Never Land is a standalone Unity game created using Unity 5. The game centrally focuses on storytelling and forcing the player to make difficult ethical decisions based on conversations with characters. Never Land's characters and setting are loosely based on elements of the book Peter Pan.
Engine: Unity 5
Development Time: 200 hours
Never Land tells the story of a psychic child named Starling, whose mother has fallen into a coma due to illness. With their mama "sleeping far away", Starling makes the decision to enter their mother's subconscious to convince her to come back from her comatose state and be reunited with them in the waking world. However, things beneath the surface of their mother's subconscious are not rosy and straightforward. They discover that while their mother has many reasons to wake up there are also haunting tragedies in her life that provide compelling reasons to let herself die.
The player guides Starling through a journey across the sweeping, empty landscapes of a troubled mind, all based on characters and settings from the novel Peter Pan. Each of these characters is brought to life by a striking personality, and each of them has a story to tell or secret to reveal about Starling's mother. Never Land's open world paths all funnel towards its final level - the Greenhouse - where the player must choose whether to wake Starling's mother or let her drift off and die.
Never Land's Theme
When I was thirteen, my mom was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. The diagnosis was heartbreaking for my family, especially for my younger sister and I, who understood very little of our mom's illness and course of treatment. The way she handled her intensive treatment have been inspirational to me for years, however her illness left deep scars on our family and relationships.
Much media exists that deals with cancer from the perspective of a parent. A Monster Calls and other similar books populate bookshelves and movie theaters, and are lauded for the stark realities of disease and familial loyalty they paint. As a lover of literature, I respect and admire the authors of such works for painting bold pictures of families scarred by illness, but as the child of a cancer survivor I admit to a relative disdain for them. In A Monster Calls - arguably the most popular recent piece of media to tackle this issue - the protagonist (the son of a cancer patient) is painted as an outraged and frightened boy whose anger and despair leaves his sick mother distraught and his family in tatters. As someone who has endured similar emotions, I was rather appalled at the treatment of this character by his creator. A Monster Calls reads like a mother's attempt to pass judgment and blame on her son for his anger and lack of sympathy for her during her illness.
I intended Never Land to be the other side of that coin. As adults it's easy to blame children for handling things like disease and death poorly. These are adult problems, which children are not equipped to handle. In A Monster Calls, a child protagonist is faulted for a lack of understanding and empathy for his mother - an adult enduring a traumatic adult experience. I wanted to create a piece of interactive media that explores the idea of illness from a child's perspective. Never Land's protagonist is a child, its settings and characters are whimsical creations drawn from one of the most popular children's narratives of all time, and the framing of the issues it tackles is meant to feel lofty and difficult to understand. In this way, I hope to open people's eyes to the experiences of children who belong to families that serious illness has invaded.
Establishing Complex Emotional Choices
The crux of Never Land's narrative is an important decision that the player is required to make at the end of the game. After engaging with each of the characters in Neverland (Starling's mother's subconscious), the player must choose whether to wake her or let her die. The player is informed that whether Starling's mother wakes up is up to them early in the game, and every interaction they have with a non-playable character is geared towards helping them make that decision.
I knew when I began this project that the best way to make my narrative interesting was to provide compelling reasons for both waking Starling's mother and letting her die. At first the choice seems obvious - of course Starling would want to wake their mother, but the more Starling learns, the more difficult the choice becomes. For instance, they learn that although they perceive their parents' relationship as loving and a solid reason their mother would want to wake up, in truth Starling's father had a long affair after their mother fell ill.
By adding elements of complexity to this decision, I hoped to reinforce the importance of the choice and also to make the player feel the same sort of sense of being overwhelmed that I experienced during my own mother's illness.
Bringing Characters to Life
Because I worked on Never Land by myself and had only 10 weeks to build it in its entirety, I knew that creating modeled and animated characters was out of the question. Therefore, each character is represented by a particle system and I relied heavily on dialogue and voice acting to bring them to life. I did all the writing and voice acting for Never Land myself, so I was able to build my characters from the ground up, developing them into fully-realized creations as I went.
Some tools I found particularly useful include speech quirks and different voices. By giving characters speech quirks like stutters, accents, or particularities in how they structure their sentences I was able to create a diverse cast. I leaned on my creative writing background to help me craft a script that allowed these speech quirks to shine.
