Saturday, June 30, 2007

Tree Story

I just wanted to share a quick design that occurred to me this morning. This isn't a design challenge since I don't have new graphics for it. We watched My Neighbor Totoro recently and my brain has been quite inspired by the scene where Totoro grows a giant tree from a seedling. I imagine that with a sufficient level of polish, this game might inspire some of the same feelings of delight and awe.

So I present to you Tree Story, a platform game where you grow trees in order to collect all the pieces of your broken heart.

The Tale
One upon a time, a young girl in love sang a most beautiful melody. A Bird of Fate, called by her song, blew through the window and struck her full upon the chest. Her heart shattered and she could love no more. Full of sorrow, she left her lover behind and began wandering the earth. She sits now alone on a land that borders a distance sea. All around her is emptiness. The only thing she owns is a single seed. If she plants it, it will grow into a tree. Perhaps, if she is strong enough, she can regrow her world and rediscover the pieces of her heart. Only then can she love again.

You control a character that sits in the middle of a scrolling screen. On the screen is a simple scape made of branches and foliage. At the bottom of the screen is the sea. You start on a small island in the middle of the sea.
  • When you press left and right, you can walk around the circumference of the tree foliage until it becomes completely vertical. Your character is always oriented relative to the normal of the foliage.
  • You can jump using the jump button (the up arrow)
  • When you jump, you jump straight out from the normal of the foliage. However, gravity points downward.
  • You have some slight air control when in the middle of a jump using the left and right arrow keys.
  • If you hit another bit of foliage, you grab on and reorient yourself to the new foliage.
There are many objects that are strewn about the world. You can interact with them in a variety of ways.
  • Picking up a seed: If you happen across a seed object, you can pick it up by running into it. You can only have 1 seed at a time, so if you run into another one, you will ignore it.
  • Using a seed: You can plant a seed by pressing the action button. When the seed is planted it will sprout into a tiny branch with a new bit of foliage. This slowly grows on its own until it reach a small fixed size.
  • Picking up flowers: If you happen across a flower object, you can pick it up by running into it. You can have as many flowers as you want at a time.
  • Growing a branch: If you stand at the base of a branch, you can feed it flowers in order to make it grow. By standing at the base of a branch, a HUD appears that instructs you how to perform the basic growing action. Hold down the action key and press up. Your flower count will decrease and the branch will grow. I can imagine turning this into a simple rhythm game, but for initial prototyping it is okay to keep it simple.
  • Bending a branch: You can also bend a branch. Stand at the base of a branch. Hold down the action button and press left or right. Your flower count will decrease and the branch and its foliage will grow. Branches can only be bent so much.
  • Chopping off a branch: You can remove a branch. Stand at the base of a branch. Hold down the action button and press down. A meter builds up and you give the base a mighty blow. The branch and any attached branches will be turned back into seeds that fall to the ground.
  • Picking up a star: Stars hang in the sky. Most of them you cannot reach. However, if you grow a tree, you can climb upon it and reach a star. When you catch a star, it pops and spits out a random prize. The prize could be a branch seed or it could be a dozen flower seeds. The prize falls down and rests upon whatever foliage it hits. Flowers seeds immediately blossom into flowers when they hit foliage.
  • Picking up a heart: If you happen across a piece of the young girl's heart, you can pick it up. Collect enough pieces and the girl is able to love again.
The basic game play

You start with a single seed that grows into a tree. You climb upon the tree and reach new stars. When you collect them they sprout into seeds and flowers. When you collect the seeds and flowers, you can grow new branches off your old tree. This in turn allows you to reach more stars and grow more branches. Eventually, you collect all the hearts and win the game.

