Super Flatline Fever - July 2017
By Christian Graham
Nose Art by Milos Kostic
Development Process / Post Mortem
While studying game design I came across the following concept: in order to make a game that is inherently fun you must design a game that is fun when the entire level and set dressing is stripped away. It’s well documented that Nintendo employs this philosophy when exploring new IP. When developing Super Mario 64 Miyamoto spent months playing around with movement mechanics in a white room until the movement felt fun on its own. It’s with this idea that I set out to develop Super Flatline Fever.
The Nightmare Nose
I started with the following objectives: (1) Design an interesting movement mechanic. (2) Explore the use cases of the movement mechanic. (3) Design levels that teach the various use cases without explicit instruction. Over the course of a couple months Flatline Fever had more revisions than any other game I had worked on. Honestly, it was a nightmare, but I was determined to finish what I had started. The game started as an endless runner in which you picked up collectibles to keep your heart rate going at a steady pace. Pick up none and you flatline, but pick up too many and you have a heart attack. In concept this idea sounded great, but in practice the execution was not where it needed to be. The movement wasn’t very interesting because it was an endless runner, and I wasn’t looking at it the right way. So I trashed the idea and started over.
** 1 YEAR LATER: In retrospect I would love to revisit this idea, but from a rhythm game perspective. The idea that you play a flatline on an EKG machine is fascinating. You could play with the idea that it’s an endless runner and your only movement is to spike up or spike down, but if you spike too much then you have a heart attack. Set that to a rhythm and you could have a great rhythm based endless runner.
A few other revisions occurred over the next month. One was a gravity switching game similar to VVVVVV and the other was a momentum based platformer similar to N++. The issue is that they all felt derivative and lacked the thing that made them special. I had detailed in my initial objectives that I intended to make something new and interesting. To make anything less would have meant failure. Looking back on this I believe the stress of my initial objectives was certainly putting a constraint on my creativity.
Putting too much stress on arbitrary objectives can constrain creativity and withhold you from completing those same objectives.
Dual Analogue Stick Movement System
Gravity Reversal Test Map
Hitting My Stride
Circling back on the flatline theme, I was fixated with the movement of heart rate monitors. I decided to play around and see if I could design jump mechanics centered around that concept. Within a week I had the movement mechanics I had been looking for all along in the form of Spike Jumping, as I called it. Spike Jumping felt new and refreshing, fit a theme that would allow people to inherently understand it, and was flexible enough to allow interesting level design. As I started “blocking out” levels for it I encountered another roadblock which set me back a couple weeks. The movement felt good by itself but when combined with the levels nothing felt right. It took me a couple weeks before I realized that I was designing square grid based levels for a game centered around jumping in triangular arcs. This made landing feel rough and lots of space was required to properly perform a single jump. In addition, platforms were missed all the time from miscalculating jumps. This is when I started to build levels in a much more free form and interesting way. I found that when squares and objects were rotated to the left/right by about 30 degrees it allowed the player to land much more often with the spike jump. Miscalculations were happening much less frequently which allowed me to focus more on actual difficulty instead of artificial difficulty that came from badly designed mechanics/levels.
It was around this time that I started messing around with post process effects and decided I was gonna shoot for a 80s/90s VHS feel with scan-lines and lots of glitches. It fit the theme and I decided to take it a bit further where as you collected more collectibles the scan-lines would start glitching more violently. This made for an interesting difficulty curve because as the game progressed you were likely to have collected more collectibles and thus your visibility would suffer.
Even though Flatline Fever didn’t turn out how I had expected. I accomplished the goals I had set out to achieve and allowed the game to grow organically in the process. I was able to accomplish all of this while growing as a developer. Without all the troubles I would have never truly learned the importance of designing your levels around your movement system. This could have been an incredibly easy lesson to learn that I figured out the hard way. I hope to return to these mechanics one day as a better and more thoughtful developer.