Auraline

created for the 72 hour Ludum Dare 26 Game Jam for the theme minimalism.

Of 736 entries, it scored

Julian Ceipek - Game/Level Design, Visual Art, Game Programming, Narration

Charles Goddard - Oculus Rift Integration, Music, Audio Programming

See the entry | Read the design overview | Rift version: Mac Windows

Design Overview

The theme for LD 26 was "minimalism," which other entrants interpreted in a variety of ways, ranging from minimalist art and lifestyles to reductions in size or complexity.

With Auraline, our base concept was to explore minimalism in terms of dimensions. Edwin A. Abbot’s Flatland served as our primary inspiration:

Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which straight Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it, very much like shadows—only hard with luminous edges

Virtual Reality (Oculus Rift)

We thought the experience would be particularly compelling through virtual reality; we wanted players to feel as if they had entered a different world. We also enjoyed the irony of a virtual reality headset, the pinnacle of 3d visualization, being used to enhance player’s experience of an essentially 2d environment. However, we didn’t want to limit our audience to owners of virtual reality headsets.

Core Mechanics

Viewing an environment from a radically different perspective is complicated enough without a complex mechanic to go along with it. We decided to limit what the player can do to moving around the space of the world. The arrow-key based control scheme in Auraline is the simplest one we could think of to facilitate looking around and moving while remaining compatible with the way the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset allows players to look around the world naturally, by turning their heads. The key idea here is the concept of natural mappings discussed by designers like Norman and Cooper.

Music

One of the early discussions we had about the direction of the game revolved around the notion of dolphin vocalizations, which represent different objects and activities based on the shape of sounds. We planned to teach the player about the nature of different sounds using that idea as an inspiration for gameplay.

Neither Charles nor I had ever created an audio-based game before, but we both thought that Ludum Dare would be a low-risk way to experiment with the genre. Although I have little experience with music, Charles does, and he owns lots of string instruments and recording equipment. We also had access to the "Jam Room" at Olin College of Engineering, which has lots of keyboards and drum sets.

In line with the theme of minimalism, we wanted the feeling of the music to be emotionally pure and to accompany and guide the player through the world of Auraline.

Each entity in Auraline has a unique sound style and personality associated with it, and we used Unity’s 3D sound features to impart directionality, allowing the player to discover which things to avoid or follow.

Narration

The voice overs in Auraline were heavily inspired by two of my favorite games: Myst and Bastion. Auraline starts and ends with voiceovers directed at the player, much like the narration by Atrus in Myst. I made these with the intent of building a bond between the narrator and the player and to encourage the idea that you and he have a mutual secret. At the same time, I really respect the idea of player agency and hate when games take control away from the player for the sake of narrative. To that end, the narration in Auraline has reactive elements. Some voiceovers can be interrupted or occur only in response to what the player does or experiences.

Level Design

WARNING: With regard to spoilers, this is the point of no return. If you haven’t played Auraline yet, reading the next section will ruin the experience for you.

The level design in Auraline was heavily inspired by talks on game design by Jonathan Blow and Edmund McMillen.

Opening

The opening of Auraline is all about setting the mood and introducing the controls. The starting voiceover reveals the mystery of Auraline‘s world. Then a set of glowing arrow keys appears on the screen. The only way to proceed from there is to press one of the directional buttons, which ensures that the player understands which keys to use.

Level 0-2

These levels are all about understanding the objective of the game: to get towards the glowing exit. I derived this concept from a psychological game design technique discussed here: “Players are going to want to go towards the light, as opposed to the dark. That’s hardwired into us as human beings, because we don’t want to get eaten by the bad thing in the dark, and so we’re going to go where it’s light out and we can see.” At the same time, these levels teach the player about the nature of space in Auraline and how to navigate it using sound.

The first level is about heading towards the goal, the second is about turning to face it, and the third level is about following music around corners if the objective is not visible when simply turning.

Level 3-7

These levels are about continuing to explore the nature of space, music, and a new type of entity first seen in level 3. Just like the goal, the entity has a unique sound associated with it. However, this sound is dark and ominous; players need to avoid it in order to proceed. Level 4 reintroduces the concept of corners in the presence of a moving malignant being behind the player and level 5 reinforces that notion with a more complex level layout. After seeing lots levels with enemies, I wanted to give players a break from the tension of avoiding things by making a level exclusively about following sounds in a complex environment. Level 6 does this really well. By the time players complete it, they should have a much greater familiarity with navigating based mostly on sound cues. The level also defies the maze solving technique in which one simply follows a wall. Level 7 is the culmination of the malignant presence explored in the previous levels. It introduces the idea that there can be more than one enemy in a level. In order to keep the focus on the tension of the multiple enemies, the layout for level 7 is otherwise identical to level 6 except for the player’s initial orientation.

The enemies that appear in level 7 never appear again in Auraline, partly due to time constraints but also because of human psychology. As anyone who consumes horror media knows, the more one learns about terrifying things, the less terrifying they become.

Level 8

Level 8 is a break from the intensity of the last level that builds on the psychological tension of the last encounter. The level mirrors the very first level but is slightly larger. I wanted players to wonder "is this place safe?"

Level 9

This level introduces a new malignant entity that has the potential to be much more intimidating than the previous enemies the player has encountered. Unfortunately, we did not have time to continue exploring it in more complex situations within the 72 hours of LD 26.

Lessons from Playtesting

One of the most important parts of making Auraline was extensive playtesting, which I neglected during my last LD. The following are some of the key lessons we learned from playtesting.

Level Completion

The initial version of Auraline didn’t have a completion sound during level transitions. Without this subtle element, most playtesters did not realize that a level was over once they entered the glowing goal.

Death

Players were really confused about what happened when they touched malignant entities. Adding a closing/opening blind animation made respawns much more obvious. After that, multiple players reported being "eaten" by these entities.

Trying to head for glowing walls

Initial playtesters liked running into walls more than heading toward the goal. Reducing the glow effect on the walls mitigated this problem, but I still think we could have done more to create a starker visual contrast between environment elements with variable depths.