January 30, 2020
Solo-developed Polter Pals uses sharp level design to craft a hauntingly memorable puzzle game
Polter Pals is a puzzle-platformer from Split Hare Games, a one-person studio run by Nicholas Decker, who’s based in Louisiana. The Unreal Dev Grant recipient tells the story of a lonely ghost who simply wants people to join him in the afterlife so they can become his new friends. He speeds this process up by possessing his neighbors, controlling and tricking them to their untimely deaths. While being set ablaze by a house fire sounds like a horrific tragedy to most, to Polter Pals’ protagonist, it simply means he gets a new ghostly friend to hang out with!
Satirical in tone and featuring an art-style that evokes preschooler television, Polter Pals offers 60-plus levels packed with brain-tickling puzzles and morbid comedy. Fresh off an appearance at PAX South, where Polter Pals was on display alongside other UE titles such as Dungeon Defenders: Awakened, Everspace 2, Mythic Ocean, and Suicide of Rachel Foster, we chatted with Decker about the game’s influences, goals, and how he’s using Unreal Engine to infuse life in this ghostly story.
When and how did you first get into game design, and how did the idea for Polter Pals come together?
Nicholas Decker: I've been interested in making games since I first realized it was a job that you could have, but my experiences in college took me down a different career path. Around two and a half years ago, I came to a crossroads where I could keep doing the kind of work I had been doing or I could finally listen to that voice in the back of my head telling me how much I wanted to make games. I started reading about and taking courses on things like 3D modeling and development using UE4. Eventually, I started participating in game jams, which was my first actual development experience.
Polter Pals started life as the second jam game I worked on, [which was then known as] Ghost Town. Based on the jam's prompt, a friend and I came up with an idea for a game where you possess people and walk them into dangerous environmental hazards. As I worked on it, the idea expanded further into the concept that you're a lonely ghost trying to make friends, and each person you [get to join you in the afterlife] becomes a ghost that friends you on social media. A lot of really fun ideas just naturally fell out of the concept and made it a blast to work on. When the game won first place in the jam, I knew I had to keep working on it and fully flesh it out.
The jam version was pretty unfocused and didn't have much of a narrative. Continuing development into the full version, I had a ton of disparate ideas that didn't feel like they could fit into a cohesive game, and I struggled to come up with a story to tell. Eventually, after turning all these ideas around in my head for months, the dots just kind of connected themselves and I knew exactly where the game was going. The story itself just came out of a need to connect all of these fun ideas I had for things, places, and gameplay mechanics. If you look at any individual elements of the game (especially some of the things I haven't shown off yet), you'd probably think none of it really makes sense in a game about a lonely ghost, but I think and hope that it will make sense to people once they play the full game.
What are Polter Pals’ most significant influences, gaming or otherwise?
Decker: Polter Pals' sense of humor is probably most influenced by the comedies I grew up with like Monty Python and South Park; not by being edgy, but by creating a world that is slightly off-kilter and unleashing chaos in it. Similarly, its thematic influences game-wise are from classics like Toe Jam & Earl and Theme Hospital. I always loved how TJ&E created its own reality that [resembled ours] but when viewed through an outside lens seemed wrong or backwards. Polter Pals does something similar by viewing the world of the living through the lens of the afterlife. From the perspective of a ghost, that rake wasn't designed for lawn care, but was designed to bring people to the never-ending party of the afterlife more quickly!
Aesthetically, the game takes a lot of influence from stop-motion and claymation. It's trying to land in the sweet spot between the bright and cheerful style of the original Bob the Builder and the richly detailed, twisted visuals of movies like Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline. The music, which is being composed by the wonderful and mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder, is inspired by a wide range of things from MF Doom beats to cheery old Hanna-Barbera tunes and industrial tracks from classic games.
The game utilizes dark satire in a unique way. It’s a game about death, but the art style is cute. It also explores friendship, loneliness, and belonging. How are you going about blending darkness and comedy in a way that does justice to both?
Decker: That is definitely one of the hardest aspects of it creatively, right next to telling the narrative through a series of unrelated social media posts. I worried a lot initially about it being too dark conceptually or sending the wrong message. I've tried to limit most of that darkness to the action that you see on screen, which is balanced by the bright and colorful aesthetic. The writing is skewed more toward goofiness and irreverence to create a world that's funny but also where those heavy topics don't feel too dark.
What was your familiarity with Unreal Engine like going into the creation of Polter Pals?