As I built different environments for my characters to inhabit, I kept their particular quirks, likes, and dislikes in mind. For instance, Milk, the helpful spirit that accompanies Starling on their journey, is afraid of the dark. So when I placed her in the Yard, I made sure to place her in the direct path of a moonbeam rather than in the shadow of Starling's house or a tree.
Creating A Dialogue System
What characters say and do in Never Land is partially determined by the order the player speaks to them in and which parts of Neverland they've visited when they meet them. I knew that this dialogue system had the potential to become unruly very quickly, so when I began building the project I scripted a "character manager" that kept track of the player's movements through the game's world, which characters they had spoken to, and how many times they had spoken to each. I was then able to reference this script from other scripts attached to each of the characters and the player to determine which pieces of dialogue to play at certain times.
Planning for this complex dialogue system during the earliest stages of the project was a decision that saved me a lot of time in later phases of development. I was able to seamlessly add and change dialogue options in the Unity editor because of the way this system works.
This system also allowed me to manage other game-wide variables like which areas were unlocked and what decision the player made about Starling's mother.
Never Land is made up of a variety of different levels with different atmospheres and environments. Each of these levels is home to one or more of the characters, whose traits and purpose inform some of the visual elements of the level where they can be found. Each of these environments was created using Unity's terrain editor and assets from Unity's Assets Store.
Please note that the images in the compilations that accompany the descriptions of these settings are the property of their original creators and are not my work.
The rabbit stood on her hind legs and flicked her ear at Starling. “You’re a long way from home, aren’t you…” She hopped a little closer. “Are you lost?”
The child looked around the familiar dark. “N-No. This is…or…or it was...my home…”
“Your home..?” The rabbit hopped a little closer. “That means you’re the little one, with the bedroom that looks out over the ocean? Oh dear…you shouldn’t be here…You’ve got to be going…”
Starling's home and backyard are the first levels in the game. Here, the player learns how to move and is allowed to explore in a small, contained area. They meet Milk, the spirit of a rabbit who accompanies them along their way. If they explore a good deal, they can also meet Hook by talking to him through the fence.
The yard's design is simple and neat, meant to evoke a country house's backyard. The expansive wasteland that stretches out just beyond the fence makes the yard feel safe and homey.
“Stillness, child, is the antidote to non-existence. That is why I cannot come with you. I exist far less than you do…” She paused, face clouding with half-fluttering conviction. “But I will always exist more than mist.”
After leaving the Yard in Milk's company, Starling next makes their way deeper into Neverland to meet Tinkerbelle, whom Milk tells them might be able to help wake their mother. Tinkerbelle is representative of Starling's mother's femininity and spiritualism, both archetypes that are traditionally associated with water and fertility. For this reason, she dwells in a swamp steeped in water and lush, growing plant life. The swamp's misty, rainy weather and occasional strong winds add to the mystery and vibrancy surrounding the place.
The next rise brought them over the sloping cliff, and with that precipice came the smell of salt.
The sea? Starling wondered, blinking out at the gargantuan vagueness of the shore below. A storm brooded near the horizon, and a murmuration of waves fleeing before it cast themselves upon the rocks. A few gulls harped their voices against the cacophony, but found themselves drowned.
Milk looked up at Starling. “Don’t be scared, Starling! It’s not all grim.” She hopped to the edge of the cliff and smiled down at the cacophonous shore. “See that boat? That’s home to Mr. Smee, the brightest man in all of Neverland! You’ll like him. He’s colorful.”
Starling smiled. “Colorful…” So there are nice things here, too…
Never Land's Shores are a place of contrast. The cliffs that surround them are towering granite and the ocean is a turmoil of rough waves. But among these desolate things is Never Land's brightest character - Mr. Smee. His bombastic persona and the enthusiasm with which he greets Starling make him unique among Never Land's characters. Placing him in such a dark setting was a deliberate choice. In doing this, I meant to communicate to the player that positivity and encouragement can be found even in times and places of dark loneliness
“Oh it’s quite a sad story, really…” the Summerman said, tapping the old clocktower with his staff. He gestured out at the wide swath of vibrant trees. “You see I’m in love with a man who lives in winter. The Knight of Night, they call him. And the only place we can meet one another is right here in this old clocktower on the border of summer and winter. But it’s rather too small a place to be in love.”
