THIS SYSTEM: DIARY
Play the game here
What is a flat game?
To explain this, here is an excerpt from 2016's Flat Game Jam on itch (https://itch.io/jam/flatgame-annual-2016
"Create works where you only control/play with movement of pieces around the screen (the player or anything else) and no further interaction, or even collisions. As little scripting as possible except movement and animation. Flat games are focused on presenting a game as the most raw and immediate combination of movement, art and sound. Place text onto the world to give characters dialogue, monologue and story."
It's a tool with an active and growing community, with hundreds of games being made ranging from short personal stories to exploration of intricate fantasy worlds, and everything in between.
What is flatpack?
A tool by "Mark Wonnacott
to create flat games (https://candle.itch.io/flatpack
I'd had an idea for a flatpack game floating around my head for a week or two. Something about cycles in nature, and using photos of natural objects and processes to represent this. I also wanted to think about parallels that these have with thought processes and paths that we take. I like the poetry of representing something like a problem feeling easier to deal with over time as rocks breaking down gradually into sand, or, maybe the opposite – rock becoming more and more cemented together, as some issue builds up until you can't move.
I think I centered around ideas like this at first. Feelings of being stuck, uncertain, and change over time. I knew that I wanted a web of images - it needed to loop around smoothly so you could move through on any path and direction, with a central point that connected everything.
The journey from Bristol (where I live) to Felixstowe, Suffolk (where my parents live) is around 5-6 hours by train/coach, which is a lot of time to sit and think. I began to sketch out the game as a map, which went through several iterations while I tried to figure out what I wanted to say. I drew rough locations and arrows first, to make sure the flow made sense, and wrote in the first few phrases. The three main locations I chose (forest, rocks/ground, beach) made it easy to think about the initial key points of the map (creativity/community, stability vs instability, transition/change), though some of the areas in between were a little harder to work out.
I started reading along potential paths through the web and found that a lot of them didn't sound quite right, so I wrote them out as verses next. This made it pretty clear where the problems were, although the looping of the text still made it a bit confusing to work with! I think it came out OK though. There are parts I'm really happy with, and others that I'm still not sure convey what I really wanted, but that's fine.
Interestingly, as I worked more on it I shifted away from the somewhat negative feelings I started with, and moved towards the positives of being involved in a creative community and of giving space and time to myself. I even tried to shoehorn some negative stuff back in there but it didn't feel right. I keep wondering if it's the positivity I feel in the act of creating something that changed the tone and focus of the game into a celebration of creativity.
First day at Felixstowe and I got up at 7am with the aim of going swimming every morning (I managed 3 out of 5 days, so that's not too bad!). After leaving the pool I went to the beach with my phone and my notebook, excited to create some of the first images. The very first one I made was the central image with the title of the game, as it seemed like a pretty sensible starting point. I tried to ward off fears of passers-by wondering what the hell I was doing, but after the first couple of images came out really well I got into it enough that I forgot about that.
One of my favourite moments of that morning was standing and waiting for a wave to come close enough to the words 'an uncertain route' that it would look like it was about to wash it away, without ACTUALLY washing it away (which happened several times). There was definitely something nice about the content of the images being dependent on the processes I was trying to metaphorise.
I left feeling pretty mentally and physically tired, feeling like I had a lot more to do, but happy. After spending the morning with my parents I went off to the next location in the afternoon. It's a beach/shrubby area accessible by (a car if you drive for about 40 minutes, or) a tiny ferry that takes 5 minutes to cross the river Deben. This is where I took most of the foresty images in the top-left area of the game. On my way there I felt a little uninspired, still tired from the morning, but as soon as I started I got excited again, and it turned into probably my favourite location of the game.
The words I wrote were more challenging than the beach as I had to actually find objects to make them, rather than just drawing them in the sand. If I hadn't started looking around for a variety of materials though, I might not have noticed the seeds on this tree that look like eyes, and made this dude!
I once again had the anxiety of people walking past, and was preparing myself for what I'd say if they asked what I was doing. 'An art project' was the best I got, but luckily no-one asked. Maybe I wouldn't have asked the girl arranging leaves on the ground what she was doing either (except I totally would).
I'd just about exhausted words I could make with leaves, and had the phrase 'among this energy' to go. There was an amazing tree next to me with a central plateau of branches crying out to me to put grass-words on them, so I did that. And I learned how difficult it is to make grass-words on an uneven bark surface and an occasional light breeze, so that one took around 30 minutes to get right (I also ran out of space at the end of 'energy' and had to find a stand-in piece of bark to balance underneath).
Generally, I removed all the words once I'd taken photos of them, but I left the 'A space for creation' phrase where it was when I left. I thought out of all of them it might be a nice one for someone else to find.
On Tuesday morning, I joined my parents for breakfast in a small cafe next to Felixstowe port. It's a pretty amazing place, with huge blue cranes (50Ft? 100Ft? After a point it seems to stop mattering how tall they are) and container ships with thousands of crates on board. We went for a walk along a heath and onto the sea wall leading to the beach, it's quite a desolate area in a beautiful way. We stopped by the edge of one of the walls, and I could hear the waves crashing onto it so clearly. It occurred to me at that point that flatpack allows a background audio track and that I should make use of that, so I used a voice recorder on my phone to record the sound of the waves.
My parents left for their own walk and I stayed at the beach to take more photos. I made a lot of the pebbly/seaweed photos towards the bottom of the game here. My favourite part of this location was the 'How do I move forward' image. I knew I wanted it to be up against one of the sea walls, as a dead end, but I'd done enough pebble pictures along the beach by that point. I walked back towards the sea wall and picked up all the seaweed I could see along the way to create the words. The next difficulty came in actually taking the photo – I definitely wasn't tall enough to fit it all into the frame. I climbed up onto the wall – which had the best interior (I think it used to be some kind of pier/walkway?) in order to angle the phone down onto the words.
In the afternoon I wanted to stay closer to home, so I went into my parents' vegetable patch (being super careful not to tread in the wrong place...) to see what I could do. This is where I made lots of the central/bottom-left images. It was pretty rainy that afternoon, and for most of them I had to hunch over my phone so stop it getting too wet, and eventually it got to a point where I was so soaked that I had to leave and go back the next day. I managed to take get some rain recordings on the way too though.
By this point, I had a mixture of feelings. I was feeling pretty drained and out of ideas on the one hand (I'd taken maybe 100 photos by this point), but also really excited and motivated that the end was in sight.
I had one image left to take at the beach, which was the sand castle (if you can call it that – the bucket was Tupperware and the spade was a kitchen spoon). My initial thought was “I'll build it near the sea, and then the moat will get filled with water naturally”. Childhood taught me nothing. My first attempt was quickly washed away and I moved back a few metres to a safer spot. With my 'sand-castle' imaged I went back and headed into the vegetable patch again to take the last few photos for the game. I recorded some more audio, mainly birds that I could hear nearby, and some rustling leaves.
The web image was my favourite of the day, mainly because of how difficult it was to get right (and I'm still not sure how readable it is). I was pretty happy that I managed to get anything at all from it though!
I finished rotating, sizing and moving all the images in the flatpack editor that evening.
I just had the audio to go now, so copied over all my recordings on to my laptop to try and make some kind of background track in Audacity (which I've used maybe once before). It was a lot easier than I thought - I think the only functions I made use of were to move tracks left and right, and to fade them in/out. It's not the best track in the world, but I think it fits the game!
I had an 'actual' holiday!
I'm on the coach traveling back now, and writing this blog post. In a way that feels quite circular in itself. Maybe on the next journey I'll start the cycle again and make something new.