Librarian of Alexandria


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 inspired by classic hard-boiled detective stories.

My idea here is that this is pre-written, a hand-crafted world rather than a procedurally-generated one. My mental image of the setting is a sleeker-than-ever-really-existed fictionalized 1920's, borrowing heavily on the clichés of noir media: night more often than not, smoky with black shadows, Streamline Moderne in blue metals, but dingy as soon as you look past the surface. You'd interact with it as a old-style isometric RPG, talking to people and shuffling through drawers and trash-cans and so forth.

The interesting thing, I think, was how I planned to implement the mystery mechanic. When you're first given a case, you are also given a shape, a deeply irregular one with several crannies and protruding bits, areas of which are labeled: Culprit, Weapon, Motive, and so forth. As you acquire information by talking to witnesses, going to places, and so forth, those pieces of information also get represented as shapes, which can in turn be snapped onto the shape representing the case. The catch, of course, is that only one configuration will fit: the correct one. Sometimes also multiple shapes will snap onto the case, but will conflict with each other: a suspect fits, and a murder weapon fits, but they don't fit _together.

This does mean that it's possible to solve the mystery without thinking about its narrative content: by unthinkingly talking to everyone, casing every place, and then ignoring what the clues mean and simply snapping them together. I'm okay with that! The ideal way of playing is to approach it from both directions: using the narrative to inform how you approach the puzzle-pieces, and using the puzzle-pieces to help you approach the narrative. Ideally, too, the pieces would be designed to fit together in ways that match the story: for example, a given suspect and a given weapon both snap together with the shape of the case, then that suspect could have conceivably been the culprit and could conceivably have used that weapon, but if there's no matching motive, then you've got more work to do: either digging into a motive that fits, or figuring out if another suspect was the one that did it.

Why write it? Partly because I love the genre, and partly because I think the hard-boiled detective genre—despite being a perennial favorite for certain kinds of video games—have a ton of interest space for exploration.

I've had notes for this for a long time, and I recall back when I first saw trailers for L.A. Noire that I figured that maybe I had finally been scooped. I don't think it really succeeded at what I wanted to capture! Since the game's release, people have regularly made fun of the awkward interviews where the player must choose to believe, doubt, or disbelieve a suspect, but where choosing to doubt every question was always a safe strategy and lies were awkwardly telegraphed using exaggerated facial motion capture. (It was especially awkward since it wasn't clear which aspect of the story you were choosing to doubt: the player would notice a tiny discrepancy in a witness's story, choose to doubt the testimony, and the player's character would pound his fist on the table and shout, “You wanted him dead, just admit it!”) More than that, it was hampered by being a AAA action game: the grand climax of the whole affair was… an awkward, plodding shootout.

It's pretty common for games to borrow the trappings of noir but end up with yet more violence. (Not that I'm strictly opposed to video games that feature violence, but it's not a good fit for classic noir!) That said, there are games utilize the style and implement the mystery-solving a lot better. Grim Fandango is a spectacular example of the genre, leaning heavily on film noir iconography and using the affordances of a point-and-click adventure game to implement the mystery-solving. More recently, Disco Elysium does a spectacular job of building a deep and compelling mystery by building in the tradition of classic tabletop-inspired role-playing-games.

So I don't want to imply that this is unique or has never been attempted successfully: but that said, I still think there's space to play in this genre in a new and interesting way!

Why the name? I have notes covering the whole trilogy, each with a different protagonist, but each protagonist was going to be—predictably, given the genre—something of an outcast. The idea of the protagonists as “stray dogs” felt appropriate: more than a little cliché, sure, but given that I wanted to draw on the bombastic and cliché-filled movies of the Golden Age of Hollywood, I didn't necessarily think that was bad.

#backburner #videogame

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

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 driving around an inscrutable world.

There's not much more to it: just a world, with a barebones (and probably slightly inscrutable) set of objective that ask you to go from unexplained place to unexplained place. Unlike the previous game ideas I've described like Albulaan and Tales, I didn't intend for this to be procedurally generated: just hand-created grand and unexplained places.

Why write it? This is actually a slightly newer incarnation of an older small idea I had: a walking simulator built around a series of bizarre atmospheric places, filled with surrealist imagery you might find in something like the Codex Seraphinianus or Le Garage hermétique. I like the idea of driving around even more, though, in part because I just enjoy games about driving, and in part because the idea of having somewhat inscrutable signage that still reads as signage sounds like a lot of fun.

Also it would be good Blender practice for me.

Why the name? I guess this is the post where having an obligatory “name explanation” section in every post becomes really really unnecessary, huh?

#backburner #videogame

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.

#backburner #videogame #procedural

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: a scifi sandbox farming-sim game after my own tastes, one I've had kicking around in the back of my head for a long time.

