Wow, another very long break from blogging. It’s been a productive month though, but mostly experimental. Most of the title’s mechanics are nailed down but when playing through the game the flow wasn’t feeling right. So I’ve been spending the past month working on the game’s storytelling approach.
The story for the game is about trying to overcome the tragedy of a life lived for the approval of others. You play a young professional on Wall Street during the 1980’s (Small hint in the title there), you wheel and deal the Wall Street game for a while until eventually…mortality presents itself. The player’s character is diagnosed with a fatal illness and has a short period to put their affairs in order.
I’ve been a gamer for my entire life and my professional life has been entirely within game development. Early on I was very interested in story and games, in particular I was interested in how gameplay itself could be used as the primary storytelling vehicle in a title. It’s always felt to me that the traditional way of telling story in games with text or cutscenes ends up with a disjointed experience. The player is focused on the gameplay but the story developments only tangentially impact it.
This was the reason I decided to pursue independent development, to see how the above issue could be resolved and to put my skills as a game developer to the test.
Once Upon a Time in the 80’s attempts to tell it’s story in gameplay as much as possible. If there are character developments they have to have a corresponding gameplay component. Using the above story outline, the player’s illness is felt in how it impacts the choices the player can make and strategies the player can use as the illness advances. As you ally with members of your Wall Street bank those relationships also impact how the player can strategize and the options available to them. As they are given time to get their affairs in order, how they are able to go about that is informed by how they’ve played the game previously. There isn’t win or lose, rather the game encourages and rewards a mindful player. Pay attention to the time that’s given to you because it’s all you’ve got. Which ties into the overall theme of the game’s story.
To test the above approach I decided to put together a demo version of the game. It would have the player traveling from New York to Tokyo for a business trip then traveling back to New York after the meeting. It walks the player through the various mechanics of the game and also through the game’s conflict sequence mechanics.
The steps for the demo are:
- New York Meeting
- Meet Contact in Tokyo (Alan Moab)
- Go out New Years Drinking with Nishitani Capital Salarymen (conflict Seq 1)
- Pass Out Drunk (Dream Sequence) (Conflict Seq 2)
- Wake Up Next Morning
- Meeting prep and research gameplay
- Nishitani Capital Meeting Gameplay (Conflict Seq 3)
- Head back to New York
So I put the above system in place to construct the demo of the game’s opening chapter and the experience was…
There was certain the germ of something deep down inside but it wasn’t resonating through the experience as clearly as it should. The gameplay felt too technical and abstract, the player’s motivation was lost in the minutiae of the game’s overarching narrative. Dialogue boxes just full of exposition leading to gameplay that was technically satisfying but felt disjointed.
So I started to dig and try to get to the bottom of these problems in the demo’s flow. I identified the following as needing the most focus:
- The player’s motivation isn’t properly grounded.
- The Transition from New York to Tokyo is too sudden.
- The introduction of the ‘Drinking’ minigame doesn’t mesh well with the previous gameplay. (It suddenly feels like we’re playing an entirely different game)
- The dream sequence gameplay that follows the drinking sequence feels too abstract.
I always wanted the player to be as blank a slate as possible so the player can more fully invest themselves into the player’s situation. But since this isn’t really a ‘lone hero’ kind of story that made having a ‘save the world’ kind of crisis not work. The solution I’ve found is to let the other characters in the game carry this part of the narrative.
In a way what I’m attempting is to take the player’s part of the story and share it across the characters you interact with. When the player is interacting with the various characters their goals fill the vacuum of the player’s goals. So the story doesn’t become a single character’s goal (Though that will emerge later) but rather the motivation is shared across the various characters you interact with.
Transition From New York to Tokyo
The original opening for game had you going from a meeting in NYC to another meeting in Tokyo. Overall the sequences played out too similarly, you were at one location talking to someone to get exposition then you transitioned to another location and talked to another person to get some more exposition. To help these two sequences breath a little I’ve added in a interstitial sequence where the player has to check into the hotel in Tokyo. It allows us to naturally introduce some simple mission objective mechanics and also allows us to foreshadow the player’s contact in Tokyo a bit more. I’ve also added a small navigation challenge to the location for the second meeting to help make the gameplay a little more interesting.
Drinking Mini Game Introduction
With the design approach of having gameplay and story feed off of each other can help to create some really wonderful moments but also means that the experience can really fall apart when the relationship is broken since the overall flow of the experience is suddenly disrupted.
This really became an issue when we transitioned to the ‘Drinking’ mini game. Mechanically we use the drinking minigame as a way of introducing a simplified version of the conflict mechanics seen later on in the game. However, the introduction of these mechanics feels very sudden in the original attempt.
To help remedy this I attempted an approach where the UI elements for the conflict gameplay are layered into the scene as a discussion about the rules of the drinking minigame is occurring. The sequence still isn’t working as seamlessly as I’d like but it’s starting to come together.
To help get the sequence transition where it needs to be I’ll be working on the previous dialogue in the demo to help foreshadow the underlying conflict present during the drinking sequence.
Dream Sequence Introduction Feels Too Abstract
After the drinking sequence the player stumbles off to bed and goes to sleep, we then transition into a dream sequence that uses a modified version of the conflict mechanics seen during the drinking sequence.
The dream is given the framing of a Japanese Tokusatsu (Superhero) TV show. With the player engaging in a kind of Ultraman esque fight sequence to defend Tokyo from an invading monster. Thematically the dreams are to represent struggling against the natural world but for the first one I want those themes to be as buried as possible (Though still present). The problem is though that we’re jumping through some pretty big thematic hurdles to establish everything and make this feel like a natural progression from what came before.
Originally I attempted to introduce this sequence with some text boxes that quite literally told you what was going on, but this just seemed to make things feel more confusing. Eventually I arrived at the approach of leaning more strongly into the core concept of this being a dream. So instead of having the text boxes telling you what’s going on, they actually just repeat dialogue from earlier in the demo that help to contextualize the dream and give it some grounding. I also have a short conversation during the drinking sequence where they discuss an old Japanese Tokusatsu TV series to help give it a bit more narrative foreshadowing.
The What’s Next
So, I’m still working through this stuff and while I’m making progress I don’t have the feel where it needs to be. I’m confident that it’ll get there though but finding a path that works is going to need some more elbow grease so to speak.
Coming up I want to further refine the introduction to the drinking gameplay and work on fleshing out the research gameplay sequence that comes after the player wakes up from the dream sequence. With that in place the title should be in pretty good shape.
Hope to be updating again soon with some very nice stuff on screen!