A small game I created in two weeks. It is meant as a parody of a lot of weird behaviour in the Corona-Epidemic 2019-2021. The game is also meant to be sarcastically-educational and shows what the things you do, like hoarding and not wearing a mask, will do to others. Play it for free on my website. Use the maximize screen button to play in full screen mode and click into the game canvas to play with sound.
Now there is a problem with „Choose-your-own-adventure“-style branching stories: the complexity grows with every decision the player can make. It is clearly impossible to create something like an open world or to visit different locations at the player’s whim with branching elements. A large studio can do it, like Quantic Dream did with Heavy Rain, but it is always limiting.
The answer is a web instead of a tree. We need locations, that are interconnected and can be traversed by the player back and forth. Like this, the player can visit a vast number of locations in an order, that he likes. But this is lacking the actual decision making and the progression.
So what we need is combine the two approaches. The player must be able to change the locations with the actions he takes there. He might even be able to change the location in one or more ways, as his decisions dictate. Each location represents its own branching decision tree in a way, but can be visited and abandoned in more than one of those states. The decisions and events in one location can even affect the states of other locations.
This approach is expandable as well. The player character can have his own stats, that can be changed by triggering certain events in locations. He can learn new skills, he can improve his abilities, he can earn a reputation that might open some doors elsewhere. Of course he can find loot, new weapons, armor and trinkets, that give him more power or new abilities. He could even gather followers, other adventurers to travel with him on their way to glory.
This way, we get a world, that can be explored and that can be played with, and that can be expanded easily, when the story demands it, with a set of a few simple systems. But the player ist still caught on a preset path, like in a labyrinth, that he can only explore, but not leave a mark on by choosing his own approach.
In my previous attempts of recreating the fun and excitement of pen & paper role playing games, I primarily focused on the pure game mechanics. I would always start out by writing down game mechanics and implementing them, like character creation, combat mechanics, item stats and thelike, sometime of my own making, sometimes in an attempt to faithfully recreate a known Pen&Paper system. Only one of those attempts saw the day of light (Quest for Revenge), but numerous didn’t. The projects quickly became too big and unmanageable for one single designer and developer, and were abandoned because I ran out of time or, sometimes, motivation.
I still think, that the recreation of those mechanics is an important step for the look and feel of those specific Pen&Paper systems (still dreaming about implementing my beloved D&D 4th Edition rules), but the true core of the Pen&Paper experience lies elsewhere. One of its most important aspects is the collaborative storytelling. This is why railroading your players sucks, because only one is telling a story and forcing it onto the others. We can’t quite recreate this type of storytelling in games to this day, unless you count curious experiments like Sleep is Death. But it is clear, that we need to tell a story in our game, and that the player must have at least some influence on it. The most basic form of this are choose-your-own-adventure style books. Its very rudimentary, but the player gets to decide the path of the story, although it is predefined, and storytelling is basically its core mechanic.
This shall be the basis of my concept. The main focus is telling a branching story, in which the player can decide the outcome or at least the direction and path. But this, of course, is not enough.
Next up: A world to explore
I have always loved to play role playing games, be it on a computer or at a table with pen & paper and a bunch of friends. Both ways of playing, on a screen and in the imagination, have their distinct advantages and drawbacks. I always wanted to create a game, that could combine the best of both worlds.
The things pen & paper role playing games do the best are the possibilities for creative storytelling, but also for creative play. As long as you have a game master, that knows what he is doing, you can do whatever you want. You can become really creating with your problem solving, with exploring the world and using it to your advantage, that goes way beyond what is written on your character sheet. But there are also aspects that can suck a bit about playing on a table. The application of rules can be a drag from time to time. Combat can take ages, and whoever tried to look up grappling rules knows, that using written rules can be time consuming. While the social aspect of your game is a highlight, you are also completely dependent on your players not being total dimwits or assholes. Finding a good group can be hard.
Virtual role playing games are basically the polar opposite. You have quick, flashy fights, and the rules are taken care of by the computer. The only thing you have to do is tell it what you want, and it will calculate it for you in real time. But the storytelling is still quite rudimentary. While we have near photo realistic characters and breathtaking landscapes, most of the time set to an epic orchestral soundtrack, we still have very rigid quest structures and multiple choice dialogues. If the programmers and designers didn’t think of it, you can’t do it. Multiplayer is also quite rare in computer RPGs, unless you want the guided amusement park experience of current MMOs.
The game that really got the closest to that for me in combining the best of both worlds was Neverwinter Nights. That’s because of their faithful recreation of the Dungeons & Dragons rules (while trying to iron out the flaws of the system and balance it at least a bit), but also because of their focus on world exploration and storytelling. You have a vast number of interaction possibilities in this game, that go far beyond simple running from combat to combat, like in for example Diablo. Even the followup titles by Bioware could not recreate this quite. Another interesting aspect was the toolset, that was delivered to the player, which enabled him to create worlds, stories and (thanks to an extensive scripting API) games of their own. It was possible to create Neverwinter Nights modules that were engaging while having no combat or magic or loot at all.
So I have to decide, what the factors are that made this game so very great, use them for my game, and, when possible, maybe even improve them. For that I need the following:
- A storybased approach
- A world to explore
- Room for creativity
- A living world full of believable Characters, that are more than Loot, XP and Quest dispensers.
- (Dungeons, of course)
In the following articles, I will try to show, what exactly I have in mind.