Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Outer Wolrd Design

If the Barrier Realm is Romantic, Natural and Art Nouveau, it stands to reason that for contrast, the Outer Realms style should have a very hard, unnatural, mass-produced look. Lots of synthetic materials and stiff fabrics in strong jewel and neon colours, influences would be post-war American design mixed with 1980s and 90s styles.

Grace should bridge the gap somehow. A strong, heavy look, but not as harsh or garish as the 'bad guys'.

Thinking about storyline gameplay

Now that there's a protagonist and a rough gameplay idea, the storyline needs to be developed so as to mesh with the gameplay.
Storyline idea:
The Barrier Realm has been closed off from the rest of the world for some time, let's say about three or four generations, so still within living memory, but only for the oldest people living there. The rest of the country left them to it, since there wasn't much of value in that small area. The people inside the wall built a peaceful little community, largely self-sufficient and only open to visitors and tradespeople with specific papers.
Lena, young woman living in a village in the Barrier Realm called Havenook, is training to be a teacher. She is well-read and practical, less artistically inclined and more logical than most people in her community.
Out of the blue, the village is attacked by gangs from outside the wall, who have apparently discovered that the closed off community with no security measures is an easy target. The Gang's leader boasts that the seal mark on his hand makes him invincible, and using this ability he scaled the great wall, jumped inside and unlocked the door from within to let his gang through. A distraught Lena, cornered when trying to get the other villagers to make a break for it, pushes the gang leader and unexpectedly absorbs the seal from him!
This leads to something of a stand-off, since Lena can't fight at all, but the Gang have no means to hurt her, but fortunately at that moment, another outsider appears and dispatches the Gang single handedly, sending them running for the gate. The stranger also bears a seal on her hand, which seems to give her a power that multiplies the force with which she impacts her surroundings, hence she was able to send the gangsters flying with even very light looking punches! She explains that her name is Grace and she works for the government. She's around her late twenties, early thirties and extremely straightforward and no-nonsense.

Grace explains that people in the outer world about ten years ago, created a machine that allows non-magically inclined people to find Lay-Crosses (Layline crossing points) and absorb seals from them, an ability previously only open to very lucky people, most of whom never discover their ability because they'd only realise they had it on getting close enough to a Lay-Cross to detect it. It didn't take long for people to find and end up constantly fighting over Seals, and it was only a matter of time before people turned their eyes toward the Barrier Realm, which it turns out sits on about six!
Time is of the essence. The only thing preventing all kinds of unpleasant people getting to the Lay-Crosses is the rugged landscape of the realm. Some have already been taken. The Seals must all be either nulled so that only natural Mages can use them, or have the power passed onto a worthy bearer. In order to do this, Grace needs Lena, a natural Mage with knowledge of the area.
Lena, feeling she's not up to this, explains that there's a Natural Mage in the main hub city of Aldcastre. An old Sage with the power to absorb and communicate great amounts of information, who is in charge of the Great Library. They rush across the moors to the City, only to discover that the Sage passed on just two days previously, and passed on his power to his apprentice, a man called Aldan. Aldan is a natural Mage of about thirty years, which for a Sage and head Librarian is extremely young, his Seal gives him an amazing memory for facts and concepts, and telepathy, and he explains that, knowing the area, there is no way he can get through the dangerous terrain surrounding the Crosses. He can, however, give Lena advice, as he knows the location, at least roughly for most of the Crosses.

So Lena sets off on her quest to close off all the Crosses. She must get through difficult terrain in order to reach them. Later in the game, she must sneak through enemy fortifications and cities to take back Seals and return them to their proper places. There are also logistical problems whereby having got herself to a place, she needs to work out how to get Grace there too, since her super-impact power can be used to clear obstacles. As she moves around, Aldan and Grace (speaking through Aldan's mental connection) can give advice, or more often, natter away and take the mickey.

Why an Invincible Heroine isn't a bad idea

I may have mentioned already that, due to reasons I'll have to explain with a plot summary, she has accidentally become invincible.
Now, this may seem like a bad idea for a game, But I've been playing games for a while now, and death seems to often become just an inconvenience anyway. You just lose a bit of time and reappear back at the start of an area. I figure that since Lena's going to be running around on top of cliffs, falling and being stuck at the bottom of the cliff again is enough of an inconvenience as it is. If she is invincible for plot reasons, it means she can fall a long way without it being a problem, like characters in early platformers from when I was a kid, only they didn't have any kind of explanation for why Sonic and Mario were capable of falling fifty feet and coming away injury free.
It also allows for Lena working with realistic physics, but still being able to do things and go places no sensible climber would without all the faffing about with harnesses.