The Forest is Never Land's overworld. Each of the four seasons is represented in one section of the level, divided by tributaries of a large river that runs from Tinkerbelle's Swamp through the rest of Neverland. Different characters inhabit each of the sections. The Forest, like most of Never Land's levels, is foggy and expansive. The player can journey through each of the four seasons and meet their respective characters, who guide them to entrances to other parts of the map like the Water Gardens and the Northern Peaks.
I differentiated the four seasons from one another by using different types of trees and different topography. Summer's terrain, for instance, is very favorable, while winter's is harsh and difficult to navigate.
The Water Gardens
The waterfalls around the edges of the clearing payed a singing tribute to gravity, draping lace veils of mist and flowing water among the rocks. Tumbles of bubbling water giggled and babbled from multitudinous streams to collect in opalescent pools sheltered by moss and lilies. The chorus of frogs filled the clearing with quiet jubilation, and every now and then a wind passing through the forest above caused a Dryad stir among the trees before they sighed back to sleep.
The Water Gardens are Never Land's most lively and vibrant environment. They are Milk's home, and representative of the joy and wonder of childhood, which was resurrected for Starling's mother when she had a child. The Gardens have a different atmosphere to the rest of the environments, with bright colors and intriguing geological shapes taking the place of mist and stark cliffs. As in all the places in Never Land that are closely connected to Starling's mother's spirit, there is a great deal of water in this environment. I experimented with camera effects like bloom and ambient occlusion to give the Water Gardens a different atmosphere from the rest of Never Land's environments.
The Northern Peaks
As darkness exists to bring meaning to light, so too does cold make warmth felt more acutely. This, it seemed, was the whisper of the whole empty place.
“If mama dies will it all turn white like this?” Starling asked.
“Maybe.” Milk’s voice brightened a little. “B-But I think it’s rather beautiful! For an ending to things, anyway…”
A gust sailed by, but with nothing to echo against it was hardly more than a whimper. Somewhere in the distance rock clashed against rock and sent a lonely, roaring cry up into the whited-out sky.
The Northern Peaks are a series of high, desolate mountains. Unlike other maps in Never Land, there are no characters that inhabit them. This emptiness makes them feel lonelier than the rest of the levels. I made this choice deliberately, because the Northern Peaks are meant to represent the loneliness and fear of death that accompanies Starling's mother's illness. While in the Northern Peaks, the player hears no sound other than the wind and occasional bursts of soft crying.
“What are you doing in there?!” Starling cried. “Mr. Smee says that water will kill you!”
Hook arched a perfectly sculpted eyebrow and tipped his head. “Well that’s rather the point, isn’t it? Have you been listening at all, child?”
Skull Rock is a dismal island surrounded by a sea of toxic water that resides off of Neverland's coast. It is home to Captain Hook, a solitary figure who bathes in the toxic water in the hopes that it can cure him of his "everlasting ailment" or kill him in the process. Skull Rock is stormy and desolate, and unlike other areas in Neverland does not allow for very much exploration. This was a deliberate choice, which I made to make Skull Rock seem like an unfavorable and unfriendly place to be.
“Where are you going?” The ghost asked. “You must be going somewhere. Nobody ever stops here. Bad for the complexion, you know, to be out of the sun for too long…”
Starling offered no reply.
The ghost blinked slowly. Its large, familiar eyes absorbed the half-dark and ricocheted back the wan blue of a forget-me-not among a sea of shattered glass. A train’s whistle startled to life and sounded a baleful warning through the mist. “Where are you going?” the ghost repeated.
“On,” Starling whispered. “I’m just moving on.”
The Wasteland is the desolate and empty field that surrounds the Greenhouse. The player can only reach it by speaking with Tinkerbelle after they have spoken to all the other characters in the game and chosen whether or not they will wake Starling's mother.
The Wasteland is little more than an open expanse with walls of fog blanketing its edges. It is covered in a plant called "ghost grass", which is only found in the Wasteland and around Skull Rock. Its emptiness and silence make it a good place for the player to reflect on their decision during the walk to the Greenhouse, which lies at the heart of the Wasteland.
It was fragile. More like a snail shell than a bastion.
There was nothing to it, really.
Only glass, and a single pear tree.
And the spirit, of course.
But after all Starling had seen, even Mama seemed small.
Too small to want to die, and too small to be saved.
