Design Process - and All Those References

Harold Jam 2022: Dark Universe was a blast from start to finish. Now that submissions and ratings are over I'd like to take a few moments to share thoughts on my design process and also detail some of the hidden (?) references and Easter Eggs throughout.

First off, however, let me say that I had NOT expected to win two of the first-place rankings for this game!

My sights were set on the combat/battles trophy very early in and I was pleased to do well there, but I honestly didn't have an expectation of taking home the gold per se. There were a lot of cool games in this jam with unique mechanics, puzzle-ly fights, and fantastic action sequencing - a ton of substance, hence a ton of competition!

Above and beyond that, I wasn't sure how well the non-linearity of my game's design and the quality of the puzzles would register with players. To me, the exploration captured the feel and vibe of what I wanted, the upgrades, secrets, and branching paths felt satisfying, and the progression seemed solid.

Evidently come ratings time, I had hit the right notes for a lot of other folks as well.

So, how did we get there?

Choices Matter

Followers of my previous jam game Take3Fight3 its spiritual successor Soul Survivor: Trials of the Goddess will recognize that I dig player choice as a mechanic. But, what makes choices meaningful?

This is a tough question... and ultimately not all choices can be meaningful in a game, so my approach was to focus on the choices that mattered most to the story as well as to progression.

Functionally this meant that, while the branching dialog options during cut scenes (before fighting a boss for example) were intended to invoke specific feelings - a decision between Harold's burgeoning darkness and perhaps a bit more of the innocent himbo we know and love - they didn't have an impact on the fight itself. In a non-jam game with a less constrained scope, I absolutely would have made those dialog choices affect how the fight started and what kind of conditions it took place under, but given the nature of the jam there would naturally be compromises.

After the fight is a bit of a different story; from the very beginning of conceptualization I wanted to introduce a way for the player to influence Harold's slide into darkness or his return to the light. Knowing the power of friendship - and its limitations - I thought that each post-combat scene would provide the right opportunity to do so. Would Harold remember the bonds of friendships from the Light World and show mercy, attempting to reconcile with his once-companions, or would he callously strip them of power and continue on his journey towards usurping the mantle of Dark Lord?

It was mission critical to make these choices affect not just the ending, but the gameplay progression.

Course Correction

In my initial concept document, the Light path recruited each defeated boss as a full party member rather than making them available as a Summon. Some players even commented that they expected such a mechanic as it would have been fully intuitive.

I'm glad I went the route I did, as a party would have been a balancing nightmare in this context!

There's some important backstory to present at this point: the game didn't start out as a Brave Turn Battle (BTB) project at all, as I originally had intended to make the battle system Active Time Battle (ATB).

What changed my mind on this? Quite simply: waiting.

With just Harold in the party facing multiple opponents, you spent as much time staring at the ATB bar or waiting for enemy turns as you did actually interacting with the system. And, while that issue would have been largely mitigated by having a group of four members to juggle... what about players that went the Dark route, and stuck to solo-Harold? Would the beginning of the game be so boring that players wouldn't even get to "the good part?" Would the additional pressure of real-time decisions be too much for the average player in a jam project that was already right on the threshold of being overly complex?

The unavoidable conclusion kept coming back to, "No, ATB simply won't do." (for me that's a pretty big concession). I needed to find a solution to the 1-vs-many problem that also didn't break in my theorized end-game.

BTB was a way to offer the player more action economy for their buck, giving Harold multiple turns - but at a cost! - and spicing up single player combat. I had already opted to make Defend a more powerful skill than the usual Guard by providing some HP and MP recovery in addition to the standard TP gain (brief aside: Guard as a solo player is generally pointless unless there are perks besides extra mitigation, since you're losing a turn that could go towards dealing damage, healing, etc.) This tied into the Visustella BTB system very neatly, as Guard skills were the default method to store BP.

It was all coming together! Overspending Brave Points enabled a sort of risk-reward decision tree to aggressive players, while the Defend strategy to accumulate extra BP in order to unleash a safer volley of attacks was also fully supported. Optimally, play styles would strike a balance between the two.

A funny thing happened at this point though: the single-player gameplay was starting to gel, and I began to realize that party members would unavoidably upset that balance too far in the other direction. Could I compensate by only giving Harold Brave Actions? Sure, but that would have felt bad in my opinion. Also, why deprive solo-Harold an opportunity to stare down the Dark Lord in a climactic duel during the final battle?

Thus I resigned myself to only showing Harold + friends as a team during the flashback scenes. All of the boss fights would hence be duels, and the Summon idea took root shortly after that.

