Survival-lite hiking exploration in a Firewatch style forest
Role: Game Design, Level Design, Narrative, Gameplay Balancing
Timeline: 8 Months
Calm, enjoyable experience
Rounded gameplay design
Summit takes place in an open map, but the player has a goal: reach the summit. I needed a way to invisibly guide
The game is supposed to be calm, different from action and generally demanding games. But to be engaging, I needed a reason for the player's interactions with
A forest landscape can be repetitive and players will get lost. They need ways to quickly identify where they are and where they want to go.
I created tools that the player has to find and craft in order to bypass some environmental obstacles. This way if they discover something early, they will have to explore more to find the "key" to this "lock"
The player has some typical stats: Health, Hunger and Stamina. They all communicate with each other but the player only needs to be passively aware of them.
Also, there is no dying in Summit. Instead they have to recraft
Summit has a handful of memorable landmarks: a canyon, a large natural bridge, a cabin and the summit. Additional is a river that runs throughout the level, a hand sketched map of said landmarks, and a compass on their hud.
As a social person and lover of the outdoors, the
covid-19 quarantine amplified my need to be outside and experiencing life. During a hike, I realized that most games that feature the outdoors come with catches of: survival, an in-game timer or something else to prohibit players from just 'existing' in their worlds.
I wanted to create a game that players will want to explore and exist in without a lot of challenge or the devs, getting in their way... like real hiking. Thus, after some field research of my own, the core experience of traversing the outdoors was established.
From there, my goal was to give players incentive to explore.
To contextualize the player's moment to moment gameplay I decided that we would give the player some traditional survival mechanics with one big difference: NO DEATH.
Hunger - depletes over time and is refueled by eating berries found in the world. As hunger depletes so will the rate health drains. This is to have players consider their resources.
Stamina - depletes as players perform taxing actions. If player use all of their stamina, health will be drained instead. This is to slow players down a little to enjoy the scenery, and also get them interacting with other parts of the world.
Health - depletes over time though slower than hunger does. I called it energy during development to always make sure we stick to the no death rule. Though a heart is the best way to communicate to the player it's purpose.
When health hits zero, the player passes out and reawakens with some in-game time passing and their tools gone but their resources remaining.
This is a light repercussion that doesn't bring progression to a halt like dying would in traditional survival games.
Additionally, I designed resources to get player's what they need quickly so they don't have to put too much emphasis on gathering and hoarding.
An example of player inventory. I designed everything on screen.
The in-game crafting guide. All resources and crafting components were balanced by me.
Using Metroidvania as reference, I designed the map to require certain tools to be crafted in order to explore new areas and progress toward the final goal: reaching the summit.
Full playable Map
1. Canyon (Tutorial)
The purpose of this area is to give players some resources to play with in the inventory, try crafting and get comfortable with their stats. Near the end I also placed a fully made tool, a narrative readable, and the map so they are fully prepared to begin their journey.
a. From the start, player's can see the summit
b. As they exit the tutorial area, they get a nice natural framing of the summit
The Cabin gives access to an axe to cut past obstacles, a match box for crafting torches and a narrative readable. There are also plenty of berries for the player to collect.
a. Cabin area, includes the axe head for crafting, narrative readable, lots of wood and a locked chest.
b. A bounty of berries
3. Rockslide Path
This area is one of two ways to get to the Upper Canyon area. Each are only accessible after getting the axe due to thorn bushes that have to be cut to bypass. This entrance has a minor narrative readable at the base
a. Players must have an axe to continue
b. Climbable walls for returning players
c. Continue to the upper canyon
4. Upper Canyon
This area is where the player get's the climbing axe, a tool that allows them to climb certain walls. After this, they have all they need to reach the summit.
a. Entrance from the rockslide
c. Cave exit near climb to bridge
e.i. Climbing pick tool
b. Other entrance from canyon (tutorial) area
d. Cave exit near rockslide
e.ii. Climbing to the tree bridge
5. Tree Bridge
This bridge is a secondary route that compliments the summit's main entrance on the ground. It's a direct connection from the upper canyon to the summit and back.
a. The tree can be seen from a distance.
b. This area can be climbed to later as a shortcut
c. Bridge the gap by cutting the tree
The final climb. There are two simple puzzles to make the climb feel more meaningful and keep player engaged, and two readables that complete a character's story arc. Along the path up the mountain I placed just enough resources for players to make the entire climb. Also, this area has the only unique music that adds additional layers as the player reaches the summit.
a. The main entrance of the mountain. Player's climb then turn right, while the cave to the right is the entrance from the tree bridge.
b.i. The first small puzzle. Players attempt to climb the wall but cannot jump the gap or cut the thorn bushes mid-air.
c.i. Player climb to get to the tree blocking their climb
b.ii. Players cut down the tree to bridge the gap, chop the thorn bushes, and continue up the mountain.
c.ii. Chopping the tree allows players to climb the wall
d. Right before the final ascent, I placed some resources to reward the player along with a narrative readable
e. The summit peak, featuring the end credits title
f.i. After the summit, there's slide back down the mountain
f.ii. At the end of the slide is a huge narrative beat and the key to the cabin chest
f.iii. There is a shortcut climb back up the summit that is accessible after the initial climb
Guiding The Player
Since the game takes place in nature and there's plenty of repetition in the assets, I had to find ways to guide the player towards the major landmarks.
The map and compass do a lot of heavy lifting, though I also made some clear sightlines in the environment.
I. When exiting the canyon tutorial area (a), the summit is framed as seen before. If players goes straight to the summit (b) they will have a direct sight of the cabin (c). No matter where the player is on the map, the stream leads past a few openings in the trees to the cabin.
II. A similar sightline is located between the cabin and rock slide. Where (a) there's a valley of tree trunks that leads to (b) a climbable wall. Since the player will not have the ability to climb, they wrap around to a rock that allows them to climb up (c).
III. The main entrance to the summit is on the ground (a), but players can also start from a cave (b), accessible from the tree bridge location (c).
I wrote the narrative to focus on a non-player character so that players could project themselves onto the character they play as, while uncovering a story at the same time.
The narrative unfolds by reading letters and journal entries found scattered around the world.
The premise of Summit has been the main appeal for people, and those that have played it have typically enjoyed the core game loop. It was shown during XP Summit 2021 and Toronto's Level Up 2021.
Strong Game Loop
The core game loop had people engaged for longer than initially expected
A lot of the fun was found in experimentation and exploration
A Fulfilling End
Finishing the climb was very satisfying for players
Places to Improve
Guiding the player
The map needed a few iterations before the landmarks stood out enough. The sketched map and compass solved a lot of that issue.
Survival Lite vs Typical Survival
Balancing the stats and resources to be the calm experience I wanted took a few iterations
The punishment for passing out was too extreme at first, I had to dial it back to be fair and retain the game's vision.
Some Of What I learned
A few mechanics established early means that time can be spent to make sure everything intermingles nicely
Double or even triple-up on key information such as landmarks
Open world / 360° level design methods
Inventory / resource balancing
Narrative beats and payoff
Give players the ability to experiment and reward them for it.