The Greenhouse is the final level in Never Land. In order to reach it, the player must talk to all of the characters in the other levels and complete several small quests for them. When they arrive, they are faced with the choice of whether to save Starling's mother or not. They arrive in the Greenhouse after a long journey through the dark, empty Wasteland and find it the complete antithesis. The Greenhouse is small but full of life, with plenty of running water and fireflies to add a sense of peace and ease to the place.
Starling encounters their mother's spirit here, but is unable to speak to it. Instead, they must choose to go through one of two doors, which lead to one of the game's two endings.
Each of Never Land's characters represents one portion of Starling's mother's psyche and subconscious landscape. When Starling speaks to them, they often offer insight and opinions on whether or not Starling's mother should wake up. The relationships between these characters are complex, and they often speak to Starling about one another. The characters in Never Land are represented in the game world by different particle systems.
Please note that the images in the compilations that accompany the descriptions of these characters are the property of their original creators and are not my work.
“I came to get my mama back and that’s what I’m going to do.”
“This is an awfully grey place after all, isn't it?”
“If mama doesn’t wake up…what’s going to happen?”
Starling is the game’s silent protagonist. They are a genderless child born with the supernatural ability to enter others' mindscapes while they sleep. In Never Land they dive into their own mother's subconscious while she rests in a coma brought on by an unnamed illness.
Starling is courageous and mild-mannered, with a gift for making others smile. They enter Neverland with the hope of returning their mother to the world of the living. They are accompanied on their journey by Milk, a small, helpful spirit who takes the shape of a rabbit.
“Oh my...you're a long way from home."
"Of course your mama loves you. It's the only thing I know for sure."
"I wish I could give you my heart so you could feel things the way I do. Maybe then you'd understand."
Milk is Starling's guide and companion during their journey through Neverland. She is excitable, easily startled, and attuned to the moods and relationships of other characters. Milk represents Starling in their mother's mind. She is full of child-like wonder and speaks in a less formal, more approachable tone than the other spirits that inhabit Neverland.
Milk talks only sparingly to the player when the game begins, however as Starling speaks to more characters and begins to grow into an understanding of the complexity of the choice ahead, she starts to speak more. She offers words of comfort and encouragement to keep Starling moving through Neverland.
If asked whether she wants to wake up or not, Milk refuses to answer the question.
“As long as there are things that cannot be there will be fairies to rule over them.”
“Children know too much of love to understand what it is that grown-ups have forgotten.”
“To die now would make me a martyr, and I find great majesty in that. You see there is a terrible weakness in me, Starling: The need to be beautiful above all else.”
Tinkerbelle is queen of Neverland. She represents femininity, creativity, and spirituality. In the original story she takes on the form of a beautiful albino woman, winged like a fairy but human-sized. She is constantly surrounded by clear water and lush plants, and what little clothing she does wear is spun of the finest spider silk. When Starling encounters her and begs her to agree to wake up she is hesitant. She notes that she has been “greatly wronged by a usurping queen” (in reference to Tigerlily) and that she is hesitant to wake up as a result. She also fears the waking world because of the damage that has been done to Starling’s mother’s physical body by its disease. She is saddened by the reality that if she wakes up she will find herself “a husk of a woman” due to the weight loss, massive scarring, and baldness that illness and surgeries have wrought.
She is, however, both impressed and charmed by Starling’s ability to make it into the subconscious world of Neverland and agrees to take their pleas “into strong consideration” should they be able to bring back all the fragments of poetry she has lost due to memory lapses induced by neurological illness. In this way she is responsible for starting the player on their initial journey.
“Aye, it’s a trip that’ll kill you. But that’s half the fun of sailing there!”
“What on earth’s a child like you doing out here?! Come in for a cup of tea and a rest from the cold.”
“The Greenhouse? Aye I’ve heard of it. But I thought it was only a story…”
“I’ve a ship that’ll carry you anywhere you want to go. All you need is the will to get there.”
Mr. Smee is a wandering adventurer who travels Neverland’s coasts and offshore islands in hopes of charting them and making a comprehensive map of the entire island. He is bold, brazen, and kind-hearted and represents wanderlust, playfulness, and bravery. He lives on the coastline in a houseboat that has the capacity to become a sailing ship. When Starling and Milk arrive at the coast after crossing through the Forest he offers them both tea and a place to rest. When he hears about Starling’s quest he readily agrees to help. He tells Starling “the happiest days of my life have been treasure hunts and costume balls and storybooks with you”, and that he’s happy they came to aid the Neverlanders in waking up. He offers to take them to Skull Rock, reasoning that Captain Hook is probably responsible for the theft of some of Tinkerbelle’s poetry.
