THE SPACES OF THE DARK
The Spaces of the Dark is an original game, built from scratch in Unity 2018 using prefabricated assets. The project was created to fulfill the requirement for my thesis class at SMU Guildhall. The project explores using lighting, sound, and level layout to create distinct emotional moments, and examines how games can take narrative inspiration from uncommon sources.
Engine: Unity 2018
Development Time: 300 hours
This project is currently in progress. Please check back for updates.
My first love is poetry. I was raised by parents who are lovers of the arts, and throughout my life I have found reading and writing poetry to be an incredibly emotional experience. I believe that games, like poems, are vehicles for storytelling and have the capacity to create poignant moments of emotion in their users. In The Spaces of the Dark I aim to create a synthesis between games and poems. By analyzing poems and games through similar lenses based on my personal experiences and the opinions of experts in the games industry and literary field, I intend to create a playable level that mimics the emotional experience of reading a specific poem.
I set out with the intention of using elements of level design like lighting, sound, and layout to recreate the tone, pacing, and most poignant moments of one of my favorite poems, Rhapsody on a Windy Night by T. S. Eliot.
Selecting A Poem
When selecting a poem for this project, I considered the following:
1) What is the setting of the poem like? Is it concrete enough that I can build an entire level based on it?
2) What emotions is the author trying to convey to the reader through the poem? Does the author's intention change throughout the poem?
3) What images (metaphorical and literal) recur in the poem? How can these be used to inform a level's visuals?
4) What does the literary community have to say about this poem? Is this a "good" poem by professional literary standards?
5) What do I think of the poem? Is this a "good" poem by my standards?
I considered about a dozen poems for use in this project, primarily by the European and American authors my own creative writing is often inspired by. Eventually, I selected the 1911 poem Rhapsody on a Windy Night, written by American post modernist T. S. Eliot. I selected this poem because of its clear setting, interesting recurring images, and complex emotional landscape. The poem also has a unique and interesting origin story, which I found inspiring when considering how to turn this poem into a playable level.
Before I began turning Rhapsody on a Windy Night into a game, I felt it was important to understand and analyze it. This way, I could determine which aspects of the poem were essential to preserve when creating a playable level based on its setting, tone, and images.
I have a background in literary analysis thanks to the BA in English I earned from the University of Denver. Classes in American poetry, post modern literature, and early 20th century authors like T. S. Eliot, all of which I took during my undergraduate studies, prepared me to analyze Rhapsody on a Windy Night from a variety of angles.
I determined that my own analysis of the poem was crucial, but that reading professional analysis would also be wise. This way, when I made assertions about what Eliot was trying to communicate in a specific stanza or line of Rhapsody on a Windy Night, I could back up those assertions with analysis done by a professional.
During my analysis, I focused on answering several questions that would help me turn Rhapsody on a Windy Night into a playable level. These questions were:
1) What happens in a literal sense from moment to moment in this poem?
2) What is the "deeper meaning" behind the poem? What emotional experiences is it trying to incite in readers?
3) What images regularly recur in the poem? What do these images tell me about the author's intentions for the poem and its deeper message?
4) What is the setting of this poem? How does time pass? Do things in the poem or the setting change over time?
5) What is the poem's stanza structure like? Do images recur between stanzas or parts of the poem, or not?
6) What does the literary community at large say about this poem? Do they agree with my analysis?
After several rounds of my own analysis and research into professional analysis of Rhapsody on a Windy Night, I was able to make important determinations about the poem relating to these questions. These determinations led me closer to creating a level that would preserve all the most impactful and emotional parts of Rhapsody on a Windy Night.
I determined that Rhapsody on a Windy Night takes place in a city. After researching T. S. Eliot's life at the time of writing Rhapsody, I determined that the best place to set the poem was Paris, specifically the 18th Arrondissement near Montmartre. I chose to set my level in the 19th century rather than the early 20th when T. S. Eliot wrote the poem, partly because of the availability of assets and partially because of the artistic and social climate of Paris at this time.
