Thursday, December 18, 2008

Video-Game Ideas From Sleepy Nikolases

This is the kind of thing that Nikolases think about as they drift off to sleep.* (Largely unrelated quotes added for drama.)

1) "One must have a good memory to be able to keep the promises one makes." - Nietzsche.

The context for this idea is a game something in the mold of the Zeldas - though something else might also work. (The premise of the Zelda-games: the player explores, gets new items, solves puzzles, and fights bosses, without "stats" or "levelling"... a sort of "RPG-'Lite'".)

Normally -in Zelda games as in others - the character you control grows more powerful over the course of the game. You get more and better items, open up new areas, etc etc etc.... and if you're tossed in jail and lose all your items, well, that is very inherently a temporary setback.

What if a game did the opposite? You grow less powerful over the course of the game - start out being able to go nearly anywhere, leap five meters high (double-jump!), punch out titans in a single blow - and eventually become a mere, ordinary human, or even weaker?

That's still too broad, actually. Have to think about goals: defeat some villain? Get some item? Survive? Other themes - items acquired, increasingly relied upon to cover increasing weakness? Or allies - your actions towards them early on, when it is very, very easy to be dismissive and ignore whatever boring nonsense they're saying, determines what kind of support they give you later on, when you become their equal or even inferior in power? (The wheel turns...) Perhaps the timescale could be something like the rise of civilization - what role do you play as the mythic hero, fading into legend...?

There are games that did something like this. Shadow of the Colossus did it - but very, very subtly. Furthermore, it wasn't exactly a main theme - though saying more might be a trip to spoiler-towne. Half-Life 2 Episode 1: Aftermath also did it to some degree - one starts the game with a specific super-weapon, inherited from the end of Half-Life 2 proper, and loses it midway through the episode, being forced to replace it with conventional, inferior armament. The Metroid games also have a terrible habit of doing something - see Metroid Prime 2, off the top of my head, which starts the player with a perfectly splendid set of weapons and then (SPOILERS) promptly rips them all away after the tutorial - but it's not the same, really. In the Metroids, such disadvantage is a temporary, one-time thing; you lose the capabilities, the charge-beam and missiles and morph balls, and you go get them all back and more. This hypothetical would be the opposite... a game in which loss, not gain, is the norm. (Bleakness would be a problem.)

This idea is something that I've been tossing about for much longer than the other (which I will discuss shortly), and it's much less clear. The most important question is, of course, is it fun? I think it could be - counterbalancing a decrease in raw power with more options, in the form of items, more refined techniques, more people to interact with in different ways... but there's a lot of uncertainty there.

Another good theme for this game-idea, while I'm still on the topic: sacrifice, explicitly giving away one's own power for some greater cause (defeat the villain, empower the nature-spirit, save the child)...

But this is an old idea, and my thoughts on the other idea, new to me for last night, are a bit more coherent.

2) Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. - Nietzche.

The context for this idea is some manner of computer-RPG, perhaps in the Western mold. In such RPGs, characters possess numerical values ("stats") for various attributes, some of which may affect level-up gains - the most common example being the "intelligence" stat affecting the number of skill point given out for a new level. There are any number of things that can affect these stats - spells, items, and potions, to name the most common three (and those on which this piece will focus). Using "buffs" (stat-increasing effects) to increase level-up gains is generally forbidden by games using such systems - gains are instead calculated from base, un-"buffed" stats. So far, so dry and boring - a minor, anticipated and adverted exploitation of game features.

But what if it was part of the game - intended - a moderately important, if not entirely central, feature?

Step back a moment. In this game - a hypothetical, an Emile - the main character would start out as a fairly ordinary person. As the game progressed, and as they "levelled" and became more powerful, they would grow in size, strength, and speed - becoming, by the end, a thoroughly heroic figure. (Or perhaps a thoroughly demonic one, if our Emile allows for an evil player-character.) The essential point - that they will be sound of mind and body, as only characters in a simulation that does not model disease truly can be.

So, there are any number of things going on in the game. The player finds new equipment, gathers companions, solves side-quests, and intermittently tries to progress in some larger plot. (Or constantly, if they don't feel all that interested by the side-questing. But then what's the point?) And, after making enough progress, they level up.

Simply allowing the player to use buffs during level-ups isn't nearly interesting enough - so let's kick it in the nose a notch. Let's have stat growth be exponential - say, increase by a power of 1.3 or 1.5 or some-such at each level. (Powers of two are probably a bit too steep, growth-wise.) Let's give the player a pre-level-up screen that allows them to distribute "buffs" as they wish - temporary spell-buffs, consumable potion-buffs, armor/weapon based buffs, stack on whatever they can afford. (Any buff used to level is, by the nature of a temporary buff, unusable for later combats - so it might be unwise to lather them all on.) And let's look to our very meaningful quote up at the top, and stick on a tangentially related disadvantage.

