Wednesday, January 29, 2014

From Zeus to Cogmonkeys, Swearing in Hellenica

I don't think there was ever a point where we decided we wanted to have unique swear words for Hellenica. In retrospect, we were probably influenced by the trend of "fake" swearing in our favorite shows, notably "fracking" from Battlestar Galactica and the “shun-sheng duh gao-wahn”(among others) of Firefly. And while both of those serials were probably at least partially motivated by the decency standards of network television, their inventive profanity gave the shows a distinct feel and helped make their universes feel richer. So when we started writing our dialogue, "God Dammit!" became "By Apollo!" (or another god, as appropriate) and a bomb-wielding enemy might threaten to "blow you to Hades!"

And once we go beyond simple exclamations, the various Greek myths give us a rich palette to draw from. A particularly excitable character might exclaim something like, "Zeus, Hera and dead-drunk Dionysus!" However, just like in real life, we're moderating our swearing for situations that call for it. So as much fun as we have writing these, they'll be used sparingly.

Exclamations aren’t the only impolite language in Hellenica, though. The steam-power-hating luddites are some of our principal antagonists (at least, on some playthroughs), and they’re not shy about slinging slurs at the supporters of steam power. We initially used the phrase “steamos”, but negative player feedback drove us to search for a better slur. Some of our candidates included:

Clinks (this one was a little close to an actual racial slur...)

Ultimately though, we decided that “cogmonkey” provided both a clear reference to steam power and a very demeaning connotation (possibly amplified by my distaste for the phrase “code monkey”).

Swearing in Hellenica won’t be uniform, and we’ll make minor tweaks to help bring out a given character’s voice. But this is the general approach we’re taking to make swearing something that reinforces the unique Greek Steampunk world of Hellenica.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Lessons from The Banner Saga

At long last, The Banner Saga saga is over, and the game has finally been released to lucky Steam users everywhere.

As the person focused primarily on combat gameplay in Hellenica, The Banner Saga serves as a beautifully articulated lesson on how (and how not) to design and integrate a tactics game within a narrative work. Here are my two main takeaways from the game as well as how we're approaching things differently in Hellenica.

- Nail the feel through animation and sound.

Obviously these elements are key to every game, but the few moments of action and impact are especially important in a turn-based tactics game where the world is at a standstill for large stretches of time. In The Banner Saga, every axe swing, every shield impact, and every slumping body is bold and jarring. This feedback is the reward the player gets for all of their hard work and planning, so it has to feel good on every level.

For Hellenica, we're hoping to take this a step further by making turn execution cinematic. Unlike the alternating turns of The Banner Saga, a player executes her entire crew's turn together in Hellenica, allowing us to playback the outcome of your tactical coups (and blunders) in a hand-crafted way. Think fighters rushing at an opponent simultaneously from opposing angles to deliver a devastating combo, or archers delivering a volley of staccato attacks as melee units reposition the target perfectly in time. The goal is to make the battles come alive instead of feeling like chess with attack animations.

- If the narrative is your focus, combat should be integral to the story, not just an interlude.

The Banner Saga is a game of harsh realities, and it will test your moral fiber through hard choices. Do you let a band of farmers join your caravan for protection even if you’re only capable of feeding your own people for a couple more days? Unfortunately, there was a point where I began wanting to sacrifice my values in order to avoid clicking through one more combat encounter. (See my note at the end on why I think Stoic, the developer, may have intended this player reaction.)

Whereas the travelling segments of the game have you writing the story of a caravan and its problems, the story you tell through the combat segments is always just ‘there was a fight, some people may have been hurt, and the enemy was wiped out.’ This is perfectly fine in many games, but I felt The Banner Saga made a promise to me about providing an epic narrative experience. As a player, I expected that to be present at all times during my playtime. So, while I actually really enjoyed much of the combat experience, I became disinterested in what felt like chores necessary to unlock story progression instead of meaningful narrative experiences in and of themselves.

To this point, in Hellenica we are using the combat portion of our game to develop the narrative just as actively as the out-of-combat portions. Combat will explain the how of your characters’ journey: how they foiled the plot of those miscreants, how they first encountered their mysterious travel companion, or how they escaped yet another perilous position. Your characters’ performances in combat will even determine how they are spoken of in later dialogues.  In this way, everything a player does will be further developing their story.

So, with that wall of text out of the way, would I recommend the game?

