’s completion.
Feedback collected by players from three exhibitions allows for a far bigger sample size, than we could have ever found inside the University only.
One exhibition was hosted by Hochschule Darmstadt, but was open for visitors from outside. Another was the GameZone at the International Festival of Animated Film in Stuttgart 2019 and the last exhibition we visited were the German Dev Days 2019 in Frankfurt a.M.
Here is a small impression of the German Dev Days.
The overwhelming majority of players reported they had fun while playing the game and remembered Varis especially fondly. We even met people on more than one occasion or heard phrases like “The game with the boy and his deer.”, which despite not quite hitting the mark told us, that Ravna and Varis left a memorable impression.
One team member had already left temporarily, before the exhibitions started and after they were over the team said goodbye to Ramona and Marian, as they left to pursue other career goals.
Since there are plans to develop Mátki further in the future the rest of us then decided to welcome Paul Nasdalack on board, who is mildly put a programming wizard.
From then on out the remaining team members founded the studio, whose website you are currently on!
We as a team and studio are currently building up the infrastructure and pipeline to tackle Mátki with the love and time it deserves. The whole project and concept needs some revision and development in various parts. Since the very tight time frame during our bachelor thesis forced us to make some decisions rather quickly, we want to rework parts of the concept before we push the prototype into full production.
As soon as we pick up the development of Mátki with full force again, we’ll let you know through this website and the Mátki Social Media accounts. So stay tuned!