Semblance takes players to a soft, soothing, squishy world, one they can deform in order to solve its platforming puzzles and to explore the environments in their own ways. With a hard thump from their blobby character, players can create indents that can be used as platforms, adjust the terrain to get around hazards, and otherwise use the land’s pliant nature to wander and maneuver.
“We stumbled on a sort of digital tactility. The sort of thing we’re all after when talking about ‘game feel’. We made something that really feels like some sort of digital playdoh,” says Ben Myres of Nyamakop, developers of Semblance.
This softness, which the player can see at a glance, was a key part of Semblance‘s play experience, intertwining with every part of the game and its creation. Through this almost tactile feeling the game gave off, players would have a sense of how to interact with it, and it also helped guide the developers in how they would create their game, allowing for a kind of creativity born of touch that would have the game’s creators and its players all having fun with it.
“The softness in the game was the result of a saturation of soft references from other games, combined with a glitch that we let ourselves find the fun in. A total stroke of luck that we then remade much of the game’s mechanics, story, and visuals revolve around,” says Myres.
Semblance came from a desire to create something soft and squishy from its very beginnings. “Cukia (Nyamakop co-founder Cukia ‘Sugar’ Kimani) made this prototype in university set inside a Rothko painting. You had this character who could change shape, and the idea was you would change the painting too. I begged him to let me do levels for it, and he eventually relented. From that point we focused on this interesting idea of the character changing shape and expanded on it mechanically. We also spent a lot of time making this character feel really squishy and soft – expanding on the character ideas in INK,” says Myres.
“For about a year, we focused on this idea and explored it, but it was hard to generate enough content and we discovered the incredible Mushroom 11, which did the idea much better. But we ventured on, and explored making the world of this soft character feel soft too, and so Cukia was making these little impressions when you touched platforms. They would also dent a bit when you dashed into them. This made the world feel really soft to interact with,” he continues.
This focus on softness came with a certain creative spirit – a spirit of fun being found in unlikely places, popping up where you might not be looking for it. Simply being able to make a dent in the ground when bumping into something lead to a further gameplay idea, this one born from a glitch.
“For a long time, Cukia’s favorite game was The Floor is Jell,y which has these wild jelly platforms and is so calming to play. I loved it too, but I was interested that the deforming itself wasn’t explored a ton apart from a bit at the beginning and in a fabulously glitchy way at the end of the game. So, when I saw this denting of the platforms, I experimented a bit and found that there was a glitch – if you dashed into platforms quickly enough, you could actually make them deform quite far beyond their initial position. I put a collectible behind one of these platforms and found you could actually collect it if you were quick enough, ” says Myres. “At this moment I turned to Cukia, and said ‘… Sugar… lets make this the whole game.’ I’ll be damned if he didn’t somehow figure out the blood magic that made it possible,” he continues.
With this glitch came the game’s play style, which would revolve around deforming the squishy world by thumping into it. The feeling that the world gave off, which the developers had been chasing, slowly seemed to choose its own means of interaction, giving Nyamakop an excellent idea on how players would interact with their world.
“The deforming mechanic evolved out of chasing a soft aesthetic, and we just kind of ran with it. Semblance is really just a game that asks two questions about innate affordances of the genre: what if you could affect platforms’ shape/position and what if the character’s shape could change,” says Myres.
-Photo Credit Nyamakop/ Jean Roux
Chasing Digital Softness
How does one make something ‘feel’ soft, visually? How do you make something have a certain feeling when no one will ever make real contact with it? This is a question that dogged Myres and his fellow developers throughout the creation of Semblance. However, it would also lead to them capturing many different ways to represent the feeling of ‘soft’ in their game’s world.
“It was really challenging! We got a lot of the feeling innately from the core mechanic of the deforming world – just being able to deform platforms makes players sense how soft things are. However, we spent a ton of time iterating on many things to make that softness clear at a glance. The character has a weight on deforming platforms, kind of putting little impressions on them as they move over the platforms. We also made as many things as possible jiggle and wiggle as you move past them,” says Myres.
