Thursday, September 5, 2013

Design Document: "The Game of Throne of Games".

Earlier today, Ian Miles Cheong pointed out something to me that explained a lot of how I feel about fantasy, especially fantasy in games. He asked this: Where is the A Song Of Ice And Fire of video games? Where is the game that transforms "fantasy" from an escapist farce into an actual, respected genre for games and storytelling?

And that's a simple question, but it's a question with a lot of background to it that needs to be addressed. There ARE games that use the base components of GoT: successions, kingdoms, bloodlines, battles, and so on and so forth. But the problem is that none of them have ever really created a coherent ludonarrative reality where every part of the game is working to support this one real thing. Every example I can list has its problems, or at least differences with the successful GoT model.

Crusader Kings 2 is a game I love to death. It's amazing in a lot of ways. But it's a story creator, in the most zoomed-out, uncharacterized way possible. It is a game about hundreds of years of history being condensed into a few hours, it's not a game about one war or one conflict. It's a game for imagination and filling-in-gaps, it is not a game that tells a single person's story well. The Total War series has the same problem - its characters are computer-generated, with traits and personalities, but it's not a game about "telling their story". It's not personal or emotional enough to really get in there.

Final Fantasy Tactics is certainly about a single war - a war for succession, no less - but the problem with FFT is that FFT is about battles between ten warriors that ignores the battles between thousands. Things like politics and allegiance are never a huge concern in FFT; Ramza hires warriors, then goes off and does his own thing while his ever-loyal army remains by his side. Relatedly, the game's childish art (certainly a necessity of technology, yet still) does not help immerse the player into a world of medieval politics and intrigue - which, by all accounts, it is supposed to be.

An earlier work by Yasumi Matsuno was Ogre Battle: Let Us Cling Together. In many ways, LUCT addressed the previous concern without really doing so enough. While FFT's story has a succession crisis in the background and Ramza's own concerns in the foreground, LUCT's protagonist is more directly part of the game's main war. The director based LUCT on the Yugoslav wars, and correspondingly the conflict in LUCT is one divided on ethnic lines. As such, your party members have ethnic loyalties and their affiliation with you will be affected by the paths you choose. Yet at the same time this is still a game about six-on-six combat, and "morale" means very different things when you're managing a small band and when you're managing a united army.

Finally, the Suikoden series of games generally manages to do a good job regarding scale - the player generally starts in a position of power, but is deposed or betrayed and has to work their way back up. Suikoden involves large-scale battles as well as the usual "adventuring party" segments which helps to create the sense that there is an actual war going on. The reason it's not usually included in discussion of serious fantasy games is that the game relies heavily on JRPG tropes and a lighthearted, sometimes-broken tone. The art, music and writing all suggest a world where the battles aren't as serious or grim as they could be - after all, it's a game series ultimately for children.

So, thinking logically, if I wanted to make a fantasy game that would be taken seriously and would use the interactive medium to its fullest extent, here are some things that I would do.

A Single, Direct Origin
Interactivity as a game concept is about giving the player ways to interact with the environment based on justified cause-and-effect. In games like CK2, this is created by making the entire game an emergent, unbreaking chain of events and AI behaviors. For this theoretical game, founded in something more zoomed-in, it's important to start somewhere coherent so that the player has a "world" established to mess around with. Going off the themes established, there could be any number of potential situations to start with: an ethnic war, a deposed royal family, a ducal coup, a peasant rebellion, resistance against an invading force, etc etc etc. Despite the diversity of choice, this is still an important decision to make because it affects why everything is happening. Why the protagonist wants to fight whoever it is they're fighting. Why people would want to join them. What the end goal is. How the character is expected to behave. How much responsibility they bear. The situation affects the character, and the character (if they're well-established) affects the player.

Large-Scale Real-Time Tactics
The reason it's important to have things be "large scale" is because large scale, by its nature, involves death. In a small scale game it's very easy to shift things mechanically so that nobody dies. The focus on RPG systems makes it so that random character death is far less acceptable and represents a larger investment of time and energy. Compare Valkyria Chronicles with Company of Heroes. Compare Final Fantasy Tactics with Medieval Total War. Death needs to be able to happen because death is part of a story, not just an annoying mechanic where you have to restart.

Scale is important. Scale gives the sense that there's an actual war going on, and if scale can be well established the player should be reminded that thousands of soldiers are fighting and bleeding and dying for their cause. It's morally simple to have six loyal friends follow you around beating up goblins and orcs. It's a lot more complex to be leading an army, especially when that army is made up of people with their own ideas and values and families and livelihoods. Now it's about responsibility, not personal sacrifice - about what you're asking your soldiers to do, not just what you yourself are willing to do.

Politics, Agency and Consequence
One of the games I neglected to add to the list was Victoria 2, primarily because it's not fantasy. But Victoria 2 does have an aspect that's relevant to this: the idea of population politics. Individuals in a nation have ideologies, separated by class and region. Setting policies will appease or anger ideologies, and choices made during the game will shift people's ideology from one side to another. Making a powerful group angry can result in a rebellion that has to be put down, oftentimes during a crucial moment in a different war.

