We’re WHEN Now? – Zero Time Dilemma and Narrative Pacing

This week, I finished Zero Time Dilemma, the third and presumably final game in the Zero Escape series, and it got me thinking about one of my favorite subjects: the difficulty of pacing in games. Zero Escape isn’t the most niche series, but it’s fairly obscure so I’ll go through a brief introduction.

The ZE games are often classified as adventure games because they feature puzzle rooms, but fans know the truth. They’re visual novels. In fact, the core mechanic that sets the ZE series apart from other adventure games is a play on the core visual novel mechanic of branching story lines.

The core story of every ZE game is the same: nine people are abducted by a hidden figured named “Zero” and forced to play a game to survive. They are trapped in various rooms with various other team members and must solve a puzzle to survive or escape the room. Occasionally they are forced to either turn against each other or risk betrayal to stay loyal. Think Saw. Someone in Japan really liked Saw and decided the conceit needed time travel and telepathy.

Like most visual novels, ZE games multiple paths and multiple endings. Most paths lead to death, and it is impossible to get the good ending (where most people live and the mystery is solved) on your first or even second, third, or fourth playthrough. The reason for this is the central conceit of ZE–your character needs information from multiple time lines to fully unravel the mystery. ZE protagonists all have the ability to either “SHIFT” or send information through the “morphogenetic field.” These are two different things in-game, but they both amount to the same idea–once you see the events of one ending, your character knows it when you re-play the game or go back and make a different decision to try and get another ending.

To give an example, your decisions may end up with your character trying to defuse a bomb. The bomb requires a password, which you don’t know (you as the character or you as the player, the game actually does both). Your character dies. You go back and make new decisions to get a better ending. You still get a bad ending–everyone gets sick with a time-accelerating disease–but along the way you learn the password to the bomb. You then go back to the timeline with the bomb, defuse it, and advance the story.

This happens a lot, especially in the second game, Virtue’s Last Reward, which introduces a flowchart that allows you to jump around to all the different decision points you’ve reached and skip dialog you’ve already heard. It plays faster than it sounds.

The story, and how the player affects the story via seeing other time lines, is the core appeal of the ZE series. Everything else is a bit underwhelming. Each game has a few characters that are underwritten or dull. In general, the cast pales in comparison to the very adjacent Danganronpa games. The delivery of the (otherwise good) story is bogged down by pseudoscientific tangents that would make Hideo Kojima blush. It’s fun the first time someone waxes on about how the brain could be like a computer terminal tied to a central server, but these tangents are often repeated ad naseum and there’s no way to skip dialog you haven’t heard–even if you just heard another character saying the same exact ideas. And the puzzles range from stupid easy to bizarrely obscure. What really makes the ZE games work is the narrative and the way it plays with the visual novel convention of the branching path.

This brings me to the conceit of Zero Time Dilemma and why it ended up something of a disappointment.

Don’t get me wrong. ZTD is good as the third game in the ZE series. It was a game we absolutely needed after Virtue’s Last Reward and does an admiral job of tying up a ton of the series’ mysteries. A lot more was resolved in the story line than I expected, and better than I expected. The only problem was how it was delivered.

In 999, the first ZE game, every new playthrough was just that–a new playthrough. Once you got an ending, you had to start all the way over and do it again, making different choices along the way. You could speed through dialog you already saw, but it was a tedious process. Virtue’s Last Reward added the flowchart mentioned above.  You could go back to any decision point in the game you already reached and replay from there.

Zero Time Dilemma takes it one step further. The nine abductees are divided into three teams and from the start you can choose who to jump to. You can also choose when to jump to. Multiple scenes with each team, scattered across the various timelines on the flow chart, are available from the start.

How does this make sense in the story? Well, at the end of every segment, all the characters are injected with a drug that makes them forget the events of the segment. So it doesn’t matter what order you play in. Each time they wake up, the last thing they remember is the end of the first segment. They don’t know what (if anything) happened in the interim. Each section plays out like its own little episode, and you as the player have to piece together how they all fit in each respective timeline.

