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Drawing Up Dust

 
My Role

Lead Game Designer, Godot Developer

Composer, Sound Designer, Project Manager

The Platform

Web Game hosted on itch.io

Play here!

My Tools

Godot Game Engine, Miro, Google Sheets, GitHub

Koala Sampler + My Banjo, Affinity Photo

  • Took part as team “The Replenishers” in the Just Play Jam December 2023, hosted by Anima Interactive and Cinereach.

  • Brought a rough sketch of an environmental justice narrative game concept to the table, inspiring by Lucas Bessire’s Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains.

  • Collaborated with two amazing team mates, Knives and Rein, across 3 weeks to develop the idea into a fully fleshed out demo. We had never met or worked together before, and synchronised our collab across three timezones remotely.

  • Established learning outcomes, work pipelines and game feel requirements for the team to then implement across art and narrative.

  • Provided steering feedback and workshop facilitation to ensure we ‘failed fast’ and worked effectively.

  • Hoping to find out in February 2024 whether we will be shortlisted for a $10k prize and additional support in developing the game!

Touching on themes of family, community, and raising awareness, “Drawing Up Dust” is a statement that water isn’t the only thing that runs deep…

Drawing Up Dust is a narrative game where your decisions as a journalist and returning local affect the future of the remaining groundwater reserves of a Kansas county. Please click the link above to play and learn more about our game jam entry. Continue reading to get an insight into our game dev journey as The Replenishers…

A three week marathon!

December 2023 was looking like the perfect time to settle down with lots of hot cocoa, do some arts and crafts, and enjoy the beginnings of wintery Nova Scotia. I was just putting together a list of all the other relaxing activities when I glanced at Discord… and was immediately excited to see a justice-themed game jam. “Well, there goes my month of respite!” I thought. After looking further into the details of the Just Play Jam I fell whole-heartedly into the jam mindset.

With more free time than usual I decided to lead with a rough concept that had been brewing for a while, and so I posted up a blurb and a team name – The Replenishers – hoping to find a collaborative crew!

I was delighted to discover that two game makers, known to most as Knives and Rein, were keen to try the concept on for size. Knives is a narrative designer (also a 3d modeller although not for this project), and Rein is game design instructor who moonlights as a 2D artist.

I was also painfully aware that, having come to the jam late, we’d be working to a tight schedule to get something above the waterline. With only 3 weeks, and limited hours that we were all available, we needed to work fast. 

Thankfully Miro served us well to quickly arrange and discuss various design decisions at the very beginning of our collaborative process. Of particular note, both Knives and I made use of the Mermaid diagram language / tool to map out narrative beats, decision moments, and scene changes. I’ll be using this in future projects due to its easy to understand grammar and syntax, its complexity-nerfing rendering powers, and the growing popularity of the format.

I have had many chances to work with teams large and small, so I was very please with the bright enthusiasm my teammates contributed to the project! It certainly helped that I had some fascinating (and sobering) source material. Lucas Bessire, an anthropologist and professor at the University of Oklahoma, produced an award winning book about the depletion of aquifer and community in the Ogallala region of North America. The book is called Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains. This exploration of a landscape devastated, above and below ground, by powerful argi-businesses interests, immediately piqued my imagination.

“A marvelous achievement. Weaving a thread of human decency through a blanket of unrecoverable loss, Bessire delivers a damning message about our great incapacity to respond to an imminent crisis and our misplaced faith in an agricultural economic treadmill.”

— Loka Ashwood, author of For-Profit Democracy: Why the Government Is Losing the Trust of Rural America.

The endorsement above does a good job of summerising the fine line between academic research and lived experience that Running Out is able to tread. The personal and humble account provoked, among other reactions, an deeply emotional response in me that I wanted to talk back to. 

I’ve been similarly balancing a tendancy to push away the grief of environment degradation and the ‘poly-crisis’ with a desire to become more engaged in a collective, restorative movement of people making games for better futures. 

My interests align with Lucas’, as I see water security and the health of our aquifers, waterways and oceans as globally integral to survival and wellbeing of all species on the planet. Running Out provided an emotive tether for me to start forming ideas around a narrative game focused on exploring depleted relationships and landscapes.

Above you can see the result of rapid iteration on art style and narrative. Rein and I had some great discovery moments where we realised the time pressure meant we had to choose a style that could be created and tested quickly. This generated our watercolour / sketchbook style. 

This in turn affected the narrative; we positioned a narrator (Cameron, also our protagonist) as our guide through the game, who speaks from an unknown future. Future Cam is the creator of the sketchbook, and we wanted to use their future facing perspective to describe the consequences of the player’s actions. While the demo chapter we produced didn’t embody this aspect quite yet, we’re excited to double down on this concept.

Responding organically to each other’s prompts and work was really enjoyable! I decided at one point to noodle around on my 5-string banjo, with an aim to try putting my clawhammer music lessons to good use. This added an authentic American feel to the game once a few old-time / traditional tracks made their way into the Godot Assets folder. The team gave great feedback on the sound and music composition, which led to leaning heavily into the diegetic sounding UI interactions and general ‘hand crafted’ game feel.

 

Another feature yet to make it into our demo (we simply ran out of time and had to re-prioritise) perhaps is more regrettably absent. The stand-out mechanic we wanted was based on the player having to collect ‘scoops’ (similar to evidence a la Ace Attourney or The Murder of Sonic The Hedgehog) that Cam, as a journalist, has to find before they can write their articles. Upon which, the flavour of the article headline can be altered using the ‘handy’ SPINLY APP.

SPINLY is our satire on Grammerly, a pre-ChatGPT language checking tool. We imagined SPINLY occasionally offering good advice, but trending towards offering you headlines options that prioritise clickbait tactics and the interests of argobusiness over Cam’s journalistic integrity. The player’s job is to figure out how they want to play when they are given reason to believe SPINLY is not always on their side…

While SPINLY didn’t make it in quite yet, we’re certain that the longevity of this game needs the longer game loop to operate successfully, and we’ll no doubt be adding it in due course.

What we did squeak over the line, we’re very proud of. A big thank you to the Just Play Jam team for helping us when we needed guidance, and for Cinereach and Anima Interactive’s resources and toolkits that helped hone our idea in. 

Further thanks to my teammates for being awesome and generous with their time. Also thanks to our supportive friends and families (Francine my wife was VERY patient with my sudden change in trajectory for the holidays!).

Watch this space for more updates on the future of The Replenishers and Drawing Up Dust!