Imagine exploring an ancient forest and coming across a collapsed, rundown barn. As you explore deeper into the environment, you realize something is off. Small things are changing… it’s turning eerie… you are losing your sanity. As things go bump in the night, you’re fully immersed in The Madness Project, Game Art & Animation graduate Emily Szymanski’s Student Innovation Project (SIP).
With a focus on environmental storytelling, The Madness Project shifts the environment between two states of mind: sanity and insanity. Walking through the environment, your character becomes restless as paranoia eats away at the mind. Your sanity is ticking down and the environment is turning sinister.
Fond of the horror aesthetic, Emily chose to depict the environment morphing from eerie to grotesque. Over time, the fireflies get larger and slowly transform into floating eyeballs. The soft pitter-patter of rain becomes raging blood rain. A quiet tree gapes open and exposes hideous looking teeth. Audio also plays a role, with atmospheric music and environmental sounds creating the ambiance before turning intense and giving off sinister vibes as more time is spent in the environment, and you lose your mind.
To manage their sanity and reverse the effects of the environment, players can rest at a gravesite. With energy restored, players can then go on exploring.
Inspired by another project she worked on a few years ago in University of Advancing Technology (UAT) Game Studios, Madness in Our Hearts, Emily wanted to use her SIP as a way to extend the idea that mental health can be a constant struggle to ensure a good state of mind.
Emily originally created the barn environment for Professor Matthew Marquit’s class, where environmental storytelling is emphasized. Emily spent a couple of months creating the environment before moving on to refining the overall feel, post-processing effects and implementing the morphing elements.
Emily recruited Lyndsey Boggs, a UAT Game Design and Game Programming graduate, for programming help for the next phase of the project. They pitched ideas back and forth about what could be done to shift the environment.
“[Lyndsey] programmed all of it, she did an incredible job, there are no bugs in it, which wasn’t always the case. She created the sanity manager, which would create the shift, and the gravesite, which would control the shift back, as well as other aspects.”
Emily then brought on Christian Vece, the creator of Madness in Our Hearts and a Game Art & Animation major, during the last couple of weeks to help with rigging and animating the second tree that transforms baring terrifying teeth.
“Christian Vece is very knowledgeable about his own project and most of this is in his degree’s field. Having him work on the project was really cool, he’s very skilled at what he does.”
The Passion Behind the Madness
This project is close to Emily’s heart. She’s had multiple people in her life who struggle with their own inner demons, whether it be a mental illness or bouts of anger, sadness, trouble feeling stuck, etc.
“I feel like even if you don’t have what could be described as a mental illness, everybody still goes through their own struggles and it’s important to bring that forward and validate it. People might not feel like their struggles are entirely valid because somebody might have it worse, and that may be true, but they’re still your struggles. I want to eventually make sure that more people are aware of that.”
Emily can see this concept being used in games to visualize karma or honor systems. Or, if something bad happens to a character and they have a sudden shift in emotion, the environment can change to meet how they perceive it. Emily states, “I think that would be really cool to see what other games and other studios can use it for.”
“Funny enough, I also had issues, or struggles, with my SIP. I struggled with thinking if it was good enough or that I did enough, so there was a lot of mental doubt. However, I had two very supportive teammates, so I’m grateful they worked on the project.”
Emily credits all skills to UAT, stating, “There are some things I learned on my own, but I definitely wouldn’t have had the direction to even begin to look into it if I hadn’t come here and met the professors. I honestly can’t praise the professors here enough. They’re incredibly talented and knowledgeable in their subjects.”
Thriving during her time at UAT, Emily especially enjoyed the intimate size and feel of campus and the personal attention and relationships she was able to create with professors and other students. “I’ve been able to connect with the professors here, and we’ve gotten to look at each other as colleagues rather than teacher and student, which is really nice. With that relationship, the professors can cater the experience to each student and help them out a lot more.”
As a spring 2022 graduate, Emily has been considering where she would like to take her degree. Now understanding the entire game production pipeline from concept to creation to implementation, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which part of the creation process she wants to be involved in.
“It’s a really cool field to work in. I really like creating designs. I think I would like to work in creature design and creation, and I would like to get some of my creature designs out there, whether that’s in personal projects or with other projects.”
Lyndsey Boggs, Game Design, Game Programming, UAT alum
Christian Vece, Game Art & Animation, current UAT student
Register for the Council’s upcoming Phoenix and Tucson tech events and Optics Valley optics + photonics events.