The Design of Inua, an SMU Guildhall Student Game

By SMU Guildhall Students

Hello all, my name is Matt Worrell and I was the Producer on Inua. Inua was developed over 18 weeks by 14 developers and a contracted composer. It was the first game built in Unreal Engine 4 at SMU Guildhall. Inua was a very special project because it was our class’ capstone game: the first game that all 12 of our classmates worked on together after a year of study at the Guildhall. 

What is Inua?

Inua is a first-person 3D single-player action puzzler in which players use ice and fire to manipulate their environment, utilize enemies in creative ways, and progress through an ancient temple. The player takes the role of Kaya, a member of a northern tribe that worships the nature goddess, a celestial being that grants Kaya’s people the powers of fire and ice. However, her tribe has fallen out of favor with the goddess, so it is up to Kaya to learn the powers of ice and fire through the trials of the goddess, and show her people the ways of balance as the nature goddess intended.

Inua won "Best Visuals" at Intel’s University Games Showcase during the 2016 Game Developers Conference. It was such a joy to work on the project. I will leave it to the team to show off Inua’s many amazing features, and tell you how we overcame the challenges we faced during development. 

Art Style: The Power of Nature

Hi! I’m Taylor Adele Smith, Lead Artist for Inua. I had the pleasure of leading and working with a team of three talented artists on this project. Inua was an ambitious game from the get-go, both technically and conceptually. It required our art team not only to work in a new engine with a new rendering system, but to do so while challenging the traditional aesthetics of first-person puzzle games.

When we began pre-production of Inua, the art department decided as a team to align with a realistic art style, because we believed this would be the best way for the game to fully utilize UE4’s physically-based rendering system. Given that Inua is a first-person puzzle game, the art department’s focus went mainly into creating a visually stunning, realistic environment that exemplified the power of nature.

The Power of Nature

The pillar of Inua that resonated the most with the art department was the power of nature. The phrase not only refers to the power over ice and fire Kaya attains during the game, but also the demonstration of how powerful nature is in and of itself. According to our lore, Kaya’s people built a temple to honor their nature goddess, and we wanted to create an environment worthy of reverence.
With the power of nature in mind, we chose the setting of Inua to be a simple but timeless temple set in an unforgiving, mountainous environment, which already set us apart from many puzzle game environments. However, we ran into the problem of doing a typical stone-laden temple environment seen in many adventure games. We didn’t want to be derivative of games we had seen before, so we asked ourselves what we could do to really set our world apart.

To break up the monotony of stones structures and to give context to Kaya’s powers, the temple is divided into two thematic sections: ice and fire. The ice section contains a direct view of the aurora borealis, waterfalls both moving and frozen in time, and glowing blue ice ceilings, and cool colors communicate a calm atmosphere, welcoming the player to the game. The fire section contains pools of lava, impossibly hot streams of lava pouring from the walls, and pitch black obsidian for the player to walk on. The warm, dark colors of this area communicate a primal, threatening intensity and mirror the game’s increase in difficulty. The pops of color from these natural elements brilliantly illuminate the environment, giving the temple a sense of ethereality.
When all of these environmental components are combined together, temple communicates a raw power that has honorably withstood the tests of time. As Kaya travels through the environment, her fire and ice abilities give her power to change her environment, but she is still humbled by the natural grandeur of the world around her. The best part is, all these elements within the environment are based on real world phenomena, grounding the extraordinary in reality. 

Using Real World Examples

During pre-production, the entire team had a meeting where we dug into Google Images and found awe-inspiring places around the world that we could use as reference. While we found a million possibilities for the game’s setting, we narrowed our scope of reference to wintery environments like Iceland and Alaska, and powerful stone environments like Ireland and Scotland. Specific places include Eyjafjallajökull (Iceland), the Mendenhall Ice Caves (Alaska), Giant’s Causeway (Ireland), and Fingal’s Cave (Scotland).

Probably the most notable structures in our environment are columnar basalt formations. Columnar basalt forms when thick lava flows over a vertical surface and cools slowly over time, fracturing to form polygonal columns like those seen throughout our game. Not only did basalt columns fit with our aesthetic vision of organic geometry, but the science of how they form fit with the context of our game’s setting in a wintery, volcanic environment.