Advanced game
There are numerous types of seeds, each of which creates a different branch.
  • Tall branches
  • Fat branches
  • Branches that sprout extra flowers all on their own.
  • Branches that sprout a specific type of seed if you feed them flowers.
  • Branches that are homes for little creatures. They tell you hints, bits of story and give you goodies. Give them a seed of the desired type and they may give you a rarer seed in return.
  • Branches that teleport you to another sister branch
  • Branches that sprout powerups that give you temporary flight or super jumps or double the number of goodies that you get from stars.
When night falls, more stars appear. When day comes, more flowers sprout and trees grow larger. There is a natural rhythm to the game world, despite its simplicity.

Winning the game
There is only one level in the game. This is not a puzzle game where you beat carefully designed levels. It is a playground game where you build and build and see how far you can get. The more hearts you get, the closer the girl becomes to achieving true love. Players who win will have built hundreds of branches and their tree will cover the entire map.

The game can be won, but it can't really be lost. If you come back to your saved game later, new flowers will have sprouted and new stars will have appeared. The little creatures on the map will have new trades and they'll let you know that they missed you.

So there you have it. There is a dash of Animal Crossing mixed with a hint of Knytt and a whiff of Little Big World. And of course, the spirit of Totoro. In my head, at least, it all seems like a pleasing way to spend an afternoon. :-)

take care


  1. The tree-building theme reminds me of On A Rainy Day. That game lacked in follow-through, but there was a nice 'flow' rhythm to it.

  2. I was going to say it reminded me of Vanilla. In this case, no natural rhythm, but it's more or less a purified version of "grow a tree as tall as you can".

  3. The tree building mechanism has been popping up in various places. I know I've seen some other grow examples on JayisGames. One a Rainy Day is quite sweet.

    The original inspiration for the building mechanic was these little Zolo tinker toys ( I think with the different branch types, you could build some very intriguing trees.

    It is interesting, though not surprising, how the same basic mechanic can be used to completely different thematic ends. Whereas many tree examples are action games of one sort or another, I was more interested in the player's creation of a world that they can explore and tend.

    take care

    PS: Updated the post with the Totoro clip. Ah, the joys of YouTube.

  4. This is a really interesting idea. Even though it's not a challenge like the previous ones, I might have a go at implementing it as I'd be interested to see how it plays.

    There are some general observations which I thought of as I was reading.

    The game can't be 'lost', but what happens if the girl misses a jump and lands in the sea? Would you want to give her the ability to swim, or would this be a game-over condition?

    Related to the above, in the example image, you've got a little island off to the side. Since the branches can only grow upwards, is there any way for her to get to that second island?

    Either the foliage areas need to make branches on their own in addition to your seed planting, you get lots of seeds, or seeds need to periodically spawn more than one branch. Otherwise you'd primarily end up with a tree that's essentially a single line upwards. I suspect that tuning this aspect might be one of the keys to making this enjoyable.

    Does this really need an end condition at all? You seem to be describing a sandbox in some respects, but having an ending seems to run contrary to that. Then again, having the player character unable to ever fully repair her broken heart is kind of melancholy, though that might not be a bad thing. Just some food for thought.

    I'm sure this is partly prompted by you mentioning Totoro, but the description, with the isolated island and the giant tree and everything actually brings to mind Laputa more than it does Totoro for me. I'm not entirely sure why.

  5. Hi Simon...great comments

    Water My though with the water was to have a slight current that pushed objects towards the land. This way, if flowers or seeds feel into the water, they would always wash up on shore. The same would go for the player.

    Branches: You can plant multiple branches on a tree. This allows you to create a branching structure. There is likely some heuristics that prevents you from planting too close to the base of an existing branch. The assumption is that there are quite a few seeds you find. You are correct that there is ample opportunity for balancing here. :-)

    End game: I'm a believer in long term end goals, similar to something like "Recover the amulet of Yendor" in NetHack. It may take your a very long time to acheive the goal, but it provides the player with a hint of reason to keep playing and exploring.

    Second island: You can bend the direction that branches grow. So it should be possible to grow a set of branches in a spiral that lets you drop down on the island.

