Thursday, May 21, 2015

Solving the disconnect between player and protagonist.

Something that I've been thinking about today, after playing through the VN "Starless".

Ignoring the fact that 80% of the H-content wasn't for me and was basically just skipped through, there was a key problem with it, and it's a problem that a lot of interactive media has.

Without spoiling too much, about 30% of the way through the story there's a moment where the protagonist is offered something, and he accepts it. Eventually, the protagonist's decision to accept the offer has consequences at the end of the game, and it's the cause of most of the game's Bad Ends unless you make the right decisions throughout the rest of it.

This would be fine, if not for the fact that at that by this point in time the protagonist should have known enough about the character making the offer to realize that accepting it would eventually lead to problems. I realized it, and I knew as much as he did about his circumstances, so why didn't he?

For me, moments like this are a huge problem, because it creates a disconnect between myself and the protagonist. And as long as there's such a disconnect, especially at such vital moments, it invalidates the resulting conflict and makes Bad-Ends feel unjustified. It makes it feel as if they were forced upon you, instead of feeling like they were a result of your choices. It's like a game with unresponsive controls, where you're character jumps into danger without your input.

So, how do you solve this? Obviously, the answer in most cases is simply "better writing". But how can you make sure that the player can act on their revelations once you've given them enough information, instead of waiting fot the in-game protagonist to do it themselves?

Phoenix Wright

The best execution I can think of are the cross examination scenes in the Phoenix Wright series.

The genius of them was that while you usually had theories: just like phoenix,  neither you nor he could prove that they were true without evidence. You had to press witness for clues and evidence, and in turn, you learned along with the protagonist.  Knowledge wasn't merely an item to be acquired by you for the protagonist to use on his own in a cutscene. Utilizing it required an understanding of the situation, and relied on your own intuition. As a result, solving problems was satisfying.

Of course, It had it's problems here and there. But when the cases were well executed, they were really well executed.

Choices in VNs, and the deceptive game.

Going back to choices in VNs, what makes a good decision?

For me, a good choice is one that relies on what you've learned from the story. How much were you paying attention to the characters? What do you know about the situation? Is this character lying? Does something seem off? In a good VN, making the right choice validates the game's conflicts, and makes the experience more satisfying, because solving a problem isn't as simple as a 50/50 chance. It's a puzzle to which you've already been given the pieces to solve, and utilizing those pieces is satisfying.

Even when you get them wrong, you should feel like "you" messed up. It should never feel like the VN itself deceived you. or gave you the wrong information. If a character deceives you and you fall for it, it should only be because you failed to utilize the information the game provided you with.

Comparing this to a normal game once again, consider the following scenarios,

1. You enter a dungeon knowing nothing about it. You enter a room, and above you is a spiked ceiling, and in the middle of the room is a chest with a bloodstain around it, Do you go open it?

2. An NPC you've never met before tells you to go get a chest in a dungeon, and assures you that he deactivated the traps. You enter the dungeon. Above you is a spike ceiling, and in the middle of the room is a chest with a bloodstain around it, Do you go open it?

3. The protagonist enters a dungeon. After seeing the trap, he goes elsewhere, and after a long section of fighting against enemies, he deactivates the trap. Once again he returns to the trap room. Do you open the chest?

Now to look back at these, Let's assume that in every one of those examples, opening the chest kills the player instantly.

1. Looking at the first choice, there are enough context clues for the player to realize that opening the chest is not a good idea.

2. In this example, while an NPC told the player that the trap is inactive, once again, it's up to the player to determine if he was lying. This depends more on execution of the NPC, or the state of the spike room.

3. In this example, the death would be inexcusable, as far as I'm concerned. The player was not deceived by a character, but by the game itself. The fact that they were paying attention to context clues and how the game worked was used against them, and invalidated their attention.

This is often done in VNs, but in a weird way. They'll take the most sensible option, and make it the wrong choice. To the point where after a while you're not accessing the situation anymore, but instead trying to guess if the VN is trying to trick you or not. It's hard to get invested in a story when the developer's arbitrary mind games are more relevant than paying attention to the world they created. The protagonist wouldn't been thinking "VNs like making the most obvious choices the wrong ones", so why should you?

Solving the disconnect.

Anyhow, Now that I've rambled on for way longer than I meant to, I'll pose the question I originally meant to. That is, how do you solve the disconnect between the player and the protagonist?

Using that previous scene in Starless as an example, how do you let the player utilize what they know in the story without bringing up a multiple choice? The thing is, not every player will realize it when something is off, and so presenting the choice itself could be seen as a disconnect. 

Well, I think Phoenix Wright's system got it....*cough*

Obviously it's not going to work to have such an involved system with evidence and whatnot throughout every game, but I think timing alone would be enough in some cases.

For example, you could have a simplified objection-esque system. One that can be activated at any time, but would only effect something if you activate it at the right moment. For this to work, the trick would be providing the player with enough information that they "Feel" as though something is off at the right moments.

