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Looking back, moving on

Over the past two months, I have demo'ed Exeunt Omnes at three events around New York, received a ton of feedback and learned quite a lot about what was wrong in the UI (from repeating roughly the same six sentences over and over again everytime someone got stuck :P). To celebrate this, I have just uploaded EO v1.03 with slightly streamlined controls, some rewritten text and most importantly, help popups if you select the "with tutorial" version.

Very few changes apart from that, so this is probably not reason enough to replay the game if you've finished it already, but I invite you to grab the new version you had only downloaded the previous one, or quit a few minutes in, cursing my lack of UI flair.

Tonight I will demo EO once more in Hoboken NJ, at a nice event organized by The Sheep's Meow. This should be the last public outing of this little game, and perhaps the last blog post on this page (?), since I am moving on to better and greater things.

Indeed, my next game is in progress, building upon the same engine. I have said very little about it on the interwebs so far, but from now on you will find regular updates here:


Thanks to everyone who has ever shown interest in this game!
You really helped me find the motivation to pursue those things a bit more seriously.

If I ever become the next Peter Molyneux or Phil Fish, you should know deep inside that it is your entire responsibility. That should feel warm and fuzzy.


V*C dies at the end

Thanks in no small part to awesome reviewers and the kind gent who featured it on the front page, this game has been downloaded exactly 500 times. This is precisely the number of days required to notice Zooey Deschanel is not your ideal girlfriend, 200 more than the perfect amount of Greeks to defeat sexually ambiguous generals and their mutant Iranian rhinoceri, and 12 short of a round number (did I just steal a joke from xkcd? shame on me).

This feels to me like something to celebrate: my game has been played by enough people to constitute a Roman cohort. If the players of my game were to unite, we could, like, conquer a few towns in Gaul or something.
In this honor, I will release a patch where all numbers on screen are replaced by Latin numerals share a few thoughts with my awesome audience.

In the Kalevala, there's this guy called Ilmarinen. He is like the prototypical hacker: super smart, can build practically anything, but he kinda sucks at social skills, and romance especially. See how far back those stereotypes go? (actually that last part of his characterization seems largely due to a 19th century compiler*, so maybe not more than two centuries)

(* Not that sort of compiler, although that would be theme-appropriate. They didn't have compilers in the 19th century. They wrote everything in machine code.)

The thing is, contrary to Hephaestus and other similar divine geeks, Ilmarinen doesn't really work with a plan. He is the guy who made the actual sky, so he's kind of a big deal. But when it comes down to it, he pretty much just boots up his smithy, whacks away at things all night (in a Red Bull-induced frenzy, no doubt), goes to bed, and comes back in the morning to discover what the hell it was he just made.

As you could expect, the first few attempts are generally not it. As beautiful as they may be in their own right - a killing bow, a war vessel, a cow that leaks (don't ask me) - these things are actually terrible mistakes. Because you see, they are not what he was trying to make. And the guy knows better than to get attached: that magnificent gold and silver crossbow that can headshot noobs like nobody's business, he just throws it back into the fire, and starts working again.

Now, I am quite sure I had a moral in mind for this post, but I got sidetracked looking up the plural of rhinoceros, so I will leave it at that.

And, uh, thanks, guys (in the least gender-binary sense of the term).

Game Design

Design principles vol. 2: Frenemies and multiple objectives

I will make this into a shorter entry than initially planned, but I figured I should write it while borne by an exogenous current of motivation. I will thus focus on a single thread of questions which has brought about a lot of my design decisions (only a few of which are visible in Exeunt Omnes, but they should be in future games).

How about a game in which you need not win every battle?

There are many reasons to ask this question.

My own reason is nothing new: can we have a pleasant and challenging game experience where the player never has to reload a previous save?

Gamers and devs have long been divided on the value of playing and winning entirely by Quicksave/Quickload, as most (non rogue-like) games tend to incentivize.
My own feeling is that, in narrative games, it often disrupts the drama (by creating a divide between narrative tension and gameplay tension) and thus cheapens the experience. Yet I cannot help using it when I feel that I'm at a net loss if I don't - for instance, that I might actually have to restart the game later on, due to having spent precious resources.

