Creative Processes: Game Designer Tom Kitchen

April 19, 2017 | 18 min read

Making of game Emporium

By Tom Kitchen

Illustrator and game designer based in Cardiff, Wales. Currently working with Blind Sky Studios while making little games on his own

My Creative Process

Hey, who are you?

Hello, I’m Tom – An artist and illustrator who has recently been trying his hand at game design. I spent a number of years in freelance illustration and graphic/web design, and a couple of years ago I teamed up with some buddies of mine to make video games under the collective title Blind Sky Studios.

What saucy projects do you have under your wings?

So the most recent and most saucy thing I worked on is Mandagon.

This was our first big release as a team and was a blast to work on. Prior to that we made a little game called Teyze that was part of an interactive art exhibition in Turkey.

Before all that I was just drawing pictures and being involved with local and not so local art galleries. A pretty hefty body of my work exists here.

Let’s talk about your new project ‘Emporium’, could you describe its brief?

“EMPORIUM is a short interactive vignette. Exploring notions of escapism, loss and a fragmented sense of self in the wake of a personal tragedy.

These pockets of dissonant clarity are a vain effort to find beauty, poetry and reason in one’s bleakest and most desperate moments.”

That’s my current press kit write up for Emporium. It’s a very personal project for me. It’s a very small game, lasting around 30 to 45 minutes. Maybe longer depending on how often you stop to smell the flowers, so to speak.

Please break down the process in steps

OK, so step one. This image was pretty much my starting point

Pilot, John Kennedy Road, Kings Lynn, Norfolk

It’s an old building in this tiny town called King’s Lynn where I went to college. It used to be a cinema, and by the time I lived there it was abandoned. That got me onto 1930s modernist architecture.

I was also really getting into artists like Timothy J. Reynolds.

And of course I was super influenced by games like Monument Valley, INSIDE and Kentucky Route Zero.

So having these cold soulless, redundant industrial backdrops house little pockets of intimate conversation seemed interesting to me.

I’m also interested in how death relates to life, how death gives meaning to life. Not in a morbid sense (although sometimes). More in a curious sense – exploratory. This landed me on the topic of suicide. It’s also something I’ve wrestled with myself over the years for any number of reasons.

So step two I guess. I initially set out to talk about suicide from an analytical standpoint. The plan was to essentially compose a psychology/philosophy essay on the subject of suicide and deliver it through a branching conversation between two characters while hinting and an underlying narrative.

This was very overambitious. My ability as a writer wasn’t any where near up to par. Despite doing a bunch of the initial research and notes, I found writing actual organic, natural sounding dialogue terribly difficult. As well as this, the whole thing was coming across too analytical and standoffish.

So what could I do? I could remove text all together – really play to my strengths and make the whole thing an abstract visual piece. But that would also remove whatever little game play I had, since the dialogue options were the only real moments of player agency.

It was stumbling onto this quote that gave me a focus –

“Analogies for personhood, for the self, for consciousness, exert great power on our thinking, and to think of consciousness as a locked chamber, to think of the contents of that chamber as perception that will thus seem ineluctably private, to think of our experiencing of the world as hidden, but hidden inwardly.”

– Garry L. Hagberg

This took me on a much more introspective path – less academic. More sensory. I started writing as if someone was retrospectively describing a conversation, talking more about how each person felt or acted as opposed to explicitly what was said, with occasional “dialogue options” to move things a certain way. This worked with my style of writing as well as my skill level. This more confessional approach led the game down a more personal route too. The game took overall a more intimate feeling.

The base narrative of the game would blur with my own internal sentiment. My own memories would become backdrops to memories of the lead character. It felt a little messy when I first set out writing it. Some parts would be thematically relevant plot points, some would be explicitly personal to me, while others would be a mish-mash of both. But it felt good, cathartic to be writing in this way, so I kept at it.

As I came to the end, the whole thing had a sort of purposeful incoherency. I was less intent on telling a direct story to make a point, or even make a point at all. Simply to have the game evoke a sensation. Unease and resolve. Self-deprecating and uplifting. All at once.

