Editorial

Indie Highlight Reel – September 18, 2017

Scorn

Welcome back to the Indie Highlight Reel, readers. The column is a day late this time around, but still offering up a delightful array of fascinating games from the indie sector. On the menu today is a horror-adventure recently arriving on Kickstarter for the second time, an RPG-inspired game about talking to people, and an isometric RPG promising to be a revelation within the genre.

SCORN

Ebb Software’s Scorn first hit Kickstarter at the end of 2014, when the crowdfunding rush was, arguably, at its peak. Although the game had an intriguing aesthetic and concept, the campaign failed to take off and was cancelled by the developers before its intended end. However, the story did not end then, as the team gained external funding in January of 2015. After another two and a half years of work, the game is back for a second crowdfunding attempt that has been far more successful than the first thus far.

Despite the long period of relative silence, the core tenets of the game are unchanged. Scorn remains an atmospheric, HUD-free horror experience intended to arrive in two parts. After the initial failure, many creators might have returned to the concept stage to fundamentally retool aspects that may have contributed to the lack of interest, but the game’s lead developer Ljubomir Peklar believes otherwise: “When you are working on something for long period of time and give it your best, then that something has to have some value. It can’t be just a throwaway product.”

This sentiment explains his decision to refuse to produce a sequel, spin-off, or other expansion in any form beyond Scorn’s two episodes. “I really hate sequels,” he says, “especially to movies or games that worked  perfectly the first time and are good enough on their own… Sequels can’t destroy the original work but they are bothersome just for existing, like the small scratch on your car. The car works perfectly but you know the imperfection is there. You will notice that most good writers or directors never re-thread their older work, they are always working on something new. In gaming, I would say Fumito Ueda [Ico, The Last Guardian] has that approach and that is why his games are timeless for me.”

Clearly, Peklar intends for his project to be similarly “timeless,” and he and his team have drawn from some suitable sources. The curious blend of the mechanical and organic in the game world’s structures is reminiscent of the Dead Space and Alien franchises, and while Peklar downplays any direct artistic link to those titles, he admits that “the game is certainly inspired by Giger and Beksinski, but not because it’s a just a cool looking art, but because their art deals with similar themes as Scorn. So it’s a logical fit, but we most certainly try to make the visuals our own. If you are interested what those themes are, you will have to wait for the game to come out and discover them for yourself.”

With a focus on environmental storytelling, dynamic NPC behaviour, and rethinking some of the long-established rules of horror games, Scorn has currently raised more than €120,000 of its €150,000 goal with 21 days remaining of the Kickstarter campaign. Despite this positive reception, Peklar is keeping his expectations in check, saying that “It’s not successful yet. All I feel is a sense of relief, mostly because we can get back to doing what we like to do.”

Scorn Part 1 of 2: Dasein is targeting an October 2018 release, with the second part set to follow an unspecified amount of time later.

DIALOGUE: A WRITER’S STORY

Tea-Powered Games’s debut effort Dialogue: A Writer’s Story could hardly be more different from Scorn. Billed as a relaxing narrative game, players assume the role of a writer across the course of a year as she struggles to bring life to her latest novel, while engaging in almost endless conversations with a wide array of characters.

Although conversation is an integral aspect of human interaction, games rarely treat the topic with the depth and subtlety it deserves. Tea-Powered Games’s co-founders and co-directors Florencia Minuzzi and Dustin Connor saw this gap as a weakness of the medium and decided to turn their efforts to creating a game where dialogue is the central mechanic, rather than combat or platforming:

“Conversations are a part of everyday life – we talk with different people for different reasons, in person or digitally. There’s such a variety and so much nuance to conversations in real life, but when you look in games, there are limited ways to represent conversations,” they say. “There have been so many games [that] refine mechanics such as fighting or jumping that we’ve got a good idea of how to make them fun to play. We wanted to start that same process for conversations in games.”

However, rethinking entrenched ways of creating mechanics is no simple task, and the pair ultimately ended up creating three different mechanics to represent different forms of dialogue. Exploration and Active conversations are the main methods of interacting with the game, although Written conversations are also present.

