Mystery Teens is now a Tabletop RPG

Confession time. I’ve realised I don’t actually like games: only equipment lists, character sheets and maps. I’m forced to endure games to indulge these sick fetishes. To that end,  I’m making a Tabletop RPG about teenagers solving mysteries.

It’s late, and weird stuff is happening. You and a bunch of your friends sneak out of your cosy, normal homes and go down into the centre of this weird stuff. You flee from it, learn it’s secrets, and eventually defeat it by gaining full understanding of it. Then you drag it into the light, dripping and screaming, and go back home for tea and buns.

A bit like Call of Cthulhu for kids, I suppose. The basic rules and setting are well fleshed out by now; I’m planning to expand it, playtest it enough to polish it up, then release it on the internet (For free; I can’t imagine any way to make money off it). Along with the main rules, I’ll package a campaign setting made out of the map in the post below. Discover the horrifying secrets of Burger Head, Caper Cove, and 4 other whacked-out mystery locations in between cutting class and tripping groovy!

I can’t put a release date on it, but I’ll be releasing status reports and pretty pictures as I go. I’m excited. It feels like the game is afoot.

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Mystery Teens

I can neither confirm nor deny the possibility that this map has been drawn for a game. This hypothetical game may or may not ever be completed and released.

Reports that the following individuals have been seen roaming this map as a unified “Teen Team” are no doubt exaggerated. Nevertheless, we advise you to take all possible precautions and notify your local authorities if you witness any mystery-solving in your area.

That is all.

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What Thief does right

Fichier:Thief logo.JPEG

Subverting the architecture. 

I’ll say it again: Subverting the architecture, motherfuckers. It’s the best thing you can do in games, and Thief is the best at it.

Here’s what I’m talking about. Missions in Thief usually start near the front entrance of some mansion or fortress. There’s generally a straightforward route to your objective: Through the front gate, down the hallway, up the stairs and into the throne room. Just a short jog for any normal citizen.

Unfortunately, you’re a thief. This means that the main thoroughfares and access routes that the building has been designed to support are actually dangerous. The main hallways are brightly lit, full of people, and usually paved with clangingly loud marble floors. To get to your objective without being caught, you have to deliberately flip off the architect at every opportunity.

So: front doors are out, back doors are in. You scan the outer walls with a practised eye, looking for structural weaknesses. Cellar doors are good, open windows are better, but the best possible scenario is getting onto the roof. Up there amongst the rafters, the guards crawl under you like ants. It’s beautiful.

Thief II: The Metal Age, Shipping and Receiving, by Corinthian.Another Thief 2 map, this time the second level “Shipping & Receiving”. I used to play the Thief games A LOT and I think I can remember almost every detail of many of the levels. (At least, the ones which had layouts that made a bit of sense. Not Constantine’s Manor because that was deranged.) The game did give you an in-game map, but it was a crummy static hand-drawn image which often had inaccuracies or just big gaps with questions marks in them.

Every level in the Thief games throws up a new type of architecture to fuck over. One particular example in the second game takes place in a multi-floored tower built around an elevator. The elevator’s stupidly loud and deposits you right in the middle of guard-posts, so the entire level revolves around figuring out ways to get to the other floors without it: crawling up vents, jumping down from balcony to balcony, and at one point even jumping off the elevator as it descends to cling onto a roof rafter and watch it crawl down without you, confusing the hapless guards below.

This is absolutely my favourite type of level design, and hardly anything does it. Deus Ex took the concept further by making two separate games out of it: The action style has you go with the flow of the architecture, with the stealth style has you subvert it. Apart from that, I can’t think of anything – it feels like years since a game has even let me go up on a roof. Games! For the love of god, give me more roofs to climb on! Assassins Creed doesn’t count; if you can’t go inside the building, then a roof is nothing more than a glorified platform. I’m starving here, roofless and grounded in a maze of corridors. 

At this point, all any of us can do is look to Thief 4 and pray.

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What Yume Nikki does right

A good game has clarity. It may involve subtleties that only advanced players will grasp with time, but it should always be instantly obvious where you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it.