Now let's frame this in the concept of a single rebellion or war. Where do your troops come from? Who are your allies? Who's supplying you? Can you make every potential ally happy or would they have contradictory goals? Say you raised most of your troops as volunteers in the name of freedom. Would they be happy if you had to make concessions to an authoritarian faction in order to avoid war? Would they understand? The idea of actually having to manage morale as the end result of people's desires and values and wishes helps to create a sense of agency for all the troops you command. They're not mindless slaves. They're not chattel. They're not going to stay with you for no reason. These are people who have entrusted their LIVES to you for the sake of one cause or another. Similarly, there are many powerful figures in a kingdom - dukes, barons, counts. Are these nobles going to help you or your enemy? It will depend on your personality and your goals. The common people might flock to your banner if you promise to improve their rights, but can you afford to anger the noble class? Choices have systematic, long-term consequences because they reflect how the world perceives you and how they respond to you.

This system also solves a problem that games often encounter, where "romance" is an arbitrary choice for player indulgence. Dragon Age and Mass Efffect are the two biggest offenders here; their romance subplots don't affect gameplay, it's just a side game so the player can live vicariously through their protagonist. In a noble system, however, marriage is about far more than love alone. Crusader Kings does an admirable job with the concept, but it doesn't take it quite far enough. What we're looking for is, quite naturally, a level akin to Game of Thrones - where "love or duty" is a serious choice with consequences. Even if you choose "duty", which duty is the most important? What happens when you marry someone and your allies betray you? Would you marry someone you despised if they offered you more power? In its own way these sorts of option give a sense of agency to the spouse as well, since now they're part of the political system in a way beyond "immobile love interest". They, like everyone else in the world, have their own desires and values.

Failure Is A Gameplay Mechanic
The problem I have with a lot of games is that they're structured in such a way that people simply don't accept failures. The idea that a fudged battle or event is worth "loading state" over affects the way a story is perceived. Games can force hard choices on players, but "convenience" is rarely the reason an option is taken. There are few games where you accept an unpleasant alliance purely because you need the help - generally, games are so trivially easy and give you so many retries that even if you get boxed into a bad situation you can power your way out of it given enough effort.

Hard choices, as a rule, need to actually have consequence to be effective. If you make a bad choice, you should be able to fight out of it or deal with it in some way, but it should be DIFFICULT, and that difficulty should have meaning throughout the rest of the game. In X-COM if you mess up on a mission you might lose soldiers permanently. In Total War or Crusader Kings, a bad war (or even a bad battle) can mess up your entire kingdom. Things like this help keep players on their toes and conscious of the decisions they're making instead of treating gameplay like a throwaway, skippable part of the game.

Ludonarrative Cohesion
The biggest thing about the three prior points is that the goal here is to create a reality where gameplay and story do not diverge. It is perfectly plausible and justifiable to have a tactics-based video game that mirrors the reality of a medieval-style war pretty closely. There's nothing impossible about it, it's just a question of detail. Every decision that the player makes, whether in "management" or in combat gameplay, can exist in-universe. There's none of that weirdness where the main characters are like a thousand times more powerful than every other human for no reason, because it's a game about command, not about supermen. There's none of that bizarre choice-making in games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect where it's a direct branch into another story point because now those choices translate into gameplay with lasting effects. It all has to work together to create a cohesive reality. Every soldier that dies is real to the universe, and at the end of your road you're going to have to answer to every single one.

The Importance Of Realism
This is the last part and I think it's going to be the hardest for gamers to give up. Design and visuals are seen as a subjective thing by a lot of people, and in most respects they are. But realism, as I've covered numerous times, offers a variety of advantages in terms of how the player responds to stimuli. It helps things feel visceral and provides sensory reactions. It helps the player take things seriously. Yes, ultimately whether or not realistic designs are "good" is subjective, but that's also true of writing and you can still tell when something's being seriously written, can't you? It's the same thing. Realism, of whatever sort, is the aesthetic of the serious story.

That's not to say this is a BROWN AND BORING sort of realism, by its nature. Reality has plenty of colors (another thing that I've covered hundreds of times before). Simple, modest things like sashes and tabards take the place of oversized shoulderpads and golden armor. The real issue here is about making a story that seems like it's by, for, and ABOUT adults. It's about the fate of nations and people, not about escapism and fun. It's a story that bears responsiblity and weight to it. The visuals need to reinforce that by actually depicting adults, not circus clowns and teenagers.

The end goal here is to get, as we said, the Game of Thrones of games - a cohesive, logical story with a consistent tone and setting where characters' actions and motivations play out to create a tapestry of events. If the visuals can't keep up with the tone, then you might as well not even bother. Because this isn't just about "gameplay" anymore. This isn't about making an entertaining experience. It's about making an interactive story that people can take seriously. It's about making something that offers depth and emotion through its gameplay as well as through its human interactions. It's about making something that says "this is a thing that I could not do with a movie or a visual novel or whatever". It's about making something real.


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  2. Have you seen/played any of the Mount and Blade series? Taleworlds built a series around these ideas. Well, maybe not the starting small bit; it plops the player character down in a sandbox based off of medieval Europe, with plenty of factions fighting each other and claimants to all of the thrones for the player to get involved in. It is a little difficult to figure out where to go. Given the focus of this blog, you are in serious remiss if you haven't tried this game, so I'd recommend downloading the Mount and Blade: Warband demo, as it is also a very well done demo (It is the full game, except that one is limited to level 7 or so.)

    1. I have indeed played M&B Warband, and while I love it for what it is, it's also unpleasantly static. There's an ongoing world, but you can't really upset it or change it. You can make cities change hands, but you're not really telling a narrative where failure exists.

  3. Nice story of game. It is a game about hundreds of years of history being condensed into a few hours, it's not a game about one war or one conflict. It's a game for imagination and filling-in-gaps, it is not a game that tells a single person's story well.