HOWL: A TALE OF WOLVES

Student Project

Roles: Producer, Physics & Gameplay Programmer

Genres: Puzzle, Platformer, Story-based

Platforms: PC

Technologies: Custom Engine, JIRA, C++, C#, Git

Team Size: 9

Director/Producer, Programmer Samuel Soh
Co-Director, Audio Lead, Programmer Wesley Chen
Lead Designer Tan Cheng Ying
Lead Designer Oh Jun Yang
Lead Artist Tan Rui Quan
Lead Programmer Janus Quek
Artist Anthea Ko
Artist Ng Bing Han
Programmer Cid Lacuesta
Winner, Best Sophomore Game | DigiPen (Singapore) | DigiPen Awards 2020
Winner, Best Sophomore Technology | DigiPen (Singapore)  | DigiPen Awards 2020
3rd Prize, Claude Comair Game of the Year | DigiPen (Singapore) | DigiPen Awards 2020
Finalist, Most Innovative Design | DigiPen (Singapore) | DigiPen Awards 2020
Finalist, Best 2D Graphics Technology | DigiPen (Singapore) | DigiPen Awards 2020

OVERVIEW

Howl: A Tale of Wolves is a single-player platformer set in the harsh yet beautiful wilderness. In this interactive experience, players take control of an adult wolf and her young pup. When their home is destroyed, they must seek a new shelter. Together, they brave rough terrains and overcome dangerous obstacles through the seasons - but will it be enough to finally reach paradise across the mountains?

FOREWORD

The progress of human civilization has brought us new technologies and conveniences, and globalization has taught us how societies can band together to greater ends. But in this bustling world, we often forget the relationships and values that make us human in the first place - and lose ourselves in pursuit of perceived success.

The loving relationship of a mother and a child is known by many, far and wide. We acknowledge not only a mother's unending love for her child, but also a child's ceaseless desire for its mother. In its purest form, love does not demand for anything in return. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

For all creatures on earth, a mother's love stands unwavering, and tremendous sacrifices are made the bequeath the brightest future for her children. Howl was conceived to reconcile all of us with the perfect love that we experienced as children, and for us to reflect on the things of life which truly matter.

INSPIRATION

The concept of Howl was inspired by my co-producer and friend, Wesley. Intrigued by how it was possible to draw audiences of all walks of life into stories with strong auditory and visual cues, we challenged ourselves to develop an interactive experience which focused more on the story and experience we wanted to share with our players. We further developed this concept by combining the narrative with a theme that the vast majority of the world would have fortunately experienced - a mother's love. And thus, Howl - a chicken turned wolf game, dedicated as a tribute to the unconditional and sacrificial love of all mothers - was born. We hope that this theme would resonate strongly with players and deliver a unique and memorable experience for every single one of our players.

EARLY CHALLENGES

As a school project with limited time and manpower, a project of this scope was certainly risky. Even during the conceptualization phase, many concerns were raised by the team and instructors alike about the potential scope and vast quantity of art assets required to make Howl a truly immersive and impactful experience. At that time, the team had only consisted of four members from programming courses. Fortunately, we later attended a playtesting session which featured designers and artists gathering feedback for beta versions of their game projects, and was able to recruit two excellent designers and three amazing artists for their expertise in platforming and environmental art.

With most teams ranging from five to seven members, having nine members of the team was definitely a concern to many. Working with new members meant that we needed to adapt to one another's work styles, but the greater challenge was the potential communication overheads that came with a sizable crew. Nevertheless, everyone was motivated to deliver an impactful game that would leave a impression on its players. After successive meetings and discussions, we established a workflow that we were comfortable with - and promptly overcame the issue of communication.

EARLY CONCEPT

Our main focus of the narrative experience was narrating the unconditional and sacrificial love of a parent. With that in mind, we adopted the initial idea of having a family of wild chickens and chicks as the main characters of our story. Traversing through a forest, the mother hen would fend for her younglings against the many dangers of the wild unknown.

After gathering feedback from friends and lecturers, we realized that featuring an animal that primarily serves as prey limited the potential gameplay options. Although our primary goal was to invoke a sense of danger and vulnerability, only escaping from threats just did not feel right. We thus pivoted the game idea to feature wolves instead - allowing players to experience both the hunter and the hunted roles in the wilderness.

NARRATIVE DEVELOPMENT

With the basic concept now decided, we moved on to framing our entire narrative.

What emotions did we want players to feel?
Would anyone care about the story of a game? 
How should we capture these feelings in the form of a narrative experience?

These were the questions that we needed to solve. With our core theme centered around motherly love and interdependence, we felt compelled to capture the entire narrative across an extended time period. This allowed us to show the developing bond between mother and pup, as well as the pup's emotional and physical growth. 

