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Communicating complex mechanics without words in RETSNOM

How an indie developer with little knowledge of foreign languages--and no money for translation assistance-- designed a complex and nuanced indie game with an international audience in mind.

"As a South Korean indie developer, the English-speaking audience is absolutely essential," says Somi, creator of the Indie Stream Awards Finalist RETSNOM, "In South Korea, games are treated as harmful, addictive things like drugs. I have to sell my game to foreigners."

The only problem? English was not a language he was all that comfortable with. And RETSNOM was not a simple puzzle game with an easy story to tell. Some friends and connections with a little more English facility could help him translate some onscreen text here and there. But without the funds or connections to do more, he needed to find other means to help the game communicate what he needed it to say.

This meant finding other means to tell the story and communicate gameplay, keeping language to a minimum. It also inevitably meant that some aspects of his initial vision for the game would need to change. "To help players understand, I had to make the game more intuitive." Somi says. 

Letting brief vignettes tell the story, and letting sound create the mood

The original vision for RETSNOM involved multiple gameplay mechanics and a deep storyline, all seamlessly intertwined. "I wanted to make a novel in the form of a game." he says. "I didn't want to make players feel that they are just playing the game. I wanted to make people feel like they are the protagonist and feel his emotions."

Somi believes that elaborate and exhaustive instructions would have ruined this. "There's no tutorials like 'Push the A button to flip the mirror. It can flip 9x9 squares around you.' That's a message unrelated to the story. It makes players just game players," Somi says.

 He needed tutorials that flowed with the game world itself, told within the narrative.

A few short phrases set the story in motion for players, requiring little translating work. Then Somi communicated much of the narrative with vignettes done in the game's pixel art style. Silent characters moving together can only communicate so much, though.

Somi also relied on music to replace text. "It can be one of the languages of a game," he says. The somber tone of the music in the first few chapters captures the protagonist's hopelessness. Other pieces indicate rising spirits, or overwhelming despair. 

Creating visual cues and streamlining mechanics

The story isn't much use if players can't progress through it, which was another great challenge for RETSNOM. The game involved many different puzzle-solving mechanics in each chapter. "In the first world, mirrors can flip left to right. In the second, all flipped blocks fade out because it's raining - rain makes mirrors foggy. In the third world, concave mirrors flip up and down. And so on," Somi says. Things can only be moved a set amount of times as well, or have other properties that the player needs to know to solve each puzzle. 

It's a lot for a player to take in, even if the game had held the player's hand and explained everything in detail. Somi overcame this challenge with colors and schemas. Blocks which flipped one way would change to pink, and the others to blue, and all while the game showed exactly what the player had done. The mechanic was mapped to a single button, so even a player that was goofing around would see just how the game is played.

The colors and grids do represent a compromise of sorts. It's a very game-like visual scheme, but player behavior, and not just the language barrier, necessitated it. "I already knew that my game was really hard, but when I saw testers playing, I felt that the problem was not the difficulty of the puzzles. They were goofing around, pushing the mirror button again and again even though there was no point to it and no more way to go through," Somi says.

Level design was the next step, composing each stage of blocks so that players could easily see the spaces that would move. Somi created his puzzles to lead the eye, hoping that a curious player who was just messing with the functions would see new opportunities. "In the first world, after players understand the left-to-right mechanic, they can make the platforms connect a broken road. Then, players should notice that a spot is not at a reachable height. After that, players should see a spot they can flip while jumping or falling. And so on, and so on."

By drawing the eye, mapping the mirror ability to a single button, and making it easy to see how the mechanic worked, Somi communicated much of the gameplay without saying a single word. Through music, he could convey the story he wanted to tell. He did have to compromise his original vision, but these changes improved gameplay and made it more fluid and comfortable for the player. Overall, creative thinking got him past the language hurdle, making his game accessible for players around the world.

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