This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.
Strange Horticulture, which was nominated for IGF Excellence in Design, is a game of identifying and making clever use of plants to solve a town's woes (and the greater mystery surrounding it). Through finding the right plants, and then giving people the right plant for the job (or the wrong one, depending on where you want the story to go), players will steadily unravel the strange events of this gloomy place.
Game Developer spoke with developer Bad Viking about the plant research that helped inform the identifying process, how they made plant identifying into a more approachable task in their game's world, and how focusing the game around a plant shop shaped the story and character interactions.
Game Developer: Who are you, and what was your role in developing Strange Horticulture?
Rob Donkin: I’m Rob Donkin, one half of Bad Viking. I do the code and my brother, John Donkin, does the art.
What's your background in making games?
Donkin: We’ve been making games for over a decade, starting out in Flash with silly games like Panda: Tactical Sniper and Super Villainy, then moved up to more interesting (but still quite silly!) multiplayer games like Bad Eggs Online. We’ve dabbled in a wide variety of genres over the years!
How did you come up with the concept for Strange Horticulture?
Donkin: We’d been throwing around a few concepts for a while, trying to come up with something narrative-based that was a bit different. We had an idea for a point and click game set in the fictional town of Undermere (an alternate version of Windermere in the Lake District, UK) but it was feeling a bit too generic and we wanted to do something more interesting.
One day I was walking past a noticeboard and saw a flyer for a gardening business and the word ‘horticulture’ stood out to me. I immediately came up with the title of the game and thought it could be a strong theme–Strange Horticulture: where witchcraft meets gardening. John was excited too when I came back and told him about it, so we set about working out what the gameplay would be.
That was one of the hardest parts of the whole development process–going from a very vague idea with potential to a full-fledged game. We already knew that there was going to be a shop called Strange Horticulture and it would be set in the town of Undermere in the Lake District, but it took a lot longer to decide that identifying plants was an interesting enough mechanic in its own right that we could do some different things with. Even then, it wasn’t until we added the map and puzzle elements that we felt we had a strong enough base to start prototyping.
What development tools were used to build your game?
Donkin: We’ve been working in Unity for a while now, so that was the obvious choice. John still likes to use the old Flash software (which is now Adobe Animate) for producing his artwork alongside more traditional tools like Photoshop. It’s a very versatile tool that doesn’t seem to be widely used, but it’s hard to argue with the results he gets out of it!
For most of the animations we used Spine; except for a couple of the more tactile elements such as the page turns and opening and closing the map. For those, we decided they would look best if we did them in 3D. So, John dusted off his Blender skills–a tool that he’s only really dabbled with in the past.
What research went into filling your game with intriguing plants with strange capabilities?
Donkin: We started out looking for real-world inspiration for interesting plants and a book called Breverton’s Complete Herbal quickly became our bible. One of the core sentiments behind the game was this idea that in a pre-science world, anything is possible. Plants can have magical properties–such as Lady’s Mantle which, according to myth, produces dew that can turn metals into gold, or Raskovnik which can unlock or uncover anything that is locked or closed.
Some of the plants we discovered made it into the game in one way or another, like the two I’ve just mentioned, or Eyebright which helps improve eyesight, but we soon decided that we wanted to come up with our own properties and mythologies for our plants, as well as have more control over the look of them so that we could tweak the gameplay as required.
How did you design the plant identification system? What thoughts went into designing the plants and the system in a way that players could quickly learn how to identify plants when they might know very little about doing so?
Donkin: The tricky part about identifying plants in the real world is that there are so many potential plants that it can be hard to know where to start. An aid to plant identification might be full of drawings and details to give you a fighting chance. We wanted aspects of that, but by cutting down the number of plants available, it would be far too simple if our guide gave away too much, so we had to be a bit more creative with what information we gave away.
This also meant that we could keep it interesting for the duration of the game by switching up the features that could be used to pick out a plant. Sometimes the sketch will be the most useful, or even the only detail. Other times, it might be a description such as ‘curled leaves’.
We also wanted to bring other senses in to add more variety, so we added a "closer inspection" tool that allows you to get an idea of what a plant feels or smells like. There’s always some piece of information that will set the plant you’re looking for apart from the others on your shelves, even if sometimes it’s intentionally a little vague.
What ideas went into creating the encyclopedia and clue systems for the player? In giving them just the right amount of hints to figure out their plants?