The premise of the game is that you're a farmer who has moved to a new, uninhabited-by-sentient-life planet: there's a little settlement, and you get only sporadic contact with the core worlds for supply drops. Your primary job is to start building and maintaining your farm, and for that matter, understanding how and what to farm: the native plants and wild creatures are alien and unfamiliar—and procedurally generated for that save file—and you'll have to use a combination of laboratory analysis and practical experimentation to figure out which plants are edible, which plants are usable for medicine, which plants are usable for building materials, and so forth.

This will involve a combination of infrastructure-building and exploration. Infrastructure-building means, more or less, building out and maintaining a farm, but also expanding the little settlement to support more people, building homes and ensuring there's enough food and supplies for the sporadic new arrivals. Exploration would let you find new plants, new creatures, maybe even new places for settlements. Ideally, exploration will be slow and intentional and a bit difficult but not punishingly so: I plan to eschew any kind of combat, so the challenges would be around exploration and juggling resources like food and shelter, along with dangers like traversing rapids and bouldering up mountains. The world would be finite and exploration won't be a solution to all the problems a player would face: instead, you'll eventually develop the ability to do selective breeding of plants to come up with new, more-useful variants: cross-breeding varieties to select for larger yield or more resistance to climate variation and so forth.

Visually—at least subject to my own ability to implement it—my plan was to create a world inspired loosely by the paintings of Eyvind Earle, with lots of stark geometric shapes and sharp blocks of striking color. The look of the buildings would borrow heavily from the great concept artist Syd Mead and also from the building ideas of the futurist Buckminster Fuller. Of course, this graphical style was more than a bit aspirational, and I confess in my prototypes I never actually got to the point that it looked like it did in my head: I've since considered whether this game would be better served with a Roguelike-inspired grid of simple pixel art tiles, like Caves of Qud or the Oryx tiles for Brogue.

Why write it? My original ideas here actually far predated the survival sandbox games of the present day. When I first entertained ideas about it—in the mid-2000's, when I first wrote the name Albulaan in a notebook—my major inspiration was Harvest Moon: my original desire was to have a Harvest Moon-style farming sim game with procedural and exploration elements, a game where you couldn't simply look up in a wiki (or, at the time, a strategy guide) which crops were the best or where to go to find resources, because those crops and resources were unique to your own save file.

At this point, there are many more games in the genre that actually get closer to the game I want, although not quite bringing the same focus I'd want. There are plenty of more mechanical, infrastructure-based games like Factorio, plenty of more combat-focused survival sandbox games like Minecraft, plenty of expansive procedural worlds like No Man's Sky. I should be clear that the Albulaan of my dreams is not actually like any of these: I'm not interested in Factorio-style factory optimization, Minecraft-style resource extraction, or No Man's Sky-style tech trees. The gameplay of Albulaan should feel a little bit more like a Stardew Valley: daily farm maintenance coupled with some side activities and cheerful chats with settlement NPCs, with a bigger world and a set of traveling mechanics taking the place of Stardew's combat-focused mine levels.

Admittedly, one personal pet peeve I have about many of the games in this same space is that they try too hard to include every possible mechanic and end up with an awkward and subpar version of many of them—like Stardew Valley's clunky and static combat system, or Animal Crossing: New Horizons' tedious attempts at crafting mechanics—and that's one reason why I explicitly described Albulaan above as lacking things like combat mechanics: I genuinely believe there should be more games that don't try to tack on every possible way of interacting with the world, which is why my goal for Albulaan is to do farming and exploring and world-generating well, and that's about it.

Anyway, I do think several of my ideas for Albulaan are still distinctive—like the selective breeding of procedural plants—even if they're less unique than they would have been in 2005. If nothing else, it's still a game that, if someone else created it independently, I would want to play.

That said, I'm also not 100% sure which aspects of this idea will remain intact when I return to it. For one, I've gotten more and more uncomfortable with the colonialist and extractive aspects of some of these games, and I'd love to figure out a way to design Albulaan in a way that can mitigate some of these concerns. The fact that the world is necessarily finite—and consequently certain resources are also finite, and the player must think about conservation and renewable resources—might help here, but it's not a silver bullet that handles all (or even most) of the work of removing the colonialist underpinnings from a game like this.

Why the name? The word al-bulaʽān (ألبولعان), which literally means “the two swallowers”, is the Arabic name for two stars in the constellation Aquarius: specifically Nu Aquarii and Mu Aquarii. My first notes about Albulaan date back to my high school years, when I did some Flash experiments with the intention of creating procedural animals for it: at the time, I chose the name arbitrarily from a list of star names, and I've used it as my working title since.

#backburner #videogame #procedural