A VULGAR DISPLAY OF FAILURE : A Postmortem


The Psychological Set-Up for Disappointment:

1 - You are in a situation in which the outcome is uncertain
2 - You hope for a positive outcome
3 - You feel you deserve the positive outcome
4 - You’re surprised that you didn’t achieve the outcome
5 - You couldn’t control the outcome through personal actions

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I hate \SPEK.TAKL\. It's too short; it's pretentious; its influences are way too obvious; it falls short on my original ambitions; the few puzzles that are in it are stupid; it doesn't delve as deep as it could in its themes; it's buggy; it is a spectacular showcase of my own technical limitations; it's a product of fear, anxiety, compromise and impatience. I hate it.

This is basically the frame of mind in which I release each of my games. Eventually, the cringe dies off, slowly, over time, after I watched a few Let's Plays of it online, after my initial creative anxiety tires itself, etc. But I decided to write this Postmortem right in the thick of it, to get a snapshot of what it's like in my head at such a critical time.
As I am typing these lines, \SPEK.TAKL\ has not yet been released. It is about to though, I am applying the final touches and I am rushing to the finish line. But it's hard. I am tired of seeing the same environments, repeating the same steps when testing it, and I am growing unsure if it's any good or if the ambiance works at all.

I hope other creators feel similarly, where at some point during work on your creation, the lines begin to blur and you just don't know if it's fun or good anymore. This game sure isn't fun to me anymore. It most probably will be fun again in a few months after release, although I don't really replay my own stuff, too excited to work on the next thing. You know how it is.

Still, at the moment, I consider \SPEK.TAKL\ a failure. I am persuaded that, since I am making unusual interactive experiences, that I will find like-minded players that will confirm this. It's not a walking simulator, it's not a game... Is it even an altgame? I have no idea anymore.

Let this be a log of all the details of my failure. Hopefully, there will be lessons along the way, too, to justify this whole mess.

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[The view from my hall]

1 - You are in a situation in which the outcome is uncertain

When walking down the hall, in my dwelling, one has no choice but to stare at windows. There are windows on both ends, forcing you to look beyond the walls of the building. To the outside world. To the neighbors...and their own windows.
So there was this idea. I've always enjoyed just looking into other people's windows. Not really for prying purposes, but just to see how other people live. What's their banal everyday like? Can I feel how their home, their immediate environment, shapes their behavior, or vice versa? Inversely, others could want to look into my home as well. Others could want to observe me. I have no proof that nobody is doing that right now.

And so there was the embryo of an idea. The other half comes from my own personal anxieties. Because of course it is.

Whenever I retreat back into anxiety-managing mode, it includes a lot of sad self-medicating drinking and staying up late night watching Youtube videos of old 90s TV shows and channels. I deliberately try to recapture a certain feeling, a very personal one, where I was watching TV alone, at around 1am, back in my parents' living room, back in the day. This includes such specific television shows as MTV's Oddities, Aeon Flux, Beyond The Mind's Eye DVD, shopping channel, local classifieds on TV, etc.

So it all started as a window, a living room, a couch and a TV screen.

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[The main appartment]

2 - You hope for a positive outcome

For all sorts of reasons, this game is a much more personal affair than the previous titles. Honestly I hesitate to talk about its actual subject matter. The main apartment featured in the game has its layout based on a childhood friend's; some events and places shown are heavily influenced by some of my favorite movies and games; this much I'll admit.
The only other media-related skill I have that had yet to be included in my game-making toolkit is video editing. So to base an entire interactive experience around the idea of watching TV was a nice opportunity I gave myself, and it turned out to be a challenge. I wanted to produce a substantial amount of programming, enough to entice people to want to just sit down and watch it all, to really feed into the basic experience my game was trying to emulate : lonely late-night channel surfing.

By the way, I gave up early on the idea of surfing, changing channels, because I wanted it to be lengthy programming, and each channel would multiply the amount of work needed. As a compromise, I integrated brief channel surfing on the main menu screen. You did discover this little Easter egg, didn't you?