References and Fun Stuff

I had a lot of fun with the names of things (enemies, items, skills, etc.) for this game. Many of them obviously reference Zelda, which was a pretty significant design influence in terms of mapping, puzzles, and progression, but some are more obvious than others.

Did you catch all of these?

  • Heel - Harold's default skills in vanilla RM are Spark and Heal. Heel is a play on words, and a devastating support skill which both deals damage and debuffs an opponent.
  • Old man in cave - this twist on the classic Zelda1 intro cave was meant to very clearly show that the Dark World wasn't messing around. Subverting expectations early and often!
  • Dealer - "buy somethin' would ya?" Stolen almost verbatim from OG Zelda. (I added some more to the dialog of course haha)
  • Wandering old man - the randomized clues are intended to parallel how the old men and fortune tellers in Zelda1 would dispense random, sometimes nonsensical, bits of information.
  • Red/Blue/Green medicine - a twist on Zelda's Red and Blue medicines, but instead of stronger/weaker I color coded them to the game's resource types, HP, MP, and AP.
  • Ocarina of Worlds - yeah, flagrantly the Ocarina of Time but with a utility closer to Zelda 1's recorder.
  • Gift of the Waves - just a fancier Zelda1 raft.
  • Crimson Candle - Zelda1 had a red and blue candle. Ironically, while the red candle can be used unlimited times, the Crimson Candle can be used exactly twice.
  • Light Arrows - yup, Silver Arrows from level 9, hence why I stashed them in the final dungeon.
  • Harpy Fountain - the Faerie Fountain and item upgrades are some of my favorite things from LttP (my overall favorite Zelda even over part 1). They were simply re-flavored for the Dark World.
  • Healing Harpy - Also re-flavored for the Dark World.
  • Rock-Ock - Octorock from Zelda1
  • Mobgoblin - a mashup of hobgoblin and Moblin from Zelda1
  • Dark Knuckle - a play on Darknut from Zelda1 and Iron Knuckle from Zelda2
  • Red and Blue Ring - a reference to the Red Ring and Blue Ring from Zelda1
  • Gel - alternate spelling of the slime enemy from Zelda1
  • Blizzrobe - an ice-element reimagining of the Zelda1 Wizrobe
  • Pharos - Gibdos, the mummy from Zelda1, but with the word pharaoh randomly mashed in
  • Skelefos - Stalfos from Zelda1, which happens to be... a skeleton
  • GrImp - a FF1 reference, technically in the NES version it was spelled Gr Imp (two words) but in the randomizer community they're lovingly referred to as "grimps" and I didn't have anything better for this one.
  • Dracomentis - Zelda1's Aquamentis (weak dragon boss), plus the word dragon. Clever, huh?
  • The HP boost was originally a heart container, and the MP boost was originally a Zelda2 style magic potion, but those changed during development.
  • Tiamok - Tiamat (FF1) and Gleeok, the 2/3/4 headed Zelda1 boss.
  • Boots of Mobility - throwback to the Dash Boots from LttP, but increasing map speed was a nightmare so I made them give extra Brave Points and AGI.
  • Eldritch Barrier - a loose reference to Cthulu mythos which was the visual inspiration for Dark Marsha in Nowis' amazing jam art (near as I could tell).
  • Gilt - Gil, but everything is emo in the Dark World.
  • The two Sol Keeper guardians (gargoyles) were a completely random FFV tribute.
  • Tri-Essence - um.... Tri-Force, anyone?
  • The tablet - depending on how far you are in the storyline, the text on the tablet may be incomplete (and the portion you can read is just a Take3 meme).
  • Reid - if you haven't found Reid yet, go find Reid.
  • Leeroy's Gambit - yes I put Leeroy Jenkins in here. This skill is your reward for rushing into battle unprepared. Enjoy.
  • Master of Swords - Master Sword from LttP. Subtle.
  • Keeeeeeey - a bat enemy that wound up on the cutting room floor. Keese from Zelda1 (a bat), but as an annoying onamonapia.
  • Spidula - Skulltula from Ocarina of Time but just a generic spider.
  • Shield of Courage - design kind of looked like a Hylian shield to me, hence the flavor text.
  • the armors were named tunic and vestment because in LttP and later, the armors were all just different Tunic colors.
  • Double Trouble - basically Double Attack or Dual Attack from vanilla RM, but more fun.
  • The basic dungeon structure was supposed to mimic finding the Master Key in LttP in order to face the boss but much simplified.

If you find anything else that seems like a clever reference, let me know so I can pretend it was intentional!

So, that's all for this jam, and I appreciate everyone that played, commented, rated, and supported my game during this time.

It was a ton of fun and I look forward to more Harold nonsense in 2023.

Get A Harold Between Worlds

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