During the Victorian era, good fortune spilled down the Champs Elysses and the Paris' working class were relegated to neighborhoods downriver from the Isle de la Cite. Montmartre’s cluttered hills teemed with lower middle class workers and their families. Shop fronts, narrow townhouses, and nightclubs catering to the young and wealthy lined the streets.
The 18th Arrondissement, centered around Sacre Coeur, one of Paris’ two cathedrals, provides the setting for The Spaces of the Dark. The 18th Arr. Sits in the heart of Paris’ “cite anciene” – the ancient part of the city that avoided bombing during the Siege of Paris in the 1940’s. As such, the streets remain narrow, winding, and populated with buildings that are over 200 years old.
The area also has the benefit of having been home to dozens of authors and artists, including T. S. Eliot, during the modernist era of the first half of the 20th century. Many of T. S. Eliot’s poems draw inspiration from Paris, and specifically from Montmartre.
My analysis determined that Rhapsody on a Windy Night tells the story of a lost and desperate man who is slowly going insane while walking home through the empty streets of Paris at night. The primary emotion the author is trying to convey seems to be a sense of vague hopelessness and despair that accompanies a slow descent into madness.
Eliot's poem has a linear flow, with stanzas occurring in chronological order beginning with "twelve o' clock" (midnight) and ending with "four o' clock". The reader follows the speaker along their journey during these four "hours" and in this way grows to understand his plight. Stanzas "half past one" through "half past three" are all steeped in increasingly bizarre and disjointed images peppered with the stark and growling observations about 20th century city life that Eliot's work is notable for. The structure and flow of the poem along with the pattern of repeating images plainly demonstrates the type of descent through sanity Eliot was striving to help his readers experience.
The most important recurring image I was able to find in Rhapsody on a Windy Night is the bizarre, sentient race of street lamps with which the speaker converses throughout their journey. These street lamps are a sinister force that is ever-present during the speaker's journey home. They are responsible for some of the harshest, darkest lines spoken in the poem. During the most chaotic part of the poem, the street lamp 'speaks' an entire stanza, which throws the innate goodness of children into question and leaves the reader feeling isolated and uncertain.
Other important recurring images in Rhapsody on a Windy Night align with those found in much of T. S. Eliot's other poetry. The author's fascination with water, astronomy, and nature are all on display in this poem. Images of flowers, the ocean, and the moon recur throughout the poem, most notably the image of a "dead geranium", which links the first and last stanzas of the poem.
Literary Community's Analysis
After analyzing Rhapsody on a Windy Night and reaching the above conclusions on my own, I compared my analysis of the poem's emotional landscape, setting, and recurring images to professional analysis using papers published online and in scholarly journals. What I discovered is that for the most part the literary community agrees with my analysis of Rhapsody on a Windy Night. Many scholars and fellow amateur analysts like myself agree that Rhapsody's structure and flow, the recurring images the author uses, and the overall tone of the poem indicate that the intended emotional experience for the reader is one of unease and distress.
With my analysis of the poem complete, I felt confident that I had isolated the elements of the poem that would be necessary to preserve in my level. I began to research other games that echoed the same kind of emotional experiences I had discovered T. S. Eliot intended to create in Rhapsody on a Windy Night.
When I set out to create The Spaces of the Dark, I knew I wanted to experiment with lighting, sound, and level layout in my quest to create a specific emotional landscape for my players. With this in mind I looked at games that used these elements of level design in unique ways to enhance players' emotional experiences.
I examined a wide variety of games, mainly horror games and games lauded for their unique narratives. I kept lighting, sound, and level layout in mind with each game I examined. The result was a better understanding of how the design elements I wanted to focus on in The Spaces of the Dark inform players' emotional experiences in professional video games.
