This is really becoming the project that refuses to take form. As of last night, I've spent over 158 hours working on this project over the course of 8 months. I have not been as diligent as I should be with this project (there are many different reasons, but really it can boil down to me just being lazy), so the span of time this has taken is not really surprising. That being said, things are progressing, and I am by no means giving up.
However, this is really becoming the project that refuses to take form. Up until last week, I had been working heavily on the first draft of the project. With seven acts outlined, four written, and the fifth begun, things have been progressing. As with every first draft, problems have been popping up, but nothing much too concerning. There's a leap in logic here, this character knows something that they shouldn't given events, this puzzle isn't as good as it should be, and on.
As I began work on Act V, I began to realize that there were two critical problems that were going to require me to do some heavy re-working of the current draft. The first and foremost problem - an issue that is directly tied to the fact that it is a game - was the pacing at which Auryon (the player character) picks up new tools and abilities for her to use, as is tradition in Metrodvania games. There was a really heavy balance early in the game to her gaining access to these tools, with very few appearing later in the game. This isn't to mention the fact that these tools also weren't very well thought through, some stopped being used all together, and others had a very heavy overlap of use (i.e. two tools that essentially do the same thing). The second problem with the first draft was that it was probably a bit too ambitious of a script for my first ever video game; at least one that I could accomplish by my self. While I'm certainly confident in my writing abilities and confident that I could produce art of quality enough, I would like to see this project completed in the next decade.
When I realized these problems, I thought that I might stick to completing the first draft. It would help me solidify some ideas, figure things out for the next draft, and maybe hammer out some problems with characters. And it has. In the writing process, however, you have to know when to give up on a draft and just start over. For this project, it was early in Act V, when I realized that I was just making leaps of logic fore the sole purpose of pounding through this draft to just get it done with. I opened my script on Sunday, did a quick glance through on the scene that I was working on, and immediately opened a new page to begin planning the next draft. Nothing that I was going to write down on that scene was going to be useful for me.
With these two problems in mind, I chose to first comb through the first draft for ideas that I would like to keep. A boss fight in which Auryon faces a major antagonist (at the time referred to as the Disciple), in which she must fight through his adds who are willing to sacrifice themselves for their leader. A trenching tool that was originally thought to be just a throw away item, but became surprisingly useful. A puzzle in which Auryon must figure out how to pass through lingering poisonous gas that was used to clear a sapper's tunnel. These are all good ideas that I want to keep and continue to work with. Some may land on the cutting room floor, but there's no reason to scrap them immediately.
Next came scaling back the world to something a bit more manageable. Metroidvania games - the good ones - tend to have a really natural connection between the areas that the player character might travel, so I know that I have to make sure that all of these locations could logically be found in connection to each other. Originally, Auryon was going to go on a journey encompassing five regions, thirteen areas, and several locations in each area. That's quite a bit. I would be working on level design for probably a couple of years.
As mentioned earlier, I knew that I wanted to keep a few areas from the regions in the first draft. Given the setting and themes, there's a city from the first draft would be an excellent central location. While it may not be the starting location for the game, I could very easily see several locations attached to it; a factory, once a hub of development and production, now quiet and haunted by history; a mighty wall that once held an invading enemy at bay, now crumbling and being consumed by the environment; a once beautiful and reverent library filled with an old civilization's knowledge, now long empty. All of these location would provide a visually interesting playground for Auryon (and the player) to explore, and, assuming that I can not completely mess up the art, should individually tell a story that would supplement the central narrative.
Now with some understanding of the locations that I wanted the player exploring, I decided to sit down and hammer out more details about the actual game play, and how new abilities and tools should be paced as compared to the structure of the game's narrative. This will help give writing the coming drafts more direction.
Very early in this step, I realized that I wanted Auryon to have a core set of abilities up front. Running, jumping, climbing, pushing objects, etc... would be all realistically be things that she would be able to do because she is a healthy human being. Given her tribal upbringing, she would likely also know how to use a bow and arrow, know where to find food, which food is safe and which is not, as well as probably be significantly more agile than the average modern day person. I see no reason to lock any of these "abilities" away for her to arbitrarily find or figure out over the course of the game. They would also work in a first act where the player is still learning how to move through the environments.
