Monday, October 31, 2011

A... Mid-Mortem? on the Brothers Riley

After having been stuck for a couple of months, I've picked up progress again. This first update concerns my addressing the shortcomings of the prototype as of its previous showing; it's written as a post-mortem, but as I'm continuing to develop the project I guess it's more like a mid-mortem or a self-criticism.

"The Brothers Riley" is a point-and-click adventure game following Alex Riley and his younger brother Jack, two boys in a downtrodden family in 1850 London. With their father recently dead and their mother delivering a baby imminently, the two need to find someone to help deliver their new sibling. They have three options set out for them: gather enough money up to pay Dr. Gossar, their family physician, to perform the delivery; depend on the charity of the Church; or employ the aid of Richard Darrell, a criminal with sinister ulterior motives. The player takes on the role of Alex as he struggles to fill his father's shoes, and his actions directly change the attitude and responses of his younger, more impressionable brother.

The story of Alex and Jack Riley's struggle to find someone to deliver their mother's new child wasn't interesting or remarkable in any way. Alex himself wasn't a very interesting protagonist, and his younger brother's contribution to the story wasn't really worth the effort of trying to get him to respond dynamically to the player's actions, nor did anybody I showed the prototype to seem to feel that it had that much impact on their perception of either their own character or the story at hand.

The decision-making scheme itself, I felt, was inherently flawed, with no relationships being developed between the player and tangible resources. There was money, yes--but it had one use, and that was advancing the plot. There was multiple ways of acquiring it, but not multiple alternatives to spending it--so the element of risk, so heavily emphasized in my research, wasn't really present. There was a sense of personalization, but it was very weak as there was no risk or ambiguity of player identity; the game puts the player firmly and foremost as a boy trying to care for his mother, and interactions as a big brother, as a boyfriend, and as a worker are comparatively minimal as none of THOSE are used to advance the story or made out to be goals.

The only thing I had to fall back on was emotional investment in the characters, which I don't feel I obtained. Because of the limited scope of this project, I overly constrained myself and rushed to meet quotas for introducing characters and different types of decisions simultaneously, with little in the way of build-up or context. Richard Darrell, for instance, is barely established, coming out of nowhere and seeming to just assume himself as an important figure without the player learning anything about him. Other characters for this game were stilted and heavily founded in stereotypes, such that I was barely able to remember anybody's name apart from the two lead characters. For me that's a big problem: I'm known among friends and colleagues for being able to create characters with memorable names with remarkable consistency, so if I'm calling someone "the girlfriend," or "the priest," or "the bully," instead of by their given name, I am definitely doing something wrong.

A big part of what threw me off was relative inexperience developing adventure games. There's a certain way these games have of introducing characters and surprising players, I realized. You don't play an adventure game to deal with people your character is familiar with--in this case Alex's entire neighborhood. You play an adventure game for that odd experience where you're at a subway station and have to ask a stranger for directions, but he turns around and -- oops, he's a platypus! You then embark on what will undoubtedly be a very memorable anecdote. Expositing on existing relationships is difficult in this particular genre since the player and their character do not share a memory of past experiences, but starting a new one is very easy. The mode of interaction lends itself very naturally to the act of meeting and inquiring as opposed to the act of having a reunion or a discussion.

My first pass at this project wasn't much at puzzle or interaction design, either, and in hindsight it seems like each character could be made more memorable by adopting some kind of a puzzle around them. 

Phillip Stone, for instance--the owner of the factory where Alex works--could be more of an interesting character to interact with if he's constantly and stupendously drunk. This could then become a puzzle, a character trait, and a choice all in one: sober him up to get information out of him, try to interpret his rambling as hints for some other objective, or try to make him pass out so that you can safely steal a possession from his person. The player then has tangible experience with one of his core character traits, and getting key objects from his home becomes more interesting than walking in and just picking them up. Interacting with Mr. Stone must be necessary, as should be the case with most of the other characters. As it stands, most of them can be ignored and offer no challenges like this.

A greater distinction must thus be made between "goal characters," "puzzle characters," and "tool characters," and some traits must be identified for them beyond their basic identity. Characters can not exist merely to offer opportunities for interaction--each one must serve a purpose in either offering direction, offering a resource, or offering a challenge--or else, a hint, or an opportunity for a future challenge/goal that the player does not yet recognize. If a character does not serve a purpose with respect to any of these design goals, at least in the context of the point-and-click adventure game genre, it is almost entirely wasted. This is a fundamental difference from traditional fiction writing, which was the perspective from which I was originally writing this.

There were a few things that have worked about this project so far--they were just on a very small scale compared to the fundamental issues holding it back.

I did find an effective way of introducing personal choices. While characters in themselves can't exist JUST to offer choices for no reason, characters that the player interacts with can be helpful in presenting theme-based, personalization-oriented questions, both to help introduce their own core character traits and to help the player's character develop and the player orient their point of view to those character traits. A good example of this is Margaret Darrell, who tells the player to put their trust in God; Alex is then offered the choice of putting their trust in her words, or refuting her and blaming God for the problems his family is facing. As religion is a defining trait of the time period, it is a major character trait and offers one of the most important devices for developing the player's character. That said, this is a pattern that could be taken further, with different, important aspects of the story--the player character's attitude towards crime, or authority, or his family's reputation, for instance--being meted out among the main cast as they are met. This method is rendered ineffective when it is unnecessary to interact with most of the cast--and thus the player wouldn't experience most of these events--but nevertheless proved an interesting way to build context if experienced.

I am working on a revision to the project, trying to develop a stronger, more localized structure for it. IE, I'm going to axe the city and go with someplace smaller. Maybe a portion of the city--a single street instead of two--and Phillip Stone's mansion, as Mr. Stone presents the strongest opportunity both for mischief and revision (I just presented a means of revising him).

I will also be trying to mete out the risk factors among the NPCs as opposed to depending on one partner NPC as the sole risk factor -- IE, getting Mr. Stone drunk may carry certain consequences, using mischief as a means to get what you want may anger people that could help the player later, et cetera. It's very likely that Jack Riley will become the player character in lieu of Alex, as Jack has stronger conflicts and more growth to do and, as a mischievous young urchin, is probably the most fun to follow ("Horse's arse." "What was that?" "I said Holiday Pass.") and should be allowed off the leash of his big brother.

A revised document on this revision will follow shortly.

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