Let's say that early in a story a character says,

 "The old dock? I've never been there myself, so I don't know much about it. However I know where it is so I suppose I could take you there"

And then later in the story, while at the dock, the character might say this, in the middle of a conversation,

"Look, I don't know more any more about this place than you, I haven't been here since I was a child! Unlike you, I have a job to do now."

During that line, and for a couple after it, the window would be open to trigger an event. Doing so might result in more information for the player for later events, a choice, or sometimes just a slight change in dialogue that reveals more of the story.

Of course it looks obvious when it's written side by side like that, but hints and event points would be sprinkled throughout normal dialogue, so in many cases the player wouldn't even notice if they weren't paying attention. It would also probably make sense to limit how many time the player can activate events, too, so that they can't just press it all the time.

The challenge here would be "designing" the writing so that the point of revelation and the window of opportunity is clear. That way, when the player presses the event button, they know exactly what they're pressing it for, and when to do it. (There would probably be a bit of a rewind function for dialogue)


When timing isn't enough, in some cases you might need to make it so that the player cannot activate an event if they lack the information to do so. For example, if a character says,

"Luckily for us, no one in the company was involved in the attack, With the death of his daughter, I can't imagine how the CEO would take it. "

While the line may be an event point, you couldn't activate it unless you had encountered relevant information about it. It might be seeing a gun case in a room, talking to a character, or seeing someone go somewhere they aren't supposed to. You could also make it so that activating it at the right time without the condition has a result too, just to tell the player that there's something they could do if they can find evidence.

Of course, there would be events based on mere suspicion without conditions as well, as they would be more about timing, and paying attention to the events and characters around you. As long as it's well written, I think the player would be able to understand what using the function is going to do at any given time, the same way an "interact" button is obvious when you're in front of a door.

Anyhow, this is all just playing around with ideas. Who knows when I'll ever try such a feature. Certainly not in Noaika, as it isn't really complex enough to need it, assuming I add dialogue at all.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

H-scenarios, feedback / impact.

Kinda figured I should just make this a post.

This is in response to a question about giving H-scenes impact, and how I'm going to deal with H-scenes in Noaika.

In a broad sense, giving H-content impact is similar to giving other gameplay elements impact. That is, everything you do or see should have a tangible effect. It should give you “feedback”. Something that creates the illusion or feeling that what you did not only happened, but mattered.

For example, if the player throws a punch, and the enemy flinches, then that’s short-term feedback. It gives your action impact. Now, if you punch an NPC, and then later that same NPC and a couple friends ambush you for revenge, that’s long-term feedback. It makes the world feel more alive because individual actions were a part of something bigger.

To me, it’s having both short-term and long-term feedback that separates great H-content from okay H-content.

As an example (seems like I use this example a lot), in Hounds of the Blade there’s a fight with some mobsters. If you lose, there’s a series of H-animations.

By itself, it’s pretty decent. However, what makes it better is that if you go to the bar after being defeated by them, there’s a scene where the two of them are acting pretty cocky. You can either beat the crap out of them, or you can act a little submissive. If you choose the latter, another H-scene begins. What makes it good is the fact that it’s a result of your previous actions. It’s long-term feedback. What’s more, at the end of the scene the mobster tells you to come back and have sex again sometime, and if you return, the dialogue is slightly different to reflect the fact that you came back after being submissive the last time. Even though the scene is the pretty much the same, that extra bit of dialogue creates more long-term feedback, and sparks the player’s imagination a little. It gives the whole scenario more impact.

Long-term feedback is more or less what I’m personally trying to accomplish more with Noaika. The idea that many H-animations are a part of a larger scenario, and that very few enemies are limited to a single animation.

In Noaika

As for how I’m dealing with H-content/scenarios, I’m doing it in a couple ways. You can skip this if you want to keep it a surprise for when you play Noaika. (Though I won’t describe specific scenarios anyway)

-The first kind is enemies in-game. Some enemies have more than one animation depending on your state (normal/lewd), as well as what are basically less animated foreplay animations as attacks for when you aren't knocked down.

Some enemies can cause status effects in the player that will affect other enemy’s animations or actions. For example, one type of enemy will…”infect” the player when they H them, which will cause certain other enemies to H them differently. Other enemies will be passive to the player if you have a certain status effect, or take them somewhere if you are captured. “Completing” some of these “arcs” of events have different effects.

-There is a sort of lab/testing chamber where you can interact with enemies you've unlocked (which must be captured). With certain enemies, there are “research” animations specific to the lab that have a mini game aspect, which rewards you with items and skills.

- In the case of enemies with status effects, the research mini-game it will either result in a cure for the effect, or something that makes it beneficial with drawbacks, depending on how you complete the mini-game.

- You can also do another form of research with any enemy, wherein you fight waves of the enemy until you lose (ending in rape), and the longer you survive, the better the reward is.

- Other than enemies, there are some rooms throughout the world that have H-scenes with NPCs. Some of these scenes are prerequisites for certain occurrences, like opening doors, making bosses appear, or causing other events. Chances are they will have dialogue, even in the protagonist doesn't. Some of these scenes are monster-related.

