The original pitch for the game was as follows: Radiant Dark is a puzzle-solving thriller set in Antarctica. Vivian, an explorer, dies of frostbite outside a mysterious facility. She awakes in the body of a zombie, and learns she has the powers of possession and the ability to manipulate energy. Vivian uses these powers to solve atomic-themed puzzles in an effort to discover the secrets of Antarctica's Aurora Australis.
We set out to make a puzzle-driven adventure that encourages the player to learn story elements by exploring and paying attention to the environment around them. We looked at games like "SOMA" and "The Witness" and decided to make a hybrid game of our own. It was our design philosophy to stay away from violence and modern trends such as upgrades, experience points and skill trees. Our game is meant to be, at its core, an atmospheric puzzle solver.
During production our team used AGILE, a system that tracks the amount of hours worked, the hours put into a task, and the hours left in that task. Using AGILE helped us achieve our goals by mapping out our game plan, making it easy to tackle tasks and progress development forward.
Design was a collaborative process across the team. The core of our game was simply "discovery", and we tried to keep our focus to that term. The three main mechanics of the game became energy manipulation, puzzle solving, and zombie possession. Puzzles are the main focus, taking inspiration from games like "The Witness" both in their design as well as the environment surrounding them. Energy was used to push puzzle pieces, defend against a special foe, and possess zombies.
Possession was necessary to get access through security doors that required specific clearance. The player could not simply take key card tags based on reasons outlined in the lore.
We were confident to receive positive feedback when presenting our alpha build at four weeks of development. In our original design, we had created a large outdoor environment the player could explore with large atom-themed puzzles in each building. The player would, ideally (but not at the time), find interesting things beyond puzzles in every building and each one would have unique and memorable scenarios within. The player had to solve every puzzle to win the game.
We were hit with mostly negative feedback at our alpha presentation. The two large issues were the amount of empty space the player had to traverse between anything interesting and the few opportunities for the player to use energy. The game was ultimately a big empty space with puzzles in it, which forced us to go back and change our scope for the environment. The movement of our puzzles pieces were also way, way too slow and conveying what security access zombie bodies had was unclear.
After alpha we began to redesign our game. We decided to make one large building instead of a full multi-structure facility. This would allow us more room to polish the space we had to work with and move more puzzles closer together, following in the footsteps of "The Witness"s puzzle placement. We began to inject our art assets in the game, and delivered a very impressive "beautiful corner" (you can find this in the art book below). As we approached our beta deadline, our game was set dressed, full of lore, bug tested, voice overs, and most importantly: a complete experience with an introduction and ending. However, our beta wasn't perfect.
We lacked a proper tutorial to teach the player how to play, and the game overall was confusing and "boring". We had our final submission deadline approaching and were running out of time. Our solution for a tutorial was to teach the player the controls and mechanics through lore pickups. Some were as direct as showing key controls, and some were vague enough to require the player to think. As for being "boring", we included a new foe called Rengo. A dead employee of the facility, Rengo would appear at random times and chase after you, killing you instantly. The only way to defeat him was to put a lot of energy into a nearby lamp. A fully lit lamp would temporarily stun and hide Rengo when he came close enough, giving the player peace of mind to navigate the environment safely.
Our "final submission" at the end of the first 10 weeks went very well. We had created a complete game and received praise from our peers. I cut a trailer for our game and flew off to Game Developers Conference to share our work. That was only the first 10 weeks of a 20 week development cycle, and after flying back the team agreed to rebuild the game from the ground up and introduce a different art style and new mechanics.
Our team got off to a VERY slow return, not much progress was made on the game between weeks 11-14, and not much communication between team members was happening. We had given up doing daily scrum and switched to a more passive checkup system. The team was recovering from burnout, and it wasn't until around week 15 that things really picked back up again. We returned to daily scrum, communication between members improved, and progress started to move at a faster rate.
When rebuilding our game, the first thing we ditched was energy. We scrapped the idea of the player dying and becoming a zombie with energy manipulation at the start of the game, and instead gave the player a weapon-like tool called the ARTM (see more below). This tool allows the player to stun zombies in place or stab them for energy. Energy is used to fuel modules (upgrades) the player can unlock throughout the game. We reduced our puzzle count from 27 to just 3. Unfortunately we never made more than one module, and over the second 10 weeks created a well crafted game demo. While the game lacked content, the presentation of the game trailer won us "best trailer for all Studio III classes" and proved that if given more time, Radiant Dark could be something spectacular (see trailer on main page).
During the Aleutian Campaign of World War II, US Army men discovered that members of the Alaskan Territorial Guard carried quartz and textured wood prayer pieces used to “commune” with the aurora. After these army men seized these prayer pieces and taped them to their powered off radios to mimic the members of the ATG, the aurora reached down from the sky and touched the quartz, and the soldiers’ radios began functioning.
This incident gradually made its way up the chain of command within the US army, until it made its way to Washington DC. With the recent success of the Manhattan Project and the events that followed the Solar Storm of 1859 in mind, the government started up a new secret project to study and potentially harness the aurora as a power source.
Two facilities were created: one in Barrow, Alaska, called Inua North and one in Marie-Byrd Land, Antarctica, called Inua South. They both had the same goal: research and harness the power of the auroras.
Inua South is where the events prior to the start of the game take place.
Between 1950-1960, Inua South’s research teams successfully figured out how to harness the power of the aurora. They also discovered, however, that the aurora was a sort of sentient entity. Early into researching how living things interacted with the aurora, a team of scientists, known as the scientists of Faraday Lab North or the North Team, discovered that the aurora could lash out and make humans into mindless, violent creatures, not dissimilar to zombies. Their research slowly turned from science to religion, and team North began worshipping the aurora. When they were discovered to be doing so by their supervisors, they were reassigned to other research teams, and the North lab was shut down.
January 12th, 1960, was the date the facility tried to fully contain the aurora. They had had success with smaller scale containment, and they eventually build equipment to full capture it. The only thing they refused to factor in was whether or not it wanted to be contained.
Years later, Vivian Siegler (the player) is sent by the CIA to Antarctica to find out what happened at Inua, beginning the events that unfold in "Radiant Dark".
- Jessa Belote, Narrative Designer