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Designing Nightmares – The Making of Deeper Sleep

Published on October 31, 2013, in Games.

Some people have been asking me for a post-mortem kind of post regarding my newest game. So there it is. The making of Deeper Sleep. A short summary with some behind-the-scenes details regarding various aspects of the game.

I’m not going to talk here about technical details (at least not much), I’d rather focus on game design. Oh, and a word of warning: as much as I’d like to keep this spoiler-less, for obvious reasons there are going to be spoilers in this text. So, rather than obfuscating this post in a ridiculous amount of spoiler-tags, I will just ask you to go and play the game before reading this, if you haven’t done that already ;)

Engine and technical stuff

Since I’ve promised not to talk much about technical stuff, why not start with some technical stuff?

The game runs on a slightly improved and updated version of my custom point-and-click engine, originally created for Deep Sleep, then used in Don’t Escape. The engine (I call it PaC Engine, go figure) is basically a simple system that allows me to create a net of connected “rooms” or “locations” and populate them with clickable objects with an addition of a drop-down inventory. The fun thing is – everything in the game is a room. Main menu is a room – with hidden inventory and “New Game” button acting as a doorway. Hell, even my “a game by scriptwelder” splash screen is a room – with no clickable objects but with a transition to the Main Menu as a delayed auto-action.

Making of Deeper Sleep - Room example

Room example (without shadows overlay)

Making of Deeper Sleep - Umbrella Hitmap

Umbrella Hitmap (black pixels = clickable)

I know it’s not a rocket science but since many people have asked, I’m going to say few words about the engine, even though most of it’s features is just obvious and plain stuff. The engine is bitmap-based, with implemented frame-based clipping bitmap animations. Each room has its background bitmap and a foreground “shadows” bitmap. Each object in room has its ‘display’ bitmap ( which usually is a frame-set of an animation) and a ‘hit-map’ bitmap[*]. The latter is a simple b/w bitmap with an outline of an object, used for hit-testing. This allows me to make the clickable area independent from object’s actual shape and size. Useful when you try to avoid pixel-hunting, or when you have to make an invisible area interactive (such as an edges of the screen to walk left/right). Objects are never removed from rooms, even when picked up/used. If I want to get rid of something (for example player picks up an item) an “active” flag of this object is set to false and object’s bitmap shows it’s blank/empty frame.

One of the neat features of this engine is particle effect generator – you see the effect when “reality collapses” in both parts of the game. The mechanism behind this effect is really simple – an array of particles (pixels) is created, based on the initial bitmap and then each pixel is pushed into motion, with a specific velocity vector. Particles move away, revealing a bitmap behind them. In part one it’s also used for code scrubbing, wall demolishing and one of the Night Folk’s death scene. In part two you can see some particles when playing with the fountain.

Some perceptive players have noticed a few simple shadows effects – visible mostly in the Classroom location. This is achieved by some additional bitmaps of certain objects. Those “shadow bitmaps” are named “up”, “down”, “left” and “right” and displayed with various amounts of alpha channel, depending on mouse position.

An interesting fact – since I’ve started developing Deeper Sleep back in 2012, engine used in it is older than the one from 2013 game Don’t Escape. The main differences are:

1) Don’t Escape supports scrolled bitmaps animations (used for clouds) – not present in Deeper Sleep

Making of Deeper Sleep - Fully filled inventory

Fully filled inventory

2) Don’t Escape supports “compressable” inventory, allowing more items to be gathered and displayed, stacking them on each other if needed unless mouse rolls over. Deeper Sleep was developed without this feature, which led to some design limitations. In both games, at any given point in time, player can’t have more than 9 items. The game had to be carefully designed in such a way to make it impossible to break that rule, while there is much more than 9 items in total available.

Previously on Deep Sleep

One of the first challenges I’ve faced was  designing the story in such a way that would be interesting for both returning and new players. I realized it’s probably going to take a long time to release a sequel (turns out I was right – it took almost whole year, which is – for a Flash game – an eternity). This meant that a large portion of players familiar with part one will a) lose interest b) forget everything. And while I had this “Play Part 1″ button in the main menu, I couldn’t expect all the people to go and play it prior to this one.

The Making of Deeper Sleep - Deeper Sleep and it's traffic impact on Deep Sleep

Deeper Sleep and it’s traffic impact on Deep Sleep

It DID happen to a certain degree, as my statistics depict (see the picture).

Still, only a fraction of players decided to check out/remind themselves part one of the game. I knew it was going to happen and because of that I had to design game’s plot accordingly. I’ll say more about that in a moment – first I wanted to point out an interesting observation. As it turns out, some of the players didn’t even realize they were playing a sequel.

Oh so this is a sequel?

I’ve come to a point where I’ve started to wonder if this super-neat idea of naming the sequel with a comparative form of “Deep” was the first design flaw in this game, that’s been made even before the first line of code has been written? As it turns out, while it is somewhat cool, it seems to be miss-informative for players. Should I have named the sequel “Deep Sleep 2″ – probably more people would have recognized it.

So, was it an error? Perhaps. But it’s  one of these errors that one wouldn’t fix even if there was a chance of doing so. Deeper Sleep was meant to be named Deeper Sleep from the start and I wouldn’t change that. As you may or may not suspect, the next part (yes, there is going to be a next part) will be named “The Deepest Sleep”.

The plot continues

So, the plot. Last time we left when our hero has woken up from a dream after killing one of the Shadow People. The idea for the sequel was – as hinted in the outro – that he returns there regardless of the danger and terror, lured by curiosity and obsession. Because I knew I will have lots of new players, I’ve decided to create a short intro that is displayed before the game. This intro might be a minor weak-spot for the game, as it breaks a fundamental rule of all Flash games – no walls-of-texts! Sadly, this was the only way I could think of to present the events of previous game as briefly as it’s possible. Still, it took 8 screens with about total number of 25 lines of text. While intro is skipable and as condensed as possible, I’m not entirely happy with it. It’s still a wall-of-text, even if split between screens and illustrated with pictures. Smaller chunks of texts are easier to swallow for players than one big text. Pictures also serve two purposes:

Making of Deeper Sleep - Introduction of the Shadow People

Introduction of the Shadow People

1) To remind players what game they are playing. I’ve heard of at least several cases of people going through the intro and going “Oh I’ve played the first game” when seeing the lighthouse screen, even though they thought they didn’t play the original Deep Sleep at first.

2) To introduce new players to the Shadow People and how they look like. One of the first scares in game is based on glowing eyes in the darkness. Players familiar with part one will have no problem freaking out since they remember exact same pair of white dots chasing them through the dark corridor. New players – not so much. And while I know it won’t be enough to scare many people in this case, at least some will know what is that supposed to be.

Wait, what? Scriptwelder, do you show the monster before the game even begins for good?! What do you know about horror design?! Well, usually  it would be a stupid thing to do. But since you’ve already completed the game, you know that the Night Folk doesn’t show up until the very end of the game. I’ll say about this particular decision later – before that happens, let’s focus on things that were not so great in the original game.

Fixing Deep Sleep flaws

The making of Deeper Sleep - Perspective Problems

Perspective Problems

Deep Sleep was my first Point and Click game. And despite winning Casual Gameplay Design Competition, it has flaws that are now painfully visible to me. Flaws that I’ve tried to fix while making a sequel. 

The most notable ones:

  • Perspective changes. This is the worst thing about Deep Sleep, in my opinion. Back then, for some reason I thought it will be nice if I play with perspective a bit. The infamous balcoony window, for example. You exit the corridor through the window at the back and on the next screen your entry point is one of the small windows on building’s wall. It would be absolutely fine to do this in a classic point-and-click adventure game, where you can see the main character walking around. But in an usual Flash point and click game you don’t see the character, the world is shown from a pseudo first person view. The outcome: players were disoriented, not knowing where did they come from after arriving from previous screen. Sure, I hinted this with the window’s shape but that’s not enough – especially that the balcony is just one of the many examples. Stairs, beach, phone room – lots of perspective shifts. So I’ve learnt my lesson and designed Deeper Sleep with that in mind. Left goes left, right goes right. Down is down, up is up. 
  • Pixel hunting. Deep Sleep has tough me a great deal of things about game design. For example, pixel hunting is evil. It might sound like a perfect way to make game harder and more challenging, but it’s not. It is something I used to think people kind-of… enjoy? Maybe I’ve played too many find-the-difference games in the past. Or perhaps just too much Daymare Town? Anyway, Deep Sleep had some pixel hunting nonsense, I have to admit. Most notable one was the skeleton arm. After seeing people’s reactions it became clear to me that it’s been a mistake. This time I’ve made sure every item or clickable object in Deeper Sleep is big and fairly easy to find. The smallest item in the game – a needle – gets a bright flashlight reflection when mouse cursor nears it, to make sure everybody notices it. The only items that are still small and not so easy to get are the scraps of paper – I’ve decided to include this “secret items hunt” as an optional objective because I know some people actually enjoy it. However, you don’t have to be a pixel-hunting enthusiast to finish the game.

Other design decisions

One of the design decisions I had to make while developing the game was the Traveller dialogue screen. I wanted to reveal some mysteries to build up a “lore” of Deep Sleep and it felt like the information gathered on scraps of paper was not enough. I’ve made sure to keep the whole encounter with the Traveller optional – you can complete the game without even bumping into him… And I know some players did that. This is mainly because of the language barrier – I didn’t want to restrict the fun only for those who know English well enough. Besides… I know how lazy people are when playing Flash games. Some just don’t want to read those lines. So, I don’t force them to.

Some say I’ve revealed too much and the game’s atmosphere is not so scary anymore – well, I don’t know, is it? Have I spoiled the fun by putting some answers in the mouth of the hidden Traveller? I guess people will argue over that. I know we fear the unknown and it’s easier to scare people with secrets. Well, the thing is… I don’t want to rely on “empty” scares in a long run. Sure,  ”something evil is behind the corner” and “HANDS IN THE FURNACE!” will be frightening – but for how long? Especially since it’s already part 2, with part 3 under way. I guess I wanted to make a transition from the fear of unknown into the fear of creepy-things-I-know-that-might-happen. This way of thinking also caused the Shadow People to be virtually absent from the game – until the very end, there is none to be encountered. The “run or die” scene for this installment features a new character – Felicity[**]

The game has some locations from part one – like a lobby with a ringing bell, a room with a numpad dial and a dark corridor. Those places are back not to simply recycle graphics assets. It sets the mood; players who have  played Deep Sleep will remember those locations and feel like it’s a recurring nightmare.

I think that wraps it up. There are  some other elements that I won’t talk about here… Like a secret ending (yes, the rumor is true) – because it’s secret :P and some easter eggs not worth mentioning.

Part 3?

I won’t give you a deadline here. I need to catch some breath before I start making the final chapter. I’ll probably make some other game or two meanwhile. I want to approach The Deepest Sleep with a fresh mind and new ideas. I hope it won’t take me another year…


  1. * I love smooth rhythms []
  2. ** also known as Samara in Kongregate’s and Newgrounds comments sections :P []

5 Responses

  1. Ezophlee

    Love these games. My favorite part from Deep Sleep (SPOILER ALERT)

    Spoiler! Show
  2. Hunter

    Awesome stuff. For what it’s worth, I’m not into flash games, but the Deep Sleep series (haven’t tried your other stuff yet, except for “A Small Talk…”, which ruled) have me engrossed like hell. Found every one of your design choices to be superb, even the ones you second guessed after feedback.

    I’ve found myself playing these games for a second, and even a third time, just cause the atmosphere and story got me hooked. Keep up the good work haha. I’d buy these on a CD, just to have them on my shelf :)

    -Hunter

  3. I can’t wait for “Deepest Sleep.” I told my friend about it and he loves the series thus far and so do I. We’ve actually been playing some other games you’ve made. I gotten the badges for “Deep Sleep,” “Deeper Sleep,” and “Don’t Escape” on Kongregate. “Deepest Sleep” should be the most intense and good way to end it because we need a bad ass ending.

  4. SilverIV

    Thanks for this quite interesting design explanation, I’ve personally started to create a game in HTML5 in Pixel Art, and I learned a lot thanks to your experience.

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