Saturday, April 2, 2016

Hammer devlog 11

Before we can talk about death, and how that's handled, and what that means... I guess we've really gotta take a deeper look at the overall structure of the game, huh? Until now, we've been focused squarely on the moment-to-moment things, but that's only half the story, really.

Okay, so: we're definitely strongly influenced by 2D Zelda games - particularly the Game Boy titles - and the combination of an open, exploratory world structure, action/puzzle dungeon crawls, and light RPG elements. However, we can't just do that. The moment-to-moment demands of a Zelda game are very manageable; it can ask you to perform through the length of an entire dungeon, without a break, and that's fine, because there are relatively few moments when you're really put into a do-or-die position in a given Zelda dungeon. By contrast: every combat encounter here is do or die. If you don't take the enemies seriously, even trash mobs can proceed to kill you with brutal efficiency. And, from another angle: the place where Zelda does have its difficulty is basically irrelevant for Hammer. Our systems don't just make resource conservation irrelevant; they make it impossible. Fire away and keep firing.

Well, let's think some more about what we do want with the Zelda formula: First thing: inventory-driven exploration a la lite-Metroidvania. The various guns you acquire open up new paths and passages. I mentioned a grappling gun as an example, earlier - but it's not just that. A flamethrower can melt the ice blocking off a cavern entrance; a grenade launcher can just blow up cracked rock walls; a flying drone can adjust its path based on your cursor as it moves, following paths no conventional projectile could. Each gun you acquire opens up new possibilities, and not just in combat - but as a tool for moving around and solving puzzles. And the problems these weapons solve can almost always be solved in multiple ways, creating a very satisfying effect where you can sequence break freely if you solve puzzles with the "wrong" weapons. For example - think of the shotgun that's implemented right now. It's something that presents itself as a very conventional, mostly-just-combat sort of tool - but you might be able to abuse its spread firing pattern, and that's encouraged. You might have a scenario where you're intended to position mirrors and prisms to guide a laser beam through a maze so it can strike two switches simultaneously, but if you line yourself up just right and fire the shotgun, it does the same thing without all the hassle. That's good. The starting gun is the only one that should be mandatory. Everything else is just a potential means of solving problems, and the order in which you tackle different sections of the world and how difficult you find them will vary with the tools you happen to have available to you. Adaptability is the name of the game, both on the micro level - within combat, recognizing where you need to be at any given moment and being there, reading the rhythms of battle and feeling what to do at any given time - and on the macro level. You're rewarded for seeking out new tools and thinking of unconventional applications for the ones you have. The "everything is a gun" paradigm amplifies this - exploration and puzzle solving require you to make heavy use of incidental functionality of tools designed for combat first and foremost. It gets you in the right mindset.

What we don't need here: the hard division between "overworld" and "dungeon" spaces. Exploration isn't something that happens in a separate space to the more complex puzzles and combat scenarios - you're continually encouraged to keep your eyes peeled and be willing to change your plans. The "dungeon" spaces wrap around on themselves, intertwining with each other in a very Metroid-y way, and the "overworld" is scattered throughout the map to provide a more natural rhythm for the brief, intense nature of our firefights. Brief "sprints" - frenetic ballets with bullets and mind-bending environmental puzzles - are more naturally punctuated with open, atmospheric and exploratory spaces at a more regular rate than can be provided by adhering rigidly to Zelda's formula.

It's worth considering what Zelda's dungeons do for the overworld exploration, though! They take a situation where the player is just sort of dumped on a sprawling map and give you direction. You have a clear set of goals and at least a rough idea of where you need to be heading off to accomplish them, and that's something we want to preserve.

So, at a broad structural level: Metroidvania-style world plan, heavily interconnected, and mixing short groups of intense, challenge-focused chambers with larger areas that are allowed to be quieter, more restful, focused primarily on pure exploration. Each "main" area is home to one of the game's bosses, and your goal is always explicitly to kill each of these bosses in order to advance to the endgame - but you can choose which order to tackle them in, and you'll generally have to partially explore at least a few different regions before you come face to face with any of the bosses. They exist at the farthest reaches of the world, basically - encouraging the player to explore because "pick a direction, keep walking until you see a president, shoot the president" is a sound gameplan. Guns are distributed throughout the world, some hidden away in secret chambers, others at the end of difficult gauntlets, and some even simply on store shelves - and each of these makes the player stronger by increasing the number of strategies available to them.

Getting around a world like this could be difficult, tedious if done poorly, and the nature of how bosses are distributed requires you to explicitly head for the areas furthest from anything else. So it probably makes sense for fast travel to be a thing, and more specifically, for fast travel to be unlocked for an area by defeating its main boss. Defeat the boss and the nodes throughout become active as fast travel points - you've slain the area's master; you are the area's new master. Fast travel isn't exploitable, since reaching the boss requires you to prove your mettle against the region's themes and gimmicks; getting the right to zip around freely comes as the culmination of a gradual process of getting control over the initially-hostile elements of the region and putting them to work for you, at the moment when the area in question ceases to be somewhere where you have an end-goal and instead becomes a place to move through en route to other destinations and comb over for missed secrets.

These fast travel points are a natural checkpoint system. Highlighting them on the map screen provides a clear set of intermediary goals for the player as they make their way around the world. Travel means combat, and combat is inherently dangerous - intense, stylish, rewarding, but having high execution demands and being very punishing if you can't keep up on either a tactical or a reaction level - so finding these nodes is a key part of constructive safe pathways through the world, whether your destination is the next boss or just that funny-looking rock you think might have a cool gun under it. When you die, you respawn at the last one of these checkpoints you visited. And since these checkpoints are very visible, very obvious, you know exactly where and when you last visited one - so when you wander into a combat scenario, you have to decide whether to push through or to back off and keep exploring. When you're far afield, fighting isn't always the best option - especially if your current tools aren't really suitable for the fight in question.

The only progress loss for death, though, is being returned to the last checkpoint. You don't lose any resources or equipment. You even keep any map cells you've filled in. You just wake up in the last checkpoint room and continue on. You should never feel like your time is being wasted - even if you walk into a room and promptly get your ass handed to you, you're respawned relatively close, and you now know "maybe I shouldn't go in there yet." Easing the metagame around death enables me to get as mean as I want with a clean conscience.