There’s a Pablo Picasso sculpture (or rather, a piece of found-object art) called Bull’s Head that is basically a pair of bicycle handlebars welded onto a bicycle seat. It’s easy to recognize what it represents — you can quickly make out the shape of the head and the horns — but it’s also easy to pick out the discrete parts that make up the whole. Picasso described it as an idea that came to him. All he did was weld the two parts together.
Ideas are like that. They don’t come from a vacuum, and they certainly don’t materialize without any outside influences.
Our team here at Popsicle Games has been working on and off on a title called Darkest Nightmare for the past few months, and it’s beginning to take shape both as a game, and as a snapshot of a particular kind of mood and attitude that we want to project. In this article, I’m going to discuss some of the things that we ended up welding together to build the ideas behind Darkest Nightmare.
Darkest Nightmare is a dark fantasy/horror-themed action game played from a first-person perspective. The player, as the sole survivor of a massacre in a secluded magical academy, will explore dungeons, graveyards, caves, and other dark and dangerous places in order to glean the knowledge required to rebuild the academy and fight back against the demonic forces that now threaten the wider world.
Combat consists of drawing patterns on a hexagram layout in order to cast spells to attack and defeat the player’s monstrous opponents. Quick, accurate movements are the key, as an incorrect input may be the difference between survival and a horrible death.
But that wasn’t always so! Darkest Nightmare began as a quick game development exercise done by Vonn, our lead developer — a first-person combat game with placeholder backgrounds and assets from Mighty Alpha Droid, and a system largely inspired by the spellcasting from Skyrim. The original test build was fairly complex, with an aiming system that required players to drag the wizard’s hand to properly aim at the target before tapping to cast a spell. The mechanic got distilled down to a tap-to-shoot system that required no active aiming after we all sat down to discuss the game and how our intended target audience would want to play it.
This happened sometime in November, because I had just finished playing through Google’s Halloween 2016 Doodle, Magic Cat Academy. I immediately pitched a shift to drawing patterns instead of tapping to cast spells, and this was well received by the team. Martin likened this to a mobile game called Magic Touch, which was pretty much spot on.
Things started taking shape from there. We experimented with two-handed casting to emulate Skyrim, but eventually settled on just a single pattern input in order to simplify the gameplay. This was also the time that we shifted from a landscape to a portrait orientation to allow for one-handed play.
The casting mechanic went through a number of changes as well. We started with something very similar to Magic Touch, with horizontal swipes, vertical swipes, and diagonal swipes. I really wanted to be able to use simple shapes like “/\” or “\/”, and to spare ourselves the additional development time required to program an accurate Graffiti-like interface into the game, we came up with a grid system instead: a square made up of eight dots arranged in a 3 by 3 grid with the middle dot missing. Spell patterns could be formed by playing connect-the-dots within the grid.
Martin took this a step further by proposing an alternate layout for the grid: a hexagon based on a system in the Nintendo DS game Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow. It played right into the theme of the game, and it let all the dots fit into a nice, harmonious circle. We settled on this new design quickly.
We’ve already cited several titles that have influenced the gameplay of Darkest Nightmare, but there was a different collection of ideas brewing alongside the game mechanics. How did Darkest Nightmare’s dark fantasy horror theme come together?
Back in mid-2016, Erick suggested that we develop a sequel for Darkest Light because it was garnering some attention through its presentation and theme. The first ever mental image I had for the sequel was a long hallway inside a modern home, with one side lined by several windows, and the other side a plaster wall with paintings hanging from it. Lightning poured through the windows, creating a rhythm of light and dark that spanned the space that the player would have to cross.
Darkest Light 2 seemed like it was a go — until I got back to playing Dark Souls on PC in a big way. Dark Souls naturally led into its PS4-exclusive successor Bloodborne, and I was mesmerized by the sum it created out of gothic architecture, Victorian horror tropes, and Lovecraftian cosmic deities.
When Vonn pitched his game experimental game as “magician-themed”, I was still walking around with Dark Souls and Bloodborne in the brain. I kept the monochrome presentation of Darkest Light, but everything else I poured into the theme was basically horror-themed Dungeons and Dragons.
The theme shifted to castles and demons and a magical academy, incorporating elements from Harry Potter, D&D, the indie game Darkest Dungeon, and a childhood’s worth of devouring tons of fantasy and horror novels. The little boy from Darkest Light became a female wizard, and I named her Gerde after one of the supporting characters in the Gabriel Knight series of PC adventure games. We will cover the visual development of Gerde and her world in a separate article.
Ultimately, it was Dark Souls and Bloodborne that influenced the theme and the setting strongest. I’ve even begun writing descriptions for the spells and items, although that might prove to be a more challenging undertaking than I initially imagined.
Darkest Nightmare is still a work in progress, and it still has a long way to go. It started as a simple aim-and-shoot game, but we’ve since created a world to contain it, and a resource-management meta game to support it. We can talk about these things in more detail in the future. In the meantime, I hope that you found this a useful account of how different concepts or objects can be combined and mentally toyed with to form a new game idea.