Decker: Prior to Polter Pals, I had taken a UE4 course on Udemy and made a single, short game for a jam. Starting work on Ghost Town is when everything I learned really came together and my skills started to improve (and they're still improving every day). Part of me wishes I could start fresh on Polter Pals knowing what I know now, because a lot of the foundational systems in the game were designed when I had no clue what I was doing. Luckily for me, UE4 is super flexible and allows me a million ways to script around my rookie mistakes.
A game like Polter Pals requires intuitive interactions between the characters and the environment. How is Unreal Engine assisting in creating this?
Blueprints are probably the most helpful part of UE4 to me. I have some experience in C++, but I made the decision to script the game entirely with Blueprints. It's given me a lot of flexibility to prototype things quickly and make changes without breaking the game. They feel like they're at just the right level to provide huge amounts of depth and possibility for game design without needing to dive too far into programming. There are also countless other incredibly useful tools from simple things like Actor Tags, which I've used to denote what's flammable for a system that dynamically spreads fire, to complex systems like AI and Perception, which have allowed me to relatively easily create a cheap way for the humans in Polter Pals to know what to be scared of.
How are you approaching puzzle design in Polter Pals? What different level mechanics are you implementing, and were there any helpful Unreal Engine tools here?
Decker: My approach has been to create as much variety as possible and try not to reuse mechanics too much. Each area introduces new mechanics at a basic level and then expands on them for a couple of levels before moving on to something else. That amount of variety is definitely where Blueprints comes in most handy. I can prototype new mechanics and test how they interact with everything else in minutes. I've also tried to reduce the amount of handholding and tutorials in the game, so mechanics are always introduced at a really simple level to keep things easier to understand. Interactions are really simple, too. The only way you can interact with the world is by jumping on a human's head and pressing their noses against everything in the environment. That way, you always know the first step to figuring things out is to poke at the environment until hell breaks loose.
In terms of specific mechanics, I mentioned there's a fire mechanic that is based in Blueprints but also uses Materials and the Cascade particle system to generate impressive wildfires. There are some more malicious actors in the world like bosses, and adorable little puppies that leverage UE4's Blackboard and Behavior Tree tools to hunt down the living for you. The construction-themed area of the game makes heavy use of UE4's destructible mesh tools and physics engine for some satisfyingly destructive puzzles.
Do you have any favorite Unreal Engine tools?
Decker: I love using the Material Editor. It's probably my favorite part of the engine, and I use it for a lot of really fun visual effects. I also use Sequencer in UE4 to create videos that I cut into GIFs using Photoshop, because what game about social media would be complete without memes?
What strategies are you using to keep the challenges fresh and new as the player progresses?
Decker: I try to make every level feel unique. Aside from introducing new mechanics often, levels using already-introduced mechanics generally use them in different ways. What was a hazard last level might now be a tool. That way, instead of making you master the mechanics, the game forces you to think about other ways you can use them.
On top of making the game, you've also been posting some Unreal Engine tutorials online. What was the inspiration behind making these?
Decker: When I started making tutorials, there weren't a lot of beginner-level VFX videos on YouTube, especially not for Niagara (which had recently released at the time). One of the best tools I've had for learning UE4 has been tutorials on YouTube, and since there wasn't much out there, I had to do a little hands-on, trial-and-error learning with Niagara.
I figured it would be nice, since I was already figuring it out for myself, to wrap some of those learnings up in introductory-level videos for other folks who were just getting started on VFX in UE4.
The other inspiration was a series of tutorials by Matthew Palaje. He actually ran the jam where Polter Pals was born, and his videos on Blueprints were some of the more helpful tutorials I've watched. He did a series where he looked at mechanics in popular games and replicated them in Blueprints. I thought it would be neat to do something similar for VFX, since a lot of effects can look like wizardry when you're staring at the finished product.
Aside from the music, you’re doing everything yourself. What are the pros and cons of being a one-man dev team?
Decker: It's a double-edged sword, for sure! On one hand, I get to have complete creative control and learn every part of the development process. On the other hand, it's a truly massive amount of work. Doing everything means you never get to master any one skill, and you often spend so long working on one thing that your skills atrophy in other areas or you forget parts of your pipeline. It also makes motivation a bit of a struggle, because there's no one else depending on you and you don't have anyone else to feed off of. It definitely has its challenges, but I feel it will pay off in the long run.
What do you hope players take away from their time with Polter Pals?
Decker: I hope it makes people laugh! I'd like to think it might make people think about their relationship with social media, but I also don't pretend that I or the game has any answers about how much people should or shouldn't interact with social media.
On that note, here’s how to follow Polter Pals online and via social media: