Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Awakening - Part IV

   Right into objectives, Zelda games have always been fairly simple as far as the types of goals they present their players and this is no different, nor should it be changed.  There are game arc goals (escape the island) and the host of objectives necessary to complete them.  To give a rambling explanation of the breakdown:
   Link is told that to escape the island he must wake the Wind Fish.  To do that he needs to find eight mystical instruments, each buried in a dungeon and guarded by a boss.  To defeat each boss he has to negotiate the dungeon, more often than not themed around the item, tool or weapon that link finds within said dungeon.  To compound issues, each dungeon is placed in areas that are barricaded, blocked, guarded or generally difficult to get to, making the journey to, and entrance into, each dungeon a leg of the journey.  Once Link has all eight instruments, he had better have found the ocarina (first instance of music involvement in the games, huzzah! Outside of the whistle in link to the past which was more a teleport than a narrative tool), so that he can play the melody to wake the Wind Fish outside of it’s egg, after he’s learned the melody of course.  Playing the melody doesn’t wake the Wind Fish immediately though, as the nightmares that are plaguing the dream that Link has found himself in make a final stand, only after Link makes his way through the featureless maze that is the Wind Fish.  Then Link has to beat THE Nightmare, an amalgamation of many serious enemies, and only after that can Link meet the Wind Fish and then wake up, escaping the island.  Of course Link is still stranded on a plank of wood in the middle of a large body of water, but that’s outside of game play, at the end of the game. 
  Each step breaks down into large goals, which then break down into mid level and immediate goals, providing direction behind the ever looming goal of survival. This is a way with storytelling in most games, and not a bad way to go about it.  Survival Horror tries to veer towards a more expanded story, residing comfortably in act two and three, while feeding act one back to players, usually through logs or narrative that gives exposition.
   Link’s Awakening has little to no act one.  It doesn’t really need it.  Even to those who have a cursory glance of gaming know Link.  He’s the generic hero, the green glad lad who journey’s forth to save the land by beating up the big bad, whoever that may be in whichever landscape he finds himself in.  Lots of the Zelda games have featured three act plots, and they’ve been the better for it.  The plot that Link finds himself in gives a fraction of a first act in the games intro cinematic.  Link’s at sea, struck down by lightning, washed ashore, go.  It doesn’t NEED a complex story, In Medias Res works with such a long running franchise, if the continuity is muddled.  But it can still be fleshed out.
   The Wind Fish is the element that the game revolves around.  Waking it from its slumber brings link back to consciousness.  The entire game is the dreaded dream sequence, loathed and abused by so many TV shows.  It doesn’t need to make use of exposition, because in the broad view of the game, there is no exposition.  The game’s a dream.  Link triggered a dream apocalypse, destroying any exposition revealed about the game.  But it didn’t have to be this way.
   So the climax hits, Link goes to the egg to wake the Wind Fish.  At this point the player knows, for at least a dungeon or two, that the world they’ve been exploring is a dream.  So why not enforce this destruction?  After Link takes out the last nightmare in Turtle Rock (last dungeon) the world could undergo a massive shift.  Nothing overtly menacing, but desperate.  Every NPC Link runs into could act sickeningly sweet, all the time begging Link not to destroy their home. Once the world is on the precipice of destruction, it’s changed.  The monsters of the land are no longer the enemy, Link is.  Monsters do their part to destroy Link, Townsfolk do their part to try to keep themselves alive by keeping Link with them.    She might want to leave the island, but her island is her home, and now that all the NPCs feel the island quake and twist under the pressure of the force trying to end the dream (aka Link) they try to hold on. Marin might actually stand in front of the Wind Fish’s egg, protecting it with herself.  Link might be continually called into question with his actions. 
   And what if, here’s a fun thought, Link has to break his character of “the hero” to do so?  His goal is a very selfish one in this game; escape the island at all costs, even if it means destroying the island full of people you’ve interacted with, people who nursed you back to health.  What if Marin stands opposed on the hills of Tamaranch Mountain?  Link might brush past her and into the Egg, ignoring her pleas for her island. What if the second last form of the nightmare that haunts the Wind Fish isn’t that quick sliding speck of darkness, but in Marin’s form, begging one last time?  Forcing the player to cut down a woman he’s saved, who’s nursed him back to health, who’s gone out on a date with him?  
   The Nightmare takes the form of Marin, who begs him to stand down, to let the world live?  If the player cuts her down where she stands, she transforms into the final form, wailing in agony.  If the player talks to her, she gives them a chilling choice:  Link closes his eyes and wakes up, happy and well in Mabe village, with Marin by his side, or cut down the woman who so resembles the Zelda of his mind, the woman who pulled him from the shores.
   The possibility for a more twisted narrative is there, but it requires tough decisions, ones that can be easily glossed over, but questions which the Zelda games have never asked.  This is that chance.  Part V is going to take a look at the items and the dungeons they deal with, sticking to the thematic formula, but breaking the way they go about it.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Awakening - Part III

