Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Sap and the Heater: Q&A

Thursday, May 7, 2009
Further development of the "detective game" concept (posted here), prompted by message board discussion. Thanks to SA Forum User Dr. Pwn for the questions.

Q: How would you allow the player to execute any of these dialogue options, gambits, and counter-gambits in actual gameplay?

A: Good question, hard to say. One of those things you'd unravel ultimately through rigorous playtesting, even week one stuff.
I imagine it wouldn't be far from how some games incorporate interactions like human shields/hostage taking, since what choices are available to you are pretty contextual.

You'd need a lot of scaffolding to support unfamiliar gameplay. For instance, very specific audio cues--maybe slightly exaggerated "walking in hall/door handle/door opening" sounds so players have time to decide or react, for starters. It comes back to playtesting.
All the choices in the world dont mean anything if the players don't know they have them available/have chance to use them.

Beyond that, probably something contextual having to do with basic states. Talking to someone with a weapon in your hand would be different than if you're in the "being held up" state; obviously you're trying to reason with them in the latter, while the former case could be a couple of different ones.
Simple one button use/converse key, possibly with a small branching option.

Another important aspect to this sort of system is that it makes a verb out of the sort of thing that action games most traditionally ignore. Characters always react, it's just that in most games they bark and go straight to shooting, and that's it.
It's easy enough to make characters react to you pointing a gun from the hip in their direction, and even moreso when you aim at them.

Say if you've got your gun up and aimed at someone, "getting the drop" on them, he'll voluntarily disarm (that might be a vocal prompt, not unlike SWAT 4).
Then if you don't shoot him right there, further use of "converse" turns to interrogation. Though if you look away or fail to target him, he may re-arm and attempt to shoot you, like the Jim Zubiena clip.
What works so well for Hitman: Blood Money is the use of dropdown menus--not the most action-y choice but a game sketched out like the detective game I describe, with crime scene examination and the like, would generally be more paced like Hitman anyway, instead of an out-and-out shooter.

So I'd say that the actions described are: branching, contextual to time, space, and situation (armed/not armed/drawing gun/gun drawn, having a gun pointed at you/pointing the gun)....

I am somewhat loathe to use it as an example, since the series was for so long the posterboy of out of date control schemes, but how MGS4 allows Snake to crouch, or go prone, and then flip over and lay on his back and shoot all pretty easily.
The key is that Snake can't just go straight from standing to laying on his back (unless knocked back by an explosion); at various postures he has branching access to other postures, generally not all at the same time. Not the best example of what we're talking about here, but something similar.

Q: That's really cool, but how would you reconcile sequences in which the player-character can be incapacitated by a single bullet with real-time gameplay that usually allows the player to absorb ridiculous amounts of damage?
Would every encounter/firefight in the game be primarily a matter of "getting the drop" on someone?

A: I'd honestly go so far as to at least try to center the gameplay around very high lethality gunplay, yeah.
Something with a completely different flavor, to go with the atypical emphasis on having a gun and pointing it at someone being Serious Business...though again, this is only only ballpark stuff with something that would be so central to the gameplay without playtesting first.
[I follow the Valve model in that respect--design iteration is completely enmeshed with playtesting.]

I'm a huge fan of the whole milieu of detective fiction--Chandler, Hammett et al.--and there's a well established trope of the detective getting cold cocked and left somewhere compromising (which we're well familiar with from the bleedover into all sorts of pulp-inspired entertainment).
This is something that would translate well as a gameplay mechanic.
In this setting, gun battles should be dangerous, lethal, and therefore initiated rather infrequently. Usually when the deck is stacked in your favor, and even then it's not very detective-y to cut a double digit body count through the city while protecting the interests of your client.
So while you could get into a proper gunfight, for this exercise I'd like to get away from the all too familiar linear game problem of "you will play the story this particular way, or you will fail completely."

Mount and Blade, whatever you think of the game generally, proves something of a relevatory experience when played in the recommended no-save/loading mode. Falling in battle strips you of a piece of armor, a prized weapon or your warhorse, though you yourself are simply knocked unconscious/left for dead. The game continues in time.

Played this way, "failed" battles that would have otherwise devolved into tedious save/load festivals on a linear storyline in another game (cutscenes and all) went 1.) far faster without any repetition, and 2.) become a part of my player narrative, my story, rather than an impediment to progress through a canned plot.

So to me, getting rid of the traditional save/load mechanics but also ejecting forced failure and repetition of play segments allow you to own the play experience that much more thoroughly.
Leave the flawless runthrough to the savants and the tool-assisted players of the future, embrace your mistakes as part of the experience, not an error to be rewound until you "get it right."
I'm tired of playing along to a fake movie, with none of the impact of a movie and much of the baggage, and a character following someone else's conception of him, not mine.