Yume Nikki just burst out laughing. For those that haven’t heard of it, that’s a surreal RPG maker game where you navigate a convoluted megalabyrinth of interlinked dream-worlds. It pulls every trick in the book to keep it’s inner workings arcane and unknowable. You might get into an area by talking to an NPC, or walking past a certain place three times before turning back, or interacting with some flowers an odd number of times. Some doors only appear randomly. One of the more famous monsters has a one in sixty-four chance of being summoned when you turn out a light.

Here’s the hypothesis Yume Nikki’s working with: The moment you fully understand a game is the moment it loses the magic. You should never be able to get your head around an ideal game. Nevertheless, you should explore it, and make discoveries. By experimenting with these discoveries, you can use them to make more discoveries – never finding everything, but slowly building small islands of knowledge. Ideally, you and your friends talk about what you’ve figured out.  

“But how did you get past the bloat ghosts?”

“Oh, you need the Exorcism Prism. You get it by sacrificing your third soul container to the demon in the boiler room.”

“OOOOOoh!”

Every game felt magical and infinite like this when you were a kid, but almost nothing manages to pull off the same effect for adults. You’re too clever, games are too linear, and the internet knows too much. The modern adult gamer is a tough nut to crack; confusing one enough to give them that old feeling of mystery and discovery requires a game that’s as absurd and labyrinthine as Yume Nikki.

The other important way Yume Nikki taps into your kid zone is by relying entirely on interpretation. There’s no dialogue, nothing is named, and the abstract pixel art could represent anything. You’d think relying on the player to give so much would make the game feel cold and impenetrable, but Yume Nikki’s fanbase has responded to the tough love with a massive outpouring of incredible fan art. One-off sprites are given names, personalities, custom mugs and home-baked cookies. It’s an incredible reaction for an indie RPG maker game, and Yume Nikki earns it by cutting straight through to your subconscious. Because it never explains where you are, what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, Yume Nikki is played in your imagination as much as anything else.

There’s a caveat I should mention here: The easy availability of wikis and walkthroughs means that no game can stay an undiscovered country for long. Just type “Yume Nikki Wiki” into google and the whole game lays bare and dissected in front of you, taken apart and catalogued with surgical precision by people who’ve opened up the game files in RPG maker. In the old days, the most accessible source of information was other people who’d played the game. Pooling your fragmented knowledge made the game seem even more mysterious. Now, the closest source of information tells you absolutely everything about the game.

It’s a hard problem, but it’s possible to work around it. Dark Souls gave it a go; you can make messages out of pre-selected words and place them in the world for other players to find, using the games online mode. Because you can only use a limited set of words, the messages end up giving clues instead of revealing everything at once. Not only that, but putting this resource in the game itself makes it easier to access the knowledge of other players over an all-knowing wiki again, just like the old days.

Look at the time! I’d better wrap this up with a moral. Talk less, have secrets and hidden bits in your game, and make sure there’s always some inner workings that remain bizarre and unknown. Do this, and your game will seem magical, strange, and infinite in every direction.

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Everything Is Jake!

You heard the man!

I’m finally posting the game I promised I would at the start of the holidays. All coiled up with nowhere to slam on this beautiful Friday evening? Well step away from the stun gravy and hold off on your hop juice, because Everything Is Jake will let you Jim your Johns for that special Joe or Jane without spending a single dime of your Jack!

Just click this beeeautiful link right here to download the thing, then extract the files and open “EverythingIsJake.exe”. It’s that simple.

But look at me still here beating my gums like a psychopathic dentist, and you don’t even know what the game looks like!

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MEGADUNGEON

Dark Souls, excerpts, by JackShandy.A good old-fashioned megadungeon, drawn from memory of the hours I spent playing it over at a friends house. I definitely missed out a whole bunch of areas here. The biggest bit is the trip down through blight town, because what I remember most is making the horrifying descent down through to Ash Lake, then realizing that I had to go back up again. Then you get there and the bastards steal your save point!Bonus: A squashed bug that got scanned in with the picture. 

A hand-drawn map of Dark Souls from memory. Thought I’d post this here after I submitted it to Mapstalgia. I tell ya, it does the heart good to play a game with a map like this. I’m considering just straight it off and making it into a DnD campaign.