Welcome to Mabe
Link walks about in the morning sun. The village looks quaint and friendly, if not a bit secluded. The atmosphere is upbeat. He finds a field of grass, a store, a crane game store, an odd shaped weather vane statue, a few houses, all lined by forest edge. To the east the path out of the town is blocked by dense trees and a weighty boulder. To the north he finds the entrance to a forest blocked by tall grass. It looks shadowy and ominous even during the day.
As he walks about the village, he finds the sun moving over head. He makes his way past the town library to the path that leads to the beach he washed ashore on. He finds a small group of children playing ball.  Past them, Marin stands near the gate.
Marin informs him that the monsters of the island have a keen nose and that if he’s been wounded, they’ll zero in on him and continuously attack [bleeding tutorial]. To protect him, she gives him a wooden shield, telling he that he can use it to block enemies and turn aside their attacks. Unfortunately, it’s only a flimsy wooden shield [lvl. 1 shield get!] that she bought at the town store some time ago, so it will break after enough abuse. Marin warns Link to be careful, asking again if he really must leave the safety of the village. She closes the gate behind him, telling him that he’ll be able to pass through if he knocks with his shield nearby.
Link makes his way through the octoroks and pushes his way through to find a battered sword lying amidst what’s left of the ruins of his ship. As soon as he goes to claim his sword, an owl flaps down and starts talking.
The monsters of the islands are acting up and Link is to blame. The owl claims that link has come to wake the Wind Fish, for that is the only way Link can escape the island. It then directs link north, to the mysterious woods. After exploring the beach, link notices the sun dropping and heads back to Mabe village, through which he’ll find the entrance to the next step in his journey.
   So much happens in so little time! The bleeding tutorial requires few lines of dialogue and then the player is left to figure it out on their own once they get in a tangle with some enemies. At this point Link can engage enemies and get a feel for the inventory system. The player can swap both items between the buttons, setting up their control scheme for the problems they have to face. The shield Link is given breaks after about twenty hits, which gives the player a vulnerable defence. The sword Link finds, chipped and battered but functional, deals a quarter damage of what a new sword would.

   This presents a chance that some players won’t notice. The store in Mabe village sells shields, a new sword, a shovel, and three hearts to heal what ails Link. One of the easter eggs of Link’s Awakening was the ability to steal from the store, dashing out the door while the clerk is facing away. Once outside, the game says “Guess what? You got it for free. Are you proud of yourself?” This does save time on some of the high ticket items (bow and arrows especially) but upon entering next time, the clerk electrocutes Link to death, and from then on all the NPCs call Link , not by his name, but Thief. The Awakening keeps the same thing, only adds a bit more injury. Players who steal the level 2 sword (does regular damage, four times what the lvl.1 does) are no longer allowed to buy shields. The clerks recognize Link and tell him to put them back. This gives thieving players the opportunity to increase their attack at the cost of never being able to buy a shield again, as well as the name change and the death once Link walks back into the store.