“If I am a villain after all my only crime is in tearing down a chapel nobody was praying at to begin with.”
“It certainly is a wondrous thing to be beautiful enough to be worth ruining a family for.”
“Guilty? Why should I be? I’m guilty only of ignorance, and of being alluring.”
“It’s not like I did it on purpose. She can call me usurper all she likes, it won’t change who I am.”
Tigerlily is the manifestation of a woman Starling’s father had an affair with following their mother’s descent into illness. Tigerlily is representative of the ideal of beauty and grace, the epitome of womanhood. However because of the fact that she is representative of an extramarital relationship she also represents insecurity and fear of inadequacy.
Tinkerbelle refers to Tigerlily as “the usurping queen” because of the tenseness between the two ideals they stand for. Tinkerbelle was the most beautiful woman - and assured of that beauty - before the affair. After Starling’s mother found out, however, she was obviously no longer so self-assured. This idea of the “usurping queen” stems from that lack of confidence.
When asked, Tigerlily says she is one of the pieces of Starling's mother's spirit who is the fondest of the idea of waking up. She does, however, see the “drama and majesty” of having died young and under such tragic circumstances. She has a special relationship with Captain Hook and tells Starling that if they can bring her a token from his ship she will grant them the gift of some stolen poetry.
“A child? How quaint. Well, don't go making a mess where you don't belong."
"Well, the poison's rather the point, isn't it?"
"That drowning fairy knows nothing of true power. To rule is to conquer death."
Captain Hook calls the dreadful, poisoned shores of Skull Rock home. There, he constantly bathes in the toxic waters to "condition himself to death." Before Starling's mother's illness, Hook and Smee were close friends, but a split formed between them over the question of waking up. Smee is eager to wake, while Hook is unafraid to accept death and believes a brief ending to things would be better for everyone.
Hook represents Starling's mother's powerlessness in the face of her illness, as well as the commanding presence she had before her illness. He and Smee are two sides of the same coin, with Smee embodying Starling's mother's relationship with her child and Hook representing her adult relationships. Despite his bravado, Hook is desperately afraid of death and the idea of dying.
“Nobody wants me to wake up. It’d be better if I died right here.”
“Nobody ever stays here…Where are you going?”
“Oh no…There’s a little ghost-seed in you already…”
The Ghost is representative of Starling’s mother’s depression, which has only been growing more severe throughout the course of her illness. The Ghost has no name, and wanders aimlessly about the Northern Peaks in an attempt to be alone. Starling first encounters it here, and struggles to get it to concede to wake up. At first it flatly refuses, but upon seeing Starling cry and fearing that a ghost may be growing inside them too it concedes on the condition that Starling finds it some kind of shelter in which it can be alone. This it does in an attempt to keep its soul from harming the other Neverlanders and Starling themselves. It also makes them promise that if their mother wakes up they won’t come looking for it.
The Ghost is under the impression that it is hated by everyone else who populates Neverland. In truth most of the other characters feel rather sorry for it or are afraid of it because they don't want to be trapped in its sadness.
What Went Well
- I was able to implement a great deal of working scripts in a short time. My dialogue and character management systems were especially complex bits of C# programming that I was able to get to work on my own.
- I feel the final product communicates my vision for Never Land as a story-based game with complex characters and an interesting narrative crux.
- I planned and organized the project so I was able to spend equal amounts of time on each aspect of it (audio, art, writing, scripting, design, etc.)
What Went Wrong
- At the time i built Never Land I had no formal level/game design training. I was relying heavily on instinct and trial and error to get my gameplay and aesthetics to work.
- Because of time constraints and the fact that I was working on my own, I was unable to implement all the content I was looking for.
- Because of the size of the project, the complexity of the scripting, and the amount of work I had to do alone, I was not able to test the gameplay very much. There are plenty of places in Never Land where the player can become stuck between rocks or other land forms.
What I Learned
- I learned a lot about the fundamentals of level design and how designers can lead players to new areas using landmarks, lighting, and sound.
- When building a game from scratch, planning is essential! Planning out the amount of time I could spend each week on different aspects of the project meant that I was able to make equal progress across the project each week.
- Differentiating characters in a large cast from one another is made easier by utilizing tools like speech quirks and different theme music, and by giving them a distinct and memorable relationship to the protagonist.