To end or not to end

This month’s topic on the Blogs of the Round Table is all about how denouement can be expressed as gameplay, and so, happy to oblige, here’s one idea that I had bouncing around inside my head for a few weeks:

First of all, I designed this game to be played within a flat 2D world, nevertheless it can be done in 3D, be it in first or third person perspective. I chose this simple representation of space since I want to focus on the other aspects of the design and almost completely ignore space this time around.

Anyhow, in this game you start with the verbs talk, pick up/put down, jump and run. Each one is designated to a different button and only when holding said button you’ll perform the desired verb (i.e. if you press it and then release immediately, you won’t do a thing). The only other important verb is walk, but that’s just a way of locomotion (triggered by directional keys/d-pad) that won’t change at any point.

The first part of the game would involve exploring the protagonist’s house, playing fetch with the dog and kids, getting to know them, talking to his wife, and in addition we’d have a “to do” list with: collecting firewood, washing the dog, finishing the treehouse, fishing and so on. Some of these activities would be mindless tasks to pass the time (firewood splitting), but most of them would involve at least another member of the family (washing the dog, building the treehouse, fishing, etc). Every real-time minute translates to an hour inside the game, so each day would last 24 minutes. If you don’t fish you’ll have a really small dinner at the end of the day. If you don’t get the firewood you’ll have a cold night and nobody’s going to be in such a great mood the next morning. If the dog is filthy then the wife will refuse to let him into the house and the kids won’t play with him. There’s many more situations that I could mention, but I think you get the idea by now.

After three or four days, the main villain makes his appearance. He does something to establish how evil he is and then goes off to try and take over the world. Now, he doesn’t kill anybody from your family or set any village on fire, since those motivations for revenge are getting more than a little trite by now. Nevertheless, whatever the villain did, it was personal and to add insult to injury, everybody else in the village is pretending that nothing happened.

Stealing cakes? WEll, that wasn't what I had in mind, but sure, that might work.
Stealing cakes? Unless I had to spend a few hours baking every single one of them, then no, that's not a good reason for taking revenge, I need to be a at least a little more invested than that.

We say goodbye to the kids, have a talk with the wife and then respond to the call for adventure. And with that, we begin the second part of the game. In my head, this section is a platformer-brawler where you button mash your way through enemies. I think it serves the premise well since it is extremely simple and doesn’t require any kind of thinking from the player. The words “mindless violence” come to mind.

Anyway, as the player progresses through this stage, he’ll start to learn a different set of verbs: shout (stuns enemies), stab, kick and tackle. Each one of these will be assigned to the same four buttons you were using to talk, pick up/put down, jump and run. But how so? Well, the new set of verbs only requires a quick press and release of the button to execute, while the old set of verbs is used when you press and hold the button for a second.

The more you use this new set of verbs the more time you have to hold the button to trigger the old set of verbs. So, in a sense, it gets harder and harder to use the old verbs.

As expected, half a million minions populate this phase and the amount of said minions goes up the more the protagonist progresses until he reaches the final boss: the main villain himself. Now, there are a lot more things going on on this phase, but for the sake of brevity I’m going to gloss over most of them. Suffice to say, that the environments where you fight were accessible to you from the start and consist mainly of the village, the woods and the villain’s castle. Also, said environments can, and will, be affected by all the fighting. Some damage will be caused by the minions, and some damage will be caused by the protagonist (under normal circumstances that is, because it would possible to avoid any damage done to the village, woods and castle).

After all the fighting, the hero finally reaches his destination and meets the main villain. They exchange a few words but most likely our hero won’t stand for such pleasantries and begins the fight. Or in other words, if they can exchange a few words like gentlemen is up to the player. Regardless, the evil villain is destroyed and the world is safe once again. Then we get to walk all the way home, backtracking our way through the previous levels, admiring all the (most likely) ruined scenery. Finally we reach our home, safe and sound, but be careful, the protagonist doesn’t control the same way he used to.