   One departure from the original that might rely on higher tech would be a day/night system. This wouldn’t be a real time system (like the Game Boy Colour Pokemon games used) but would alter depending on screen navigation. Every dozen or so screen shifts advances the time.Morning shifts into Day, which shifts into Evening, which shifts into Night, which shifts into Dawn, which shifts back into Morning.
Once back in Mabe, Link notices that the sun has set. The kids playing ball are gone, as are the chickens that roamed about the village. Putting it out of his mind, he goes north, towards the entrance to the Mysterious Wood.
   A full day cycle would take between 70 and 80 screen shifts, the average change being between twelve and fifteen screen changes. The cycle is also skewed towards darkness, with three of the five parts presenting worse visibility. The difference and point is to change the types of enemies, give the game a bit more depth and to limit visibility, making light an essential point.

   On the NPCs, it’s good to note that those that Link does encounter already have a bit of the uncanny floating about them. This is lost on the player game logic breeds players who exept the eccentricities of the game world. People who stand in a single spot, quest givers that require specific items with no practical alternative, NPCs who trade meaningless items which work in a linear fashion towards an end prize. Games are littered with these tropes, and Zelda games are no different, creating its fair share. The trading game (which was first featured in this game) is another example of bizarre behaviour we now take for granted.

   The day/night cycle and the dreamscape motif provide for creativity which the game misses, as well as plenty of opportunity to provide dread. New among the wandering monsters of Koholint are:
  • Veils – these appear during the three night cycles. They spawn as small shadows from the scenery, stretching out and pulling Link in (eye pulse pull mechanic), damaging Link upon contact. They often aren’t clearly visible, only drawing Link in when he’s within a certain range, as opposed to an event triggered by entry into its screen. They can’t be killed. If Link equips a light source, he isn’t affected.
  • Morphs – morphing shadows, blobs of inky blackness that cycle through enemies depending on proximity, bleeding effect. Morphs aren’t a cycle of enemies, but a black cloud that shifts between enemies attacks and vague forms. And octorok bullet requires an octorock head, which may sprout if Link passes by within given conditions. These resemble the final nightmare, to a far lesser degree. They run from light, can only be damaged by fire (powder, fire rod, best sword beam, fire/light source).
  • Lesser Nightmares – these are periphery monsters, creatures who act intelligently, provide dread and speak in the same style as the bosses. They’re akin to dungeon-less bosses who lurk behind the scenes, slipping off screen whenever Link gets close by. The first one Link encounters is responsible for stealing Bow-Wow, who Link has to go retrieve in order to gain access to Bottle Grotto, the second dungeon.

   This makes me think that I need to spend some time talking about the Zelda dungeon formula and the new complement of weapons and items Link finds through his journey. Also, the many tiered objectives I haven’t gotten too yet, as well as Link’s journey through the Mysterious Wood to find the Tail Key and make his way to the first dungeon. Part IV coming up.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Awakening - Part II