We applied this same kind of research to all other areas in the environment, from how lava interacts with ice and snow to how volcanic environments, in order to create an environment both extraordinary and based in reality. During production, we kept a repository of photo references for each element of the environment, including basalt columns, cave rock formations, blue ice, lava, etc. This repository allowed artists to have direct, real-world reference for creating assets and decorating the environment.

The Challenge of a Puzzle Game in an Organic Environment

In early iterations of the project, we relied almost completely on natural assets to construct the levels. We wanted the temple to be perfectly intertwined with nature, and what better way than to carve our temple out of the environment? It was a great idea in theory, but as we began working with the level design team, there were certain rooms and puzzles we wanted to create that necessitated more rigid structures.

While geometric structures like basalt column clusters and polygonal floors were great at breaking up the organic rock walls, it was difficult to build a good path, and frequent usage combined with a dark, bland color palette turned these intriguing natural structures into monotonous props. Conveyance is key in a puzzle game, and we needed to give the players a distinct path to follow. At the same time, we didn’t want to overload the player with visual cues, because in puzzle games, every visual stimulus can be interpreted as a clue.

This is when the temple part of our environment got a facelift. Instead of trying to repurpose our natural assets all over the place (tanking our poly count in the process), we created a set of simplified, highly geometric temple assets in a slightly different stone than the environment around it. This solution knocked out several problems at once: easier art population and room design, slight visual breaks in the environment, and providing players a critical path to follow throughout the game.

When we finalized our temple and environment assets, we began populating the environment, keeping in mind logic and context of what we were building. It’s one thing to fill a level with assets, but in order to create the most believable puzzle environment we had to ask ourselves a number of questions: how would a temple be constructed and how would it crumble over time? How would the temple be built into a giant puzzle? And most importantly, how can we believably integrate manmade structures with natural formations? With questions like these in mind, we built, lit, and colored the environment to be not only stunning, but logically sound.

Tech Art: Frozen Environments with UE4 Shaders

Hello everyone, I am David Gautier, 3D environment artist for Inua. I will describe some environmental design methods we used to build the mystical ice world of Inua.

Going into the project, we wanted a world that had large, frozen, earthy formations surrounding the player, so we decided to aim for realistic ice materials. We multiplied a fresnel with the first color we wanted using a Constant 3 Vector, then added a darker blue, which gave us a gradient albedo and emissive color. This provided a light-to-dark contrast, creating the illusion of depth within the material. Finally, for the emissive, we multiplied its intensity. The rest of our surface detail generates from our normal, metallic, and roughness maps.

Contrasting against the rich blues of our ice are the volcanic basalt columns and rocks throughout the game. We designed the environment models in such a way that many models could cross over and blend without z-fighting or material clashes. This increased the usability of each art asset for the duration of the game’s production, and allowed us to focus on polishing our environment rather than crunching to make more models and materials. Ultimately, this process allowed us to build beautiful environment scenes for players to experience and interact with as they explored the mysteries of the temple.

A Temple Full of Particles

Particle effects were an integral part of the visuals of Inua. From Kaya’s elemental powers to the spirit trail that guides the player through the temple, particles were on the screen at almost all times during the game. Unreal Engine 4’s particle editor gives the developer complete control over every minute detail of each particle, and has the flexibility to create many different particle types. Such particle types included the animated flame particles of the torches that line the temple walls, the shards of rock that fly everywhere when the Golem bursts through a giant boulder, and the rays of light that flow from an activated switch to the object that it triggers.

Programming: The Versatility of Blueprints

Hi, I’m Trevor Youngblood, Lead Programmer on Inua. Developing Inua was a unique challenge for our team of five programmers, as we had never worked in Unreal Engine 4 before. Luckily, the engine was easy to pick up and gave us all the tools we needed to bring our vision to life.

Making it Feel “Right”

To fully immerse the player in the world of Inua, we had to make sure nothing felt strange, including the basic player movements. One way we achieved this was by implementing realistic camera movements for many of the actions the player can perform. When Kaya lands from a jump, we dip the camera downward so that the player doesn’t feel like they’re floating around. When she throws a fireball, we want it to feel powerful, so we tilt the camera to make it feel like she is putting all of her weight into the throw. These types of features can go a long way into improving the feel of the game.