Yes! As much as I would hate to be there, I loved the world of The Banner Saga. The mood established by the forlorn venture of your parties really worked for me, and the presentation was superb. I actually attribute many of my criticisms to the bravery of the guys over at Stoic. I may give them too much credit, but to me, it feels like they were creating a mood piece first and an entertaining video game second. While perhaps not something I personally wish to play for 10+ hours, I can admire it for achieving its artistic intent. And of course, take my criticisms with a grain of salt; I have an extremely critical eye when it comes to tactics games because I’m making one!

With those lessons in mind, here’s to making Hellenica as (or more!) successful.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Anaxa-whatever his name is

Even though Greek history and myth are full of interesting stories, cultures, and people to draw from when building the world of Hellenica, it's not as great for providing reasonable names for any of these things. For example, when researching Greek people that might work well in a steampunk setting, we found a famous astronomer who was exiled from Athens for his theories. This character became the inspiration for a wandering inventor in our setting. But there was a problem: the inventor's name was "Anaxagoras", which aside from being cumbersome, was likely to be confused with other overlong "A" names that might show up in our setting, such as “Alcibiades” and “Artaxerxes”.

We thought about changing the name, but liked how it reinforced the unique Greek flavor of our setting. Additionally, using authentic names for historically-inspired characters made real history a sort of "alternative universe"(where the steam revolution hadn't happened) full of additional stories about our characters. It was almost like having the whole lore codex of a game like Mass Effect or Dragon Age for free.

It was actually from the Mass Effect and Dragon Age Codex system that we found a solution, or rather, from thinking about what we disliked about them. Even though we loved all the additional details and history that lore entries provide, looking them up was a jarring break in gameplay flow. The player would (often in the middle of a conversation) get a pop-up informing her that lore had been unlocked. Only after the conversation had passed could the player consult the entry (by digging through several menus to find it).

We wanted to provided much more immediate access to that information, so we began building a glossary that would be accessible directly from conversations. Any proper noun or event can be highlighted, and when the player clicks/taps on it, she is provided with additional bits of relevant information and even a picture (if it’s a character).

I just finished another pass on a prototype version this week, so here it is (with all placeholder art, obviously).

This sort of system makes it much easier to keep our various characters straight, since if the player is ever confused about who’s being referenced, she can just click the name and get a brief description and a picture. We still need to focus test to make sure, but we’re hopeful that this system will make the Greek names manageable and help convey the rich narrative background of Hellenica.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Dialogue System

As we mentioned in an earlier post, part of the way we're delivering a quality JRPG narrative is by doing away with the idea of a main storyline, and instead having several branches of storylines that the player can take, with each one focusing on events related to different locations and characters. However, each of these storylines still leads the player on a quest to save Greece from the machinations of a god-like villain the way a main storyline would.

To further complicate matters, we wanted to give the player the option to change her paths throughout the story. So instead of just having six mostly-disjoint paths the player can take through the story, we have the following story diagram (still a work in progress).

Which gives our writers nightmares.

Fortunately, we've got a pretty powerful system that makes our dialogue exceptionally flexible and responsive to prior events in the story. Borrowing from a 2012 GDC talk by Valve's Elan Ruskin, it functions by allowing a writer to place any number of criteria on a line. The game then plays the most specific line that has all its criteria met. As an example, a writer might make two lines for entering a town: a default one that reads, "Welcome to Thebes." with the only criterion being the player enters the town; and a more specific line, "Those wounds—someone fetch a healer!" that has the criteria of the player entering the town and being at <50% health.

If the player is at <50% health when entering the town, the second line will always play, since it'll have two criteria to the first line's one. However, if the player is at >50% health, the second line will never play since one of its criteria isn't met.

Branching can even occur mid-conversation, as a writer can enter multiple potential replies to a line, each of which contains its own set of criteria.

The particularly awesome thing about this dialogue system is that it gives us an opportunity to add situational embellishment without building a complicated dialogue tree. Simply, if we want to add lines that specifically reference one or more earlier events, we just add those events as criteria. If the player's experienced those events (which we can't guarantee, given our labyrinthine story tree), then those specific lines will play; otherwise, the encounter’s default lines will play.

This flexibility is key to making our story work, as it allows our writers to easily add the one-off dialogue bits that help tie nodes in our story graph to the various paths that could have taken the player there, helping our story feel cohesive in spite of its crazy branching.