Wow, it's been a while since we updated the IndieDB page! Since last we wrote here, we were successfully Kickstarted and made it through Steam Greenlight. We've been hard at work on InnerSpace on both pretty exciting and pretty mundane things. Of the exciting, we hit a pretty major milestone last month, which came in the form of a playable alpha build. Other than finally having something to show to the public (we'll be at the Screw Attack Gaming Convention in July), it's granted us the ability to take a moment to step back and observe the project objectively.
Speaking of design analysis, I feel that now is a good time to share a post we wrote last fall about each of our approaches towards exploration in games. The concept of "exploration" permeates the experience of InnerSpace, but since the definition is wide-ranging, its exact effects on design may be a bit more ambiguous. As an experiment for us, and as a way to detail our design philosophies towards InnerSpace to others, each of us took some time and wrote about what exploration in games means to us in design and how we incorporate those perspectives into InnerSpace.
This was originally posted on the PolyKnight Games blog.
The significance of a single interaction is crucial to me. A grand example can be seen in the interactions with the rabbits, squirrels, or frogs of Proteus. They’re simple, you run towards them and they run away. An interaction as simple as this is still impactful enough to stay entertaining for upwards of tens of minutes for me. This is a simple example though.
Another example is the interaction with the Prisoners from of Demon’s Souls World 3 (Tower of Latria). You unleash the Prisoners and they follow you, praising you. However, they often find themselves in the way of your blade, becoming accidental deaths or trapping you, blocking your path causing your death. You freed them, they seek to praise you for such kindness, yet they are an inconvenience to you. You will either lead to their death or they will lead to yours. It’s a simple interaction, yet it causes a deep and meaningful by-product for the player.
A similar philosophy can be found in lore (flavor text) or storytelling. Sometimes the best experience is one simply told. I hope to provide the environment and tools for the Player to have a simple, yet impactful, experience. That these simple interactions serve as a means for the Player to become embedded and invested in this new world which the Player finds themselves in. That each small detail and each small interaction serves to reel the Player in.
A step further, I hope to create something entirely new. Something foreign. Something that fills you with questions, awe, and curiosity from beginning to end. In the words of Harlan Ellison, my favorite writer: “I don’t know how you perceive my mission as a writer, but for me it is not a responsibility to reaffirm your concretized myths and provincial prejudices. It is not my job to lull you with a false sense of the rightness of the universe. This wonderful and terrible occupation of recreating the world in a different way, each time fresh and strange…”
Steve: "Player-Driven Narrative"
I’m not sure I would describe InnerSpace with words like “cinematic” or, when used colloquially, “narratively driven.” While many good games have been described using both of these terms, I feel that they pull away from that which is unique to gaming: interaction. It’s more satisfying, and true to the interactive medium, to allow for a player-created narrative. Essentially, I want to allow the player to have—or at least feel like they have—authorial control over the story being told. The actions taken by the player, whenever they choose to act, should drive and create the narrative. In short, the player should feel like the author, not the audience.
What you choose to do and what you find along the way is the story.
In that vein, it’s my opinion that the experience of “discovery” is the best player-driven narrative that I know how to create. The traditional approach has been to ask, “What is the narrative and how does the game tell it?” I prefer to frame the question as, “What is the narrative and how, through the players’ actions, do they experience it?” In InnerSpace, exploration is our answer to this question, and it’s done in two key ways: Discovery and Assembly.
Discovering the narrative is grounded in physical action. Players literally chart and sift through ruins of ancient civilizations. In this, there is discovery both in finding interesting locations and in finding the artifacts, themselves. Assembling the narrative is the second half of this and is ultimately a mental exercise. Not only are the players physically finding narrative clues (artifacts), but they are also piecing them together themselves by filling in the missing or vague information with their imagination. I believe this level of contemplation and interaction is far more rewarding than any narrative we could ever dictate.
Eric G.: "Exploration in Non-Exploration Games"
A while ago, I wrote on the problem of (and possible solutions to) unifying significant, story-telling exploration and engaging gameplay in a single game. Instead of reiterating or summarizing those points, I want to touch on something somewhat different but equally interesting: exploration in non-exploration games.
As seen in Dishonored...
Ostensibly a game about sneaking, stabbing guards, and communing with occult forces, Arkane’s 2012 riff on Thief-like sensibilities has at its heart a fascinating approach to level design. Looking to encourage a range of playstyles on a spectrum from murderer to pacifist sneak, the developers built several paths into each of the game’s levels- which are themselves multiple parts of a single city, the fictional Dunwall. But, they went further. Dunwall is a city of precipitous walls, cluttered roofs, and rusting balconies. The player can unlock, through dark magics, the ability to “blink,” to teleport instantaneously to a nearby surface and vault up it. This is huge.
“Blinking” has two big, related effects. Broadly, it encourages the player to look critically at their environment. Because the city’s decay creates the precipices the player latches onto, this allows the visual design of the world to have an impact on gameplay- and the player. Its decrepit state becomes overwhelming apparent, coloring the experience of play. By establishing a mechanic that emphasizes creative use of the environment, Dishonored harmonizes gameplay and worldbuilding.