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What Dark Souls does right

It seems like modern game design has an unwritten rule: Don’t make the player worry about anything unimportant. If the jumping puzzles aren’t important, there’ll be invisible walls around every chasm. Normal enemies usually aren’t a challenge, so that you only have to seriously consider the big, important threats. A large amount of clever game-design wizardry goes into making sure that the player never has to devote a single neuron of brainpower to stairs, teleports or elevators.

Dark Souls, in contrast, has giant gaping pits for elevator shafts. Run in when the elevator isn’t there and you’ll fall to your death. This is because Dark Souls has decided that everything is important.

It’s unintuitive game design at first. Why is it so easy to die to things I never saw coming? Why would you put a shopkeeper right next to a deadly chasm? Why did I just lose all my progress to a freaking elevator shaft? It feels like the designers are just fucking with you for kicks.

What it does, though, is make you pay attention. Even the lowliest enemies take off half your health when they hit, so you can never complacently whittle through them with half your mind on something else. Every corner could lead to a chasm that would kill you instantly; every bit of floor could be a pressure plate activating a deadly trap. Beyond that, the game even has fake walls that dissolve when you hit them to reveal incredible treasures – so now you’re even paying close attention to the wall textures.

It’s a principle that comes straight from Dungeons and Dragons. The whole point of having a living human being act as the computer is that everything can matter. Your socks, a monster’s tongue, some graffiti on the dungeon wall; anything in D&D can and will become absolutely crucial to your success at any given moment.

This leads naturally to the army of ridiculous trick-monsters and traps D&D spawned. Monsters that pretend to be the floor. Monsters that pretend to be the wall. Treasure-chest mimicking monsters that eat you (That old classic made it into Dark Souls). At first it seems like these are just the DM’s way of fucking with you, but what it does – along with hidden treasure- is enforce the “Everything Matters” mentality. When any wall could eat you and any rug could have gems underneath, nothing is flavour text; you can’t take anything for granted.

Compare this philosophy to something like Modern Warfare. Any genre-savvy player knows that all the noise and fury around them is irrelevant: the bombs will always land to the side of you, the tankers will always just miss you, you will always make the jump just in time. The only part of the game that feels real is the enemies you have to shoot. All else is smoke and mirrors that you’ll totally ignore, focusing only on the big yellow “Follow” arrow. Modern Warfare desperately to get you to care about things that don’t affect your success. It fails.

When you enter a new area in Dark Souls you edge forward cautiously. Shield up; sword ready; prepared to die. Every bush and rock looks like it could be concealing hidden treasure or the infinite armies of hell. You shuffle forward; you examine everything; you make a decision. In that moment you are totally, irretrievably engaged. It is, in a word, magnificent.

 

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What Sword & Sworcery does right

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is a beautiful, meditative game that can’t shut up about how beautiful and meditative it is. What it does right, though, is economy.

In the first episode you go down into the depths of a forgotten temple to steal a mystic treasure. On your way there, you fight one (1) wolf-monster. When you steal the treasure, you fight one (1) temple guardian. That’s all.

New orders, Games: Give me less shit to fight. My brain has a very limited ability to care about the things in your game. Throwing a million skeleton warriors at me when I exit the temple is guaranteed to stop me from caring about a single one. If I don’t care about something, why have you gone to the trouble of putting it in your game?

This applies across everything. Give me less traps, less NPC’s, less puzzles. The more shit you give me, the less I can care about any of it. The more shit you make, the less good you can make any individual element. Put as little into your game as possible, and make me care deeply about each bit.

Superbrothers is one of the only games I’ve played that’s tried this approach. The game pushes all it’s time into a very small amount of stuff: about 5 NPC’s, 3 monsters, 2 puzzle elements, all reappearing in subtly changing ways over the course of four hours. You spend all your time exploring around a hut owned by the two main NPC’s, in a main hub area that’s about five screens big. You trek all around it multiple times, unlocking new bits of it, solving different puzzles in it. It changes as you go through the game, culminating in a Dream-world that’s a distorted reflection of it.

The end result of this economy is that I can remember every single enemy in S&S. Think back to the last enemy you fought in a game. Was it a russian? A zombie? I know I can’t remember. Dozens of man-hours modelling, animating and voicing that whatever-it-was, and I can’t remember it at all.