So that's a whole lot of words, but I'd love to make a game with these mechanics.

Even say it's actually possible to actually die, straight up. If you're mortally wounded, you start the game over.
Or if you're shot, you need to limp to the phone or otherwise get help and end up in the hospital.
(In which either your whole case goes a whole lot colder and its harder to interview people or you just end up with a "convalescing in the hospital" ending--maybe you can keep this character and his stats for a new game+ type run through?)
For the most part though, you won't get into truly lethal gunfights often if you play smart, like the smart detective you ought to be.
Then when the goons "get the drop" on you and you are unsuccessful in weaseling or shooting your way out, you just get cold-cocked and a similar small penalty for being crappy:

-Bad: you wake to find they have snatched up some small clue/polluted crime scene (end game total for clues collected or how thoroughly you make your case or whatever, fill in the blanks)

your gun is taken (humiliating for your character and you--or are you a detective that prefers not to be armed?), or the thugs sap you and bring you in for a short meet and greet with the nemesis (could be triggerable to happen later in the game)

you wake to find either at the crime scene or somewhere else entirely, a freshly fired gun in your hand and a dead blonde on the floor and the police are soon to knock on the door. Oh shiiiiii--


Anonymous said...

This sounds a lot like the concepts used in the upcoming PS3 game, Heavy Rain, though they use QTEs to move through these situation elements.

gauss said...

Yeah. I'm cautiously optimistic about that game, despite feeling that "cinematic" is almost always a bad thing when used as a target for game development. (Generally anti-QTE as well.)

With this spec I had hoped that it'd be fully seated in "real" gameplay mechanics, not special case stuff like QTEs are usually employed as. But building genuinely different gameplay is a heck of a tall order.

Anonymous said...

Would love to see something like that work out in an actual game, instead of resorting to QTEs. Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy) is another good example of that same style, but again with the QTEs.

On a side note, the upcoming spy RPG, Alpha Protocol looks to use a sort of situational/contextual method of dialog, as does the new splinter cell (to a lesser extent) via the interrogation methods (at least what they've shown so far), so your ideas of time/space/situation context specific commands is a very doable idea. Looking at the console workability, it might be something as simple as setting each of the 4 main buttons (PS-line, and X-box series) to a general emotion which translates to how the character reacts from context point to context point. I.E. Button 1 = Aggression (action centric), Button 2 = Compassion (dialog centric), Button 3 = Indifference (dialog centric), Button 4 = Fear (action centric). In your example of hearing someone outside the door, the aggression button would draw your gun and get ready to ambush whoever is coming in. The compassion button would wait for the person to come in (it might be the police or some other innocent who you might not want to be pointing a gun at) and try to reason/talk with them, this would generally be the safest method to initiate dialog with an NPC. The indifference button would cause your character to simply ignore the sound and continue about whatever they were doing. The fear button would cause your character to look for a hiding spot to wait and see what is coming through the door. These buttons could be expanded upon to more than 4 as well, to give more responses to the given situation. Also, the time your character has to respond to a given situation would be limited as you mentioned, and when the time runs out, the situation happens as if you had chosen the indifference option.

Either way, moving beyond QTEs to create a 'real' feeling game would make for one hell of a game (provided the story and gameplay itself was good), at least in my opinion.

-SoulMan (previous anon poster)

Anonymous said...

"But building genuinely different gameplay is a heck of a tall order."

Very true, and sadly people (especially a lot of the gaming audience simply want more of the same, which means new ideas unless done flawlessly don't take off the way they should, even if they review well). Though it might be a good building block for an indy game concept on a smaller scale than a full AA game. Ah well, here's to hoping. :)


Dread Lord CyberSkull said...

I like that worst idea.

Makes me think back to the Déjà Vue game I played on NES.

Albey Amakiir said...

From the short Steam description of Mount and Blade, it sounds like what Dwarf Fortress adventure mode will eventually become. Except that, in DF, when you die, the world keeps going.

ScottMcTony said...

An example that is maybe not as heavy as, uh, Heavy Rain, but which I enjoyed far more, is the climax of Mass Effect 2, wherein anyone (and potentially everyone) on your team can die, including you.

Jack said...

Assuming a PC control scheme, you could have the typical WASD to move/mouse to look deal, then use the 1234 buttons to make dialogue choices in real time- so the player can still move around and do things as they talk. The act of drawing your gun would take time, and you wouldn't want to have it out in front of civilians. If an enemy has the drop on you, he can shoot you before you have time to draw your gun. So a typical scenario could involve you talking to a thug to distract him enough to allow you to draw your gun and shoot him.

And then you could have a general paragon/renegade system where the story changes based on your methods- killing everyone or avoiding fatalaties wherever possible.

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