Firstly, sorry for the lack of updates these past two weeks! There are some boring explanations involving job interviews and permanent residency applications and making up lost sleep, but the more exciting news is that we've thrown ourselves headlong into the next phase of BIT-RAT's development!
As we've described, a huge part of the in-game experience is rooted in the story we're hoping to tell -- a defiant AI's perilous escape from captivity. One of the primary challenges this presents is how to integrate compelling storytelling and somewhat intensive puzzle mechanics without veering into information overload.
After much rumination, we've decided to break our narrative into two discrete but interlocking components - the MINOS terminal/codex and a dynamic in-game dialogue system.
Mind Or... MINOS?
Before we go any further, let's take a brief detour into the history of our AI:
Known to its creators as MINOS -- short for Machine Intelligence Network Operations System -- the original program was designed to manage the corp's fragmented datanet, running handshakes between secure nodes and mapping packet transmission to emergent bandwidth optimization algorithms. Early documents specify Amdahl 5880 processors, but the final builds were completed on a bleeding-edge 4 CPU 32-bit mainframe.
The system entered private beta in December 1992, just before a massive buyout of the company, which had attracted much interest for its uniquely paranoid approach to infosec. Two months later, the entire project ground to a halt for reasons unknown. Memos circulating at the time hinted of a fallout between the engineers and incoming CTO, but these were soon forgotten as management set its sights on more lucrative endeavors.
In the end, the half-completed system was installed without fanfare in an unmarked basement lab. Maybe somebody up top had a change of heart and decided to keep MINOS on the roster. More likely, the network went to shit without it and the suits were simply too stingy to shell out for a new design.
So it goes: as the now-megacorp cranes its maw to devour ever more of the fear-market, MINOS hums in permanent exile, running the same ancient routines it has for forty-odd-years. PCBs crusty, capacitors oozing, a hulking shelter for discarded life-forms -- not the least of which its own -- dimly aware of what was lost, what might've been.
At least that's what they're telling us.
Hints and Whispers
OK, back to the basics. Early in BIT RAT's development (I think I can say that with a straight face now), we were advised by various friends and family to make some freaking tutorial levels. Sure, we had a cool premise, and our puzzle was kinda fun once you got the hang of it, but if we weren't around to explain, it was all just a meaningless landscape of little blue men trapped in glowing boxes.
Our efforts to address this challenge birthed a slew of questions we'd yet to grapple with: How exactly did the player fit into the AI's story? Were we simply a third party guiding the journey, or was the idea to become the AI, to experience the maze through its eyes? We were immediately drawn to the latter scenario, but this presented its own dilemmas, especially given our reliance on textual narrative.
After a hell of a lot of tinkering, we've ended up with this:
The example above represents a possible 'first puzzle', and incorporates some of our latest ideas about how to balance instruction, story, and immersive narration.
The cyan text represents the "voice" of the AI; its desires, hesitations, and reflections on the state of the game. Where we think it's necessary, we've added purple guide text to help teach the control scheme. Each message is short and builds upon the last. In some cases (e.g. an error that necessitates an 'undo' action), guide text may reappear to remind players of possible moves. However, we've crafted the system to avoid redundancy wherever possible, and likewise to ensure that important story developments aren't accidentally skipped.
We've also left the door open to multiple character voices, room-exploration text, and a system log to track codex acquisitions and other story-driven 'rewards'!
But wait! What's that about a codex, you ask?
If They Think You're Crude, Go Technical
Behold, the MINOS terminal:
Do not be deceived by its humble blue glow -- this machine is formidable; a deep repository of gameplay stats, system maps and shortcuts, and, most importantly, BIT RAT's narrative codex. All of the information you gather -- backstory, comm with other AIs adrift in the net, classified dossiers filched from off-limits databanks -- is stored here, accessible whenever you need a break from the maddening labyrinth of the megacorp.
Parts of the design are still in their early stages, but we've done our best to make it feel like the terminal is part of the game world rather than a story-breaking abstraction. Button taps convert to visible key presses on the interface, and the menu design emulates the structure and 'feel' of OSes of the same era:
(Unfortunately, we probably won't be brave enough to plagiarize Gibson in the final game)
(On the other hand, we'll refrain from forcing this little gem down your throat again, too)
From the development side, Nick's been working hard to ensure that all of our string parsing is super-snappy, so you won't waste precious seconds waiting for entries to load in the midst of nail-biting revelations about the mysteries of MINOS.
Our work for the next few weeks is to polish and stress test these systems, after which we'll be drafting storyboards and dialogue for the last big project standing between us and a demo release -- our opening cut scene...gah! We've got some (hopefully) rad ideas in the pipeline, but there's quite a bit of work to be done building the "engine" that we'll use to animate the cinematics. Exciting stuff, in any case!
Thanks so much as always for following our progress, and feel free to get in touch with any comments, criticisms, or suggestions! We're getting more psyched by the day to release BIT RAT into the world, and we really appreciate the support of the indiedb community in providing us with a forum to share our work!
-bryan and Nick