I discovered during my research that sound has a tremendous impact on players. Environmental or atmospheric sound, diegetic sound, UI sound, and background music all play a part in making a gameplay experience feel full and realized.
One game I identified as making excellent use of sound is Amnesia: The Dark Descent. I chose to play and analyze Amnesia because of its reputation as a horror game that makes use of sound to echo the character's mental state. Because Rhapsody on a Windy Night chronicles a lonely man's slow descent into madness, I thought that analyzing a game that similarly focuses on insanity would be wise. What I discovered is that Amnesia's developers utilized diegetic sound in conjunction with environmental sound to create an atmosphere rife with sonic dissonance. Sonic dissonance is important when trying to create unease and anxiety in players.
Poetry is a linear medium, so in order for my players to understand and enjoy my level, I knew I had to create something linear. I discovered that in the horror genre in particular large, sprawling levels with somewhat disorienting layouts are common because a feeling of disorientation is frightening for many people. However, Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly is a horror game with linear levels that support its game mechanics and aesthetic style.
Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly is set in a Shinto-style village deep in the haunted wilderness. During gameplay, the player is required to hold up an old film camera and look through its viewfinder to see the ghosts plaguing the town. When in use, the camera noticeably restricts the player's field of view. This means that becoming lost is very easy. The developers' choice to make the levels linear helps mitigate this problem. It also keeps the game's architecture consistent with the Shinto style that permeates Fatal Frame II. This game is an excellent example of one that disrupted genre conventions for horror games in order to create levels that supported its mechanics and aesthetics.
Lighting is among the most widely-utilized level design techniques for communicating atmosphere and creating moments of strong emotion in players. This is very true for horror games, where lighting is used to increase feelings of unease and add drama to encounters with NPCs and monsters. One franchise that makes particularly effective use of lighting in a horror context is the Silent Hill franchise.
I studied Silent Hill: Downpour in particular when examining this franchise. I chose to do this because of the way Downpour updated and iterated on some of the visual elements that made the original Silent Hill games so notable. In Downpour players are often forced to walk through areas of low lighting like alleys, canyons, and hallways to reach points of light at a distance. Fear of the dark is instinctive to humans, and the way the lighting artists and layout artists working on Downpour structured the levels and their lighting makes use of this instinctive fear as a game mechanic. This strategy is very effective for horror games.
Creating My Level
Before I began creating The Spaces of the Dark, I laid out my entire plan for the level on paper. I did this to make sure I knew exactly what assets I needed and how much space was required to tell the story of the poem Rhapsody on a Windy Night. When I began designing the The Spaces of the Dark, I knew I wanted the following:
1) My level should take place in a setting that echoes the setting of the poem.
2) The player's critical path should be linear. They must experience the lines and stanzas of Eliot's poem in order for it to make any sense.
3) My design decisions should be informed by my research into horror games and my analysis of Rhapsody on a Windy Night.
With these and the overarching question of "how can a poem be turned into a playable level?" in mind, I began designing and developing The Spaces of the Dark.
I selected my engine (Unity 2018) partially because of the wide variety of professional-quality assets available for relatively cheap through the Asset Store. I selected this "Victorian Alleyways" package by independent developer TripleBrick because of its versatility. The modular building pieces were perfect for creating a city like the one Eliot's speaker wanders through in Rhapsody on a Windy Night. The asset pack also included several street lamps and lighting prefabs to use with them, which was essential for my purposes. This asset pack is optimized for use in day or night scenes, which gave me a lot of freedom to choose the setting of my level.
Developing a Mechanic
In Rhapsody on a Windy Night, the speaker is harrowed by a race of cruel and quick-witted street lamps that often taunt them with harsh words and pointed observations about the world. I wanted to incorporate the interchange between speaker and street lamp into The Spaces of the Dark by creating a scripted interaction between the player and the lamps.
