Three years of Adventure Jam. Part one: Awake
Game jams are a magical thing. You get together with friends both old and new and create a video game in a very short timespan. In a way, jams are microcosms. While the jam is going your priorities are shifted, your whole life seems to circle around this tiny little game you are creating – and when the jam is over, what remains is usually a barely playable prototype, deep rings under your eyes and a huge pile of new experiences, lessons learned and treasured moments.
Adventure Jam is a special game jam in many ways. It runs for two weeks, enabling developers to create games that feel a lot more complete and finished than jam games usually are. It’s also a very open jam because there is no theme – creators are free to work on anything they like, as long as it relates to the genre of adventure games in any way. And adventure games can be pretty much anything. But the most special thing about Adventure Jam is its community. While it is technically a competition, the jam feels more like a celebration of good old adventure games and everybody is united by their deep appreciation of the genre.
I have participated in this jam for the past three years, creating three games: Awake, One Of Us and The Ransom. My experiences creating these games were super different and valuable and I’ll share my key takeaways for each in this three-part series – starting with Awake, which we created for Adventure Jam 2016.
Forming the team and concept
During Adventure Jam 2016 I was part of Storyyeller Games, which I co-founded in 2015. At the time, we had been working on an adventure game for quite some time (which would later become Clockworld) and we decided to participate in the jam as a team, both to spend some time away from our main project and to test out if we had what it takes to create an adventure game with our current setup, which was two 2D artists, one programmer, and one musician. We set out to create Awake, a point and click adventure where you play Marc, a man who is stuck in a time loop while he is trying to escape a killer on a camping trip in the woods with his girlfriend Caroline.
During the brainstorming phase, we quickly got the idea for the time loop, the story, and item combinations. We knew that we had to be smart about the concept, maximizing the effectiveness and minimizing the number of assets we’d need to create. We decided on the time loop mechanic because that would allow us to reuse the same environments and objects over and over again. Plus the idea of the blowfish was born, a running gag we would later include in other games as well. The game design quickly got together and we had a very good dynamic of brainstorming ideas as a group which resulted in a pretty cohesive concept.
In retrospective, it was nice to go into the jam with an existing team. In 2017 and 2018 I participated in the jam with newly formed teams, which came with a new set of challenges. Even though the jam went very well, I decided to leave Storyyeller Games just a few weeks after the jam.
The actual development of the game went by very smoothly with very few hiccups along the way – which is remarkable considering how many things we were doing for the very first time. We started the two weeks rather relaxed, spending the first days on the game concept and meeting to eat ice cream instead of hastily working on the game content. This resulted in a bit more stressful days as the deadline came closer, but overall the jam went without major complications.
Of course, some days were very busy and stressful, resulting in some tense moments and conflicts for some of us. But even if some of those moments were tough at the time I think that we walked away from them as better people and as a better team. For most of us this was the very first game development experience, so we had never done things like animating characters, playtesting puzzle designs, implementing voice over, designing game UI or writing game dialogue before. We figured it all out along the way. Obviously, we also never had voice actors record dialogue for us before – but we were super lucky that the Voice Acting Power Squad agreed to record the lines for Awake for free while streaming the process on twitch. I will never forget how we all went online at 3 am (due to the time difference) to watch the stream live.
We finished the game in time for the deadline with pretty much everything in place – except for the music, which I failed to implement properly during the time constraint. This is a lesson I had to learn for future projects: in addition to designing and programming the game, I also need to allocate a lot of time to put all the assets into the game that the others had produced. And when everybody works up until the deadline, some assets can get lost in the mix and some unexpected little things can cost you a lot of time. For example, we only figured out the file names for all the voice over files a few hours before the deadline, so Nico had to cut and rename more than 200 audio files under time pressure. Thus, we only ever played the game with voice over minutes before the jam ended. But still, looking back at the game it’s remarkable what we got done in that timespan. We even had stuff like achievements and analytics, tracking the player’s progress through the game.
Reception and takeaways
Another first for all of us were let’s play videos. Let’s plays are just awesome and I watched all of them at least once. Having people freak out when they first see the killer or having that ‘aha’-moment when they figure out the time loop was worth all the time and effort we put into the game. The same goes for reading what people think about the game in comments or seeing the game appear in articles from websites all around the world. While the whole jam was full of awesome moments and experiences for me, watching let’s play videos of the game has to be my favorite part of them all.
The game design was not without its problems. The player would be abducted by the killer with a tranquilizer gun after a set period of time. However; scripting this event in a way that would not break the game was a challenge. Players would frequently be tranquilized while dialogue was playing or the fall animation would look out of place depending on where the event was triggered. Some players were very confused about what could cause the event to happen and created the wildest theories, avoiding specific areas or items on the map. Additionally, at first we didn’t think that players would just hide in the camper for a very long time. We later added that the killer can tranquilize Marc even if he is inside the camper.
Additionally, the puzzle design had some issues. As it is customary in many adventure games, players would collect all the items they could find – meaning that they often were able to solve some puzzles earlier than we had expected. We tried to limit the number of items players could carry but this just felt artificial and frustrating to the players. Ideally, we would’ve loved to find a solution that made the players think about the items they take with them when they get abducted.
The game was released and received pretty positive reviews, we were voted 6th best game overall and even received one of the Judge’s Pick Awards by Joseph Humphrey. I would meet Joseph two years later during GDC and was super excited that he very specifically remembered the game (better than I did myself) and thought that we could’ve turned Awake into a bigger commercial project. It’s moments like these when I am reassured that I want to create video games for the rest of my life.
All in all creating Awake was an awesome experience. Looking back, what we created feels special to me in many ways. Since I was doing many things for the first time, the list of things that I learned is very long. I learned how to complete and release a game, how to write and integrate game dialogue and voiceover, how to design and test puzzles, how to manage a small team, that I could create small art stuff myself (e.g. I created some animations for the main character) and that it’s sometimes better to take a step back and listen to the ideas of your teammates rather than insisting on being right. First and foremost, I learned that our team had the potential to create games that make the players feel something and can be quite well-received.
Needless to say that I returned to Adventure Jam for the following years, but the next games never quite reached the bar that Awake had set up.