Donkin: Honestly? There was a lot of trial and error! I’d love to be able to tell you about some elaborate and carefully plotted method we came up with for how to make sure you always got exactly enough information to find the right plant, but we’re not that clever. Our approach was more: Draw a whole bunch of plants, write the book entries and descriptions for them, draw the sketches for them (making sure that there was a good variety of features, including some that wouldn’t help at all), and then throw them all into the game and see how it shakes out.
From there we tweaked, tweaked, and then tweaked some more. "Hey John, can you make the leaves on this plant a little more similar to the leaves on this plant?", or "Hey John, can you change up the sketch for this plant so it shows the flower instead of a leaf?" It was an ongoing process throughout the latter stages of development. And beyond! We’ve just pushed out an update where one of the plants got tweaked slightly. We can’t help ourselves!
Also, it doesn’t help that both John and I are colorblind; we’ve had to change the color or a description for a plant on several occasions when someone has kindly pointed out that "er… those flowers aren’t blue." Whose idea was it for two colorblind people to make a game about identifying colored plants?
What thoughts went into creating the various properties of the plants and their effects? How did these effects influence what players could do in the game? Or how did your gameplay goals affect what the plants could do?
Donkin: As I mentioned, we tried to borrow from the real world at first, but we realized that it was much harder to fit plants with existing properties into situations than it was to come up with situations that might require a plant where we could invent a new property for it. Sometimes we came up with interesting ideas for plants and devised events or even items around them, but more often it was the other way around.
We wanted plants to be the way you interact with the game world. For example, it’s standard practice in adventure games to have locks that require keys. But here, your plants are your items, so when you come up against a locked gate you aren’t looking for a key, you’re looking for Clavilium–a plant that can open any lock. There was very much a mixture of plants that we designed gameplay elements around and gameplay elements that prompted the question: How can we use a plant here?
What ideas went into creating the characters and their problems? Into weaving an overarching story into the personal issues of multiple characters? Into weaving plants into the NPC solutions and story navigation?
Donkin: We came up with the idea fairly early on that each of the main characters would be defined by a role, such as the Investigator, or the Occult Scholar, but what those roles were and who those characters would be took longer. We took a ‘world-building first’ approach to the narrative, choosing to invent different factions and world elements before focusing on the individual characters and working out how they related to each other.
Weaving those characters into the gameplay was undoubtedly one of the bigger challenges we faced during development for the simple reason that every time someone visits your shop, they need a reason for doing so. We couldn’t have people just coming in for a chat to help the story along, so we had to work in plant requirements amongst the story – all while keeping the dialogue as succinct as possible to avoid lengthy, drawn-out encounters and trying to make sure the plant requirement didn’t feel contrived.
We also wanted to add a bit more player agency, so we decided that we would add special events where you could make a decision about which plant to use. It all became a bit difficult to keep track of and I couldn’t find any software that seemed particularly helpful, so I ended up building a simple tool to help map out what was going on in the game. It definitely made it a lot easier to visualize the route through the game and helped us arrange all the character visits, what plants went where, and when to give out the different rewards.
What thoughts went into designing the city of Undermere and how the player explores it and the surrounding area?
Donkin: We got dragged up the Lake District fells in the cold and wet on family holidays when we were kids but it’s only in adulthood that we’ve come to appreciate the sheer beauty of the place. It's fair to say it left a lifelong impression on us, and it seemed the ideal location to set our game in. Undermere is a fictional town in that world, but we didn’t have to let our imaginations wander too far to imagine what it might feel like.
We wanted the world to have a very specific feel to it. This is a fantasy world that has magic, but it’s not wizards waving wands around, nor is it orcs and goblins. It’s a plant world, so naturally much of the lore we added to the game revolves around plants. There are various factions you will encounter, such as the Sisterhood who worship the goddess Arduinna, Guardian of the Forest, or the Draer, a group of hunters afflicted by telltale green eyes owing to an addiction to the Dranthium plant.
Exploring that world is all done via a map that is broken up into grid squares. We took some inspiration here from a board game called Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective which presents the player with a map and has some clues about locations to visit. We had actually already taken this idea further in a board game idea of our own (that we never did quite finish fully) so we had already laid the groundwork when we realized it would work perfectly with Strange Horticulture.
This game, an IGF 2022 finalist, is featured as part of the IGF Awards ceremony, taking place at the Game Developers Conference on Wednesday, March 23 (with a simultaneous broadcast on GDC Twitch).