Gourdlets is a curious little thing. The pastel city-builder seeks to offer a sweet escape from the goals and metrics that keep its contemporaries ticking over, providing players with all the tools they need to create their own pixellated patch of paradise without leaning on preordained pathways.
“No objectives, no points, just building” is the foundation that Gourdlets has been built upon, with developer Preethi Vaidyanathan (a.k.a. AuntyGames) eager to let players find the fun for themselves, whether that lies in tinkering with the indie title’s tools and objects to create a sprawling archipelago that showcases the full extent of their architectural prowess or simply constructing a teeny, tiny diorama that can be used to glimpse the lives of visiting gourdlets.
We recently spent a bit of time tinkering with the demo, which provides a stripped back taster ahead of the title’s planned 2023 launch, and found Gourdlets‘ open-ended take on the genre to be a refreshing palate-cleanser that champions experimentation and creativity. Vaidyanathan says the demo contains just a fraction of the features that will be present in the final release, and is currently working on additions such as extra objects, seasons, weather effects, more interesting character interactions, and more.
Intrigued by the bite-sized portion we tried, we got in touch with Vaidyanathan to learn more about the free-form design philosophy behind Gourdlets and find out what it takes to create a compelling experience when shunning clearcut goals.
Game Developer: Could you talk a bit about your experience on the project so far? How long have you been working on Gourdlets, and what inspired you to make a city-builder with no set objectives?
Preethi Vaidyanathan: I’ve been working on Gourdlets for about a year now. I am actually working on this game on the side of my full-time job as an aerospace engineer, where I write flight software. I was inspired to make a game without any objectives because this is how I already play all my favorite games. I’ve put hundreds of hours into Stardew Valley but haven’t finished the community center even once, because I spend all my time rearranging my farm and fishing, and doing other things that don’t actually move the game forward. When I was younger I would play RollerCoaster Tycoon for hours, but would only ever play in sandbox mode because I was just curious to see what the little NPC’s would do. I want to make a game that just focused on the narrow slice of gameplay that I gravitate towards, and does that small feature set really well.
How have you worked to ensure Gourdlets remains engaging while shunning more conventional, goal-driven design conventions?
I’m focusing on making a pleasant and relaxing atmosphere. For example, I’m putting a lot of effort into the sound design of the game. The main gameplay mechanic is clicking and placing objects into the world. Depending on the object you’re placing, the game will make a different sound, like a metallic clink, or a sound like plants being rustled. Early on in development, I noticed that if you put down, for example, 10 stone fences in a row, it starts to sound kind of grating, like an alarm clock. So I modified the code to add a random variation in pitch each time an object is placed down. Now, placing down 10 stone fences sounds like a nice little song.
I am also trying to make the game really pretty; I’m hoping that feels like being given a really nice palette and that players can make their own art with it. At the start of the game, most of the screen is just water, which at first was just plain blue, with zero animation. I tried animating water tiles by hand, but having an identical wave pattern repeat across the whole screen was pretty jarring, so I decided to write my own shader. What I did was generate a scrolling noise texture in python using the perlin-numpy library, which basically generates an image that just looks like black and white tv static.
I tweaked the parameters and tested out different tv-statics until I found one that looked right. Then, in my shader, I took two of those images, and made them move across the screen in different directions, you can start to see the wave pattern emerge at this point. Then, I modified the shader to make it look pixellated to match the aesthetic of the rest of the game. Next, I applied some logic that remaps the white, gray and black colors to specific blues (and white at the lightest points, so it looks like light reflecting on the water). Then as a final touch, I animated the ground tiles so that they look like they are submerged in the water by adding a shadow, and fake waves. When it’s all put together with ocean sounds in the game, it really makes it look like pixel anime water, which is exactly what I was going for.
What was it about the idea of a world with no objectives that appealed to you?
I mainly play games to relax and turn my brain off. With Gourdlets, I wanted to capture that feeling of taking your time and creating something just for the joy of it. Building a village in Gourdlets should feel like making a little work of art, with the player feeling free to arrange things however they like. I want players to feel curious about what the little gourdlets will do, but not feel any pressure about getting them to do a certain thing. It’s all about exploring and discovering, without the need to reach a specific goal or objective.
What has been the most challenging aspect of development so far, as far as achieving that specific goal is concerned?
The most challenging part of this has been making the art. I don’t have prior experience with making animated pixel art, and it has taken a lot of time to create art that looks cohesive. When I’m stumped on how to draw or animate something, I scour the internet to look for existing artwork to use as inspiration, and then study and modify what I find until it looks like what I was picturing. For example, for the gourdlet walk cycle I started off by downloading this animated skeleton sprite, then isolating the legs, and then tweaking it to fit the isometric projection of the game, and finally replacing the entire body with a purple gourd.
I played the demo and found it to be an incredibly laid back experience? In your opinion, what are some of the most important elements of zen or wholesome game design?
When I was making prototypes of the game, I spent a while trying to find the formula that made the game relaxing, but didn’t put the player to sleep. I found that the key is to have lots of unexpected interactions with the gourdlets that make the player curious to try more. The player should think “this object looks interesting, what will the gourdlets do with it? If I put this dock down, will they fish?” and they should be rewarded for trying different things. I plan to have enough content in the game so that you could play it for hours and keep finding new gourdlet eccentricities.
I also want the things they do to be a little whimsical, and open-ended enough for the player to come up with their own lore. For instance, after exploring your village for a few minutes, they get in a hot air balloon and parachute away. It’s been really fun listening to Twitch streamers come up with their own interpretations of what happens (it’s either really cute or really morbid, there’s no in between.)
What are your hopes for the project when it finally launches?
I hope that when Gourdlets finally launches, players will be pleasantly surprised by the depth of the game despite its lack of conventional objectives. I am working on a ton of new objects and ways for the gourdlets to interact with their world. I hope players pick it up expecting something really simple and are surprised by what they get.