Curious how all old films ended with a "the end" screen, isn't it?*
It is curious, how all old films ended with a "the end" screen, isn't it?*

Now it gets tricky, because a little problematic question pops up: when do you end it all? This third phase, just like the first, leaves the player in complete control. Alright, that would answer the when: the designer doesn’t end it, the player does. Now the question becomes: How? How does the player end the game? By just hitting the Escape key? That’s certainly a possibility. But on the other side of the coin you could have set situations that the player can trigger voluntarily, meaning that there’s a very strict limit to what the player can do to end the game.

We are used to failing or succeeding, we always get a “you win!” screen or a “game over” one. Sure, there might be more than one “You win” screen, each one specially tailored to specific “moral” decisions the player had to make throughout the game, but that’s the only different way we’ve been approaching this problem for decades. Of course, that is if we don’t count a special interpretation of the ending of the “new” Prince of Persia **.

Mmmhhh, maybe not having an ending in linear terms is not such a bad thing. Maybe letting the player quit at any time is more than enough, provided that the gameplay available at the end of the game is proper denouement. Maybe, by doing this, we let the player decide how to end the story. Maybe the game should drive this point home in order to de-program it’s players from years and years of conditioning. Maybe even less than half the players that reach this third phase will embrace the concept, and then proceed to rant about it in ALL CAPS on some internet forum.

It’s all a big huge “maybe”, but it sure would be interesting. And I happen like interesting things.

So, with that in mind, the game’s third phase opens up once the player reaches his village. The verbs the protagonist learned to use so frequently in battle are most of the time very out of place in this peaceful phase. Going back to a normal life is going to require some getting used to, that’s for sure, and the mechanics handle this issue practically in the same way as before.

In the second phase, the protagonist could perform the new set of verbs with more ease the more he used them, and the reverse is true here in the third phase: the more the player uses his old set of verbs, the more he’ll get used to them, and the more difficult it will get to perform the new ones learned in battle.

Now, this de-learning of verbs is only a possibility, one of the many things available at this stage. True, I thought of this design with the de-learning firmly placed in my mind, but I’m not going to stop the player from hacking and slashing the whole village and then quitting because there’s nothing else to kill. I’m sure they had a good roleplaying justification for it, who am I to stop them from expressing themselves?

If the protagonist doesn’t kill or frighten his family, then the player can try and finish the work he began before the evil villain made his appearance (building the tree house, painting the house, etc). Just like the first phase, a day goes by in 24 minutes and there is a list of things to do in each day. In the first days since the protagonist came back, this list will be focused on tasks that don’t have that much interaction with the family, but with time more and more group activities will be added to the list. It’s not that his family doesn’t trust him, but they can notice that not everything is the same. Basically, they give him some breathing room to recover.

So this last part acts like a fairly open sandbox where there are some irreversible consequences to the player’s behaviour (scare too many times a person and they’ll permanently fear you). If the player then decides to quit at any point, a small cinematic would play, with credits rolling and images/narration/text retelling the story the player told throughout the game. Naturally it can be skipped. Even after seeing these credits roll, the player can always go back and continue to play this third phase for as long as he likes/feels is necessary.

And that’s about it, I’m still fleshing out this design in my head though, so I might make another post about it in the future (there’s a very small chance of that happening, but it’s still there).

\THE END/

Please visit the Round Table’s Main Hall for more entries on this month’s topic.

* This might not be true, but hey, a lot of them ended in this fashion, didn’t they?

** Apparently, Fable 2 also has an unorthodox type of ending. I’m sure there are a lot of other examples that go against the rule I just made up there. My point still stands though, most of the time we get clean cut ending cinematics and that’s it.

Curious side-note: Right after finishing this post I happen to read this article on destructoid. It expands upon most of the important topics I talk about here but with a different set of priorities. Certainly an interesting read.

Images “borrowed” from here and here.

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