Messing with your brain in Semispheres
Published 3 years ago
How a cerebral puzzle game came to be
This is the story of Semispheres.
Chapter 1 - Symbiosis
It all started during Ludum Dare 30. I had played Brothers - A Tale of Two Sons earlier in the year and was fascinated by the dual control mechanic. When the jam theme was announced to be "Connected Worlds" I latched onto an idea pretty quickly. One of the things that bugged me in Brothers was the confusion when the two brothers crossed paths and the left stick would control the brother on the right side and the other way around. I saw this as an opportunity to "fix" this problem by splitting the game space into two side-by-side worlds and containing each character to its own side.
The finished jam game called Symbiosis had 5 levels, poorly explained mechanics and many more limitations. However, the feedback in the comments section was very interesting and divided. Skipping over the crude graphics and lack of audio, about half of the players got the mechanic in the game and the feedback was really positive. I felt the concept had been validated.
Chapter 2 - Fusion Orange
A couple of months later I started working on the game, hoping to make it into a fully released version. The working title was "Fusion Orange", tentatively going with a color scheme of red and yellow, combining into orange. The story at this point was still fuzzy, but it had something to do with the world being split by some evil entity, being up to the two heroes to bring peace to the world by fusing the two halves together. I worked with a local artist to explore some visuals around this theme but none of them seemed to work right.
The isometric/tilted perspective was just plain confusing with in this dual world scenario.
After dabbling with the pixel-art isometric style for a while, I made a switch to a completely abstract one. In the process I also landed upon the orange/blue color scheme:
At this time, I was still convinced I was making a stealth game. I read up on everything I could stealth related. Some of those guiding principles can still be seen in the game today. For example, one of my all-time favorite stealth games is Mark of the Ninja. One of the definining characteristics driving it is the visibility of information. Mark of the Ninja makes all information available and counts on the player to make the right decisions dealing with (almost) complete knowledge. This is fundamentally different from tension-based stealth games where it's not immediately obvious if a guard will see you.
Chapter 3 - Replicas
Around the time of the first public showing of the game, the new color scheme made the "Fusion Orange" title not accurate. Still unsure about the story, but thinking about something grim/futuristic, I chose the name "Replicas". The game started morphing into more of a puzzle game. Most of the levels had one prescribed solution.
The name change came with a visual theme change - main characters were now humanoid and the guards robotic:
The portal was introduced as a way of explaining the connection between the two worlds.
While still confusing when watching, during gameplay this made a significant difference in players understanding the main twist of the game. Looking at the game today and seeing the blue/orange color scheme and the presence of portals would suggest influences from Portal - but that was never the case. In fact, the portals as they exist in the game are merely cosmetic, representing a projection to the other side rather than a full-on crossing over.
Chapter 4 - Semispheres
While obvious in hindsight, the name "Replicas" was very unfortunate for SEO/visibility. Enter the fourth name, "Semispheres". I fell in love with this name because it worked on so many levels: it's a game that messes with your head, left/right brain hemispheres/duality, two halves. I also liked that it's well understood but seldom used word.
This is when a lot of the major additions to the game happened. On the graphics side, I was exploring a speed/turbo power-up allowing the characters to move faster so moved away towards a new more organic look (also hoping to fit the brain theme):
This caused a ripple effect of reworking all of the visuals in the game. All of a sudden, nothing fit in with the new characters. This ended up being the near-final look of the game, using the "wavey walls" effect as detailed here and the neural-mesh background:
Mechanically, new things were added to the game. Ironically, I first made the game to avoid confusion by constraining each character to each side. Today, the game brings back that confusion in varying doses through some of the mechanics like swapping sides, teleports:
There's an execution aspect to some of the puzzles that plays on the limited ability of us humans to truly multitask.
The story was also finalized and unsurprisingly it's brain-themed (though not immediately obvious how), presented via an overworld that also allows for level selection:
Chapter 5 - Finishing thoughts
I'm already proud of what my game has become. It's been shown publicly quite a few times now and the reception was very encouraging. I'm extremely fortunate to be able to make the game I want to make. Even after all the ups and downs, the "a-ha" moment when a player gets the first portal level makes it all worth it!
Radu Muresan