If this all sounds confusing, I’ll boil it down simply: outside of the very beginning and the last ~sixth or so of the game, the player decides the order in which the story is presented. And the game goes out of its way to obfuscate when (and on which timeline) each segment takes place, almost as if to prevent you from playing in any particular order.

It’s a bold move. I loved it at first, for audacity if nothing else. But then I started to get annoyed. The format basically prevented any character development. Scenes were robbed of drama because I didn’t understand what was happening or what had happened before. That confusion was intentional. It just sucked.

The biggest problem games face as a storytelling medium (outside of developers writing with no experience) is pacing. I know I’ve written about this before, but controlling pace is nearly impossible in games for a writer or developer. And controlling the player’s focus is almost as hard.

My go-to example of a pacing problem is The Last of Us, in my opinion an excellent game that manages to have an excellent narrative despite itself. The story in TLoU is broken up with various enemy encounters with a wide range of difficulties. There are a handful of encounters that are serious difficulty spikes, which can lead to several deaths and forcing the player to repeat the same bit of game play over and over again. This completely strips the narrative of momentum and the repetition of a sequence can sour any emotional response evoked by the story surrounding it.

Uncontrolled focus can also ruin pacing. Optional objectives and gameplay freedom will destroy any sense of immediacy or drama unless tightly controlled. At the end of Final Fantasy VII, a giant comet is about to smash into the world and Cloud is the only person who can stop it. However, I managed to breed several generations of Chocobos in that time, which took several real-world hours and presumably at least an in-world decade. That’s an extreme example, but illustrative of a problem any kind of game can have, as long as that game allows players to decide where to go next.

Visual novels typically eschew giving so much control to the player that pacing and focus aren’t a huge problem. On one hand, Zero Time Dilemma is relentless in this effort in-game, giving players no way to even skip through dialog if they read faster than the voice acting. On the other hand, the whole ZE series interjects a bit of pacing concern with its puzzle rooms. A frustrating puzzle or riddle can stop momentum just like a frustrating action sequence. But that is completely overshadowed by the way ZTD in particular gives up control of its pacing and focus with the extra layer of non-linearity I described above.

For a game that entirely relies on its story, this is a problem. The game gives no indication of how long each sequence is, how important it is, or where it fits into the narrative. You can stumble into an important, dramatic scene. Or you can run into a whole stretch of disjointed sequences. Outside of choices that lead to immediate death within a sequence, you rarely get to see the consequences of your actions unless you happen to pick two sequences that happen in the same timeline.

I don’t have any problem with nonlinear storytelling in general. And I also don’t mind games that let you switch between teams or characters with interwoven stories. But combining the two–and not even curating the nonlinear order at which players see each team’s sequences–abandons far too much control over the story, especially when there are sequences that are less interesting, and sequences that go nowhere without a password from another sequence.

Most of the time, I am loathe to use movies to explain games because I think that’s a disservice to both mediums. But I can’t help myself. Imagine if Pulp Fiction’s sequence order wasn’t curated? If you could accidentally start with Butch and Marcellus’s imprisonment at the gun shop? That section of the film barely works as is, but without the context behind how the two characters ended up together (and the time we’ve spent with the more interesting characters) powers us through.

I understand what ZTD was trying to do. I’m always trying to think of ways to merge interactivity and storytelling, and the ZE series has been pushing that forward with each iteration. But unfortunately, this newest elaboration undoes a lot of the pleasure of the series. Not only do plot points lose impact because they aren’t deliberately paced or sequenced, but the fun of experiencing the branches and changes in the story are gone because early ones are robbed of context.

The memory wiping of all characters between sequences also frustrates any character development. This exacerbates the series’ long-running problem with the non-central team members being rather dull. Even the interesting characters (the protagonists of 999 and VLR) aren’t allowed to develop further. All of this put together makes the early-middle portion of the game feel rather meaningless, even if you know by the end you’ll have enough to piece the story together.