    The bigger idea here is that there are a sparse set of features on the map, either in the form of islands on the water, stars in the sky or perhaps even floating temples. As the player grows their tree, they end up discovering interesting new places in addition to building their world. The level creature workload for the designer is much simpler since a semi-random distribution of 'interesting' locations is really all the game needs.

    Laputa: I have never seen Laputa! I'll put it on my list.

    take care

  6. Have you ever played any of the Grow games?

    you might find them interesting for this line of thought:

  7. Watching the Totoro clip, I can't help be somewhat charmed by the dance that they all do.

    Plant growth is such an analog thing -- in order to make the game as dynamic as possible, I think this could possibly be a good opportunity for an analog input device, such as a Wiimote, to be used to direct the growth of the tree.

    All in all though, I think the way you've got with the girl walking around and matching the normal of the tree is a very nice way of doing things, to try and get more "analog" growth of the tree.


  8. Question: For your PlanetCute graphics and these, is there an official license for them? Ideally, a CC one since they are graphics, but any would be useful to know. I'd consider this one, but I'm still working on the CuteGod challenge. :)

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  11. Thanks for posting that Totoro clip. :) I love Miyazaki movies! (oh, and Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky is what Simon was talking about when he said Laputa)

    While watching, I had some interesting thoughts - did you notice the nonverbal communication going on there when Totoro invites the kids to ride on his belly? Besides for the obvious body language and eye gestures, Totoro's small helpers communicate his intentions for him through imitation. Seeing the two spirits jump on Totoro's belly (and they seem to know what they're doing) along with Totoro's inviting body language suggest the intended course of action.

    Now wouldn't it be interesting, if you were trying to make an interactive story or game without speech, to have a character whose AI actually governs several: one important character as well as a few little companions. This would allow the important character to use the supporting characters to suggest a hypothetical reality - they would act out something for the players to imitate, or convey a simple message or story. Hmmm, this is really fascinating, I'll have to think more about it. I wonder what you think of it?

    Okay, now I can actually comment on your Tree Story idea! :p It's funny, I've actually had a quite similar idea, except it would be 3D and there would be demons attacking! The tree is more like a ball hanging in space, branching in all directions. It represents the World Tree, the network of the actual within the immensely multidimensional space of all possibilities. The reason the player is hanging around there in the first place is that demons from the Dungeon Dimensions, anthropomorphizations of unexplored possibility (from Discworld), are trying to get to the center of the tree and become real. As usual, it is your job to stop them (by shooting them of course) while working to seal up the break in reality through which these demons are flooding, by growing the tree to reach all four glowing star thingies before it is too late. It could be team-based multiplayer, and the demons would be procedurally and physically created and evolve chaotically through a simple genetic algorithm, and stuff like that, but you get the idea. It would probably work a little better in 2D. And yeah, that's my old idea that yours reminded me of.

    To reply more directly, I like your Tree Story idea - I think it's interesting that you want to make it sort of a sandbox-y game, even one that continues while you are not playing. It's not what I would expect, and I appreciate the fresh view. :) I agree with you that having a long-term goal, even a distant one, is a good choice. Particularly if you are making a small web game, players are more likely to keep playing if they know that there is an end state, and have some idea of their progress. I also like the night and day cycle. It makes the game seem a lot more epic than my first impression of it. I'm not so sure about all the powerups and having little creatures you can interact with. It would be cool, but seems a bit beyond the scope of the sort of game this is. Though maybe I just need to be more open-minded. :)

    Overall, I like the interesting combination of arcade-y action with a growth-based sandbox world with characters to meet and stuff to nurture and build. However, I wouldn't use the PlanetCute art style, which seems a bit too uniform and representational for such an involved game. Instead I'd use something with more texture, something where the trees have leaves and branches (I love leaves and branches!), something that emphasizes those little unique spaces found in nature, like you see in fractals or cellular automata or in a tree branch, which Knytt does so well. I would really enjoy a game like that. :) Maybe I'll try making it sometime.

