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I Seem To Be A Rock – A Dev Diary

Kevin Zuhn here. How much do I like making indie games?

I made an indie game, while making an indie game, while making an indie game! This side side project of mine is called “I Seem To Be A Rock.” I’ve just finished making the game and I’ve submitted it to the IGF. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to talk about how it was made. But first, check out the trailer below!

Special thanks to Kevin Geisler for putting the trailer together.

You can download a demo of the game here: I Seem To Be A Rock Demo Download

For kicks, you might visit my website here: Kevin Zuhn’s Website

I Seem To Be A Rock is about a psychic rock called The Thinker who has suddenly become self-aware. He can astrally project his soul and then teleport to its location, though his body remains immobile and susceptible to gravity. With his abilities, he must surmount physical and mental obstacles between himself and a mystic blue gateway in each level. The Thinker also spends a lot of time pondering his existence and purpose, given that he came to life with pre-existing memories.

This is a brutally difficult game (once you get past the introductory levels) which will tax your reaction time, precision, patience, and logical thinking. The game is played almost entirely with the mouse and left mouse button. If you’re not challenged enough already, you can also try to master each level by completing it with the fewest amount of shots possible. Mastering enough regular levels will unlock bonus levels which are, of course, even more challenging. The bonus levels contain a side-story about something that is observing The Thinker, as She deals with existential troubles of Her own.

The Thinker as he's thinking.

It was April that I first started on the game.

Between my day job and the preparatory stages of Octodad’s kickstarter, though I was doing essential work, I felt the need to exercise my creative muscles. Every Sunday, I sat down and worked out a small prototype in Game Maker. I took whatever thought amused me at the time (often suggestions from the team) and built mechanics using colored blocks for graphics. I made things like a traditional platformer with crazy powerups, a game about trains with guns, a game about photosynthesis, and a game about a weird in-joke.

One Sunday, I was stuck on an idea about shooting a bullet, and then teleporting to where the bullet hit. I had originally included wasd movement in addition to shooting, but that made the shooting mechanic easy to break and far less interesting (after all, you didn’t need to use it as often). So I took it out and left the character immobile aside from his shot. On a whim, I decided that the shot was not a bullet, but a potential ‘him’ that represented where he might end up.

I called it Displacia.

You have to start somewhere!

As I got to the next Sunday and the Sunday after that, I found that I wasn’t motivated to try new ideas. I just kept coming back to Displacia, adding new levels and new obstacles. Over the course of four or five weekends, I had made it into a tidy little game that I regularly showed to my friends and coworkers. Funny story, I had played a student game that one of my coworkers made (a neat action-platformer on an alien planet)  that had whooped me hard with its difficulty. Because my coworkers taunted me for losing so much, I vowed that I would give him a game to play which would whoop him even harder. In that spirit, I felt the need to make the levels of Displacia very, very difficult. He did beat my game after much trial (and I eventually managed to beat his) but I came away feeling like vindictive grudge-level challenge made my game more interesting.

I moved into the Young Horses Corral at the start of July (and our Kickstarter burst onto the scene) and so for a while I forgot about Displacia. With a lot of pre-production to be done on Octodad (including the story and the comics), distance work to be done for my job, and a houseful of whacky friends, my time was pretty well eaten up and my creative muscles downright sore! Once in a while on a slow day, I would remember my side side project and think of a good idea for it. I tweaked here and there, added some new particles or another level.

I can’t pinpoint when, but another crazy idea bloomed in my skull. Octodad 2 wouldn’t be contest-worthy for maybe another year, but I had some standing promises that I would shoot for the IGF again. I had garnered a positive reaction from all of my peers so far, so why not enter Displacia? It wouldn’t be until around September that I seriously considered what that would entail.

Dear God! How did I make it even uglier?

Sending this game out into the world is so different from passing it around my chums. A lot of effort would be required to make this into a real game, not just a prototype!

I needed a menu and level select system to increase accessibility, I needed a scoring mechanism to reward players for playing well, I needed a narrative to bring imagination to an otherwise mechanically-driven game, I needed thrice as many levels as I had (puzzles are driven by content, I would say), I needed to make my art actually decent to look at, and finally I needed a new name.

At first, my starry-eyed idealism lead me to court my fellow Young Horses to help me complete this game. I had even gone so far as believing that we could remake the game in Unity together! Being sensible people who already have too many commitments, they wisely refused. To my horror, I was all alone in implementing these monumental changes. All of my big projects had been team projects, and none of my solo efforts have ever been put out in public. But my horror was replaced with grit, and I soldiered on when I had a spare weekend day and improved what I could. I focused mostly on the art and story at first, since I felt those needed the most work and the most creative juice.

When I thought about the player character being immobile but capable of crazy mental feats, I imagined at first a monk in deep meditation. That wasn’t strange enough (and as you might have guessed, I like strange). I wound up just expanding the fact that his early design was a square with face, and made him into a rock. A meditating rock. I kept pitching it like a comedy premise at first, but I write enough comedy as it is. I went for something more wistful, and decided that a mentally charged rock who was constantly thinking would have a lot of troubled thoughts, especially about himself.

With that new premise came the new title, “I Seem To Be A Rock” so called for what The Thinker says when he first wakes up.

I was trying out various art solutions.

While I was putting the game together on my own, it’s not like the Young Horses had disappeared from my life. They were my primary source of suggestions and tweaks and life-saving feedback. They graciously understood when I asked for about a week-and-a-half off from Octodad 2 to finish up this game. There was no way I’d get the game done working on spare weekend time with only two weeks until the IGF deadline!

As it turns out, I breezed through all of the things that I had planned to implement on schedule. It was the things that I hadn’t planned that kept me up at night. Collision bugs, performance issues, replacing the loading bar, screen size, making a trailer, creating sounds to replace the ones I forgot that I had borrowed from another game as placeholders, etc. Not that I was surprised when a million issues occurred (I’ve made games before) but it made me sincerely doubt that I would finish the game on time. My health also suffered, as I started getting migraines and flu-like symptoms. Between my sickness and my need to finish the game, I had to put all social and other responsibilities on hold. I even missed out on the Young Horses trip to the zoo, the photo shoot for the RedEye article, and more.

There was a heartbreaking moment on Saturday the 15th when I saw that implementing the game’s story the way I had planned caused the game to bloat in size and run at completely unplayable speeds. I frantically removed everything having to do with story and prepared to release an otherwise simple puzzle game. It wasn’t until Sunday night (approaching Monday morning) that I found a much cheaper way to include the story that left performance unharmed. I worked even more frantically (and on even less sleep) to get the story back in. I wound up submitting a scant 5 hours before the deadline.

Graphics! Gameplay! Sleepless nights!

Now that it’s over and done with I decided that I should write out my feelings and my memories before I forget them.

Having witnessed my fellow IGF games, I’m pretty terrified. I realized immediately upon finishing that I had pitted a tiny game made for my chums against a horde of professional, polished, incredible, notable games. Octodad may have some notoriety, but I don’t. Is it strange that I had 100% confidence that Octodad would be a student finalist last year? I can only hope that others find I Seem To Be A Rock as interesting as my friends and I do. Even still, I have no regrets having made it.

Not that I’m done with this game forever. If the response is positive, I have plans to bring it to iOS, and/or do other mysterious things with it.

Speaking of response, feel free to leave feedback here, my youtube, my website, wherever! I eagerly await it.

Thanks for reading!

~ Kevin Zuhn