What's it like to run through a field of tall grass as a wolf? To burrow through soft dirt as a wombat or float through the air like a jittery hummingbird? Animals are often a small element in video games, set up as sidekicks, low-level enemies, and ambient NPCs. Rarely do we get to take steps as one of Earth's other species for the majority of a virtual adventure.
That's not a mistake, we're humans after all. Designing animals to be as distinct as their real life counterparts while making them easy to control is a difficult feat. Lost Ember, developed by Mooneye Studios and launching later this year on Steam, Xbox One, PS4, and Nintendo Switch, puts the player in the paws and claws of several animals over the course of a third-person explorative adventure. That gave the development team the unique challenge of making every creature both unique and accessible with their control scheme.
"I can’t even remember how often we changed the control schemes for different animals," Mooneye Studio CEO and Lost Ember programmer Tobias Graff told Gamasutra. "We wanted to make every animal feel a bit unique and capture their character, while at the same time try to make the control schemes as similar as possible to avoid having to completely readjust every time you switch to another animal."
A game of animals inspired by a game of automobiles
Development on Lost Ember began when Graff and his team decided they wanted to make a game with an animal as the main character. The only issue was that they couldn't decide on the animal. "I was playing Driver: San Francisco, though," Graff said. "And although you wouldn’t really think of a racing game when you think about Lost Ember, they have this mechanic of switching into other cars, which gave the whole genre a very interesting spin, I felt. So we took this idea and decided to give it a go with different animals."
"The first prototype we developed with this was just quickly thrown together in a day and featured a wolf, a bird and a mole," he added. "And even though the controls and looks and everything else were obviously very basic, it immediately felt so fun to just roam around the world and whenever there’s a huge boulder blocking your way, just switch into a nearby mole, dig under it, pop out again and in the next second fly over a huge lake as a bird. It just had a really unique feel to it that we knew right there we had found our game."
Lost Ember lets you play as all sorts of creatures including a wolf, wombat, hummingbird, mountain goat, different kinds of fish and birds, and other critters in linear and open areas where you explore a story based on a past life. In order to deliver a streamlined experience, Graff knew that the controls between each animal couldn't be too different.
"We tried to keep the basic controls the same between all animals. So going forward is always going forward and it doesn’t become flying up or down, for example," Graff said. "We had that in a very early version of the game and saw that a lot of players just keep holding all the buttons they’re holding when transitioning from one animal to another, so when they were running forwards as a wolf and transitioning to a parrot, they would immediately dive downwards."
Graff and his team looked at button inputs that were commonly used by players during testing for an early version of the game and tried to correct transitions that caused problems. In doing so it made a lot of the unique animal characters feel more similar to each other, taking out a bit of appeal of jumping between a wolf and a wombat.
This was especially the case with Lost Ember's flying characters: a parrot, hummingbird, and duck. Attempts to help establish a seamless transition between all three made the animals lose what made them special.
"Flying is always a bit tricky to do with a gamepad. Should pushing forward on the thumbstick fly up or down or just forwards and height is controlled with other buttons?" he said. "Our initial systems for these animals were different. While the parrot would fly up and down with the thumbstick and control speed with the trigger buttons, the hummingbird felt much more 'hummingbird-y' when you just dash forward with the thumbstick and control the height with the trigger buttons."
In the end, Graff and his team settled for more subtle differences that still highlight how the birds were different. "Eventually we landed on controlling height with the trigger buttons for all animals," he said. "Just making it a bit quicker and more direct for the hummingbird, so it feels hectic and fast, and way smoother for the parrot so it feels more like gliding over the landscape."
Varied control schemes for varied animals
Graff and his team found that making those subtle changes was a way to maintain the overall vibe they wanted to convey in Lost Ember while presenting each animal with an adjusted control scheme. Animals who have different ways of traversal already feel distinctive, the adjustments to things like flying, swimming, and crouching were there so you don't nosedive underwater after switching from being a wolf and ruin a quiet, emotional moment.
"A wombat that’s only running around on land can’t be controlled exactly the same as a hummingbird. But we try to keep everything we can keep the same the same or similar and maintain the 'feel' of the action you’re doing if at all possible on the same buttons," Graff said. "So moving down as a fish is the same as crouching as a wolf, for example. It’s not exactly going down, but it is a downwards movement that feels as it is doing a similar thing."
While Mooneye Studios wants to capture a similar feeling that games like Journey, Flower, and Abzu inspired in players, the team also took inspiration from Okami, Shelter, and AER: Memories of Old. Those three feature a wolf, a badger, and a bird in different segments. Mooneye Studios is hoping to have found a way to make them all work together.