Morning Comes
Link wakes to find Marin and Tarin's house empty.  Moving about he gets access to the game mechanics, movement via D-pad, inventory (start) and map (select) which is blacked out. Link also has the A and B buttons unassigned.  A glance at the inventory screen shows a blank page, three hearts, and no money. Wandering outside, he gets his first look at Mabe Village.
   Here's a good point to break narrative for a bit to talk about hardware.  Link's Awakening was one of the first game's to push the then-new handheld system.  It was released in 1993, four short years after the system's premier.  Considering this is a reboot more than a decade after the fact, I’m ignoring much of the technological progress that's been made, the most relevant being colour, resolution, memory limitations and layer limitations.  Interestingly enough, some of these hardware issues aren't necessarily a bad thing.  The monochrome nature of the game was re-hauled in the colourful DX remake (Game Boy Colour, 1998), and while it livens up a Zelda game into a bright and diverse experience, the monochrome forces the player to distinguish between the shades of grey. This, in its own small way, pushes the player to use their imagination, which can create far better atmosphere then the handheld could alone.  The modern drive for a sharpened reality look is often to the detriment of horror, which realize heavily on the unknown.  That being said, I’m working under the assumption of an altered state, be it a recoded ROM or a remake from the ground up using modern tech to deliver the same style and end result.
   With this in mind, the resolution wouldn’t change.  Each screen would still have 10 by 8 tile set map, below which is the 10 by 2 heads-up display (HUD).  I have some reservation about keeping the HUD, but it does serve its purpose rather well.  I find that for games that try to keep an atmosphere, the less HUD, the better. 
   The example I have of this isn’t a survival horror, but implements it’s HUD with an ear to the player.  Assassin’s Creed 2 ( I’m going by Xbox360 play) starts with a full HUD featuring life, weapons, button functions, mini-map, hints, info, a veritable cornucopia of user information.  The novel thing is that every single one can be turned off.  Within the pause menu options, the player can toggle every independent piece of HUD on or off, depending on their desired way of play.  While this might show uncertainty on part of the dev team who weren’t sure what to keep as a HUD, the option lets players tailor their experience.  Veterans who don’t need the button configuration, or who know how to take their HP cues from audio signals can clear those features out of the way, giving even more of the screen over to scenery.  What’s more, if the PC is damaged, the life bar may (toggle switch) flash up on the HUD to alert the player, before fading away, leaving the screen uncluttered.
   Back to Awakening.  Would removing the HUD be a bad thing?  Yes and no.  The map system was built around the HUD, rather than the HUD being layered on top of the map system.  That being the case, giving the 10x2 tiles of movement and action would add more hassle than atmosphere, as the HUD never gets in the way of the action.  It may be a bit of a strain on immersion, but on a handheld game, unless you’re playing in the dark (a very, VERY painful process on the original Game boy, which did not feature a backlit screen) the HUD won’t be touched. 
   While I’m still harping on about the HUD, it bears mention that the right side, devoted to heart containers, won’t be filling up the same way.  Heart container’s provide additional life, and provided rewards for both boss completion as well as exploration.  The problem is, more life diminishes the weight and damage posed by enemies, as well as the threat that they pose.  The player starts with three heart containers, gains eight from boss drops, collects 3 from scattered ¼ heart containers, giving them a max life of 14 heart containers.  An easy way to get around this is to ramp up the damage done by late game creatures. 
   Something else is to eliminate the collection of heart pieces.  The logic of finding random containers of life about the island doesn’t make much sense, despite it being a Zelda trope.  However, within the game’s narrative, it might be justified.  Exploration of the dreamscape that Link explores rewards him with further understanding of the area he’s found himself in, characterized by heart containers.  Still, I’d rather explore the land for a reason more thematic then arbitrary boosts. 
   Instead of having the heart containers be boss drops, have them tied to narrative a bit more.  Before going to the sixth dungeon, Face Shrine, Link learns that not only is he within a dream, but waking the Wind Fish (overarching objective) to escape means waking up, causing a dream apocalypse. 
   This one plot point can be given so much more weight than it already had.  From this point on, Link understands why bosses drop lie, their death results in Link achieving a more lucid state.  Any heart containers picked up before this reveal won’t be active, but will be held as a story item, next to the trading game item.  Once Link learns that he’s in a dream, the heart container’s he’s found become active, life, power to survive within the dream, flows through him.  Link get’s a mid game power up with narrative worth, making the early game more challenging while also providing a bit more context to the powers that are being earned.
   Euch, okay, I haven’t gotten to the layers of objectives or even out of the house.  Part III picks those up as well as some thoughts on monster design, some items and plot.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Awakening - LOZ:LA reboot into survival horror. Part I

    For today’s exorcise, i’m going to take a look at one of my favourite games, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening for the Gameboy, and see how i can spin it into darker territories.  This is a game very close to my heart and one i’ve clocked truly obscene amounts of hours playing, replaying, toying with to understand its secrets.  I even wrote a guide for it that was on gamefaqs for a while, that’s how into this game i was.  As i lay in hot water my mind went drifting through survival horror mechanics and i found that the genre would suit the game rather well, or at least adapt itself to the different tone well.  Sure it isn’t usual Zelda fare, but the series could do with some diversity in the way it goes about reusing the  IP.  They can’t all be green tunic'ed and happy.  Bring on the darkness.

