On Dungeons, Instances and Narratives.

One of the biggest affairs with text-based games, at least for me, is the ability to weave a story into game mechanics. Well surely this is something that can be done in any gaming medium, but in text it can be done with a great deal more influence. In some ways, we are really in the literary-gaming world.

Instances in gaming nowadays refers to the MMO style ‘Dungeon’, where the instance technology generates a new copy of the Dungeon, or location, for each group that enters it. As I understand it originally this sort of technology was employed to reduce the sort of competitiveness that would create groups of people who could dominate the dungeon, leaving nothing for anyone else. It’s the manner in which these dungeons have evolved that has lead me to write this post.

The concept of sharding off specific zones or areas for groups of players, for me, insinuates a more exciting way for grouped story-telling than it does to separate players from resources. With the instance architecture we have on Epitaph we are able to create the same systems that games like World of Warcraft use.

We originally had our own version of Dungeons for Epitaph, and they were going to be released with the final game, but they were held back some time ago now because we all felt they could benefit more from being just a ‘hack’n’slash’ zone. Our instances in the beginning were chiefly inspired by the now stale (and typical) MMO style whereby you and your group venture into a dungeon (and no one really knows why, except that one guy who read the quest text) and smash up some guys until they give you what you wanted.

We don’t want this. What we want are story-driven instances. And this is why on Epitaph we are calling our instances ‘Narratives’.

I expect that the hack’n’slash style will never truly be removed from our Narratives (and in some ways I intend to it leave intact), so it’s not what we are removing, rather it’s what we are adding that makes our instances different. Even though I think a Narrative without killing can be achieved, I just don’t believe every Narrative should strive for this concept. We have a very robust combat system, and even on text-games killing is a lot of fun, but if we can somehow layer a detailed story for the area, throw in some unique mechanics, group-puzzles, and with some ‘cinematic’ moments, then I think we are a step above the current market in terms of how instances are handled. Some of our Narratives are as simple as being in a few rooms and having to fight off swarms of zombies – but it’s the narrative involved, and the mechanics, that will separate our instances from the others.

Something to consider with Narratives is that we can virtually put them anywhere in the game-world. We have a taxi system that allows players to be taken off to far flung locations (such as, for example, the new Faction areas we are releasing with version 1.0) and I can’t see why, to some degree, this can’t be extended to Narratives. Of course, nothing is guaranteed here, but the idea that our Narratives potentially could take place in say, Romania at an underground power station, intrigues me as a writer and as a game developer. Largely, Epitaph is a Scottish-based post-apocalypse zombie game, but the world has been affected by the madness and by letting players see that, through partially scripted but also dynamically based dungeons, means we are able to extend our imagination to remote locations. It can help give a sense of a huge world when in reality they are merely ‘pockets’ of stories. It will also allow us to show the same world story but from different perspectives.

We currently have only one example of our Narratives in-game, and that is our instanced newbie area. For those of you who haven’t experienced it yet, what happens is that you start out in unique-shard of an apartment and you have to escape. As you progress along you come across hints and tips on how to play Epitaph. We have a ‘goal’ handler that will assign goals to you so you know what it is to do (we have both regular world goals and Narrative goals), and it helps drive the story. This is what I mean when I talk about our Narratives, except of course they will be group-based and (hopefully) longer.

While we don’t have any other examples of our Narratives yet, what I can say is that they will be making an appearance in one of our content patches after release. We are still working to get them how we imagine them to be, and I don’t wish to release anything until they have been quality-controlled and actually live up to their name. If we can get our first release of Narratives right, then I think we are really onto something in terms of narrative gameplay.

I suspect, at the moment of writing, that the bulk of Narratives will take place in Scotland, and probably even Dunglen itself. But the point is: what stops us from moving abroad? Nothing. Nothing stops us, and it’s only a matter of having a great story for our players before we start seeing this.

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