A Computer Game Idea

This is a very convoluted idea. Unlike my other game designs, which tend to come and go sporadically, this one is a major one that will hopefully make a lasting impression on the computer game community.

Two episodes are brewing right now. Both episodes will deal with a fictitious land called Middle-Dirt. It's a dangerous place, with a wide variety of intelligent monsters. More importantly, it's an experiment with culture, society, science, and various philosophies.

I plan on making the gameplay of Legend of the Cool Sword very arcade-style, even though it is a role-playing game. There are several very good reasons for this.

  1. People can learn the game easily and quickly.
  2. People do not have to devote many mental resources or time to this game; it's "stop and go."
  3. Action-oriented games have a mainstream appeal, attracting a diverse number of people, rather than a small cult following.

My belief in computer games is that one shouldn't have to go out of his/her way to learn large amounts of otherwise useless skills to play a game. Games with simple controls have somewhat of an advantage in that people who are less patient with the learning process are more likely to stay interested. 

Anyway, here's the lowdown on the gameplay. The game has a series of action-based sequences in 3-D, which can be played with any number of players. The 3-D display allows scaling and all-directional scrolling, but the perspective angle is mostly fixed. This is because gameplay is always third-person, along the lines of games such as Golden Axe and Double Dragon. In some parts of the game, the action is only 2-D, although still rendered in 3-D. I intend on making the possible zoom range very large, from very close to the players to miles away.

The game will have sporadic cut scenes with recorded speech, but these are mostly for transitions. I think writing a script that is too nonlinear is kind of defeating. It gives the user more control, but the control is never complete. Most designers are neither willing nor competent enough to give close to infinitely many decisions to a game player, while at the same time maintaining anything close to plausible interactions in a role-playing game.

I am biased toward writing the script of a game as if it weren't for a game at all, and allowing for minimal variation. The purpose is to entertain. Scripts should enhance the game; all too often, designers inadvertantly make the game sag at points by giving long filler tasks that put the player to sleep. Unless you want to demand that the user take long lists of notes (better suited for classes than for games), streamlining the gameplay is very important.

A Double Plot

This game is as much about ideas as entertainment. It's got a lot of funny bits, but it has a rather serious undertone. I intend the game to qualify as a full-blown work of science fiction. Amongst ideas explored are ecosystem sustainability, population dynamics, selfish gene theories, fundamental approach to uncertainty, the nature of memory, and societal, ethical, and moral foundations.

In some ways, the game is a spoof of a variety of games out there already. That is, it's a spoof of the nature of games out there, rather than specific games. What I think needs to happen is an address of the whole computer game philosophy. Computer games have been around for 20-30 years now. This game will try to answer some of the important questions and misconceptions associated with computer games. In particular:

  • That computer games are harmful to minors. I think this has some merit, but many people, particularly parents, often try to link a lot of poor behavior of kids to computer games. Nice, but let's look at it realistically:

    Millions of kids play/watch the game Doom.
    Two kids shoot up their school before killing themselves.
    These same two kids play/watch the game Doom.

    Do the math. The ratio of violent episodes to nonviolent episodes is ridiculously low compared to the ratios correlating gun availability to gun deaths, alcohol consumption to motor vehicle accidents, and parental apathy to lower student test scores. But the media tends to exacerbate magnitude, not frequency, of the risk equation.

    I can't remember exactly how many computer game studies I've read in newspapers that are the most flawed, biased correlations ever created. The devil is in the emphasis of the research. What most people want to get from such "violence studies" is a comprehensive statement that addresses what, specifically, in a computer game will motivate a person to actually pull off a similar act. But these studies rarely provide this! Instead, the studies conclude lots of implicits and indirections, but nothing definite.

    For example, I've read several psychological studies that show that violent thoughts are common in people that play violent games. Thoughts, huh? What about actions? Sorry. One can't just make such a leap of faith that thoughts equal actions. Lots of reactionaries out there do, unfortunately.

