The largest project of my senior year at Freestyle was the Zenith project. This project was completely self-designed and self-produced, where the goal was to use both skills we’d learned at Freestyle and skills we’d learn during the project and create something new, original, and impressive.
We started in English with a research paper. Since my Zenith project was going to be a game, I did my paper on an aspect of gaming culture: video games and violence. It was actually quite fascinating to learn about, especially since I was able to clear up several myths about the subject and reach a deeper understanding of the way games affect people.
Sometime in January, in a spur-of-the-moment decision, I bought and played the game Subnautica. Subnautica is a game taking place in the ocean of an alien planet, where the stranded player must explore the sea in order to survive, figure out the planet’s mysteries, and find a way to escape. When I started playing, what first struck me was just how beautiful the game was. The creatures ranged from adorable to terrifying to awe-inspiring, and the environment was widely varied and clearly lovingly designed. As of writing this, I’ve logged over eighteen hours in the game and there’s still a lot left to see.
For my Zenith project I wanted to capture the feeling of Subnautica in my own 3D video game, with visuals of my own creation. I knew that my lack of experience with game creation would restrict me, so I focused my plan on making a character and an environment for the character to move within. I chose to make my project in Blender and Unity because I had already used Blender before and I’d heard that Unity was not difficult to get the hang of.
Now that I had the idea for my Zenith project, I needed to write a research paper about the topic. To write the paper, I started with the age-old question of “Do violent video games make people violent?” and from that, expanded into the different ways that people’s personalities both affect and are affected by the games they play. Although I was already aware of the impact games could have on people because of my recent experience playing Subnautica, writing this paper gave me a greater appreciation for it.
I developed the specific plan for my Zenith project with both the information I’d learned through research and the prior experience I’d had playing games in mind. I wanted my game to have a universally positive impact on the people who played it, so I needed stayed away from dark or violent themes. However, I also wanted to leave the audience with a message. Ultimately, I decided to make my character an extinct animal and base the environment on a real place. This way, I could convey the beauty of the natural world while making the audience aware of the fragility of that same world. To help create the mood, the game was to look bright and colorful but have no background music, only ambient sounds.
I started the design process of the game by considering what animal I wanted the character to be. I was originally considering making it a dinosaur, but I thought that was a little overdone, so instead I settled on a thylacine, an extinct Australian marsupial. It is a fairly well-known extinct animal, meaning it would be recognizable to many people, and because it was only declared extinct in 1936, footage and photos of the animal still exist, making it easier to model and animate. The environment was based off Tasman Island, an island inside Tasman National Park. However, because I wanted the terrain to be enclosed so that the player was unable to escape and fall out of the world, I created the fictional Tasman Valley to be the setting of my game.
Before I could start building my game, I had to familiarize myself with Unity and Blender. Because I already had experience with Blender, I didn’t need to learn much more about the program, though I did create a practice model over February break. However, I knew nothing about Unity, so I made a practice game using the model I’d created in order to figure out the basics. I learned a bit about scripting, components and physics, then decided I was ready to start my game for real.
Once I had designed the character and environment and gotten the hang of the programs I was using, I created and assembled the 3D models. This consisted of modeling them in Blender, painting textures and mapping those to the models, rigging and animating the models (in the case of the character), and importing the models into Unity. Once that was done, I wrote scripts for things like the character’s movement and the camera movement. These scripts took much longer than I thought they would because my amateur coding skills made for a lot of annoying bugs. I would spend hours on one problem in the code only to find a laughably simple solution. Once I was done with the game, I exported it as an OS X app.
Although I made the game itself mostly on my own, I relied heavily upon help from people experienced in Unity that had created invaluable online tutorials and documentation. There were very few problems I had that couldn’t be solved by searching through online forums. In addition, I made sure other people besides myself had playtested the game. I discovered and squashed several more bugs thanks to these testers, and they gave me more ideas for the game, such as adding a bit more to explore in the environment. If I had done the project over again, though, I would have sought out more input from people closer to the beginning of the project as well as spend more time on the 3D modeling itself at the beginning. As I discovered during the last few weeks of the project, it was very difficult to make changes to the models when production of the game was almost finished, since by that point, those models had dozens of components depending on them.
I believe I improved the most in technological literacy. Not only did I learn how to build and code a game from scratch in Unity, I also learned how to learn. I discovered that programs such as Unity and Blender almost always had extensive documentation, and what I couldn’t find there, I could find elsewhere. There was an endless supply of online tutorials, and nearly every question imaginable had already been answered on a forum somewhere. There was a lot to learn, but the learning itself, as I found out, is very accessible as long as you know where to look.
As I worked on the project, I gained a passion for coding and game building. Sure, it was frustrating at times, but it was also both very straightforward and very open to creativity at the same time. Now that I have some experience in Unity, I can make small games for fun later. In addition, because I tried something totally new for me, I was very proud of the final result. I believe this project was my most successful Freestyle project, since I kept up with all my deadlines while still learning new things at every turn, resulting in a final piece that was even better than I had envisioned at the beginning.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned while doing this project was how rewarding it could be to try something completely new. I knew I was going to do something with 3D modeling ever since the fall, but I am very happy I went for game building instead of just leaving it at 3D modeling. I discovered something I was passionate about, and even if I had turned out not to like game building, the project still would have been a great learning experience. Even if the game isn’t great by normal game standards, I am very proud of it because it was the foundation of a new skill that I now have in my toolbelt.
For the Design portion of the project, I created an art book meant to be sold with the game. It includes character and environment design sketches, concept art paintings, and screenshots from the game itself, as well as some explanation behind the design process. It’s not quite finished yet, but when it is, it will be available here.