In the end, I still enjoyed my time with Zero Time Dilemma but mostly because of the final portions of the game that (by necessity) are intentionally sequenced. Characters don’t lose their memories between sequences because one (or more) is shifting between timelines intentionally. The story gets wrapped up, there’s the usual insane viewpoint twist, and all the right pieces fall into place. But I can’t really recommend ZTD. Why? Because if you’re already into the series, you’ve already played ZTD or you’re going to play it no matter what. You need to play it. You need to see how the strange stuff at the end of VLR ties back together.

If you aren’t committed to the ZE series? Zero Time Dilemma is going to make literally no sense. It completely assumes you’ve played the other two games. In fact, context from the other games is especially necessary because of the nonlinear gimmick described above. Without that context, all the characters will seem like boring ciphers for the first part of the game rather than just a few of them. I don’t think I would have made it past the the long stretch of out-0f-order sequences if I didn’t already have a reason to care about what happens to Sigma, Phi, Junpei, Akane, and Diana.

The good news, though, is now I can fully endorse picking up the series, because (outside of the iffy puzzle design) my only real caveat on suggesting it was the lack of an ending. VLR ends with way too many mysteries for a game that didn’t definitely have a sequel in the works. Fortunately, for all its problems, ZTD provides a satisfying conclusion that wraps up almost everything in the series.

 

 

Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail Releases Today!

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Today we pushed the big red “publish” button for Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail! (Disclaimer: the button was neither big nor red, it was more of a salmon color.)

If you haven’t seen any of my other posts about Echoes of the Fey, it is a visual novel that blends the mystery of detective fiction with a high fantasy world. Missing people! Elves! Conspiracies! Spells! A bleak post-war world! A bleak post-war world that also has the occasional sirin! (That’s a bird with the face of a person). Depending on how deep you get in the sidequests, it’s anywhere between 4-6 hours long, with a 2o+ song soundtrack and multiple ending variations depending on how you perform your investigation. The central mystery of the episode is wrapped up, but The Fox’s Trail kicks off a multi-part story that will be continued in future episodes.

Head on over to our itch.io storefront to purchase the game! You’ll get a Steam key when we release on that platform and a DRM free version now. Or check out the first two parts of the prequel novella over on the Woodsy Studio blog!

Echoes of the Fey Out TOMORROW! (And new trailer)

We’re just one day away from the release of my first visual novel in fully collaboration with Woodsy Studio, Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail. So today we have a release trailer, inspired by classic noir detective films.

If you’re interested in the world of Echoes of the Fey, check out the Woodsy Studio blog, where I’ve been publishing (in installments) a short story/novella that takes place before The Fox’s Trail. This story introduces a number of characters that will be important in the first two Echoes of the Fey visual novels.

You’ll be able to buy The Fox’s Trail tomorrow at woodsy-studio.itch.io, which will get you a steam key when we release on steam (with trading cards and achievements) as soon as we’re through Greenlight!

Echoes of the Fey – Vocal Theme

Yesterday, we debuted the vocal theme for Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail. Check it out!

This is the first time I’ve ever (co)written a song for a game, so I thought I’d write a bit about the thought process that went into it. It all starts way back at the beginning of development, when we were brainstorming about the aesthetic of the project. For some important story reasons (specifically the motivation behind the Human/Leshin war) there was always going to be a light steampunk element to the world. Traditional steampunk is a little played out/a bit of a cliche, so we aimed for a variation on the idea.

The fledgling machinery of our world isn’t powered by coal or literal steam, but magic drawn from Fey rifts. It’s clean energy. The world isn’t (visibly) polluted by its use. So I guess our aesthetic is Clean Steampunk? I don’t know, that sounds like a bad Skyrim mod so maybe I just need to come up with a new term.