First - before we discuss the disadvantage - let's note that playing through the game without using these "buffed level-ups" should be possible. Harder, yes. Nearly impossible on the highest difficulty, if there are multiple difficulties, sure. But there is a choice. And why is that important - what is that disadvantage, anyway.

Mutation. (In a word.)

The mutations should be subtle. They should be proportional to the magnitude of the buffs used to level (a +10 to strength should inflict ten times as much mutation as a +1), and they should stack over time. Perhaps the main character should have some inherent tolerance for buff-levels, so that a (very) small amount of buffs each level might be ignored, or over-buffing early on might be 'atoned' for by later 'abstinence'. There'll be two reasons they might want such atonement: one visual, and one statistical.

The visual effects should be based on the types of buff used.

- Potions: The player's skin changes colour, becomes mottled, their veins stand out, their hair (if any) falls out.

- Equipment: The player's skin skin becomes increasingly shiny, and metal plates begin to cover large parts of the body (emerging from beneath their skin).

- Spells: The player's overall shape begins to deform, small bumps growing into waving tendrils, one leg and arm growing dramatically larger than the other, torso tipping sideways, a sense of the alien pervading.

With a sufficient concentration of any or all of these, the player's eyes would begin to shine white, their pupils would vanish, and their entire body would begin to emit a low-level glow.

More importantly, though less dramatically, the player abusing buff-levels would suffer nonvisual changes in parallel with their physical mutations. Whatever stats they had governing interpersonal interactions would drop - accounting for their increasingly inhuman appearance - and they would begin to go insane, as reflected in their conversation options. Empathetic options would vanish - irrationally furious ones would appear - and, eventually, they would be reduced to a kind of Lovecraft-esque gibberish. They should still be able to play the game to completion - perhaps they could intimidate shopkeepers into trade, somehow - but things should definitely be a bit trickier.

Mutations would probably be governed, behind the scenes, by some kind of "mutation points", gained by applying buffs in level-ups and never vanishing. I mention this not to begin rambling about some suggested algorithm (which would be even more pointless than most of what I write) but to note that the mechanism governing mutations - the numbers involved - should not be visible to the player. There is a sense of mystery and uncertainty involved - players should be aware that buff-levels cause mutations, they should be aware that mutations do bad things to conversational intercourse, but they shouldn't know exactly what's happening to the last decimal place. Some uncertainty must remain in place - perhaps even a slight random element - for this system to convey the desired risk-vs-reward effect. (I might argue against even something so vague as a visual "mutation gauge" on a menu, though I feel less strongly about that.)

(This system is perhaps partially inspired by the wonderful Geneforge series, which I have written about before on this blag - the details are, though the overall idea was my own.)

The whole baroque buff-level system has two purposes. One, to add a new strategic element to gameplay, creating (hopefully) more interesting choices for players. Two, to create new themes for the plot. A balance between power and humanity is a well-known theme, and one that fits well - though it might be important to note that the choice to risk mutation is not, in and of itself, evil. A main villain might be pure-human (perhaps zealously so), and a powerful ally might be physically warped and prone to fits of uncontrollable rage as a result of the buffs they used in an attempt to ward off foes. Party members might be at one step or another in the process.

The trouble with allowing the main character to mutate party members is that something of the trade-off is lost. When it is a choice between power and the ability to communicate with other human beings - that is a very real trade-off, and it is the one that one faces in deciding the level of mutation allowable for the main character. With party members, however, it is rather different - much easier to mutate them as much as is allowable, benefit from their strength in combat, and do all the talking yourself with plot characters, shopkeepers, and so forth, as you would have anyway. There are ways to balance this - perhaps more mutated characters might occasionally turn against you in combat (owing to madness-inspired rage) or even leave, while less-mutated ones could offer personal side-quests that might otherwise be unavailable... it's something to consider.

A note on my game ideas, for anyone who reads this far: they're always far too big. With the arguable exception of the Nikolausse Run - sadly in perpetual hiatus - they tend to be far too large to ever really prototype, much less make, for persons without a development studio and funding behind them. That is why they are the products of dreams. (See what I did there?)

*While they're asleep, on the other hand, they dream about vaguely hallucinogenic experiences that, within the dream, are alluded to being the results of spongiform encephalopathy. So I'd stick with the stuff above, were I you.


Calvacadeofcats said...

i should read this someday

Cavalcadeofcats said...

Eh, you don't have to. It's really just something I posted to satisfy my own Nikolasish madnesses. The voices demand such things, you know. (The voices in my head.)