So what can I provide to Auryon to allow her to advance further in the game, while also provide some interesting puzzles for the player to solve? In the first draft, I hit upon the idea of her using a trenching tool as a sort of universal blunt instrument, and the more I wrote, the more I realized how useful it was. From digging up ancient land mines used to defend a beach, to popping open a barricaded door, to even prying the heavy armor off of a knight to make him vulnerable. This quickly became the model of the sort of tools that I wanted to add in to the game to make the player think in interesting ways.
Science and magic are two themes that I wanted to play around with in the game, so I wanted to include something from both camps that might tell a little about the societies that they came from. From the science camp, I thought that a torch or flashlight might be interesting. While this fairly innocuous item may seem a little useless as compared to the trenching tool, I began to think what if this old society relied heavily on solar energy for power, and really followed a scientific path focused on electricity as a power source? Normally a torch is useful to light dark areas, and it can even potentially be used to attract enemies, or even repel animals that are sensitive to light. If the society uses light as an energy source, however, then it can be used to power machines, and they've likely constructed special locks using light filters, and certain methods of detecting hidden messages using lights.
From the magical camp, I had to think a bit more about what this society might have looked like. Usually, when you think of fantastical magic, you think of dusty old men in dark libraries trying to figure out the next spell, or mad villains desperately trying to grab on to power beyond this world. If magic is a practice of the elite, then is it possible that the average soldier or farmer understood anything about these seemingly impossible powers? If a society doesn't understand magic, can it really be built around magic? It can if the upper oligarchs allow a limited amount of knowledge to trickle down to the lower echelons. This may mean that a common soldier doesn't have to know how to cast a fireball or arc lightning if they have a talisman or a "ready-made" spell of some sort that would preform this task for them.
In this light, I came up with the idea of the bell. This would appear to be the same as a standard dinner bell; a small bell, probably silver or gold, with a wood handle that produces a pleasing sound. In the first draft, this bell was just a bell that Auryon could use to attract human enemies. When I decided to imbue it with magical qualities, I tried to think of what it might do. I realized that the tone that you hear from a bell is nothing but a compression wave passing through the air. In this light, what if the magic tied to the bell manipulated this compression wave to something significantly more powerful? Now an innocuous little bell becomes a weapon that can stun opponents, knock them back, or potentially produce a compression wave strong enough to push a lever at a distance or shatter glass. This provides a lot of new interesting puzzles that can easily be taught to the player, and also could make some potentially interesting boss fights.
Thus far, I've developed six primary tools for Auryon to use in her adventure. I have a feeling that these tools are not yet fully permanent, but this is a great starting point, and I probably won't add too many more to that count. I figure that each act in the story will highlight one of these tools to try and teach the player their uses before moving on. While the narrative acts and tool acts may not precisely line up, this will help keep the player interested and also help keep a fairly regular learning curve.
There are a few game play elements that I'm still not certain as to whether or not they're going to stick around. I had a couple of ideas for "secondary" tools that have very limited use, but still provide some interesting story telling and puzzle elements, as well as a basic crafting system (such as crafting arrows or food to heal or provide boosts to Auryon). I'm not exactly certain if I want to keep the crafting system as I usually dislike crafting systems with a few notable exceptions. I'm going to keep these elements around for now because I have feeling that they'll be nice little additions to the game that won't get in the player's way.
With these two issues hammered out, my current focus as been to form a synopsis of the new version of the story. I was originally hoping to be done with writing by the end of the year, but that seems unlikely now. While this is a set back, I certainly don't want to rush things. There are a lot of really good games out there, so it would be a waste of your and my time to produce something that I am only just okay with. I've worked on projects far longer than I have with this one only to scrap them later on, so I'm certainly not going to be dismayed when things don't get quite right the first time around on this one.
Now, if I can keep from just getting distracted...