Gaze of the Abyss

Role: Designer

Platform: Windows PC

Development Platform: Unity 3D

Team Size: 10

Development Time: February 2019 to May 2019

An asymmetric cooperative puzzle horror game in which players must navigate the ruins of a sunken ship as one player controls the drone camera and the other player controls the deep sea diver.

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About the Game

       Gaze of the Abyss is an asymmetric cooperative puzzle horror game in which one player controls the drone camera and the other player controls the diver avatar. Set in a sunken ship, players must work together to navigate through the treacherous wreckage and discover why the ship sunk. Players must rely on one another to solve the puzzles and check each other's backs to survive.

Project Contributions

Role: Designer

Work:

  • Helped clarify the overall direction of the game

  • Created level 2 and level 3

  • Designed the UI

Level Design

Creating the World

       When I joined Team Perfect 10, Gaze of the Abyss was in an early prototype stage that had really unique but clunky and basic mechanics and lacked any context. Once we cleared the direction of the game and its mechanics as a team, the other designers and I could begin work on the levels. The first step was deciding the exact type of environment that we wanted so that we could find references for the artists and create a cohesive world. Trying to adhere to the original vision of the game, we based the levels on the Lusitania, a luxury cruise liner that was sunk by German U Boats in 1917 and was found to be carrying war munitions for Britain as it was sailing to New York City. Lining up closely with the narrative--the deeper into the boat the player travels the more twisted the environment gets in both the purpose of the ship and the Lovecraftian inspired horror--this type of environment fit the context perfectly and gave us real inspiration that we could draw on to help keep the design of the levels consistent. Again consulting the narrative, we decided to create 5 levels, each moving through different parts of the ship and introducing a new horror. We began with a rough path the players would travel through the ship and how the levels would be separated. Then, drawing on environmental horror, we agreed that we wanted the beginning levels to be a bit more open and as the players progress through the game, become more tight and claustrophobic, slowly revealing monsters hidden in the ship. After that was decided, I was tasked with creating level 2 and level 3.

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Initial player path through ship

Designing Level 2

       Level 2 is located in the mid decks of the ship after the players fall through weak floorboards in level 1. I used the floor plans and drawings of the Lusitania to assist me in designing the level. Since the level 2 deck was going to be mid-ship, I wanted to base it on middle-class accommodations. With this in mind, the rooms and corridors would be less spacious and more plain in opulence than level 1.

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Level 2 deck layout inspiration

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Level 2 first room inspiration

Level 2 hallway inspiration

       With the designer tasked with level 1 focusing on the narrative design first, I had to design level 2 as an introduction to the game without being a repeat of the future starting level. I began by sketching out floor plans and playing around with the general size of the level. When creating level 2, I wanted the players to feel like they were exploring an actual ship, but I wanted to make it tighter in the passenger decks to produce the environmental horror that we were hoping to create. Dropping players into a larger room would help them get their bearings by providing an open area to experiment with the controls and easily find each other again, helping them to get acclimated to the split drone/diver game play. Then, in the next room, the level gets tighter, increasing the players' tension, but the straight lattice hallways would keep the players channeled, helping them through the level while still providing a challenge for both players around every corner.

       Once I was happy with the basic design of level 2, I began to make it in engine, testing quick block outs with the diver and camera to figure out the time and spacing of the level. I wanted to make sure that it could convey the claustrophobia and unease that I intended. Afterwards, I worked to design puzzles around the space, confident that the shell felt like a creepy sunken ship.

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Level 2 layout sketch

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Level 2 initial blockout

       I began with the first room. I made the players fall into the back center of the room, facing the only door out. With this orientation, the players would immediately be able to see their goal for the area and be able to work the puzzle out from there. Since I was designing this as a temporary first level, I placed a push-able crate in front of the door so the players would know that they would have to move it to get through and be able to figure out how to interact with it in an intuitive context. Additionally, with the openness of the room, the angler fish swimming around would be easily noticeable and avoided, drawing attention to the enemy without forcing the players to get hurt. I designed the path of the angler fish to spend most of its time away from the golden path through the level to put pressure on the players in a safer context that allows them a space to learn the controls. Finally, on the only upright table in the room, I placed the key for the door out. While players still have to search for it a little bit by looking around pillars, the key is in a more noticeable section of the room with the real challenge of the puzzle for the players being navigating to the table. Once the players pick up the key, they have to then find the proper timing to push the box away from the door and unlocking, opening their path to the hallway.

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Players' first view of level 2

Key on the table

     After the players exit the dining room and enter the hallway, they are faced with a staircase covered in fallen debris. Entering a trigger, the doors at the bottom of the stairs slowly start to open until a lamprey monster comes out and attacks them, ending the game. Again, with level 2 temporarily taking the place of the first level, I needed to create an encounter with the dangerous creature in a way that would draw the players' attention and help them figure out how to deal with this encounter. I made sure that the doors were immediately visible and put them in the center of the space, making them one of the first things the camera looks at as they exit the doorway of the first area. The debris placed on the stairs deters the players from going in that direction and signifies that they should not go there and nothing should be coming up. As the doors slowly open, the hallway entrance space provides enough space for the players to react and figure out what to do.

     Once the players figure out how to deal with the lamprey monster, they are given the option to go left or right around the stairs. I wanted to give the players a choice before channeling them into more constricted hallways blocked by debris, making the tight corridors seem more maze-like as they dodge the angler fish patrolling the area. Once the player gets through the first part of the hallways, they are faced with the first box puzzle. A crate is positioned in front of a hole in the ground in front of an open room. In the open room is another crate with some debris on the ground in front of the door. Having learned how to push crates out of the way in the first room, the players must work together to push the crate into the hole and walk across it. This part of the puzzle was kept very simple to show players that they can fix their path through the level and walk over the crates. 

