Cutscenes! – Update #8

Cutscenes have been a part of video games ever since they started having stories incorporated into them. Over the years their quality, fidelity and complexity has increased dramatically. Probably achieving it’s height during the golden age of FMV games in the 90s, when often gameplay was just a means to get you from a cutscene to a cutscene.

Although games are a fundamentally interactive medium and should follow the “play to don’t show” rule, cutscenes, even now, have a lot of utility. They are a great way to build up set pieces, or show the player consequences of their actions, or emphasise a payoff to player’s efforts.

They are also an interesting technical challenge. After all, one is trying to create a system in which the game does what usually would be done by the player, or do things that normally would not be possible in the game in the first place. That’s one of the reasons why so much has been written about Matinee in Unreal Engine and one of the first community questions regarding the Aurora Toolset (powering Neverwinter Nights) was: “How do we create cutscenes?”.

In essence: they are important in modern games.

They also will be important in Elemental Enigma. And although it’s a game that emphasises player choice first and foremost, certain non-interactive elements will be necessary to move the plot along, add some punch to narrative points and make the game world feel a bit more alive.

For this update it mostly means that the system for creating and running cutscenes has been polished up and tested, and a number of short ones are being created for the upcoming demo.

The way this system works is fairly unorthodox, as unlike most, cutscenes are not represented as a timeline, but a graph. That might make it more difficult to time-align events, but on the other hand it makes it easier to chain events that don’t have a certain duration (like ordering a character to walk to a location, when moving obstacles are involved).

So far the results are quite good, even quite complicated scenes are easy to create and test. More work is needed to determine what is the best way to integrate them into the actual game, but that is also being done.

Quests – Update #7

Quests tie all parts of an RPG together. They provide the motivation to keep playing as well as track the player’s progress through the game. Because they are so central, they can get quite complex.

This week more work has been done on the main quest for the demo. That means both creating the actual content, as well as making improvements to the system that manages it.

Quests in Elemental Enigma from the very beginning were represented as hierarchical graphs, a fairly natural way for branching narratives. The idea is to make as easy as possible to create a free form way for the player to progress, while still maintaining some structure.

Each quest is made up of multiple phases, which are moments in the game where the player needs to perform something. They can be very simple, as in – go get that item, or extremely complex having their own internal set of conditions and steps.

Complex quest phases can be made clearer by having sub-quests – smaller quests, that are to help the player go through an individual phase. The can be tracked in the game separately. And, at least in theory, sub-quests can have their own sub-quests, if needed. Making it a multilayered hierarchy.

As mentioned in the previous quest update, there are multiple ways to create Narrative Systems and processes with which to create Quests. It’s usually best to tailor the system to a kind of game one is trying to make. Linear jRPGs will have different needs to Open-World Immersive RPGs.

Elemental Enigma is using the briefly described here hierarchical graph approach, which was designed to facilitate building of a narrative filled with player choices. So far, while working on the current demo, the results are promising.

Talking to corpses – Update #6

There aren’t many RPGs that take place in fully realistic worlds. There is always some element of supernatural, fantasy or sci-fi involved. After all one of the goal of such games is to explore fantasies and provide player with experiences otherwise unobtainable.

And this can lead to interesting situations.

Some of the most memorable moments in, not only RPGs but video games in general, are interactions with odd or interesting characters. Red XIII In Final Fantasy VII, Knights of the Round table in Fallout 2, industrial machines thinking they are people in Soma and many more.

Hopefully Elemental Enigma will have its own share of interactions which will stay in players memories. Especially that many situations will be taken out Terry Prachett’s toolkit of putting real people in fantastic settings.

The currently developed demo of the game will have small glimpse of that as well. Although the location will not have that many NPCs, one might prove quite talkative. If the player will have the right skills to talk to them.

Quests – Update #5

An element that can be found in all RPGs are quests.

Quests are the place in the game where story and mechanics meet. They are a great way to add meaning to mechanics, as well as provide base for interaction for the game’s narrative. There are multiple ways to approach quest design. On one end you have strictly linear storylines (often found in jRPGs), on the other you have non-linear scattered collections of stories (mostly found in open-world RPGs like Fallout: New Vegas).

Elemental Enigma aims to exists somewhere in between these extremes. There will be one story, with multiple branches. Each quest is designed to provide multiple approaches to solving it, as well as emphasising player build choices, so that depending how the player develops their avatar, each quest might play slightly (or significantly) differently.

While quests have been in computer role playing games since their inception, the idea of a quest log has taken time to appear. Quest HUD trackers are an even later development. Although Elemental Enigma is to be an old-school game at heart, it is being built with all the modern developments in mind. There will be many mysteries to be solved, but “what was I supposed to be doing” will not be one of them.

There is much more to say about quest design in Elemental Enigma. Future updates will feature more in-depth information.

Branching Conversations – Update #4

Branching conversations are the staple of cRPGs. They reinforce the feeling that the player has meaningful choice in the game, as well as that they are indeed role-playing a character.

In Elemental Enigma you will talk to NPCs, as well as inspect objects and solve puzzles using a branching conversation system. Often the skills and the abilities of the player character, as well as the whole party, will be tested to unlock special conversation options. Choices in-game, as well the order in which the player chooses to pursue quests, will have an impact on them as well.

The idea is that the full game cannot be experienced in a single play-through, that how the player chooses to develop their character, how they choose to interact with the game world, will put them on their own path. Some differences will be minor, some may end up being major, but the end goal is to give the player choices, and have these choices matter.

Of course, building a game with many branches and options can get complicated. It’s important to track and react to what the player has done and how. Data required to make it work can blow up in size very, very quickly. Thankfully that is not a new problem and many games, have managed to deal with it. Knowledge and processes developed by others are being employed while making Elemental Enigma so that the best possible, most immersive experience can be provided to the player.

In the currently developed demo, there are already a number of branching interactions. Here’s an example of the data structure used to define one of them: