This online game was for the Heartbeat program, run by the University of Western Sydney. It’s not too shabby.
A game for little kiddies, Lightning Runners is an online component of the Heartbeat program. It helps in opening up health-oriented knowledge, habits and pathways for Aboriginal children in Western Sydney to get into university. They can pursue it in their own time, in the classroom or side by side with their parents.
This was one of the first proper games I have ever worked on, and potentially, one of the best things I did during my all too brief time at Digital Eskimo.
In a nutshell, I did the character design, as well as creating all the level art and other assets for the game. Plus, I helped out the other peeps on the project with the overall game design. As I was kinda the resident gamer in the studio.
Bit of background
We worked with a handful of Aboriginal elders to help with the general story and the educational outcomes for the game. As well as interviewing a range of educators and other peers in the educational design landscape.
Aunty Fran Bodkin, a D’harawal Elder academic involved in the program, taught us how central the gathering of different viewpoints is to Aboriginal approaches to knowledge.
Aunty Fran Bodkin — D’harawal Elder
Western science and Aboriginal traditional knowledge are different ways of understanding the same thing. And because we place value on telling stories from different perspectives, we always adapt to different influences and conditions
So we asked the question—what would the future of Aboriginal health knowledge be like? As this is what Heartbeat is about—future health workers, peer educators and community leaders.
With Lightning Runners, young people learn important health and cultural messages through actions in a fantasy environment. Players learn healthy eating habits, environmental and social health, traditional Aboriginal medicines and the importance of helping others.
Plus, last but not least, the game itself was developed with Goperhwood Studios, an online game development studio from North Carolina.
The story is set in a post-apocalyptic Australia. The sea levels have risen. Western civilisation has crumbled and only the indigenous populace remains. These survivors have made a new home for themselves on the ruins of Sydney. Supported by the Lightning Stone—an ancient, powerful source of energy—they are able to power their new home, living in peace.
The two main and playable characters are sister and brother, Tuktuk and Kuti.
They’ve been chosen by their mob to retrieve the Lightning Stone, which has been stolen by the Burra’gorang—a giant evil kangaroo.
We wanted to depict the people in the game in a stylised way, which is appropriate when showing the Aboriginal people in a Dreaming story.
We looked to Aboriginal children’s shows on the ABC and indigenous artwork, to see how they’ve been depicted in the past. We found them to be fairly simplified. With tentacle-like hair and large eyes, making them look almost spirit-like.
We riffed off of this to create our two heroes, Tuktuk and Kuti. Below are some of the initial sketches, showing how they came together throughout the design process.
Initially, we tried to make them gender neutral, as you can see. But most people applied genders to them anyway. So, in the end, we made Tuktuk the older sister who was originally a boy, and Kuti the little brother.
In addition to the two central characters, there is a whole cast of supporting characters that you must help throughout the game.
There’s Gudgad the frog, Mun’dah the red belly black snake, Wugjatin the bull ant and Barrugin the echidna.
If you help these characters, they will help you defeat the Burra’gorang at the end of the game. If you don’t, then you will be overpowered by the Burra’gorang and can’t win. This helps reinforce that idea of helping out others and teamwork.
Then, of course, there is the evil Burra’gorang, who was very tricky to get right. You can see his process below.
Kangaroos are a bastard to draw, like fucking horses. Christ, I hate horses. Initially, he looked like a big kangaroo who is a bit fed up. But we eventually started going towards a more Godzilla-like feel, as you can see below.
And finally, there are the Burra’gorang’s henchmen. There’s the goanna who’s a bit of a dick, the snake and the magpie, which swoops at you as is their want.
I wanted to give them all a slightly Mad Max feel. Fitting, seeing as this is post-apocalyptic Australia. So they all have rough bits of armour with spikes slapped on them, which look like they’ve been cobbled together. As well as face paint and the like.
There are also kangaroos knocking about the place, which you can kill and eat if you’re low on health. However, if you have full health and kill kangaroos, the Dooligah will come out of the shadows and attack you.
Dooligah’s were basically big hairy men who ate naughty children. This helps teach children about sustainability and consequences to their actions. And it also scared the shit out of them.
Elder at HQ
Throughout the game, you’re helped by an Aboriginal Elder. She guides you through the game, giving you tips if you’re stuck and filling you on the story as you progress throughout the game.
I had to be sure that the characters and objects would work at several different sizes. As the game can be played on desktop, tablet and all the mobiles. So certain details would get lost and I’d have to make them bigger and such. Quite a bit of back and forth.
At certain points in the game, Tuktuk and Kuti will meet their spirit guides, which enable them to use their powers.
Tuktuk can summon Naya the bee spirit, allowing her to fly. Whereas Kuti gets Wombach, the wombat spirit, who gives him the power to dig through soft ground.
In addition to all of the character design, I did running cycles for Tuktuk and Kuti. As well as providing reference for the rest of the characters to Gopherwood to roll out the rest. I was super happy with Kuti’s jolly little running cycle, well, more like a hopping cycle.
The asset creation for the actual levels were done by Gopherwood. However, I provided them with some style screens for the three main levels and the boss fight. As well as backgrounds and other bits and bobs for the cutscenes.
Each level has it’s own unique feel and is set at a particular time of year, such as the wet season or drought. I tried to make each level feel like Australia, through the use of colour. Giving the game a very unique feel, I think. Maybe. Whatevs.
At Digital Eskimo we tended to post everything up on the walls in studio, so that we can gather as a group and feedback on things then and there. The Lightning Runners wall nearly took over the whole studio.
Overtime it was filled with loads of sketches that I’d been doing. Once we we were happy with those, I’d do the finals and stick them over the sketch, as we slowly worked our way through all the characters and levels.
There are also a whole bunch of objects and things that our heroes can pick and use, or need to avoid. Such as waratah leaves and paperbark to help Mun’dah and Barrugin. You can see them below in some choice screengrabs from the game itself.
The UI was done by DE’s other designer Sash, who took visual cues from the illustrations I’d done so far it all looks awesome!
The game is a platformer built in HTML5. So it’s playable on all devices, which is fantastic. It was built on an existing platformer that Gopherwood had done. So it was a bit of a re-skin job in some respects, but we were able to add in out own game mechanics to help facilitate the outcomes of the project.
I got to go to the launch at the University of Western Sydney, which was great. It was amazing to show off what we’ve done to the Aboriginal elders that helped out on the game. Plus, seeing all of the kids playing the game—they loved it. That was the best thing for me, seeing the kids actually having fun and really enjoying it.
I made a quick trailer for the game, which you can check out here. We also got some cardboard cutouts of the main characters for the launch, but they didn’t arrive in time. Which was a wee bit shit. But here’s some photos of them—they came out really nicely. I wants the little Tuktuk one!
This was hands down the best project I have worked on to date. Being able to work on a game, but also a game that is setting out to educate children, was an amazing experience and hope to make many more over the coming years.
If you haven’t already, play the damn game! Better than reading all that shite above.
Studio Digital Eskimo
Credits Creative Director – Ben Hoh
Interaction Designer – Sash Singh
Experience Architect – Susan Hansen
Developer – Gopherwood Studios