Sean and I first came up with the idea for Eyes Open at a gamejam in 2013, long before we had decided to continue development on the project or had brought Sarah onto the team. If you don’t know, a gamejam is kind of like a developer party, where you’re given a category or piece of information to build a game around, and then you get a specific amount of time to implement a complete game. Our prompt was to design and build a simple game around the sound of a heartbeat. We had 48 hours to do so. As soon as the clip finished playing and we were let loose to start designing and programming, Sean and I both immediately said to each other, “that’s something to do with fear.”
I had been doing a lot of thinking about tradeoff systems at the time: trading health for mana, or strength for speed, etc… I wanted to build a game around something like that. I’d also been playing with the idea of self-manipulation: that a person could purposefully and tactically force themself to feel a certain ways because certain attitudes were more valuable than others, so my idea was to build a game where there would be very tangeable benefits to going insane : your player would get faster, new paths would open up, and so on… but if you went too insane, you would just die.
From my perspective, the idea was initially not only that beliefs and opinions could be actively managed, but that very dangerous attitudes could be beneficial if you managed them correctly and carefully.
Sean and I threw a lot of mechanisms back and forth for a good half hour, then started to shift to thinking about the player rather than the actual character on the screen. What if the benefits were related directly to the player, rather than just being stats for the character on the screen? What if the player had to choose between doing something that was uncomfortable for them and something that was in the best interest of the character on the screen? We were still thinking about fear and how people react to that, so we started to push around the idea of fear not being a resource that would be managed by a character, but by the player themselves.
What’s something that a player is going to really value that we could take away? What’s something that you take for granted in every game that we could very blatantly ask you to trade away for a necessary advantage? From a narrative perspective, what advantage would be so necessary and valuable that it would be worth driving yourself insane to get?
The ability to see.
If there’s one reason why I love the concept behind Eyes Open, it’s that in very simple terms it offers you so many choices to make and so many things to think about. We take eyesight for granted, it’s one of those things you just don’t lose. Getting a leg broken? I can process that. Not being able to see? Not so much.
It immediately forces the player to balance a lot of things. Letting your insanity drip too low is dangerous; monsters rapidly drain what’s left of your sanity, so if it’s already low, they’re close to instakills. Having a buffer area can mean the difference between living and dying in certain situations. But blindness provokes a reaction from us that is absolutely primal – panic.
The choice between dealing with that panic and staying rational vs. dealing with the difficult mechanics of trying to deal with sanity loss is a constant choice – it’s not one you make at the start of the game, it’s one you make every single second.
Additionally, it prompts the player to reassess what they can and can’t lose. All of our mechanics in Eyes Open are designed to take something from you. You never level up or gain new abilities. You lose abilities, and new monsters are designed to make previous strategies ineffective. You will periodically need to change your play-style, because the things you rely on for success are going to stop working. Which leads to an interesting back-and-forth conversation between us and you.
Can you still progress even though we have severely hindered you? Yes.
Now we’ll do it again. Can you still progress? Yes.
Now we’ll do it again. How many advantages do you actually need?
Moving back to the original topic, one of my earliest memories with gaming was playing a mac OS port of a classic game called Hunt the Wumpus. You’re stuck in this random system of caves with a lamp, and you were trying to catch this creature called the wumpus. The game was very primitive; it didn’t have a lot of sound or animations, but as a young child, it was absolutely terrifying to me. You click from room to room, waiting to die for asphyxiation or get carried around by bats, or worse, run into the wumpus itself.
What I got from that was the idea that there’s something very powerful and intriguing about consciously choosing to do something you don’t want to do. With Wumpus, the worst part was clicking the mouse. As I child, I didn’t really understand the mechanics or rules, so almost every click could be a gameover to me. I would wait for this really horrible scream to signify I’ve been caught by this beast, but I knew it wasn’t going to happen until I clicked the mouse. There would be a huge build up of tension as I decided which way to go, and either a wonderful sense of relaxation if I chose correctly, or sometimes, the terrible fulfillment of of all that stuff I’d been building myself up for when I chose wrong.
So that’s kind of what I’m hoping to recreate in Eyes Open.