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Two Frogs on a Devlog: Siddarth
These two frogs were on a log.
If I could grab my game playtime stats from my childhood, the top ten spots would probably all be visual novels. Ever since that time, I've been itching to work on a visual novel like a cat that needs to chase a dangling string of yarn.
So I'm excited to share that we made a visual novel called Two Frogs on a Log for the SuNoFes '23 game jam. I'll be sharing our process and some dev stories in this devlog.
Two Frogs on a Log (TFOAL) is a short game about two frogs, Eleanor & Nikhil, introspecting on their lives on their way to work. Our initial idea seed was 'Frogs having a conversation on mortality'. We were inspired by the folk tale where two frogs are stuck in a jar of milk - one gives up while the other keeps struggling. The first frog drowns but the struggling fellow manages to churn the milk into butter, allowing them a better foothold and thus escape.
We felt that two frogs struggling with their approach to life was a good setup for us to explore themes of existentialism & nihilism. Thus, Eleanor and Nikhil were born!...but they were just one-dimensional points in space and our challenge was then to flesh them out and make them come alive. Chapin suggested a core question we needed to answer - what did our characters want?
To answer that question, I spent copious amounts of time reading about nihilism and existentialism - which led me to realize that absurdism was also part of the puzzle.
Here's my gross over-simplification of the three philosophies:
Nihilism is a point of view that says life is meaningless. There's nuance and variations to this view but the core idea rejects that there is meaning to our human lives.
Existentialism acknowledges that life has no inherent meaning or higher purpose - but it's up to us to choose to make meaning out of it.
Absurdism says the universe itself is irrational and that is in conflict with humans trying to find rational meaning in their lives. We can only really live our lives in constant rebellion of this absurdity, acknowledging it and continuing to search for meaning regardless.
Prototyping is an important tenet of effective game design. The sooner you translate your ideas into work, the faster you learn about what's working and what isn't.
You can see that we used photos of real frogs in place of our sprites. This is a game development concept known as 'stubbing in'2. A stub is any short piece of code or content that acts as a stand-in for the final work. Games have a lot of moving parts so stubs are useful because they let us hear the rough 'symphony' while we are still directing the entire 'orchestra'.
Silly and short as it was, the stub scene gave us a jumping-off point to write Eleanor & Nikhil's conversations. It also started us off writing in-engine which would help us catch bugs sooner and force us to write in a style that fit the medium.
Throughout the project, I also had several post-it notes stuck to the wall for my reference. Physical materials provide scaffolding to our thoughts and allow us to offload them from our memory.3 The physical notes helped me organize my thoughts about the project organically, as required at the moment.
We wrote four main conversation topics in the game, with two separate endings based on how stressed Nikhil is at the end. Apart from our initial character sketches, writing and editing the scenes helped us explore both characters and flesh them out organically.
It turns out Nikhil is stressed constantly because his work gives his life meaning, so any time away from it feels like a waste. In that sense, he feels like an existentialist to me. Eleanor, on the other hand, isn't a Nihilist like we originally planned. She deals with life from an absurdist perspective - something we tried to convey most explicitly in the endings.
I caught the string of yarn only to find the dozen-plus balls of yarn hidden under the couch. There were so many great games submitted to the jam and I was impressed to see the variety of themes and styles.
For now, we're back to full-time development on Skadi, but I have to say it was a very satisfying experience to watch Eleanor and Nikhil write themselves into existence.
Thanks for reading!
Download and Play Two Frogs on a Log.
1. The Living Philosophy, “Nihilism vs. Existentialism vs. Absurdism - Explained and Compared,” YouTube, May 30, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0aX8QMkFAI
Richard Lemarchand and Amy Hennig, “Chapter 29 - Stubbing Things In,” essay, in A Playful Production Process: For Game Designers (and Everyone) (The MIT Press, 2021), 297–302.
Annie Murphy Paul, “6. Thinking with the Space of Ideas,” essay, in The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain (Boston: Mariner Books, 2021), 139–62.