Invincible protagonists aren't technically a new thing, it's just that normally it's not explained. This way, we also get the explanation for why on earth a reluctant young lady is out saving everybody by doing insanely dangerous things. It's because she's invincible and therefore sort of obligated to do so!

Without the pressure of harsh time limitations or limited lives, the player has more freedom to explore, mull things over and try things out. The game won't penalise players for trying out a novel way of getting around an obstacle or exploring a hidden area.


Environmental concept showing idea of Lena's home village. Influence from Art Nouveau as well as modern eco-housing. Wind turbines generate electricity and bits of ceramics and bottles are recycled as decorative touches for buildings. As with Tokugawa period Japan, The Barrier realm is a peaceful, secluded society, and so craftspeople have had time to perfect arts and to spend a great deal of time on even small details.

Lena concept. I'm not sure about those hip-pouches, they make her look maybe a bit too much like Balthier from Final Fantasy XII, may need seeing to.
Trying to combine Romantic elements with practical climbing gear. The shoes are halfway in-between running pumps and climbing shoes (because she can't run around in climbing shoes, they're not comfortable for that at all!). Leggings are commonly worn by rock climbers and fell runners (though they're out of fashion at this moment with them, no idea why) and also give her an elegant look like a ballerina. The blouse is extremely Romantic with Regency period style bustline, flouncey sleeves and a highly decorative front panel with art nouveau patterns.
For her face and hair, I decided to try a mediterranian look with dark curls. Again, quite a Romantic feeling, slightly wild and windswept, good for running across moors like a Bronte character.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Inspiration from the Lakes

I grew up in the Lake District, and it's always disappointed me that despite many games containing large areas of woodland and mountains, it very rarely resembles real woodland or mountains as I've experienced them.
For this reason, I'd like to take inspiration from what's on my doorstep. This is just a small selection of pictures really. The Lakes have such a varied landscape. Perfect for a game about natural challenges.

Inspiration from Gaudi

Gaudi's architecture is less delicate than Horta's and more colourful. Inspiration still comes from natural forms, but more from Fungi rather than branches. Gaudi combines curved, organic forms with hard, geometric forms, and explores textures of natural stone and recycled ceramics and glass in his work.

Inspiration from Horta

Horta's architectural style is delicate and inspired by plants.
Natural, warm colours, mainly browns and golds, careful wood and metalwork in organic shapes, few straight lines or hard edges.

Early concept sketches

Early Lena concepts. Most of what was written here I've already discussed. Lena's design is going in the right kind of direction, but Grace's armour doesn't fit so well with the setting I've decided on here.

The Setting

I want the setting to be fantasy, but not High Fantasy. Not a medieval setting, and no elves. I'd like modern elements and Fantastic elements to sit next to each other without feeling too jarring, and to allow the player freedom to roam, while limiting them.
I want the overall feel of the world to be idyllic and natural, and for the enemy to feel like a genuine invasion and threat to the world.

So, in order to give the player a fairly wide range, but hem them in, I decided that the setting is a walled in, isolated country. This lead me to the idea of a community which has closed off from the rest of the world as conscientious objectors. I would quite like it to resemble a kind of collection of eco-towns or alternative/hippie communes. Hence we get some modern technology, but in other ways things are quite medieval. Tall white wind turbines dot the landscape, and rooftops glitter with solar panels. Houses poke out of hillsides like modern style Hobbit holes and people ride bikes and horses (or similar equivalent animal) everywhere.
So rather than the overused 'there used to be technology, but a great disaster destroyed it all', seen in a lot of Fantasy games, I'm going down the route of 'there IS technology, but the people in Lena's walled community choose not to use it'.

