When you introduce a game to someone else, you tend to break it down for them by genre, setting and then maybe add in the gimmick that sets it apart from the rest. We all have an idea of what it means for a game to be a platformer, a first-person shooter, a third-person shooter, a real-time strategy game, heck even a role-playing game, despite the genericness of the monikers. By now there are well-established mechanics and expectations for all sorts of game genres. In platformers you are expected to jump. A lot. You are expected to build up an army from scratch in real-time strategy games. There’s nothing in the general idea of these genres that dictate that this is the way it has to be, but these are gameplay mechanics that have worked well. Not only this, but the fundamental style of your game has to more or less match the genre’s aesthetic so as to not scare new players off.
So what then am I supposed to make of my pet project Kung Fu Legends? By my own admission, the game is a role-playing game. But I’ve made a strict commitment to not be like the other role-playing games. That is, I want to avoid the aesthetic of the whole six-physical-traits-five-races-and-a-skill-tree style of game that everyone and their dog has made. The philosophical approach I’m taking is the narrative approach. I don’t want item management. I don’t want squad-based strategy. I want something like the old school kung fu series with a roving master taking on bad guys in whatever village he finds himself that episode. I want it to be more like storytelling than stats management. This seems to suggest something more along the lines of Interactive Fiction (IF).
Old-school interactive fiction is fairly recognisable: you have a bunch of text and something resembling a command-line. You type simple phrases in and hopefully make useful text happen.
I’m pretty familiar with this sort of game – I’ve got a game available (Mixtape) and another under development (Convolution). You can see the start of Convolution in the image to the right. It’s a whole lotta text. And it works for the game that it’s trying to be: a game of exploration. The approach of mentally setting each room apart and filling them with details and objects you can poke at lends itself well to the deliberate exploration model of interactive fiction. The way things are structured and hidden works well in a parser environment, and wouldn’t be as neat with a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure approach, or a graphical treatment a la Monkey Island. By the way, Emily Short has written a fantastic article on the role of the parser (and different input methods) in interactive fiction. Check it out.
Anyway, Kung Fu Legends isn’t a game like that. It’s not confined to a single apartment building; it encompasses a whole world. I want players to wander the globe and even though they may return to places, I want it to be like that old Zen saying “a man never sets foot in the same stream twice”. The fixed intent and extent defined by the standard room model in interactive fiction doesn’t work well in that sort of aesthetic. I also think the usual roguelike approach of an ever-deepening dungeon is not for me. The geographical model is broad, not deep. About the closest geographical model I’ve found is Dwarf Fortress’ Adventure mode (without the micromanagement of movement) or something like Oblivion (and that sort of thing is well out of scope, and not quite what I want). It doesn’t match the storytelling/gameplay model I want, so I definitely want to move away from the fixed location approach that these games adopt. I want something more akin to storytelling – if you need a stage for a scene, there it is. The location isn’t really a persistent entity unless it absolutely needs to be. This is kinda like Sleep is Death‘s approach though with much greater agility to move stages as needed.
So okay, let’s think about the user interface. This isn’t really about diving into the details, but getting the aesthetic right. I don’t have the resources to do a full graphical game. So I’ll have to rely on some amount of text then. Do I want to be like text-based adventure games, like above? Well no, I’d like something a bit more visually interesting and perhaps play to the tropes of kung fu media a little. One way this could be approached is like Japanese RPGs and have something like a main banner where simple characters stand against a static, perhaps generic background. You know, like every clipart webcomic you’ve ever seen. Dialogue could be delivered via speech bubbles, or just in the scrollable text banner below the main banner. This helps de-emphasise the massive amount of text you inflict on the player by hiding it in amongst pretty elements. This might actually be less user-friendly because you’ve reduced the area of useful stuff to maybe a third of the screen real estate and over-emphasised the other elements. Plus the right-hand bar might be less useful given the narrative approach I want to take. I have ideas for things to go there, but I’ll discuss them another time.
The popularity of Apple devices and willingness for people to explore new user interfaces might be useful. Semi-recent indie game Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble uses a board-game aesthetic. It cleverly uses this to make what would be a standard IF conversation, but it feels like you are drawing and playing various cards. Characters move about like they are represented by Monopoly-like pieces. This is partially to avoid the strain of animating characters, and DHSG sidesteps this in a few creative ways whilst retaining the board game aesthetic. Of course, if it actually were a board game, it’d be terribly complicated and perhaps not so fun to play. But the computer can handle certain complexities that a board game cannot, so DHSG succeeds. Touch-screen devices made crazy popular by Apple afford new ways of interacting with programs, specifically by interacting with finger gestures. The iPad looks like a computer but feels like a drawing board. Apple’s arch-nemesis, Microsoft, pushed the whole book aesthetic quite far with the (discontinued?) Microsoft Courier. It made a neat blend between computer and scrapbook that people could find intuitive.
I don’t know what the best interface aesthetic for Kung Fu Legends would be. Perhaps I could model it on the old collections of oriental stories, as a book with dense text on one page and illustrations on the other. The illustrations could hide some of the UI so you’d hover over something and be able to interact with the page embellishments. Scenes could be advanced by turning pages, and the usual save/load menu stuff could be a bookmark tab you can flick to. How you deal with the player choosing what they want to do is a bit beyond my understanding, though. Also, this kind of aesthetic makes things feel static rather than dynamic. IF gets a dynamic feel by having an endless cascade of words. (It also stomps on that feeling by having the displayed text quite static. 🙁 ) You might be able to get away with this by having the text on an infinite scroll, but that’s just a small conceit to try to get the dynamic feel. Nevertheless, you can make it pretty by including stock images in the text to break up the visual monotony of text (kind of like this blog post).
Other ideas I’ve thought about are Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style things where the computer stops the action, figures out all your options and presents them to you. Perhaps it filters or writes certain options based on your character (“Defend yourself” versus “Start a fight”). The perennial issue with this is that you either provide the player with very few options, or drown them in options. One solution to the latter approach is by ordering options under headings and subheadings, but present these in an exploding mindmap. You may have seen this technique in The Sims series.
I’ve thought about other parts of the aesthetic, like whether to present the game in a continuous flow (like Half Life 2 takes – apart from the disk loading, you never really notice the scene changes) or episodic (like Alan Wake). I do love a good “Previously… on <blah>”. With a good summarising AI, this could help players orient themselves every game session, but it’s hard to know when to break mid-session to give the feeling that an “episode” worth of content has been completed.
In any case, I’m thinking about my options. I don’t want to rewrite the UI in radical ways just for me to experiment. I’d like a firm direction first and experiment in that space. We’ll see how I go. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.