Monday, June 13, 2016

Hammer devlog 27

Oh, right, another thing:

One of the passive upgrades is something I've had an inkling about for a while, but I haven't really been clear on how it'd work. I like the idea of having autoscrolling rooms, you see? I thought it seemed like a fun genre changeup that still maintains enough of the main gameplay loop that autoscroll rooms are a "change of pace" without feeling disconnected from the rest of the game in a mechanical sense. You still have the same character, same resources, same controls; it's just that now you're trying to fire and maneuver as you're whisked from point A to point B at a breakneck pace, instead of putting those tools to use in the more cerebral game about space control and pattern recognition that the "standard" combat is.

"Cerebral" is a relative term, of course - because combat is never exactly slow. I love Dark Souls to death. I even tolerate Dark Souls II, mostly for its DLC. I haven't been able to buy Dark Souls III yet on account of being broke af, but I'll probably like that, too! But I'm bringing these up because, while there are definitely some Souls-y aspects to this game, they also offer a really useful contrast as far as pacing goes. Dark Souls wants you to watch patiently, avoid going in half-cocked; it's a fairly gentle game moment-to-moment that finds difficulty to allowing your mistakes to accumulate. Hammer does not do that. Hammer is the kind of game where if you're doing perfect for 90% of the battle and then you spend a couple seconds dropping the ball, you're dead. The player is much more powerful relative to foes than they are in Dark Souls because they have to be - you're expected to perform with speed, efficiency, and precision in equal measure. But the nature of playing efficiently does preclude the purest sort of reactive arcade action - the energy system will punish you for tackling encounters without a gameplan, right? You have to prioritize targets and use space to maximize your own opportunities for offense while minimizing the times at which you're exposed.

Autoscroll rooms, then, are a "different" kind of shooter: pure bullet hell, fast enough to make ground combat seem kinda pokey, with much more emphasis on simply... reading stimuli and reacting to it. No level terrain, no cover, no hazards or obstacles - just you and wave after wave of foes, and your goal is just to keep yourself alive until you're automatically delivered to your goal. The situation is too fluid to make a plan that'll do you a damn bit of good, and while there's less mechanical complexity here it can be difficult to stay alive in spite of that just because of how fast everything is shifting and changing.

I don't want autoscroll rooms to be a frequent thing, mind you; they should be a fun, kinda stressful break from the more standard gameplay rhythms. Equal parts refreshing, even relaxing - you're not expected to be working out battlefield tactics with bullets flying at you from all directions; you have exactly one tactic, "dodge things, fire at them," if you get into the zone it should feel kinda Zen - and harrowing. You're having a blast the whole autoscroll interlude - let's say we want these to be about 90 seconds long on average - and then you're really glad it's over.

So basic gameplay rules of an autoscroll room:

a) you're automatically pushed forward along a "room" without room collision at considerable speeds. You can maneuver freely around the screen with the same controls you'd use for walking.
b) enemies fly in - mostly, but not always, from the same direction you're moving in. These are fast-moving, somewhat more regular in their patterns than standard foes so as to be easier to read, and typically very deadly and very frail. You're going to have great difficulty taking more than two hits and surviving, in most cases, but you can also kill something with basically whatever weapon feels good, and the free flow of energy lets you be cavalier with expensive things that you normally have to be much more reserved about playing with.
c) the bottom of the screen has a progress meter - literally, a track representing the total length of the autoscroll room w/ a player icon that moves from one end to the other; you know exactly how much longer you need to hold out at all times, which can be both reassuring (just a little longer) and really harrowing (FUCK I AM GOING TO DIE LIKE FIVE FEET FROM THE END OF THIS STUPID THING FUCK)

As for the role autoscroll rooms play in larger game structure: well, I think I'd be remiss if I didn't take advantage of the obvious fact that, given the Metroidvania aspects of this game, you're going to notice that 90 seconds of autoscroll is a long fucking room. That's enough to cross a huge amount of space.

So: autoscroll rooms act as quick transport between outlying regions. An autoscroll room is mechanically and aesthetically "other," compared to the more standard gameplay types, and it takes place in a space which suits that. When you enter the autoscroll area, you're shunted off into a... "tunnel" or "wormhole." Aesthetically, I like the idea of rendering this by actually using a garbage mix of tiles from the two connecting regions, with each "side" of the autoscroll room having greater quantities of tiles corresponding to its associated region. You're poking a hole in the world and speeding through a space that doesn't behave by the same rules to get where you're going - so working with my Game Boy aesthetic, a "glitchy" garbage screen (think the g1 Pokémon games'"glitch cities" for a quick idea of what this looks like) is an effective way to get that concept across.

You never have to enter an autoscroll room to get where you need to go, but it might be the most efficient path. World design rule here: there should be a back way into any space of any importance. If you need to get somewhere, there should never be a scenario where you don't have multiple options, either in the tools you use to get there or the path you take. So, from this angle: anywhere you go using the autoscroll rooms is still connected to the rest of the world, and you could get there without ever entering the autoscroll, if you wanted. But being comfortable using the autoscroll mechanics as a means of getting around can be useful. You might, for example, be able to dive just a little bit deeper into a space you've already made some decent progress in, find an autoscroll entrance, and come out deep into a region you haven't really touched yet, really close to the boss! Exploration is rewarded - and since autoscroll rooms are difficult challenges located at far reaches of the world, tied to a hard-to-obtain "key" item, the rewards you can get out of taking that leap can be huge. This falls back to boundary-crossing as a theme - entering the autoscroll room is choosing to "cross over" and take a step into the unknown. You either die or you get spit out somewhere interesting.

Narratively, then: keeping in mind the sort of thematic content and aesthetic language I've been working with, and the role these spaces play, I feel like it works really well to have the autoscroll rooms situated in a "world of mirrors." Literally - each autoscroll is the non-space that connects a pair of arcane mirrors located in the world. We'll call these looking glasses - devices dating back to times long since faded from memory, constructed to allow their masters to keep perpetual watch on... something. Built in pairs at spatial extremes - a great mirror and a sentinel's seat; each sentinel keeping vigilance over their own station, their counterpart's... and each other. But now the seats are empty, the mirrors dusty and forgotten, and whatever they felt it was so key to keep watch over can no longer be seen.

The key item that you hold to gain access to these spaces: the Sentinel's Mask. Again, we're just trying to go for broad strokes right now; tone, themes, important images - let a more coherent narrative emerge naturally from these concepts. So, the Sentinel's Mask - the cursed mask of one such sentinel who fled their duties. Whatever they saw during their watch broke them; they abandoned their post, and with it the ceremonial mask that these sentinels used to hide their individual identities from their counterparts. The mask of dereliction of duty is an affront to whatever power enables the looking glasses to function. When it's brought into their presence, they shatter instantly to deny the traitor their use. But there's a perverse kind of usefulness to this thing - because while it does mean that you can't see the looking glass's destination any more, you can also step through the broken mirror and emerge on the other side.