With Unreal Engine 4’s timeline feature, implementing these complex camera movements was extremely simple. Timelines even allowed us to have multiple camera movements play at once, such as the head bob when Kaya walks and the windup before she shoots her ice beam. Because of this, there is never a moment where Kaya’s movement seems unnatural, which allows the player to stay immersed as they journey through the world of Inua.

Prioritizing Performance

Throughout the process of developing Inua, the visuals for certain dynamic effects (such as waterfalls, flowing water, and ice sheets) had to go through many iterations solely because of performance issues. The first versions of these effects were visually stunning, but at a steep cost to our framerate. We struggled to find a good middle ground for quite a while, until we looked at one of the content examples included with Unreal Engine 4. This example level had multiple implementations of different water effects that were much more optimized than the ones we were using. After changing our effects to resemble the Unreal example effects, we had a much easier time balancing performance with aesthetic quality.

Creating a Believable Rock Monster

In Inua, the player encounters a large Golem that serves as a puzzle piece in many of the game’s challenges. Our A.I. programmer, Laura Brothers, was tasked with making the Golem patrol certain areas, chase the player when provoked, and attack the player when close enough. Using Unreal Engine 4’s built-in A.I. functions, she was able to quickly get a working prototype in the game for the level designers to use in their puzzles. While the Golem was the source of the majority of the game’s bugs, the engine made it incredibly easy to find the source of the problem and solve it quickly.

One of the key purposes of the Golem was to be an imposing obstacle that made the player feel like they had to act quickly when he was around. At first, he didn’t quite have the intimidation factor that we needed from him. Players just weren’t afraid of him. To make him more frightening, we decided to emphasize his size and power. When he takes a step, the entire room shakes and the player can hear him before they even enter the room. Through Unreal Engine 4’s animation editor, it was a straightforward process to create events that occur during specific points in the animation, like the screen shake and sound of his footsteps. Once his movement felt forceful, players were much more cautious around him and felt a sense of urgency in their actions.

Design: Teaching and Leading the Player

Hi, I’m Jason Leary, Lead Level Designer on Inua. The design for this game came a long way from the initial concept of a strategic elemental based action game similar to The Legend of Korra or Lichdom: Battlemage to the eventual 3D puzzle game it became. Throughout development, the game was constantly evolving - design, begetting inspiration, begetting iteration, begetting design. 

The development of Inua really is a testament to the importance of the iterative design process. In the following section we explain how the design team overcame many of the challenges of creating a 3D puzzle game, and how an iterative design process within Epic’s Unreal Engine 4 really helped us achieve our team’s goals.

Balancing Teaching Player Skills and Creating Fun Challenges

When creating a puzzle game like Inua, the design team faces a variety of unique challenges. Not only do the designers have to teach the player new skills, as they would with any game, but they must also force players to take those skills a step further. Designers must create interesting scenarios where the player is required to apply what they have learned in continually evolving situations. If done correctly, the solution inspires a real sense of accomplishment within the player. This can only be achieved when a puzzle is complicated enough that the player doesn’t immediately know the solution just by looking at it, but not so difficult that they become frustrated and stop enjoying themselves. It was important that the challenge of the puzzles came from the player figuring out the mental solution - not a task that was physically difficult to accomplish. The design team knew this would be a difficult balance to strike, and the only way to do it effectively would be through repeated testing and rapid iteration. This is an area where Unreal Engine 4 proved to be invaluable.

The power and versatility of Unreal Engine 4’s Blueprint scripting system allowed the design team to bring their puzzles ideas to life, fully scripted and playable in engine much faster than we had originally anticipated. When a designer came up with a new idea for a room, depending on the complexity of the puzzle, they could get a working prototype built in engine in the matter of hours as opposed to days. This fast turn around meant that instead of evaluating a puzzle on a two dimensional sheet of paper, the team could actually play the puzzle in real three dimensional space. This allowed the development team a greater understanding of how the puzzle worked, but more importantly, how it played! It was because of this rapid iteration that the design team was able to prototype so many different puzzles and get those puzzles into the hands of playtesters. I would estimate our designers prototyped five puzzles for every one that actually made it into the game. This meant the team could go through and cherry pick the absolute best - ensuring we maintained a high quality player experience throughout the game and achieve our team’s goals of mentally challenging, but highly rewarding puzzles.