The Awakening
    To start out I'm going to be gutting a lot of conventions of the series, starting with the notion that Link can take on everything on the island, so long as he visits all the dungeons and has the specific items.  there are going to be enemies that can't be killed, a series no-no (outside of plot and NPCs).  The tools and weapons that link collects won't be the standard fare. there will be a sword, but it won't be until after a dungeon or two. there'll be a starting knife, but I'll get to that.  combat, one of the staples of the Zelda franchise, is going to be present, but not until Link learns how to survive.  run and live, then learn how to fight.
    For those who haven't yet Wiki'd the game, or who don't know what I'm talking about, here and here.  with that stated, not that it matters with such an old game, but spoilers and plot and all that will be rent asunder.  you are duly warned.  moving on.
    the real kicker is that the basic premise of the game would remain largely unchanged. Link is on sea in his little dingy of a vessel, a storm hits, his boat gets struck by lighting, and he's tossed into the ocean.  he drifts ashore onto a beach of Koholint and a young girl named Marin takes him home to the local village and nurses him back to health.  upon his waking, he embarks on a quest to escape the island.  Adventure Ho!

Flicking the switch On
    so right off the bat a few things happen which bear mentioning.  the intro cinema takes about 50 seconds to get get to the title splash and pretty much tells us all we need to know.  boat on the ocean, storm, glimpse of a rendered character (oh yeah that'd change, definitely), wreck, sprite lying unconscious on beach, Marin walks up, prods him, the shot pans up to the egg on the mountain which is the title backdrop, bang title splash and the musics been following the pan up, jumping into the melody when the title splash hits.  I'll keep it all save the rendered Link.  less is more and the picture never really was close to the Link i pictured.  a silhouette would get the job done and keep that mystique.  i think it was the round nose that i disliked.  Euch.  the palm beach might be darkened some, but it's not a big deal.
    the music though, would have to change.  i love the music for this game, but it's very catchy, upbeat and hopeful, which isn't the mood to convey.  keep the Zelda melody, but play it down something fierce.  somber lead in, not optimistic.  this isn't a story with a happy ending, but it's an ending that Link has to work towards regardless.  what that ending is though, I'll get to at a later time. suffice to say that the entire score would be calmed down, and depressed: darker moods and sombre renditions.
    the requisite stripping of all items, health, spells, abilities, etc from previous titles happens during the storm, and this works well from both the standpoint of a weaker Link, a good element of horror, as well as providing him a chance to find new items (which of course goes mostly unused 'cause this is a Zelda game, and too much change frightens off the fan base).  next, Link wakes up in a house with a young woman standing over him and her uncle barring the way outside until you say hi and get your shield from him.  this set up's going to change a bit:
Link wakes up and sees the meager shack around him.  near above him a young lady looks eagerly on as he stirs.  outside, dusk is setting on.  pulling himself up, the young lady startles at his movement and rushes to introduce herself and his current situation.  he was found washed ashore and was hurriedly dragged back to the village.  it was a miracle that he was alive when she found him because... Link doesn't find out as Marin's introduction is interrupted by her uncle, sitting near the table on the other side of the room.  pulling himself to his feet, link goes and introduces himself to Tarin, Marin's uncle, who tells him to rest up, and that he shouldn't be going out at night, especially with injuries.  Link crawls back into bed and the night wears on.  he sleeps to rise the next morning.
    the tone is darker and the dread that Link was a lucky find and could just have easily died lying on the sandy beach adds more dread still.  something else to notice is the distinct lack of shield.  Tarin
    Something that I'm adding to the mechanics that isn't really necessary is a day/night cycle.  this will allow for a light mechanic to be implemented at various points and will make all the safe havens that much safer.  every town and gathering of NPCs will be bathed in light, regardless of time.  during the day the island will keep it's usual colouring (or lack there of, this being a game before colours, when the pixel mix was what gave shading), while during the night, darkness is prevalent, holes are that much more easier to fall into, and navigating the island will be that much more treacherous.
    This set up also introduces another mechanic: monster attraction when damaged, more commonly thought of as 'blood in the water.'  when Link is below full health (2.5/3 - .5/3), bleeding for reference sake, monsters are drawn to him.  they can smell him out (as dialogue with townsfolk will tell him).  when he is full health he an stealth by monsters, unless he bumps into them, but otherwise, he's going to have to run, negotiating new terrain and level s quickly, with monsters on his heals.  this makes finding a weapon or a defense that much more important and adds the not often used Zelda stealth mechanic (run by, run by when distracted or turned away, distract, then run by, hide wait then run by) without much more added coding.  upon shifting into a screen containing a foe, if Link is bleeding, monsters sniff once, maybe twice, then come after him, switching their coded paths from default to pursuit, as they do when Link starts to attack them.

