Semblance – local indie’s solid footing on changeable ground

8 min read
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Two local game developers, Cukia Kimani and Ben Myres came together to form Nyamakop, a local game studio that is currently working on a puzzle platformer called Semblance. After getting the chance to play it at rAge, I had to find out more – about them, about the game, and whatever else they were willing to share. So, here is what we found out.

Nyamakop team

First up, Nyamakop is a pretty unique name. What is it? Well, it’s a portmanteau of Nyama which means meat in Kiswahili and kop which means head in Afrikaans. Together, it’s meathead. But why did they pick it? Well, it clearly localizes them instantly, and sets them apart from the myriad other indies with their gaming references as studio names. With that out of the way, their current project is Semblance, so what is it? In their own words:

Semblance is a puzzle platformer where your character and the world are made out of playdough. The world of the character, ‘Squish’, is usually soft and bouncy, but an infection of hard, crystalline material has begun to infect the world. By changing the shape of your character and deforming the world you solve puzzles to collect essences that bring your world back to its bouncy self, piece by piece.

Semblance 1

To make such an intriguing game, the duo have drawn on an excess of inspirational games. From The Floor is Jelly to Super Meat Boy to Super Mario Bros and Megaman, not to mention Thomas was Alone, INK, Limbo and Inside, the list just seems to go on and on. But that doesn’t mean Semblance is really like any of those games. While the puzzle platform genre might seem saturated to some, Semblance is actually pretty unique:

The originality of Semblance stems from its investigation of most puzzle platformers’ assumption that the platforms and world of the game is solid and unmoveable. Through changing this basic assumption, so many interesting things have come up. In Metroidvania’s you might not be able to reach a given collectible until you unlock a double jump ability. In Semblance you can simply raise the very ground up so that you jump from a higher point. I think the lateral thinking nature of many of the puzzles in Semblance allows the game to feel fresh and different.

We also think the meta-game structure of the game allows for a different feel – players feel like they’re exploring a world, rather than just completing puzzles in a linear order designed for them. This is a small distinction, but for a lot of players it helps keep them interested.

Semblance dentDown

Recently, the game went through a bit of a visual overhaul. It’s particularly important in this genre to stand out and seem appealing so that people will try your game and then fall in love with your mechanics. In fact, it’s all so interconnected. They told us that once they saw some new concept art, it was easier to bounce ideas around, “having a visual style helped solidify our narrative context.”

We’ve seen evidence that if someone plays our game for five minutes, they’ll get hooked on the mechanics. Unfortunately, mechanics are hard to make stand out – in a sea of screenshots, your mechanic won’t stand out. Your art style will. So the main reason for the visual overhaul was definitely to stand out a bit more – I think we’re getting there.

I’d certainly agree – the game not only looks cool, but it feels like a lot of fun to play.

Of course we wondered how developers actually go about making the puzzles for this platformer. How do you decide what the problem and solution will be, how do you put them in a logical order? It’s really quite a process:

The initial process of puzzle design is very playful! You just throw a bunch of level elements into a scene and see how the player can interact with them, and how the elements interact with each other. Doing this is actually how we discovered the deformable world as a usable mechanic! Doing this process you get ideas for little interactions to create puzzles out of, and ideas how how level elements could interact more.

After doing this for a few hours you have a bunch of interesting simple puzzles – they’re usually related to a general mechanical idea like “wall jumping” or “change character shape”. Your brain just kinda gets set on a train of thought and goes with it. Usually the puzzles are not really ordered in difficulty, so we do an internal playtest with people who really understand the game. Getting feedback here or watching people play usually helps find obvious breaks to the puzzles and shows which puzzles are cool, and which aren’t.

At this point you have a bunch of puzzles you know are cool, you move onto ‘level design’. The perspective I look through games at is based on A Theory of Fun, which basically argues that ‘fun’ is the sensation we have when learning, and that gameplay content is basically just a series of patterns that your brain is trying to figure out. Once you understand the patterns, you get bored, so keeping a player engaged is all about making sure they’re still learning things.

The general design philosophy of the game is “conceptually difficult, but easy to execute”. This just means it’s hard to figure out a solution to a puzzle, but once you do, actually executing it is easy. Enforcing this design rule allows us to reach a very broad audience, because not all players are good at pressing lots of buttons in a short period of time.

That last part is something I really appreciated at rAge. The game might confound you at times to figure out the puzzle, but once you do, it’s relatively easy to do the thing you see in your head. Sure, some coordination is necessary, but it’s unlikely that your experience will be undone because you can’t maneuver the jumps or you can’t handle the controls.

Semblance makes use of an overworld, where players can navigate and return to specific puzzles if they so wish. It’s part of the minimalist approach to narrative, but also a way to keep players from getting stuck.

We hate getting stuck in games. If we get stuck, we usually just bounce off them and never come back. Being forced to complete a level you just can’t understand is such a frustrating experience in games!

So the overworld is an effort to minimise this effect – we want to give players options on which levels to execute and in what order. We also want players to be able to quickly jump back to specific puzzles in levels that they struggled with before.

Semblance 2

Getting to show Semblance at rAge meant that the team got a ton of play testing. It was useful for seeing player responses, what worked and what didn’t. But it’s also something so much more:

At a personal level, watching people play your game is a trip. Watching people play your creation and giggle, smile, and grimace in thought is amazing. You feel a connection with that person, and you feel incredible to have evoked emotion in them. It’s very special. Games as a form of creation aren’t always that performative – so getting to see people interact with your work is very special.

But rAge is also a key part of the South African gaming world. It’s when we all descend on one place, all commune with other local gamers and realize just how many of us there are. Plus, it’s fantastic for the local indie game dev scene, of which Nyamakop is a part. But where do they fit into that local industry?

I would like to think we’re part of a wave of new indie game developers that’ll enter the South African industry. There are the established studios with many years of experience like Free Lives, RuneStorm and QCF Design, but there hasn’t really been any young developers entering the scene and successfully making their own indie games.That’s probably just because it’s so damn hard – you need money; knowledge and a good game just to even give it a shot. We’re kind of crazy for even trying.

Semblance dentUP

That said, I had to question their indie gaming credibility. I mean, who has ever heard of indie game developers who don’t have facial hair? Do indies need epic beards to have credibility?*

This is definitely true – which is terrifying because neither Cukia or I can really grow any D:.

Hopefully on launch of Semblance, our faces will explode with impressive feats of hair.

Semblance won’t be releasing in Early Access, instead hoping for a full release in Q2/Q3 of 2017 somewhere between R50-100. From what I’ve played so far, it’s going to be a fun experience that makes supporting local easy. Be sure to follow the team on twitter and Facebook, and we will definitely let you know when they are ready for you to throw money at them in return for gaming entertainment.

*Don’t worry guys, we know you’ll be fine. Just look at those smooth-faced Stasis brothers.

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Zoe Hawkins

Wielding my lasso of truth, I am the combination of nerd passion and grammar nazi. I delve into all things awesome and geek-tastic. I believe people should stop defining themselves and just enjoy playing games, so let's get on with it!

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