Creating The Year After
The Year After is a powerfully told narrative created in the style of a Nintendo Game Boy game. Pixel Primers spoke with the game’s creator Hadrian Lin to learn more about the game..
Pixel Primers: The Year After feels like a game that really embraces limitations, and ends up becoming something all the more powerful because of it. How did working with limitations help to shape the project?
Hadrian Lin: The game engine GB Studio and the Gameboy has graphics limitations. Portraits and character sprites were limited to 16x16px and 6 frames of animation per sprite. I decided to run with this and not use a lot of different facial expressions, animations or poses for the characters but express as much as possible with a single sprite and with small movements. Because of the low-res, players can't see detailed facial expressions, so they infuse the few pixels and subtle movements with a lot of personal emotion. When there are less specifics, players use more of their imaginations. Kind of like how a brief line from a book can conjure up more detail than an expensive CGI scene from a movie.
At the time GB Studio only allowed each scene to be 256x256px. This meant large maps were out of the question but everything had to be broken up into several screens. I thought about how to use this limitation which led to the idea that the landscape could shift or wrap around to control where you can go. The small screen/map sizes make it perfect for that. You see this when you try and walk backwards and are stopped by the land or when you move forward but haven't seen everything important yet you wrap around. This led to a disorienting but dreamlike effect and ties to the idea that the landscape is not a literal space.
GB Studio also doesn't allow much room for text in the dialog boxes. So I kept the dialog sparse and expressed as much as possible without text, using the "show don't tell" approach. When I look back, some of the original dialog was a little too on-the-nose. For example, the daughter was going to say something like: "I don't know if plants are your thing, Mom." But since I was already in the mindset of paring things down, I cut that out and communicated it in more subtle ways that players could pick up on their own. When players make the connection themselves, it draws them into the experience more.
The game design engine also had a limited set of gameplay elements that could be included easily. At the time it was basically dialog boxes and movement. (And selection menus but I decided to avoid using them) I thought about how to use those two basic elements to express emotion. At the end of the game, dialog boxes were used to interrupt movement and "accuse" the player. I also restricted movement in certain directions to make the player feel powerless. When there's too many tools in my toolbox I over complicate things. But it was refreshing to only think about how to use those two things. The core experience became more focused because of that.
We've seen plenty of indie developers draw inspiration from the games of the NES, SNES and Genesis/Mega Drive, but perhaps fewer developers have decided to re-explore the Game Boy and its limited colour palette. What was appealing for you about working with the Game Boy specifically?
The nice thing about working with the Gameboy is that I did not have to think about color and only had to focus on using 4 values. If there are a lot of colors to choose from in the beginning it takes a lot of discipline to keep it from becoming a mess. Working with 4 colors kept things simple and manageable. It meant artwork could be drawn up faster. In the future if I use more colors in my games I will probably still start with 4 values, and then choose colors to match the values. I recently watched "How To Shoot A Film At 3 Different Budget Levels" and saw parallels between working in low-res and filming in black and white. It can be liberating to focus purely on light and shadow and not worry about color grading. A lot of the visual distraction is removed. It is the same working low-res with a limited palette.
One of the major reasons I decided to make a Gameboy game was because I thought about what kind of experience I wanted to create and searched for the tool that would best allow me to create that experience. GB Studio and a limited palette was a natural fit. Making the Game without GB Studio would have been much more challenging and I would have to spend much more time dealing with technical matters. GB Studio was the most direct path to creating the experience I wanted to and I'm very grateful for it.
It’s impressive how much humanity and emotion can be conveyed even with the restrictions of the Game Boy. How did you go about making the characters feel like real people, despite the limitations you were working within?
Storytelling techniques don't require much technology and one basic technique is to give characters clear desires and goals. For example, the mother wants to paint paintings and nurture the tree. The father wants to take care of his plants and befriend the squirrels. We see them moving about and struggling to reach these goals.
Adding a bit of fake randomness, keeping character appearances brief makes them feel slightly elusive and more real too. For example, the player may see the squirrel watching from the top of a ledge. The player may try to walk up and around to reach the squirrel, only to find it gone. It feels like the squirrel has randomly scurried off to do her own thing. If the player moves away, comes back and the squirrel is always sitting there waiting in the same spot it feels like a fixture rather than something alive. By making the characters sometimes there, sometimes not, the player's mind adds more complexity than what is actually implemented.
It's the same with the other characters. They do not stay fixed in place waiting for the player to interact with them but they move around. They do not repeat dialog. When they finish speaking to each other they often walk off and do their own thing. If they are offscreen the player fills in missing detail and imagines them continuing on with their lives. By showing just enough but not too much detail, the player imagines a rich history. I was banking on the transitions scenes between the seasons to create this effect. It was a chance for the players' imaginations to do the heavy lifting.
For any developers who are inspired to make their own games after playing yours, how would you recommend they begin?
Just start. Keep your scope small and make something you can finish in a few weeks or months. Don't be too much of a purist and be willing to make small compromises to get it done. (In hindsight I needed to do that more) A small game that isn't exactly according to your vision but is released is better than something epic that never gets released. You learn the most when you finish and release stuff. Work a little bit every day, even if it's 15 minutes. As long as you never have a zero percent day it will get done.
The Year After is available to play here