Monday, March 26, 2012
A Rose by any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet
I call Valor Seed a retro-clone, which is basically true, but really it is more of a retro-fit. Using the same inspiration that led to the development of video game RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons, I intend to pull of some kind of Thor Heyerdahl job (only with much less to actually prove with an undeniably lower risk of drowning).
The above screenshots are the two most common types of menu structures used by console RPGs. Comparisons to a D&D character sheet are easy to make. Both of these menu structures are great. Hell, they led to "menu-based/driven RPG" becoming a term. What these have greatly in common is that they are primarily a representation of a player with a character sheet more than an abstraction of the game's character having the experience of contemplating their own badassitude, counting their coins, or reveling at how many potions they are carrying around--such, the latter, is what I want to have.
These above screens are taken from a great Famicom RPG titled STED: Starfield of Memorable Relics (I think I am the only person ever to finish it). On one we have our character sprite walking around town like every day is Dragon Quest. However, on the other, we see what happens when we hit 'B' to interact with an NPC townie. We have a first-person perspective of the townie, as well as your menu options. Phantasy Star, and a few other games, have also done this.
What I like about this, is that an "encounter" with an NPC is like an encounter with an enemy, only with less swearing and shooting. In D&D, encounters are more than just fighting a monster, they are opening treasure chests (Phantasy Star), talking with NPCs, opening a trapped door, and so on. Many early PC RPG's actually did incorporate all of these into the same game play mode. It is fair to say that Valor Seed may be a marriage of Eastern and Western video game RPGs.
What we have with the above are two more ways of making menus, apparently in ways QUINTET thought were cool. I am not disagreeing with them (nor would I ever, they rule). First, from Illusion of Gaia, we have an inventory menu that looks like the Temple of Doom. This screen is really a case of someone just wanting to make the screen pretty--it shares the same degree of abstraction as any normal inventory screen, only its cooler to look at.
The former two screens are from Terranigma, a pretty cool game where you get to fight a giant robot with a spear. In this game, you carry around a hand-held TARDIS that, when opened, transports you into a sub-dimensional space where you store all of your crap. Basically, this is just like any other menu from any other RPG, but the abstraction has been changed so that the character being played literally experiences the interaction. Great stuff? Yes, indeed. Ironically, in most RPGs your inventory has very few limitations, quite like a pocket dimension, where you can usually store up to 99 each of hundreds of items. In Terrangima, you literally have a pocket dimension, but can only stockpile up to nine, of each of the dozen-or-so item-types.
These guys, here, are just so simple but excellent that only the magical geniuses over at Gamefreak could have made them. What we have is a graphical representation of where your inventory is located, with a menu listing each compartment's contents. You press left or right to alternate between compartments, which show a different array of item type. Genius. Really, it freaking is. This method unites the player and the character in a similar way like with STED and Phantasy Star, but with inventory manipulation. I really like this.
Front Mission 5 could be the best game ever made. It is a work of art, sent along with a love-letter, to fans of the series. I'll sum up its excellence simply: each Front Mission title released before five had individual mechanics that made them different from each other. Front Mission 5 took the best of each of these mechanics, and made from them a concordance I call, "a damn good video game."
Now, as to the above screen capture, you are looking at the game's menu. Really, you are. You are part of a military unit, between deployments, and stationed on a ship at sea that is part of a battle-fleet. At first glance, this may seem more like a site-based town map. I assure you, that while it does function like a town, it is also a hell of a cool menu.
Each area you may visit is occupied by characters, many of which you can recruit into your squad. However, other areas function as elaborately abstract inventory, character status, and save/load screens. Go to the Hanger to check out your stuff and your Wanzers, or go to your Squad Room to check out the stats of your party members, and to assign them equipment (Wanzers).
Front Mission 5 was certainly not the first game to abstract menus in this way. The above screen is from a Super Famicom game called Cyber Knight. In this game, each compartment of your ship serves as a different function of a normal menu. Most interesting, is that when you Save your game, you are told that each character in your party has had their bio-data stored in a clone bank. When a character dies, you just go and clone them. When your whole party dies, they are all cloned and any experience you gained while in your former bodies is lost (as you were not actually there). The battle system is fun, but middling at times, but that's not important right now.
Similar menu abstractions could easily find their way into sword and sorcery RPGs by being represented as a camp-site, such as with the above. In the case of Dragon Quest VIII, no one is camping, but the state of all of the characters standing around, ready for raillery, is not all altogether different.
The merits of having an interesting menu are quickly lost when the entire purpose of the menu loses priority over its presentation. All game menus should be easy to navigate, point most quickly to mechanics in common-use, and require the use of as few different buttons as possible. In the case of the above Ogre Battle 64, all effort was given over to functionality. Because of the game's complex method of managing characters and resources, very little consideration seems to have been given to artful presentation.
Something else I want to accomplish with Valor Seed is to avoid screens like the above. Almost none of the above information is necessary for the player to see. HP and MP are displayed with the command selection window, and attack, defense, and magic defense with Equip. Furthermore, if you do not know the battle algorithms Final Fantasy IV uses (I actually do) you could not begin to guess what any of the shown attributes actually even do. But what is most damning, is that the Status screen does not help you at all--it does not aid the player in making game-play related decisions in any way. The game features a linear sequence of equipment, and each character (for the most part) is limited to one or two particular types. The only information on this screen that is actually useful, is the experience point totals.
It is not necessary, at all, to show the player character attributes if they are neither necessary to play the game, or well-explained. There are layers of complexity that are just not always needed.
Say there are ten Job Classes in an RPG. Each Job Class has particular equipment restrictions, and grants bonuses to those attributes it best represents. This means that a Job Class is really the sum of attributes plus equipment. Logically, if part of a Job Class' prescription relies on what equipment cannot be used, use of the prescribed equipment makes the Job Class. Can only a Knight wear full-plate armor, or does wearing full-plate armor make you a Knight (video game, rpg knight, not historically accurate knight)?
Strength, in most video-game RPGs, in no way reflects how strong characters are. It reflects how much damage they can deal to an enemy. How does naming attributes Vigor, Vitality, Speed, Agility, Quintessence, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma, Guts, Gusto, Shininess, etc. usually help the player? None of them are descriptions of what they actually do in the game. I am not suggesting that RPGs stop using these, I am suggesting that they do not have to be shown to the players.
I'll explain where I'm going with this. Most RPG's give you an Empty Cup they call a Job Class, tell you what not to put in it, and then define it by what you can. This is, of course, assuming that the game gives you a choice of Empty Cups at all. Why not just hand out an Empty Cup, put whatever you want into it, take a drink, and find out what its contents taste like?
What I have done with Valor Seed is to show the player attributes named after typical RPG Job Classes, which rise and fall in value according to equipment. I have the following attributes I used in making the game's battle algorithms: weapon damage, weapon damage reduction, spell damage, spell damage reduction, and speed (turn order delay offset, and number of hits per attack). I do not show these to the player, rather, I made four attributes: Fighter, Knight, Mage, and Thief. What matters most about all of this, is what each character's role in battle will be. Damage-dealer, healer, blow-crap-upper, etc. I tell the player, however evident, in-game what each of these four is good for. Each of these attributes is in actuality a prioritized array of the hidden attributes, which are raised or lowered, primarily, by what equipment the player chooses for each character to use. This, coupled with my game's emphasis on Item Creation, makes for some pretty-damn customizable party members.
I will not go into specifics right now, but for those of you thinking, "Job Classes are as much about individual special abilities as attributes and equipment," here is this. You are absolutely right, and I have not left this out. To put it simply, the higher your Thief attribute is, the better you Steal.
Okay, I'm done for now.