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Game Concept: Deep Winter

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INTRODUCTION

By way of a primer for what follows herein, I should mention that I have my own well developed sense of game design philosophy, part of which is a predilection for games incorporating explorable environments.

This is because I like a sense of space and freedom of movement, albeit within the constraints of a 2D game world; Colony was and remains my personal archetype for this, so it may not come as any surprise to find the genesis of another game, Deep Winter, lies with Colony.

Specifically, when revisiting my old Colony graphics, I had the idea of totally overhauling the colours to add some snow cover to the mountains, just to freshen it all up a bit.

(Experimentation like this is normal in game development or, for that matter, in most kinds of visually orientated software creation).

The results of the my early efforts - performed via photo-editing a screen capture of one of my 1995 Colony demos - were ugly and uninspiring, as you can see in the example (non-CRT output) shown below:

Ugly experimentation with Colony's look
Not a Pretty Sight


Undeterred by that, I continued to dabble, the aim being not so much to create a new Colony landscape, but to see where the exercise would lead me creatively.

So, I hammered away at the design, working on the basis that whatever I was doing, it would absolutely have to have none of the Multi-Colour Mode blockiness so synonymous with the tired and worn-to-death stippling* that has been a motif of the Commodore 64 since the legacy era.

(* Yes, I am aware that the term stippling in a C64 context is nowadays more commonly supplanted by dithering, but back in the 1980s and early 1990s, the latter term was never or seldom used in the C64 scene and so I defer to the traditional nomenclature here).

Silkworm cameo
Stippling is so 1980s...


In other words, it would have to use hi-res mode or more likely, Extended Colour Mode (known by some coders as Extended Background Mode) to ensure the availability of the non-standard colours that form a bedrock element of the luma-driven graphics model I harp on about.

EARLY GAME DIRECTION

As my artistic juices turned from a trickle into a torrent, new non-Colony game ideas began to crystallise in my mind.

At or around that time I was musing on Graham Axten's commercial release, The Bear Essentials, released to a frisson of excitement and acclaim.

So naturally, I began to imagine how the basic animal-getting-ready-for-hibernation premise might be elaborated on.

Merging that thought with the increasingly wintry and mountainous looking landscape materialising on-screen before my eyes, I thought of doing something around a bird migrating south for winter.

Gripping stuff, I know!

That turned into a duck flying south and being fired at by aggressive hunters, swooped at angry eagles, that sort of thing.

It was okay-ish, if something of a pastiche of already well-trodden sideways-scrolling games, but I could sense the style of the game characters wouldn't readily mesh with the more realistic landscape, thus violating a fundamental rule of any half decent design theory: there must be no clash of styles.

But then something clicked, a lightbulb moment, when I was thinking about the duck being shot at.

Make it about human - not avian - survival!

TAKING CUES FROM LIFE, CINEMA & 3D GAMING

I have been fascinated by the concept of survivalism and struggle against the elements for years, an interest solidified by many long hikes in the low mountains of Northern Ireland where I come from, but also by my recent two year sojourn in the forests of Latvia where I lived with my wife and kids.

Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland
Mourne Mountains, great for a winter hike!

It should come as no surprise, therefore, to learn that I also like movies with survivalist or wilderness themes; the one that has had the most direct impact on my vision for this new game was Mark Wahlberg's Shooter (trailer below).

Setting aside the broader storyline, I was attracted to the concept of a skilled operator living in remote isolation in a high mountain environment in the Rocky Mountains, and saw immediate and obvious similarities between that and the pretty picture I taking shape on my graphics software.

Another film I have drawn cues from for the game would be Liam Neeson's The Grey.

Meanwhile, I had also been harbouring a long curiosity about the PC survivalist game, The Long Dark by Hinterland.

There are two obvious things that have to be highlighted at this juncture:

  1. The C64 just can't deliver a remotely acceptable immersive 3D gaming environment; its technical limitations prevent that.
  2. I personally hate 3D games, making the previous point moot.


Notwithstanding those points, I knew the C64 would be capable - with the right design concept and execution - of delivering an engaging, feature-rich 2D survivalist game of a similar vein to The Long Dark.

PROTOTYPE GAME ENVIRONMENT 1: THE HIGH RIDGE

In short order, I had prototype concept mock-ups of the game screens ready and even went so far as to design a provisional cover for the game manual, along with other substantial materials.

The images below show the advanced stage concept design work, specifically factored for real world CRT output on PAL machines but revealed here in non-CRT format (hence the dots and alternating colour lines).

(Further on I reveal the VIC-II implementation schema aka how it fits in with the ECM mode and the interrupt engine).

In other words, this has been designed to look blended, with subtle hue transitions on the real machine using a real CRT output (or correctly configured emulator), with not a dot or stripe in sight!

(On that note, I am well aware that almost nobody uses CRT-style output in YouTube videos or screenshots, preferring instead the flat, solid state output possible with newer screen tech. However, I design for the old school output used in the real world back in the day and accordingly eschew the somewhat NTSC-looking output so prevalent today as it won't make my games look colour-blended).

For more detail on my graphics design methodologies, see my Luma-Driven Graphics article.