     Walking over the first crate, they players can go either right or straight. If the player heads to the right first, they will find themselves at another hole in the ground in front of an open room, this time without a crate in front and containing a key respectively. If the player tries to get the crate out of the room next to the first part of the puzzle, they will find that they cannot get it out of the room and must find another crate. Going straight to search for a crate will get them to the end of the level, however, they will find themselves at a locked door and have to turn. By turning around, the players will find an open center room that contains an easy to move crate that they can push into the second hole in the floor, allowing them to get the key and exit into the maintenance and housekeeping stairwell, leading them to the hull of the ship and the third level.

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Second crate puzzle

Level 2 lamprey door

First crate puzzle

Video of level 2

Guiding the Players

       Testing the levels, players found them challenging with the asymmetric gameplay but fitting for the game. However, consistently one of our biggest issues throughout the game as a whole was guiding the players. One of our solutions was to use the lighting. Using Half-Life 2 as inspiration, we used different colored lights to help guide the players through the otherwise monochromatic environment. As a warm and inviting color, an orange light was used for objectives and to light the golden path to draw the players to the important parts of the levels. On the other hand, we used a blue light--a cool and unwelcoming color--for areas the player should avoid or unimportant areas. While players still had some difficulties in navigating the levels with the asymmetric gameplay, using lighting helped to show them where they needed to direct their attention and where they should be.

Development Process

Production II at Champlain College

     At Champlain College, we take a class called Production II during the spring semester of our junior year. The production classes have students from all four of the game majors--Game Production and Management, Game Design, Game Art and Animation, and Game Programming. Each section of the class is considered its own studio and within each class, we are put onto teams of about four to five students to make our own projects. The first three weeks are focused around rapid prototyping--one for each week. At the end of the three weeks, each team picks one of the prototypes to refine over the course of two weeks leading up to what we called mid mortem. Finally, at mid mortem, the teams pitch their games to the studio and the students in each class will decide which games will continue development with the guidance of the professor who decides the number of games to continue. The teams that are cut are moved onto the games that will be continued, simulating real-life studios and letting us finish the semester with a strong game we helped to make and valuable team experience.

Joining Team Perfect 10

     After Potion Seller, the first game I was working on got cut, I had to choose a new team. There were two games continuing development in my class--Snowball Showdown, a wacky VR snowball fight game, and Gaze of the Abyss. As long as the teams had an equal number of members, my professor let us pick which game to work on. I decided to join Team Perfect 10 to work on Gaze of the Abyss because I was excited about the potential it had for level design and the challenge that the asymmetrical gameplay created. With that, the teams were set and we could begin working.

     We spent the first week with the new teams onboarding. We made sure everyone had a repo set up, the proper version of Unity, and access to all of the documentation. We set up the team's communication platform, planned the meeting times for the rest of the semester, reviewed the documents and progress of the game during the first three weeks of development, and we got to know the original team's final vision for the game. Once everyone was up to speed, development started.

Clearing the Context and Confusion

     A lot of work had been done in the first few weeks of development but there were a lot of problems with the early game. We began immediately addressing the biggest issues with the original prototype: explaining in-game why the players are there, their goal, and balancing the asymmetry in the gameplay. Meeting weekly with the other designers and talking as a team multiple times a week, we created a narrative that tied the game world together, deciding that the diver was the nephew to the captain of the mysteriously sunken ship Atlas and, with their trusty underwater camera drone, wanted to explore the wreckage to recover family heirlooms and learn the truth behind why the ship went down. After deciding the context of the game, our next challenge was to figure out how to convey it to the players so that they could understand the motivations and be able to feel a part of the world. The other designers and I came up with a quick introduction to the game that would help to immerse the players into the game world--a set of old newspapers with headlines that explain the alleged sinking of the Atlas and the diver's backstory including dates and other small stories surrounding the players' characters. Using this method, we would not need to add any additional systems like dialogue or cutscenes and it was something that a designer could make to lighten the workload of our artists. The newspaper clippings provided enough information for the players to understand what was happening while staying in the scope of the project.

     Finally, to balance the gameplay, we worked on the diver's movement and how it reacts to the drone/camera movement. This was a huge point of frustration for players in the early game and improved throughout the semester. We tested multiple different versions of movement combinations in QA over the span of multiple weeks to try to lessen the confusion of one player relying on the other to see including the diver's movement being oriented in the direction the drone faces and tank controls. Eventually, we settled on the diver moving independently regardless of the direction the camera faces since testers stated that that was the least disorienting system. For many weeks after, Alex Hubble kept working to improve the movement until the end of the project came. 

     Once we solved our biggest problems, we continued iterating and fine-tuning them throughout the remainder of the semester. Continuing the iterations, the other designers and I also began to work on the levels. 

Game Festivals

     Near the end of our semester of development, we were able to attend two different events featuring student and indie games: Champlain Games Festival and the RPI Gamesfest. At each event, we were able to show our game off and see real players experience and enjoy it. It was stressful at first having the game played in a less controlled environment than in QA sessions, but it was the first time that complete strangers played a game that I made. To see them spend sometimes an hour standing and playing and enjoying the game was a rewarding experience, knowing that I had a hand in making it. Showing Gaze of the Abyss at the game festivals makes me even more excited to create a game on a larger scale that thousands of more players can enjoy.

Team Members

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Alex Stopen

Producer

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Micheal-Paul Ho-Kang-You

Producer

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Andrew Chepega

Designer

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Andrew MacDonald

Designer

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Claire Yeash

Designer

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Annika Bair

Programmer

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Alex Hubble

Programmer

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Austin Laimos

Programmer

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Sam Arehart

Artist

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Grace Magnant

Artist

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Claire Yeash

Game Designer and UX Researcher