What secrets would an abandoned Animal Crossing village leave behind?
On the GameDev Breakdown podcast, Todd Mitchell checks in with friends and close industry contacts, then they work together to try to dream up–and actually build–a video game.
When I set out to switch up the format on GameDev Breakdown, I never thought the game co-design concept would leave me feeling this conflicted. The very first episode we produced left me with a video game pitch I could easily spend the next couple of years on.
Listeners who’ve followed the podcast for a while will remember my first guest co-designer, Sebastian Deken, as the writer of Final Fantasy VI from Boss Fight Books. He’s a musician from my native St. Louis, Missouri where he studied music and French literature at nearby Washington University (“Wash U” to locals). He now lives in New York City where he’s writing, playing games, and crafting highly entertaining Tweets. Our brief catch-up touched on how his book is doing, life in New York, and the early stages of a research-heavy book project from his husband, pop culture journalist Brett White.
We opened our design session with an agreement to look beyond typical combat games and explored non-combat mechanics that we enjoyed. Collecting and cataloging came up early, but when you consider recently successful non-weapon mechanics like photography, farming, crafting, and driving, non-combat games may be the most popular they’ve ever been.
We also discussed an admiration for games that didn’t shy away from the topic of depression—not just games that feature a character overcoming it, but game worlds that don’t promise simple problems and satisfying outcomes.
The session was not without silly premises. For some reason, we agreed to mostly abandon the human race pretty early (eventually we sort of vilified it) and looked for ways to feature heroes like animals, skeletons, and even plants. If you’ve never heard Sebastian describe his idea for a bee RPG, that’s enough reason to listen to this episode alone. The idea was so unique, I told him he should save it for a serious future attempt. This led to a discussion of mechanics like basic survival for animals, bones collecting other bones (still not sure how we hoped to explain this, but we were weirdly confident about it at the time), and plants getting strong and collecting everything they need to thrive. Admittedly, it’s difficult to justify a pitch that close to “grass growing.”
Eventually we landed on a pivotal question: have there been any good archaeology games? Sebastian pointed out Dig Dug (fair enough), but we quickly agreed this was a weirdly underdeveloped topic in games. Nearly every question we asked after this brought us closer to our killer idea.
What would the player do in an archaeology game? Could an animal be an archaeologist? What would they be looking for?
Finally, we asked the questions we couldn’t let go: what if an animal archaeologist wanted to uncover the secrets of an abandoned village like the ones found in Animal Crossing? What would happen long after a human leaves such a place behind? How would the story be told? This seemed to set the table for a heartbreaking story about a peaceful animal village that saw a mysterious human arrive one day (the player of a game long past). This human connected with the villagers, shook things up (for better or worse), and when he had his fill, he simply vanished forever. We celebrated a successful design session and called it a day.
Told you we weren’t afraid of tragedy.
We decided to try to create this experience using retro-style pixel art in the Godot engine. While it will be difficult to approximate anything resembling a finished product, we hope to get a dialogue system in place, inventory use, and some kind of dig site operations to give the basic feel of the game.
From here, we’ll put in at least a couple of weeks seeing what we can do with the concept. I’m likely to put out a progress episode about developing the basic mechanics. We might follow it up with another show about putting together the actual content for the game. Finally, it would be a shame if we didn’t conclude the series with a look at what we finally created.
You can follow the progress here at CodeWritePlay and subscribe to GameDev breakdown to catch future podcast episodes. Our social links are at the top of the page. Big thanks to Sebastian Deken for sitting in for the experimental first series!
Todd Mitchell is a US Midwest-based comedy writer and game developer with bylines at Weekly Humorist, Fanbyte, Slackjaw, End of the Bench Sports, and more. He’s the author of Inside Video Game Creation, the founder of CodeWritePlay, and host of the GameDev Breakdown podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mechatodzilla.