So I amassed a collection of public domain shorts around the web, which obviously means it's a lot of old out-of-copyright stuff from the 50s and 60s. Some of which is genuinely good stuff (that 'About Sex' educational short is mature, well-intended and well-informed...and I mixed it with another alarmist, kink-shaming and homophobic short to create a bizarre and violent dissonance that I'll hopefully be forgiven for using). I also perused Youtube for many vintage ads compilations and attempted to select ads for shops and brands that are hopefully not in use anymore.

The only detail of the programming I am still in doubt is my choice of a late-night movie. Of course I wanted a horror movie; I had to choose a public-domain title without it being The Night Of The Living Dead. Too obvious. Still, I believe my choice could have been better, although the movie I finally went with has a certain eerie feeling to it, even if it's more of a 'seasonal' themed movie.

So my first two months were used up preparing a basic living room environment and editing videos. That basic vibe had to be right, and as much as I am dissatisfied with a lot of \SPEK.TAKL\, I can say with confidence that the experience of sitting down and watching television has been tweaked to my liking.

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[The fake Red Room that teleports you into the actual Red Room]

3 - You feel you deserve the positive outcome

On a technical standpoint, I built the entire game around one Unity Asset (First Person Exploration Kit, which is great on its own, and the dev is an absolute gentleman/gentleperson who showed god-like patience for my sorry butt). My attempts to mod it to fit my needs caused a lot of problems, to the point where I definitely have to at least try to make my own controller character / inventory management system in the future, for better granular tweaking.

I used ProBuilder to create the environments inside Unity and this method of doing things came to its absolute limits. Of course Unity isn't intended to do all the 3D modeling inside of it, but still I persisted, because...that's how my brain works, I guess? I have to get into Blender now, I've avoided it long enough. I'll keep on with the low-poly aesthetics / simple models designs, because this is realistically what I can do on my own (and thank the indie game gods for 32bit-era graphics becoming a legitimate style, by the way).

If there is one area I am rather proud of, in the making of \SPEK.TAKL\, it's the sound and music. I take particular care in the sounds I choose to incorporate into my games, and this project was no exception. I rarely use a ready-made sound, always customizing it, mixing it with other sounds, to create the one unique, disturbing sound bite that's truly appropriate for the tone.

I've also started recording my own sounds, this time. Using this old Zoom H2 field recorder I had at home, I spend two days just walking around the house, recording my own footsteps, recording the neighbors conversing through the walls for a room tone that felt lived-in, VHS tapes manipulation sounds, etc.

For the soundtrack, I was listening to a lot of late-night-television-themed vaporwave (which, as it turns out, is a fertile sub-genre), so I was naturally inclined to create my own. I wanted to tap into this early-90s television sound : boxy synths that think they sound natural sprinkled with a little saxophone, layered over dry drums. Think a dark, twisted version of the Weather Channel background muzak.
The one tool I found for this is the invaluable V A P O R G E N E by IMLXH, in which you feed a piece of music (or sound) and just....let it do its thing. I took tracks from the weather channel archives and let VAPORGENE generate endless chopped up / slowed down / warped sequences, which were then cut up into shorter loops. Those loops were modified in Ableton Live until I got snippets I liked. I made about thirty or so of those snippets, and the best and most tonally-appropriate bits made it into the game.

At first, the way I implemented those loops into the game was a bit jarring : each room of the second apartment turned into a sound zone where short repetitive music would morph (or cross-fade) into another sound zone as the player moved about. But I grew to like it and now I feel this amorphous way of doing it really added to the mood. I might come back to this technique later on.


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[One of the possible second apartments]

4 - You’re surprised that you didn’t achieve the outcome

As explained in earlier postmortems, I design games using a very organic, unconscious method. I draw on some predetermined influences and try to build a game around them. Each decision was made only on the premise of feeling my way into the themes I wanted to explore. And, well...

...it's a silly idea, isn't it?

It doesn't work for me anymore. The level of complexity I can attain in my own game design now makes it difficult to just "feel it out". At some point during the production of \SPEK.TAKL\, I just knew I lost myself. I am now unsure the game conveys its message properly. I am unsure the tone is right for the second half of the experience. I definitely hit a creative wall and I want to change the way I approach a creative endeavor.

