June 21, 2013
Originally posted on SeeThrough Studios
Last night, I was having drinks with a couple of devs after an IGDA Sydney event (a panel about games and narrative which was quite excellent). These devs had played the current build of Particulars, and I started talking about my vision for the rest of the game.
What became apparent is that the sorts of things I want to do with Particulars – the things that, to me, are now things that the game should obviously do, are not actually obvious at all. They’ve become obvious to me because they’re the things I want all games that I’m involved with to do, and if we don’t get there, I’ll be sad.
It also reminded me that these things are really exciting. And that, from a purely marketing standpoint, we should really talk about them.
The hard thing, however, is that to me, these things should be normal. I don’t really want to make a big deal out of them, because this is, quite simply, what games should be. I also don’t make them seem exceptional or turn them into ‘features’, because so much of this is about discovery, surprise and delight.
So I’m going to take a middle ground and give a sort of vision statement, without discussing too many of the particulars (pun not intended, discovered and then happily left in place). I’d then like some advice: how much should we be talking about this stuff? In the world of indie development, where being heard is so hard, should we care about spoilers?
Particulars is a minimalist meditation on chaotic flows. It’s an examination of the control we have over the games we play, the worlds we inhabit, our minds and our lives.
Let’s take a step back and look at why Particulars is about these things. The basic gameplay of Particulars is derived from sub-atomic particle physics. It came from the question of “if I was a quark, what would the world look like? And is there good gameplay there?”. It turns out that the answers are ‘oddly like a sex ed game’ and ‘yes’.
The sub-atomic particle world is a world that’s governed by strict rules and forces. It’s a world that’s in flux: everything is constantly attracting and repelling everything else. It’s a world that’s governed by the chaos that occurs when everything influences everything else.
For the player to truly feel the world (because I’m much more interested in players getting an implicit feel than in them learning factoids), this chaos has to be front and centre. Their avatar in the game must feel the effects of these forces, and must feel the effects that they are imparting on others. We have to take control away from the player, and have them learn to live without the control that they’re so used to in other games.
This is the primary reason why I’m not looking to add special abilities to the game anytime soon (I’m not ruling it out, but it’s not high on my todo list). The game is about navigating a chaotic world where the external world directly affects the player’s agency, and thus I’d rather alter the player’s agency through the environment rather than through the controls.
And because the player’s actions are so bound by this partial control, because it’s the feeling that they’re experiencing for the majority of the game, it’s this idea of control and chaos that we want to explore.
Let’s pause for a second and examine what’s just happened, because it’s something I wish more games would do. We’ve just taken the actions of our game from a basic idea, and the thematic content of the game from those actions. The thematic content thus rings true with the basic ideas of sub-atomic particle physics, and the game uses the player’s actions and basic experience to elicit these themes.
A theme and a control scheme, however, do not a game make. At some point, the game has to be ‘fun’ (whatever that means). And being one of our first games, I don’t really want to screw too much with the ‘goals-rules-rewards’ kind of formula that we all know and love. I also really don’t want to do something too non-linear just yet (coz, well… hard).
But at the same time, I really do want to screw with these things. And I want our games, more than anything, to have considerable changes in mechanics and feel over their playtime, and for those changes to be meaningful.
In the case of Particulars, the good news is that this kind of built in. There are four fundamental forces of nature (electromagnetic, gravity, weak and strong), and everything you’ve seen so far is just electromagnetism. We’ve got plans for all the rest, and plans for how these will intersect with the stories and themes we’re playing with.
In short: for gravity, we’ll be adding black holes (because otherwise gravity is far too weak). A black hole is a nexus: an irrefutable force that you can’t help to be sucked into. The weak force is about change: both of yourself and of others. The strong force is, more than anything else, disorienting. It forces you to question, and then think through, how you relate with others.
If we look at just these elements, a story starts to emerge. We start with someone who’s kind of drifting and without control of their own lives. They then start an obsession: a loss of control over themselves, as they’re sucked into a new passion. They begin to change, and change those around them, though whether the change is good or bad is unclear. And then, the bottom falls out: something happens that is so bizarre that they’re completely disoriented and unsure of themselves and their place in the world.
Presumably from there, we race to a climax and then some sort of conclusion.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of Particulars, minus all the juicy details.
The final thing I want to talk about is structure. Because structure and pacing are horribly important in setting a tone, and playing with player expectations is the best way to surprise. To me, the structure of a game should change with the tone of the game. The length of a level, the way it’s goals are set out and the number of paths to victory are all meaningful. With any luck, we’ll get to play with all of these, and you’ll get to play the results.
Part of the reason I’m saying this is that it’s not certain that we’ll get there. Particulars, to be ‘finished’, is a 12 chapter game. We’re going to be launching with 3 chapters (a.k.a. ‘1 episode’), simply because we lack the time and money to be able to do more. I’m fairly confident we’ll get to 6 chapters, but the rest is a total mystery. And that’s not even counting the ‘can we actually pull it off?’ question (we can’t all be Peter Molyneux).
So we’ve got big plans for Particulars, but we’re also pretty practical. The first 3 chapters have an arc that is satisfying, as does every 3-chapter episode after that. We’re being careful not to leave things for later if they’ll make the game better now (generally not a problem, as extra things generally need the extra gameplay length to be explained etc.). And we’ve been talking about the game for what is is, rather than what we want it to be.
Which brings us back to the question: what should we be talking about? Do we spoil things? Do we risk ruining surprise, if it helps to build hype and therefore possibly lets us actually build this? Or should we stick to what we know and what we have?