So, architectural and design style inspirations:
I definitely want to go with modern eco-homes here. Lots of open plan, glass, recycled materials and a bit of a hodge-podge.
I also want to use Art Nouveux and Organic influences like the work of Gaudi and of Victor Horta. Art Nouveux has a finely crafted feel and mirrors natural, organic designs, plus Gaudi in his Utopia did a lot of work with recycled materials like bits of glass bottles and ceramics for mosaics.
So the 'Barrier Realm' as I'll call the setting for now, is basically a community of artists and alternative lifetyle people, like organic farmers. Craftsmanship is prized and people live at a slow pace. An idyllic lifestyle.
Unlike the NPCs in most games, who are annoying, unhelpful people who expect you to do things for you, the people in the community are genuinely helpful and nice towards Lena, but unfortunately are not used to taking decisive action, so when the threat comes, they are just overwhelmed by it. They have little sense of urgency and can be a bit useless in this sense, but they do mean well.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Thinking about protagonist

The protagonist, Lena, has been floating around in my head for some time. She would be relatively unusual as a heroine in that she's not a pacifist princess, but nor is she a super action-woman. However many times I've rewritten the story, the gameplay and redesigned her appearence, Lena's personality has remained relatively consistent.
She is book-smart but inexperienced. Not so much naive, as she knows a lot, but she has experienced relatively little. She is somebody who thinks outside the box, but to such a degree that she has trouble sometimes seeing the obvious solution because she tends to go off on a tangent rather than thinking straight ahead. She is practical and not cowardly, but she is cautious and dislikes to jump into things or take risks if she hasn't weighed up the possible consequences.
This makes her somebody who likes to work things through in a slow, considered way. Unfortunately she is the one who gets thrown into the role of action heroine. She is not so much an unwilling heroine as somebody who isn't naturally inclined that way trying to muddle through as best they can.

I generally imagine her somewhere between 18 and 21, training to be a teacher, though I need to work through the exact details of the level of technology and social development of the setting, so how her training works and whether she's a teacher or a governess or tutor needs to be worked out. Despite her general dislike of unknown risk taking, she doesn't mind situations she's familiar with, and has a weak spot for wandering alone and climbing trees. This means that contrary to first appearences, she is not completely unsuitable as an action heroine. She does hate to fight though, and would rather run than fight back.

Movement and interaction

One thing I would really like to see in a game, and let's for now call this game 'Project Lena' for ease of writing, is natural interaction with the environment.

In most games, you may run along, stop in front of a cliff, press a button to jump and the character will jump up and grab it. As a long time doer of various outdoor pursuits including fell-walking, rock climbing and Orienteering, I dislike this. Not only is it slow and all stop-start, but it's ludicrously unrealistic! If I was confronted by a six foot cliff face, there is no way I could jump, grab the cliff and just yank myself up with just my arms! I know some pretty strong rock climbing guys, and only a handful would be able to manage that, and even then they wouldn't if they had the choice, because it'd be stupid, dangerous and a waste of energy.

So I started to think 'okay, how can I do this better'? I'd like the character to interact with things based on context, but the hard bit was how to come up with a system that still makes sure the character does what the player wants, rather than misinterpreting 'climb down this cliff' for 'leap off this cliff'.

So my proposal is this: Interaction with an obstacle is based on the speed at which the character is moving.

So if the character walks toward the cliff, they will climb down it. If they run towards the cliff they will jump off it. This was used for jumping in Legend of Zelda games, and is great, because it removes the annoyance of trying to press a button while running forward just at the right time to jump off a cliff at the right angle, something female gamers dread due to our comparative lack of 3d awareness. So that's what happens at the top of a cliff, how about the bottom?
Well, how about...
If Lena runs at a rock face, she will try to scramble or smear up it, making this an effective technique for short cliffs, particularly quite smooth ones she can't get a grip on. If she walks at a cliff, she will climb it properly placing hand and foot holds, and the player should try to follow features such as fissures in order to stay on and preserve stamina.
If Lena runs at a tree, she'll attempt to jump into the branches, or failing that, kick off the trunk. If she walks at it, she'll try to climb the tree more sensibly.
If you run into water, you'll dive and start to swim as soon as it's deep enough. If you walk, you'll wade in until it's too deep and then start to swim. When swimming, run becomes the fast front crawl, good for moving along the surface quickly, while walk becomes breast stroke, slower and can be used for underwater exploration.

That gives an idea for how things would work. This removes the aspect of button tapping, but adds a challenge in the form of making the player think about how to approach an obstacle.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

It Begins...

