Feb 072009

For the February Blogs of the Round Table, Corvus asks us to take a design provided by another contributor for the January Round Table and build on it. The idea is to develop a similar theme or mood in this second game, without necessarily remaining true (or relevant) to the literary work that inspired the initial pre-make post. In that vein, I wanted to riff off Corvus’ “A Lego Orange” with an eye primarily towards its endgame. At that point he’s trying to get across a sense of disenchantment with a once-loved lifestyle, which is what I’m going for in this idea for an unconventional fantasy RPG called Hero’s Blade.

Hero’s Blade is set in a fairly large valley with a road running through it. There’s a village at the center and several outlying farms, a forest area, and a few fields and streams. The player controls an older hero in the “grizzled ranger” mode, armed with an excellent sword and bow, good armor, and so on. The game begins as the Hero wakes up in the village inn, learning that he got a knock on the head during a landslide that has blocked the road at one end of the valley. Don’t worry, he doesn’t have amnesia. The road at the other end has recently been taken over by bandits, so he is trapped in the valley until the road is cleared or he removes the bandits. The game world should at this point be presented in desaturated colors, as if the player is looking at the world through a filter that gives everything a gray tinge. Other than this, the graphics should be standard realistic 3D stuff.

The inhabitants of the valley are all farmers and, with one exception, are neither willing nor able to fight the thieves on their own. The exception is a single character (who I’ll call the Kid) who is eager to go out and get rid of the bandits. He (or she) should have similar armaments to the Hero, but of much lower quality. The Kid is a very unskilled and totally untrained fighter, but possesses the same set of combat skills as the Hero. Combat in the game is turn-based and perfunctory — as little removed from a classic turn-based model as possible. There are no magical items or magic users, no elemental strength/weakness system, no need for any kind of strategy. The Hero’s abilities are so far above those of the bandits that one of them can only stand against him for a turn or two. He earns no experience from battle at all. By contrast, the Kid starts off as a pretty bad fighter and earns experience points and skill boosts as is typical for an RPG. The Kid is AI-controlled, aggressive, and foolhardy; the Hero’s only means of controlling him is a command that can knock the Kid down and take him out of the battle for a few turns. If either the Kid or the Hero dies in combat the game ends.

Each turn of combat and each bandit killed desaturates the color palette by a certain fixed percentage. If the saturation drops below a certain level, the game whites out, then fades to a steel-gray color and ends. This cutoff applies without respect to bonuses based on relationships or locations (see below). Thus, a player can get a game over by walking into the cemetery.

While the valley has several places where the bandits patrol, the rest of it is fairly open and features no real threats. The Hero can converse with the inhabitants of the village and the farm, and can establish relationships with each (about 50 total). Early stages of building a relationship involve just talking with the inhabitants, using a conversation system that allows the player to convey an attitude towards the NPC. For the most part these NPCs will do their own daily tasks without seeking out the Hero. The exception is the Kid, who can never be found if you’re looking for him, but appears immediately if you call him (using a button solely dedicated to this task in the open world). The Kid always shows up out of nowhere to join in or watch if the Hero enters a fight or does a job that might be related to fighting or adventuring. As the Hero’s relationship with an NPC improves, the inhabitant will offer quests to the player, some of them minor and some of them more involved, but never requiring combat. Several characters will also offer jobs.

These side-quests and jobs should take be the focus of the development. Each job should have some depth of gameplay, so that it carefully rewards strategy and player skill. Also, there should be some degree of challenge to each of them. Similarly, each quest should have extended moments of interaction between the character and the world. For instance, if an NPC has a missing cow, the player’s job will be to find the cow and then guide it back carefully by coaxing it along and constantly nudging it in one direction or another. The goal is to require continual input from the player during each of these quests while varying significantly from quest to quest so that the player is always engaged during them (as opposed to the combat).

The performance of each job or sidequest will be discretized in some way so that as the Hero does more of each the colors of the world increase in saturation. Similarly, each time the Hero “levels up” his relationship with one of the NPCs, he the world saturates. In addition, NPCs with whom the Hero has a very good relationship will boost the color saturation in nearby areas. Spending time near his friends will literally make the Hero’s day brighter. Only the Kid does not have this effect.

Taking a relationship with an NPC to a certain level will cause the Hero to open up to the NPC, with the Hero revealing some of his past. These flashbacks should take the form of slideshows of images illustrated in striking style and vibrant color, voiced over by the Hero narrating the event from his life. The life events he narrates will take a variety of tones, appropriate to the history and nature of the NPC. However, each of them will have a sad epilogue. His old friends have all died in battle, the women he danced with in taverns across the land have settled down and forgotten him, he outlived his favorite horse, etc. etc. The image shown in each epilogue should use the washed-out palette from the start of the game.

Taking a relationship to a high level will also help keep the Hero from dying by whiteout. In cases where the game would normally end due to the color desaturation, a good friend can find the Hero and boost the saturation level back to safety.

All of this is meant to make combat an unattractive thing to do, but after every couple of days that the Hero does not find and fight a bandit in the valley, the raiders will become emboldened and attack the town. If the Hero does not decimate them, one of the villagers will be killed. On the day after the attack, any bandits or villagers killed will be buried in the town cemetery in a scripted event; depending on who is getting buried the Hero’s attendance or non-attendance will affect his relationship with all the NPCs. In the vicinity of the cemetery itself (as well as the bandit hideout) the color desaturates by a certain fixed amount.

In addition to these spots, the color will desaturate at any spot outside of the village where the Hero killed a bandit previously. These will be easily identified because the bodies will persist, slowly decaying with time. In town, bandits killed indoors will leave permanent bloodstains. No matter how faint the rest of the world gets these will always be clearly visible; they will fade to black rather than white.

The population of bandits is finite, however, and once they get reduced to about a fifth of their initial number they will hole up in their little fort and start sending out individuals to burn farms or kill villagers while the Hero is too far away to help. At this point the Hero will be urged to attack their stronghold. If he refuses to go, the Kid will go by himself and die there; the game ends. If the Hero accepts, the villagers will contrive a way to make the bandits open their fort and the Hero and Kid will take them on. The “boss” bandit leader is only marginally more skilled than the bandits themselves.

After this fight, victory celebration, yada yada yada, the Hero is awakened one morning by the Kid, who says that he is going to leave the valley and adventure across the world. The player can choose either “I’ll go with you” or “You should take my sword.” For the first option, the Hero’s better friends drop by and say farewell. The Hero will start to walk out of the valley with the Kid at his heels, and the player’s ability to redirect his motions will gradually diminish. As they pass by the bandit hideout, the player loses control entirely. A few straggling bandits attack shortly thereafter, with both the Hero and the Kid being completely scripted. Each turn desaturates the view significantly, and when the bandits are defeated in the 5th turn or so the screen whites out. Game Over.

If the player chooses the second option, however, the camera leaves the Hero behind and starts to follow the Kid, who is not yet in the control of the player. The colors return to the same washed-out look they had at the beginning of the game. As the Kid gets closer to the bandit hideout, however, the palette becomes more vibrant. As he continues on past, the saturation increases. When the bandits attack, the player is finally given control of him; at this point the Kid is better than them by a fair margin. Each turn of combat increases color saturation, as does each kill. After he triumphs, the Kid looks away from the valley into the very bright and vibrant lands beyond. Heroic music; game over.

The thing I’m really going for in this idea is the weariness of the Hero. He’s good at fighting, much better by far than anyone in the valley. Once upon a time he found combat thrilling, but now it’s lost whatever luster it had. He’s tired of killing, but he’s trapped in a particular life by the sword. The desaturation of colors with each moment of combat and each kill represents his growing weariness and depression. The combat is intentionally made un-fun and un-rewarding to encourage the player to feel the same way about it that the character does. The life the Hero finds in the valley refreshes and revitalizes him, hence the increased color, and so the conversations, jobs, and sidequests should be made rewarding and engaging to encourage a similar feeling in the player. The Hero finds one last use for his fighting skills and then passes his sword along to the Kid, who resembles the Hero’s younger self in his outlook. Or, the Hero allows his spirit to fade and consigns himself to an empty life he has grown to hate. The choice at the end isn’t really about player input, but about asking the player to reflect on his experience in the game and correctly identify what the character values.

Obviously, I’m also tweaking a couple of things about RPGs here. A typical RPG would be about the fresh-faced Kid who has made a decision to go out into the world and have adventures, and this bit back home in the valley with the weak enemies would just be the first chapter. The pointless monotony of combat grind is also something I’m trying to get at with the desaturation and the first ending to the game. Of course, this could end up just being a collection of minigames with a story attached, but that might be refreshing in its own right.

Please visit this month’s other entries:

  4 Responses to “Blog of the Round Table: Hero’s Blade”

  1. Interesting parallel – my current pen-and-paper character is playing the role of the Hero to a young sidekick. The GM is doing an admirable job of simulating a lot the kid-management mechanics you mention here.

  2. First I would like to say good luck ever getting anyone to green light this game. And second, if they ever do please tell me because I would love to play it. It sounds like a complete art game, which is right up my alley, but it also twists the very concepts of its genre, also right up my alley.

    Brillient idea.

  3. This reminds me a lot of how MMOs begin to feel to me after spending a good deal of time with them. Not being particularly fond of high end raiding and other "end game" aspects of MMOs I generally start a new character class to experience the world again as the "Kid". But sometimes I like to just go back and do old quests and actually pay attention to the narrative that surrounds them. Where initially they felt like busy work fetch quests that one does on the road to becoming the Hero, once one tires of that role they become infused with new meaning and importance.

    I like the game you sketch out here – it really touches on something not generally touched on in games which is what happens at the end of the quest. Either the game ends with no epilogue to speak of, or it goes on forever like an MMO.

    I can see something similar to this kind of epilogue happening with Fallout 3 with the patch that lets you continue playing after the end (if only I didn't own the PS3 version!). Particularly if they raised the level cap the game would become less about the thrill and challenge of combat and more about exploration and forging relationship with the characters in the wastelands.

  4. Excellent idea!

    I would only have two nitpicks. One is that human eyes are really insensitive to changes in saturation. That's why compression algorithms sometimes separate color information from luminance and compress the former with more quality loss. So if you say that the screen will loose saturation after each fight – players most likely won't notice. So you probably would have to come up with some more clear feedback that mechanic. Maybe some sort of an indicator: the withering heart of the Hero or something.

    And also: Introducing a danger to combat (the danger of a whiteout-game-over) won't necessarily make the combat unattractive – on the contrary. It's sometimes the forbidden fruit that is the most tasty one. But I'm sure there could be some more gameplay-intrinsic means to make combat boring.

    Finally some questions: again the dilemma of multiple endings. I understand there are 3 in your game:
    – The Hero refuses to kill the bandits and the Kid dies.
    – The Hero kills the bandits, follows the Kid and "dies" of whiteout.
    – The Hero kills the bandits and doesn't follow the Kid.

    They all sound great if you know it all, but I was wondering: how will they appear from the perspective of a player? A smart player might get the message of the game quickly, refuse to kill the bandits and see Kid die – what then? Can he reload a savepoint to see the other endings? Does he have to restart the game and play over? And how would he distinguish the second ending (follows Kid) from a normal game over? Is there a difference at all?

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