Hello, Alec here, talking about the visual progression of the Lens itself. The visual elements of the Lens sort of became a pet project of mine and I’ve been wanting to write this for a while. It got very long, so I’m breaking it into pieces.
Fall Quarter: Prototyping and Greenlight
The first iterations of the Lens came about before I was involved in the project. Back in the mythic and chaotic times of 170 prototyping. The very earliest iteration was a plane with a render texture on it, which lacked any clear border between each world. By the time I’d signed on, the shape resembled a mirror, with a thick border to make this distinction clear.
Going forward from Fall quarter, there were a few things we wanted to address. For one, we wanted the Lens to be a more actively mystical object. It needed to be one of the most interesting objects in the game to look at, as the player would be spending a lot of time looking at it.
Second, there had been complaints about visibility in the prototypes. The thick frame and narrow view made it hard to see things in the other world at times. Similarly, while the primary mechanic focused on taking objects from the alternate world, attempts at the opposite felt awkward. The Lens would flip, changing color and showing the player their own world. This confused people, and still left a large Lens in the middle of the screen, making it difficult to target objects.
Going forward I really liked the idea of an object that was truly multi-dimensional. It existed in both worlds, or between them, and by using and looking through it you’d get the sense that there was a much more complex device packed into another universe. My first real design attempt had the Lens as a frame. Whenever you switched modes, a glass lens would fold out from the nether-space it was too large to occupy and modify your view. This was before we’d even decided that there would only be two worlds, and were still considering special abilities such as the pushing/pulling of intangible elements , so having a lot of modes was a possibility
We also, at this stage, didn’t have a cohesive concept of a push mode (which probably wasn’t solidified until around the time we actually started using that term). Was transferring an object into the other world even something we’d allow? Or did the player themselves need to swap worlds and then transfer the object?
By the time our design doc had been completed, we had a much more solidified vision of both the mechanics and the story (both of which have changed quite drastically). The Lens would bridge only two worlds. It could move objects between worlds for a limited amount of time. Special functions would be pushed back unless we had the time and felt we needed them. The player could upgrade their Lens by collecting Lost Souls. The player would be able to use rifts to switch between worlds. Story-wise, the Lens was a mechanical device, built to harness arcane energies and we’d settled on an “atlantean” visual style to describe a world made up of both tech and magic. All these things needed to be reflected in the design of the Lens.
I played around with a few ideas over the break. My favorite, and the one I most developed, was the more mechanical Lens shown below. Building off the multi-dimensional Lens, this version would fold away into nothingness when not in use. Small “timers” would extend from the inside whenever the player transfered something, allowing them to keep track of it. I tended towards a circular shape and a much thinner frame, to increase the player’s view into the alternate world.
Winter Quarter: The Design
Initially appealing was the idea of a Lens that somehow folded away into something carry-able. This wasn’t so much a major design issue as something that bugged us. Where did the Lens go when not in use?
Richard in particular had a few interesting inputs, the ones I most recall being a Lens that shrank into itself in an irising fashion, and a wristwatch Lens that was always a manageable size. As seen above, I liked the idea of something that folded up and left only the handles. Up until this point, the Lens didn’t float and we assumed the player character was actually holding it.
Near the beginning of January, Franklin, Ting, and I put ourselves on the task of solidifying the Lens design, a task which would go on to span much of the next quarter. It was in these initial meetings that the Lens made up of multiple floating components came up, and the design of the Lens truly began to take shape.
The idea of a floating, disconnected Lens was appealing for several reasons. It was instantly mystical, being held against gravity by magical forces. The disconnected nature allowed a fairly unobstructed view, meaning we didn’t have to cram all interesting details into a tiny frame. It was very modular, meaning that it could be easily upgraded as the player progressed through the game and found Lost Souls (which was, of course, later dropped). Finally, it offered a solution to the fold away problem, as a floating device was easily collapsible.
I did some quick prototypes to see how Unity handled different types of animation, and discovered to my delight that Unity treated armatures like empty objects, meaning I could easily parent whatever I wanted to the floating segments. I meant this to be used for the modular add-ons, but eventually used it for particle effects.
I created the temporary Lens you’ll see in our earlier screenshots. It was a set of 8 cubes attached to an armature. 8 was a nice number because it let me easily create a circle shape. Similarly, certain portions could be broken apart for “push” mode, an idea I was playing around with to make the mode more distinct and less confusing. This is the birth of the octagon motif that can be seen in other portions of the game’s art design.
Push mode was still a problem. There were worries the still circular shape wouldn’t be a clear enough distinction (later validated by playtesting). Various ideas were thrown around. Many involved the glove, which had manifested around this time, both from our desire to include the character’s hands and from a desire to show some kind of control interface. The idea of a “gun” was brought up, but we didn’t like that, particularly because it was very Portal-ish.
Jokingly I told Adam Magleby we should just throw the Lens at objects and have it engulf them, which we decided would actually be really cool. I ultimately didn’t try this, as I wasn’t sure how easy it’d be to dynamically scale an engulfing animation to match the size of Lensable objects, and I had plenty of other things that needed my time.
Adam also gets a good deal of credit for the sphere design. I don’t recall if he was the one who came up with the idea of collapsing the Lens components into a sphere, but he definitely pushed for it the most.
At this point it was about the end of January. With these ideas in mind, I started sketching out more designs and encouraging others to submit their own ideas and feedback. That, I’ll save for the next post, as this one has gotten massive.
-Alec Asperslag, Lens Engineer.