Backburner Month 10: Tales

This is an entry from a list of projects I hope to some day finish. Return to the backburnered projects index.

What is it? A video game that's been kicking around my head for ages: a roguelite loosely inspired by a childhood favorite of mine, Yoda Stories.

In effect, Tales is a roguelike in the classic vein, albeit with a slightly greater focus on non-violent NPC interaction. Each “run” happens in a different randomly-generated area and is built around a randomly generated task, but that task is gated by a number of smaller intermediate tasks, which might range from fights to sneaking to exploring to simple conversation with NPCs. The tree of objectives is also randomly generated, so the world needs to be explored a bit to fully grasp what's needed: you may need to acquire a replacement wheel for a vehicle, and that wheel may be a gift in exchange for getting rid of some bandits, but discovering both of those requires traversing the world a bit.

By and large I think the ideas described above aren't too interesting: a game like this would mostly succeed or fail based on world generation and the implementation of basic mechanics like combat. My mental image here for the combat is that it would be a simplistic real-time top-down brawler, smooth but not too deep or challenging. I'd want a small variety of weapons or abilities, but not to the point that you'd get the sheer combat depth of something like Hades, mostly because I'm not interested in that kind of depth myself. That simple fluid combat would be augmented with a simple conversation mechanic and a set of world generation processes which could create different kinds of worlds for different runs: dense multi-layered cities, sparsely-populated grasslands, networks of islands with ferries, and so forth.

Beyond the relatively straightforward mechanics, though, there is one interesting design problem I want to tackle with Tales: how to build a mechanic that allows for character progression without necessarily having an overarching difficulty curve. I'd like the level of difficulty of each run to stay relatively static: that is, the game itself should not get harder as you play more unless the player explicitly moves a difficulty slider. At the same time, I'd like to allow for players to gradually gain techniques and talents and customize a character. My current idea is that a character should have a fixed number of points, and before each run a player would be allowed to freely move points around, both into default abilities (like “strength”) and into new abilities which you pick up as you play the game (like proficiency with unusual weapons or the ability to use different non-standard techniques like fast-talking or hacking). Over time, the player can specialize in radically different ways of tackling runs, but without the straightforward consequences of leveling or getting better gear: they are not straightforwardly “stronger”, but rather have sacrificed some general abilities for more specific or unusual abilities. Ideally—although this would require some subtle tuning—this approach would allow a player to explicitly choose to tackle more difficult runs over time by specializing their character with more specific abilities that offer higher mechanical complexity, but that difficulty isn'ted baked-in to the assumptions of the game like it would be for other RPG-like games.

Why write it? There's something weirdly appealing about Yoda Stories. I've seen multiple other people—including Zach Barth of Zachtronics fame, as part of his article on reverse-engineering the graphics of the game—talk about how they remember the game fondly despite it being poorly-reviewed and, quite frankly, bad.

As I mentioned above, the success of a game like Tales would largely be dictated by world generation and basic mechanics. It's worth noting that Yoda Stories failed on both these counts. It had mediocre world-generation: it was a randomly-assembled quilt of pre-created sections, but those sections were assembled mostly at random, which meant there was often no indication you'd reached the end of the world: you'd simply be at the edge of a screen with plain desert and yet magically wouldn't be able to move. Even moreso, it had hilariously bad combat: it was a game with real-time movement, but movement was instantaneous on a square grid, so enemies could pop in and out of existence next to you as you swung your lightsaber.

That said, despite the problems, there was something about Yoda Stories that was still inspirational in a way that the other roguelike-ish games weren't for me. I do love Nethack, but even when first playing it I wasn't immediately compelled to make another. My suspicion is that the world of Nethack is a dungeon, but the world of Yoda Stories at least gestured at the idea of being a world where people lived, with little cities and farms and cabins and so forth. It's also restrained: one feature of Yoda Stories was that the difficulty was built around 'how long do you expect this game to take?' where the options ranged from 15 minutes to an hour, since the goal of Yoda Stories was to create a casual game more like Minesweeper than traditional roguelikes. I think this is still a worthy design goal: more games should be small and focused, with a gentle learning curve and no expectation that you'll play them forever. All this together means that a game which takes the things I like from Yoda Stories, but smooths out the roughest edges and plays up the most interesting strengths, still feels like a game I'd want to play.

Why the name? The name Tales is just a stand-in name. At one point, I was referring to it (in a wild Incal-inspired science fiction incarnation) as The Emissaries of Guenashk, but I later on borrowed that name for a tabletop project which I'm going to write about later this month.