Part II kicks off with link actually getting up and about, players getting a feel for the game play and the beginning of tiers upon tiers of objectives.  all that and more, coming up.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

The first three days

a month of writing is a smaller goal then my last, being a year.  still, i'll go month to month and keep it as i come.  the first three days below.  of onto trip.  should be fun. hobbie-ho.
The first february

“You have seven days.  After that you won’t remember anything but those days.  Each day you will be reborn into a new vessel.  Each vessel will have remnants of the days past, and yet be something different.  If you should die during any day, you will begin the next day as if you had finished the previous regularly.  At the end of those seven days, should you fail, you will be reset, as if the loop never occurred. You will remember no details, only that the cycle will have repeated.  If you continue to fail, your will inevitably drive yourself mad.  Succeed, break the cycle, and you will move on.  You won’t remember anything of those days, you will be free.  Do not fail again.  Your strain only increases as the loop repeats.  You are getting closer and closer to madness each time you return here. 

Break the loop.  You have seven days.”
The second february.

The caravan pulled to a halt, its pieces bounding along behind it, each piece coming still at last.  The escort for the caravan was a fleet of blimps requisitioned out of Timfix.  The procession was heading through the last mountain range and within a day’s travel, before nightfall if they were fortunate, the escorting blimps would see their home. 

Aboard the second blimp, tending the middle and front of the caravan procession, Seline leaned on a railing, watching the halt below.  The wind of the mountains whipped around her, her muffled hat trailing around her, the fur soft and warm wherever it touched.  Against her leg, at her side, her crossbow rested.  Her eyes had perked up and she scanned the space around her and then the space below, searching for airborne threats to her charges, before moving on to the ground based threats.  There was movement, people wondering after the cause for the sudden halt, but no threat was revealing itself. 

She was tense as her blimp circled about, rising high out between the mountains that shielded the path from the harsher winds.  The trail cut through the mountains and made blimp escort tricky, but not impossible.  Seline held tight to the hand rail and her crossbow as the blimp climbed for the early morning sunlight, to clear the tightest passage of the mountain pass.  If there was to be an attack on the caravan, it would be after the pass, when the trail led through a small valley where the remnants of a town still stood desecrated and abandoned, home only to the thieves and bandits that hose it a poaching hideout.

Seline breathed in the sharp cold air.  Her job became far more serious in a matter of minutes.  This was when she earned her pay, when she protected her charges, still, she thought only of her home in the city, and her small house, stacked among so many others, which await her return home.
The third february

She sits above me, her face remembered out of a dream.  Was it a dream where I saw her?  Where I became so enamoured by hr features?  It passed by so quickly and now it’s gone.  Perhaps it was a dream, and she was nothing more than a fleeting rush, grasped for in desperation, held tight in passion and then faded away to nothing but a memory moments later.  I can’t look at her face.  I can’t see the contour or outline of her body as she lay next to me, smiling quietly, her eyes half closed.  I can’t smell the scent that filled the room I was keeping, whenever she came by.  I can only remember her from a half forgotten dream.

I feel where she laid, the indent that should be filled next to me.  The comfort and solace I try to remember escapes me.  I keep asking myself it she was real.  Was the time we had together real?  It came and went so fast, and yet at the time it felt like years.  It was years.  We had so little else save the ritual.  Our ritual.  And then I didn’t do, didn’t play my part and the world folded upon itself.  The walls crumbled and melted to grass and pavement, my bed rising through the ceiling to fall through another floor.  The light blazed around me and then shrunk back into place.

I find myself lying in my bed, alone with a shape of what could have been a memory.  I wish I could hold on to you for longer, but it so rarely happens.  I can’t seem to get a good enough hold.  Too often I hope to see you before I fall asleep.  Were you my dream, or were you real, gone further than any half remembered dream could?
 --'ll be a fuuun month...