    This mostly stems from the fact that data collectors, not surprisingly, fail to do follow-up research to find the most critical, influential factors. There's a big difference between watching and playing a computer game. The appeal is completely different, and thus the means to judge the media based upon watching or playing a game must be separated. Judging a game solely from "looking" at it is inherently flawed because the observer isn't getting the full 20% tip. Whatever imagination (usually pretty vivid for concerned parents) the viewer has, it often diverges significantly from the attitude of the player. Future studies should be multifaceted: control and experimental groups for (a) the player, and (b) the nonplayer.

  • That computer games are addictive, to both children and adults. This does have a lot of merit, actually. But what people should look at are details. These details include recurring cost, average daily playing time, total playing time, type of content most played, histograms of each content, and a variety of other scientifically meaningful factors.

    And heck, if it's that much of a problem, why not get game designers to implement voluntary or parent-controlled playing timers? Violence locks already exist; time locks would be just as easy to add on.

  • That computer games have too much sex and violence. Once again, this is often true. But computer games aren't much different from other media here. All media has undergone ethical and moral scrutiny, with the end result being self-regulating individuals and institutions rather than aggressive governmental intervention. This has happened for novels, comic books, radio, television, movies, and the Internet. Of course, not one of these self-reform efforts succeeded in eliminating the sex-and-violence category of the media. Is it necessary for computer games to have aggressive reforms when others have not?

    Most people would say no. Still, you can't ignore that there is really an awful lot of scantily clad women and bloody images in games today. I suspect this is for two reasons: one, for the same reason that TV networks are doing the exact same thing, which is marketing, and two, which is that the genre of computer games was founded by a subculture of mostly males. Reality says that 30 years is not that long a time. Last time I checked, Purdue University had a miniscule number of women enrolled in Computer Science. This will turn around eventually, and hopefully change the mainstream face of computer games to one that reflects the categories and status of most other media.

That long interlude wasn't a tangent, you know! For all the issues, I'm including two "intermission" child characters (put in the game just for fun; they really aren't part of the gameplay) that act as if they are playing the game, and they comment on it periodically. Hearing kids reason about their attitude towards games may shake a few parents up, but I emphasize reality with these characters, not fiction.

Also, I'm going to have a "movement" which builds up to get the game banned--while you're playing it. I drew upon actual events when contemplating including this part. Mayor Bart Peterson tried to lead the way to moral victory (?) of the city of Indianapolis by suing arcade businesses for including violent (?) and sexually explicit (??) games. I hope Mr. Peterson is happy, because not only did he lose every step of the way, all the way to the federal courts, he ended up getting legal sanctions slapped on the city. Sanctions like these come about only one way--frivolous lawsuits. This is an embarrassment to the state of Indiana. It's my duty as a game designer to show people that obtaining moral victory has a way of not solving our problems.

Episodes 1 and 2

Perhaps I'll work on a third episode eventually, but for now, I just have two in mind. The first episode deals with Violet Fem, a heavyweight, "supercop" type of character that saves the world from certain destruction at the hands of General Chainsaw. At least, it seems like she's the heroine, but by the end of the game, exactly who you like more might be a little sketchy.

Also in the first episode are a smattering of characters, most of which have relatively flat personalities. Only Violet and General Chainsaw have round personalities in the first episode, but many flat characters in the first episode will be more developed in the second.

The second episode will deal more with the concept of Middle-Dirt itself. My guess is that Episode Two will be the more interesting of the two, as it has a variety of playable characters and explores many more ideas than the the first episode does. It's got a silly premise, which is, "What the hell is Hell, anyway?" After several characters bust out of Hell, a full investigation into this whole Hell thing takes place in Middle Dirt. Fundamentalist Christians will probably not like what this game will have to say about Hell, but I'm not catering to them, am I? If they want a compatible form of ultra-violent entertainment, let them watch something by Mel Gibson.

If you've read for this long, I'm impressed. This is the best I can do to summarize the game concept. There are so many ideas I would like to put into "The Legend of the Cool Sword" that it would take hundreds of pages to list them all. But that about wraps up the concept.

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Copyright 2004 Christopher Allen.