-The robot girls have a couple limited animations related to a status effect.

That’s about it, regarding H animations. Aka, “sounds great! Once it’s actually freaking done, that is.”

Friday, May 8, 2015

Crap ton of old sprites.

I was organizing/clearing out one of my hardrives today, and while sorting some of the images I figured it would be neat to post some of the sprites I was finding.

That said, here are some sprites I did during or between games, when I was trying to decide what to make, or what kind of proportions I should use. I didn't include most of the sprites that have been shown in other places, but I may have shown some of these at some point.

(Click to go fullscreen)

These are enemies and NPCs from Crimson Brave that were not seen in the demo I released. All of them were animated, however none of them had H-animations yet. You can also see that the dog, the shadow thing, and the crow never got the graphics upgrade that the others did when things got more detailed half-way through. 

Like with the other sprites, I won't bother showing ones that have already been shown before. (For the most part.)

These are sprites from the medium-resolution metroidvania I worked on before Eroico. About half of these were fully animated, but only a few had H-animations done.

These enemy sprites are from the martial arts game I worked on briefly. All but one were animated, but no H-animations were done.

These are from the low-res metroidvania I started after working on the high resolution one. You can see that three of the enemies were the same as the ones above. Most of these were animated, but only a demo's worth had H-animations.

Next, here's some unused stuff from Kurovadis. The first sprite is actually the first sprite I made, and what the protagonist looked like for a while. The Kuro sprites were some variations I considered. The enemy sprites were nothing more than single images of enemies I had planned. The spike thing was going to spin, and let you stand on the flat part. The tileset was for an ice level I had planned, but scrapped.

Lastly, some unused stuff from Eroico. I had various expressions done, but I pretty much just forgot to utilize them. There are two enemies I never ended up making, and the rest are sprites from when the game was actually going to be like Pacman 2, with turn based battles.

Also, here's something unused from the desert stage, which the mummy would have used to spawn.

Anyhow, that's all for now. Update time I guess.

I'm still working on Noaika, still taking it slow. One of the main things I want to get right is the H-animations, and taking them to a level that would actually be good enough for me if I were a player. One of the things  that always dissapoints me when I play H-games lately, is when an animation is nothing more than a stage or two of animation. It isn't really enough for me personally. I need more context, and things that make my imagination run-wild a bit more.

So, I'm focusing on making a lot of stages, and H-scenarios that tell more of a story, either in a short time, or over time throughout the game. Essentially, the kind of thing I'd want to see if I were playing myself.

Also still considering if I want to include text in the game or not. I've been playing with the idea of giving every enemy (that could speak) unique dialogue, 3-5 different lines for each, for different situations. Even when it's simple, I think text really helps make H-scenes feel less shallow (For example, Hounds of the Blade adds a lot of context), and I think it would make the world feel a bit more alive.

Anyhow, that's all for now.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Including game mechanics you hate.

Some thoughts, while thinking about how certain game mechanics are going to work in Noaika,

One thing I often think about when it comes to game design, is to what degree you should base things around what you like yourself. In terms of H-content, I try to balance what fetishes I include despite being indifferent about some of them, but I never include anything that I hate. So what about game mechanics/elements I don't like?

For example,

1. Stealth sections with instant fail-states. (control is taken away via cutscene)
2. Games that force you to switch away from the main protagonist, or the one that you chose. (when the game follows someone else for a while)
3. Long games with alternate choices or routes, but not way to access them without replaying everything from the beginning.
4. Escort missions.
5. On-rail shooter sections.
6. Long stretches of walking from place to place in environments that used to contain something, but don't anymore.
7. Set pieces that are just time consuming. (giant ladders, long hallways)
8. Animations for mundane or repetitive tasks, that are long and drawn out. (Opening doors)

With some of these, not only do they annoy me, but in many cases they make the experience far worse. But the question is, as a developer, should I ever avoid certain game mechanics not because I think the concept is flawed, but because I don't like them?

In the case of Noaika, the game mechanic in question is whether or not I should include branching content. That is, stuff that you can only experience if you play the game more than once. Personally, I like being able to do everything in a single playthrough, and so it always annoys me when I play a game with decisions that will effect the game on a gameplay level later.

For example, say you're introduced to two characters, and you have to choose one to come with you. You choose the one you like, only to realize later that if you had chosen the other one, a character you like way more would have joined you, and you would have to play the game over again if you want to see it.

With Noaika, many times it's crossed my mind "I could make it so if you don't do this, or don't kill this monster by this time, it turns into this, or does that", simply because it would be interesting, and make the game a bit more dynamic. But at the same time I know that as a player I hate the constant feeling that I'm going to regret all of my actions later. Hell, with some games I end up checking a guide simply because I want to make sure that I'm not going to miss out on certain content by making a certain choice, since I only play through most games once.

I suppose the answer is to consider what I like about a mechanic and what I hate about it at the same time, and try to come up with an alternative (For example, the way visual novels let you skip ahead to choices). But I still find it interesting that you end up considering mechanics that sound good to you as a developer but not as a player -__-