The Gamasutra Deep Dives are an ongoing series with the goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game, in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren't really that simple at all.
Check out earlier installments, including building an adaptive tech tree in Dawn of Man, achieving seamless branching in Watch Dogs 2’s Invasion of Privacy missions, creating the intricate level design of Dishonored 2's Clockwork Mansion, and making a cozy, therapeutic experience in Coffee Talk.
Who: Brave at Night
Hello! We are Alina Cebula and Rafal Bryks, and we are running a small indie game studio called Brave at Night (braveatnight.co.uk). The two of us are the main force behind the development of our debut game, but we are also working with three other contractors who are responsible for sound, music, and copy-editing.
Yes, Your Grace is our first title and it was released just a few weeks ago!
What: Creating tension on a limited budget
Yes, Your Grace is a narrative-driven management game set in a medieval world. The game tells a story of Eryk, the king of Davern, who is desperately trying to keep his kingdom from falling apart.
Yes, Your Grace is a narrative driven resource management game. Take a role of King Eryk, rule your people, prepare for war and take care of your Royal Family.
Our deep dive is going to discuss two key moments of the game – the two battles. We will discuss what went into the design of the most important, tense moments of the game without actually having to show much. In other words, how to get creative and not have to give up on your epic storyline!
Without spoiling the game too much, the game, at some point, leads you to a battle with your enemies, and then another battle that ends the game. We will call them ‘Battle One’ and ‘Battle Two’. The idea we have had for the battles was very demanding, but our resources were very limited. We wanted to show an epic battle, monsters, archers, and sword fighting. It was meant to convey a narrative filled with meaningful choices that would affect whether you can defeat the enemy. All of this needed to be shown in a 2D pixel art style, and we had to do it twice.
To manage the workload, we wanted to avoid having to create long animations and cutscenes, but at the same time, we wanted the battles to feel very important and tense. On top of all of this, the second battle was meant to be tougher and more advanced than the first one so the player feels their progress and sees that the difficulty has increased.
So, how did we do it?
Looking at how the battles are now in the game, it seems like the solutions were very simple and straightforward – some dialogue options, some interactions and minimal animations - but a lot of thought went into designing them.
- First thing we did was a lot of research into medieval battles and strategies. Since the game is set in a fantasy setting, we did put a little twist to everything, but the base is very grounded in real medieval scenarios. This gave the battles a feeling of authenticity.
- Making sure the player knows that the battles are important was our priority. We have designed a lot of the game around the battles as opposed to designing the battles to fit the game. We have introduced resources the player needed to gather to win the battles. We have presented the player with difficult decisions and tasks they needed to complete in order to gain those resources. This preparation was crucial to make the player invested in the battle before it even began.
- To keep the two battles majorly different from one another, we decided to have them play out in two different locations. This allowed us to re-use a lot of the battle mechanics without them getting boring but also introduce new interesting features.
- Making a battle sequence without having to animate hundreds of soldiers was difficult, but we simply removed the character from the scene and had him direct the battle from afar (or visually obstructed perspective, like the castle wall). We used the same tactic for both of the battles, and this was the biggest decision that saved us a lot of time.
This is where the Battle One takes place. You’re watching everything from afar. You can talk to the various units that you have gathered and each of them will give you a small hint and insight on the current situation. Based on their clues, you can decide who to send out next!
- We didn’t want the battles to include only dialogues that the player needed to click through. We needed the battles to be as tense as they could be, and to help with that, we divided the battles into multiple sequences. As a player, you have to quickly respond to each event by making decisions and interacting with objects in the scene. This added a feeling of rush and danger because we told the player they needed to perform these actions as quickly as possible.
- To help each event be meaningful, we added simple animations of what is happening. However, because the army was very far from where the king was, it meant that the armies were only a few pixels big. This was very limiting, but ultimately, moving these pixels around helped the players imagine what was happening on the battlefield.
- One very important thing we prioritized throughout the battles was good dialogue. We have spent the most time writing emotional, tense dialogue that each make the player feel like they are about to lose. We also made sure that the main character often commented on how he was dealing with the situation. Also, since the game is a point and click adventure game at its core, we added a lot of contextual flavor to all the hotspots in the scene. These served as hints on what the player should be doing next, and also helped to build on the current situation.
- To wrap all of these things together, we added detailed sound effects (this was done by our amazing sound designer, Damion Sheppard). This made everything click together, and all of a sudden, every interaction or a piece of animation (however big or small) felt much more responsive and significant, which was very important to us.
Result: A multi-layered success story
Battle Two took time over various Day and Night sequences, building on the familiar mechanics from the first serious encounter.
In our very short and packed timeline, we initially blocked out three weeks to design and implement the two battles, but in the end, it took an additional two weeks of polishing and adding extra dialogue. At the beginning, we didn’t think that it was possible to have epic battles if you can only see them from afar, but we have learned that you can tell an interesting narrative without being on the battlefield and add tension using timed dialogue, sound, music and good, contextual dialogue writing.
The biggest thing to learn from this deep dive is that even a big, spectacular event can be broken down into smaller parts, and be achievable with limited resources. Sometimes all you have to do is to change the perspective.