So, to actually make a narrative game that I would enjoy myself, I had to find a way to encourage even the most anxious player not to try to reload constantly to get an optimal result.

A first solution?

There are also many ways to go about solving this problem.

First, you could imagine a much broader definition of "winning".
Many people have remarked that video game heroes are murderous, if not genocidal, while their enemies are iron-willed kamikazes: battles always end up in total annihilation, with opponents fighting to the last HP. Which incidentally means that, more often than not, your best tactics will be to focus all your fire on a single enemy at a time until they are all dead (thankfully, the enemy AI precisely tends to avoid doing that).

Battles would be both more realistic (which we don't necessarily care about) and more dramatic (which we should care about) if you could scare enemies away with a nonlethal demonstration of force, like the bullies at the end of every kid-learns-martial-arts movie ever. Or if you could force a tie, or undermine their morale, or cut your losses, or even stage a clever escape. While still reaping the benefits of victory (say XP).

=> Option 1: Multiple ways to win, or even a continuum of winning situations, all recognized as victory.

It is better than the monolithic win-by-killing, and it has become a staple of 4x games (with various victory conditions) among others, but you still need to win. Which is probably natural in the extremely competitive perspective of physical fight.

Discourse is both competitive and cooperative

Conversation is not something you always want to win.
First, it is also a collaborative effort - as I try to reflect in my design: the topical "circle of light" moves as a result of both player's actions, to signify that a conversation can move forward only if both sides cooperate.

Second, losing can be good.
From a tactical perspective, learning when to lose can be important to preserve your forces for a greater battle - winning is bad if it exhausts you. But here, in debate, as in grand strategy) it goes beyond even that: winning also changes the way that your opponents see you, and the way they see themselves.

Flattery is all about losing an implicit status conflict, so that you can win the heart of your adversary. Steamrolling your opponent in a debate can often mean that you lose them forever as a conversation partner - either because they will refuse such a steady attack on their positions (especially if it is a face-to-face), or because they will be humiliated (especially if there is an audience).

Thus, the other option is to say that there is nothing like losing and nothing like winning, but only trade-offs. Every way to end the bout will grant you something different, but it is always interesting in its own right.

I think that to do this and still have a challenge (rather than Visual Novel-like multiple choice questions), what you actually need is to be playing multiple games.

Discourse is many games at once

Communication theory 101: most of our daily exchanges are essentially devoid of informational content. You are not sharing breaking news by remarking that the weather is nice today. What is transmitted is in fact relational content: I recognize you as a peer and enjoy your company. Likewise, when arguments become circular with both sides repeating their positions endlessly, what is actually in question is their relationship - who dominates the other.

More generally you can see a conversation as the confluent of (at least) four different games:
- a game of information: what you can learn from someone
- a game of connection: how you signify with whom you want or don't want to have a relationship
- a game of domination: how you rank yourself within these relationships
- a game of identity: the image that you create of yourself and of others, for yourself and for others

By writing this article, I want to pass on some information, and to assert a relative advantage (as the initiator of the exchange), but I am also pleading for a future relationship - a discussion in which you will inform me of your own ideas - and defining my own being through my interests and values.

This offers a variety of ways to make alternate victory conditions that correspond to different rewards: you can collect information by sacrificing a relationship (with a threat, for instance), or by feigning submission. You can acquire domination by teaching some of what you know. Even if you actually fail at everything, you might still look endearing and have people take pleasure in dominating you.

=> Option 2: Losing on one front always means winning on some other. The player can choose to see it as a defeat (if they have a set objective), or as an incentive to shift their own values and explore other objectives offered by the game.

It is clear that this second option is the one I want to explore, as it feels that very few game have gone this way, and discourse is an ideal theme for it. I haven't done much of that in Exeunt Omnes (or only on a very superficial level). Whether it will prove as rich as I believe it can remains to be seen.


Fun fact

This used to be a RMXP game.

Well, not this per se, but I first had the idea of the general game concept some 4 or 5 years ago, and started building the engine with scripts in XP. I trashed it when performance became a problem - it lagged like hell at the time, in 2010, although the project runs fine on my current computer.

