This online game was for the Heartbeat program, run by the University of Western Sydney. It’s not too shabby.
A game for little (and big) kiddies, Lightning Runners is an online component of the Heartbeat program. It helps Aboriginal kids learn more about their culture, healthy eating habits and ways to get into uni. They can play it in their own time, in the classroom, or side by side with their parents.
This was one of the first proper games I worked on, and was my favourite project during my time at Digital Eskimo, now Future Friendly.
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 industry.
"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."
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. So we asked the question — what would the future of Aboriginal health knowledge be like? As this is what the Heartbeat program is about — future health workers, peer educators and community leaders.
In the game, kids learn important health and cultural messages through actions in a fantasy-like platformer. They learn healthy eating habits, environmental and social health, traditional Aboriginal medicines and the importance of helping others.
We developed the game with Goperhwood Studios, an online game development studio from North Carolina, who were fantastic.
The story is set in a post-apocalyptic Australia — the sea levels have risen, western civilisation has crumbled and only the indigenous populace remains, which will most likely happen for real. 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 humans in a stylised manner. So we looked to shows on the ABC about the First Nations people, to see how they are depicted. Mostly they seem to be simplified with tentacle like hair, making them look like spirits. This helped us set the art direction — adding texture to the illustrations and giving it an earthy, painterly feel.
We tried to make the main characters gender neutral, but most people applied genders to them anway. So we made Tuktuk the older sister (who was originally a boy) and Kuti the little brother.
In addition to those two, 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, Barrugin the echidna and Wugjatin the bull ant. If you help them, 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 no matter what. This helps reinforce helping out others and team work.
Then there are the Burra'gorang's henchmen. There's the goanna (who's a bit of a dick) the magpie and snake. I wanted to give them a slightly Mad Max feel, which seemed fitting seeing as this is post-apocalyptic Australia.
Finally of course, there is the evil Burra'gorang himself, who was very tricky to get right. You can see his process below. Kangaroo's are hard to draw, just like bloody horses.
And there's the general kangaroos knocking about the landscape. You can kill them and eat them if you're low on health.
However, if you have full health and kill kangaroos, the Dooligah (who were basically big hairy men who ate naughty children) will come out of the shadows and attack you. Teaching children about sustainability and consequences to their actions.
Elder at HQ
Throughout the game you're helped by an Elder at HQ. She guides you through the game, giving you tips if you're stuck and filling you on the story as you progress through the game.
At certain points in the game Tuktuk and Kuti will meet their spirit guides, that 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 Kuti the power to dig through soft ground.
In addition to all of the character design, I created the running cycles for Tuktuk and Kuti and provided reference for the rest of the characters to Gopherwood to roll out the rest. I was super happy with Kuti's jolly little running, well more like hopping cycle, because he's a liddle beach ball.
The asset creation for the actual levels were done by Gopherwood, but 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 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.
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. Below is are also an example of scale in the game.