Challenge 1: Multiple companion choices meant multiple versions of the game
It's no exaggeration to say that the original ambition of 3 companions would be triple the project work. We all knew our project scope should always be factored in, but it was felt by some that being able to choose a companion was the heart of the game. We had many meetings where we tried to find alternatives (i.e. planning for 3 but creating 1). After much deliberation and a great concern for our scope, we agreed to only do one companion and reintegrate a strong sense of choice and companion-bonding through the options and consequences of controlling your one companion.
Challenge 2: Narrative-driven vs. companion driven
It was challenging to blend a strong, linear narrative with puzzle-based companion gameplay. Typically, a puzzle pauses the flow of a narrative, but we wanted to dress up simpler puzzles with layers of narrative to minimize the complication of designing puzzles that weren't too hard or too easy. This would also drive the narrative more powerfully and more consistently. There were many instances however, of the puzzle dominating the narrative. As we fleshed out the puzzle mechanics - how they would work with input and a companion, and make sense in our particular game world - we learned that having it make sense from every logical angle made it overly complicated to design. Here is an example:
This isn't to say that figuring it out wasn't possible, but possible within our scope for making a prototype, or even creating our vertical slice? Perhaps not. So we agreed to chop it back down again to its most basic form; player brings companion to general "push down trigger zone", player pushes a button, companion pushes over a tree object. And then, figure out how to implement the tried and true "Teach, Test, and Challenge" approach, which we eventually accomplished. Next, the goal will be to add as many narrative layers as possible to it so that the player wouldn't notice or care that the push-down animation has a bit of a "snap to", or that the blind bear wouldn't have known to turn an extra 30 degrees to push the tree down from the right angle after you commanded "push down", or that the puzzle isn't incredibly hard or incredibly easy, etc. If anything, the goal is to make the puzzle a means of following and experiencing the story.
Challenge 3: Flying Too Close
I was concerned that we would be flying too close to some of our references, namely "Brothers - A Tale of Two Sons".
Brothers is beautiful and has an interesting gameplay that requires both characters to be controlled with respective joysticks on the same controller. Together, they solve environmental puzzles in order to save their father.
Our game is intended to be beautiful and have an interesting gameplay where the player controls their companion uniquely and together they solve environmental puzzles in order to find the player's father.
Even the art styles might end up mimicking too much. However, after learning the goal of thirds for game development (1/3 = what's already out there, 1/3 = make something about that better, 1/3 = do something innovative), I'm starting to think we're actually on the right track. We need to make sure that a huge chunk of our game is something that is already suitable for the public in terms of content and functionality; I think we are doing that. We also need to make sure that we're improving upon something in that mimicked 1/3; I think we are doing that with a simpler, yet stronger narrative-driven type of player control. Lastly, we need to be innovative which I think will naturally form. It feels like our current state is setting the stage for innovation, but we need to figure out some more things before we get there.