Unity • Blender • Photoshop • C#

Individual project (2023)

Deathbed is an ongoing personal project in which the player controls a cowboy shortly after they've been fatally shot in their final duel.

You can only wander as they slowly fade. How the cowboy spends their final moments is up to you.

This project has been a chance to explore 3D character modelling, rigging, and animation, as well as Unity's shadergraph feature. It is a passion project in part inspired by the 1998 anime Trigun and the 2012 game Journey, and built upon the theme 'death giving meaning to life'.

Experimental Concepts, Musical Inspiration, and Bringing Deathbed to Life

Deathbed is a personal project of mine which began development in the summer of 2023. However, the concept is something I've been thinking about since early 2022. It began with the anime Trigun (1998), which features a wandering cowboy on a desert planet and lots of striking imagery.

My particular interest was in the melancholic tone of the series which is exemplified by the music. Two songs from the soundtrack stood out to me and were heavily influential on Deathbed: Sound Life by AJA and Colorless Sky by Tsuneo Imahori. These two songs, along with America's A Horse with No Name , were what I was listening to as the picture of Deathbed formed in my head.

I was laying down with my eyes closed, and hearing the sparse twangs of Colorless Sky , I imagined a short narrative game in which a wandering cowboy wandered into a desert town. Slowly moving through the town, they finally sat down by a tree on a cliff as the sun set. After that, I picked up my notebook and wrote down what follows:

Initial sketch and notes for Deathbed
Initial sketch and notes for Deathbed

I wouldn't return to the idea until a little over a year later. I had just come off of my internship with the AudioLab and returned home to the US. With a bit of free time on my hands, I thought it was the perfect time to work on a personal project. I had been listening to Sound Life and Colorless Sky a lot that month (they felt like good summer songs with the heat and all).

This conjured up the image of the wandering cowboy I had been thinking about a year prior, and I decided to put the idea to paper. I opened up my game ideas document and wrote down anything and everything that came to mind. Below is a snippet of some of these ideas:

Game where you play as a cowboy who has just been shot in their last duel
Game opens with cinematic bar things over desert view, aesthetics inspired by Trigun, Sable, Journey (oranges, yellows, pinks). Cell shaded (could use shader graph)
About the meaning of life (or rather, how the player attaches meaning to a life by virtue of where they choose to die) Where they choose to die tells a story about who this cowboy was. I will not describe or detail the cowboy's backstory in any way
A lone wanderer under an endless sun. No titles or UI on opening screen, instead, press any button and two gunshots in rapid succession are heard, two crows fly off across the screen, the black cinematic bar things slowly leave the screen and the camera slowly pans back to the cowboy, clutching their arm
Slow walking, always a trail of blood behind the player (could act as a kind of timer with the size of the blood pools indicating how long they have left). Or could be more interesting to not give any indication of how long left. Could have a rough amount of time that every run has and vary by a minute or so.
Looking out over a vast expanse of desert is a small frail town, a few inhabitants, wooden shacks, maybe next to a big rock for shade (town could be called Big Rock). Town could have a small graveyard, a church, an abandoned house, a small mostly empty saloon Most npcs could hide away in their homes, not wanting trouble

Given the simple gameplay of Deathbed, the main focuses for the project would be the character and environment. The environment would take a larger chunk of development time, so after putting together a Unity project with a simple player controller, I began with the character model.

First, I made a few different sketches of what the cowboy might look like. One of the ideas I had come up with on my document was that the backstory of the cowboy would be something the player imagines based on the decisions they make during their playthrough. To facilitate this, I wanted to create a character that was androgynous in appearance.

Concept work for the Cowboy in Deathbed
Concept work for the Cowboy in Deathbed

I then attempted to model a human figure in Blender. This was my first time modelling a humanoid, as well as clothes. The process took several days as I learned about weight painting and rigging. The character model is somewhat low-poly. Early on, it had a lot of shading issues as the topology was an odd mix of tris, quads, and n-gons. I was able to fix these shading issues, but on my next character model I will pay close attention to the flow of my topology and work from simple shapes.

Cowboy with shading issues in Blender Cowboy with proper shading in Blender Textured Cowboy in Blender Cowboy in Unity
Progression of the Cowboy character model

After animating a walk, idle, death, and stagger animation and adding it to the Unity project, the basic player character was done. The poncho was separated during the animation as I wanted it to flap in the wind. To create this effect, I used Unity's cloth physics system and carefully separated the scarf and poncho with colliders.

Animating the Cowboy without the poncho in Blender
Animating the Cowboy without the poncho in Blender

At this point, I began to focus on the environment, beginning with its most prominent feature: sandy dunes. One of my favourite games of all time is 2012's Journey , which does a fantastic job of rendering the beauty of the barren desert. On a previous project, Rebound Rush, I had worked with a vfx artist with deep knowledge of shaders, and was eager to try them out myself with Deathbed. Though the first shader I worked with was a toon shader for the character model, I spent far more time on the sand shader.

After watching Matt Nava's GDC talk, The Art of Journey , I discovered a tutorial on how to code something similar to the sand shader used in Journey. Through some trial and error, I was able to translate this code into a shadergraph which acheived a similar effect. As one of my first shaders, the graph is a little messy, but I am very happy with how the effect turned out.

Sand shadergraph for Deathbed
Sand shadergraph for Deathbed

The next big task was populating the environment. The layout of Deathbed's map is crucial as the plan is not to include any invisible walls or boundaries. Rather, as the player is on a rough time limit (each playthrough can be from 7 to 13 minutes depending on a randomised timer set at the beginning of the game), the only constraint is how far the player can move within the time they have left. For this reason, the locations on the edge of the map have to be barely reachable with the maximum amount of time, but still intriguing enough for the player to want to explore there.

To generate ideas for the map, I plotted out some points of interest on a map in Photoshop, beginning with the starting location at the center of the map and working outwards. In terms of concrete development, this is about as far as I've gotten with Deathbed.

However, I've continued to plan Deathbed and develop the concept. I recently completed a 4000 word essay which analyses Deathbed with respect to ideas of authorship in interactive media, including an overview of the game's structure as an appendix. The essay describes the ways in which Deathbed shifts the power of authorship towards the player to allow them to form their own story. A crucial aspect of this is the Deathbed's environment, which provides areas of interest to prompt the player's imagination. The next step in development will be to begin building these locations to populate the map, then add the introduction and ending to the game.

Sketch of the Cowboy wandering the desert for Deathbed Sketch of Deathbed's map Sketch of the Cowboy's final resting place for Deathbed
Planning sketches for Deathbed