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How Skookum Arts built The Pedestrian puzzles out of urban signage

"In the public sign system, everything is specifically designed to be understood," explains The Pedestrian dev Daniel Lackey. "That design language, that art style fit perfectly with our priorities."

Game Developer, Staff

March 23, 2020

11 Min Read

Envisioning and executing a refreshing premise in the saturated genre of puzzle games is a rare feat. Even more ambitious is trying to do that with your debut game, as a trio of homeschooled teenagers from Ohio.

If you’re yet to play Skookum Arts’ The Pedestrian, it’s a node-based puzzler where you play as a symbolic depiction of a person, the kind we see every day when we stop at traffic lights or spot civic signage.

By making connections between the public sign system, you follow the protagonist on a grand adventure through an urban environment as the hum of society persists around you.

It’s a game without dialogue, tutorials or even a formal menu screen, a brain-teasing cinematic short with a rousing jazz score. It’s also been in development for the better part of a decade.

Homeschooled homebrew

“I think homeschoolers have an affinity for entertaining themselves, and creating their own stuff,” artist and designer Daniel Lackey tells me. “We’ve always been motivated to not only consume things - we wanted to be creators.” 

Lackey tells me how 2012’s  Indie Game: The Movie inspired him to embark on the project alongside his brother Jed Lackey, the lead programmer and Joe Hornsby, who worked part-time on the game’s design. After pulling together a vertical slice, the trio took to Kickstarter in January 2017, raising ~$30,000 with a polished 20-minute demo. 

But the genesis of the project started years before that defining moment. Skookum Arts split up and worked on a few prototypes including a multiplayer shooter and a wilderness survival game, before Daniel created a curious mobile game. “It was going to be a 2D endless runner where you had to make it to the bathroom before you wet your pants,” says Lackey. 

The team thought that the survival game would be their big score, but as Lackey started asking the rest of the team to add features to his incontinence project, the game shifted into many different forms, from a Super Meat Boy-esque platformer to a stealth game. Yet it was only when the team grafted in a level editor that the premise quite literally fell into place.

“As we were making levels, I found that I was having more fun in the level editor than I was playing the game,” Lackey tells me. “We have all these different pieces that we’re connecting together to make the doors link up - why not make that part of the game loop?” The team introduced the mechanic, and even before they decided on a 3D play space they had found their fun factor. 

“It’s an intuitive thing that people are used to - if you’ve ever used computers at all you’ll be familiar with node-based systems, it’s just connecting dots,” Lackey explains. “We learned a lesson there. A lot of times, you don’t have a good vision for something, you just stumble your way into good ideas.” 

Real world research for an in-game aesthetic

The Pedestrian’s urban signage aesthetic then became complimentary to the mechanic and an earnest devotion to what they call ‘clean gameplay’ - they didn’t want to use text or tutorials to impede on the HUD-less experience.

“In the public sign system, everything is specifically designed to be understood from every language and seen from far away as you’re moving quickly,” Lackey tells me. “That design language, that art style fit perfectly with our priorities.”

The trio were further inspired by games like Myst and The Witness and how they passively teach the player how to proceed. “It’s about encouraging you to experiment without holding your hand,” Lackey tells me. 

Despite none of the team having any proficiency in 3D, Lackey picked up Blender and started embarking on research trips to the inner city in order to shape the game’s urban world.

“Unfortunately, we live in Ohio, kind of out in the country, so there’s not much to research for cities! There’s a few towns I went to and took a lot of photos," Lackey says. "I got up really close looking at piping and gutters - I probably looked like a real weirdo.” 

In absence of a major city to study, Lackey tells me that he spent his time in Google Street View looking at Chicago’s infrastructure. “I’d just spend hours looking at corners of buildings and studying the architecture, like where they actually place street signs, where they put streetlights, you know. I would even measure like, how wide is a standard sidewalk?!”

This focus on the minutiae of city planning gave focus to the world’s design for Lackey, who realized how serious the measurements were to everyday life - how cars, buildings and sidewalks adhere to strict rules to ensure the flow of a city.

The double-edged sword of feature creep

Like many ambitious debuts, The Pedestrian quickly fell prey to feature creep during development. “Man, we still have two huge whiteboards here in our office, and they’re just full of stuff that we never did. It’s kind of anxiety inducing,” Lackey tells me. “Anytime I watch a Let’s Play of our game I see nothing but the things that could have been in… but I think that’s normal, and you just kind of have to accept it."

The team found that approaching the long development cycle of The Pedestrian with a ‘wouldn’t it be cool if’ mentality was unhealthy, but Lackey admits that feature creep is what made their game. "The game was just going to be a boring 2D side scroller… we just kept exploring different ideas and by giving ourselves the time to experiment it made the game so much better.” 

A snag came later in the project when external playtesting led many players to flag the initial iteration of one of the game’s later mechanics as too tricky to understand, leading Skookum Arts to redesign it from chalk safe zones to paint pumps that lock nodes into place with more visual stimuli. Now with a deeper understanding of its systems, Lackey tells me he feels confident that they could remake the whole thing from scratch in a year. 

Using detail to nurture an immersive experience

One of the finer bits of detail that helps sell the hands-off experience of The Pedestrian is the inclusion of televisions as pause screens, each one situated in believable spots in the scene the player is observing to ensure they’re never dragged out of the whimsy of the narrative.

The team developed this approach with what they call progression objects, items added to every puzzle hub that the player returns to. In the subway hub there are bites taken out of an apple every time you return to imply that there’s a world still humming along beyond what the player perceives. This was crucial for Lackey and his team in order to get away from the static nature of most puzzle games, where the world stops for the player.

“We’ve always agreed that anytime you have a loading screen or a startup menu it takes  you out of the game and suddenly you’re playing it and not living in the world,” Lackey explains. “It’s a weird psychological thing but as soon as you start adding GUIs and option menus as overlays, you’re just viewing it.”

Similarly, the team decided that the game would shut down after the completion of the story to make it feel theatrical. “Now that the credits are up, you can walk out of the theater,” Lackey tells me. 

An orchestral, jazzy score from Logan Hayes serves this vision. Lackey tells me that he went back and forth over a period of years to create the genre fusion, with weekly check-ins and much inspiration from composers like Danny Elfman and Jerry Goldsmith. 

Learning to maintain productivity

Now that The Pedestrian has been released, Lackey and his team feel like they’ve realized more about what not to do in game development.

“Developers are notorious for not taking care of themselves and practically living at the studio, working, you know, 70-80 hour game weeks,” Lackey explains. “Yet that’s what we did through the whole production of this game. We didn’t expect that at all. When we met our composer we were telling people the game would be done by the end of the year - that was four years ago”

Lackey tells me how the team had unrealistic expectations and deadlines that they kept missing the mark on, leading to a vicious cycle. It was a GDC talk from Jason Rohrer about maintaining productivity that started to change things for them.

“He talks about how the career of indie developers is akin to an author, because you work for years in solitude, then put it out into the world and see what happens” Lackey tells me.

This led Lackey to read interviews concerning the British author Roald Dahl about how he would only spend four hours a day writing in focused stints in the shed in his backyard. This led Lackey’s team to experiment with that style and it revolutionized their productivity. They worked more than four hours a day, but by setting discrete boundaries their productivity spiked. 

Yet spending six years emotionally invested in one project caused problems for the team. “You have these amazing games where you hear stories about how the developers worked long and hard and just invested their life into it, but that’s very dangerous - you can hurt yourself emotionally. We were starting to care too much and there was too much at stake.”

The next two paragraphs contain spoilers for the finale of The Pedestrian

Lackey tells me one of his greatest regrets is listening to peers who were against implementing the game’s ending, which sees the symbolic protagonist escape his 2D confines and flip to first-person, as they inhabit the body of a human to solve physical representations of the game’s puzzles with real objects.

It’s a mind-bending twist evocative of the ending of Portal that demands to be seen, but the team delayed working on it until late in the project. Despite it being a clear highlight for players, the team wanted it to feel more impactful, akin to an M Night Shyamalan movie. 

“We just ran out of time. And it’s funny because, we say that but it’s not like we have producers breathing down our neck, telling us we’re running out of money,” Lackey tells me. “We were just feeling extremely burnt out and put our foot down - we decided that this grand finale mechanic is so awesome, we have to treat it like a teaser trailer for what’s to come.” 

Postpartum depression 

With all the effort The Pedestrian required, Lackey describes this period after the game’s release as something akin to postpartum depression.

“You’ve visualized yourself completing the game and you’re so excited about it, and you think about how you’ll be much more happy and things will be better,” Lackey tells me. “But honestly? Nothing feels different. Other than the amazing compliments we’ve gotten to encourage us that this was worth our time.”

To fight off the ennui, Daniel and his brother Jed started prototyping their next project a week after The Pedestrian launched. “I think in a strange way, it’s healthy for us - it keeps your mind off checking Reddit and Twitter and looking at stats.”

As for the future of The Pedestrian, the team are averse to DLC due to the one-off nature of the game, but the potential for a sequel is not lost on them.

“We don’t want to leave The Pedestrian behind, but we are definitely burnt out on the title, so we’ll be taking a break as soon as it’s been ported to consoles," Lackey says. "It’ll be on the PS4, Switch and possibly Xbox as well.”

The team are taking a break from the game to work on something else for their own sake, though the idea of a sequel is not out of the question. They express concern about pivoting too hard from puzzle games given the fanbase that they’ve built, but realize the focus should be on making what they enjoy first. 

“I’m happy we did it, but I’m glad it’s over because it was not always easy or fun,” Lackey says of The Pedestrian. “But I’m proud to be part of the puzzle genre - one that is very near and dear to our hearts.”

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