The Lost Bear, and designing a game without direct inspiration

As a developer, a lot of your inspiration comes from the experience you’ve had or the emotions you felt when playing other people’s games. Inspiration doesn’t mean duplicating whole scenes or mechanics, but rather taking elements you like and redesigning them to fit the core experience and emotions you want to create in your own game. This spark of inspiration is vital to innovation, and it’s what keeps many older genres still relevant today. The problem is, what do you do when that direct inspiration isn’t available to you?

This was the problem our team faced when developing The Lost Bear for PSVR and Oculus Rift. At the time, VR was a fairly new platform, and combining it with any form of 2D gameplay – let alone a textless cinematic platformer – simply hadn’t been done yet. This left the team in the unique position of knowing the core experience and emotion we wanted to create in the 2D side of the game, but with no idea of how to marry this to the unique interactivity that VR allows.

Gaining inspiration from external sources allowed us to develop the concept of the diorama.

Outside of games

The obvious solution to a lack of direct inspiration is to look further afield than the medium of games. This was something the team had already been doing with the story-driven, 2D side of the game, so it made sense to look at different forms of interactivity in other art forms. Paintings, books, and movies all provided inspiration, but none of them contained – and could therefore provide us with examples of – the level of interactivity that VR allows. Widening our inspirational net did, however, send us down an enlightening path.

Theatrical plays – including Eastern European puppetry and Punch and Judy-style shows – taught us how a ‘static scene’ could tell a heartfelt story while also allowing the audience to interact with the performance. It taught us how ‘breaking the fourth wall’ and audience interaction allowed viewers to become more immersed in the performance.

In addition, this form of interaction with creepy dolls and unusual characters fed back into the fairytale-like, storybook experience we wanted to create. This was the key when looking for new sources of inspiration; they all had to feed back into the core emotions and experience we wanted to create. This research led directly to us creating our own ‘theatre stage’ in which the player is able to interact with the static scene, even though they’re not actually playing a direct part in the unfolding story that unfurls on it.

The diorama allowed us to change the play space around the player as the 2D game progressed, which fed into the experience we wanted to create.

Try and try again

Iterative design was another way we dealt with a lack of direct inspiration. The ability to quickly implement an idea and then iterate on it based on the team’s feedback is the core of any successful studio. During the development of The Lost Bear, we used this process for the creation of the game’s torch mechanic. This started with the player controlling a torch to guide glow bugs around a 3D space. While the designer spent a lot of time on it and the idea worked, it was a difficult mechanic to explain to players, and conflicted with our core principle of no in-game text.

On the other hand, we liked the childlike sense of exploration and also the fear of the unknown that shining a torch into the darkness created. By iterating on the original design – and combining it with our inspiration from Punch and Judy-style shows – we reworked the mechanic so that the torch could shine directly into the 2D scene. Iteration, based on discussions with the team as a whole, led to a mechanic that was much easier to explain, and that fed directly into our core emotions and experience we wanted to present.

Another source of inspiration for us was children’s toys. This worked well with teasing the player into interacting with the different devices while also avoiding the use of text.

Get testy

Another issue with our lack of direct inspiration was not knowing if a mechanic would translate well from designer to player, especially in a game with no text-based instructions. One specific issue we faced was explaining to the player that they needed to interact with two separate play spaces: one being the 2D scene on the stage, and the other the 3D space around them. It’s not a standard experience for the user – one they might have learned from years of playing similar games – so we couldn’t rely on them just being able to pick it up without any guidance.

The solution we found was through the use of audio cues, which would grab the player’s attention and move them from 2D to 3D spaces. This solution, however, required significant playtesting to make sure the audio was easily distinguishable and that the direction it came from was especially clear. Through the combination of in-depth, continuous playtesting and iterative design, we were able to create a system that allowed us to teach the player how to smoothly transition between the two play spaces – and all without any on-screen text.

With so many amazing games being released on an almost daily basis, dealing with a lack of direct inspiration isn’t something that occurs often. But when it does happen, and you’re sat in front of your monitor trying to will something meaningful into existence, it’s important to remember to go back to basics and to trust the process.

Start by knowing what type of experience you want to make, and the emotions you want your players to experience. If you stick to those core tenets throughout the development process, and as long as you seek inspiration from any source, iterate on the ideas that develop from those sources, and thoroughly test all of your developed ideas on a regular basis, your design is sure to be a winner – and you won’t even need to look at any other games for inspiration.

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