Prison of Lies: Portmortem
Prison of Lies is a short visual novel that I created for NaNoRenO 2019. In this post, I'll attempt to fully explain just how I managed to pull this game together in only 13 days.
I was initially hesitant to participate in this year's NaNoRenO.
Even though I'd wanted to participate before, I'd decided that, since I had so many projects to work on, it wouldn't be worth it to add another one onto my plate. But, as it turned out, it was a refreshing experience and I'm glad I ultimately chose to push myself and do it anyway. My first problem was that it was already 12 days into the month, and in a game jam, time is really everything. Though I hadn't participated in a jam before, I had done two similar challenges. One was a comic that I created a page for every single day for a year, and another was a comic that I created a page for every hour within a 24-hour period. A month-long project is sort of the middle ground between those two extremes.
But, I'd made my decision, so now the question was, what the heck do I make?
Having a time constraint created rules for the project right out of the gate in terms of scope. I knew it would not end up being very long. I knew that I would probably have to have a limited cast of characters. And I knew that having it take place in only one location would conveniently limit the amount of sets I had to create.
Working within those rules, I made a new text document and just started writing down different ideas. Initially I wanted to make a horror game, but that doesn't really play to my strengths. It's great to test yourself, but I was already testing myself with the project deadline.
Here's my "idea sheet", as I like to call it. My old notes are in italics:
The genre will be horror.
This game involves being around many different people, and you're forced to trust them.
It's a puzzle game, with extremely obscure win conditions.
There are no jump-scares or sudden movements.
I wanted to subvert horror tropes and try to come up with something that was scary simply by playing off of the fear of the unknown. The puzzle aspect came in because I wanted to make sure it had a game play hook.
The game's puzzles involve player input.
The idea is to involve players emotionally in their decisions.
The first step is to "prime" players to give weight to their choices. To do this, the game will lie to them constantly about how its mechanics work.
Initially I wanted make a game where, say, every time you made a choice, the game would bring up a prompt that would say something like "Would you like to withdraw $8.99 from your bank account?" and then very realistically pretend to do so. I thought it would be pretty scary, because nothing's more frightening than being scammed out of your money by a game from an "unidentified developer". This concept is still appealing to me, so I might do something with it.
The game takes place over three days in a small location
The game takes place in a room that is filling with water.
You have to sacrifice various people to survive.
Three other people.
This is me toying with various ways to put a time limit in the game, which is a great way to ratchet up tension and ensure that your story doesn't get too long.
The game's mechanics involve turning everything into symbols, manipulating those symbols, and then seeing the effect on the real world. You are a god, you have all the tools, but you do not know how to use them.
This idea ended up being too high concept. Even I don't fully understand it, but it sounds cool. Too bad it was way to ambitious for the time frame!
You are in prison.
DAY ONE is a prison cell.
DAY TWO is the prison cafeteria.
DAY THREE is the ward's office.
Your goal is to escape.
You modify other people.
You are a prison warden. The prisoners you modify begin to behave more and more erratically.
You are up against a prison warden who is actually a god — you are in hell.
You are able to steal one of her powers — will you use it to escape?
This version of the concept was way too busy and had too much stuff I would have to explain. It also didn't feel particularly full of conflict to be an invincible god, so I changed it so that you were a prisoner instead. However, the supernatural setting of a prison in hell made death irrelevant, and one of the worst mistakes you can make is making death meaningless in your universe, because then any stake you put up feels hollow.
Finally, after ruminating on this idea for a while, I landed on the final plot:
Four prisoners on death row are proven innocent. However, to meet quotas, only one can be saved and they must decide among themselves who that will be. To add to the confusion, one of them may not actually be innocent after all. The game's mechanics are: lie detection and "constructing half-truths", to fool others.
What appealed to me about this was how contained it was. Very few characters, one location. And the setting naturally produces interesting characters. I'm very attached to the idea of the world as a main story building block. It's not characters who drive tone, atmosphere, or culture. That's all the location. A prison is a great place to set a story because you don't go there unless you made some bad decisions, or you were jailed unfairly, and both of those things are interesting.
Once I'd decided that this concept would be the best one to go with, I set about writing an outline, literally in the first day I started working on the project. By the end of the first day, I had an outline, the logo, and the main theme. The logo, and the font, "Prison of Lies", were created by me for the project. However, I won't be selling it anywhere because I created it by tracing over the font Garamond. Using Garamond by itself was too generic and I felt that it didn't fit with the style of the game.
The outline was basically identical to the final plot, except for the true ending, which I came up with afterwords.
The reason the characters only have letters for their names is the same reason they don't have pupils: it makes them more mysterious and harder to read.
I made all the sprites for the characters in one day. In order to do post-processing on each expression, I used a new trick I discovered in Animate CC where I export a video instead of an image, edit that in Photoshop, and then export the video as a series of images. It saved me a lot of time. The effects were just a simple gradient overlay, a layer with Gaussian blur set to about 33% opacity for a "bloom" look, and then some brightness and contrast and saturation to make the colors pop.
Coming up with the different backstories was the most difficult part. They all had to have been cleared of all charges, but charged with something fairly innocuous to begin with. There are a lot of really horrible crimes you can get sent to death row for, and obviously, if one of the characters had been charged with murder initially, that would make them more suspicious.
One interesting tidbit is that there are four prisoners that were deemed innocent, and it just so happens that the number of innocent prisoners executed on death row is 4.1%.1
Whenever I begin a new project, I like to compose something to go with it. It gives it texture and identity in my mind that helps during the writing process. What gives Prison of Lies a unique musical identity is a chorus effect that I placed on many instruments. When placed over strings, it creates this wavering effect that sounds a bit like a police siren and projects unease. I was going for a lounge tone with a lot of dissonant elements to create an eerie feeling.
As I mentioned before, I wanted to keep it to one location so that I wouldn't have to spend too much time making backgrounds. I always had a vision for what the room itself would look like, with the stripes echoing old prisoner outfits.
Making it in 3D was a no-brainer, since that's usually my style anyway. It also let me create many backgrounds fairly easily once I had modeled everything. Each chapter has a new background that get progressively darker and more claustrophobic, until the final chapter where it goes entirely black and white, which is a nice contrast against the bright orange outfitted characters.
The last thing I created was the UI (though I made sure to create the dialogue box with the heart monitor early on). My technique is pretty simple: I create a "mock-up" in Photoshop that has all the elements, background, buttons, everything, just how I want it to look when it's done. Then I export those individual elements. This way, it looks more cohesive than making and exporting each button individually.
After releasing it a few days ahead of schedule, it's received a lot of positive feedback and even a few Let's Plays, which I greatly appreciate. Thanks so much for supporting the project, and maybe this means a sequel could happen. ;)
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