Simply being able to have an impact on the ground in a visible way gave that feeling that things were soft. The player could sense that squishiness as they watched the ground move under their slime hero, as well as when it shifted due to an impact. Visually, this touch was enough to give the player a tactile sense of what the world was like.
Watching that ground bounce around the character also helped the developers convey a certain feeling in the world. “Weirdly, ‘springiness’ of objects also makes things feel soft,” says Myres. “If something springs back when you touch it, you brain assumes it’s soft to touch, and absorbs a lot of pressure before springing back. So, we put springs everywhere we could – to animate the character procedurally, to move impressions back into place, and of course to reset/deform platforms. Again, this is something we got from focusing on the core mechanics.”
The landscapes themselves, untouched, could also convey that sense of softness. “We also spent what feels like an eon in the concept art phase. We iterated through so many textures and shapes to try to find something that visually looked soft. We settled on something pretty simple ultimately: rounded edges for soft, and corners for hard things. We experimented with alot of textures to try to support the softness, but it was too tricky to get right, so we ended up putting textures only on hard objects to make them feel crystalline and hard. We also got a lot of tactility from the background and foreground elements our artist, Jean Roux, put together. Having rounded branches on trees, and even rounded mountains really makes you feel like this whole world is soft and squishy,” says Myres.
“Contrast also helps a lot here – making things feel hard helps the soft things feel soft too. So that crystalline texture on hard platforms and infected objects was important, too. Making spiky things dangerous and feel visually distinct to the soft things helped a ton as well. Additionally, making the character change shape when dashing into hard objects helps the character (who is literally a piece of the ground brought to life) feel ultra squishy and soft. The character is so soft that a hard impact with something hard will change its shape,” he continues.
Visual and gameplay elements contributed to that soft sensation, but the sound design was equally important in making players really connect to that tactile feeling. “The sound effects are also important, of course. We really gave our sound designer, Keith Kavayi, free reign on exploring this sensation. He went through lots of iterations to settle on the perfect balance of soft and squishy, but also springy and deformable. The game sounds soft in the right places, but also the deforming makes auditory sense too. He also made a wonderfully gross set of sounds for the character changing shape and drifting over the terrain,” says Myres.
This world wouldn’t have completed its soft sensation with a hard hero, which challenged the developers to make a truly jiggly blob hero for players to take control of. “The character was a really interesting and complex thing to make. Cukia started out with a simple deforming character in his first prototype, but we spent a lot of time deepening the feeling he had,” says Myres.
“To get a strong sensation, we actually had to procedurally render and animate the character. The shape is rendered using bezier curves, and then the character ‘frames’ are made up of bezier curves in unique settings and formats. Then we use a numeric springing algorithm to move between those ‘frames’, which acts as our animation. Then the eyes on the character also have specific positions for each animation, and jigglier settings on their spring algorithms that emphasize the motion and give the character’s movement a feeling of momentum,” he continues.
Having that wriggly character bounding about and reacting to the player’s actions, with both eyes and body, was key to making that rubbery sensation clear in the world. Making it react to the world it had misshapen was also important to that soft sensation, too. “Finally, the character also moves over the ground smoothly in any way it has been deformed. It’s not just the motion here, but the character’s shape also matches the shape of the deformed terrain, ” says Myres.
“Cukia always says ‘people think the platform deformation was the hardest thing to do, but it was actually making the character contour to platforms,’. This enabled us to make the character feel super jiggly in a ton of different situations, without having to manually animate every one,” he continues.
All of these things, working in tandem, would give Semblance its powerful, tactile sense of softness – that feeling that the player could reach out and find it squishy on contact.
-Photo Credit Nyamakop/ Jean Roux
Soothing, Soft Results
The results from the developer’s focus on sensation have given the game a great power, one many players react to naturally.
“The most striking example is kids under 5 playing the game. They can barely master the controls, and don’t really progress in the puzzles, but my-oh-my they love deforming the terrain – it just feels so good to them,” says Myres.
