Monster Making: The Black Ball

The Black Ball was the most mysterious element of the original illustration BB33K is based on. You can make the jester, the knight or the bats behave this way or that, but you know those are monsters, the skull with the snake up his nose is a boss, the spikes and torches are scenery, doors should be opened, and ropes should be climbed. But this round thing — what is it? A creature, an obstacle, collectable equipment, hole in the wall? There should have been a Game Jam based on this picture, only to see what different people would make of this game design analog of Rorschach test — and you are welcome to try. I’ll tell you how I designed my version of the Black Ball.

Early on, I had an idea it’s some kind of a heavy ball that the player character can pick up and, for example, throw at an enemy, but then I looked at how those balls are positioned and thought that the game would be too easy if those black circles weren’t monsters. So I had to invent their behaviour then. “Goomba algorithm” was an obvious solution: the monster starts moving in its initial direction, falls from heights and reverses movement direction upon reaching an obstacle. I didn’t like this idea for several reasons: first, it would mean that the first ball would be left rolling exactly where the heroine would be respawned, and I wanted to leave this area as a safe place (though eventually I HAD to implement temporal spawning immortality); second, this movement pattern was against the principle “Everything works not quite how you would expect”, which I spoke about in my previous article. Third, I wanted the Ball to be not an animated obstacle but a dangerous, unpredictable (at least at the beginning) creature — and also I didn’t want to spend too much time and resources to create it.

I started by making it initially immobile, so that the gamer wouldn’t even know what kind of object this is, as the designer did. As the player approaches it, the Ball starts to roll, and the player, trying to avoid it, either hits the Bug or is caught by the Skull Grabber (actually, the Grabber keeps the girl out of harm’s way, but the portrait coming alive and then catching the player would most probably be a surprise). Thus the player gets acquainted with those two.

At first I was thinking that maybe the Ball can jump like the infamous green slime from Dangerous Dave in Haunted Mansion, 

but then I remembered that the heroine doesn’t have a shotgun, and decided to tone it down. So the Ball rolls towards the player — and as it’s rolling and not crawling, the player has no reason to expect that it’s a creature and not a simple moving obstacle. So the player tries to leave the initial area going right, and, most probably, 1) learns that the spikes aren’t fatal and 2) gets killed by the Knight (also the Ball may eat her once or twice).

And now, about 10 seconds after the Ball started moving, and rebounded off the wall as inanimate physic objects do, the player has some notions formed about it, and we deceive them again: it turns out that the Ball has tentacles that help it to climb small obstacles! 

The first Ball falls into a gap and stays there, but that just shows the fourth principle: the rules can change with time. In this case, the Ball that was free became confined (that probably makes the game easier), but the crevasse with spikes that was mostly harmless is now deadly dangerous (that probably makes the game harder).

Of course, I could instigate more paranoia, making each Ball behave in its own way, but with my limited resources I decided to stop there, so there are no more surprises from them, though combined with other monsters and obstacles they stay a formidable foe. By the way, there’s no official background for the Ball (as well as for other monsters). Since the game is wordless anyway, I let the players judge the denizens of the castle by their behaviour only. I’ve already heard an interpretation that it’s a ball of yarn that rolls the girl into itself like a thread. 

What’s your take on it?

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