As seen in Deus Ex: Human Revolution...
A game about sneaking and/or shooting various ne’er-do-wells and exchanging flesh for machine parts, you can pursue your objectives in one of several (usually 3) ways: stealth, combat, or negotiation.
Importantly, confronting enemies directly usually leads to a quick trip to a game over, so successful play usually calls for a mix of approaches.The game encourages the player to observe their environment, looking for routes to circumvent enemies or to be better positioned to take them on. Like in Dishonored, this element of exploration draws a direct link between the space the player character inhabits, gameplay mechanics, and the player’s goals. Arranging the environment so, the game encourages the player to assess their surroundings in light of their survival and their objective. In searching for routes, the player inevitably has to adjust their expectations in accordance with the kind of environment they’re in: a grand entrance hall might have cover, but probably has fewer ventilation shafts than a medical facility.
Dishonored and Deus Ex are but two of many examples of games with other priorities that use exploration to great effect. InnerSpace looks to do what these games do best in this regard, but to wholly emphasize the discovery and mastery of a new world. Looking at exploration in games with other priorities, we can see how mechanics designed around gameplay challenges can facilitate exploration, both literal and figurative. In InnerSpace, we’re taking a similar approach, building our game around mechanics and traversal-based challenges that also reveal the logic and history of our unique setting.
Exploration is an element that has always fascinated me in games. It seems that recently, it’s kind of taken a genre of its own, and people have created games for the sole purpose of exploring. This idea was new to me, however, since I’m used to playing games in which exploration takes a back seat to RPG and sandbox mechanics. It’s not until I think back to the old days of my gaming that I remember it wasn’t always this way. I remember spending hours playing Spyro the Dragon for PlayStation, just trying to find secret spots on the map where the dragon eggs were hidden. Instead of turning to the newer age of games that I hold in such high esteem, such as Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind I now look back at the older games I used to play to get my ideas for exploration. Games such as Medieval, Earthworm Jim, Super Mario World, and Spyro the Dragon are each a part of my list for reference.
Exploration is all about creating an environment that rewards players for discovering. To me, this means you don’t force the player into scripted events, but instead let the discovery of something be powerful enough to feel as though it was. Naturally, this is harder to pull off, but is infinitely more rewarding. Personally, I believe games that pull this off are remembered by the people who play them. It’s the same reason I can’t get Shadow of the Colossus off my mind while writing about this. It’s the same reason Journey beckons me to play it again and again. There is always something more to learn about these games, and because the creator didn’t explicitly tell me the goal, I’ll always wonder if there was more that I might have missed.
InnerSpace is this type of game. It seeks to make the player ask questions, yet never gives away its answers. This same principle is why people romanticize exploration in real life. I mean, who wouldn’t want Indiana Jones’s job? People always want to know more. What happens when the people who have those answers have long since vanished? InnerSpace promises a world rich in culture and ancient history that seeps from its every pore. As a creator, I want your heart, your soul, and your mind to seek out all the answers you can find, yet still feel like there’s always something more. That’s my approach to designing this world and its history.
Eric B.: "Agency"
I’d like to tell you a story…
One of the most important moments in my relationship with games was in 2001. On what was otherwise a normal day, I went to my friend’s house after school, as per the usual routine. That day, we rushed home, as he had a new game for me to try. Not knowing what to expect, I picked up the slightly greasy PS2 controller and looked towards his wood-paneled tube TV. Here’s what I saw:
Grand Theft Auto III was a watershed moment in my life, and for the industry. After its release, “sandbox” and “open-world” became commonplace in the annals of magazines and websites. Essentially, it all meant that I could experience the world the way I wanted.
There’s a moment (4:57 in the video, to be exact) that the player reaches the first stoplight and the city is suddenly available. The bridge behind you is blocked, but ahead of you is a fork in the road. The minimap shows a colorful dot towards the left, indicating the proper direction, but whether or not the player decides to drive towards it is suddenly up to his or her discretion. It was this moment, at this intersection, that my entire perspective on games changed. I proceeded to spend the next months to year immersing myself in the digital Liberty City. It wasn’t until years later, well after Vice City and San Andreas were released, that I even unlocked the second island. I still don’t think I’ve finished the game. However, I’ve spent more time with GTA III than maybe any other game in my life. The streets of Liberty City are my hometown.
What does any of this have to do with exploration games? Because of the freedom GTA III offered, I was able to craft my own experiences. How long could I survive with only my rocket launcher and the infinite ammo cheat? How long could I keep the car running without ever releasing the brake? I could create my own leaderboards with friends, kept in spiral notebooks and written in gel pen ink. I could craft my own tales, role-play as an everyman going through his normal workday. Whatever I desired was possible within the 3D city that was tossed in my lap.
My Liberty City and my experience of GTA III is mine, and mine alone. This is the beauty of exploration to me, as it provides player agency by very nature of its existence. Should the unique experience mean that the player speed-runs through and moves on to the next game, or that he or she spends hours just walking, the game’s narrative is suddenly the player’s. And to me, that’s the essence the interactive media we call games.