Development Log #2: Gameplay

This is the second part of a three-part series discussing the state of the game at present. You can read the first part about the artistic decisions here, and the third part about the narrative and themes here.

What’s going on with the gameplay?

First off, let’s take a look at the official description which I’ve been using for the Steam Store page (ignore the outdated title):

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I wrote this initially without much consideration for the ulterior interpretations a good number of people would read into it; namely, the confusion about what exactly a ‘role-playing game’ constitutes, and how much exactly the ‘life simulation and visual novel elements’ would play into the final overall game. In this post, I’ll proceed to clarify both of these, as well as talk at some length about what the other half of the gameplay, which consists of the top-down shooter sections, will play like, along with some video demonstrations of what to expect.

What do you mean by ‘role-playing game’?

The way I’m defining and using the term ‘role-playing game’ is any game where the focus of the title is to experience, and play a significant part in the life of a very specific person in a very specific setting in a very specific timeframe. This is, I realise, a very ambiguous definition – couldn’t this apply to virtually any game? you may be asking. And yes, you’re partially right – taken at surface value, it most definitely could.

But here’s where we must consider the nuances of the definition.

I want to emphasise a focus on the notion of ‘experiencing, and playing a significant part in a life’. What distinguishes a role-playing game from any other kind of fictive game in my definition is how inextricably linked the player’s actions are to the fictions they are experiencing. In a role-playing game, the player directly plays a part in determining the way the characters they inhabit, and observe live their fictional lives. This can either be a pre-determined character, or a character of their creation; the distinction does not matter. What does matter is the degree of choice presented, and the game’s emphasis on that choice.

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, for example, is not a role-playing game because although you may be deeply immersed in the role you are playing, you as the player have little active control over the role you inhabit, and the role itself is most certainly recognised as little more than a plot device entangled deeply within the machinations of a larger scheme.

Dark Souls is also not a role-playing game by my definition. The focus in Dark Souls is not on the way the player character lives a life, but on combat. Dark Souls’ primary objectives as an ARPG (here, operating by a more traditional definition) mean that the focus of the game’s core lies within the player’s ability to grasp its intricate combat system, and using that system, navigate a treacherous world that will continuously test the limits of the player’s mastery of this system. Consequently, the focus of Dark Souls is rooted in mastering a mechanical system, meaning it is not at its core a role-playing game.

Grand Theft Auto V is a role-playing game. Whether we discuss the online or single-player aspects, GTA V is a game where the player’s control and autonomy are fundamentally and inextricably linked with the daily activities of its protagonists. Although the game lacks the more traditional behavioural tracking or progression that is expected in most role-playing games, the core of the gameplay loop offers a great deal of variation in terms of its focus: it’s entirely possible to ignore combat altogether and spend the entirety of one’s time tuning and racing cars or playing tennis. While the variance alone does not automatically necessitate its status as a role-playing game, it’s clear that GTA V aims at its fundamental core to reproduce the experience of living as a particular character in every aspect possible, which by definition is a role-playing game.

By this definition, A Story of Love and Forgetting is fundamentally, more than anything else, a role-playing game.

What are life simulation elements?

Life simulation elements refer to gameplay mechanics which involve the reproduction, or simulation of mundane, daily exercises involved in the living of one’s life. This could range in anything from buying groceries to taking showers to going to work. For me, operating under my definition, life simulation elements and role-playing games are fundamentally and inextricably linked together by nature of what each suggests.

Persona 5, and the Persona series in general, are excellent examples of role-playing games with life simulation elements. Although they feature extensive dungeon-crawling segments, at their heart, they are all role-playing games first and foremost. Here is a quote from an excellent review by The Guardian regarding what exactly ‘life simulation’ entails:

That’s because Persona 5 delivers a holistic simulation of urban, teenage life. Each day is divided into segments – morning, lunchtime, afternoon and so on – and follows the calendar, week by week, through the school year. While you must attend classes, during which your teachers will often hurl general knowledge questions your way, and periodically take exams, you control the remainder of your time. This can be spent working on the current case (you only follow one major incident at a time), deepening friendships or engaging in any number of extra-curricular activities around the city which slowly upgrade a relevant attribute. An evening spent in the baths, for example, will increase your character’s charm, while an afternoon spent studying in a ramen restaurant will increase your knowledge.

You can make friends with a down-on-his-luck politician who stands on a soapbox outside Shibuya station each evening, or you can spend time with a local doctor who is being investigated by the police for malpractice. You can take a paying part-time job at the local 7-11, or florist, or burger joint. You can learn to become a barista, hit the batting cages, spend your money on second hand TVs in the pawn shop, or on gifts to woo the girl you fancy. Persona 5’s diversions are as labyrinthine as the city in which they’re hidden, and each one contributes to the greater quest either by increasing your proficiency in combat, in conversation, or by deepening the links (and systemic benefits) with the people around you.

A Story of Love and Forgetting aims to reproduce similar experiences, albeit obviously in a much different setting with a much different kind of protagonist. The player has approximately a year to engage with the world, with each day being more or less free save for a handful of predetermined dates on which certain events occur. During this time, the player is free to do anything from spending time with people to playing video games to going fishing to engaging in VR combat exercises to eating out at a diner, as well as many more activities.