Okay, so this is my Games Design Blog. It will serve as a reflective diary over the course of my three semesters of MA Games Design here at UCLAN. Using a blog rather than a paper diary was a suggestion by my course leader, Jim Thompson (who in further posts will just be called 'Jim' in case you're an outside reader and wonder who I'm talking about).
So, my first little starter project is to consolidate ideas and designs for a game, in order to give the staff a feel for the direction I'd like to go in.

The game idea I had is something that's been washing around in my head for years. Some of the concepts have altered a lot, but the core idea remains. It's an action-adventure-puzzle game about an invincible girl called 'Lena'. Here are the main points of what I have in mind:

-Excitement without violence.
Remember 'Prince of Persia: Sands of Time'? Awesome game, but it would have actually been better without the fighting. The fighting was repetitive and felt like they put it in there because somebody thought a game ought to have fighting. The climbing and puzzle solving was so fun and exhilerating though, that it made you wonder who's idea it was to break up the really fun gameplay elements with fighting. The amount of violence in games is often off-putting to a female gamer, yet there are so few violence-free games that are fast-paced and exciting. Exploring is exciting on its own, you don't nessesarily have to be pounced on by waves of zombies every three metres!

-Believable landscapes and interaction with environments.
I live in the Lake District and I like to rock climb. There is so much in the natural world that's exciting that games designers seem to be missing because they base their environments on things they see in other games, not on experience. In most games, a cliff is a wall, impassable. When a climber sees a cliff, they think 'challenge!' not 'dead end'. I want tree climbing, rock climbing, scree running, scrambling and swimming to play a part.
I'd also like to come up with a gameplay system that leads to smooth, continuous movement rather than stop-start awkward play. Lena would interact with the environment based on the speed at which she approaches it. I'll talk more on this later.

-Depth of characterisation without interrupting gameplay.
Metal Gear had a good idea going with the codec. But it would have been better if it din't stop the whole game. Prince of Persia had characters talking and quipping while running around, but not always the same amount of depth. I'd like the characters to background chatter while the action continued. This way you get a sense of development and friendship and a movie-like comraderie without it stopping play. Some conversations would be context based, others would be of a general nature.
The characters, I'd like to give subtle, believable personalities and have them converse and act in a normal way rather than being just archetypes. I find that often in games there's a distinct lack of characters who are just like ordinary people.

-Natural Puzzles:
I'd like puzzles to be largely logistical, and not obvious as 'puzzles'. Many puzzles would be about working out how to reach a place, then trying to work out how to get your equipment and friends who lack your abilities to that place. 'Primal' tried to do this, but wasn't entirely successful due to slightly awkward gameplay and an overreliance on locked doors (to the point that almost no door in the entire game is unlocked when you first reach it!) The puzzles here would be set in more natural environments than Primal's and many would involve problems that would really come up on an expodition.

Free time gaming:
I want to be able to stop and start playing when I have time. I don't want to be punished or dissuaded from playing just because I don't have an hour free to get from one save point to the next. If I only have fifteen minutes free per day, I want to be able to play for fifteen minutes and then just save and quit. Like a book.

Games I feel are important for reference:

Zelda series:
Pretty much the origin of action-adventure. Balances exploration, puzzles and story. A bit light on dialogue due to mute protagonist, but excellent world-building work and well-thought-out puzzles.

Fantastic concept not so well excecuted. Believable 'normal' protagonist, good inter-character banter and puzzles that are logistical and environment based rather than obvious 'puzzles'. Shame the gameplay drags so much really.

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time Trilogy:
Excellent environment-based puzzles and level design. Uses the idea of making the main gameplay aspect about climbing and getting through landscapes. Smooth transitions between running and climbing.

Legacy of Kain/Soul Reaver series:
Because it's an excellent action-adventure series with great characterisation and plot. Nice use of the main character as narrator while he navigates the landscape.

Metal Gear Solid series:
MGS has great gameplay, and integrates logistical puzzles to do with evading guards and getting through areas. It allows the player a lot of freedom. In fact, it's a shame it's always interrupting the excellent gameplay with half-hour long cutscenes!

Final Fatasy VIII:
Seems like the odd one out here, but FF8 features excellent use of motion capture for natural movement, naturalistic character designs and personalities (all other FFs go for more archetypical characters) and great world design down to the smallest detail.