Which means that my future titles will be very different. Hopefully more focused.
Until then, though, this is the game we got. I had a lot of ideas I did not implement. I wanted a fourth VHS tape to come in if you waited too long to get into the red room. I wanted glimpses of a creature in the other apartment (just glimpses, no actual enemy, since the game is about only one person's perception, after all). I wanted more of the original apartment going bad before you went into the red room (damage over time, window glass breaking, stains on the wall, etc). But at some point, I grew anxious about losing my way, and scared of becoming bored if I spent too much time toiling away on the smaller details (which is not to say I did not do just that anyway).

So yeah, I hit a wall with that organic way of designing games. The scope kept changing all the time. So when I announced a release date of February 2019 (in the first official trailer for the game), I set myself a time limit, forcing me to cut down on ideas and features. It kinda worked at focusing my attention on a final incarnation of the experience.
And then the technical problems came along.


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[A fourth VHS that was cut from the game, labeled UNWATCHABLE]

5 - You couldn’t control the outcome through personal actions

Hardware partition failure destroying most of December 2018's work. Unity 2018 having serious issues with its video player (could not use SceneManager.LoadScene if a video was playing, which is ALL THE TIME in \SPEK.TAKL\, if you haven't noticed). Forcibly updating to Unity 2019.0.1 to fix that video player issue and then seeing some visual assets suddenly becoming unsupported (making that sweet, sweet VHS Pro look impossible,  which in turn screws with the correct visual interpretation of one of the endings). Having a portal effect asset deprecated during development and losing support for it. Etc.

Many, MANY times during development, it felt like a doomed project. I thought about giving up a lot. I am not a very technical designer (I don't code, for one), and so every little technical issue felt like a new mountain to overcome, a new opportunity to just trash it and go back home. I honestly have no idea why I did not do just that.

So the game became a series of tough decisions and compromises. The final version of \SPEK.TAKL\, the one you probably played, is not my total vision. It will forever be flawed, at least to my tastes; I do not see myself revisiting it anytime soon. I'd rather go forth with an entirely new project.

All of these technical issues are a big part of how I feel about the game. It turned into a labor of compromise and sacrifice, and I will never shake off the feeling it is incomplete.


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[A glimpse of the secret ending yet to be found by players]

I believe this entire Post-Mortem is a pretty accurate depiction of who I am as a creator : self-centered, anxiety-prone and hard on myself. As I am adding the finishing touches on this entry, the game is finally out. The first few comments and reviews about \SPEK.TAKL\ are coming up. I see some positive opinions about it. They obviously did not play the same game as I did. That's all I can say on the subject at the moment.

Ugh.

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Comments

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Interesting read. I think all developers truly feel this way when finishing a project like this. I just stumbled upon this game during my yearly gathering of horror games to play in October.
This one really stuck out to me, it hit *really* good creepy mood. After playing so many horror games and seeing a lot of the same tropes over and over, I tend to be a bit jaded towards this shit. But this Spek.takl had me experiencing some genuine dread after the VHS tapes started being delivered. Especially after the figure in the window appeared.
I wish it was longer, only because I was really digging it. Regardless I'm happy it exists and I found it, because its one of my top picks this month.

Hey thanks! I'm happy that my game would make top picks for Halloween month! :)
Guess I am as jaded as you are with the common indie horror experience, and I try to create a creepy ambiance based on  what I personally find disturbing. As for making it longer, I have ideas for longer games but I don't think this is the kind of tension that can be kept for a long time. It's a challenge I'll have to face in my future projects.
Thank you again, for taking the time to play!

You may hate it, but I loved it! It takes a lot for a game to truly freak me out but you achieved it. I'll post my gameplay on here when it's up. Don't be too harsh on yourself, please!

I just finished playing this game.

I love this sub-genre of almost surrealist short horror games, and I thoroughly enjoyed this game. The atmosphere was great, I really enjoyed the presentation,  and it was short enough that I didn't feel annoyed with any issues the game had. 

The only issues I had was a bug forcing me to restart the game from scratch (the  "System" menu stayed on screen even after closing the menu, and couldn't be closed at all), and it felt a little too short to get the message across, though I intend to play through it a few more times to catch everything and see if there's anything else to that. 

I know how it feels to be incredibly critical of work. I've recently finished a degree on game design, and in November 2018 before graduation I handed in a six month project where I helmed a team on my own and made a game together. At the end of it I couldn't help but feel incredibly depressed and like a complete failure seeing the quality of work other designers had their team put out, and I felt like I'd failed the entire team for not doing my best. I hated the work I had made, and was almost embarrased when the night came where we showed all our games off to public guests. I got a great deal of feedback that night, and it ended up being not as bad as i was terrified of it being. 