All of these have an effect on the player’s physical health, and psychological health. These are the two most important statistics tracked by the game, and stand side by side in direct relationship to one another. Both are essential to maintain at respectable levels or else the player’s performance in combat and non-combat segments alike will be directly affected: should the player’s physical health drop too low, for example, John, the player character, will get sick and be unable to do anything for several days. The player’s psychological health affects the ability to acquire and use personas, which I’ll talk about further below.

Is this game a visual novel?

No, A Story of Love and Forgetting is not a visual novel. However, it features visual novel elements. What this means is that it will rely on VN-esque techniques for storytelling, particularly in terms of presentation. What this generally refers to is the usage of static, anime-style character portraits accompanied by moving text and, occasionally, audio in order to effectively relay a story. This is a very broad definition, and the only definition I will be operating under.

I have chosen to present the game’s story like this because I believe that it is it the most effective means of presentation within my current limitations – both financial and in terms of my abilities – and it is supremely effective at what it does if implemented correctly. It is capable of delivering very high-impact sequences which convey a great deal of emotionality, without sacrificing much form or function; and is effective at conveying a great range of expressions and information in a clear manner. I have come to this conclusion after playing a large number of visual novels myself, both in order to gain a better understanding of the medium and for my own personal leisure.

Some people have expressed concern that I may give in to ‘visual novel tropes’, or more specifically tropes typically associated with romantic dating simulation VNs. Why this is of concern is beyond me; nowhere have I even remotely mentioned that the game was going anywhere in this direction in the slightest, nor did I even intimate at the possibility that there were going to be romantic elements in the game’s narrative at all (although there will be, they do not constitute the major focus of the game’s plot – I will discuss this more in the third entry, which concerns the narratives and themes). Like I’ve stated before, the game only features VN elements as a means of telling its story; any other expectations about what VNs are or about should be abandoned for one’s own sake.

So what about the action segments?

The action segments are designed to be high-impact, free-form interpretations of the Hotline Miami formula. My goal with the action segments is to create open spaces where the player is able to, utilising the mechanics offered by the game, engage in a relatively free and open-ended manner, with a variety of different approaches being acceptable for achieving the outcome.

This is achieved through two major design choices: constant availability of weapons, and personas.

Isn’t the challenge of Hotline Miami managing weapon usage?

Yes, but so it goes, this isn’t Hotline Miami, and my priorities with gameplay are radically different. Rather than forcing the player to constantly keep an eye on their weapons, I wanted to shift the focus to the overall flow of the combat itself, which I felt was much more interesting and important. Basically, at any given moment, the player will have ready access to a vast amount of firepower within arm’s distance – whether that be a firearm or a melee weapon, the point is that I want the player to constantly feel lethal and in control.

One of the most major changes is that I’ve implemented unlimited reloads to firearms in order to further bolster this sense of continued lethality. While this may seem counterintuitive to maintaining difficulty, what it actually does is force the player to consider the flow of combat much more intimately without the fear that they’ll ever be stripped of the power and have to look for a new source; during the reload, the player is temporarily disabled altogether in terms of offensive abilities, which forces them to choose between the risk of remaining vulnerable in that interim to replenish their firepower, or tossing away their weapon for another one, which potentially sacrifices the firepower they would’ve gained.

What are personas?

Personas are A Story of Love and Forgetting‘s interpretation of the mask system from Hotline Miami, and they serve somewhat similar functions. Canonically, they’re inherited from the similarly-named Persona series, where they represent psychic fragments of the collective human unconscious. In A Story of Love and Forgetting, they represent roughly the same thing, except rather than serving as fragments of a collective unconscious, they serve specifically as the remnants of individual people who are found and functionally absorbed into the personality of the player character, John. I’ll discuss the details of this more in terms of the meaning behind it in my next entry, which will discuss the story and themes.

The player unlocks personas by first finding an artefact left behind by the person who owns the persona. These artefacts are referred to in-game as mementos, and can take the form of anything from old photographs to former possessions to even fragments of conversation overheard from others about them. After they are found, these mementos are brought to a certain location where a certain individual will be able to ‘process’ them, and awaken the personas from the mementos. The ability to awaken personas is tied to John’s understanding of the world around him; this is based on the strength of his connections to others.

What are connections, and how do you develop them?

A great question, and one which I wish I knew the answer to!

In all seriousness, connections are the various social relationships John forges with others in the world. They are initiated by various encounters he has with certain individuals, and are strengthened by pursuing those bonds further past their initial encounters, and spending time with people. Each social link revolves around John helping someone come to terms with some personal struggle they’re facing, and which consequently results in him gaining a greater understanding of the world around him, and himself. By fostering these bonds, his understanding strengthens, and so too does he gain the ability to awaken new personas, which represent facets of him that he of which he was formerly unaware.

So what exactly do personas do?

Personas take on a number of different forms, and confer upon the player additional abilities ranging from new weapon potentials such as unarmed playstyles or playstyles locked to certain weapon loadouts, to new features, such as the ability to control UAV drones or create shields which block gunfire, to new abilities, such as teleportation or making enemies explode into money, which can be picked up and used.

So what does the combat look like?

The following two videos demonstrate two implementations of the teleportation ability used in two very different ways in two different levels. See for yourself.

Conclusion

And that’s all for gameplay. Tomorrow, I’ll be writing and releasing the third part of this series, which will cover the narrative and themes. You can read the first part about changes to the artistic decisions here. In the mean time, thank you for reading. Have a nice day.

 

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