Step three. Now I just build the thing. At this point I have about 80% of the text written and 90% of the scenes planned out and something like 60% of them built already. All at various stages of polish. Since I’m designing and building all myself I decided to omit the concept art stage. I felt confident/experienced enough as a visual artist to just sort of see it in my head and then build it.

At this point I can play through a pretty solid vertical slice of the game. So I write the logic to have your dialogue choices be somewhat impactful on the game world. Serving to gate off and reveal plot points and incites. There’s even two VERY subtlety different endings.

Then onto step four. Music. We’re somewhere in February 2017 now and the project started back in September 2016. It was never meant to run past Christmas and I’m awful at gauging time scale.

My original plan was to work with a friend of mine Richard Jackson on the score.

We’d worked together on other games and have a strong collaborative rapport. Our plan was to hire a cello player and build the entire score around solo cello. However when it came time to really start on music Rich’s scheduled was jam packed and I couldn’t really afford a cello player! So I decided to jump on music myself. All and all, given the recent shift in the project, how it had become a more personal endeavour, scoring it myself seemed more fitting.

So when I first started I did my best to stick to the original plan of solo cello, but using digital instruments. Here’s the result of those early tests –

I mean it’s fine I guess, but I was never going to get the dynamics I wanted using a virtual instrument. Nothing was going to match the impossible thing I heard in my head!

So I completely abandoned the cello plan. The intention being to start from a blank slate so I had no predetermined imposable benchmark to meet.

So what do I have? I already owned decent virtual instruments for piano and acoustic guitars, as well as a pretty competent violin virtual instrument. So I went with that.

I set these pretty, melodic pieces alongside some simple industrial percussion stuff, some drones and a just a touch of synth stuff here and there. I included some diegetic sound as well, a bit of wind or electrical hum to help ground a scene, almost how I imagine you would for theatre – like not full detail, but just enough to set the scene. I sort of wanted to treat the thing like a silent movie. Try to make it stylized since I didn’t have the time or budget to do all the foley sounds and so on. I’m really pleased with how this turned out, coupled with the scale/perspective it makes the scenes feel somewhere between a stage set up and a miniature play-set.

So step five is mostly making and implementing music and sound, just linking things to the triggers I already had in place. I would also take a break from sound to polish off some scenes. Some of the scenes just had the bare bones they needed and hadn’t been touched in months – so I set about completing those while setting the music in place.

That’s it, five simple steps to make a game! Right now I’m 99.99% done, just a little polish and marketing work to do. I’m still wholly terrified to release the game. I’ve spent the past 7 or so months completely immersed in building this game and am somewhat institutionalised by it. Feels daunting to go back to reality, you know?        

If you could do it over again, what would you do differently?

I’d plan more from the start definitely. Do more concept art, a proper design doc. Although the game is still relatively small, it ended up being bigger than I expected, and so it took longer for me to make, that offset the planned start time for our next full team project. This is not good.

So yeah, if I were to do it again, that is work on a solo game development project in a small amount of time, l would plan more from the start and scale down. And find a way not to have to do EVERYTHING myself! With all that said, I’m still really pleased with how Emporium turned out!

Any learnings from this process that other game designers might benefit from?

So I’ve never really been able to sleep properly. Wide awake at night, and sluggish in the daytime when I was meant to be working, that sort of thing. So I figured since I work from home I could just work when I feel awake and sleep when I’m sleepy, no need to 9-5 it. But I kind of went down the rabbit hole on that one. I’d hardly know what day it was, working until my body wouldn’t let me do so any more. I’d take a coffee break at something like 5am and pass out on my sofa – then peel off and start working again.

My mental and physical health, even my hygiene all took a hit, as well as my personal relationships. This past 7 months have felt like a lifetime! My advice is don’t do that.

Treat the insomnia, work reasonable hours and hug your friends. No one should be impressed with how fucked up you got from making a video game!

Where can people see the final project?

Emporium will be available for PC via itch.io on April 21st. I’ve set up a holding page on itch.io here if you’d like to follow it. Maybe gamejolt in the future, maaaaaaybe steam later down the line too. Who knows, one thing at a time!