ANYWAY, we aimed for a musical style that would reflect fantasy with an ethereal sci-fi touch. And we immediately seized upon Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack for Legend as an inspiration. Now, I realize this is a somewhat controversial work to cite. Legend was originally scored by Jerry Goldsmith, who was replaced by the studio near the very end of production on the film. Tangerine Dream was chosen to (bizarrely) appeal to a more youthful audience, because apparently the kids were way into new age electronica in 1986. A lot of people prefer the Jerry Goldsmith score and think the TD score (completely in only a few weeks to meet the deadline) is dissonant with the visuals of the film. Jenny (my co-writer, artist, and composer on this project) think those people are crazy.

A few months into production, we watched Legend again and I was struck by the over-the-top cheesy ballad that closes out the film.

Is it a good song? I’m not even sure. But it evokes a certain time in fantasy/action film making that is incredibly distinct. Legend wasn’t the first film or the last to end on a dreamy ballad that casually drops the title throughout. The Neverending Story and The Last Unicorn, for example. And if you widen the definition of the credit song ballad to take out the requirement of naming the title, you draw in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Princess Bride, and a ton of other films made from the mid 80s through the 90s.

Video games have their own version of this phenomenon. Final Fantasy games starting with VIII have prominently featured jpop ballads, and the Kingdom Hearts spinoffs have followed suit. Final Fantasy IX is probably the best one.

Final Fantasy XV is going to have a cover of Stand By Me by Florence and the Machine instead, if you want to know how bizarre things have gotten over at Square-Enix.

Thinking about these traditions gave me an idea: why couldn’t we do something like this for Echoes of the Fey? We were already shooting for a sound that invoked the fantasy films of the mid-80s. Why shouldn’t we have a vocal theme song.

This should have been a hell of an undertaking, since neither of us can sing. But we were lucky. The voice actress who plays Sofya in Echoes of the Fey, Amber Leigh, is also a singer. Once she said she was down to record the song, we knew we had to do it. Jenny wrote the composition and a version of the lyrics that, unfortunately, could have been seen as a spoiler for some of the events of The Fox’s Trail. That was fine for a song that played over the credits, but we decided that we wanted to use it as a promotional tool as well.

So I took a crack at songwriting. Let me tell you, it is not as easy as my previous experiences with penning lyrics: swapping words around in popular songs to make twitter jokes.

My first pass had the correct number of syllables on each line, but apparently it matters where you put the vowels (especially in a slow paced song) because I was trying to force Amber to hold some really terrible sounds.

So I did a second pass, and with Jenny’s help (and patience) we arrived on the lyrics we are using today. And we’re really happy with it! Our final product feels like a mix between the cheesy fantasy ballads that inspired us and the eerie Julee Cruise/Angelo Badalementi collaborations of the same era. Which is a fantastic result for me, since this project is all about mashing together fantasy and noire and making them kiss.

Hopefully you enjoy the song and I look forward to everyone playing the game that inspired it in (hopefully) a month!

Echoes of the Fey Greenlight Campaign and Update

I’m happy to announce that yesterday we officially launched the Steam Greenlight campaign for Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail. If you want to check that out (and vote yes!) the page is here. We’re hoping to be able to release later this summer simultaneously on all PC platforms, but Greenlight is a mysterious black box so fingers crossed!

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We touched on our progress in the Greenlight page, but I thought I’d give a bit of a wider picture the current state of development. Our engine (the framework we use to put in scenes, GUI elements, items, and choices) was completed–except for some minor polish–several months ago. We’re using GameMaker Studio for the first time, so this was a fairly significant step. GameMaker can work for pretty much anything 2d, but it’s not hardwired for a lot of text input/drawing. Once that was done, we were basically just been working on content–writing, art, music, and the such–for a while. Of course, that’s what people come to visual novels for.

As of today, the script is basically done. And almost all of it is in the game. You can play through from beginning to end and pretty much the only thing you’ll miss out on is the end of one side quest and the optional epilogue scene with a character of your choice. The soundtrack is finished except for some polish on a few older songs and a vocal song that will play over the credits. We’ve received but haven’t processed/put in all of the voice acting (that’s actually a very late step in development because when we do that we have to fork off a new branch of development for the mobile version, which will have significantly less voice work).

All the character portraits are complete and in-game. The only thing left to do on them is optional dyes for Sofya’s outfit, which will be rewards for getting gold pieces from side quests. Backgrounds and the overworld are mostly complete. One building that’s part of a side quest isn’t fully interactive yet, but that’s about it. Several CGs are complete and in the game, but there are more to do. And of course there’s testing! With over 100 choices in the game, testing will be something of an ordeal but (of course) we’re going to do it to make sure we launch as bug-free as possible.

I also promised a short story prequel and that’s started but I definitely need to get to work when I have the time (thanks, Overwatch). We’re hoping to be ready in the next month, then take a couple weeks to focus on marketing and release in the very near future! Of course I’m being completely vague about release dates because (especially with a two person team) things happen and I really don’t want to set a date then miss it.

In the meantime, follow development over at the new official twitter for Woodsy Studio, and just in case you missed it before, vote for us on Greenlight!

You Shall Not Pass: Bloodborne, Dark Souls 2, and Cutting Open the Gameplay Loop

From the lamp, I run straight down the stairs on the left, past a crazed huntsman. He notices me but doesn’t have time to attack. He’ll follow me, so I just keep sprinting. I veer left again down another set of stairs. There I find two monstrous creatures with a hammers where their hands should be. I roll around them, only briefly slowing down if my stamina is drained. Past them I find an elevator which takes me to a bridge full of more bloodthirsty huntsmen. If I just start crossing the bridge and retreat, a giant fireball–a trap meant to wreck me–will clear most of them from my path. Once the fireball has passed, I juke around any enemies who survived the blast of flames. At the end of the bridge stands another hammer monster. I wait to see where he’s going to attack and I roll around him in the other direction. There’s a huntsman with a shield behind me after I dodge so I still can’t slow down to take in the scenery. Instead, I head for the branch to the left, up another set of stairs, and find my destination: a door made of fog.

Over a year later, I still remember the path to Father Gascoigne in Bloodborne. Every turn, dodge, and trap is etched into my mind from the dozen or so times I ran the obstacle course the first time I played the game. Gascoigne is the first major challenge of Bloodborne. He’s a highly mobile boss who transforms midway through the battle into a furiously aggressive monster. For a beginner, he serves as a bottleneck, forcing players to learn how to parry with your offhand weapon, a mechanic that becomes increasingly important as the game goes on. Mastering that mechanic makes Gascoigne relatively simple (and there’s a hidden item that can assist as well) but for a lot of people, including me, he’s the first major roadblock in Bloodborne.

The difficulty of Gascoigne makes the run above all the more important. Learning to beat Gascoigne means studying his attack patterns and practicing how to counter them. And, like many Bloodborne bosses, fighting him often feels like beating your head against a wall until it finally breaks. Anything that gets in the way of trying the boss again is a frustration, so it is a relief to run to the fight without being forced to deal with enemies along the way.

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Echoes of the Fey: Building a Better (More Equal) Fantasy World

Fantasy realms are pretty shitty places for women. Women generally aren’t in recognized positions of power. They are used as chess pieces in political machinations. They are constantly under the threat of violence and that violence is used to motivate male heroes (and inspire hatred towards male villains).

In modern fantasy, there are usually exceptions–women who wield power behind the scenes or who take on traditionally male roles within society as established in the setting–but these are explicitly portrayed as exceptions.  That’s progress of a sort, but it still leaves something to be desired. Daenerys Targaryen is great, but she doesn’t make up for the fact that the majority of female characters in Game of Thrones wield little-to-no power in-universe.  And I don’t just mean major, viewpoint characters but also background characters. (To stave off criticism, I’ll say that the TV show at least puts the occasional male prostitute in the brothels and female warrior among the wildlings, and GoT is hardly the worst offender in this field.)

I don’t think this is a controversial statement, though I know there are plenty of people who don’t think it’s bad. And for those people, there’s plenty of books, movies, and games out there for you. I’d just like to see something different. So when I’m crafting my own fantasy setting for my own game, I want to do something different.

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