Only put important things into your game. It’s a crazy bold new design paradigm, but I think it could work.

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Analogue: A Hate Story

Analogue: A Hate Story is another terribly-named visual novel from renowned internet word-lady Christine Love. Coming as a sequel to her début hit Digital, it’s also another tragic, clever love story that understands how games work.

It starts out slow. Sent to investigate a ruined ship, you plug into the main computer and are forced to hack through a primitive text-adventure interface in order to infiltrate the memory storage. When you get in, you’re greeted with a game made out of Deus Ex-style datalogs. For twenty minutes you sift through the emails and memos left by a bunch of dead Koreans who seemed to spend most of their time writing long messages about their lives to no-one in particular. Just when you’ve totally lost track of the Korean names comes a shocking twist: the game turns out to be actually good.

The following story rides through reactor meltdowns, mass murder and arranged marriage, and it’s twice as effective for the grounding the opening gives it. A hard game to review, then, because almost everything about it counts as a spoiler. Add that together with the 15$ price tag, and I can’t see anyone who doesn’t love Christine seeing it through to the conclusion. Stick with me, though, and I’ll see if I can’t convince you to try the demo without spoiling a drop.

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Desu Desu Desu, or how I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Yoshitaka Amano.


When the majority of brooding gamers are spending most of their time complaining that they “Can’t hold dem feels” and absurdly worship posters of their new waifu, you tend to forget there are more important things to devote the eye of the perspicacious too. One of those things is the newest installment in, arguably, the greatest role-playing franchise of all time.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 is nearly upon the Western world, and thinking back on it’s Mothership release, it’s easy to feel that Enix have a lot to reconcile with the fanbase. Criticisms ranged from the lack of RPG elements, such as towns and the ability to re-visit areas in a more open-world fashion, to the fact the player’s experience was as rigid and straight as the average Anon’s phallus when they see Rin Tezuka.

Well, after maps were released for the area modules comprising the new game world, I think it’s safe to say Enix registered your complaints, loyal fans.

Tree of Seraphim? Final Fantasy is an Angelic as it gets.

Pictured Here; Actual comparison of game paths.

God-tier map design, or more needless complexity than the controls for Beatmania?
It’s obvious that the developers are moving away from the FF formula of past. The most noticeable aspect in this area is the introduction of Dialogue Trees and Multiple Endings.

It’s most likely people paid as much attention to Yoichi Wada’s statement about taken Western Approaches to RPGs as they do to my constant sarcasm and Katawa Shoujo jokes, but that doesn’t make it any less existent. Some time ago, the Enix CEO admitted he had considered the possibility of laying off hundred of Japanese employees and exporting development of future titles to other countries – All because he fancies the current climate of Western RPGs.

It’s become apparent through various sources that the studio have been working with overseas influences to help recompense for the weaknesses of XIII. Toriyama, the director for the project, and Kitase, the producer, revealed in interviews with various Japanese game media that they especially took in opinions from other countries, after having exported some of the testing overseas, to help refine the Western edge that Enix’s CEO aimed for. Taking all this into consideration, it may just be spiteful conjecture, but I’m not shelling out money for a JRPG title to end up playing another Bioware game.

The prospect of rolling in the hay with an Asari suddenly became more favourable.

Topping it off is a plot that is seemingly able to develop in multiple ways. Jumping from world to world and time plane to time plane, exploring various instances of Pulse and Cocoon, the story could be extrapolated in almost a non-linear fashion as a marathon of Haruhi after injecting the mescaline directly into your testicles. The games conclusion is reliant upon the  choices made when jumping world to world, with what seem like drastic consequences.

Even with a return to the Random Encounter battle system of old, the changes can be chalked up and the record shows just how much it deviates from the formula that most Final Fantasy fans have come to appreciate. First week sales of XII-2 barely made it to half the count of it’s predecessor for Japan’s first day haul, and if these statistics are anything to speculate on, the fandom may be met with an unexpected disappointment. Or all the fun of watching Haruhi after falling through the portal to the world of Anime girls. The fruits of Enix’s labour will be seen in due time.

(Unless you know moonspeak, in which case, fuck you and your early release.)

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