Log #1


I unfortunately didn't have much foresight into creating devlogs for this project while I was actively working on it. So, the only devlog that I have for this one is a postmortem of sorts that will basically cover the project from beginning to end. This was originally posted on Twitter but I've decided to clean it up and post it here as well. Enjoy!

I take some time at the end of every year to reflect. This year, I've been going through some old notes and came across my design sketches and development snapshots for Midnight Manor. I thought it might be a good time to revisit the project and share some of the journey.

The initial prototype of Midnight Manor was created during Ludum Dare 45. Much of the "Manor Prototype", as I called it, remained the same from this initial prototype to the full release that can be played today.

"Manor Prototype" Early Footage

I really wanted the theme of "start with nothing" to define the main character rather than any specific gameplay mechanic. The protagonist would be a desperate person who only has the clothes on their back, which would set the events of the game into motion.

My interpretation of the theme was admittedly loose and I knew it wasn't going to score me many points in the competition. Despite that, I loved how it helped define the motivations of the main character and allowed me to explore game mechanics that I was deeply interested in.

Before the theme was announced, I had already decided that I wanted to create a platformer centered around picking up objects and moving them around. Mechanics heavily inspired by games such as Super Mario Bros 2, Lakeview Cabin Collection, and funnily enough... Bible Adventures.

However, unlike those games, my goal was to create a short adventure experience unencumbered by direct threats. I wanted to focus entirely on exploration and crafting a passive storyline - something the players could optionally piece together if they were interested enough.

The Struggle

Once the initial prototype was complete, I started to lock down the art style and overall feel of the game. The initial player character design was much smaller and featureless, but I disliked that it limited my ability to inject humor into the character designs.

Early Logo & Character Design (Low Resolution 😬)

During this phase, I lost a considerable amount of momentum. The interations on art took up a large amount of time and I struggled to find a style that I was satisfied with. I knew that by the time I did - it would be difficult to meet the jam deadline. I felt quite defeated...

Despite the struggle, I felt great about the progress I had made and I knew the groundwork I had built would allow for a lot of creative freedom. So, rather than rush it I decided to cancel the jam submission and give myself some time to complete the game over the coming months.

After taking a couple days to catch my breath I wrote out a plan to complete the rest of the game. I gave myself a rough deadline of 5 months and got to work. My first task: level design.

This was the first time I had ever attempted legitimate level design - and it was brutal. Most of the "level design" that I completed in my prior projects really never influenced any of the gameplay. I soon realized that designing levels requires an incredible amount of playtesting and study to get right.

I learned a lot throughout the process and gained a whole new respect for folks who do level design well. While the level design of Midnight Manor is far from perfect, I think it serves the game quite well and overall I'm really happy with how it turned out.

The Manor Map

The Fun Stuff

With the level design complete, it was time to reward myself and have some fun fleshing out the more creatively satisfying aspects of the game, such as... [spoiler-ish stuff incoming]

...exploding viscera...

Exploding viscera in the Debug Room.

...capturing ghosts...

Testing the Vessel pickup in the Debug Room.

...and body parts raining from the sky.

Viscera raining from the sky.

As an extra, here's a super early implementation of the raining body parts without the art and one of the many variants of the protagonist.

Early viscera rain tests.

In the following months, I spent a majority of the time playtesting, adding coats of polish, and wiring up the endings of the game. Surprisingly, right on schedule, I launched the initial release of Midnight Manor on February 28th, 2020.

Shortly after, it was included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality which resulted in a huge influx of new players. Out of those players, a small community began speedrunning the game and provided invaluable feedback to help polish any remaining rough edges.

The Stomach Update

With the influx of players and feedback, there was renewed motivation to finish some of the cut portions of the game. So, I decided to return to development and add in content that had been cut to meet the initial release.

This cut content included two new "true" endings and a whole new area of the manor deep below the cellar - in the bowels of the manor itself. I called it The Stomach.

I had high ambitions for The Stomach, which ultimately led to it being cut in the first place. The most substantial addition was an optional boss that was an active threat to the player.

Initial sketch and rudimentary state machine diagram.
Final boss environment and ending sketches.
More refined ending sketches.
Ending triggers and additional boss state machine diagrams.

With the entire game being built around exploration, the idea of including any threat required difficult changes to several systems in the game. It also felt wrong to introduce different mechanics to serve a single area.

So, I trimmed the idea down while leaving the heart of it intact. I reworked the progression of this new boss to fit within the mechanics that already existed (picking up and moving objects), and crafted a narrative to fit the passive nature of its behavior.

Changing the boss from an aggressive threat to a passive manipulator also influenced the visual design of the character to match its temperament. And, unfortunately, the hands had to go...

Initial demon pixels. Just shaping things out.
Additional iterations on the demon design.
Verifying scale of demon to player and altar.
Final demon design.

Once the final boss had been completed, the next step was returning to what caused me the most trouble in the initial release: level design.

I wanted The Stomach to differ greatly from the tight, winding hallways that made up the rest of the manor. So, I designed it with much larger expansive areas connected in a symmetrical funnel-like shape that resembled guts.

Map of The Stomach

The area was designed to feel disorienting and unnerving compared to the rest of the manor. The mirrored funnel layout prevents the player from easily recognizing any landmarks while also forcing them deeper and deeper into its depths.

This final area amounts to something of a "victory lap" for discovering the biggest secret of the game. A jarring, contemplative stroll as you ponder the final decision ahead. I'm not sure this idea landed as successfully as the rest of the map, but I'm still very happy with where it ended up. It provided the narrative closure needed to complete the story.

The Stomach update was released on October 29th, 2020, pushing the overall time investment to just over a year.

Steam Release

Since that release, I worked toward getting the game published on Steam and adding in achievements as another way to increase the replayability for those players who were not interested in speedrunning. This ended up taking much longer than I expected, mainly due to the learning curve of the Steam platform, the Steamworks API, and figuring out how to cleanly maintain separate platform builds in the project. It wasn't the most straightforward process, but I feel like I've learned enough to make future releases much less time consuming.

Midnight Manor was released on Steam on October 1st, 2022, and despite it technically being a re-release it met my expectations. I hope that the release in October helped make it a memorable experience for new players. Also, I need to give a huge thanks to community member Vincent Soude for his dedication to testing and providing feedback throughout the entire process. Because of his involvement, the release went as smoothly as it possibly could have.

Final Thoughts

While I consider the game finished, I've since released several quality of life updates and will continue to do so as necessary. I still think about the game often and I've even prototyped some basic ideas of what a potential sequel might look like - should the mood strike.

I want to send out a big thanks to everyone who has supported the game since its initial release on Itch. It's been a wonderful experience and I'm very thankful to have such a dedicated community of players who helped me improve the game. Until next time!

Logged on April, 1st 2023