Here's the project file.

(Obviously very incomplete. Still it's funny to see how much I reproduced the interface when starting from scratch 4 years later.)

Feel free to play with the editor and use anything you may find useful in the scripts, everything is public domain and whatnot. Although I cannot promise any degree of legibility.

Game Design

Design principles vol. 1: RPGs and strategy

I tend to like thinking about game design. Articles such as Deltree's (Edit: and Craig Stern's) are the sort of things I read ravenously. But despite there being a lot of good writing on the topic*, not much applied to my case, so I figured I might as well start a series of discussions here.

* (among an infinite sea of meh writing; most game makers are not great at reflecting upon what they do)

Vol 1: Why is there no strategy in RPG battles?

This may seem tangential, but really, it's what prompted me into switching to a whole different design. I mean, I love the idea of RPGs, else I wouldn't be here. But RPG battles are satisfying through their simulation aspects, i.e. because of what they let you reenact; they are not satisfying at all in terms of strategic thinking.

The crucial symptom of everything that is wrong with RPG battles fits in three letters:


Damage Per Second in real-time games like MMORPGs, or Damage Per Turn, is the absolute scale on which you can measure the value of any strategy. Sure, your characters need to stay alive, but only so that they can deal more damage, so the time spent healing them should just be subtracted from the DPS. In the end, no matter how it's distributed over characters and skills and stats and turns and stuff, you're just trying to make a single number go down as fast as possible.

Why is this so bad? Because it means that

1) RPG battles are played on a single line. Multiple stats (like HP and MP) are in fact convertible into each other through skills, so they are just different ways of moving along the same one line.

2) Therefore, RPG battles have no memory: I hit you, you lose HP, you heal yourself, we're back at step one. (Maybe you lost an item in the process, but item consumption is part of the larger resource management gameplay; the battle itself could be replaced by a simple "you lost a Potion" message to the exact same effect)

3) Since there is no memory, for any instantaneous state of the couple {your hp, my hp}, there is always a single optimal move no matter how you got there, and it will work every time I encounter you. There may be some thinking involved in calculating that optimal move (with an arbitrary number of skills and elements and modifiers to complicate it), but once it's found it will always work. By that reasoning, there should never be more than one encounter with any given enemy.

To make this clearer, let's compare it with the case of chess, a thoroughly bidimensional game.

1) Every action is irreversible ; you never come back to the same configuration twice in the same battle (unless both you and your opponent are just derpily moving bishops back and forth).

2) This stems from the fact that, thanks to the second dimension, all your previous actions are "stored" on independent lines. They do not erase each other, they do not act only in aggregate (i.e. simply by summing their instantaneous effects). Thus, they can come back to haunt you later: the position in which you put that pawn in the opening can change everything 30 turns later, not even through an action of the pawn itself, but because it blocks the line of sight of a bishop at the other end of the board.

In slightly abstract terms, RPG battles are chess played on a single row. Characters are abstract bundles of actions, each action is a chess piece that has slightly different rules for how it moves on that line. The order in which you advance the pieces can be important depending on which pieces the enemy has, but you can never circumvent an enemy piece by moving to the side and thus putting the king in check unexpectedly; all you have to do is mow through these pieces until you get there. Some tactics, perhaps, but no strategy.

Now of course, you don't necessarily want a game to be extremely strategic. If every battle in FF7 required beating Kasparov, not many people would have got out of Midgard. But strategy does provide those aha moments that go far beyond the simple tactical calculus of maximal DPS, and they are definitely something I would like to capture in my games.

Next time: I will talk about the basic design principles that I consider especially interesting in the case of a discourse-themed game.


Origin story

This is something I felt like sharing with the 6 gentlepersons who have subscribed to this gamepage, as it may shed some light on the less justifiable decisions I made in making this game. Especially the title, which is probably the worst I could do from a marketing point of view (either dry or cheesy depending on whether you know what it means).

Initially, the demo game for the engine* was supposed to be a parody of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, perhaps one of the best dialogues ever written. (it does seem unsufferably postmodern at first, but it is positively sensical and extremely clever). That turned out to be a problem, because really, there was nothing I could write that could hope to compare, even as a simple homage - and doubly so as I'm writing in a second language.