I really enjoyed this game, and even with it's shortcomings I think you absolutely have the potential to make something even better with whatever you make your next project! Thank you for not only the game, but writing this piece, I was able to relate to it and I understand how it all feels.

I wish you the best of luck with your future endeavors!

Thank you very much for the kind words. I didn't mean this Post-Mortem as fishing for compliment or anything, and I think you understood it the right way. As creatives, we face some specific flavors of anxiety that heals over time as we distance ourselves from the project and see it in the players' hands. That is one of the unique joys of game design, after all.

I do hope that my future projects will keep you as interested as you were in this one. Thank you for the time you put into it.

As with many people in my comments and my own Playthrough should of course bring out is, no one hated the game and, its as they always say - 'you are your own worst enemy' when its typically in relation to a creative department. Just make something that has depth, isn't half-assed and lazy (Like many other new-arrival indie devs that use Royalty Free assets) and, besides my own take on what I am Harsh about in indie horrors? Spek.Takl is, an Above-average horror game. I'm unsure if what I say will change anything, cause its hard to break out of bad habits, I know this - but, the best mentality to have is to always have both, 'Think on the bright side of things' and 'Think of the worst case scenario' and try to balance them - Release what you make thinking it's good, and for yourself Not to 'Prepare for failure by people telling you what you made is shit - but to look FORWARD to the Feedback, as a means to Grow.

As, what is there to fear or beat yourself up over it? Just a pursuit of nitpicking and perfection? The pursuit of perfection is that of self-destruction. Pursue flawlessness and if someone sees a valid crack in what you sculpt? Then it benefits you, if feedback benefits, why lament or fear 'the worst'? Everything can be perceive-warped to become positive if you try hard enough.

Well, outside of that - it's better to be hard on yourself in the rut of things, as it drives up momentum and 'Pressure', sort of like working out and trying to lose a fatty body where you want to become slimmer or more masculine, you look at yourself and go "I need to do more!", Distress and Eustress balancing is pretty important!

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Dude, thanks for the kind words. Let me reassure you, I am hard on myself because it usually works, as you suggest at the end of your comment, and for the rest I eventually find balance and make peace with the game after release. I'm currently in that process, where \SPEK.TAKL\ doesn't look so bad to me now. 

But I really dig your introspective slant, either in those comments or in your videos. I wish for you to get even more subscribers, and live off of your craft. 

And may great-tasting coffee find its way to you!

Hahaha, Cheers :) But - also one more thing, about the Window-talk, you should check out the game 'From Next Door', I believe it's on this site, it featured a 'Window to window' situation (a more horror aspect that delves into the eeriness of at least the situation you bring up). I think such situations of 'similar or homely comfortable situations', are always best for twisting into horror-ideas. I dreaded that window.

Personally, I loved this game. Played through 4 times to see all the alternate routes (though I'm intrigued about that secret ending you mention). 

I think you're setting the bar a little too high for yourself. Great games don't have to be perfect, they just need a little originality and creativity - something your games have in spades. 

Keep up the great work! 

If only there existed a machine to translate your vision into a flawless game... Ha! That would be amazing. Until then, I dream of perfection and end up a little frustrated when I can't provide it.
But as I mentioned elsewhere, it's just the frame of mind I'm in before release. Once the game is out and I can have some more feedback, I reach a better balance and make peace with the imperfections of the creation.
That said, thank you for the kind words. Your support is making an actual positive impact (I can tell by my analytics!), so your work is more important than you might realize it. Keep up the diligent work. You're a pillar of the indie scene.

Thank you very much! It's a pleasure to be able to spread the word about great indie games like yours. 

Sure, I get being in a delicate frame of mind just as you release a project, especially when it's such a unique vision. It really is an excellent game though. Keep up the great work! :)

I like it man come on

Thanks! As I mentioned, but didn't particularly stress, I wanted to catch the essence of the mental state I have right up before the release of a new title. It eventually changes into a warmer acceptance of what I can and can't do. Reaction is good so far, so it is encouraging. I'm psyched to work on something new to show all of you.