It’s an extremely satisfying thing to do, based on that sensation of visible touch the developers at Nyamakop worked so hard on. “So really, the deforming terrain is just an innately satisfying thing to do – people love doing it. It also puts them into the mindset of ‘this is a toy’, which makes them want to experiment and explore the game more. We also want it to feel soothing – because the enjoyment of the mechanic feels so good, we didn’t want to put in too many roaming enemies. It should feel relaxing and satisfying to play, not necessarily adrenaline-inducing. The soundtrack Daniel Caleb put together really deepens this calming feeling, too. We also tried to avoid too many hardcore platforming challenges to avoid frustration for this reason,” says Myres.
This softness, born of found fun in an unexpected place, would also tie into the game’s play style and its soothing mood, creating puzzles with various solutions that would encourage players to find out what worked rather than seeking some specific solution. Not that the developers knew this at first.
“We don’t mean to toot our own horn, but we could really tell the mechanic was interesting when we… well…had absolutely no idea what to do with it. We had to spent a ton of time exploring and really discovering how this mechanic changed the genre. We came up with lots of ideas, created dozens of puzzles, playtested them and then players completely destroyed our painstakingly constructed solutions. Designing puzzles for Semblance was like driving in sand, you can’t try to direct the car, you have to go with the flow of the wheel as the sand gives way here and there. We had to experiment, see players find alternate solutions, and follow them down the rabbit hole,” says Myres.
“Seeing as the mechanic came from a glitch, we had to be true to that starting point. We had to be aware of fun coming from unexpected places – undesigned places. Often players would create solutions, or try things that didn’t work, and we would think ‘Oh… that’s interesting. That’s a whole new set of puzzles to explore.’ We were discovering the possibility space with players as we went along. We also often found that it would be a mistake to try make single solution puzzles, and instead ended up with ‘solution ranges’. Most puzzles have many small varying ways to solve the platforms (as the deforming enables), and some even have major different solutions. As long as players are solving puzzles more or less with the specific tools we wanted, then we decided to leave those solutions in,” he continues.
In this way, the developers at Nyamakop had to be pliant as well, willing to bend and reshape their image of the game to suit what the players were drawing out of it, and the interesting ways they were playing with the toy that they had created. That softness, which bled into every aspect of design, was also personified by the attitudes and designs of its creators. They would allow themselves to be shaped by the game, embracing it as a mindset as well as a feeling to be conveyed.
As the developers opened themselves up to these solutions, more puzzle ideas came along. “At a more pragmatic level, as we discovered the possibility space, we started restricting it in certain ways (some things were technically too hard to do, or not interesting enough design-wise), and designing puzzles around certain interactions. Like as simple as ‘let’s make some wall jumping puzzles’ and so on. In this process, we made a bunch of puzzles for the goal interaction, but also kept finding other interesting interactions – so it was a rabbit hole all the way down,” says Myres.
“As we figured out the possibility space, we realised we might be left with an inaccessible mess of lateral thinking puzzles. This lead us to think hard about learning and the meta level design. We started to think through the lens of how a player would learn about deforming the platforms and the associated mechanics. We also wanted to avoid restricting players – if you get stuck on a puzzle that shouldn’t be game over. You should be able to leave, solve some other puzzles, and come back, perhaps learning how to solve that puzzle from a different puzzle further on,” he continues.
The world’s solutions would be pliant and soft as well, open to interpretation by their players. Open to new solutions, or leaving and coming back with new experiences. It would push the game away from that hardness that comes with focusing on challenging the player in a single way and forcing them to learn it, instead leaning toward a world that could be moved by creativity within the developers and those who would play Semblance.
“So, we spent a bunch of time figuring out how to teach the basic deforming aspects with level design, and then built up to our more complex puzzles. We also isolated mechanics to certain levels, so players could move between levels without necessarily having to master each level element. Then in the last 1 or 2 levels of a world, we challenge the player to figure out something tricky. This enabled a rather lateral mechanic, deforming platforms, to become quite accessible,” says Myres.
Softness infused every aspect of development, from a look to a play design style to a developmental philosophy, resulting in the charming, soothing experience of Semblance.
Semblance is available for $9.99 on Steam, GOG, and the Nintendo Switch. For more information on the game and developer Nyamakop, you can head to the game’s site, the developer’s site, or follow them on Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter.