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By Josh Blair on

Total Darkness descends: the online adventure game inspired by science capital

In part 4 of our mini-series, Josh Blair, Digital Product Manager at Science Museum Group, and Ben Templeton, Creative Director at game studio Thought Den, discuss the project highs and lows now it has finally launched.

How does the final project resemble the original vision?

Josh: When we first set out over 12 months ago we had no idea what the final product would be. An R&D phase helped us get closer but it’s been an organic, iterative process. We went through another short discovery phase with Thought Den, testing two prototypes before settling on a route. The constant throughout has been our learning outcomes, stating that players will:

  • Recognise using scientific skills like asking questions, teamwork, finding and using evidence, communication, creative problem solving, curiosity.
  • Make a personal/ emotional connection with a science experience.
  • Understand the relevance/ usefulness of science in our everyday lives.

Looking back at the game and the journey we’ve been on, these learning outcomes have clearly guided us and it’s really pleasing to how present they are.

Ben: The great thing about the brief was that it gave clear constraints without being too prescriptive. It allowed room for the team, Josh and co included, to really explore how it would manifest. So yes, they original vision and end result align, but not necessarily how we thought they would!

A story-based experience like this is something different for Science Museum Group. How did the editorial process work, in terms of setting, storyline, characters and tone?

Ben: Story isn’t the obvious vehicle for science engagement, so there was a necessary process of getting the wider team on board. Playing other games helped! Writing great stories is really tough, all the more so within the constraints of this strategic shift for the museum. We took it one step at a time. The easy bit was exploring the initial building blocks of character and location, but things became progressively more difficult as we wove them together into story arcs. Towards the end, it was satisfying when everything suddenly fell into place.

Josh: We knew that creating a story world that drew players in was critical for success, the format also gave us the opportunity to embed the science capital reflection points to create a more relatable story that allows players with all levels of understanding to access it.

The Total Darkness concept tested well with the target audience, they were intrigued by the mystery and motivated to find out more. Thought Den then ran a content workshop with the SMG project team to explore characters, locations and scenarios.

We came up with character personalities, motivations, backstory, relationships with other characters and where they could feature in the story. It was important that we included a representative range of people who players might encounter in their everyday lives and who use science skills in order to widen perceptions and help players feel science isn’t just for others. We wanted to avoid stereotyping characters as much as possible and include relatable locations that players would recognise in their own lives.

The SMG team went through quite a few content review rounds, suggesting changes, checking the science and ensuring it was appropriate for the audience. I think we’ve created an engaging story with characters and locations players can relate to, it was always meant to be rooted in reality, but with a few surprises along the way.

What are your favourite – and least favourite – parts of the game?

Josh: My highlight is a small feature that took a long time to crack! We debated long and hard the ways – from subtle to ridiculous – to highlight that players are using the same skills (curiosity, communication and creativity) that scientists use without it jarring. They’re skills players use in gaming everyday but never get pointed out. We worked it through with Thought Den and found a way to fold it into gameplay so science skill points act as a reward to key decisions.

Earlier builds had almost double the amount of text so reward moments were too far apart. We found they needed to appear more frequently for users to recognise them and take their significance on board. Our solution seems obvious, but we went back and forth on it for ages.

Ben: The aesthetic is really strong (I love the Hamster and Alien icons) and there’s a light-hearted, quirky humour to the whole experience. It’s perhaps a tad long for first-time players and we wanted to have collectible batteries on the map, but small niggles like these are inevitable.

Who worked on the game and how were their skills important?

Josh: This project has been a really collaborative process. We had a core project team of 12 people from across the Group who met weekly in person or via conference call. Eight members of the Learning resources team were integral to shaping content, reviewing builds and providing their expertise on science capital. Three colleagues from Audience Research advocated for the end user and facilitated testing at every stage, we tested with around 200 children! Two external critical friends, Violet Berlin and Becky Palmer, helped on narrative structures and content reviews to keep things fun and audience appropriate.

Ben: What a team! It’s great to look back and see everyone’s contribution. Branching narrative presents a uniquely technical challenge so the writing team grew to four at one stage. Hazel Grian did a fab job as Exec Writer, building out the world, and by the end it was all hands on deck in the battle to squeeze as much character and story development out of as few words as possible. Benedict Webb poured his heart and soul into the artwork, down to the smallest details like road-markings on the town map. I was blown away by how thorough and considered the reports from audience research were.

How did you settle on the art style?

Josh: The art style was very important to us, it plays a big role in drawing people in and counterbalancing the volume of text. 7-13 is a broad age range so we took care not to aim too young and alienate older viewers, nor too mature or intimidating for younger users. It is a game about darkness so it was always going to have a darker tone, but we didn’t want it to seem too dark and moody. Luckily Thought Den have the incredible Benedict Webb as Art Director, who added lots of little touches that make all the difference.

We made a range of art suggestions, from which Bene created three routes for us to test with the target audience.

From this testing we established the best style to take forward that appealed to a wide audience, wasn’t too young or too old, but also felt very different from the average game about science and anything SMG has produced before. We also wanted to ensure that the town, buildings and people were designed to be recognisable to players so that they were able to make connections between gameplay and their own lives, this took a bit of refinement to get but the final design captures this.

Ben: Our initial direction came from player feedback, and you might be able to spot the influence of the eponymous Oliver Jeffers. Bene is a perfectionist to a fault, whether it’s making a cob oven in his garden or finessing the hundreds of assets that make up the game. All seven characters went through various development rounds to ensure the ensemble felt representative. The detail is staggering in places – spot the crashed car on the map, or the little signs in the supermarket window.

Tell us about the process of building the game; what worked and didn’t work?

Ben: A branching narrative is about the hardest thing to collaborate on given the mind boggling volume of moving parts. The team built an awesome system for it and by the end there was this sense of a beautifully interconnected machine that we could nip, tuck and tweak. Credit must go to the Science Museum team, who gave us freedom where we needed it and gentle reproaches when we got carried away.

 Josh: The core of this project was regularly prototyping and testing. Putting artwork, game builds and content in front of our target audience helped us create a game to meet their needs as well as our own, and also identify if and how the product was achieving out learning outcomes. We had three rounds of testing, with one resulting in a big pivot that made the game a much better experience. The audience were clear on what worked for them and what didn’t, we did our best to accommodate with the time and resources available. Thought Den were excellent at communicating what was in and out of scope at each stage making it a very collaborative process.

What would you do differently next time?

Josh: Ideally we would finalise the content earlier in the process. We were still making content changes during the Polish phase when our attention could have been on other factors. There was a lot of content and a lot of stakeholders, making it a slow and time-intensive process. However, the organic nature of this project meant that we constantly learned from the previous test or prototype and put that learning into action. It was a very user-led process and it wasn’t really possible to rush these phases or second guess what we should do. I’m incredibly proud of what we created and can’t wait to see what a national audience thinks of it.

 Ben: Not launching the day I go on holiday would be great! But the real luxury would have been a little longer to polish the story and dialogue. Being more involved in the R&D phase could have helped the Thought Den team better understand some of the big decisions, but you can’t have everyone around every table because no work would get done!

Total Darkness is a free online game playable on smartphone, tablet and desktop. Play now at totaldarkness.sciencemuseum.org.uk.

 

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