WAID2 Design Peek #2: Possession and Narrative Voice

One of the biggest questions I had for WAID’s sequel was how I would handle the game’s possession mechanic.  That mechanic was really the whole point behind the first game, and remains so for the second.  I have to revisit it, address any issues that came up, and try to put a new spin on it as I move forward.  Aside from production value, it’s the one area that has the most potential for improvement, because everything else in the game will pivot around it.

Normally in video-games there is a subtle conflict between the narrative voice of the protagonist and the player.  That is to say, who is actually talking or acting — the protagonist of the story, or the person controlling them?  They are often mutually exclusive; the more dialogue that a protagonist is given, the less voice the player feels they have.  This is why so many video game heros are so infamously silent: any dialogue from the protagonist runs the risk of alienating the player and separating him or her from the game.

Case in point.
An extreme example.

This conflict reaches some degree of synthesis in many western RPGs, where the player actively creates their own protagonist and chooses his or her actions and dialogue throughout the game.  It still remains a concern, however, when the restrictions of the overall plot must curtail the player’s freedom to define their own protagonist.

In Why Am I Dead 1&2, you are not a person controlling a character, however.  You are a person controlling a character who is in turn controlling another character.  Therefore there are actually three voices in potential conflict, and in my case none of them should be pushed to the side completely:

  • The player’s voice —  What is the actual player’s goal?  What do they want to do?
  • The ghost’s voice — The dead person’s ghost (ie the real protagonist) is implied to have some remaining autonomy.
  • The possessee’s voice — That the possessee’s motivations are heard is not necessary in ghost folklore, but it is imperative for design.

In the case of the first game I leaned hard onto the side of the possessee’s voice.  It was simpler, and showed off what I felt made the game unique.  The player could choose what lines of dialogue to pursue, and the ghost could possess and move people around, but the actual words and actions that carried the story through were those of the characters who were ‘possessed’.  As a result, some people expressed disappointment or confusion that although the ghost was such a huge part of the story, it didn’t exert any influence on the course of events.  Likewise, some people were unsatisfied that they had to help the ghost, who turned out to have been an unpleasant person when he was alive.

The only difference being I don't even pretend you have this level of freedom.  From popmatters.com
I don’t even pretend you have this level of freedom.  Edited screen from KotOR from popmatters.com

To be clear, I’m very happy with how the format of the original WAID worked out — the possessed characters being able to speak was really powerful, and allowed for over 70 unique dialogues in the game.  Without their voices, it would have been around 10.  You are given the space to explore the characters in much greater detail than if they were overshadowed by the ghost’s voice, and I don’t have any plans of tearing that apart.  What I will be doing, rather, is adding different elements to the game around that base, which either portray the thoughts of the ghost, or allow the ghost and/or the player to influence the way the story goes.

This all means:

  1. There will be two ‘stages’ to possessing someone.  The first is when the ghost does not fully understand a character’s motivations or feeling, and thus cannot completely take control of their body — this results in the same mechanics as the original game, where the possessed character is really the one talking/doing things, and the ghost is just a silent nudging force.  The second stage allows the ghost to fully take over the person, meaning that the ghost itself will be deciding what to say and do.  It must still act within the limitations of its host, however (if you possess an animal, you cannot speak English!).
  2. A more detailed back-story to the dead person.  Of course, in a longer game everyone will have longer back-stories, but the dead person will have a greater share of the story’s overall focus.
  3. Points in the game where you can influence the relationships of the characters and the story itself.  This means more multiple endings!  I’m not going crazy with this, it isn’t going to be a Choose Your Own Adventure game–it will still play out mostly linear.  However, suffice it to say that you will have more control over how everything plays out.

I believe that about covers it.  The implications of these design calls will be explored as development proceeds.  Otherwise, development is going rather smoothly, and I hope to get some art up soon.  Maybe a quick demo video as well.

WAID2 Design Peek #1: Character AI

Things have been a bit crazy, and I unfortunately haven’t been in a position where I can work on my game full-time.  Without going into detail, my hope is that in a month or just over a month I’ll be settled down and can have a routine.  The problem has been as much a lack of free time as it has been a lack of consistent environment; it’s really hard for me to treat development seriously when I’m not in one place long enough to develop a routine.

But I’ve been chipping away at it as much as I can.  Though I don’t feel comfortable at this point showing the progress I’ve made, I can at least talk about it.  For each new post, I’ll give a compact description of something I’ve done or am doing, and more importantly, what I think it will add to the game.

For this update, it’s character AI.

Why Am I Dead occupies a weird space in design.  It plays out like a mystery-adventure, but uses the mechanics of RPGs for interaction.  Because of the former influence, the game will take place in a very confined area that the player becomes intimately familiar with.  Because of the latter influence, all objects and characters must be visible whenever you’re in their vicinity (unlike in adventure games such as Hotel Dusk, where characters often pop in and out only when the story demands it).

For a longer sequel to Why Am I Dead, this means you’ll be seeing the same rooms and the same people a lot.  You’ll get a feel for the whole space.  Partially in order to avoid the feeling of claustrophobia, and partially to create the impression that you’re in a livable environment, I decided that the characters would have to be very proactive regarding where they are at any given moment.

That is to say, having completely static characters that only move when you control them won’t cut it for a larger cast and a longer game.  The characters will all have to move on their own, and not in the way they do for RPGs (randomly and aimlessly); they will move around the ship in routines, and even when you aren’t present.  During different parts of the story, they’ll be in different areas depending on what’s going on.

On the plus side, this means:

  1. Characters won’t be stuck in weird poses for the whole game.  It would break immersion if several days pass in the story but you find that two characters were apparently staring at each other the whole time, because that was how they were when you left them. 
  2. The setting is more convincing.  Towards the beginning of one story day, maybe people are getting breakfast in the diner.  Towards the end, most are probably back in their rooms.  Maybe someone is taking in the night sky outside.  You don’t just see spaces, you see them being used.
  3. More opportunities for character insight.  Mannerisms can be added to characters’ movements; frenetic pacing when a character is stressed, for instance.  It might also say something if a characters is just inside their room all the time, or if they’re always walking around everywhere.

And on the negative side:

  1. LOGISTICS.  Adding these features is relatively easy, and already works for the most part.  Getting them to work as intended will take time.  I imagine traffic jams in hallways and people dry-humping each other all over the place for a while.
  2. If I overdo it, finding a character that you want to possess could be frustrating.  This is a matter of making characters’ movements intuitive and scaled to how much you’ll probably need to control them at the point you’re in.  Given the relatively small environment though, this shouldn’t be a huge issue.
  3. If I underdo it, I could hit an uncanny valley of AI, a la The Truman Show.

Like I said, this is already mostly implemented, as it was one of the first things I started working on.  Getting it to work smoothly will be a challenge, but I think it will add a tremendous amount of personality to the game.