Backburner Month 20: Schengen

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 about procedurally-generated under-equipped spy missions.

The player is a nameless spy with almost nothing on them: maybe a tiny amount of money, an object or two. They have an objective: a document to steal or replace, a photograph to take, a target to kill. They are in a randomly-generated city with a roughly 1980's level of technology: computers exist but are rare, mobile phones aren't practically obtainable, and only some sections of the city are accessible but within those sections you can (with some difficulty) get almost anywhere: apartments, offices, basements, and so forth. Go.

The intention is that there should be multiple ways of tackling the objective, but you need to be resourceful. You need to find your own disguises, hotwire cars or take trains, pickpocket money from people, do research in the handful of places where you can. You have no spy agency to rely on to bail you out or drop you resources: if you get caught, it's over, and all-out firefights are a failure condition. You're on your own, with only the infrastructure of the city to help you.

My mental image here was that this game would have the graphical sophistication of a roguelike: that is to say, very very simple grid-based graphics, no strong detail. The detail should instead be in the density of the simulated urban environment, ensuring that buildings do indeed have dozens of accessible and usable rooms (probably generated on-demand: after all, with that much detail, 95% of the map would never even get accessed!)

Why write it? I can pinpoint the exact blog post that inspired this game, which is this post about the “Bourne Infrastructure”. I read this around the same time that my brother and I had been discussing a very different kind of spy game—the James Bond-inspired kind of spy game, with massive explosions and firefights and stunts and whatnot—and it got me thinking, “What would a Jason Bourne game—one that really captured the feeling of the movies, not just a reskinned stealth game—look like?”

There's a lot of complexity here, and a big part would be managing to implement new and different ways of tackling the objectives. There's also an economy of detail that I don't off-hand know the right way to manage. I want players to be able to lockpick an apartment, sneak in, rummage through a drawer, steal a suit, and go off to blend in at an office, but that could easily grow and grow until there are unwieldy inventories and far too much stuff simulated. Finding out the right amount of fidelity here is key, and I don't yet have an instinct around how to do that.

Something I'm super interested in, though, is using stuff like shape grammars to create the world. It'd be a lot of fun to build the basic mechanics and then just keep revisiting new stuff to add to the world, making the city deeper and denser!

Why the name? It's a temporary name—I don't want to actually name it after a real place!—but it's named not for Schengen, Luxembourg itself, but rather for the Schengen Area since the setting is a roughly-defined European setting.

#backburner #videogame #procedural