Friday, October 16, 2009

Design Reboot: Flatlander Woman

Friday, October 16, 2009
"The mission will require us to do more than frighten the NSF
with our baggy coats that make us look bigger than we really are."

For the ice queen, Gyges' Ring.

The Knife - Silent Shout

It seems legitimate to assume that an elite assassin who can turn invisible would equate morality to a single question: did anyone catch me? And of course, Anna Navarre has never been caught. Not yet.

Consider Flatlander Woman: a stealth game where the years of training, mechanical augmentations, and the cloaking device ensure that stalking prey is only as sporting as cat and mouse.
Killing isn't the hard part, but it is the problem: like most FPS players, Anna prefers to resolve her issues with a liberal application of violence. It also happens that there are no unkillable NPCs in her world.

The game is structured to anticipate/accommodate Anna killing any character in the game, so the question becomes whether the player is, too?

Think of the extended sequence in Nikita (right) where the cleaner played by Jean Reno does damage control by increasing the bodycount. Now replay those same scenarios as the elite Anna Navarre--you're not limited by how many you can kill, but how many kills you can get away with. Like the high stakes tension of a body-hiding sequence in a Hitman game, but compounded over the game's length. The emphasis is slightly less on the deed itself and more the constant cold-blooded calculations of what any given murder will or won't do for Anna.

There could be unforeseen consequences; there could be blowback.
Especially if Anna disappears someone back at headquarters (not just a target, and the target's family, and all the first responders while on a mission). There are a lot of possible reasons for this--the game could feature a "catch the spy" subplot, a whodunit with randomized suspects, and Anna needs to be sure the mole is dead. Or maybe just someone didn't refill the coffee maker after the last cup, and Anna/the player really wants to see how many people they can kill. Pushing it as far as they can without a killphrase getting invoked, or SWAT teams descending at night on Anna's bunk.

There are obvious structural snarls that would come with building a game like this, but the payoff is something of a freer form Hitman experience. Navarre still has her targets on missions, but back at headquarters she exercises Darwinian fitness in protecting her own interests, as well as her one soft spot for the well-being of Gunther Hermann. It's a rolling assassin's gallery, where the killer's own reflexes are what get her the most into trouble.

On release, Flatlander Woman and its paranoid super assassin bloodbath rate 77/100 on Metacritic. Despite carefully meted tutorial content, casual players find themselves bewildered by having too many possible targets, or being frustrated by what they feel is not clear enough explanation for the consequences of impulse killing sprees. Critics are warmer but anyone not already a part of 47's congregation is not impressed.


chiasaur11 said...

Makes an interesting matched set with Gunther's game.

In one, you kill and kill with the only possible consequence being someone calling you on friendly fire and killphrasing you, while in the other, every crime you commit steadily errodes your very soul.

Fascinating contrast.

gauss said...

I'd be lying if I said I didn't have an uphill battle formulating a design sketch for Anna's game, once I had finished Gunther's :)

Her preference for stealth and having the cloaking device (surely something you'd earn in course of the game) clinched it for me.

Rob2984 said...

Just found your website last week. Laputan Machine and Flatlander Woman are games I would preorder right now... Both sound so much more ambitious and exciting than anything I've played in as long as I can remember.

gauss said...

Thanks Rob. Much of the purpose of this site is help myself and other developers think through play mechanics but also overall settings, mood, characters.

I think too many games--certainly FPSes--are built by getting things up to the status quo, including whatever currently favored gameplay mechanic/gimmick, and then trying to fit some sort of additional gimmick as a sales point.
I think the more games have clearer overall design goals, with the games being built to fit those goals, we'd have better games overall. Games with clear identities.

Certain design questions come up and if you have no clear goal in mind, a vision for the world and its characters etc, it can be very hard to answer those questions. And then in a frenzy to add excitement, or feature bullet points, stupid crap like rail shooting sequences and the like end up in the game.

I'll tell you, it isn't easy coming up with these hypothetical game pitches, but hopefully I'm getting better and more concise with them over time. Hope to see your comments in the future!

Robert Yang said...

I think I'm gonna try to make this as a mini HL2 mod, but I think I'll simplify the goals / rules. I don't code, so I'm trying to make it doable with the existing entity / scriping set of Episode 2. Here's what I'm thinking:

PLAYER: You're always cloaked except when you sprint or when you're shooting your pistol. (Reskin / re-sound the HL2 pistol. Besides, Anna's a pro and she'd be cloaked all the time anyway.)

GOAL: Kill the target first, then kill as many NPCs / witnesses as possible, but let none escape - so the skill lies in taking enough onto your plate, but too much will end in failure. You get a ranking at the end.

FEEDBACK: When you kill someone, there will be a line drawn between their corpse and any witnesses. You'll always have an idea of where witnesses are, thus no need for a map screen or anything. (If you're good like Anna, you can keep track of stuff like that anyway.)

AI: NPCs become witnesses if they have LoS to the target OR the player within a 3 second window after the death. (Only the player will be killing NPCs.) Upon becoming a witness, they either run for the exit (25% chance) or run to hide in a room for a random amount of time (75% chance) before attempting escape.

... and that's all I got so far.

gauss said...

Welcome Mr. Yang--that's an admirable distillation of the central mechanic. Explicating/building concrete mechanics can be awfully tough; despite the format of this site I tend to shy away from it personally (hence the movie references and general handwaving and pretty pictures). But I'm flattered that someone whose work I recognize would deign to prototype any gameplay described here. By all means!

It's a first for the site, and hopefully not the last. Let me know how it goes, I think that's a great prototype case.

Johnnyburn said...

Robert Yang's explanation of some of the line of sight specifics remind me of the board game Kill Doctor Lucky.

Most of the game involves manipulating the pieces so that you and the victim Dr. Lucky meet in a room alone together.

In your design sketch, I picture the player quicksaving and playing through elaborate sequences until everything happens just right. Neighbor's cats fight over milk left out back, you smack the parakeet cage, throw a tin can down the alley, the car out front explodes -- everyone distracted at just the right moments and they all get knocked off with no witnesses.

Mission debriefs could have scores based on evidence left behind. "Milk of this quality could only come from one place!"

Could be awesome or just really frustrating. Also, these sorts of games are what's wrong with society, etc etc.

Footkerchief said...

Kudos for use of The Knife.

Copperkat said...

Some of the most fun I've had with a game were those assassination missions you did for the Dark Brotherhood in Oblivion.

It's never the actual kill that gets you in a stealth game, it's the build up. The decisions you make that lead up to it, and the consequences. It's particularly satisfying when the consequence is a clean and unnoticed kill.

I hope the relative easiness of actual killing would automatically shift focus to what I think is the most fun: strategy, cause, and effect.

Great concepts as always.

Robert Yang said...


I wish I took a picture of the installation itself, I spent the better part of a day setting it up.

I kinda had to nerf the concept a lot for "average person in an art school" audience. There are no consequences to letting people go, and even so your partner with a sniper rifle will get many of the stragglers.

The best part of my current version is probably the ending. But everything leading up to it needs a lot of work.

(btw, do more design reboots so I can steal more designs!)

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