To tell the story of the lives of wolves, it felt only natural to also employ the use of the natural transitions of seasons as the backdrop for our narrative. And so, we chose Spring, Fall, and Winter as the key seasons where major plot points would take place. We then did our research and explored the possible challenges that wolves would face during each season, and incorporated them into puzzles for the player to solve.

PRODUCTION CHALLENGES

Managing the production of Howl was an especially challenging task. As a student team, all members had to juggle three to six other modules in addition to contributing to the game project. Sprint velocities would nosedive in sprints which overlapped with major submissions, assignment due dates, and examinations of other subjects.

With each member undertaking different modules, we found it difficult to find a common time for us to meet in person and discuss issues pertaining to the game. Moreover, the varied modules led to an inconsistent external stress factor across team members, making the development process unpredictable as we would never know when an assignment would be due the following week.

To overcome these, we limited ourselves to planning only up to two weeks' worth of tasks each week, as ever-changing circumstances meant that we had to deal with changes to planned tasks and milestones. We also kept each other updated on the progress of tasks and prioritized features that would deliver the most value to players.

ENGINE TECHNOLOGY

With an ambitious game concept, we needed to transform the narrative experience into reality. We envisioned a generic custom game engine to allow designers to freely implement their ideas with minimal restrictions, so that our designs would not be limited by the technology which we provided.

Creating the Forge Engine -- an editor built from scratch in C++ -- was a technological feat which we never thought possible within the span of eight months. To support the heavy focus on art and animation, we developed a node-based animation system, which allowed users to easily set animation keyframes for spritesheets, and establish transitions based on animation parameters through a visual interface. With this feature, designers and even artists were able to fine-tune animations writing neither a single line of code nor editing a text file. This greatly streamlined the art pipeline, and allowed us to quickly implement vast sets of animations and transitions.

To ensure that the world was believable at all times, we faced an interesting challenge -- dealing with characters on slopes. The easy way out would have been to pre-define slope angles and create specific animations for when the characters traversed those slopes. However, we challenged ourselves and developed a custom physics library that was able to handle convex polygonal shapes and rotational dynamics. This allowed us to create colliders, obstacles, and slopes of different shapes and sizes -- freeing the designers to employ the use of shapes found in the natural world.

Finally, we integrated support for C# scripting, which allowed our designers to directly write gameplay logic for prototyping and implementation purposes. This proved to be an huge improvement in speeding up our development process.


ART & ANIMATION

Click to view the artistic development of Howl, alongside detailed commentary by the artists on the ideation process!

VIEW DIGITAL ARTBOOK

MUSIC AND AUDIO

The last piece to our development puzzle was music. We strongly believed that memorable music was key in invoking strong emotions in our players. We paid special attention in composing themes centered around motifs that would surely resonate with our players. To support the seamless transition between musical tracks, we developed a music system that would identify suitable transition points and switch between tracks automatically, resulting in players barely noticing changes between related musical pieces.

(Funnily enough, the end credits theme -- which we are most proud of -- Seasons, was conceived, written, scored, and recorded within the last month of development!)

With the guidance of our music supervisor Vuk Krakovic, we managed to develop tracks that blended well with the concept and experience of the game. Opportunities to write music for a game are rare and few - even more so is the chance to score a soundtrack for a narrative experience.

Enjoy the full Original Soundtrack of Howl below!


PERSONAL THOUGHTS

As the producer for the project, I found managing the intricacies of development both challenging and meaningful. Although I had served as a producer in previous student projects, this was the first development team that I was heading that involved programmers, designers, artists, and sound designers working together to create a truly inspiring narrative experience.

Each project comes with its unique set of challenges, and these often present themselves unexpectedly. Design changes leading to unused assets, disagreements between team members, bugs causing soft and hard locks -- you name it, we faced it. The unpredictable development journey of Howl has taught me that there isn't a golden production framework through which all projects would definitely succeed -- it's more important to adapt to change. We often tend to believe that our plans are perfect, but there is also beauty in adaptation; transforming existing processes and overcoming seemingly impossible problems.

I am blessed to have the opportunity to work with such talented individuals -- each possessing undying passion for their craft. Working on this project has motivated me to ponder more about team dynamics, communication, and game production; and I would without a doubt do it all over again.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the faculty of DigiPen Institute of Technology (Singapore) for their unending guidance for the project, and for always believing that we would be able deliver a quality game.

I am terribly proud of the effort and work that the team has put into making Howl an extraordinary experience, and it is my earnest hope that our players will enjoy the narrative experience that we have put together over the brief period of eight months. 

Howl: A Tale of Wolves is available for download for PC on the DigiPen Games Gallery.

Page last updated 06 November 2020.
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