Deep Winter mockup 1
Despair outside the cabin


Deep Winter mockup 2
Whiteout blizzard


Deep Winter mockup 3
After fresh snowfall

Some salient points:

  • As described, the backdrop was designed primarily for ECM mode, in full knowledge of its 64 char limitation (as opposed to the 256 char variations available in hi-res and MCM modes).
  • The foreground rocks, objects, cabin, the main character, etc., are to be rendered by multiplexed sprites.
  • Yes, I drew heavily on The Long Dark for the look of the foreground rock strata and the cabin.
  • The landscape is to move with a parallaxed scrolling motion, rather than a flip-screen effect; this is 2019, after all.
  • The blizzard scenes would entail a novel snowfield effect using a technique which, to the best of my knowledge, has never been seen before in a C64 game - assuming I can make it work!

GAMEPLAY

Whereas Parallaxian is being designed as a manic, high-paced wreck-athon, this is to be a much more cerebral experience.

In short, it's a survival-in-the-wild-during-an-unfolding-but-mysterious worldwide disaster, with the following essential features:

  • The player's objective is to survive each day whilst dealing with hunger, thirst, sickness, the weather, wild animals and other survivors in the mountains.
  • Alliances can be made with other preppers, although not everyone can be trusted.
  • The backstory crisis impacts on the game, particularly on how some characters will seek to interact with the player.
  • There is the added component, therefore, of trying to work out what on earth has happened and how to deal with it.
  • The player may leave the high ground and investigate valleys and dark forests.
  • I am keen to include a very cool sniper aspect to the game.


So what we have here is a role-playing game with a mystery resolution element too.

That means special consideration must be given to how the player can interact with the environment.

Hence the more fully configured layout shown below:

Deep Winter icon schema
Open borders = space for icons!


In addition to walking, climbing, etc., the player would be able to trigger special actions or alter the character's mode (for want of a better term) by selecting the appropriate icon.

For example, the fourth icon across in the above image represents a snare for trapping small animals like hares and a yoyo fishing reel (illegal in many places, but hey, this is about survival!)

The player can deploy one of these devices if this icon is selected in a forest or beside a stream.

Note that the icons shown in the concept artwork above are not definitive; I anticipate many more to be added.

The player would also be able to enter buildings, use communications equipment, etc. and collect items for future use.

Meanwhile, the player's health steadily deteriorates without food, rest, water, sleep and shelter, so a continual balance of fundamental needs must be found.

THE NAME OF THE GAME

Yes, I know the game's tagline says "...survival is the name of the game" - see the draft game manual cover below:

Deep Winter manual
I just want to play this right now!!!


But the game itself needs a title and I only ever wanted it to be the first of the following:

  • Deep Winter... A euphonically stylistic nod to The Long Dark, yes, but also a succinct and brutal representation of what the game is all about.
  • Grand Teton... I must confess, this was never meant to be the game's real name; I just chose it as an on-topic codename for the game which seems to have caught the imagination of some people; named in honour of... yes, you guessed it, the Grand Teton National Park in the Rocky Mountains. Go figure.
  • Whiteout... Fine but for the fact the game isn't always going to feature snowfall!
  • High Country... Too Clint Eastwood for my liking - not that I dislike Clint's westerns.
  • Blizzard Ridge... Again, sounds too wild west to me.
  • Spindrift... Not bad, but evokes snowsports, not survival.


Unless, therefore I am prevailed upon by popular demand to use of the Grand Teton moniker, this game shall henceforward be referenced as Deep Winter.

(PS: Apologies if, as happened to me, the heading of this section triggered an irritating old ABBA song playing in your subconscious).

LET'S GET TECHNICAL

If you're a coder / designer and want to know more about how this can be made to work, read on!

Here's the provisional raster interrupt schema (sans open upper and lower borders, but they would be added in the actual game):

Deep Winter raster interrrupt schema
Deep Winter's Provisional Raster Schema


Go to the top of the class if you noticed a single MCM layer in there.

That's admissible for that screen strata since it aids the overall look without imparting MCM-esque blockiness.

As with Colony, Deep Winter is being planned around an NMI-based raster interrupt game engine to avoid bad line tearing aka judder effects, you know, the small but still annoying flickering that raster-based C64 games in the legacy era were plagued with.

I am also planning on attempting an IRQ-based (i.e. the "standard" interrupt on the C64) effect sequencer that runs independently of the NMI, although at this stage I can't promise it will work as intended!

Also note, the most distant mountains will require a full colour scroll - that means the colour ROM has to move with the char data, an effect already being used in Colony's foreground layer via a RAM-hungry but lightning fast unrolled loop routine.

Meanwhile, the foreground boulders, buildings, etc., are all to be rendered via multiplexed sprites.

And if you look really carefully at the chequerboard overlay, you'll see that each square contains only two colours - that's how it has to be with ECM, but as I said previously, the whole idea of using ECM is to obtain the finest resolution possible without the greater colour limitations of hi-res mode.

ACOUSTICS

I'm not a huge fan of in-game music generally speaking, but for this game an exception has to be made if it enhances the mood.

I'm thinking of something foreboding and tense, yet not ostentatious or loud.

In other words, a filtered, atmospheric piece.

But I would also like to allow room for some sound effects; a personal favourite of mine is the waterfall sound from Creatures, which increases in volume as you approach it.

EXTRAS

Regardless of whether this game ends up being funded via Kickstarter or not, I have some very ambitious extras planned for it.

In my opinion - bearing in mind my opinion of it may (or may not) be a tad inflated - the extras planned are pretty sensational from both a player's and a collector's point of view.

Obviously, that begs the question, what do I have in mind?

Alas, I can't yet disclose that because it's too early to divulge such sensitive intellectual property, lest someone else liberate the idea ahead of me.

But really, I am very optimistic about these add-ons and believe they're something that hasn't been done before with a Commodore 64 game.

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