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Creating the horrific but creepily comforting atmosphere of Dap

"Very distorted textures make a player feel more uneasy than a smooth surface, and at the same time, it looks a lot more natural while still being very low res pixel art."

Dap asks players to lead a group of tiny, fragile creatures through a corrupted forest, seeking the source of the malicious forces that now make their homes in the leaves. However, those same forces are working to hurt and pollute your band of little friends, so what risks are you willing to take with their lives to purge this awful force?

Game Developer sat down with the team at Melting Parrot, developers of Dap, to learn more about what drew them to create a collection of tiny beings for the player to care for, how they created the corrupted look of the game’s forest environments, and how the Australia bushfires would reshape some elements of the game.

What was the inspiration for Dap and its mixture of horror and Pikmin?

Dap started off as a project for us to learn game development. We created simple mechanics which we changed over and over until it was something we were both happy with. There were elements that we were more sure of than others - it being a horror game was one sure thing.

As for Pikmin, we actually never played it, but people seemed to compare its mechanics to Dap because of the many little companions. We wanted to create something that was horrific, but also atmospheric and invited people to simply exist in its environment. This was combined with sections of hectic combat to present challenge and to convey a sense of being overwhelmed, but still being able to use the powers of the Daps.

What thoughts went into the world's visual design? What drew you to this look? What did you want to evoke in the player with it?

The visual design evolved through trying to bring the feeling of being in a deep forest, but displayed in the top-down perspective. A lot of assets were derived from trying to copy plant life, but experimenting with pixel art and processing it over and over until it had a digital look to it.

These patterns and textures made the art look unique and could support the horrific feeling a bit. Very distorted textures make a player feel more uneasy than a smooth surface, and at the same time, it looks a lot more natural while still being very low res pixel art. Early in DAP’s development, there were a lot more cyber elements to the art, but it morphed more and more into natural-looking environments.

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What ideas went into the visual design of the Daps (the game’s creatures) themselves? What did you want this look to make the player feel? Can you walk us through some of the process of their design?

Dap was originally a take on a possible “playable character” early on in development. Then, Paul went on to copy and paste the sprite all over the room and suggested you should be able to talk to them! This made us realize that Dap felt kind of creepy, but cute at the same time.

There were also mechanics we played around with in the beginning that involved growing little beings and feeding them to make them bigger. We combined this with the Daps and made them grow from flower seeds. We developed a whole life cycle for Daps, how they grow and evolve, and what they can turn into in their lives. We wanted players to feel like part of a natural cycle whilst feeling a little attached to the creatures, but not so much that they couldn’t let them go easily. We also have some deep metaphors for the life and purpose of Daps which we don’t want to reveal.

What went into the designs of the monsters and in creating beasts that were hazy, but still exuded menace?

A lot of the monster designs were created with the limitation of a low res top-down isometric game. The sprites are simple, but come to life through their sounds. These sounds are what make them feel threatening and evoke the player’s emotions towards them. We developed most of the enemies by giving them a way of “birth”, a process in which Daps are twisted in a certain way to produce each enemy.

So, in a way, all creatures in the game are Daps in different forms and life stages. The most obvious is the corrupted Daps, but there are others which come from pods. These are Daps which have been reshaped or been ensnared by plants, which in turn creates a new creature from them.

What ideas went into designing the game's combat system and involving all of the little Daps that work together with the player?

Much earlier on in development, our playable Dap character actually had guns and bombs :-). In the summer of 2018/2019, Australia was ravaged by bushfires, and smoke covered Melbourne. This lead to us realizing that guns do not fit this game’s world at all. So, instead of guns, we added stealth. You could hide in grass from enemies, and turn on lights to scare them off. After a while, we realized this wasn’t that much fun, and so we added in an attack spell.

From there, it was about how we could utilize the Daps more in the gameplay. We had a whole range of abilities like ‘Dap shield’ and ‘Dap shockwave’, but these didn’t make the cut. The most immediately fun was ‘Dap charge’, so we left it in. The other abilities you get (don’t want to spoil it) are a similar story. The next one you get after charge, was added in very recently. It’s our favorite one!

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How did you decide how the group would move and react to player movement in the game? What thoughts went into this?

Considering that we learned programming while making this game, the Dap movements were, at first, a lot of trial and error of what worked and felt natural. We didn’t want them to hold the player back in any way or feel irritating in any way. Nobody likes AI that constantly reminds you of how little it has in common with a real companion. So, we went for the most simple, but still natural-feeling way of movement and let them react instantly to interactable objects close to the player. They feel alive through their constant chattering among themselves and through their seemingly instinctive reactions to switches and other interactables.

What ideas went into creating monsters for this loose group to fight and into creating interesting challenges for an ever-moving group of characters as opposed to a single player avatar?

First and foremost, we wanted something full on and aggressive to keep the player on edge. Some enemies dart and zig-zag, making them a threat to you and your Daps, whilst others shoot from afar, and others just go right at you. Although, in actuality, the enemies mostly just go for you, inadvertently your Daps get caught in the crossfire. Some enemies have area of effect attacks which are the most threatening to your Daps.

The little Daps are at risk of infection if they stay in some environments for too long. What drew you to make the pack able to turn on itself? What do you feel this added to the game?

One of our development pillars was ‘always go for horror’, and having your own kind turn against you in front of your eyes definitely served this ideal. We feel this adds an element of tension whenever you see and hear the corruption spores, and it keeps you moving and alert. It also fits into the narrative: what exactly is the corruption, and what can you, as a Dap, do about it?

What interested you in exploring the conflicting needs of protecting your group of Daps, but also having to take risks with them in order to survive? In having players deal with these clashing emotions?

It just seemed to be an interesting gameplay conceit: the more Daps you have, the more powerful you are, but the more at-risk you are from them being corrupted. You feel protective over your Daps, but you also need to progress in the game. This notion of taking risks with them is more intense later in the game, and players will either revel in it or be quite disturbed.

The protective feeling for your Daps gets shaken in many ways, and it’s part of the game to let go of the attachment while still trying to “save” as many as you can. Overall, though, we want people to have fun with it and not take it too seriously.

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