With the imminent end of support for Flash by Adobe, I’ve decided to revisit my old Flash games before they disappear.
After my last article about Arachnophilia, some friends kindly suggested that the games might not be lost after all, as stand alone Flash players will still be available and some websites, such as Armor Games, might even be converting their games so they are still playable in a browser. Despite this, I’m going to continue with this three part series because I think the games will be less accessible in the future, even if they are technically still available, and it’s been a rewarding experience for me to revisit some of these old projects that I poured so much of myself into. So, on to Xaat Disi!
Before I even finished Arachnophilia, I was already imagining the next game I’d make. I was still so excited after releasing Arachnophilia that I pretty much started my next game right away, building on the underlying framework I’d just developed. But the vision of the new project was too grand and ultimately I never finished it, despite putting in many, many hours of work. Here’s the story of the game that got away.
Xaat Disi felt like the perfect combination of several different inspirations. For gameplay, I was inspired by an old calculator game I used to play in high school, which played like a much more elegant Flappy Bird (years before Flappy Bird had its 15 minutes of fame).
Visually, I was inspired by the artwork of the Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska. Most famous for totem poles, they have a rich history of print making and other art forms as well, and I thought seeing artwork in their style animated and flowing would look amazing.
I’ve always been very interested in creating games with living ecosystems. Xaat Disi is the closest I’ve ever come. I wanted it to be like playing a nature video. Even though the diversity is low in the game, I wanted the player to feel like they were one part in something much bigger, conveying some of the interconectivity of the world.
Finally, I wanted to make a game that paid homage to my home state of Alaska. I wanted to share some of the natural and cultural beauty of the place.
I started Xaat Disi with the core of Arachnophilia, giving me a head start compared to the previous game. The project was overall much more ambitious than Arachnophilia, though, so it ended up taking a much longer time.
The game uses a level generator to create the terrain and other organisms as you play. This system was fairly complex and took a tone of work to build and maintain.
In Arachnophilia, the enemies were very simple, basically just circles that would appear and then disappear. In Xaat Disi, I wanted to create a living ecosystem, so the other entities needed to be much more complex. I developed an AI system where each animal had limited senses to observe what was around them and then actions they could take in reaction to their surroundings. It means that sea lions will chase and catch fish but flee from orcas. This took a lot of tuning, and since many animals moved in different ways, I was able to reuse much less than I was with the enemies in Arachnophilia.
Finally, there was the art. The art style was very important to me in this game, and I feel like I was able to do a pretty good job with it, especially since I’m not an artist. But since I’m not an artist, everything took me a very long time. In Arachnophilia I could probably create a new enemy in an hour; in Xaat Disi, it probably took me ten hours and even then I’d need to spend time fixing problems later on to get the look and behavior right.
I was doing all this while I was just starting grad school, and it soon became apparent to me that I wasn’t going to be able to finish this game and make progress on research at the same time. So I came up with a little scheme. I decided that I would turn this game into research! Remember how I said the terrain and enemies were generated while you were playing? The basic research idea was to tune this level generation using a learning algorithm.
If you try playing the game now, there’s a good chance that it will seem bad. Either very little will happen, or there will be way too many enemies and you’ll die almost immediately (or maybe you’ll get lucky it’ll be fairly well tuned and fun). That’s because the only surviving version of the game was an early test of the concept, where I would give players one of several versions of the game, some of which I knew were bad and some that were good. The hope was that eventually I could measure how fun a particular version was and to steer the level generation towards versions that were more fun and away from versions that were less fun.
One of my goals for Xaat Disi with simplicity. All you can do as a player is make your salmon rise or let them fall. Most of the game itself is watching the world unfold as your salmon go on their journey.
You start in the open ocean. Here you encounter your first prey (feeder fish), predators (sea lions), and allies, other salmon that will join you if you bump into them. From there you’ll travel to shallow ocean waters, then up a river through coastal plains, forest, and up a mountain. Along the way you’ll encounter other predators including orcas, eagles, humans, and bears. The requirements for maneuvering will also change a lot as the river gets more shallow and steeper, requiring you to jump up waterfalls. Eventually you reach the breeding grounds where you’ll breed and then die, ending your game.
So What Happened?
In the end I wasn’t able to finish and release Xaat Disi for several reasons. The first and most obvious is that it was too ambitious. The vision was too grand and the development was too difficult for me to do myself. I started losing steam, especially as the challenges became more daunting. The overall system was always finicky, so any changes needed were often error prone and very labor intensive.
But that wasn’t all. Another issue is that I had a much more rigid vision for the project than for Arachnophilia, where I had a core game mechanic in mind but then was able to freely come up with enemies that supported that mechanic. With Xaat Disi, I knew which animals I wanted to include before I had any idea of how they would work. I knew the level progression before I knew how you’d navigate the terrain of each level. So when I encountered a challenge, like figuring out how the bears would feel properly epic and scary but still beatable, there was no way to get around it. I had to solve it, and some of those challenges I just couldn’t solve. Like the bears.
Another issue was turning the game into research. My plan was to continue to work on it as research, but it quickly became apparent that building the game was not research, building the system that would allow me to collect and analyze data was. This was a hard pill to swallow because progress on the game itself seemed so close but at the same time so far away. (Ultimately this lesson would be a big factor in me leaving grad school to start Nothing Sacred Games.)
Finally, I had a hard drive break down at the end of my first year of grad school, which abruptly ended my research project. While this wasn’t officially the end of Xaat Disi, which I continued to try to develop for several more months and even tried restarting once or twice in the years to come, it was effectively the end.
Another issue that was on my mind then and is even more on my mind today is cultural appropriation. For me, imitating the Tlingit art style was an homage and celebration of another culture, but I can easily see how others would interpret it as stealing or even colonialism. My hope with the game was to make more people aware of them (did you know there was a people called Tlingit? Did you know it’s actually pronounced like klink-it?) and to cement their place as active members in American history. Even with those intentions, though, I have a feeling my work would not have been accepted without a lot of criticism.
In the end, I’m kind of relieved that the game was not released for this reason. In order to have made money from the game I probably would have included ads, and I think that would have been too much for me to stomach.
Xaat Disi never made it, which is disappointing. Even to this day my partner Christie will nudge me towards finishing it every now and then. I poured many, many hours of work into this game, but in the end I just couldn’t cross the finish line. In fact, I only made it maybe 2/3 of the way there.
It’s a shame because I feel like the start of the game is pretty cool. It’s not perfect, and there are definitely changes I would make today. For example, I would make the game less of an arcade style challenge and focus more on the spectacle aspect of the game. I think it looks really cool and has some interesting behaviors, and these can be lost when you’re speeding through the game trying not to die. I would also make the game shorter because I think it overstays its welcome now.
Also, of course, I’d add more birds if I made the game today. Harlequin Duck would definitely feature prominently.
I hope you give the game a try. And if things don’t seem quite right, give it another shot; you probably just got an experimental version. (Do you know how painful it was as a game designer to release a version of your game that you knew was sub-optimal? Quite painful.)