When the player is in the dark and not at proximity to any of the number of lamps that line the streets of The Spaces of the Dark's streets, their vision begins to slowly close in and sinister whispering begins to fill their ears. The only way to find respite from this is to get close to a street lamp, at which time the madness fades away. This change is temporary, however. Once the player "activates" one of these lamps, its light begins to go out. This means that in order to remain sane and untroubled, the player must continue moving forward.
Planning For The Poem
I knew I wanted the player to hear the full text of Rhapsody on a Windy Night during their playthrough of The Spaces of the Dark. I knew I needed to consider how the player was going to hear the poem and how I was going to make sure they heard the whole thing in order.
Before I began constructing anything, I timed out how long it took to read each line of the poem and figured out how far the character I was using in Unity could move in the time it took to read each of the lines. Armed with this information, I moved forward with creating a paper map with special markers denoting lines of the poem spaced appropriately along it.
I devised and scripted a simple system using C# that would allow the player to trigger audio cues simply by passing through an invisible volume on the map. As soon as they pass through one of these "trigger points" a bit of audio plays. I spaced these trigger points out linearly along my map as I designed it. This way, I was able to make sure the player always encountered the lines of the poem in order.
Audio and Characterization
There are two distinct "voices" in Rhapsody on a Windy Night: the speaker's and the street lamp's. In an attempt to replicate both voices, I used Audacity and Final Cut Pro to record, edit, and manipulate my voice. To create the effect of an otherworldly character for the street lamp's voice, I used effects like "reverb" and "noise reduction".
This is the complete paper map for The Spaces of the Dark, accompanied by its key. The key for this map denotes which line of the poem is to be heard at which map marker and how long that line of poetry takes to read. Note the level's linear flow and the careful positioning of the street lamps along the streets.
I began converting this design into a digital space by first laying out just the streets of the city to make sure I had timed the lines of the poem correctly and none of them would overlap (play in the player's ears at the same time). Then, I added buildings and tested the level again to make sure the buildings hadn't obstructed any important viewpoints or paths. Finally, I added the street lamps and tested again to make sure the player's "madness" was not overwhelming, and that the street lamps were placed appropriately to offer them relief when they needed it.
Applying My Research
Applying what I have learned about the way horror games use lighting, sound, and layout is an essential component to meeting the requirements of my thesis class at SMU Guildhall. Throughout the design process I have carefully considered how my level emulates the professional levels I examined and played. I specifically focused on lighting, sound, and level layout when thinking about what parts of the levels I played should be applied to The Spaces of the Dark.
I learned through my research that color and intensity are key when trying to encourage specific emotions in players. I am studying color theory to help me understand which colors and emotions correlate and how I can use color to make certain phrases the player hears feel more striking and emotional.
I plan to have the overall colorscape of the level change for each stanza to help reinforce to the player that something is changing between the stanzas.
I am using both diegetic and non-diegetic sounds in my level, based on my research that combining the two helps players to feel more immersed and connected to the world of the game. I referenced Amnesia's use of sound to convey moments of madness and spun it into the foundation for my own sanity/insanity mechanic in The Spaces of the Dark.
I echoed Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly's use of linear layouts because they support my mechanics far better than the sprawling levels horror games are usually known for. Because the insanity mechanic in The Spaces of the Dark reduces players' visibility, and also because the linear poem demands to be heard in order, I chose to use a linear structure for my level. Creating a perfectly linear level gives me the opportunity to control what the player sees and hears at almost every given point, and allows me to focus on polish along the main path rather than ancillary ones too.
The Spaces of the Dark is an ongoing project. Please check back regularly for updates on research and the final artifact.
The Spaces of the Dark will be completed in May 2019 per the requirements of my Thesis class at SMU Guildhall.
December 2018 Research Synopsis - Delivered to SMU Guildhall's official thesis committee for review of the project. This video covers my research and the beginning stages of development.
December 2018 Gameplay Video - Delivered to SMU Guildhall's official thesis committee for review of the project. This video shows gameplay of the project as it stands on December 5th 2018.