    Oh, and I just realized I've actually had yet another similar idea to this one. Funny.

  12. Hey, didn't know where to put it (the other blog-comment-pages seems to be dead).

    I got the shadows of the CuteGod working, so i'm kinda proud on myself.

    Is there somewhere a central thread where you can still discuss this?

    The terrain is automatic generated by the way. Only have one block, but that's a small change. :)

  13. Uhh, not to spam the comments, but no one seems to be using them anymore, so...

    Hey, kv83! Another calc guy! I thought I recognized that domain name. :) Don't know if you recognize me, I'm axcho. Anyway, so have you been doing this non-calculator game stuff for a while now, or is this new? I've been focusing on Flash for over a year now. Yeah, so, it was nice seeing you here! :p

    There's no central thread that I know of on Lost Garden.

  14. I always enjoy reading your blog. It's such a great source for creative thinking. It's also great to see you've discovered My Neighbor Totoro. I run a Ghibli blog and I've discussed that (and many similar) movies. I occasionally show movies on the blog as well, at least until YouTube shuts them down.

    I think a game like the one you describe, where you create trees and forests, would be great. I wish there were more games that relied on creation than destruction. Animal Crossing is one such example of creating a game world free of violence and death.

  15. I’ve very much wanted to make a game where you tend for plants. One of my favorite games is Harvest Moon for SNES where you can grow a farm and pick up the village flooszies. But the growing sucks, it just happenes over time.

    I want a game where you have to water your plants at the right time, where your plants can be ruined by enviromental events or insect plagues. And the money you get from selling your plants/flowers/vegtables/cannibis or whatever you choose to grow lets you buy more seeds, fertiliser etc so you can grow a bigger better garden next season. I want my garden to grow organically and in a random fashion. I’m sick of games where all trees look the same. I want dying plants and happy plants. Happy plants is the game reward. Gardening is all about learning from mistakes.

    There is nothing more rewarding at looking at the hard work you have put into your garden and seeing beautiful plants as a result.

    I like your tree idea but it lacks something for me and it isn’t necesarally that the girl gets her heart back or not. I think the plant/wait/grow/jump somewhere/get new seed/repeat alternated by the occasional stuff up and break branch would get boring quite quickly. There is nothing to keep you on your toes, no wind to blow, or gravity to topple you baddly misshapen tree. Also imagine all the trees would look very similar if you went back to replay the game. I really like the idea of games that have no defined goal or endpoint, but the outcome needs to be in some way related to skill or learning the game mechanics e.g. “Next time I come back to play this game I’m going to be able to build a far more exciting tree.”. This game is currently missing that for me when i prototyped it in my head.

    Sorry for my critacal first comment. I like to challange ideas.

  16. Sorry if it's against rules to comment so late when this post was originally written.
    I think this is very good idea and it really inspired me. I have lately been thinking something like Pikmin, but I couldn't figure what plants (or plant creatures could do). However, this tree idea is great, and I think that I could plan to make something similar.

    Like Andre said, this game may become little boring after a while. In my vision, these seeds would be replaced with somekind tree creatures much like pikmins or koroks from Zelda Wind Waker. Three or so follows the girl. To add some excitement there could be some cute "enemies", which could harm your trees or disturb your plant creatures. You could make some warrior creatures which could challenge these disturbers and repel them away (I don't like that they would get killed because there should not be violence. Maybe enemies and your tree creatures try to frighten each another away by frightening -> silly facial expressions.). Game's main goal would be to find those heart pieces and explore the world and find more of those tree creatures.

    I think that those little modifications would add little more liveliness and action to concept. However this sounds very good concept and it put me to thinking.
    You have really good site. had to subscribe to RSS feed. Thank you for great content!

  17. It is nice. I like it very much.

  18. Sounds like this will be pretty cool...
    I hope you go through with it...

    (Sorry if this comment is late, I forgot to comment last time I was looking at this.)