Another key technique the team used when designing the overall game, was giving careful consideration to when and how new mechanics were introduced to the player. We never wanted to overwhelm the player with too many mechanics too early, so we introduced a stepped progression system, where we introduced the player to one of our mechanics, we allow them to use that mechanic to solve a relatively simple puzzle, and we introduced a more complex puzzle utilizing that same mechanic. This ensured players were familiar and comfortable with a mechanic and how it interacted with the world before introduced them to the next mechanic. 

It wasn’t until the player neared the end of the game that we began layering mechanics with more complex puzzles that required players to use both their fire and ice powers in conjunction to solve the puzzles.

Visual and Audio Cues

Directing the player’s attention is important for all types of games, but puzzle games live and die by their ability to effectively communicate with the player. More than any other genre, puzzle games are an open dialogue between player and designer. Every step of the way the designer is speaking to the player - whispering in their ear, guiding them along, telling them where to look, telling them what to do, and when that communication is at its best, the designer makes the player think it was all their idea!

In order to communicate with the player effectively, the design team knew it would need to make compelling use of both audio and visual cues. One of our key communication tools came in the form of a glowing blue orb that became known as the “spirit trail”. The spirit trail served an important narrative purpose - representing ice and fire, the two sides of the nature goddess. However, it also served an equally important gameplay purpose - directing the player’s attention to the next stage of the puzzle and pulling them through the level. Whenever the player activated a switch or solved a piece of the puzzle, the spirit trial moved from the switch they just activated to the next step along the critical path. This not only drew the player’s focus toward important parts of the level, but also served as an immediate visual reward to reinforce the player’s accomplishment. This idea came early in development, and became a very important piece of our player communication strategy.

Another vital piece of player communication in Inua was making sure the player knew when they solved an important stage of the puzzle, even if they hadn’t solved the entire thing. Inua’s audio design played an important part in communicating the accomplishment of these milestones. We paired the sound of machinery with the activation of new temple pieces to draw the player’s attention, and created a musical score that reflected the player’s progression through each area. Each puzzle began with a base ambient soundtrack. Then as players solved each stage of the puzzle, we punctuated the victory with a rewarding stinger and added a layer of music to the soundtrack. This interactive score meant that as the player progressed through the puzzle, the music itself became richer and more complex. As players were completing the puzzle, they were also completing our beautiful soundtrack, signaling to them that they were on the right track for discovering the solution to the puzzle. Not only was this a wonderfully effective, yet subtle form of player communication, it also added further reward and greatly increased the player’s sense of accomplishment.

Exploration, Uncovering Inua’s Environment and Backstory

Early on we knew that our game’s breathtaking environments were going to be one of its strongest assets. Because of this, the design team thought it was exceptionally important that we give players ample opportunity and encouragement to explore the beautiful world our artists created. With our limited time, we decided that the best way to do this while also providing players insight into our rich backstory was through the use of collectibles. Keeping with the theme and fiction of the game, we decided that our collectibles would be an animal hide, decorated with an ornate mural depicting the legend of a shaman that ancient prophets foretold would be the reincarnation of the nature goddess, with the power to control both fire and ice. 

Early on in the game, the first few collectibles are either in plain sight, or very easy to collect. When players collect a piece of the mural, it appears on their screen, and they can easily see which pieces they’ve found and which are still missing. This signals to the player that collectibles are a part of the game and that each piece will reveal another layer of the narrative. As players progress deeper into the temple, the pieces of the mural become more challenging to find and to collect. This ramp up in difficulty afforded our design team with an opportunity to build smaller mini-puzzles within the larger overarching puzzle designs. Our playtests indicated that this was extremely effective in encouraging players to explore every corner of the temple, and really take the time to admire our narrative and beautiful environment.


Hello, it’s Matt again. Thank you for reading about Inua’s development. The project was such a joy to work on and I am very proud of what our team accomplished. Creating a one of kind puzzle game had many challenges, but we were able to overcome them thanks to the many amazing features of Unreal Engine 4. 

You can download and play Inua for free by following this link to our IndieDB page.

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