Exploration conversations are untimed discussions that players traverse as if reading a map. Particular phrases are highlighted, which leads to different topics and threads, but following these does not block off any other options. Adding more to this mechanic is the presence of thoughts, which are questions the character has at the beginning of any conversation and should aim to be answered, and perspectives, which are broader themes that may be useful in more than one conversation. Meanwhile, Active dialogues take place in real-time and demand that players respond, with the possibility of learning more about other characters or unlocking more conversation options. Further interactivity stems from Focus and Impressions mechanics that can also guide the tone of discussions.

Minuzzi and Connor say that the implementation of these different styles was inspired by the pacing of RPGs, where combat is often a focus, but spaced out with exploration and town activities. “Our goals were to make each type of conversation reflect different paces and goals, such that you couldn’t replace one type of conversation with the other,” they say. “Once we knew what our conversation types were, each scene was built on the system most appropriate for it. The challenge for us was to make sure all conversation types were appealing to the audience – some people might prefer an active conversation, while others enjoy a more relaxed exploration, but this game includes both… We’re happy with where things ended up, although we have a lot of ideas about how to improve our systems. One of the conversation types, Emails, ended up playing less of a mechanical role than we originally planned, but it was a good pacing tool, so it remained in a smaller form.”

Dialogue: A Writer’s Story has already been available on Itch.io for quite some time, and will launch on Steam on Wednesday. As production drew to a close early this year, Tea-Powered Games began working on a follow-up, Elemental Flow, which promises to take more from RPGs to further shake up the use of dialogue in games. In addition, the team offers script-writing consultancy to other developers.

NO TRUCE WITH THE FURIES

Finally, the recent resurgence of isometric RPGs has already resulted in some fantastic games (Tyranny and Divinity: Original Sin II, for example), but No Truce With the Furies promises to be as different as it is great. Taking place in a “fantastic realist” setting called Elysium, the game is turning the traditional formula on its head through a focus on non-combat interactions, a quasi-contemporary world, and excruciating attention to detail.

The main character is a disgraced detective with a massive, open-ended investigation quest to complete, but players are free to shape the avatar. While raising particular statistics usually means improvement, No Truce With the Furies is doing things differently, as high stats can lead to personality flaws, with the developers citing the example of a high intelligence level making the character cocky. The team at ZA/UM is also implementing the ability to talk to the character’s thoughts directly and a host of other novel features that work against established ideas.

Nevertheless, the Writers Department at ZA/UM says that rewriting RPG tropes was never part of the plan. “Because of our literary ambition, it was the literary tropes we went after. Having played LOTS of RPGs ourselves, though, we know from experience that people are tired of clichés and beaten paths. We have approached the game with the intention of putting multidimensional characters in realistic situations so as to create an experience for the player that’s a little more like being out in the real world, and a little less like navigating through yet another fantasy RPG landscape.”

The concept of that setting emerged more than 15 years ago “when a group of imaginative teenage boys grew tired of worn AD&D clichés and decided to come up with a setting free of the tyranny of elves, dragons, dwarves and two-sided battleaxes,” the team says. “We started building a new one, a modern one, much like our world… where we can tell political, psychologically realistic stories that still have the grand alienness of another world to set them apart from boring realism. We called it Elysium, The Crown of the World  (or “Elyysium – Maailma Kroon” in Estonian). We were modest like that… While the setting is very modern and realistic, we think the grand, mythical title of Elysium (the ancient Greek afterlife of poets and heroes) juxtaposes well with it.”

That blend of the mundane and the fantastic also acts as a fine metaphor for the ambition of the project. According to the developers, “action sequences are an important part of No Truce With The Furies, like they are an important part of, say, a thriller. There are set piece moments where your stats come into play and you must make tactical decisions — if you fail it may cost other people their lives. This is all written out in detail and you live with the consequences.” However, physical combat is not the driving theme. “What we do not have is this action RPG reality where literally a hundred fights conclude in one conversation to move the story along... So we’ve invented this thing we call story combat — set piece combat moments are handled within the dialogue engine. There is no crowd control, but there are rolls, equipment, health. It’s just more natural for a detective story than murdering warehouses full of people for no reason whatsoever. These sparse, tight action sequences are some of our favourite things to write, so I wouldn’t say our version of combat is sidelined. It’s just done very differently.”

No Truce With the Furies does not currently have a target release date, though the game will be playable at EGX in Birmingham later this week.


Let us know if any of these fine games have piqued your interest! Otherwise, if you are an indie developer with an interesting project in the works, get in touch for your chance to be featured on the Indie Highlight Reel.

 

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