Then, a few months ago, an RM contest came along where you had to develop a game including the heroes and final boss from the RTPs of one RPG Maker. I couldn't help but ponder what could be done with that constraint. I soon decided that, if I took part to the contest (which I didn't, obviously), my RM game would be limited to the aftermath of the final battle - perhaps as flashforwards, interspersed in the battle itself, as the boss explained to the heroes why they wouldn't really win even if they won.

Everything that you'd collected during the nonexistent game, the treasures and skills and allies and factions, every element of backstory would be a consumable, discarded to counter the boss' predictions by making them at best bittersweet. After all, always up and always more until you conquer all evil in a final fight is a very teenage thing to dream about; being an adult is learning to go down gracefully.

Obviously, the game didn't make it past the concept stage, but the title did. Exeunt omnes is a stage direction, requiring all actors to leave the scene. That felt starkly appropriate.

When I discovered the IGMC and decided to participate with my own engine, my main problem was that the latter lacked especially in AI and in conversation flow. Thus, a monologue with a carefully controlled succession of points would fit the bill - and monologues are notoriously villainish things to do. So the title was too good to pass: a pompous latin phrase for my angsty villain (the scoring system was supposed to include a bonus for the number of latin phrases used during the argument, but I dialed down the cheesiness just a bit), a stage direction as a nod to the past Tom Stoppard-esque incarnation of this game, and a very literal description of what the game is about.

Now You Know.

Hope the story proved entertaining, and next time I'll make a short blog post about some design decisions on which I would gladly have the opinion of fellow devs (then I'll make the discourse-based games list vol. 2)

* (which engine is now officially named Jehuti, in a great surge of non-inspiration)

Game Design

Discourse-themed games (vol 1)

Since there are quite a few people interested by that concept, here's the start of a compilation of games on that theme. Each one explores a quite different direction, so they can be useful as references (and I've also restrained myself to those that were at least moderately fun).

Last Word
Hard to miss around here lately, but you never know. My thoughts are conveniently encapsulated in this review.

Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher
To represent the whole slew of Phoenix Wright clones, here's a really fun one with some notable guest stars. It's high-school philosophy done remarkably right (if you can endure the tutorial conversation)

An educational game teaching conflict resolution? That doesn't necessarily sound like my idea of fun, but the result is surprisingly pleasant, thanks in part to the nifty sci-fi setting, the comics narrative and the relative freedom of choice in possible resolutions. Might or might not be exactly equivalent to Argubot Academy, I couldn't test the latter as I have nothing that can play an app.

Profit Motive
A bit more tangential, yet I couldn't help but mention it again. A entrepreneurial satire with marketing/management duels, and you almost feel like you're learning something. I really hope it isn't as dead as it looks.

Unsurprisingly, there are tons of conversational interactive fictions/text-based adventures. I resolved to pick only one, to showcase the best that can be done on that model, and it had to be either Galatea or Best of Three, two of Emily Short's remarkable pieces of IF.

Galatea is the conventional multiple-choice conversation pushed to the extreme, and it acquires a certain strategic dimension as there are tens of endings and the puzzle-like nature of the discussion reveals itself after a couple (notably, the sequence of emotions that you instill in Galatea is important to unlock certain events). Also, really pretty writing. You have to type instructions in a parser, though, so that might be too gangsta for the average RPG aficionado (despite the useful in-game help).

Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble
Slightly tangential and extremely casual, as the gameplay reduces to a collection of minigames, but there are quite a few ideas worth exploring in there.

Goblin Noir (now on RMN)
Really great urban fantasy setting, remarkably seamless battles of wit, and so much fun! Thanks Merlandese for the tip.


Gameplay tutorial!

Since 1.5 person out of five has been puzzled by this game's idiosyncratic gameplay, here is an exclusive (but soon to be published worldwide) Gameplay Tutorial explaining how to win philosophical debates in 10 easy steps.

Exeunt Omnes - The Gameplay Tutorial

Doubles as a collection of screenshots and can be printed and made into a flipbook
Included: one bibliographic reference for the linguistic theories used in making this game. Because why the hell not?
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